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March-April 2005

Where to Look for a Revolutionary Potential?
By Slavoj Zizek

Today, there are many candidates for the position of “universal individual,” the particular group whose fate stands for the injustice of today’s world: Palestinians, Guantanamo prisoners . . . Palestine is the site of a potential event precisely because all the standard ‘pragmatic’ solutions to the Middle East crisis repeatedly fail, so that a utopian invention of a new space is the only ‘realistic’ choice. Furthermore, Palestinians are a good candidate on account of their paradoxical position of being the victims of the Ultimate Victims themselves (Jews), which, of course, puts them in an extremely difficult spot: when they resist, their resistance can immediately be denounced as a prolongation of anti-Semitism, as a secret solidarity with the Nazi Final Solution.

Indeed, if – as Lacanian Zionists like to claim – Jews are the objet petit a among nations, the troubling excess of Western history, how can one resist them with impunity? Is it possible to be the objet a of objet a itself? It is precisely this ethical blackmail that one should reject.

However, there is a privileged site in this series: what if the new proletarian position is that of the inhabitants of slums in the new megalopolises? The explosive growth of slums in the last decades, especially in the third world megalopolises from Mexico City and other Latin American capitals through Africa (Lagos, Chad) to India, China, Philippines and Indonesia, is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times. The case of Lagos, the biggest node in the shanty-town corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan, is exemplary here: according to the official sources themselves, about two-thirds of Lagos’ total land mass of 3.6 square kilometers could be classified as shanties or slums; no one even knows the size of its population – officially it is six million, but most experts estimate it at 10 million. Since sometime very soon (or maybe, given the imprecision of the third world censuses, it has already happened), the urban population of the Earth will outnumber the rural population, and since slum inhabitants will compose the majority of the urban population, we are in no way dealing with a marginal phenomenon.

We are thus witnessing the fast growth of the population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in terrible need of the minimal forms of self-organization. Although their population is composed of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them working as informal wage workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security coverage. (The main source of their rise is the inclusion of the third world countries in the global economy, with cheap food imports from the first world countries ruining local agriculture.) They are the true ‘symptom’ of slogans like ‘Development,’ ‘Modernization,’ and ‘World Market.’

No wonder that the hegemonic form of ideology in slums is Pentecostal Christianity, with its mixture of charismatic-miracles-and-spectacles-oriented fundamentalism, social programs like community kitchens, and taking care of children and the old. While, of course, one should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealize the slum dwellers into a new revolutionary class, one should nonetheless, in Badiou’s terms, perceive slums as one of the few authentic “evental sites” in today’s society – the slum-dwellers are literally a collection of those who are the “part of no part,” the “surnumerary” element of society, excluded from the benefits of citizenship, the uprooted and dispossessed, those who effectively “have nothing to lose but their chains.” It is effectively surprising how many features of slum dwellers fit the good old Marxist determination of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are “free” in the double meaning of the word even more than the classic proletariat (“freed” from all substantial ties, dwelling in a free space, outside the police regulations of the state); and they are a large collective, forcibly thrown together, “thrown” into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of any support in traditional ways of life, in inherited religious or ethnic life-forms.

What one finds in the “really-existing slums” is, of course, a mixture of improvised modes of social life, from religious fundamentalist groups held together by a charismatic leader to criminal gangs, up to germs of new ‘socialist’ solidarity. The slum dwellers are the counter-class to the other newly emerging class, the so-called “symbolic class” (managers, journalists and PR people, academics, artists, etc.) which is also uprooted and perceives itself as directly universal (a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus). Is this the new axis of class struggle, or is the “symbolic class” inherently split, so that one can make the emancipatory wager on the coalition between the slum-dwellers and the progressive part of the symbolic class? What we should be looking for are the signs of the new forms of social awareness that will emerge from the slum collectives: they will be the germs of the future.