I was at Occupy Wall Street last Sunday, listening to Slavoj Žižek talk about the end of the world. Or the end of the world as we know, at least, the end of capitalism, which he beautifully described as “waking up from the dream that is becoming a nightmare.” Another thing he said: “we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” It’s the deadly thing about capitalism: in the midst of robbing you of your values and the poor of their life, it also takes your words, your ability to even think of a world without profit, without the ravages of greed and competition and crashes. It makes itself omnipresent, immovable, inevitable.
Žižek wanted to make his youthful audience believe: “They will tell you that you are dreaming, but the true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely they way they are, just with some cosmetic changes.” And: “Isn’t something wrong in the world if you are promised to be immortal, but we cannot spend a little more on health care?”
I like to think of myself as more willing to believe than most. The most surprising thing about studying capitalism is how precarious and uninevitable it is; it has invented the story of its own predestined march to global triumph, its own scientific irrefutability, its own watertight logic. The fact that most of us in the developed world, myself absolutely included, cannot imagine a world without it, is a testament to the effectiveness of its story-telling. Even as we watch it live out the story it has told us, and begin to see the world-killing consequences of the performance, we still believe this cataclysmic irrationality is the only choice.
The point is, most of the time I don’t believe. Even though I think I am able to see our system for what it is, and even to imagine a world after it, I am still afraid to let go. It’s easy to call oneself a radical and difficult to be one; at Occupy Wall Street, I realize my cowardice and inability to be one. I see mostly the flaws, the weaknesses, the overwhelming size and weight of the opposition—there’s that capitalist mind game again!—and the youth and idealism of the protesters. To believe is to give up one’s respectability in the old order, to admit that there is nothing here for us, that we’ve more chance of finding life in the next world than in this one. And most of us do have something to lose—at least we think so, unable as we are to realize it will be taken from us anyway.
If that sounds like something you’ve heard before in a wildly different context, that’s because it is. This is the part where Eagleton would point out that Marxism and Christianity both represent a kind of insane, deluded hope. A hope that something possible but very implausible is real, because the reality of it not being real is too terrible to contemplate. It is possible, though very unlikely, that the people of the United States might be their own master; it is possible, though very unlikely, that there is a God who will save us at the end. And I guess the crushing part isn’t as much the great likelihood that the unseen object of our hope is a fantasy as much as the fact that we don’t know whether or not it’s a fantasy. We can believe or not believe, but we cannot know.
Am I believer or unbeliever? Most of the time, I think those are different names for the same thing. The unbeliever strengthens the believer by pointing out all the ways that have been tried and do not work; the believer helps us all by continuing in her conviction that there is yet a way that hasn’t been tried. I’m as bad a radical as I am a believer; I can’t be convinced, but I hope I can participate in the project of believing.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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