Chaos creates the opportunity for fundamental change, argues Graham Jones, pointing to the current situation as an opportunity for the left to make vital gains and advances.
21 June 2020
The United States is in chaos, or so we keep hearing from pundits and politicians. Or perhaps we read this on to the situation ourselves without any prompting, so strongly connected is the term to images of broken glass and burning buildings. The frequency with which chaos is invoked alongside despair, meaninglessness, and inhumanity, means these feelings are always lingering in the background. Without the need to say it out loud, a label of chaos carries with it a tacit erasure of the hopeful, meaningful, and deeply human actions it feigns to describe.
One progressive response is to say no, this is not us, we are not chaos. But we can equally say yes, we are chaos – because in chaos lies the possibility of fundamental change. To thereby challenge the meaning of chaos, and its association with the undesirable.
A simple understanding of chaos would define it against order – the ordered wall against its chaotic collapse, or the ordered queue against the chaotic scrum. There is a sense of the careful design and productivity of order, and its absence in chaos. Predictability against randomness. Good against bad.
Where do we see such chaos in the events of May-June 2020? Not in the message and the form of the movement itself, which is remarkably stable – the local demands for justice for George Floyd, the city and country-wide demand for an end to racist policing, and the global demand for an end to white supremacy. Among this milieu there are differences: prison reform versus abolition, pro- versus anti- property damage, dialogue versus brooking no compromise. But this diversity at most brings the movement to the edge of chaos, that frenetic internal activity which is the life of a dynamic, evolving system. There is at the same time great order not only in the message but the action: in marching, in the collection and distribution of food, in operating medical tents.
There is order in the purposeful sharing of information, involving everyone from archaeologists to horse owners, and in the shows of solidarity from unexpected groups – Amish communities, K-pop stans, Haka performers – all aimed towards a singular purpose. What can seem like chaos is in many cases the establishment of new, unfamiliar orders.
The police too are highly ordered in themselves, indeed rigidly so: the line of officers awaiting instruction, and then all at once beating and tear-gassing a crowd is the very image of a highly ordered operation. We say they follow ‘orders’ for a reason. But theirs is an order which aims to crush any dynamic creativity within or without, to deny the chaos inherent to life, and impose order of a grid-like form. Order and chaos are treated as absolutes, when they are a spectrum.
The real chaos lies where the two sides meet, and where this conflict meets the ordinary operations of society. The gas canister which causes a ordered crowd to scatter, or the firework which breaks up the police line in response. The chaos in the human body when a rubber bullet hits and it descends into shock. The chaos in the community and family when a life is taken, a life linked to so many others by bonds of emotion and daily interaction. There is chaos in the ‘social contract’ which requires unquestioning obedience to an institution which regularly kills and brutalises black people. And there is chaos in the mind of everyone who doesn’t know how to understand what is going on, whose preconceptions of race, of the police, of the predictability of everyday life, are breaking down.
Chaos is always relational. It is a loosening of the connections between things that had previously been stable and orderly. But in that chaos, the sides that have fallen into disarray for one another may come to find greater order in themselves. It is in moments of crisis – as we have seen in numerous ways the past months – that communities come together, that organisations find their focus, that individuals who vacillated now act with conviction for the first time. What in settled times may have seemed to an outsider to be mere abstract labels describing individuals – racialised people, working people, victims of police violence – emerge as concrete, unified collective actors in their own right.
Upon emerging, these contending bodies – of the state, of the protest movement, of all the multitudes of organisations and individuals that make them up – find that the paths that each are trying to move down come into conflict. The paths of various protest movement actors may cohere into a singular direction (indeed that is why we can even call it a ‘movement’), while the endpoints of antagonists mutually exclude one another, requiring the others’ annihilation in order to actualise. There is chaos here in the unpredictability of the outcome of the struggle, in the collapse of assurance as to the immediate future. But far from this unpredictability meaning terror, it was for many the previously assured state that was the terror — a state of despondency and resignation in the face of oppression, transformed into one of hope and empowerment.
Chaos is not good, chaos is not bad – chaos is productive. What it is productive of will be a result of the balance of forces in play, of the amount of people and organisations that fall in line with one side or the other, by the tactics used, by both their flexibility and their focus. The upending of the ordinary cycles of daily life – as much a result of coronavirus as the protests – is an opportunity for their remaking, whereby decades of incremental change can be raced ahead of in weeks.
Neither the rejection of nor fetishisation of chaos is the answer. If we are to champion chaos, it is only the chaos within and around certain bodies – those which have caused and normalised exploitation and oppression, where instances of harm enter into repetition and constant threat. This is not opposed to a caring and loving vision of society, but is in fact essential to it. Such chaos that we do support we navigate not as atomic individuals in a ‘state of nature’, but as collective actors with a flexible unity of purpose and vision. We discover in these moments that our minor actions, usually swallowed up and crushed by the gravity of social forces, are imbued with a renewed forcefulness – a force which will in time dissipate, and so is imbued too with urgency. This is not a race to experience a perverse thrill before the game is up, but to exercise a fleeting power to shape our world. Chaos is then not merely a state to flee from or revel in, but is a stage on which to build the world anew.
Graham Jones is the author of The Shock Doctrine of the Left, available here from Polity Books.
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