1. REVOLT, POLITICS, POWER
My work focuses on global uprisings and revolt.
In the summer of 2020, I was contacted by several local, national and international publications for my analysis on the uprisings that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. One of those interviews was quickly translated into Greek and German by international activists who distributed the text throughout their own social movements.
As a Political Scientist working in a College of Public Affairs and Administration, I am happy to be asked about global uprisings and revolt, instead of—as so often happens—asked to comment on national elections and legislative politics. Elections and public policy are major parts of the study of politics, and they should be. Indeed, when most people think about Political Science, they think about the world of professional politicians, elections, procedural politics, and the varied activities of the branches of government.
Whatever the approach, politics is fundamentally about power. To think about politics, one has to think about what power is. People often assume they know what power is, without bothering to define it. The starting assumption typically views power as the domain of the ruling political class, and the effects of power are typically regarded as whatever that class does with its money and militaries.
That is why, for over twenty years, my students have been reliably stunned by Hannah Arendt’s conception of power from her 1969 book, On Violence. Arendt claims that governments use money and militaries precisely when they don’t possess the power to secure the agreement of other people by way of communication. For Arendt, the only real power is “communicative power,” and everything else that is commonly mistaken for power (strength, force, violence) are really only needed in its absence.
I have always been drawn to the politics of everyday people who act outside of and against conventional politics. This grounds my interest in the resurgence of Black Lives Matter uprisings. I am interested in those moments when presumptively “powerless” people mobilize and realize other powers than those of the established institutional apparatus of politics, an apparatus which includes the police, prisons, courts, and military.
I am not the first who thinks that “public affairs” and Political Science should break with their long historical fixation on the political class, a fixation that can be traced back to ancient philosophy in the Western tradition, and that was widely established by the time of Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the sovereign in the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1977, Michel Foucault expressed a sentiment I share when he said: “What we need is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done.” This means that those of us interested in politics must be able to see and appreciate power in other places. Foucault was interested in the history and politics of sexuality, he was interested in social movements, and he felt that we should study relations of power between and around us, and not only look up to the political sovereign as the locus of power. But over forty years since Foucault’s plea, this has still to be done, a fact which can be observed in 24-hour news that hangs on every presidential tweet or utterance and centers its attention on heads of state.
But revolts experiment with power in other places.
Revolts, in all their difference and complexity, are variously involved in confronting urgent problems of the existing world. Revolts throw the reality and justice of the existing world into question.
In my book, Specters of Revolt, I wanted to help work out the rationality of recent global uprisings throughout Latin America, Western Europe, the US, and in the Middle East and North Africa. My claim was that the recent wave of revolts, from Turkey to Spain to Argentina to Egypt to Tunisia to Greece to Wall Street, and to the Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore were neither violent nor irrational, but instead, should be understood as expressing a clear analysis and practical condemnations of the violence of the already-existing world. Aside from their analytical content, revolts are also full of new ideas on how to do things better.
Unfortunately, Political Science often understands the rationality of revolt only when the revolt proves its influence on public policy or on the actions of policymakers. Thus, in order to be heard, the revolt must speak the language of conventional politics. That revolt is in fact causally related to legislative politics and public policy is a long-settled consensus of Political Science. Decades of research by Doug McAdam, Sydney Tarrow, Barbara Epstein, Charles Tilly, and many others, have shown this to be the case in the US and around the world going back for centuries. The problem is that the revolt often exists precisely because the established language of politics has failed. Revolt speaks a different language, and if we want to understand an uprising, we must not translate it into our language, but rather, learn a different one.
2. NEW WAVE OF #BLM PROTEST
We should resist the logic of a results-orientation according to which every uprising is valued only in terms of its measurable outcomes. For example, if Black Lives Matter does not reverse racial profiling or lead to nationwide systems of accountability for the police, then a results-orientation may simply conclude that #BLM is a failure. If we try to make sense of revolt in such a way, citing policy changes in exchange for protests, we will never understand the uprising.
The George Floyd uprisings mark a discrete phase of rebellion, but they are actually taking up the unfinished business of earlier phases of Black revolt in the US, not only going back to Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015, but to slave revolts and to a long history of white supremacy well studied by Black scholars from W. E. B. Du Bois to Angela Y. Davis. What we are witnessing in the summer of 2020 is a resumption of revolt that can be clearly connected to an ongoing yet discontinuous history of struggle.
I also think we have to consider what happens to people, and especially to young people, when they participate in a revolt. These days, hope may be scarce for good reasons. Not only because of what is happening in government per se, but because of pandemics, ecological catastrophe, growing inequality and inopportunity, widespread anxiety, and financial insecurity, among other things. Nobody thinks they will end white supremacy by burning a police car. But people are changed by their direct experience of revolt. Listen to what they say. One young Black organizer of a #BLM protest in Taylorville, Illinois said that he “got to see a town where [he] grew up and had to deal with racism come out and show they wouldn’t stand for it anymore.”
So much sociology and psychology tell us that it is no small thing when people accustomed to accepting the unacceptable—perhaps because they think that is all they can do—get fed up to the point that they fight back. Inside of #BLM protests across the country, young people are experimenting with their own powers, their creative capabilities to fight the realities that threaten them, and these realizations of power in other places demand a larger view of politics and public affairs. They demand a view of politics that breaks with the model of petitioning the political class for justice, solidarity, or understanding. Rather, it is out of the sense that justice, solidarity, and understanding are indefinitely withheld that people seek to realize power in other places.
The end of revolt cannot be expected until the end of the conditions that give it rise. Every year, over nine hundred people are shot and killed by police in the US. In recent years (such as 2019) more than a thousand were killed by police. This staggering reality tells us that when the present revolt appears to be over, it is not. Revolt always returns to take up the unfinished business of history.
Richard Gilman-Opalsky, is a Professor of Political Science at UIS. He eaned his Ph.D. in Political Science at The New School for Social Research in 2006. His M.A. (The New School for Social Research) and B.A. (Hofstra University) are in Philosophy. Dr. Gilman-Opalsky’s teaching and research focus on the history of political philosophy, Continental and contemporary social theory, Marxism, capitalism, autonomist politics, postmodern philosophy, critical theory, social movements and the public sphere. Dr. Gilman-Opalsky was named University Scholar 2018-2019.
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 For two examples, you may find some of my analysis in this article at the Progressive (https://progressive.org/dispatches/black-lives-matter-in-small-towns-too-solliday-200804/) and in this more in-depth interview provided for the online journal Ill Will Editions (https://illwilleditions.com/the-eternal-return-of-revolt-2/). The latter was translated into Greek (https://voidnetwork.gr/2020/07/17/h-aionia-epistrofi-tis-eksegersis-richard-gilman-opalsky/) and German (https://sunzibingfa.noblogs.org/post/2020/07/27/die-ewige-wiederkehr-der-revolte).
 Hannah Arendt, On Violence (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1969).
 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 121.
 Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Specters of Revolt (London: Random House, 2016).
 For example, see Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), Sydney Tarrow’s Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Charles Tilly’s multi-volume editions Social Movements, 1768-2018 (New York: Routledge, 2020), and Barbara Epstein’s Political Protest and Cultural Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
 See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: The Free Press, 1998) and Angela Y. Davis Freedom is a Constant Struggle (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), for examples.
 See Amanda Solliday’s “Black Lives Matter in Small Towns, Too” (https://progressive.org/dispatches/black-lives-matter-in-small-towns-too-solliday-200804/).
 See, for example, https://killedbypolice.net/ and https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/.