Nathan Eckstrand is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University. He is also editor-in-chief of the APA Blog, where he has worked since 2017, and co-editor of Philosophy and the Return of Violence: Essays from this Widening Gyre. Nathan has published articles on Deleuze, Foucault, Fanon, and Said. His dissertation, written under Fred Evans and defended in September 2014, is called “The Event of Revolution: Theorizing the Relationship between the State and Radical Change” and studies concepts of revolution from the Early Modern period to the present day. In this Recently Published Book Spotlight, Nathan discusses his most recent book Liberating Revolution: Emancipating Radical Change from the State, its proposal for a new theory of revolution, and his incorporation of systems theory into his research.
What is your work about?
My book tries to solve a problem. If revolution is the overturning of the state, then it should be able to overturn anything—and potentially everything—about the state, including the concepts that compose the state (e.g., the idea of sovereignty). If something from the state necessarily remains, then the process you’re observing is not a revolution, but rather a process that produces the state. That’s what elections are. The leader may change, but the fundamental processes of the state remain. Similarly, amending the constitution may change some basic laws but keep the fundamental order of things the same. If our understanding of revolution requires us to keep some things constant, we’re discussing another state-forming process, not a revolution.
Many theories of revolution explicitly draw from the state and require that entities from the state remain after the revolution ends. Locke’s theory of revolution says that revolutions remove governments that don’t protect natural rights, but they can’t change what rights are natural or how all governments must begin with a contract. Marx’s theory of revolution says revolutions change the material conditions of society but are unable to change the manner in which the revolution happens (violence by workers) or the goal of the revolution (communism).
I find these theories unsatisfying. A theory of revolution should not necessitate that any particular state follows it, but most theories do exactly this. The ‘revolutions’ described by these theories are part of the state the theories describe, NOT revolutions. My book describes a new theory of revolution that avoids this. Thus my claim the book “liberates” revolution from the state.
How do you relate your work to other well-known philosophies?
The first way I relate my theory to others is by commenting on well-known theories of revolution. I discuss the works of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Grotius, Rawls, Nozick, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Merleau-Ponty, Althusser, and the Frankfurt School, among many others. I categorize prior theories of revolution into two primary schools: regulationist and visionary theories. Regulationism consists of theories which circumscribe the state by creating principles of right and wrong which the ideal state should follow. It sets out principles of justice which states should follow and guidelines about how a state should make decisions. Revolutions, should they occur, must return states to that ideal. Visionary theories are primarily dialectical theories, where the telos of the state is defined and revolution helps the state to reach it. The state itself can change significantly, but always moves towards that goal. While visionary theories diverge on how change happens and the role revolution plays, they agree that revolution does not work in opposition to the state’s telos. I critique both schools of thought, though I also spell out the value that each theory of revolution offers.
The second way I relate my work to other philosophies is by drawing from them to develop my own theory. Starting in chapter 5, I survey the handful of event ontologies which argue that revolutions exceed being. For them, “events” are the shifts between radically different ways of arranging and understanding existence. When it comes to politics, events do the same for the political realm. I primarily reference Kuhn, Deleuze, and Badiou, but use others as needed.
Notably, my research also incorporates systems theory, which describes dynamic phenomena like “emergence” that bear a similarity to events. I ended up tracking the development of systems theory back to mathematicians like Henri Poincaré and then engaging with contemporary systems theorists like Scott Page. My own theory of revolution is drawn from systems theory more than any other theory.
How has your theory on revolutions been influenced by your study of systems theory?
The primary way I used systems theory is to critique earlier event ontologies. One of the things systems theory shows is how radically interconnected everything is, and how small movements in one part of the system can have a significant impact on other parts of the system. I used this to criticize the transcendental dimension that a lot of theories of revolution have (e.g., those of Deleuze and Badiou). Both Deleuze and Badiou try to uncover the conditions for systematicity rather than, as I argue, beginning with systematicity (excepting the pure change that exists beyond systems, which I discuss in more detail below). I use systems theory to argue that what they describe as the transcendental dimension of their work must be seen as another part of a system, and as such can change along with any other part of a system.
The challenge in doing this is that by eliminating a transcendental dimension, I largely eliminate the things that can explain revolution. That is, without an ‘outside’ that is conditioning our world, and which can itself change, what makes us think that our world is open to radical change? This is again where I draw on systems theory, as the phenomena described in the study of complex adaptive systems (or CAS, as the people studying it call it) can explain much of the phenomena of revolution without needing to reference the transcendental. In other words, I argue that it is the nature of systematicity, and not transcendental conditions, that we should reference to explain revolution.
Which of your insights or conclusions do you find most exciting?
The problem motivating the study is still one that intrigues me, as at its heart it is one of how you describe change without assuming any necessary order. This is not easy, since understanding of any sort needs to begin with something that is held constant, even if it is as basic as saying that relationships, signifiers, or human consciousness operate in a predictable manner over a period of time. Ultimately, I argue that pure change is equivalent to nothingness, understood not as absence but as complete motion.
I use this ontology of change to orient the account of revolution that I give. I hope that it will have uses beyond a study of radical change as well. One possible direction I take this project in the future is spelling out the details of this ontology more by relating it to the various ontologies of objects, motion, and materiality that have been published recently.
How is your work relevant to the contemporary world?
The work itself was inspired by the contemporary world, in particular the revolutions that swept the globe in 2011 (the Arab Spring and Occupy). At the time the Arab Spring was occurring I was entertaining several potential topics for my dissertation, including one on revolution. What happened in the Middle East and then in America pushed the topic to the front of my thoughts.
As to how the project is relevant currently, revolutions are a constant presence at the margins of politics and society. Understanding them properly will benefit revolutionaries, scholars, and anyone affected by them.
More than that, my engagement with systems theory has implications for social and political philosophy. Systems theory works with concepts like complexity and interconnectedness, both of which are fundamental aspects of our world. I have become convinced that political and social theory needs to do more to wrestle with the effects that complexity and interconnectedness have on the objects of their theory. This means changing our focus from who’s foundation is right/better to the question of who’s theory, when inserted into a field of complexity, will be more productive. For this, we need to take account of things like 1) how much diversity can fit into the theory, 2) how easy it will be for the theory to be transmitted throughout society, 3) how the theory will withstand phenomena like “elaboration,” which happens in all complex and interconnected systems.
If people take anything from my work besides my answer to the question of how to think about revolution, I’d like it to be an interest in thinking about the world AS a complex system.
How is your work relevant to historical ideas?
One of the interesting outcomes of this project has been tracking the development of theories of revolution from their inception to the present. The term itself has the opposite of its initial meaning, as it was originally meant to describe what happens when a leader loses their divine authority (e.g., the mandate of heaven), at which point there is a period of chaos before another leader is appointed. The form of government wasn’t supposed to change at all. Revolution was just another turn in the cycle of divinely appointed leaders.
Starting with social contract theory revolution qua radical change becomes a theoretical possibility, albeit one which is to be avoided. As you track the development of social contract theory, democracy, liberalism, fascism, communism, etc. you see an increasing embrace of revolution. It goes from something to avoid to something to actively seek, and from something that can only change a little to something that can change a lot.
My book follows this trend of giving revolution more power, inasmuch as I do think that any part of the state can be misused and may need to be overturned. However, I caution in Ch. 6 against romantic notions of seeking revolution without understanding its potency. Revolutions can easily lead to disaster, and should be approached with a critical mindset. They open great possibilities for society, but are not the cure for all political ills and require a lot of work to complete successfully.
What’s next for you?
Overturning all forms of oppression. The project should be completed in the next year or two.
Seriously, I would like to continue studying the relationship between systems theory and social-political change. There are lots of tools available in the theory of math and the natural sciences which have been overlooked in philosophy’s explorations of social construction, language, and other forms of idealism. I see this as a variation on recent projects returning to realism and materialism.
Additionally, I have begun taking an interest in humanities advocacy. I feel that a lot of problems our society has, including problems in the academy, stem from a lack of appreciation of the values the humanities offer (e.g., good communication, understanding, self-expression, critical thinking). Colleges and universities are one of the few institutions designed to promote these values, but they are changing in favor of more vocational education. And those in society who don’t have the opportunity to come to higher education don’t learn the value of the humanities either. I’ve developed a hypothesis, something I call Direct Action for the humanities, for how to promote the humanities outside the academy. I’m interested in exploring that as well.