I have been preoccupied a lot recently with the differend between dialectics, with its notes of crisis, contradiction, and antagonism, and pluralism of the Deleuzian variety, with its rejection of any thought of the negative and its insistence on the metastability of the virtual as the source of change.
This has long been the issue on which I break with more traditional Marxists; and it is still the issue on which I tend to differ with Jodi and many of the other folks I read most avidly today in the blogosphere, as well as more generally with both Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic (e.g. Zizek) approaches. But I note that very often, these days, when I read more traditionally “dialectical” Marxist stuff (whether Frankfurt School, or Lacanian School, or just work emphasizing political economy) I tend to just mentally translate the language of negativity, contradiction, etc., into the language of virtuality that I get from Deleuze (and that Deleuze gets from sources, like Bergson and William James, that have been considered disreputable, because too blandly and unconflictually pluralist, by most 20th century Western Marxists). The fact that I can make this sort of translation so easily suggests to me that the two languages are not as far apart as partisans on either side have often made them out to be. (And I should add that I am equally irritated by dismissals of Delueze, like Zizek’s, that make him out to be some muddle-headed liberal pluralist or New Age prophet or Jungian archetypalist, and by the ritualistic denunciations of the old-fashioned dialectics of Marx and Marxism by thinkers, like Lazzarato, who are in fact analyzing capitalism entirely within the horizon of Marxian concepts).
There are definite commonalities. Both the Hegelian/dialectical language of negativity, and the James/Bergson/Deleuze language of virtuality, insist that all those things that are omitted by the positivist cataloguing of atomistic facts are altogether real. Both locate this reality by asserting that the “relations” between things are as real as the things themselves, and that “things” don’t exist first, but only come to be through their multiple relations. Both construct materialist (rather than idealist) accounts of these relations, of how they constitute the real, and of how they continually change (over time) the nature of what is real. Both offer similar critiques of the tradition of bourgeois thought that leads from Descartes through the British empiricists and on to 20th century scientism and post-positivism.
The advantage of Deleuze, to me, is that he offers a wider, and more complex and nuanced, notion of “relations” than the Hegelian tradition does. Now, of course the Hegelian argument is precisely that the William James and Bergson pluralist approaches substitute a blandly observed multiplicity of indifferent connections for the sharpness of antagonism and radical change (and of course the valorization of “more complex and nuanced” is itself a part of the strategy of thus neutralizing antagonism). But the Deleuzian argument — radicalizing Bergson and James and giving them an edge that perhaps they don’t possess on their own — aims to both give a fuller picture of what the system of things-as-they-are excludes, and to provide for the possibility that practice can invent methods and situations that are theoretically unforseen.
Take, for instance, Marx’s (dialectical) opposition between the forces of production and the relations of production. Marx says that the very development of capitalist relations unleashes forces — for instance, possibilities of widespread material abundance, as well as collective modes of organization — that those same relations need to repress in order to perpetuate themselves. So, as capitalism develops, it is literally bursting at the seams: it needs to control and push back the very things that it makes possible. It needs to reimpose scarcity, and privatize what is inherently common and public. This stress is a dialectical contradiction, and its result is crisis: and ideally, for Marx, crisis is the point of leverage at which revolutionary change can occur, destroying capitalist property relations and replacing them with a common, or communist, system that is much more in accordance with the abundance that capitalist relations themselves inadvertently produced.
Now, there is something overly mechanical here about how the Hegelian dialectic neatly inverts itself, so that a contradiction directly leads to its own solution on a higher level. And in fact, of course, things haven’t happened this way. Capitalism today is not threatened by crisis; indeed, crisis is the tool it uses to renew itself. The “dialectic” by which a contradiction is resolved on a higher level is entirely absorbed within capitalism itself. When the “contradictions” of what I like to call FKW (the Fordist/Keynesian/welfare-stateist system) caused trouble in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was not to trouble the capitalist system, but precisely to allow capital to regenerate itself on high-tech, neoliberal lines. (This was the case whether we refer to social movements and to stagflation in the “advanced” western countries, to stagnation in the “socialist” bloc, or to anti-colonialist struggles and subsequent nation-building in the Third World).
In this situation, contradiction and negativity have become rather sterile resources for change, I think. Deleuze’s notion of the virtual allows for a wider range of resources. Instead of a dialectic, Deleuze (and Guattari) propose a vision of how capitalism simultaneously unleashes and regulates fluxes of energy and matter, of desires and subjects and objects. Both the relations of production and the forces of production are here seen as involving multiplicity, i.e. more dimensions than would be the case in an orthodox Hegelian account. Instead of a teleological dialectic, we get what Althusser would call “overderminations.” Capitalism is both a multiplying force and a homogenizing force; it cannot repress and exploit without expropriating actually-existing creativity; it assumes an “outside” that it constantly seeks to repress, but cannot do without. There is no dialectic here to guarantee antagonism; but that is because antagonism is precisely what needs to be produced. And this is where practice can be renewed, experimented with, and invented; precisely because it has been unshackled from the narrow constraints of the dialectic.
Now, I will admit that my example (forces of production/relations of production) was chosen somewhat maliciously. I have been saying that loosening the dialectic, and opening it to more multiplicity, actually increases the potential for antagonism and radical change. But for a dialectician like Zizek, this example of the dialectic is not nearly dialectical enough. In his critique of Hardt and Negri, Zizek says that their problem is that:
they are TOO MUCH Marxists, taking over the underlying Marxist scheme of historical progress… what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the ‘condition of impossibility’ of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its ‘condition of possibility': if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism – if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates.
In other words, for Zizek, not only Hardt/Negri, but Marx himself, is not dialectical enough, because Marx hopes to displace or overcome the very traumatic (dialectical) contradiction that for Zizek is the bedrock human condition. Zizek is responding, of course, to the fact that Hardt/Negri are very much on the Deleuzian side of the fence in the terms I have been outlining here. He is specifically reacting against what I started out this posting with: the sense that it is possible to translate Marxist dialectical terms into Deleuzian non-dialectical ones, and that in doing so one actually sharpens the possibility for change. Zizek is a rejectionist, and probably this is why he sticks so firmly to the fantasy of a “Leninist” radical rupture, and in fact dismisses any of the potentials for change envisioned by Deleuze, or by Hardt/Negri, as (what the Leninists have long called) merely reformist ones. There is no potential, no sense of the virtual, in Zizek, but only pure antagonism. I fear this leads mostly to a self-dramatizing radical refusal that changes nothing, but leaves the theorist congratulating him- or herself for not giving in, not compromising, not acceding to capitalism, not giving way on his/her desire (or should I say drive?).
None of this is to deny that Hardt/Negri do often seem to me to be too willfully optimistic, nor that Deleuze’s version of pluralism can often issue in a politics that is itself too complacent in its appreciation of sheer differences, and that thereby fails to break with the cozily pluralist logic of postmodern capitalism, or to push things to an antagonistic point. But it is to say that there is more to Deleuze/Guattari than that. The logic of relations, of plurality, and of the virtual does in fact enable an entirely Marxian analytics of capital and its flows in key sections of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. And, in the Preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze himself warns against the “danger… of lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul,” for whom “there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggles. The beautiful soul says, we are different but not opposed…” Deleuze seeks, rather, to reach a point where difference “release[s] a power of aggression and selection which destroys the beautiful soul by depriving it of its very identity and breaking its good will.” Such is the effect of Deleuze’s transcendental (in the Kantian sense) pluralism, as opposed both to the sterility of dialectics and the complacent liberal pluralism that has become the official ideology of worldwide capital today.