Communism at Birkbeck

I don’t have the presence of mind to summarize all of the presentations at the Birkbeck Communism conference, the way I did with Michael Hardt’s talk in my last post. But I can make some generalizations. Part of the appeal of events such as these is simply to see the academic superstars in action. From this point of view, the conference did not disappoint. Slavoj Zizek was in fine form, manic and excited, and so full of a kind of outward-directed energy that I didn’t really mind his overbearingness. Gianni Vattimo, whom I had never seen before (and of whose works I have only read a little) was quite a charmer, in a humorously self-deprecating way. Terry Eagleton reveled in the role of the British common-sense empiricist in a room otherwise full of dialecticians. Toni Negri was warm and animated, jacques Ranciere admirably meditative. Alain Badiou was… well, Badiou (more of which later).

The conference’s title was “On the Idea of Communism.” The idea, it was emphasized, as opposed to the harsh realities of day-by-day social and political struggle. I’m enough of an armchair communist (or petit-bourgeois intellectual, as they used to say in the bad old days) that I had no objection to such an emphasis. I agree with Zizek that we need to show a certain patience, to take a deep breath, to try to understand the contours of the situation we are in (or the conjuncture, in more traditional marxistspeak). But what does it mean to explore the mere idea of communism, as opposed to the actuality of capitalism? The idea of communism is to a large extent a negative one, in that we don’t really know what it would be like, only that it would mean the emancipation of people, and the establishment of forms of life that are repressed, oppressed, and denied an opportunity to flourish today. It’s utopian; or at least “communism” is the name for the only sort of utopianism that makes sense to me today — it makes sense precisely because it is not a religious or new-agey idea of perfectibility and salvation, but something much more down-to-earth. Communism has to do with “the common,” as Michael Hardt said, and this is a far different thing from, say, the “public” in its binary opposition to and dependence upon the “private.” It doesn’t mean giving up on our inner lives, but creating an environment in which such lives might flourish. And I don’t think that “communism” is really about politics — though politics is inevitably a large part of what is needed to get there,

There is also, of course, the question of the crimes committed by Communist parties, or in the name of “communism,” throughout the twentieth century. Zizek opened the conference by saying that the time for guilt was over, that in the 21st century we needed to reclaim the name of “communism” from the ill repute into which it has sunk. And I think this is entirely right — all the more so in that capitalism, too, is guilty of many crimes, but of ones which it still refuses to acknowledge, and for which it shows no repentance; not to mention the increasingly untenable situation in which we live today, exacerbated by the current financial disaster.

The conference showcased the major strains of Euro-communism (in which I also include North American leftist thought) today — though the rest of the world was noticeable by its absence. All the speakers were white Europeans or North Americans; 11 of the 12 speakers were men. The audience was more gender-balanced than the panels, but it was overwhelmingly white. This is quite disturbing (not because of any multicultural pieties of the sort that Zizek always criticizes, but precisely because it bespeaks a parochialism that “we” in the “West” have still only done a very poor job of breaking away from). Bruno Bosteels talked a bit about Latin American (specifically Bolivian) experiences and theorizations of getting beyond capitalism; and a number of speakers kept on coming back to the (very ambiguous) history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; but all in all, the conference was far less internationalist than it ought to have been.

In any case, by “major strains” of Euro-communism I basically mean those represented by Zizek and Badiou, on the one hand, and by Hardt and Negri on the other. Since in fact it was Zizek’s and Badiou’s conference, I kind of got the slight sense that Negri and Hardt were only there on sufferance, as it were; they were noticeably absent during the summing-up on the final day. Now, I’ve had my criticisms of both of these camps (as can be seen in many earlier entries on this blog); but “at the end of the day,” I am much more in Negri and Hardt’s camp than in that of the others. This was confirmed for me by the fact that both Hardt and Negri focused on political economy in their talks; whereas none of the other speakers (with the exception of Zizek, whom I will discuss later) so much as mentioned it.

Now, this might be justified to some extent by the argument that the whole point of “communism” is to imagine a society in which the current constraints of a capitalist political economy no longer apply; but this isn’t much of an alibi, when you consider that so many of the talks were, indeed, about how to get there  from here — Terry Eagleton’s talk filled with literary allusions was really the only one that was actually about imagining communism as a state of being, rather than just as the negation of what we have today (and his talk precisely showed, in a symptomatic way, the limitations of trying to imagine such a utopian situation — I must confess that his literariness made me cringe a bit, as it reminded m all too much of the atmosphere of graduate school in English at Yale in the 1970s (it isn’t that I don’t like Shakespeare; I do; but I don’t really find helpful an approach which acts as if movies and TV and the Internet didn’t exist; one can talk about Shakespeare just as one talks about Spinoza — but in either case it should be from our actual present situartion).

No, the problem for me with much of the conference is that political economy (by which I include what Marx called “the critique of political economy”) was pretty much elided by most of the speakers. For instance, Peter Hallward, with his usual lucidity, developed a rather alarming call for Jacobin rigor and discipline in the defense of virtue and the Rousseauean principle of the “general will”; but he failed to explain how such a state, analgous to that of the Jacobin clubs in 1790s France, could arise in the first place. A number of speakers went on at great length about the necessity of struggles against the “State”; but they seemed to do this with little sense of how State apparatuses work to support and reinforce capital and finance. The dirty little secret of neoliberalism is that the “free market” could not actually function if the government were actually to observe laissez faire, and to leave “the market” alone. For it is only by rigid State control over things like the money supply, together with rigid enforcement of “property” laws (based on the absurd fiction that, say, the genetic makeup of genetically modified crops somehow had the same inviolable status as my personal effects in my bedroom). It’s disheartening to hear people on the left denounce “the State” in the very same terms that the neoliberals hypocritically and misleadingly do. Not to mention that, as Bruno Bosteels put it in a question that none of the anti-State panelists were able convincingly to answer, this sort of analysis is distinctly unhelpful when we have a situation such as that in Bolivia, where President Morales is specifically using the power of “the State” — the fact of his election to office by a large minority — in order to improve economic conditions for the vast masses, even at the expense of the wealthy and privileged. [One might add that, in Bolivia as recently in Thailand and several other places, it is precisely the privileged bourgeoisie who have used the tactics of “people power”, with mass protests etc., in order to bring down democratically elected majority governments who threatened their privileges).

In particular, not only did Badiou leave out political economy from his descriptions of how the revolutionary event might challenge the capitalist status quo; but also, when questioned on this score, he explicitly denounced any attention to political economy as being the sin of “economism”. All this is caaptured in the video here. Badiou claims that economics can only be part of “the situation” which it is the business of a new “truth,” produced in an event and by fidelity to that event, to disrupt. Badiou shows his Maoist pedigree (as Ken Wark remarked to me) in this insistence on politics as the ultimate ruling instance. Instead of engaging in the critique of political economy, and seeing the political as so intimately intertwined with the economic as to makie any separation of them impossible, Badiou relegates economy, in a nearly Gnostic sort of way, to the realm of the irretrievably fallen. His notion of a pure politics (and a pure philosophy) unsullied by any contact with, or ‘contamination’ by, the economic, is really the mirror image of today’s neoclassical economics which imagines itself to be value-neutral and apolitical. What this comes down to is that Badiou is a Maoist without the Marxism — a stance that I find rather terrifying.

At his best, Badiou is a kind of no-Kantian — this is an appelation that he would reject, of course, and one that most contemporary philosophers would find damning (though I mean it as a sort of praise). What I mean by Badiou’s neo-Kantianism is that his whole notion of the event, and of the ethics of remaining loyal to the event, is something like a late-modernist version of the categorical imperative. The event is singular, and yet of absolutely universal import — it commands our obedience, regardless of our merely personal, “pathological” implications. Badiou even defines the event, and the way we are called to be faithful to it, in entirely “formalist” terms — we are commanded by the very form of the event, rather than by anything having to do with its specific content. This is an utterly Kantian way of thinking — and, unlike so many “hegelian” commentators, I find this empty formalism to be a strength, rather than a weakness, of Kantian ethics. But I shudder when Badiou goes on to denature this Kantian impersonal universalism by turning it into a Pauline or Leninist or Maoist form of what Kant would have called “fanaticism.” Again, I am no Leninist or Maoist to begin with; but to take Leninism and Maoism, and remove the Marxism from them, as Badiou does, really leaves us with nothing but a delusional hypervoluntarism and a romanticized reveling in “terror.”

Zizek, speaking on the last day, gave what I am sure he would be happy for us to think of as a Hegelian synthesis of everything that went on during the conference. Unlike most of his colleagues, and in what might be thought of as a nod to Hardt and Negri, his analysis did include political economy. He listed four threats or challenges that we face today in our world of capitalism gone mad; and three of them, he acknowledged, fit under the rubric of Hardt/Negri’s “affective” or “immaterial” production. These were 1)the threat of environmental disaster; 2)questions of so-called “intellectual property,” of copyright, patents, etc., and of the privatization of the common (understanding this in the broadest sense, as Hardt argued); 3)quesions of bioengineering, genetics, and the ability to manipulate our own genes, and thus change “human nature” on a biological and physiological level. Zizek then added a fourth challenge, which he said underlay all the others: 4)the question of inclusion and exclusion on a global level — as reflected in border controls, nationalisms, and the question of immigration (the countries of the North excluding people from the global South, except insofar as their hyperexploitation was facilitated on the basis of admitting them with only a semi-legal or illegal status. This ties in also with the whole question of “global slums,” as raised by Mike Davis. It articulates the demands of capital that lie behind what Deleuze calls the control society, and it gives a way of acknowledging the issues raised by post-colonial theory without falling into the multiculturalism that Zizek is not altogether without justification in criticizing.

Zizek argued that these questions could only be resolved, in an anticapitalist direction, by maintaining principles of egalitarianism and universalism. His example of this was the Haitian Revolution as the radicalization, and Hegelian “completion”, of the French Revolution. The French tried to repress the Haitians, which means that the French were not able to live up to their own universalism — they wouldn’t apply this to black people. But the Haitians took the principles of the French Revolution more seriously than the French themselves did; they demanded and won independence, against the French, on the basis of the very principles that the French had enunciated. This is Zizek’s way of splitting the difference between his inherent Eurocentrism, and the fact that by his own principles of universality he needs to get away from Eurocentrism. In effect, he is privileging Europe on the grounds that Europe invented the very universalism that commands us to stop privileging Europe. As so often, I remain highly dubious of how this kind of Hegelian maneuver can be invoked any time Zizek needs to get out of a tight spot. It ends up being a little too easy, and a little too self-congratulatory a method of resolving the problem. That is to say, Zizek still really is Eurocentric, and we need to continue to call him on this. But it is not entirely devoid of merit that the guy is trying, at least…

In any case, after laying all this out, Zizek went on to talk about some of the difficulties that we face in trying to deal with these questions. He was emphatic in arguing that the radicality of “communism” needs to be upheld, against the sort of reforms that — now that some of the excesses of finance are being at least slightly reined  in — could come under the name of “socialism” (as in Newsweek’s recent assertion that “‘we are all socialists now”). Such “socialist” reforms (including the nationalization of institutions like banks, or the de facto ownership of the majority of stock in troubled financial corporations by the US government) would give an illusion of reform, while really leaving the massive inequalities (between wealthy financiers and everyone else, and even more between the citizens of Western nations and the overwhelming majority everywhere else in the world) largely untouched. I think that Zizek is right about this — the current crisis situation at least in principle makes radical alternatives more thinkable than they were during the internet and real estate bubbles — even though the recuperative efforts of Western governments today are almost entirely oriented towards keeping alive the sense that “there is no alternative,” even as that system to which there is supposedly no alternative has entirely collapsed and discredited itself.

In this light, ZIzek talked of the difficulty of making any transgressive or oppositional gestures today, because of the way that such gestures almost immediately get commodified and recuperated, and because the very ideas of transgression and radical innovation have themselves become capitalist resources, the mantras of every business school and every CEO. Zizek even quoted Brian Massumi to this effect, much to my surprise (since Massumi, like Hardt and Negri, is very much on Deleuzian side, rather than the Lacanian one, of recent debates).

Awareness of these issues, I think, prevents Zizek from articulating groundless fantasies of revolutionary agency in the way that certain other speakers did. Yet the only solution Zizek had to offer, in his talk, was an appeal to Badiou’s transcendental formulation of politics as fidelity to an event of radical rupture, and of “communism” as the name of this event or rupture. In the course of his talk, Zizek called several times for a “radical voluntarism” — though, when called on this formulation in the Q&A, he backpedaled (at least rhetorically) and said that all he meant by such a phrase was that, unlike the old Marxists  of the earlier part of the past century, we could no longer believe today that the “logic of history” was on our side, or that we could trust to the objective course of events to displace capitalism and create the necessary and sufficient conditions for communism.

I agree with Zizek on this — indeed, my largest disagreement with Hardt and Negri is precisely that they seem to affirm a soft version of the inevitable-movement-of-history, or “objective conditions” thesis — but I think that a phrase like “radical voluntarism” works to insinuate a positive thesis — a sense of “what is to be done?” — that simply isn’t there. Which leaves us back in our current condition: the demoralization of an impotent left. I have no solution for this dilemma — and I don’t think Zizek or Badiou (or Hardt or Negri either) have any more of a solution than I have, although they are way to eager to adopt the rhetoric of seeming as if they do.

All this was symbolized at the very end of the conference. As everyone was getting ready to leave, Zizek asked us to all stand up and sing “The Internationale”. Almost nobody did (there were a few people in one corner singing it, but they couldn’t be heard above the general hubbub). In my case — and I suspect this held for a large majority of the hundreds of people in the auditorium — I would have liked to sing “The Internationale”, but I couldn’t — because, although I am vaguely familiar with the melody, I do not know the words.

55 Responses to “Communism at Birkbeck”

  1. […] by Carl on April 2, 2009 The Pinocchio Theory offers a nice post-mortem of the Communism at Birkbeck conference. Apparently, as long as nothing embarrassing like political economy or materiality of […]

  2. tV says:

    Various authoritarian regimes that populate the world over take on different forms, thus they have different names, though primarily grouped under two: communism & capitalism.

    ‘Nature’, being a relatively new concept according to Lefebvre — developed around the time of the industrial revolution in the distinction between town & country — receives various humanist projections as to its essence. As we can think, analyze, and offer descriptive and prescriptive arguments toward both competition and the commons or co-operation, both are tendencies within the world. Not mentioned yet is the work in studies of cosymbiosis, such as that of Lynn Margulis. Or on the abstract plane, studies of complementarity.

    That power falls to the void is of no surprise. That violence cannot be instrumentalized without risk of catastrophe is another.

    That there are now forces at work on a planetary level — Lefebvre called it the urban revolution or urban reality — that overtake debates such as this: the ‘climate crisis’ is its reduced form (what the communists would call ‘ideology’ — but only insofar as the crack in ideology reveals the crack in reality).

    I remained intrigued by Paola Virno. Exodus. Form what is needed now. What is needed is something of the form itself: the network.

    Gatherings such as these should never be discounted for creating a moment of convergence.

  3. […] now some interesting summarizes and perspectives on the event online. Steven Shaviro has the most succinct one, and IT does a very good, verging on concrete poetry, overview as well, just scroll down and you […]

  4. […] summarise Zizek’s argument here (overviews of Zizek’s position can be found at Lacuna 2.0 and Pinocchio Theory) but it is worth noting in terms of a particular revolutionary Haitian current running through […]

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