Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Marx revival? (2 of 5) Some intellectual luminaries of the European left

In the first post in this series, I cited an article by Michael Sayeau, The Fifth International: n+1 covers the London Conference, "On the Idea of Communism" n+1 04/22/2009. The conference in question, Sayeau writes, featured "Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Jacques Ranciere, Peter Hallward, and other key (albeit mostly male and entirely European or American) players in leftist philosophy and theory."

It's safe to say that none of these people are household names in the US.

Alain Badiou holds the impressively-named Rene Descartes Chair at the European Graduate School. His faculty biography notes his indebtedness to Hegel, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. And to Plato.

Terry Eagleton is a literary scholar who has held chairs at the University of Manchester and at Oxford, and is currently on the faculty at Lancaster University. He writes for the The Guardian, where short articles by him are availble to sample his take on events, such as Occupy London are true followers of Jesus, even if they despise religion 11/03/2011. He is a prominent public intellectual in Britain.

Peter Hallward is a philosopher at Kingston University in London.His faculty profile tells us that he is currently working on a project on "the will of the people" in which he will "develop and defend a notion of democratic political will" drawing "in particular on the political works of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx." The site also has links to several articles of his.

Antonio Negri is described by the leftist site Libcom.org (which apparently stands for "libertarian communism" as an Italian autonomist Marxist academic who was wrongfully imprisoned by the Italian state for alleged involvement in the Brigate Rosse urban guerrilla group". His profile at the European Graduate School says he "is influenced in great part by Karl Marx and Benedict Baruch Spinoza."

Jacques Rancière, professor emeritus at the University of Paris, is also a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School. His faculty bio includes this description of his views, "... is the experience of the distance of things; man acts as though his voice can be heard, but is always a proper distance from it."

Slavoj Žižek, a former democratic dissident in Communist Yugoslavia is "professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London; senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana and regularly a visiting professor to some American university or other," according to a 2011 profile by Stuart Jeffries. (A life in writing: Slavoj Žižek The Guardian 07/15/2011)

John Gray reviews a book co-authored by Negri with Michael Hardt and one by Žižek in a piece called In the Bolshevik cabaret The Independent 11/20/2009. He heaps scorn on the authors, saying that "communism has been reinvented as a kind of intellectual cabaret act. The 20th century's biggest mistake is being marketed as high-end entertainment, with a modish neo-Bolshevism promising the jaded consumer an exciting experience of forbidden ideas." I'm not sure in what circles "neo-Bolshevism" is considered "modish", but whatever.

From my admittedly modest acquaintance with Žižek's work, I can't say whether Gray is entirely accurate in the following description. But my impression is consistent with Gray's suggestion that Žižek is more interested in poking critics of capitalism in the eye than in criticizing capitalism himself:

A Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalytical theorist and film critic, Zizek has become a gadfly of the left establishment, a prolific provocateur whose principal aim seems to be to confound his tender-minded readers. His target throughout this book is not the right but the soft, democratic, meliorist left, which imagines that the egalitarian goals of communism can be realised by non-repressive, liberal means.

Zizek is savagely scornful of this view, writing sharply that "One of the mantras of the postmodern left has been that we should finally leave behind the 'Jacobin-Leninist paradigm' of centralised dictatorial power. But perhaps the time has now come to turn this mantra around... Now, more than ever, one should insist on the 'eternal Idea of Communism' - strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people."
My interest in these posts that look at whether we are seeing a "Marx revival" is more about the immediate political influence of actual Marxist ideas. I take it for granted that grappling with ideas from Marx and the Marxist tradition are and will continue to be important in academia and intellectual fields ranging from philosophy, literary theory, and history to sociology and political science and even theology. The very fact that China is ruled by a Communist Party and a Communist government that nominally adheres to a Marxist ideology would itself guarantee some continuing focus on Marxism in the intellectual world.

What struck me about Sayeau's report on that 2009 conference, though, is how little these luminaries of the left had to offer in the way of insight into the current situation. I mean, for the love of the Paris Commune, people, we're in a world depression! You know, like back in the 1930s? The "general crisis of capitalism", as Marxists (and not only Marxists) called it back then? What's the point of having Marxists around if they don't have some useful insights into the situation of a world economic depression?

Sayeau writes:

Despite the billing of the conference, and despite the fact that the papers presented were almost to a one solid pieces of philosophical work, I think it's safe to say that nothing groundbreaking, or even all that unexpected, happened. The speakers routinely erred on the side of contrition and caution. When Marx was cited, which was often, it was apologetically, rounded off with disavowals of dogmatism. When presenters engaged with the current economic situation, they were strident in proclaiming that change was necessary, but defensively so, as if they were still talking themselves into the idea — a holdover from the era of the bubble, when the "rising tide that lifts all boats" wrong-footed leftists for more than a decade.

Perhaps the clearest sign of a new sort of confidence would have been to see the presenters driven off their usual talking points. But the papers largely circled around the same conceptual axes that we would have expected five or ten years ago. The deployment of such familiar keywords as the "commons" (that is, places and objects owned collectively, if "owned" is even the right word for things as disparate as medieval grazing fields and open-source computer applications) and "immaterial labor" (work that manipulates information, feelings, or sensations rather than producing solid goods and materials) endowed the proceedings with an air of roteness, of business as usual. [my emphasis]
My point here is not to encourage sophomoric ridicule of European leftie intellectuals. My point is that their ideas need to be evaluated for their quality, or lack thereof. But with a world economic crisis now underway for going-on five-years with no end reasonably in sight, people in the United States and Europe particularly need to face that some of the dominant assumptions of the political and media elites have been proven deeply defective, such as monetarist economics and "end of history" assumptions about the secure victory of democratic institutions.

As we saw in the first post in this series, it is tempting for those whose goal is to comfort the most comfortable 1% to stigmatize any criticism of the real flaws of the current order as scary and foreign, for which the image of Karl Marx is still serviceable, now 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. The John Gray article linked above indulges in some of that.

But that doesn't mean everyone else has to dismiss sensible ideas or useful critical insights, no matter where they come from. One would think that the left in general, including Marxist thinkers, would have useful insights into the current situation. Even utopian thinking has its uses, though if it doesn't get beyond "imagine things can be different," it won't add much distinctive insight. But it is important that people can imagine things to be different!

As far as the economics goes, during the last several years the best insights and more relevant criticisms I've seen have come from Keynesian economist like Jamie Galbraith, Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz. They have done an excellent job of pointing out what happened with the economy and how badly mainstream policy assumptions went off the track.

If more radical thinkers like Alain Badiou, Eagleton, Hallward, Negri, Rancière and Žižek have relevant insights as well, great. I should say in fairness to them that none of them present themselves as economists. Nor is it necessary for scholarly work to have immediate relevance to the day's headlines. Politics and scholarship are different things, to put it mildly, although hopefully both fields would take reasonable insights from each other.

I haven't read the papers from the "On the Idea of Communism" conference, so it's hard to judge how fair Michael Sayeau is being in his report on it. The title of the conference suggests that its focus would be on the experience of Communism in the "real existing socialist" states of the former Soviet bloc. Since as a matter of real-world fact those states aren't around any more, it's understandable that there would be a certain defensiveness among the participants to identify with the cause of those former regimes.

Sayeau notes that the panel wasn't especially receptive to questions from the audience. And he writes:

The anger that the less eloquent questioners provoked may well be a symptom of this fact: after all, the years spent in the ideological desert of the end of history weren't very long ago. For this reason, it was important to uphold the "celebrity" status of figures like Badiou and Žižek: a movement with superstars has staying power. After all, there wouldn’t have been eighty people in the audience, let alone eight hundred, if it weren't for these celebrities, a fact that speaks to one of the more troubling contradictions in the current world of ideas: that though theory was ostensibly about rejecting priority and hierarchy, origin and personality, patriarchal organization and filiation, no field or discipline is so thoroughly defined by a system of stars and acolytes, great men and those who would be great men, as theory is today and has been for quite awhile. [my emphasis]
Yes, academics are known to sometimes have outsize egos. And that can always figure into how they come across, expecially to a general audience.

And the translation from academicese to more general usage is important to keep in mind. Juan Cole, whose expertise on Shi'a Islam and familiarity with Iraq propelled him to prominence as a public intellectual in the US during the last decade, said once that it was part of his learning curve that in TV appearances, he would sometimes find himself asked to explain some snippet of a quote from something he wrote 10 or 20 years ago that was completely off the topic of the discussion. This is the political-campaign style of using "oppo research" to discredit one's oppenent in real time. As nasty as academic debates can and do get, generally academics are used to operating under rules of discussion that exclude off-the-wall, out-of-context quotations being used for ad hominem attacks.

Not only are a lot of academics uninterested in learning to deal in that style. But not every useful idea can be reduced to a 30-second soundbite.

Posts in this series:

A Marx revival? (1 of 5) The Marx bogeyman 12/28/2011
A Marx revival? (2 of 5) Some intellectual luminaries of the European left 12/29/2011
A Marx revival? (3 of 5): the former Communist states as real-time challenge 12/30/2011
A Marx revival? (4 of 5) Is there actual evidence of such a thing in US and European politics? 01/01/2011
A Marx revival? (5 of 5) The archetypal left challenge to Marxism 01/02/2011

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