Further commentary on the Idea of Communism conference; these impressions from Aditya Nigam at Kafila ...
Re-booting Communism Or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy - I
Today, 13 March, a whole galaxy of philosophers and theorists got together for a three-day conference "On The Idea of Communism" under the auspices of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London University. The Conference opened to a jam-packed hall where all tickets had sold out (no jokes, this was a ticketed show where the likes of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jean Luc-Nancy, Toni Negri, Jacques Ranciere, Terry Eagleton and many many others are to perform on the 'idea of communism'). The huge Logan hall with a capacity of about 800-900 was so packed that the organizers had made arrangements for video streaming in another neighbouring hall - and that too was half full! Very encouraging in these bleak days.
The conference began in the afternoon with brief opening remarks by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Badiou made his general point (see below) about the continuing relevance of the 'communist hypothesis'. Staid and philosopherly. And then, Zizek. Clearly, in the five brief minutes he spoke, he was the star - a rock star playing to the gallery and the gallery responding to him as it would to Michael Jackson (who, one of the organizers said was being given a run for his money by the communist conference, or so the Guardian said!). As a matter of fact Zizek and his audience seemed already tied in a bond of performing for each other. This once post-marxist but now relapsed marxist philosopher-theorist thundered, gesticulating with eavery word he spoke: "We must resist the temptation to act. We must refuse being told that children are dying of hunger in Africa or in the slums of India, for this is the philosophy of the present times. They don't want us to think." And he went on, amidst cheers from a hysterical audience, "We must do, you must do what Lenin did in 1915, after the war broke out, after th failure of the Social Democratic parties. He went to the library and started to read Hegel's Logic. And this conference should be our moment of reading Hegel's Logic. How much polemic is compressed in this one statement was of course evident only to Zizek followers, for he was not just making the simple point about reading and thinking as opposed to mindless 'doing' that is the mantra of our times; he was also polemiciizing against all kinds of anti-Hegelians: Althusserians, postmarxists like Laclau and Mouffe, poststructuralists, Deleuzians and so on.
The background to the conference is an ongoing exchange between Alain Badiou and Zizek on the idea of communism. Badiou's piece which kickstarted this debate appeared in the New Left Review shortly after Sarkozy's electoral victory in France. In itself a very ordinary piece, it seems to have quickly become a major reference point for Left-wing discussions as it argued - courageously in this day and age - for the continued relevance of the communist idea. Badiou argued in this piece that Communism (or what he calls the communist hypothesis whose history stretches from the revolt of Spartacus to the present) was still relevant today. It was relevant however as a regulative ideal, not as a programme and that many of its earlier beliefs (like the party-form) had become redundant. Enter, at this point, the priest of Ljubliana, the new postmodern Stalin. Zizek, it may be recalled, rapidly reinvented himself after his initial post-marxist forays into theory. He took up cudgels on behalf of Marxism and revolution, claimed to 'repeat Lenin' and unabashedly claimed that the Truth of Marxism is only visible from the truly proletarian standpoint! Lest I be misunderstood, I quote here from the man himself: "Lenin's wager today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position truth is by definition one-sided." This ccould well be said of Islam or Hindutva - that its 'universal truth' can only be articulated or grasped through the partisan standpoint of the believer. And this is merely one of the many such statements that Zizek has made including his infamous 'plea for Leninist intolerance'.
How could this Zizek accept the mild philosopherli-ness of Badiou's position? So, he entered into a debate with Badiou. Communism as a mere horizon, without a programme? Isn't this a mere Kantian regulative ideal? Truth to tell, Badiou's piece itself is pretty orthodox, philosophically speaking, but Professor Zizek would have none of that. Communism is a programme, he had proclaimed. And the backdrop for the present conference was set up.
Today's sessions had three presentations: Michael Hardt of Empire and Multitude fame, Bruno Bosteels, editor of Diacritics and Peter Hallward. Hardt's presentsation was the only one that actually dealt with the 'real world' of contemporary capitalism and spoke about the new conflicts between two forms of property - material and scarce property versus immaterial and reproducible property. Hardt argued that some passages in Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts also talk about conflict between two forms of property - immobile like land versus the new capitalist property embodied in the commodity form. He underlined the need to understand the political econ0my dimensions of contemporary transformations as also to recognize how capitalism was once again bringing forth its own 'grave-diggers'. For an otherwise sophisticated presentation, it was strange that Hardt did not find it necessary to even refer to what happened to the earlier grave-diggers and whose grave was eventually dug! Partly this was the consequence of the atmosphere that prevailed there in a mehfil of the faithful.
Other presentations were disappointing. Bruno Bosteel's because it was an orthodox restatement of the marxist-leninist position, despite repeated gestures to philosphers' like Delueze, Agamben or Foucault. Peter Hallward's entire presentation was fixated on the experience of the French revolution and Rousseau, Saint-Just and the Jacobins. At the end of the day, one marvelled at this discussion on communism in the twenty-first century which could conduct itself entirely with reference to a certain textual tradition and a certain European history. The idea of communism, if it has to have any relevance at all, can hardly be elaborated without reference to the 'real movements' of our times. The conference also displayed virtually no awareness of the fact that in our times, issues were much more complicated than mere capital-labour conflicts. Take for instance the new Left wing formation in South America where the indigenous leadership has led the re-emergence of the Left, represnting interests of indigenous people, cocoa growers and on issues such as water privatization. Islam and Empire constitute yet another pole of the contemporary which was far away from the miinds of both the speakers and the audience who asked questions (except one questioner). At which point I turned to take a look at the composition of the audience. Not one black in the audience. Some sprinkling of East Asians (four of five) and some South Asians in similar numbers.
The question then: Does this composition say something about the direction in which our thought is going? Does the radicalism of the white liberal have anything to offer to the non-white? Some years ago I had heard Alain Badiou speak in Princeton. There the audience was not communist. And it was not a ticketed show but free. There were Palestinians, north Africans and many others in the hall and Cornell West on the dias. Badiou, the French radical philosopher found himself beseiged after his talk - during the question answer session. Badiou had spoken grandly of why "9/11 was not an Event becuase it did not enunciate anything new" - a particularly Badiouan notion of event this. Half an hour into his talk, he was smuggling in old universalisms into his exposition, representing 9/11 as Evil. A woman student, possibly Palestinian, got up to ask him why then was Osama bin Laden considered a hero among a large number of people across the world. (By the way, I had been told just a few days ago by Sinclair Thomson of New York University, who had just returned from Bolivia that pictures of bin Laden and Che Guevara could be seen together in many places in the Bolivian capital.) Badiou, ably assisted by Cornell West tried in vain to answer her, giving rise to more and more questions in the process till someone asked: "What then does your universalism say regarding this complete lack of ability to understand the other?"
No such questioning or interrogation was possible today. It was a comfortable gathering of similar people - brought up in the same traditions. The only other person who was to attend but was not allowed to because he had a single-entry visa in the US (so Zizek informed the audience) was Wang Hui from China. One wonders however, what a single token presence of Wang Hui could have done to the direction of the conference. (Jean Luc Nancy could not eventually attend as he was unwell.)
At the end of the first day, it already seems that for all the sophisticated philosophical language that was being used, most participants simply wanted to re-boot the machine - as though it was just an initialization problem! Maybe the software itself needs rewriting? That thought seems far from most people gathered for the conference.
Evangelist Zizek and the End of Philosophy - II
Today was the third and final day of the 'Idea of Communism' conference and it was the truly most bizarre experience - bizarre philosophical experience, I should say - of my life. Let me start backwards today.
The preacher from Ljubliana was in full form and he closed his own hour-long (or was it 55 minutes) presentation 'To Begin from the Beginning, Over and Over Again' with the following: "If the rumour that Gilles Deleuze was writing a book on Marx before he died, is true then this should be seen as a sign that after having spent a life time away from the Church he wanted to come back to its fold We welcome all those anti-communist Leftists who have spent their lifetimes attacking us to come and join us." I may have missed a word or two here and there but this was it. This was also, if I did not miss the point partly aimed at Negri and Hardt, both of whom (Deleuzians of sorts, I should imagine) had reportedly left the conference by then. A questioner who actually took on Zizek on this and asserted the significance of Deleuze in terms of understanding 'the unconscious' not as a theatre of desire but as a factory and of desire itself as productive rather than as a lack, was quickly snubbed by him (in what his co-panelist Judith Balso had to term 'demagogic' style), by saying that you don't know that in many countries the capitalists claim that they are the real Deleuzians, mobile, rhizomic, nomadic etcetera - and that was supposed to be a refutation of Deleuze's philosophy. If this is a philosophical argument coming from one of the biggest superstars of philosophy, I think it is really the end of philosophy. This performance by Zizek was in fact the high point of the conference in many ways, for among other things it was a throwback to sometime four-five decades ago, with this doyen of philosophers openly arguing for terror: "We want a strong disciplinay terror" he said, citing fellow philosopher Alain Badiou's advocacy of proletarian terror as one of the four things that constitute 'the communist invariant'. And believe me, there was no irony in this - it was all very straightorward. But for the time being, let me rewind a bit.
Yesterday, 14 March, there were two sessions. The first was entirely a session of the Italian far Left with Alessandro Russo speaking on "Did the Cultural Revolution End Communism?" and Alberto Toscano on 'Communist Power/Communist Knowledge" and finally Toni Negri ("Communisme: Reflexions sur le concept et la pratique"). Negri spoke in Italian giving the gist of each point that was then read out from a translated text. The entire session was didactic and dry and amounted simply to a reiteration of faith in a somewhat philosophical language. Negri's presentation, true to his style and his now well-known positions, basically reiterated that 'for communists all history is the history of class struggle'! Those who do not understand do not realize that capital is itself a social relation and the struggle is embodied in the social relation. Among other gems of his thought was the claim that 'there is no room for narodniki any more' as 'there is no longer any outside'. 'There is no longer any outside to capitalism and exchange value, no longer any place for use-value'. All struggle is therefore lodged within capital. Thus all struggle is class struggle. QED
It is important to hold on to this point for it recurs in different ways through the conference. In the afternoon session we had a hall packed - easily the most crowded and packed session of the three days when Terry Eagleton, Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou spoke. Eagleton, whom I have always fancied as an English Aijaz Ahmad, at least displayed some typical British sense of humour - something that seemed to be missing otherwise. For the rest his talk was basically around Shakespeare and his character Gonzalo from The Tempest, as the exponent of the idea of communism. Fair enough. For Eagleton started by confessing that he for one did not quite see the need to hold this conference but 'Slavoj seems to be a philosopher of the impossible and would like to do impossible things as far as possible ' Ranciere was his unassuming best and spoke on the authority of his favourite philosopher - the ignorant schoolmaster Jacotot. He spoke of 'Communism without communists' - an irony that was passed over in somewhat embarassed silence by the audience and fellow speakers. For, Ranciere spoke of the 'communism of intelligence' - there is no superior intelligence hence no pedagogic enterprise, hence no communists! This was of course clearer in his title but in the talk it was put a bit elliptically. And then, at the end of the day we had Alain Badiou defining 'communism' and the 'communist hypothesis' for all of us. His speech was basically a recapitulation of his initial statements that called forth this conference in the first place. This was embellished with his larger philosophical take on the 'Event': 'An Event is the rupture in the normal disposition of bodies and languages', 'it is the opening of a new possibility' - such is the communist hypothesis - A Badiou-ian Event. The sheer metaphysics of it is mindnumbing till we are given its translation into ordinary language as the 'communist invariant'. This communist invariant is defined by radical egalitarain justice, a radical voluntarism with the enunciation of a new collective subject and finally of proletarian or popular terror!
One of the points of debate among the participants was the question of the state. Negri and Badiou of course are known for their anti-state positions. While Negri's is a more radically anti-state position Badiou does recognize the need for some kind of engagement - hence his formulation of acting at a distance from the state. Both however agree with Negri's formulation that for this reason socialism (which is a statist imaginary) can only be replaced by communism which is radically anti-state. However, Zizek struck a pragmatist note here to argue with Badiou and Judith Balso as to what, operationally, this 'at a distance' can possibly mean and how this is a pathetic anarchist recipe for marginality. It can never influence the main course of events. While there is some point to Zizek's argument at a theoretical level, it was an amazingly non-theoretical, pragmatic political and indeed stalinist reaffirmation of the state that repeatedly came through his interventions. This was also evident in an exchange between Negri and Zizek when the latter asked the former why he supported Lula (who Zizek claimed 'was a friend of Bush') and opposed Chavez (who was doing some radical things with the state? Negri's response was interesting. He said he had known Lula for thrity years and seen him at work and was deeply impressed by the way he built the party from within the workers' movement. He distrusted Chavez' politics as that was purely based on the state, he said and added: 'The temporal moment of renewal in Lula has stopped, I accept, but in Chavez it never started.' Clearly, the point was not of immediate politics where I suspect, Negri might support Chavez against the US but one of potentialities and possibilities. And to that extent, Negri's seemed to me to be a more philosophical assessment rather than a crudely political one that is moreover based on pure slander (a Leninist word that should gladden Zizek's heart, but what else is it to say that 'Lula is Bush's friend'!)
The Grand Finale
So, this was the debate of sorts. Today there were three speakers slotted for the day: Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo and Judith Balso. But it was Zizek's day. Like Stalin at the end of a comintern conference, Zizek spoke almost as if possessed, leading the chair of the session too to remark that it was like a Sunday ecclesiastical session. He took everyone to task - everyone who he thought was deviating from the practical tasks at hand into vague philosophical definitions or elaborations of communism. The man who had begun the session with the classic 'We must resist the temptation to act' was now berating thought and every argument he made was to counter a philosophical theoretical one with a crude - well almost 'but the children are dying in Africa' kind of broadside. The main theoretical intervention by him was his take-off from Susan Buck-Morss' take on 'Hegel in Haiti', where he argued that the Haitian revolution was the 'true repitition' of the French insofar as it took the values and slogans of the French revolution more seriously than the French, thus giving the universalite to its ideals it only possessed potentially. The Haitian revolution was important for Europe's becoming Europe. This is true universalite
Well so far so good. But then he went on to expound on the present, the ecological crisis etc . In this context he then ridiculed Evo Morales, and his apparent claim that all this destruction of the environment began with industrialization and the industrial revolution. Citing from a letter written by Morales, where he had said that therefore 'Mother Earth no longer exists', Saint Zizek proclaimed that if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that 'Mother Earth no longer exists' - amidst a slightly emabrassed applause from the audience. "We must remain resolutely modern" he further proclaimed. Brilliantly said, but as one questioner later asked him, what was his remedy for the ecological crisis except homilies (actually the questioner did not quite ask him this; it was Zizek who understood this to be his question). And Zizek answered in perplexity that he had after all said what his solution was: it was radical egalitarian justice! Now, did I get him wrong? We can be resolutely modernist, we must resolutely industrialize, see to it that every bit of the earth is transformed into a commodity and the ecological crisis will take care of itself simply because everyone will be made to sink to the sea in equal measure? But no, I confirmed from others. This was all that the great communist philosopher had to offer: ridicule for Evo Morales and some vague unthought masquerading as the philosophical resolution of the ecological crisis.
However, there is news for Zizek - as also for Badiou and Negri who think that 'there is no outside to capitalism' and that it s a good thing (I am not sure the latter two share this part though) that mother earth no longer exists. And the news is that at least in India, like in large parts of Africa and South America, mother earth still exists. The ferocious battles over land acquisition that have been and are still being fought in India are not simply because land is good livelihood but because it is mother earth. The further news for them is that whether they like it or not, whether they think it is regressive or not, a majority of people in countries like India - indeed large parts of Asia and Africa - live outside the dictatorship of 'exchange value' (why exchange value in itself should be a synonymous with capitalism is yet another question) in an economy of sharing, where 'the common' (a la Negri) is a way of life. This is not to romanticize these values in toto but there is something, a deeper connection with life and fellow beings that still exists. What is called 'piracy' in the language of contemporary capitalism and which has been taken over and valorized by radicals in the west is, in a manner of speaking an ethic of sharing that sustains our lives. And no Zizek or Badiou can ever tell me that it is regressive and that it is best that we should adopt the ways of life of Europe and the West that is focused almost exclusively around the figure of the possessive individual. And maybe some of them know this as well - just that it does not all fit into their theories very neatly. How else would one not attempt to theoretically reference either the Chiapas revolt or Morales' Movement for Socialism (India, Nepal etc are too far, I grant) in attempting a retheorization of 'communism' in the twenty-first century? After all, unlike Lula or Chavez, their sole reference points are not capital-labour relations or 'imperialism' in some generic sense. Theirs are questions that pose a serious challenge before modernist marxism, even though they continue to establish a link with the idea of socialism and communism. Maybe it might be better for philosophers to start looking at ways in which these struggles resignify 'socialism' or 'communism' before they start their flights of fancy.
And of course, finally we must state for the record that even apart from these issues, there are others - a whole range of them - that have nothing to do with the capital-labour relations or with 'imperialism' as such, but without an understanding of which such radical politics can only make sense to a very small, white western population. One of these is the Palestine issue, linked to which are a range of others that the sign 'Islam' for instance represents today. If the audience and the speakers at the conference were exclusively white and the speakers almost entirely male (with one exception) - with a very small sprinkling of Asians and NO blacks, then there is something seriously wrong with your radicalism Saint Zizek. It is of course beyond our comprehension why such scholars as Stuart Hall and Cornell West or the likes of Judith Butler or Chantal Mouffe, just to name a few, could not be included in the conference? Is it because they would have made you uncomfortable? Feminist issues, as an aside, have never been resolved by armed capture of state power. They have to be tackled at this level and if you cannot, then it simply means that you have no room for any other kind of politics except the one that you desire - masculine and state-centred.