Category Archives: Academic Commentary

On Naschek, on Haider, and the “Zombie New Left”

Given the recent opprobrium over Melissa Naschek’s piece in Jacobin, and the fact that it certainly has a few errors, it would be foolish to make it the hill upon which one might want to make any kind of stand. (Certainly, the editors should have been able to spot the bizarre misreading of the pullout quote from Haider, about the “banal truism” — in the text, Haider is clearly replying to “identitarian liberals” who disavow class positionality altogether. He is explicitly saying we need to reserve a place in our critique for strategies of structural change. Whereas for Naschek, Haider here is somehow disavowing “class centrality”?). But the presence of errors doesn’t mean that the message is entirely off base — or, at least, that there might not be some sort of productive point to be gained from engaging with it.

To be upfront tho, unlike Naschek, I tend to think Haider’s politics are basically fine. I’ll offer some defense of that in a minute. But equally, I also have the feeling that if I could sit down with Naschek sometime, I might just be able to persuade her that there’s a lot in the book that she could work with, too. For me, a rough and ready ‘test’ for whether or not one is relying too hard on the category of identity is whether or not one can accept that identity per se is an insufficient basis upon which to erect either a critique of capitalism, or a strategic program. Borrowing from Hardt and Negri, identity might bequeath us emancipation, but only the defeat of capitalism can give us liberation. Identity in the end is a form of property, and like other forms of property, it can bind us and immobilize us in the development of our being. True human unfolding requires that we go beyond the need to ‘perform’ according to any kind of script, and that we have access to the material abundance necessary to make that possible.

Does Haider pass that test? To me, I think he does. Consider for example how Haider poses humanity as “a multitude of people irreducible to any single description” without any “default” common interest. Now, insofar as this claim might be interpreted to suggest the absence of an empirical basis for class politics, we might be alarmed to read that line. But when was class ever about the existence of an extra-historical common interest? For Marx himself, the whole point of the concept of the proletariat was to figure out how it might finally be abolished. Similarly, for Haider, anticapitalist politics is a contingent proposition, rooted in a democratic self-composition of the multitude, founded in whatever common interests it can muster, here and now, as it seeks to become something else entirely.

Does race belong as a necessary category in the struggle against capitalism? Ellen Woods was surely correct in claiming that “capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions.” But in Haider’s mind, race has been central to the composition of American capitalism. It didn’t necessarily start out that way (Haider here discusses the work of Barbara Fields), but in the seventeenth century it became useful for the ruling class to divide their slaves along racial lines. And this set in motion a whole series of historical developments, many of which we are living with still today.

Its not my place to recapitulate the entirety of Haider’s argument. But there’s sufficient grounds in the above already to demonstrate that one of Naschek’s key claims may be overblown — namely, the idea that Haider reduces anticapitalist politics to a “numbers game” of connecting “movements of movements,” and striving endlessly for a “requisite number of signatories.” Now, critically, I would have no problem using Naschek’s accusation against, say, Laclau and Mouffe. So convinced are they of the merits of radical populism, the word capitalism seems to sit in their mouths like an unswallowable frog. If Haider’s was indeed one of those kinds of arguments, Naschek would be quite right in calling him out for his refusal to impute “any common objective interests of workers.” But I don’t see any evidence that Haider is advocating ‘that’ kind of hegemony. Of course, an interesting debate can be had, from this launch point, on the role of the mass party, and the extent to which it can and should be embedded in the movements (see Hardt and Negri’s Assembly, as just one take on this). This is a rich and useful debate. But the point right now, I think, is that Naschek is shoving a square peg in a round hole suggesting that somehow these concerns are incompatible with those of Haider’s book.

Which leads perhaps to the thing that I think Naschek gets right. There is an awful lot of leftist politics today that does succumb to the radical pluralistic style that Laclau and Mouffe exemplify. Naschek is thus correct when she declares “identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies.” Of course! And we could even amplify this point, turning to scholars like Marie Moran and Martijn Konings, who demonstrate concretely (albeit via different arguments) the linkages between contemporary “identity speak” and the sickness of capitalism’s culture of self. But equally, as Moran and people like Roger Lancaster will quickly point out, we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions on the basis of that observation, in isolation: many of the movements to which the term “identity politics” is regularly ascribed aren’t in fact identity movements at all! To the contrary, their demands have often been articulated less in terms of a desire for recognition, and more frequently in the pursuit of material resources. Identity for them has been a means to an end, and nothing more. That’s a really important point!

Naschek ends, claiming that “we can’t do both.” I might agree, but we need to be careful what we mean. Yes, there would seem to be an abundance of examples to attest to her claim that the “do both” strategy can paralyze the left, if by “do both” we are referring to the cynical mode of identity-for-its-own-sake politics that seems to inspire any number of contemporary phenomena, from campus safe spaces to Hillary Clinton’s claim that breaking up the big banks won’t solve racism to, well, pick your own DeRay Mckesson Tweet. These surely are examples of the pursuit of “identity-based particularism” that has self-evidently come at the “expense of class-based universalism.” Personally, however, I struggle to read any of those examples in “do both” terms. A real “do both” strategy would do what it says on the tin: recognize that the ‘emancipation’ question has its own proper place, alongside that of liberation.

Naschek will agree with me, I am certain, if I say that fulfillment of the promise of emancipation is impossible, so long as anti-capitalist liberation awaits. When she says the goal isn’t “synthesis” of the “best of” identity politics, and the “best of” universalist anti-capitalism, as if they should both have the same strategic priority, she is quite correct. But that is not to suggest that identity struggles are necessarily any less of a moral priority. So, to our above agreement, I would request the addition of another: callout culture will likely continue to have a place, even in our most ideal socialist utopia. To be sure, the movements we need cannot be built unless our organizations can demonstrate the capacity to offer “a real possibility” to change people’s lives for the better, and there is certainly such a thing as “the zombie new left.” But even if those two issues could be satisfactorily addressed, human beings are so diverse in their ambitions and aesthetic commitments, its hard to imagine that material equality could finally close the need for a supplemental politics based on something like identity.

UPDATE: Haider has today published a response to Naschek.

Episode 10: Sclofsky & Funk on ‘The Specter That Haunts Political Science’

This episode continues a short series of podcasts on the place ofMarxism in International Relations. Last episode, we had Bryant Sculos, of Florida International University discussing his piece “Marx in Miami: Reflections on Teaching and the Confrontation with Ideology,” co-authored with Sean Walsh, of Capital University. If you haven’t listed to that episode yet, check it out. We got into some great discussion about various techniques and exercises that allow us to use Marx in the classroom, and create space in students’ minds for thinking about the historically-situated nature of human consciousness. And I think what we took away from the conversation was this idea, simply, that while perhaps its not our role to ensure that our students buy into Marxism as a political program, there’s nevertheless a really worthwhile payoff if instructors are willing to take the time to model for students how Marxism can help us think historically about who we are. Where do our ideas come from? What is subjectivity? Marx offers a range of useful thoughts on all these subjects.

Now, as a follow-up to last week’s episode, THIS WEEK we are joined by Sebastian Sclofsky and Kevin Funk, who have a piece in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, ‘The Specter That Haunts Political Science: The Neglect and Misreading of Marx in International Relations and Comparative Politics’ (free version can be found here). If last week’s episode was about the opportunities that Marxism offers, this week’s episode is about the rather weak state of Marxism in political science, these days.

Sebastián Sclofsky is a PhD Candidate in the Political Science Department & Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. His research focuses on the politics of criminal justice and urban policing — Looking primarily at South Los Angeles and São Paulo, he examines how negative encounters with the police shape residents’ racial identities, local space, and sense of second-class citizenship.

Kevin Funk is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law and director of International Studies at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. And his main research focus right now is on the globalizing discourses of transnational corporations, and the emergence of micro-level zones of global-urban capital, like the “Sanhattan” neighborhood, in Santiago, Chile.

Episode 9: Bryant Sculos, on “Marx in Miami”

Welcome to another episode of Fully Automated! This week we are starting a short series of podcasts on the place of Marxism in In- ternational Relations. Next episode, we’ll be joined by Sebastian Sclofsky and Kevin Funk, who are going to be discussing a piece they have in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, ‘The Specter That Haunts Political Science: The Neglect and Misreading of Marx in International Relations and Comparative Politics’. So, look out for that episode, coming in about a week’s time. Its a great interview, and I am really looking forward to posting it for you.

Meanwhile, on this episode, we are joined by Bryant Sculos, an adjunct professor at Florida International University (FIU), to discuss an 2015 piece he co-authored with Sean Walsh, of Capital University, entitled “Marx in Miami: Reflections on Teaching and the Confrontation with Ideology,” which appeared in the journal Class, Race and Corporate Power. In this interview we talk about the particular challenges of teaching Marxism in a city like Miami, with its high population of Cuban immigrants. You’ll hear Bryant discuss some of the unique challenges he encounters in the classroom, and some of the pedagogical approaches that he and his co-author have developed, as they seek to overcome them. Marx, of course, was one of the great thinkers of the historical situatedness of human consciousness. And, regardless of your take on his wider political program, the value of his approach to questions of human nature and political power, cannot be gainsaid.

Towards the end of the interview, we’ll also ask Bryant about his recent run-in with the far-right media, who’ve picked up on a recent piece of his, on the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, which Bryant argues is exemplary of toxic capitalist masculinity … we’ll ask him why he refused to go on television and defend the piece.

Episode 5: Douglas Lain of Zero Squared, on the Alt-Left, Angela Nagle, and #DSACon17

We have a very special guest for this episode. Douglas Lain, of Zero Books. In the interview, we discuss a range of topics, but I think the focus of the interview is on how capitalist narcissism is playing out in leftist online culture.

Specifically we address:

  1. How podcasting has enabled a new debate among the left, concerning the priority of identity;
  2. The rise of the Alt-Left, and whether or how the term functions to smear those seeking to re-assert the priority of revolutionary values in leftist discourse;
  3. We also address the critical reception of Angela Nagle’s sensational new book, Kill All Normies, published by Zero Books … a book that is ostensibly about the emergence of the Alt-Right, but in this conversation, Doug and I focus mostly on the other main aspect of the book, which is Nagle’s explanation of the rise of “call out culture” on the left.
  4. Finally, with the #DSACon17 (the 2017 Democratic Socialists of America convention) starting this week, I ask Doug if he has any advice for delegates to the convention.

Fully Automated Episode 2: Biopolitical Imperialism, with Mark G.E. Kelly

Our guest this week is Mark G. E. Kelly, an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He is the author of The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (2009), as well as of Biopolitical Imperialism (from Zer0 books, in 2015) and he is also working on a book called ‘For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory’ (SUNY, expected 2018).

Kelly has weighed in a number of recent ‘Foucault’ controversies, including the question of whether Foucault was a neoliberal. In this interview, we get into that debate. But I think for most listeners, the interesting stuff will be towards the end, where Kelly talks about Biopolitical Imperialism, and addresses the conflict in Syria.

The podcast was recorded on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. In the interview, you’ll hear Kelly comment on Donald Trump’s pivot a few days previous, on Syria. Two days after the recording, on April 7, the US military launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield. The attack was carried out in response to a chemical weapons incident in Idlib province, perpetrated allegedly by Syrian state forces. It would be hard to imagine a stronger confirmation of Kelly’s arguments about Biopolitical Imperialism.

Reply, ‘Always Already Podcast’ on Martijn Konings’s ‘Emotional Logic of Capitalism’

It was my pleasure recently to be invited by the ‘Always Already Podcast’ team to put in a guest appearance on their show, and respond to their recent episode on Martijn Konings’s fascinating book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism. They offered me a 10-minute slot, and ran it in Episode 19 of their Epistemic Unruliness series. Below, you can find a slightly edited and extended version of my remarks, which were provoked by their own engagement with Konings’s book, but also by my own, continuing work on austerity and recession in Ireland. For ease of reading’s sake, I have added in some material from remarks I made at another talk I gave on February 17, this year, at Ohio State’s ‘Research in International Politics’ (RIP) group, entitled Austerity as Tragedy? From Neoliberal Governmentality to the Critique of Late Capitalist Control:

Continue reading Reply, ‘Always Already Podcast’ on Martijn Konings’s ‘Emotional Logic of Capitalism’

Episode 1: The New McCarthyism

On this week’s show we talked about the New McCarthyism with our guest Dr Tara MacCormack, a Lecturer at University of Leicester. Tara writes on security, foreign policy, and legitimacy. Among other things, she is interested in how traditional conceptions of military and territorial security have been displaced in the last few decades, by the concept of human security. In 2010, Tara published a book with Routledge entitled ‘Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Emancipatory Approaches.’

Our conversation this episode addressed a number of topics, including the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, reaction to the resignation of Lt. General Michael Flynn  as national security advisor, the role of the the “pro-war left” in promoting the New McCarthyism, and the question of left strategy in the aftermath of the protests against Milo Yiannopoulos, at the University of Berkeley.

#RubySeries – Volunteers Needed for Panel Recordings at #ISA2015

Attention all #ISA2015 participants, the ‪#‎RubySeries‬ needs YOU! We are looking for volunteers to film/record #Ruby panels. We will have one or two video cameras and, thus far, two or three podcast quality microphones (to use mikes, we will also need laptops, so volunteers for podcasting – bring them along). Volunteers – would be great if you are in town already on Tuesday for quick training. Ruby panels’ organizers – if you have podcast quality microphones, please bring them along and record your own panels if possible (Blue Snowball microphone is 59$ on Amazon). All – if you have microphones and or even video cameras with tripods that you could use at ISA, please bring them along. And do remember to ask all panelists for consent if recording. Please see discussion on the Occupy IR FB group for further discussion. Solidarity!

Support Steven Salaita

From Corey Robin’s blog…

Calling all political scientists…

Joe Lowndes, who’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, is organizing a statement on the Steven Salaita affair. The statement reads as follows:

Dear Chancellor Wise: we the undersigned will not visit the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus until Professor Salaita is reinstated to the position offered him by the faculty and which he had accepted in good faith.

If you are a political scientist, and you wish to sign the statement, please email Joe at jelowndes@gmail.com.

John Protevi, a professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University, is organizing an identical statement for philosophers. If you are a philosopher and you wish to sign the statement, email John at protevi@lsu.edu.

Austerity: A Dangerous Accident?

Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 288 pp.

(Note: This is an extended, remixed version of a book review I’ve written for a forthcoming issue of New Political Science).

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In the context of the current financial crisis, it is fair to expect that any book taking as its title Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea should satisfy at least two criteria. On the one hand, the book should present a robust exposition of the basic genealogy of the concept. On the other, the book should try to offer an argument as to how this idea achieved such a preeminent position in guiding not only the decisions of key policymakers but also the everyday, commonsensical worldview of the very populations for whomthese decisions will have the most serious consequences. It is in terms of the former that Blyth’s book is strong.

Continue reading Austerity: A Dangerous Accident?