Tag Archives: Hardt & Negri

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.

Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick

What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Do you know, Foucault?

Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”

Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who  refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.

Continue reading What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things

From Wanda Vrasti, does the language of precarity empower us? Or can we do better?

But what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a testament to our shared vulnerability into a positive affirmation of collective desire?

via Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things.

Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response

What, if anything, unifies the expressions of public protest that ‘kicked off everywhere’ in 2010-11, from Dataran to Tunis to Zuccotti Park? If such a unity exists, to what extent are those engaged in the struggles self-consciously aware of it? And, if such a self-consciousness exists, to what extent does it help further the cause of social justice in a world beset by financial crisis and elite corruption? In his talk at Ohio University’s campus in Athens, last week, Michael Hardt argued that the main stake in this most recent “cycle of struggles” was the pursuit of a sort of ‘right to the common.’ While those in the movements were engaged in struggles that were spatially and temporally specific, he suggested, they were unified by a desire to resolve a contradiction that has become increasingly apparent in the context of the current financial crisis. That contradiction inheres in the fact that the main ideological wellsprings for resolving the crisis have essentially run dry. The flaws of neoliberalism, on the one hand, or the idea that the optimal distributive solutions are to be found through a doubling-down on the rationalizing logic of the market, are by now well-known. Conversely, on the other, the notion that a philosophy of ‘public goods’ can somehow guarantee “shared open access” to the common, a notion which Hardt understands in quite an expansive sense, is increasingly suspect given the draconian statist policies such a position can sometimes underwrite. Hardt’s thesis then, briefly stated, is that the commitment of the movements to a form of organization and decision-making that is essentially horizontal (my term, not his) in nature attests to a sort of emerging awareness of the need for an alternative to these ‘zombie’ ideologies. This spirit of horizontalism, he appeared to say, distinguishes the movements as engaged in a kind of “double combat.” That is, in their efforts to engage in a kind of radically democratic form of allocative management – an attempt beset by flaws to be sure, but a meaningful attempt nevertheless – horizontalism appears to adopt the following posture: “We win the public, but then we have to fight it for the common.”

Continue reading Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response

My Review of Zanotti: ‘Governing Disorder’ – H-Net Reviews

My review of Laura Zanotti’s Governing Disorder: UN Peace Operations, International Security, and Democratization in the Post-Cold War Era has been published over at H-Net Reviews. As I note, the book constitutes a refreshing attempt to break with the recent ‘life determinism’ tendency among critical Security Studies types. As I conclude, however, the book moves perhaps a little too quickly in dismissing the explanatory potential of Marxism:

Situating the UN’s bio-narrative in discourses of liberal securitization, as merely a technical means to a moral end, seems to play down the extent to which that moral end might actually be imagined in fairly economic terms. Marxism is a helpful guide, says Zanotti, to the extent that it can explore questions of uneven development as a condition which peacebuilding must then encounter. Yet Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) is subjected to a very casual dismissal for its “structural/dialectical conceptualization of history” (p. 4). This kind of shoehorning is unfortunate given both that Hardt and Negri have sought repeatedly to distinguish themselves from such reductionist thinking and that their work at the very least broaches the possibility that the events with which Zanotti’s book is concerned might also be inflected by economic imperatives and rationalities.

Hardt and Negri on “The Problem of Transition” – Harvard University Press Blog

Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution” and its limitations helps us understand how the relation between political diagonal and biopolitical diagram addresses the conundrum of the transition. As he does with many of his key concepts, Gramsci employs “passive revolution” in a variety of contexts with slightly different meanings, using multiple standpoints to give the concept greater amplitude. His first and primary usage is to contrast the passive transformation of bourgeois society in nineteenth-century Italy with the active revolutionary process of the bourgeoisie in France. Passive revolution, Gramsci explains, is a revolution without a revolution, that is, a transformation of the political and institutional structures without there emerging centrally a strong process for the production of subjectivity. The “facts” rather than social actors are the real protagonists. Second, Gramsci also applies the term “passive revolution” to the mutations of the structures of capitalist economic production that he recognizes primarily in the development of the U.S. factory system of the 1920s and 1930s. “Americanism” and “Fordism” name what Marx calls the passage from the “formal” to the “real subsumption” of labor within capital, that is, the construction of a properly capitalist society. This structural transformation of capital is passive in the sense that it evolves over an extended period and is not driven by a strong subject. After using “passive revolution” as a descriptive tool of historical analysis, regarding both the superstructural and structural changes of capitalist society, Gramsci seems to employ it, third, to suggest a path for struggle. How can we make revolution in a society subsumed within capital? The only answer Gramsci can see is a relatively “passive” one, that is, a long march through the institutions of civil society.

via Hardt and Negri on “The Problem of Transition” – Harvard University Press Blog.