“For the universal was an Idea. When it realizes itself in the global, it commits suicide as an Idea, as ideal end. Having become the sole reference- and a humanity immanent in itself having occupied the empty place of the dead God- the human now reigns alone, but it no longer has any ultimate rationale. No longer having an enemy, it generates one from within, and secretes all kind of inhuman metastases.” – Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism
1. Rumors of the United States’ impending decline, while accurate to a certain point, are vastly exaggerated.
Here, Giovanni Arrighi’s two preconditions of hegemony (a globally effective means of force and a globally recognized means of payment) remain salient. The United States is, contra the cheerleaders of the ‘BRIC bloc’, the foremost military power of our age as well as the issuer of the currency that the fate of the global economy is pegged to. This is not to say that cracks in the American edifice have not begun to show. Alex Callinicos’ excellent book, Bonfire of Illusions, argues that two events- Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the 2008 financial meltdown- have exposed the US’ military and economic fragility, denting the myth of American infallibility. What remains true, however, is that the United States must- for the time being, at least- continue playing the hegemonic role that it has assumed for itself, acting as the sink for the world’s exports as well as the guarantor of global security. Having made the world safe for the free market and having established a sprawling syndicate of subordinates and satrapies, it is forced to govern.
2. Far from being a relic of the Maoist and Trotskyist Left, empire is a living reality. As such, we require a responsible and materialist consideration of imperialism, one that probes the dialectical contradictions of our geopolitical order.
With the likes of Ahmadinejad, Castro, Chavez and Kim Jong-Il all joining hands in denouncing the Great Satan, it would appear that the substance of anti-imperialist rhetoric has worn rather thin. Yet, far from being an anachronism, the realities of imperialism are becoming more and more apparent as the United States begins to grapple with the emergent contradictions of imperial rule. Theorists such as Alex Callinicos (Imperialism and Global Political Economy), David Harvey (The New Imperialism) and Chris Harman (Zombie Capitalism) all locate the US’ burgeoning problems in the ‘overstretching’ of their military capacity. This overstretching- as evidenced by Robert Gates’ voluble objections to intervention in Libya, overruled by the likes of Obama and Hilary Clinton- is beginning to cause considerable alarm in the Pentagon, particularly since the United States now finds itself having to exercise direct neo-colonial power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, such as Albo, Panitch and Gindin, have usefully suggested that today’s global order runs on ‘free rider’ principles, where various subordinate states rely and capitalize on the United States’ financial and military might while expressing disgruntlement about American unilateralism. Yet, Albo, Panitch and Gindin also make clear that this is not simply opportunism- the global market does, insofar as it has plunged its savings into US bonds and invested its future into the order that American force has carved up, hinge upon the US’ ability to act decisively in moments of crisis. In that sense, one can say, without jest, that we are all pegged to the US dollar. At the same time, the very fact that the US, being the world’s foremost debtor as well as being the leading promulgator of an increasingly bankrupt economic model, is so dependent upon the cooperation and the consensus (however begrudging) of other states renders it extremely vulnerable. Political economists on the Left have often pointed at the blatant hypocrisy of American profligacy as far as their trade balances go- any other country would have been subjected to massive ‘structural adjustments’ by the IMF. This, however, cannot be ruled out as an eventuality- if, in the conceivable future, a new reserve currency is found and another hegemon emerges to take the US’ place, capital flight could very well ensue, following which the US would have to face the grim austerity measures that it has so willfully imposed on intransigent protectionists the world over. One cannot anticipate when such a disaster will come to pass, but we can be certain that the US will not go down without a fight that will involve us all. That other states are taking liberties with their growing capacity to flout US mandates and incur its ire is becoming clear- China, while quietly expanding its naval force and infiltrating into states that once did most of their business with the US, is worrying the Americans, while a growing number of errant states- with Pakistan and India being among the most dangerous of these- are beginning to arm themselves with nuclear weaponry.
3. Unless we invent a new Left politics, we shall remain- as Tariq Ali put it- between two fundamentalisms.
In a sense, the rather unfortunate thesis of Samuel Huntington is perfectly right. It is necessary, however, to correct his contention that we are witnessing a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, what we face today is a clash of barbarisms- that of the unhindered free market and that of religious atavism. One might say that this is a combat between the hypermodern and the anti-modern, between a heedless valorization of the new and a hyperbolic affirmation of the ancient. Yet it always bears reminding that both fundamentalisms are fundamentally reactionary, that they both bear the scars of the ‘god that failed’, revolutionary socialism. Just as the New Deal and Keynesian macroeconomics were devised to forestall the red tide from spreading, neoliberalism cannot be understood as anything other than a concerted attempt to break the back of the working class and reduce it to a position of total servility. Both measures must be apprehended from the perspective of class war- while Keynesianism was a defensive security measure, neoliberalism constitutes the most savage offensive led by the global bourgeoisie to date. Analogously, religious fundamentalism- whether it assumes the form of apocalyptic Christian militias in the United States or extremism in the Islamic world- is equally incomprehensible without a grasp of the shifts from the Cold War to capitalist globalization and the sociopolitical repercussions that it produced. Radical Islamism, far from being an intrinsic, let alone dominant, dimension of Islam, was produced by a consummate blindness on the part of both the West and its secular Arab nationalist counterparts. The US’ part in arming and radicalizing the Afghan mujahiddin with Saudi and Pakistani assistance is well known, while the Arab world’s rather schizophrenic relationship with its Islamic militants- persecuting them at one moment and instrumentalizing them to suppress communists at another- is less so. What both approaches share in common is their awareness that the greatest threat to repressive state power is a secular, communistic politics grounded upon the initiative, self-belief and discipline of popular power. The price that they have paid for eliminating this alternative, when seen against the background of their own political ineptitude and the bewilderment that unfettered markets engender, is the transmutation of popular discontentment into obscurantist, millenarian fury. Is it any surprise that many of the most militant members of the fanatical Tea Party are disenfranchised, exasperated rejects of the old working class? Their rage against immigrants, homosexuals and blacks, all of whom were on the receiving end of post-civil rights America, is a return of the repressed in its cruelest form: it reveals the depth to which ‘culturalism’ has penetrated the depths of the social strata, substituting identitarian, racial and cultural explanations for political and economic ones.
4. One must never forget that neoliberalism is not simply an ideology, it is embedded in material institutions and safeguarded with a dizzying plethora of legal regulations.
Have business writers fallen for the cultural turn, too? If not, why do they continue to vacillate on the viability of neoliberalism as an operative model? When the financial meltdown began, business journos everywhere formed a chorus decrying the excesses of neoliberalism, each of them taking turns to indulge in a bout of mawkish self-criticism. Before the cadaver had settled into its grave, the morticians gave it a full bill of health, pointing to the revived performance of the stock market. This bipolarity has been the norm for the business times over the last two years, as the devout wake up singing hallelujahs and go to bed grumbling about the death of God. We can leave them to their tiresome outbursts, as it is imperative for us to remember that neoliberalism is far from dead. This is precisely where the significance of Albo, Gindin and Panitch’s book In and Out of Crisis: The Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives lies: for them, an analysis of neoliberalism cannot remain at an ideological level, as though neoliberalism were not a hegemony in the Gramscian sense, a concrete articulation of discourses and non-discursive elements. They remind us that it would be foolish to take neoliberalism at its own word, as though it simply meant an attenuation of state regulation and intervention in favor of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. In this regard, neoliberal ideologue Fareed Zakaria is a lot more honest when he asserts that the invisible hand of the market must be backed up by the iron fist of American might: one should never forget that- as mentioned above- the world must be made safe for the free market; the state has to actively create, maintain and reproduce optimal market conditions for investors to operate. Besides this, the 2008 meltdown has revealed something that us common-folk tend to forget, blinded as we are by our fascination with footloose, liquid capital- multinational corporations, hubristic as they may be at the worst of times, are always bound by an umbilical cord to the nation state.
As such, it is absolutely imperative for us to go beyond a facile dismissal of neoliberalism as a decrepit discourse that is on the wane, as though we could spirit it away by ignoring it and pretending that it is going to go away. It will not, and it is necessary for us to investigate the structural reasons for neoliberalism’s ascent in the first place. Chris Harman, in his Zombie Capitalism, ties the rise of neoliberalism to a crisis of profitability that originates in the ‘70s, while thinkers in the post-Operaist tradition (the essays of whom are collected in the book Crisis in the Global Economy) link the invention of new financial instruments to the radical unquantifiability of the principal engines of the new economy: immaterial labor, thought and creativity. Whatever the case is, the chronic short-termism, the proliferation of ‘irrational exuberance’ and the impossibly sanguine betting on volatile bubbles that neoliberalism produces are not simply an error of human judgment that can be calibrated and corrected to generate a sounder, more responsible economy. Neoliberalism was a specific intervention in a specific conjuncture of capitalist accumulation, and unless an equally revolutionary intervention can be formulated- and the possibilities of this are, in a globalized space that is reaching absolute saturation, rather dim- it will continue to squeeze profits out of every conceivable pore. So, nothing will be gained unless we take our leave of those who proclaim that the worst is over, that the madmen who gambled our lives away will come to their senses, as well as those managerial types who insist that the lessons learnt from this escapade can- with a little bit of help from ‘behavioral economics’ among other newfangled forms of statistical modeling- finally put us on the way of founding a crisis-free capitalism. Rather, it is necessary for us to examine the material underpinnings of the current politico-economic order, the ways in which it is reproduced and protected by state ordinances and policies. The post-Marxist Left- from John Holloway to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt to Alain Badiou- has become rather good at playing pretend as far as the state goes, but turning one’s back to the state does nothing to diminish its eminence or halt its operation. Which brings us to the next thesis…
5. Unfortunately, you can’t change the world without taking power.
Again, the lessons of the Middle East have been incredibly instructive in this respect. It seems more than a little bit asinine to suggest that a Palestinian teenager on the Gaza strip should fight the microphysics of power by rooting out the fascism in his unconscious by formulating a molecular, rhizomorphic form of politics that immerses him in the pure immanence of becoming. Not that I have any problems with this approach, though it does tend towards a rather mystical sort of aestheticism that remains, in Deleuze’s unforgettable words, ‘too French’. For the Palestinian teenager, Hamas, in compensating for the infrastructural deficits of a Palestine under siege, eliminating the excesses, corruption and complacence of a compromised Fatah and creating the rudiments of a militant resistance movement that insists on being taken seriously as an interlocutor in the struggle for an independent Palestine, makes a definite claim upon his political sympathies. In the same way, the radical Left in Egypt has worked closely with workers unions since the strike waves of 2006 and 2007, while the Muslim Brotherhood has, through its community work and its network of mosques, created disciplined and organized cells. If participatory, collaborative politics is to stand a chance, it clearly has to start on the ground level through concerted organization and mobilization, through the creation of centralized but democratic bodies that can supply some form of unity and support to its members over time. At the same time, the neo-anarchist tendency- evident even in the work of Alain Badiou- to dismiss the state as an administrative body facilitating, in Lacan’s coinage, the ‘servicing of goods’ is rather irresponsible. One fails to see why thinkers like Simon Critchley recommend operating in the ‘interstices’ of state power, remaining at a distance from the state while assaulting it with hyperbolic ethical demands. The fixation with ‘resistance’ in our day and age is more than a little bit dangerous, and the universal acclamation of the Zapatista example- a lesson that undoubtedly warrants our close attention and scrutiny- has led to a serious stifling of political dialogue on the Left. It seems that whenever one speaks of running candidates for seats in municipal elections or parliament one touches a nerve with certain activists. Yet, even a lifelong anarchist like Chomsky (see certain interviews in Chomsky on Anarchism) is well aware that political struggle should utilize every available channel, that the state is not, as Marx and Lenin- writing before the likes Gramsci, Offe and the later Poulantzas- believed, merely the instrument of the bourgeoisie, but a body that is shot through with competing tendencies and forces. Where Marx and Lenin were right, though, was in insisting that there can be no substantial change unless state power is forced to put itself at the service of the people, something that no amount of autonomist lifestyle experimentation, however emancipatory this may be on an individual or collective level, can accomplish. This is what prevents us from legislating upon the Egyptian revolution, which remains in the balance of a long battle between the people and the army, still the deciding force in Egyptian political affairs. One thing, however, remains clear- the only possible way for the Middle East to enforce its autonomy from the pax Americana that has strangulated it for decades and declare its solidarity with struggles for a different globalization is to form a federated bloc of revolutionary states along the lines of the European Union or the coalition of Bolivarian republics in South America. Without resolving the local/global debate in either direction, we must however realize that without contesting for power at the municipal or state level, change is an illusory prospect. In other words, the dialectic between national and international/transnational revolution needs to be re-evaluated and re-invigorated.
6. We require a new political subject, and this subject remains the proletariat. Having said this, we require a new theory of proletarianization, one that elaborates upon the subjectivities that are produced by widespread marketization and financialization.
It is a bit tragic that any mention of the proletariat today is met with either nostalgia or derision. Indeed, we can only thank Bernard Stiegler for reminding us that Marxism has, at the risk of committing a very grave error, tended to confuse the proletariat with the working class , resulting in the conflation of a political subjectivity with a sociological category. What we have to recover today is a dynamic conception of the proletariat, one that retains Marx’s insistence that the proletariat is, at one and the same time, the ‘waste product’ of capitalism as well as its gravedigger, its symptom as well as its cure. This approach would necessarily have to be a dialectical one, showing the ways in which technological advance and human regression accompany one another in a dynamic system riddled with contradictions. This is, as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment made clear so long ago, what proletarianization produces as an ontogenetic and dialectical process- an anxious and dependent subject dispossessed of knowledge (withheld and manipulated by the mass media), knowhow (outsourced to technological appurtenances and prostheses, a dynamic captured brilliantly by the work of Jean Baudrillard, Bernard Stiegler and Ursula Huws) and, yes, the means of production. One would have to add something beyond Marx’s theory of proletarianization here: capitalism today deprives a growing proportion of the human race of their very means of survival. Marx certainly made a note of this with his famous statement that capitalism, if left to its own devices, would devastate the working class’ capacity to reproduce itself by pressing wages below the level of subsistence. This was followed with his witty suggestion that capitalists would, if they could, pay workers with air, though they could hardly entice anybody to work unless they found a way to privatize and commodify the air supply.
When Marx made this joke, it wasn’t entirely easy to tell whether he was speaking in jest. Certainly, he was well aware that anything, even the most intimate human traits, can be commodified; such a discussion takes up one of the most memorable sections of the 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts. All public goods that are held in common can be privatized and transformed into a source of rent. That this has happened with increasing regularity in our own time lends Marx’s joke a rather ominous air. That this aspect of capitalism continues to be treated as an unfortunate excess practiced by a few unscrupulous predators rather than a central component of capitalist accumulation really beggars belief.
Proletarianization, in fact, assumes the most unassuming, the most quotidian of forms. To name but one popular example: recent attention concerning the ecological footprint of food, revealing the absurd distances that food travels to maximize- in an identical fashion to international production and supply chains for consumer goods- on profit margins, has shed light on two interlinked processes: the displacement of small farmers from their land through the ‘green revolution’ and agribusiness as well as the reliance of the human race on mass-produced foodstuffs generated by agribusiness methods, food which- while being exceedingly cheap and available in great quantities- is slowly devastating the environment and diminishing the amount of arable land available for food production. This is why Raj Patel, author of two fine books on globalization and the global South (Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing), reminds us that in the last reckoning we get what we pay for: the price that we pay for cheap food hides an array of externalities that are assumed by ourselves (by reinforcing and keeping us oblivious to the international division of labor that keeps us from growing healthy and wholesome food for ourselves) and the farmers that have been driven out of business by competition and the extortionate price of agribusiness seeds. In the end, we all pay for the profit-driven madness that is agribusiness, as it mindlessly destroys local agriculture through the planting of ‘one-size-fits-all’ mutant seeds, subjects large numbers of erstwhile agricultural workers to poverty and famine in order to export tasteless, chemically-altered produce to the developed world. All of this while forcefully inhibiting the advancement of a genuine globalization- one where able-bodied men and women can tend to land held in common, breaking the short-sighted monopoly of agribusiness through the development of sustainable food solutions and the sharing of local agricultural and geographical knowledges across borders. Here, we see proletarianization in its most prosaic form, as well as a remarkable illustration of the ways in which capitalism is impossible without a constant supply of cheap energy and cheap labor, the price of the latter being kept low by inexpensive food and subsistence goods.
This is not to say that proletarianization is no longer visible in the metropolitan workplace. Rather, the obverse face of the absolute, nomadic liberty that the postmodern world purportedly offers is abject dependency, anxiety, precariousness and anomie. Richard Sennett illustrates this very well with his illuminating juxtaposition of the militarized, regimented labor model of Bismarck and Weber’s age with the flexible, decentralized mode of command in the ‘network society’. For Sennett, full employment corresponded with a broadly-felt need to assimilate citizens to a corporatist style of rule, giving each and every worker a sense of purpose and belonging. In keeping with Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that ‘society does not exist’, this bureaucratic, organicist structure was dismantled while new financial and technological instruments equipped capital with the capacity to reduce and streamline the workforce, develop new forms of real-time surveillance and discipline employees into accepting responsibility for their ‘employability’. In tandem with these developments in the private sector, states around the world reconfigured their own operations by restructuring the relationships between central and municipal governments, trimming public expenses, reshaping traditional welfare programs in line with a ‘workfare’ model, seizing vast stretches of land for property development or the creation of ‘greenfield sites’, selling large parcels of state-run services to private hands.
All of this is accompanied by the incorporation of more and more people into the oscillations of financial markets through a variety of predatory mechanisms- whether this assumes the form of privatized pension funds, credit cards or subprime mortgages- all crafted to capitalize on swelling stock and asset prices. Besides the fact that men and women in the ‘real economy’ are directly affected by the tempests of high finance, as companies downsize or shut down because of a contraction of ready credit and the rising of interest rates, their livelihoods are directly indexed to these developments through a variety of financial instruments and debt packages. In the end, the phantasmagoria of speculative finance have to be drawn back to contradictions at the ‘base’ of the economy, and a close interrogation of the relationship between financialization and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall would help to illustrate the rather mundane causes for our casino economy.
For workers in the global North, whose share in rises in productivity have stalled over the last two decades, the effects of which have been offset by the steady supply of cheap import goods and mass-produced foodstuffs, incomes (which remain stubbornly stagnant against the background of rising housing, health and education costs) have been supplemented through their active participation in stock and asset bubbles. The ‘symbolic violence’ that stock prices inflict upon the working class is clear- not only does it mask the retrenchments and ‘structural adjustments’ that capital (through practices like leveraged buyouts) imposes upon labor in the name of raising shareholder value, it also transforms them into small shareholders, rendering them complicit in their own collective disenfranchisement. On top of intensified competition at the workplace, there is intensified competition in the stock markets. In both cases, workers are rendered into ‘individuals’ responsible for their employability, for their work ethic, for their mental health, for their stock portfolios. This is ‘self-management’ in its most cruelly literal form.
Commonsensical as it may seem, it may very well be that our bare material being may very well be the basis of a new political subjectivity. This was, at any rate, Sebastiano Timpanaro’s forgotten, ‘vulgar materialist’ rejoinder to the emerging structuralist/post-structuralist orthodoxy of the ‘70s, On Materialism. His lucid and unpretentious humanism is sorely needed today, and it would be prudent here to cite him at length: “The historicist polemic against ‘man in general’, which is completely correct so long as it denies that certain historical and social forms such as private property or class divisions are inherent in humanity in general, errs when it overlooks the fact that man as a biological being, endowed with a certain (not unlimited) adaptability to his external environment, and with certain impulses towards activity and the pursuit of happiness, subject to old age and death, is not an abstract construction, nor one of our prehistoric ancestors, a species of pithecanthropus now superseded by historical and social man, but still exists in each of us and in all probability will still exist in the future. It is certainly true that the development of society changes men’s ways of feeling pain, pleasure and other elementary psycho-physical reactions, and that there is hardly anything that is ‘purely natural’ left in contemporary man, that has not been enriched and remoulded by social and cultural environment. But the general aspects of the ‘human condition’ still remain, and the specific characteristics introduced into it by the various forms of associated life have not been such as to overthrow them completely. To maintain that, since the ‘biological’ is always presented to us as mediated by the ‘social’, the ‘biological’ is nothing and the ‘social’ is everything, would once again be idealist sophistry. If we make it ours, how are we to defend ourselves from those who will in turn maintain that, since all reality (including economic and social reality) is knowable only through language (or through the thinking mind), language (or the thinking mind) is the sole reality, and all the rest is abstraction?... I believe…that the reduction of cultural activities to superstructures should be limited in another sense also. It is not only the social relations between men, but also the relations between men and nature that give rise to scientific and philosophical reflection, and to artistic expression. Philosophy, science and art do not draw stimulus and nourishment solely from the ‘artificial terrain’ of society, but also from the ‘natural terrain’…Just as we are born naturally male and female, die nearly always in spite of ourselves, are dominated by a reproductive instinct, so we also bear within our temperament specific conditions, which education in the broad sense of the word, or accommodation to society, may certainly modify within limits, but can never eliminated…For all these reasons, our dependence on nature, however diminished since prehistoric times, persists amidst our social life; as does the matter for curiosity and fantasy furnished by the spectacle of nature itself.” (Timpanaro, 45-6)
What Timpanaro rehabilitates in this marvelous book is the radically atheistic materialism of Lucretius and Leopardi, a reminder that “man’s biological frailty cannot be overcome, short of venturing into the realm of science fiction.” (Timpanaro, 62). This is the ontological meaning of the ‘genericity of the human’ that capitalism reveals through its revocation of every solidary bond, its nullification and relativization of every form of essentialism, its desacralization of every idol. In being reduced to a ‘pair of hands’, a starving belly, a target for bullets, a reservoir of commodifiable desires, we are forced to face the brute reality of mortality and finitude. Having accomplished the consummate secularization of the world, capitalism now wants to cure us of our last remaining illusion- that of eternity. Shattered is the Hegelian illusion that the Spirit of Nature discloses itself in and through Man, that Man’s journey through history is the absolute spirit coming into consciousness of itself. Gone is the theological supposition that the world was given unto man for his use and enjoyment. This world does not need us, and it seems to me that only a clear-eyed confrontation with the prospect of utter annihilation will compel us to transform the passive experience of proletarianization into an active political project. In a very real sense, today we are forced to be cosmopolitans- the impending prospect of total environmental collapse means that each of us is potentially an ecological refugee. Assuming that such an event does happen (and at the current rate of carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption, it is a matter of when, not if), the entire concept of national borders and citizenship will have to be rethought. Why should we wait until then to create the forms and institutions to avoid such a catastrophe? The dialectic of capitalist modernity has evicted us from our temples, our homes, our communities, our nations, our bodies. Having been expelled from all of these, it is imperative that we produce new ways of being-in-common, new forms of gregariousness and solidarity that are commensurate with the challenges of our time. The question of our time, then, has scarcely changed. “Being nothing, how can we become everything?”
7. There is an urgent need to separate the actual workings of ‘globalization’ from the ideological myth that surrounds it.
When a politician seeks to exculpate him/herself from some particularly devious action- drastic education and healthcare cuts, for example- he/she always has recourse to the one foolproof alibi that has stood the test of capitalist history: blame the exigencies of the market. In doing this, he/she reveals something that we always knew to be the case- that it scarcely matters what sort of person he or she is (or, indeed, what sort of person we thought they were when we cast our votes for them), in the last instance a politician in our age of institutionalized venality is not much different from an automaton. Hardened leftists have been weaned on the communist commonplace about voting and misrepresentation for so long that they scarcely notice its infiltration into the popular consciousness. As always, however, reflex actions are hardly reliable as a source of truth, and it would do us well to examine the disaffection and jaundice that characterize the ‘democratic deficit’ of our time. Blessed with the luxury of hindsight, we can afford to attribute the many failures of Obama to the general indiscernibility between the Democratic and Republican parties. Tariq Ali, after all, warned us of this when he noted- in 2008’s The Duel- Obama’s disquieting determination to pursue Bush’s ‘war of infinite justice’ until the bloody end. Yet, Ali later went on television to declare his pleasant surprise at the level of political enthusiasm among Obama’s young supporters, a generation that had supposedly cast its lot in with the silent majority. While Ali’s recent score-card of Obama’s performance thus far (published as The Obama Syndrome last year) could only have been written by a man who was disabused of any hopes in imperialist benignity many decades ago, there is no reason to believe that his appraisal of America’s young was insincere, nor that he expected Obama’s term in office to be as dire as it is.
Here, we encounter Kant’s famous discussion of free will once more- somehow, even though we know that the cards are stacked and that the game is rigged by all manner of lobbies and corporate interests, we still hold Obama responsible for disappointing us. After all, Obama’s failures can only be construed as such against the background of other possibilities. As such, all of the unrealized, virtual futures that Obama ignored when he stuck to the script shall plague him always. After all, not all American presidents were so drearily predictable- Roosevelt being the most prominent example of somebody who was willing to have a fair go at righting the collective delirium that unrestrained cupidity had sunk the nation into. One might say that the political and economic circumstances were rather different, and that the New Deal was hardly effective in setting the American economy on its feet once more- the specter of global communism haunted his sleep, and it would take another world war to clear the way for American hegemony. At the same time, forceful and decisive action in the face of self-serving plutocratic power is not unprecedented in American history. In a sense, the Obama debacle has shown itself to be a case study in the sort of soft populism that could very well prove to be the politics of our time- a populism that beguiles spectators the world over with inspiriting ‘yes we can’s while exhibiting a remarkable timidity to demand even the slightest concessions from capital. The greatest fault of populism in the 20th century was its incapacity to ‘go all the way’, to break the back of capital so that the ‘power of the people’ that it championed so volubly could be given the chance to crystallize into lasting democratic institutions. This was the tragedy of developmentalism, which- in its inability to please capital and labor at the same time- often found itself having to kowtow at the feet of the former, offering huge subsidies that capitalists often spent as they wished. Yet, populists like Nasser, Nyerere and Velasco did at least attempt to institute major reforms of their economies through nationalizations and expropriations, and they did treat the problem of worker participation seriously, though structural flaws in their respective approaches rendered them incapable of addressing working class aspirations in any satisfying way. For Obama, even the most modest of ventures in the way of, say, a green, sustainable economy or affordable healthcare are vigorously proscribed by his generous backers. In such a dismal political climate, we can only fear the worst- widespread disgust with purportedly ‘progressive’ parties everywhere can only lead to increased voter abstention or swings to the radical right.
And yet, the question has to be asked: how many ‘alternative modernities’ has the United States crushed in the 20th century? Besides its obvious part in stifling the Russian revolution (not that I am, by any means, discounting the preponderant weight of the USSR’s own internal flaws), American imperialism can also be held accountable for the deposition of Mossadegh, the strangulation of the Cuban revolution, the death of Sukarno and the massacre of the Indonesian Left, the defeat of Nasser, the bloodstained history of Pakistan and its troubled neighbor, Afghanistan, the confiscation of the gains won through the Mexican revolution, repeated sabotage of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the coup that claimed Allende and, more recently, the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not content with restricting the margin of choice available to its own electoral candidates, it has sought to enforce its own strictures upon everyone else.
When the World Social Forum reminds us, then, that ‘another world is possible’, it is crucial that we begin to make sure that we are clear on what globalization is in the first place. In a sense, it is often rather difficult to disentangle fact from fiction when it comes to globalization, as commentators on the Left and the Right alike tend to fetishize a process that should be subjected to a sober analysis. In marking a total, ruptural break between pre-capitalist forms of production, informal modes of pre-industrial capitalist production, industrial production and the ‘immaterial’ forms of production that follow the real subsumption of labor in the postmodern Empire, post-Marxists are often forgetful of the fact that the gulf between modernity and postmodernity is not quite as wide as they like to think, and that the postmodern world is like a palimpsest in which all of these forms coexist synchronically. Hardt and Negri are perfectly willing to grant this- all they ask is that we acknowledge, just as Marx identified the significance of industrial production when it had yet to become the statistically dominant form of capitalist production, the pre-eminence of immaterial labor and the so-called ‘cognitariat’ in the new, creative economy. This is an interesting point, but Hardt and Negri’s fixation with flows and fluxes, their supposition that cognitive capitalism- in failing to establish the quantitative value of intellectual and immaterial labor- renders many of the founding principles of Marxist analysis irrelevant are more than a little bit dubious.
The principal complaint about Hardt and Negri’s trilogy concerns their treatment of the nation state system, a decline that accompanies the slow abdication of its once-incontestable sovereign, the United States. Now, it seems, is the time of footloose multinationals and the transnational forms of governance that supply a legal framework for their movements, facilitating all manner of deterritorialized flows. Strangely enough, this image of contemporary capitalism hardly differs from neoliberal enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman, who invites us all to share in his exhilarating vision of a world where the floodgates between the global North and South give way before a deluge of unrestricted investment capital. It hardly matters that thinkers like Hardt and Negri are far more circumspect and dialectical than Friedman is about such an eventuality - that they accept its plausibility is problematic enough. The final section of Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism, one of the most useful works of political economy to have emerged from the wake of the financial crisis, addresses these misconceptions of global capitalism, dispelling the notion that state sovereignty has been eroded by the capitalist deluge. Rather, the relationship between capital and the state today is akin to that of the errant child and the indulgent parent: haughty and hubristic as it can be, capital is wholly reliant upon the state to supply the conditions of possibility for optimal profiteering, for opening markets and securing attractive inter-state agreements for it through free trade treaties, for enforcing private/intellectual property rights, for assuming labor subsistence and reproduction costs whenever it can and rescuing it when things go awry. As Harman reminds us, even if capital really could go wherever it wanted, the choices available to it- assuming that it is willing to write off the costs of fixed capital in places that it wishes to leave behind- would be limited to sites where environmental costs are low and labor is relatively skilled, disciplined, well-educated, willing to accept low wages and few contractual obligations on the part of the employer. Besides this, the area would need extensive infrastructure, a formidable police force, a stable currency and, as Saskia Sassen points out in The Global City, access to a large range of other services, whether these take the form of amenities for émigré workers or banking facilities.
In pointing out that capitalism is- far from being an unbound force bursting through terrestrial frontiers- ‘rooted’ in various ways, Harman dismisses the fascination, reverence and fear that theorists on the Left feel towards ‘deregulated’ capital. Often, the sword of Damocles that capital suspends over labor’s head, the threat of relocation, is often just that, a threat that does not materialize because of capital’s incapacity to move. This is not to say that capital does not relocate when it suits it. Certainly, to propose this would be plain madness. Harman insists, however, that moving can be a very costly and time-consuming business, and decisions to uproot a plant and transplant it elsewhere are not made in a second and put into action in the next. As a consequence, far from ‘flattening’ the world and blurring the boundaries between center and periphery, global economic development is ‘lumpy’, accumulating at certain nodes and not at all in others: “Investment flows were similarly concentrated within the ‘triad’ of North America, Europe and Japan. In 2002-4 FDI flows into the European Union averaged about $300 billion a year. The total for the rest of the world- the ‘developing countries’- was only $180 billion, of which China (including Hong Kong) took two fifths, and Brazil and Mexico a fifth. Some 89% of the cumulative stock of FDI worldwide in 2004 was in the developed economies (roughly the same proportion as in 1990), and two thirds of that was in Europe. The pattern was not one of capital flowing effortlessly over a homogenous worldwide landscape. It was ‘lumpy’, concentrated in some countries and regions, in a way that was not fully grasped by either the crude globalisation view, by interpretations that stressed regional blocs, or by those who still spoke solely in terms of national economies.” (Harman, 263)
8. There are universalities.
Chantal Mouffe’s attempt to retrieve the political dimension of the liberal democratic tradition from Rawlsians, Habermasians and Rortyans must surely count as one of the most remarkable philosophical undertakings of recent years. The significance of her work can only be properly appreciated when set against the ills of our multicultural, post-political societies: in her valiant effort to rescue the public sphere as an agonistic space in which different political tendencies compete for hegemony, she endeavors to defuse and domesticate the mutually destructive antagonisms that characterize violent extremisms of every sort, religious or political. Yet, it is precisely here that we encounter the limits of Mouffe’s project- it is not always clear whether Mouffe recognizes that the liberal democratic leftism that she espouses is one universal among many, or whether she- like Rawls, Habermas or Rorty- assumes that it constitutes the universal, supplying a transcendental formal framework in which politics proper can take place. What Mouffe does not come to terms with, however, is that admittance into this formal frame- a rite of passage that would require the foregoing of adversarial antagonism for an amicable agonism- would require a tacit compact between all competing parties. This contractual obligation would require a formal renunciation of any aspirations to dismantle the transcendental frame itself, to respect the terms of competition that liberal electoral democracy sets for it. As the electoral triumph of Hamas in Palestine proves, however, the Western world’s purported commitment to this framework is often indistinguishable from a vehement intolerance for anything that challenges it. Ben Bot’s extraordinary remark that ‘the Palestinian people have opted for this government, so they will have to bear the consequences ‘(quoted in Hroub, 135) is exemplary of the enforced homogeneity of our political terrain, illustrative as it is of the particular interests that sustain its supposed universality.
While Mouffe’s project remains commendable and should, with a few qualifications, be defended, the tremendous difficulties of reconciling antagonistic projects with one another must be taken seriously if we are to develop any sort of cosmopolitan project worthy of the name. Here, a full-blooded investigation into what exactly Nussbaum means when she advocates the implementation of a ‘cosmopolitan education’ is necessary. A truly cosmopolitan, politically responsible syllabus would school its students in the rudiments of cultures vastly different from our own, cultures that cannot be properly assimilated within the constrictive parameters of contemporary ‘multiculturalism’. Such an education would enlist its students in the cosmopolitan project, engaging them in the extraordinarily difficult effort of formulating policies, working closely with migrant communities and reforming our societies in a truly egalitarian direction.
The famous debate over the hejab in France in 2004 remains the most notable example of these difficulties, exhibiting as it does all the barriers to mutual understanding that remain in Europe’s most liberal republic. Milton Viorst’s account of this episode in In The Shadow of the Prophet is worth recapitulating, marred though it is by a certain ethnocentric bias. Viorst’s interview with Dr Larbi Kechat, imam of the Adda’wa Mosque in Paris, is an incisive diagnosis of multiculturalism’s ills: “’What is being asked of us,’ [Kechat] answered, ‘is not integration but assimilation, which requires us to leave our identity behind. Individuals can be assimilated; a community cannot. A workable integration is one in which each party accepts the other as it is, with its own special culture. Our community, which started thirty years ago with soldiers and workers, is not mostly native-born and knows no other home. The idea of returning to somewhere else is not part of our thinking. We have become part of the French family, and accept our responsibilities to it. But we cannot be alone in making accommodations. As Muslims, our ideal is a totally Islamic society, but that is only an ideal. Of course, we would like the like of our community to be guided by our own laws, but we know that in France the circumstances do not permit it…But France must also make accommodations to us…The arrival in France of Protestants and Jews required changes in French society. Now it is the time of the Muslims.” (Viorst, 284-5)
Mouffe, in taking up Carl Schmitt’s tremendously important critique of liberal democracy, exposes the ‘democratic paradox’ that much neo-Kantian political philosophy simply fails to examine. Schmitt’s comment that liberalism and democracy are, in the last instance, incompatible is jarring enough, but the explanation that he proffers is even more so: liberalism, in placing the individual and not the political community at the center of its thinking, may function as a critique of politics, but it is not itself a politics. Hence its continual emphasis on negative freedoms, its insistence on limiting the jurisdiction of the state on individual conduct. Democracy, on the other hand, is inextricable from the notion of popular will, and while Schmitt’s rather chilling support of plebiscitary politics and ‘fascist democracy’ is morally objectionable, his point is not invalidated by it. When Hannah Arendt despaired of the engulfment of the polis by the oikos in modernity and pilloried political philosophy’s conspiratorial involvement in the extermination of political action, she launched the first- and to this day the most powerful- salvo against our societies.
‘Human rights’, the transcendental signifier of today’s post-political order, is directly illustrative of this ‘unnatural growth of the natural’- the dominant image of the human today is that of the homo sacer, the helpless wretch besieged by terrible forces beyond his or her understanding. It is this conception of the human, that of a victim stripped of any semblance of political agency, that legitimates the interventional actions of all sorts of ‘generous benefactors’- NATO, NGOs and the like. Yet, as the disaster of Afghanistan proves, such a discourse can be mobilized for the most nefarious purposes: “We have [a] proverb in Afghanistan that says, ‘May Kabul be without gold rather than without snow.’ This saying refers to the importance of melt water for farming and drinking water. But today many Afghans may be thinking, May Kabul be without foreign interference, ‘aid’ and NGOs, rather than without snow. Under every stone of Afghanistan today, if you look you will find an NGO, but most are corrupt.” (Malalai Joya, 193, emphases original) Leila Ahmed, whose classic book Women and Gender In Islam can still be read as a forceful indictment of Western discursive imperialism and its effects on Islamic societies, offers a prescient critique of the war in Afghanistan, initiated by George W and Laura Bush to ‘free Afghan women’ from patriarchal servitude. Her arguments are especially helpful here, as they elucidate the battle lines between the ‘clash of concrete universals’ that populate the political field. Taking up the subject of the veil, Ahmed examines the way in which it is overlain with a whole history of competing significations, inscribed as it is in a field of meaning that is overdetermined by the colonial experience. She is careful to note that the veil carries this political charge because of modernity and Westernization- Victorian conquerors were the first to identify the veil as the metaphor of everything that was oppressive and backwards about Islam. There was more than a hint of hypocrisy here, as the colonials, much like the Republicans of our day, were hardly supportive of women’s rights in their own countries: “Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men. It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created. More exactly, what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples.” (Ahmed, 151)
In itself this wouldn’t be so terrible, being but another example of imperialist bigotry and disingenuousness. The problem, Ahmed insists, arises when indigenous resistance movements begin to adopt this discourse as their own, accepting the discursive terms and parameters that the colonials prescribe to apprehend their own experience. Discussing the work of bourgeois male modernizers in early 20th century Turkey and Iran, Ahmed notes both the sexism, explicit in the reduction of veiled women to silent and obdurate obstacles in the march to Westernization, and the uncritical espousal of Western mores in these discourses : “In their stinging contempt for the veil and the savagery with which they attack it, these two members of the ruling class…reveal their true motivation: they are men of the classes assimilating to European ways and smarting under the humiliation of being described as uncivilized because ‘their’ women are veiled, and they are determined to eradicate the practice. That is to say, theirs are the words and acts of men exposed to the Western discourse who have accepted the representation of their culture, the inferiority of its practices, and the meaning of the veil. Why Muslim men should be making such statements and enacting such bands is only intelligible against the background of the global dominance of the Western world and the authority of its discourses, and also against the background of the ambiguous position of men and women of the upper classes, members of Muslim societies whose economic interests and cultural aspirations bound them to the colonizing West and who saw their own society partly through Western eyes…The idea…that improving the status of women entails abandoning native customs was the product of a particular historical moment and was constructed by an androcentric colonial establishment committed to male dominance in the service of particular political ends. Its…essential falseness become particularly apparent…when one bears in mind that those who first advocated it believed that Victorian mores and dress, and Victorian Christianity, represented the ideal to which Muslim women should aspire.” (Ahmed, 165-66)
Ahmed, of course, is not advocating (like certain radical subaltern studies scholars, who espouse a radically Heideggerian-cum-Burkean line that is steeped in nostalgic romanticism) a wholesale denigration of Western modernity. Rather, she wants us to see that the political valences of the veil derive from the anguished experience of this modernity, that it has become a polemical stake in the resistance against Western domination. The final pages of her book are exceptionally lucid and sound in their evaluation of the ‘exportation of culture’ that has taken place since the age of empire: “The presumption underlying these ideas is that Western women may pursue feminist goals by engaging critically with and challenging and redefining their cultural heritage, but Muslim women can pursue such goals only by setting aside the ways of their culture for the non-androcentric, non-misogynist ways (such is the implication) of the West…The study of Muslim women in the West is heir to the history and to these discourses and to the ideas and assumptions they puveyed: it is heir to colonialism, to colonialism’s discourses of domination, and to its cooptation of the ideas of feminism to further Western imperialism. Research on Middle Eastern women thus occurs in a field already marked with the designs and biases written into it by colonialism…Consequently, awareness of this legacy…needs itself to be the starting point of any such investigation.” (Ahmed, 245) As Mr and Mrs Bush’s pseudo-feminist designs on Afghanistan prove, such an undertaking- in a world where much of the Western Left is totally ignorant as to how to express its solidarity with the Middle East in its struggle against American and Israeli domination- is more pressing today than ever before.
In Russia, acrimony between the oligarchs (themselves at war with one another) and the politicos enmesh the fate of millions in a deadly struggle over which they have neither interest nor control. Independent trade union activity is proscribed, hampering peaceable political mobilization on the ground. In China, the political has been entirely liquidated by astronomical growth rates and the promise of enrichment. Both countries are now bolstered by vulgar us-against-the-world chauvinism, flaunting their GDPs as badges of national pride. In a sense, one fails to see what separates the growth-for-growth’s sake, accumulation-at-any-cost mentality of the Chinese Communist Party from its Maoist predecessors. Both countries are racked by riots, wildcat strikes and other acts of desperation (the mass suicides at a Foxconn factory in China being a case in point) as a consequence of absurd labor laws, both countries are run by oligarchic cartels who, in internationalizing their operations, look to dispense with their national obligations. In the West, meanwhile, the thorough commodification of politics renders the citizen into a ‘customer’ who casts his or her vote as though it were an expression of consumer confidence in an attractive name brand: “So familiar are we with this crossover from consumer to political behavior that we lose sight of the consequences: the press’s and public’s endless obsession with politician’s individual character traits masks the reality of the consensus platform. In modern political performances, the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes- an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility.” (Sennett, 165)
Little wonder, then, that this dictatorship of the relative- wherein every positive and comprehensive project for political transformation has been extirpated in lieu of anomic individualism- is helpless before the explosions of negativity that it invariably secretes. When faced with the desire for universality and communal belonging that it has foreclosed and repressed, a desire that manifests itself in forms as varied as religious millenarianism, neo-fascist violence and ultra-left terrorism, neoliberal humanitarianism can only respond with fear and brutality- hardly affects that we associate with understanding. When Ali Haroun, a representative of the secular FLN party in Algeria, states that “If the FIS (note-a radical Islamist party competing with FLN for seats in the Algerian government) has the right to use democracy to destroy democracy, then don’t count me any longer among the democrats” (quoted in Viorst, 250), he indicates, in a precise and succinct way, the impassable limits of liberal democracy, which structures a field of permissible choices around a set of exclusions and prohibitions. It is here that Haroun indicates, without being entirely conscious of doing so (‘democracy’ for him being indistinguishable from ‘liberalism’) the Schmittian paradox that liberal democracy is built on- if the accent is placed upon ‘democracy’ and the popular will runs contrary to liberal mandates (individual rights, freedom of speech, a multiparty electoral democracy, etc.), democracy itself would have to be suspended. This is another way of saying that there are certain liberal democratic principles that are ultimately non-negotiable, since they structure the entire transcendental frame in which different political issues are discussed and contested. What this formally universal framework- the universality of which, to paraphrase Hegel, is irrevocably stained by particularity- cannot tolerate is its replacement by another transcendental frame, whether this assumes the form of an Islamic state premised upon the shari’a or a socialist one grounded upon the confiscation and abolition of private property.
It is from this vantage point that we can properly appreciate the salience, as well as the ambiguities of Mouffe’s project. Mouffe is convinced that the liberal democratic paradigm is the correct one, and her proposal to work towards an agonistic pluralism based upon spirited political competition is certainly laudable. Yet, her entire argument stands and falls upon the possibility of converting antagonism into agonism, as though antagonism were a libidinal drive that could be ‘sublimated’ and domesticated in and through the liberal democratic framework. Nowhere does Mouffe treat the problem of those who ‘use democracy to destroy democracy’, who participate in the liberal democratic game in order to do away with it altogether. Nor does she seem to take into account the fact that liberal democracy is obliged to suspend itself in the face of such adversaries, violating its own sacrosanct principles in order to defend them from an ominous threat. Mouffe has no ready answers for such dilemmas, and her work seems to foreclose any possibility of such a zero sum game. When she speaks of reviving the poles of Left and Right in contemporary politics, one wonders how far either party is permitted to veer in their respective policies- surely there can be no amicability or mutual respect between the far Left and the extreme Right, the one being driven by a passionate desire to eliminate the other. The experience of the forced choice- being given the right to choose as well as the moral obligation to make the ‘right’ choice- is one that the partisans of Hamas and Hezbollah have become intimately acquainted with, and liberal democracy’s congenital inability to accept wholly legitimate challenges to its hegemony, whether this takes the form of Salvador Allende, Jean-Bertrand Aristide or Hugo Chavez, is well-documented.
There are no easy answers to such problems, but Chantal Mouffe’s insistent emphasis upon their resolution in the political arena, through the procedures of public debate, sustained dialogue and free political competition, are sorely needed in a world where terroristic, trans/anti-political violence is regularly employed by Western ‘civilization’ and its enemies. That the West continues to treat political Islam as a Blanquist conspiracy intent on shattering the foundations of Western civility are culture is thoroughly irresponsible. Far from being a monolithic and monomaniacal monstrosity, political Islam is composed of many heterogeneous tendencies, some of which can be regarded as ‘fellow travelers’ of the radical Left. On the opposite side of the spectrum, its most extremist tendencies can and should be apprehended against the background of neoliberal globalization, which has armed and sponsored reactionary mullahs, supported repressive and corrupt regimes across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa while declaring its unequivocal support for the most vicious colonial power of our time, Israel. The consequences of this were discussed four decades ago in Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth- immense class disparities, the production of a corrupt and parasitic native bourgeoisie that siphons its money to tax havens abroad and indulges in conspicuous consumption at the expense of local industry and development, obscene injustices underwritten by foreign support and a formidable military apparatus. Combined and uneven development results in an urbane, Westernized class of technocrats on one end of the social ladder and slums, illiteracy and mass unemployment on the other.
The longer liberal democracy insists on repressing the formidable desire for meaning and empowerment in a world that is severely deficient of either, the more vulnerable it will become to apocalyptic movements that devote themselves to hastening its end. It would also be prudent to realize that, having exorcised the specter of worldwide communism and having kept the terrorist barbarians outside of its gates for as long as it could, the Western world- where resentment against austerity measures and populist rage against high finance have been incubating for the last two years- is primed for violent implosions of its own, convulsions that afflict it from the inside. To deliver us from such a cannibalization of the social, the formulation of an anti-capitalist political agenda, built upon egalitarian, internationalist and universalist principles, is an absolute priority. In this regard, Susan George’s Sorelian call for a new political ‘myth’ is apposite . Invoking the memory of the Shop Stewards Councils in World War I Britain, George pays tribute to the tremendous sense of moral purpose that guided this revolutionary effort to restructure work relations and reshape the very contours of the economy through a collaborative process. Whatever shape the new myth takes in the near future,