Hey everyone, and welcome to a very special episode of Fully Automated. Why so special? Well, because this is our first ever joint episode! We’ve teamed up with the Science Technology and Art in International Relations (or STAIR) section of ISA, for the first of what we hope will be a series of collaborations on the politics and economics of science and technology (and art!) in global affairs.
Joining me as a co-host on this episode is Stéphanie Perazzone, who graduated recently with a PhD in International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva (IHEID). Stéphanie is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), the University of Antwerp. She is working on a Swiss National Science Foundation-funded research project entitled “Localizing International Security Sector Reform; A Micro-Sociology of Policing in Urban Congo.” She is also the Communications Officer for STAIR.
In the interview, Stéphanie and I invite Anna to reflect on a number of the topics she has taken on, in the course of her career. One question of interest is the influence of Pierre Bourdieu on her thinking, especially concerning the role of symbolic power in reproducing systems of political violence, and the political value of reflexivity as a precursor of resistance. We also ask her about her work on the increasingly overlapping relationship between the commercial and the technological, and her thoughts on methodology in relation to studying this and other recent trends and developments in the security world.
Listeners interested in following up on Anna’s work might want to check out some of the following articles, which all get discussed to some extent in the interview:
Welcome back, friends! For this episode, we’re hooking up with our old friends in Columbus, OH, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction, to discuss last week’s “mega debate” in Toronto, between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, on “Happiness; Capitalism vs. Marxism.” Regular listeners to the show might remember we had Charlie Umland and Jim Calder as guests last year, in Episode 11, to talk about Situationism. That was probably one of the most fun shows we’ve ever done on this podcast and, given the spectacle of such an eagerly anticipated intellectual debate, I thought it would be a good idea to invite them on again, for a deep dive not only into the debate, but also what it means for the state of intellectual discourse today.
Just to provide some context for this particular episode: I’m lucky to be part of an occasional reading group with Charlie and Jim, and I think I speak for us all that we were all pretty excited when we heard this debate was going to be taking place. We knew there would probably be a pretty intense online reaction to it, especially from elements of the left that are already antagonistic to Žižek’s style and brand of Marxism (see here and here, for just two examples). So we thought we’d do this show, as a way of thinking our way through some of that likely response, and also to explore some of the disagreements we have among ourselves on some of the issues arising from the debate, including the political priority of identity politics for the left.
Special thanks to Darren Latanick, who graciously offered to step in as producer of the episode, on the Columbus side. Thanks for listening and, as ever, you can leave us a review on iTunes or reach out to us with feedback on Twitter @occupyirtheory.
Welcome back, listeners, to what I hope you’ll agree is a very special episode of Fully Automated. As you know, the last two episodes have been focused on the Brexit debate, and whether or not the cause of the British left is best served by a departure from the European Union (EU), or by “remaining and rebelling” within the EU, in the hope of reforming it.
Two episodes ago, our guest was Lee Jones — an advocate of ’The Full Brexit.’ During the show, Jones advanced the idea that the ideals of the Left cannot be satisfied within the EU, whereas the most meaningful historic victories of the left have been achieved only by wielding the power of the state. Then, in our last episode, we heard a rebuttal of this idea from Luke Ashworth, who suggested that while the political entity we know as the modern state has played an important historical role for the Left, its time has been fleeting, and the forces of globalization are today of such power that any project of returning to sovereignty will prove inevitably fruitless.
Recorded late in the afternoon on Friday, March 29, in the lobby bar of the Toronto Sheraton, during the 60th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, this episode brings Jones and Ashworth back to the microphone, this time for a live, in person debate. To keep things cordial, we bought them a brace of beers. And they appreciated the gesture it would seem, as the exchange proved to be probably the most collegial airing of political grievances in podcast history.
A quick note for listeners: with the Parliamentary dynamics surrounding Brexit now in a state of rapid flux, we’ve here largely avoided the topic of whether or how Theresa May can at this stage secure her deal, and avoid a ‘drop out’ Brexit. That said, for listeners who are interested in a play-by-play analysis of what’s going on in the House of Commons, we can recommend staying tunes to Novara Media’s Tyske Sour. Today’s show featured Sienna Rodgers and Owen Jones, and looked at a number of important questions, including whether Theresa May is prepared to sacrifice the Conservative Party, in order to cede meaningful ground the Labour Party’s demands for a Common Market deal, and the various divisions within Labour on question of a second referendum.
Finally, the bar we were in was starting to get pretty noisy by the end of the session. We’ve done our best to clear up the sound, but we ask your patience all the same.
(PS: listeners coming to this page may be curious if Molloy has plans to release any t-shirts bearing his “Tortuga on Themes” slogan. He has not responded to our queries).
Back before Christmas, in Episode 14, we heard Lee Jones offer what was perhaps not exactly a ‘Lexit’ (or ‘left exit’) position on Brexit, but nevertheless a progressive position very much in favor of a full Brexit. At the core of Jones’s arguments was, I think, the view that the EU is an essentially anti-democratic and unreformable project. The only way to address the problem, he claimed, was to restore British sovereignty. In this sense, Jones was critical not only of the deal Theresa May proposed, last December, but also the position of the Labour Party, with its now infamous six tests — that is, essentially, the idea that whatever deal the UK should pursue, it should be one that results in the “exact same benefits” as as those currently enjoyed by the UK, as a member of the Single Market, but with special additional provisions, including “fair management of migration.”
Since we spoke to Jones, there have been a number of important developments, but little by way of clarity as to how the drama will end. On January 15, in the greatest parliamentary defeat of any PM in British history, the British Parliament rejected Theresa May’s deal. Since then, following the terms of the so-called Brady amendment, passed on January 29, she returned to Brussels in order to try to negotiate “alternative arrangements.” She plans now to present her new deal to Parliament on March 12, just two weeks before the deadline March 29. This is very close to the wire, but May hopes to be able to get the EU to budge on the backstop — something she must do, if she is to persuade Tory Eurosceptics to support her plan.
In this episode, you will hear Ashworth engage with a number of Jones’s key points, including the ‘WTO rules’ issue, the importance of not overstating the power of the Far Right in Europe, and the history of reactionary politics, on the British left. But Ashworth’s core arguments stem from his concerns about the future of the Irish border, and the unacknowledged costs of a return to the fantasy of ‘the sovereign people’ — especially in an era where complex global flows of capital have made it harder and harder for the Left to leverage the state, as it pursues its mission of defending labour and democracy, from the interests of the global financial elite.
Importantly, this episode with Lucian Ashworth was recorded on February 16. Due to technical issues, it wasn’t ready for broadcast until today, February 28. This delay does not significantly effect the value of the interview, since our discussion focused mainly on the historical context of Brexit, and abstract questions about globalization, and its complex consequences for our traditional models of politics and economic life.
That said, it is worth mentioning that on Tuesday, February 26, Theresa May announced that, should her deal fail to pass the house, she is going to allow a vote on an extension of Article 50. The pressure is on, however, as we have also begun to see rebellion breaking out, and the creation in Parliament of a new ‘Independent Group,’ composed of rebels from both Labour and the Conservatives. Corbyn, for his part, announced his support for a second referendum — putting before the people a choice between whether to remain in the EU, or to pursue Labour’s alternative vision of a Brexit deal, which includes a permanent customs union.
If you have any questions or comments about the show, you are welcome to reach out to us via Twitter: @occupyirtheory — equally, feel welcome to leave us a positive rating on iTunes, or your favorite podcast software.
This weeks guest is Lee Jones, a Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the people behind the blog, The Full Brexit. I’ve known Lee for a number of years, and I find him to be a thoughtful and provocative commentator on a range of issues. He was one of the early voices, for example, to challenge the mainstream liberal analysis of the 2016 US election, and the idea that blame for the election of Donald Trump should be lain at the feet of white working class voters and other so-called “deplorables.”
Yet, I have found it harder to agree with Lee when it comes to the topic of Brexit. Drawing on the scholarship of Peter Mair, among others, Lee and his fellow bloggers at The Full Brexit have been developing a serious critique of the EU. At the core of their argument is a claim that the EU is a fundamentally anti-democratic project. One that was designed, from the outset, to disempower voters, by transferring jurisdiction over decisions to do with the economy from member states, to an anonymous technocratic body, called the European Commission — a body which, mind you, has only one directive, and that is to advance the European neoliberal project.
Now, to be clear, I pretty much agree with all of this critique. My problem, however, is that I find myself deeply confused about what the left ought to be doing about it and, thusly, what to do about Brexit. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the likes of Grace Blakeley, who has an excellent piece on Novara right now, arguing:
At its heart, the problem the EU presents to the left is not enough democracy and too many veto players. Even if the left managed the heroic task of taking control of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council both have a veto, and both continue to be strongly influenced by both the national interests of the most powerful states and special interest groups. The combination of these factors would prevent any attempt at socialist transformation within the EU.
Equally, however, I do find it helpful to try to step back and listen to people like Yanis Varoukfakis, who argued in a recent appearance on The Dig podcast that we simply may not have a choice but to take our battle to the EU itself. This is the so-called remain and rebel strategy. Now, sure, as folks at Novara Media will be quick to argue, there is no European Demos — and in the absence of an authentic European polity, its hard to imagine how the EU could ever be reformed. But as Varoufakis points out on The Dig, the existence of a demos may be beside the point. If the European Union falls apart, its not like the alternative will be a return to nation states. It will likely be something much, much worse.
So, obviously, two very well-reasoned left positions, with diametrically-opposed strategies. This is the first in a series of episodes we’ll be doing on Brexit, and the European Union more broadly. And this one, I think, couldn’t be coming at a more relevant time. Lee and I recorded this interview on December 3, at the start of one of the most tumultuous weeks in British parliamentary history. One week earlier, the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement, a large technical document which sets the schedule and terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, beginning in March 2019. But, as I post this episode, it is anyone’s guess what it going to happen next. This coming Tuesday, December 12, the draft is set to go before the British parliament, where it is expected to fail. After that, a confidence vote could be called for, but as James Butler of Novara Media has been arguing, that’s no easy proposition, either.
And there are a number of reasons why, especially from a Left perspective, we might want it to fail; principally, its commitment to a (potentially permanent!) version of the so-called backstop, which would put serious constraints on state aid, and thereby tie the hands of any future government led by Jeremy Corbyn. But in a dramatic development on Tuesday, Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve passed an amendment stating that parliament can amended whatever deal May comes back with, which she must, within 21 days, according to the EU Withdrawal Act. This may make a no-deal Brexit impossible, tho Tory Brexiters have suggested the motion cannot be binding. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, all that to say, much is up in the air right now, in Brexitland. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to take a moment to step back, and spend some time thinking about the EU, and its democratic credentials. So, to get our Brexit series off the ground, here is Lee Jones.
Note: Lee’s latest article, referred to in the interview, can be found here.
Its become almost cliche to say that we are now somehow living in an age of identity politics. Controversies ostensibly belonging to that term seem to be piling up at a ferocious rate. Whether it be to do with toxic masculinity in online gaming communities, the tearing down of confederate statues in southern American states, the campaign access to transgender bathrooms, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign to recognize that gender is not a category that excludes the working class, or the right to freedom of speech of members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web,’ it seems we’re just awash with this intense and rapidly proliferating series of disputes over how we regulate speech and symbolic acts, in the public sphere. Clearly, we do think these debates are important — after all, as any politically-active user on Twitter and Facebook will tell you — we can spend vast amounts of time in arguments about these issues. And we continue to engage in them, even tho they don’t seem to change anyone’s minds (and reports suggest they are actually not very good for our mental health!).
But how did we get here? What made us suddenly so aware of identity, and why do we feel the need to argue about it? Is there anything redeeming about identity politics, and how — or to what extent — should the left be engaging in it? To discuss these questions and more, our guest for this episode is Marie Moran. Marie is a lecturer in Equality Studies at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, in UCD, in Dublin, and she has a piece in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, called ‘Identity and Identity Politics’. Based on some pretty compelling research, she lays out an argument in the piece that identity is actually a very new concept in the analysis of social life, and that we need to exercise much greater care in our approach to distinguishing what it is, and what isn’t.
As you’ll hear in the interview, Marie isn’t necessarily opposed to identity politics. Not by any means. But she does believe that we may have taken a wrong turn in our grasp of its political significance. Thus, while we might find it hard not to be put off by the toxicity of today’s “call out culture,” Moran would remind us that the Black Power Movements who first embraced the concept of identity in the 1960s, did not have an essentializing approach to it. That is, that they didn’t see their struggle to secure recognition for their groups in the public sphere as an end in itself (EDIT: Marie has since written me an email asking me to clarify that her position is that identity is “invariably” essentializing “and by definition does” essentialize. I hope the listener/reader will understand my point here, however, which is to follow Marie’s own argument that not all identity struggles are carried out for the sake of identity, only). So, this is going to be one of the big topics in the interview you’re about to hear — what it means to essentialize identity, and the linkages between today’s identity mania, and capitalism’s culture of self. Towards the end, we get into a good discussion of the similarities and differences between Marie’s approach to the topic, and those presented by Asad Haider in his new book, ‘Mistaken Identity’ (we posted on this, last week). There’s been a lot of controversy about the book online, but I think you’ll find Marie’s take to be pretty thoughtful.
On a final note, I just want to apologize for the poor audio quality in this interview — due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up having to record this interview in Skype. I’ve done my best to clean it up, but you’ll definitely hear some echo on the line. Its a shame, but stick with us – this is a really fascinating interview. Marie is a very careful and precise scholar. And I think you’ll agree that she’s making an important contribution to this debate.
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.
Our guest for Episode 12 of Fully Automated is Maïa Pal, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. Among other things, Maïa is a scholar of early modern European history, focusing on the colonial origins of the modern state. She is an editor for Historical Materialism. And she is currently working on a book project, entitled Jurisdictional Accumulation: an Early Modern History of Law, Empires, and Capital (forthcoming, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). You can find her on Twitter @maia_pal
This episode represents the third installment in our occasional series, on Marxism in International Relations. Previous guests in this series include Bryant Sculos (Episode 9), on the the topic of Marxist pedagogy, and Kevin Funk and Sebastian Sclofsky (Episode 10), about the sorry state of Marxism in IR, and in Political Science more generally. In this episode, however, Maia helps us begin to think about what it might mean to apply Marxism, in IR.
I invited Maïa on the show after I read her recent piece, Introducing Marxism in International Relations, in e-IR. In this piece, she argues that the contribution of Marxism in IR is to reveal what other, less critical approaches may contrive to hide. That is, how many concepts we normally take for granted in IR, like the international itself, can distract us from analyzing the social relations that comprise them, and the history of the material conditions that shape those relations, in turn.
As we discuss, some of even the most critical scholars in IR eschew Marxism because they fear it constitutes a kind of dogmatism. In the interview, however, you’ll hear Maia refer to a letter that Karl Marx wrote, to Arnold Ruge, in which he states:
“But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”
So, in this spirit, Pal outlines for us what we might perhaps want to call a relentless Marxism — one unafraid to examine itself, and its own suppositions about the world.
As Maia says in the interview, the function of Marxism in IR is to challenge and destabilize many of the concepts it cherishes, and which might appear otherwise stable to the scholar: not just the division between the national and the international, but that of the political and the economic. Marxism, Maia suggests, shatters the “linear progressive narrative of the history of international relations,” as a discipline, and opens us up to the possibility of a much more messy and brutal history; a history of empire, and imperial conquest!
We covered A LOT of ground in this interview, and the result is a slightly longer episode than usual. But I hope you’ll stick with us to the end. Later in the show, you’re going to hear us talk about some of the implications of Maia’s work for the left today: whether or in what respects can we say the state in globalization still has political capacity, and how might the left conceive of this capacity as it grapples with the question of anti-capitalist strategy; and how debates about xenophobia among the working class and so-called ‘deplorables’ can overlook not only the nuances of working-class electoral preferences, but can distract us from thinking about the ‘normal’ racism of the state as it works to categorize migrant populations as undeserving of access to wealthy zones and spaces, within globalization.
Towards the end, we’ll also chat about what its like to be an editor with a left-academic journal like Historical Materialism, and get a little bit into the rationale behind the journal’s latest issue, on identity politics. Finally, we get into Maia’s current book project, and why she believes that Marxists need to pay more attention to the significance of ‘jurisdictional accumulation’, both in the pre-history of capitalist globalization, and as a specific condition shaping the play of global capitalist dynamics today.
Today, we are releasing Part 2 of our conversation with Jim Calder and Charlie Umland, on Situationism. In the last episode, we addressed some of the basic concepts and arguments of the Situationists, focusing largely on their critique of capitalist modernity. In today’s episode, we turn to question of strategy, and the way the approach of the Situationists to political engagement.
We think this is a timely episode — coming to you as it is, right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of the student revolt in Paris, of May 1968 — an event with which the situationists are often associated, sometimes even being seen as among the key standard-bearers of its intellectual values!
For those unfamiliar, the early weeks of May 1968 saw an major wave of student actions in Paris, protesting the closure and police invasions of University campuses at Nanterre and the Sorbonne. On Tuesday, May 14, the workers’ movements came out and joined the students, and a number of workplace occupations began, including at the Sud Aviation plant near Nantes, and at a Renault parts factory, near Rouen. By May 16, France was in the grip of a General Strike. The workers had occupied close to fifty factories, and hundreds of thousands workers were out on strike, across the country. By the end of the following week, ten million workers were on strike — a figure which amounted to about two-thirds of the entire French workforce.
And its no surprise of course, just as with the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution last October, that the 50th anniversary of May ’68 is a big topic of discussion among the left right now. May 68 is the theme of the latest issue of Jacobin, for example, and there’s a great piece on the Paris uprising in there by Jonah Birch, called “How Beautiful it Was’. Birch argues that, although de Gaulle was eventually able to restore order, and the movement eventually collapsed into infighting:
…even now, May ’68 remains a potent political symbol of the Left’s hopes for a mass movement to challenge capitalism. Nowhere else in the Western world over the past half century was such a threat to capitalism posed.
Listeners might was to check out Birch’s piece (I’ll add a link as soon as there is a web version available). Its a great primer for anyone who wants a bit more background on the May ’68 moment. He has a really interesting discussion the economic and social factors in France at the time, and the extent to which they might have served as triggers of the student uprising. But what’s interesting about Birch’s account is that it mentions the Situationists only once, and then only as a way of sort of flagging an incorrect way of remembering May ’68 — Birch cites the slogans and art terrorism of the situationists, as if by way of ascribing them a merely horizontalist politics, or a politics of everyday life.
Similarly, in the latest episode of the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast, Catherine Liu also discusses May ’68 as nothing more than the sensational arrival of a performative and campus-based politics of everyday life — a harbinger, if you will, of the paradoxically vanguardist politics of today’s campus left; and, ultimately, a politics that is highly compatible with neoliberal managerialism. Early in the episode, she says:
…when you have this very elite group of students who see themselves as extremely important and their colleagues in the media are also striking against these traditionalists, the gaullists, the rightwing, and the fascists, the transformation of everyday life gets elevated to the height of Hegelian world historical significance
Listeners should definitely check that full show. As Liu says, while its a good thing for ordinary people to become aware of their political agency, its bad when people don’t see that agency in connection to the material and social relations of their lives.
But I think what listeners might find interesting about this episode is that, while we try to proceed in a way that is sensitive to the important critiques of Birch and Liu, concerning the hazards of a politics of everyday life, we do try to maintain a little critical distance between what we see as two narratives: on the one hand, an important discussion of the failures of ’68, and its naive lionization of campus politics; on the other, an attempt to recover the oft-elided materialism of the Situationists.
Last we week, we argued that one of the reasons the Situationists could not be written off merely as postmodernists was because of their commitment to the concept of “separation”, or alienation, which was a problem not just in capitalism but in any system of production where workers would not have direct control over the rationalities and systems of production that govern their lives. And it is in this focus on the worker, we argued, that Situationism is still very much a Marxist project.
Our episode last week ended on the question of strategy, and the call of the situationists for a radical break with the order of separation. Today, in Part 2, you’ll hear Charlie, Jim, and myself, pursue this line of thinking further, as we look at the situationists as activists, and their views on the student uprising in May ’68. We’ll look at some of the tensions in situationist praxis at the time, on the one hand trying not to establish themselves as any kind of intellectual vanguard, but on the other, perhaps simply because of their own personalities, behaving sometimes in ways that suggested a rather more stalinist approach. And we’ll also look at their attitudes towards other events in 1968, too, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Finally, at end the episode, for a bit of fun, we’ll talk about what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say to Jordan Peterson(!).
As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory
Thanks again to Darren Latanick for producing this episode!
Welcome to Episode 11, of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast! Today, we have Part One of our first ever two-part episode, on the topic of Situationism! Joining me for this episode are two friends of mine from Columbus, Ohio, Charlie Umland, and Jim Calder. They are pretty sharp, when it comes to this topic. And, over the course of this two-part episode, they’re gonna help us understand just who the situationists were, and who they weren’t.
Now, coincidentally, situationism has sort of been back on the radar, lately. In February 2017, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Zaretsky, called ‘Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’.’ In the piece, Zaretsky offers this very Situationist sounding line:
Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra.”
In the episode, Charlie, Jim and I get into some discussion of this piece. One of our big points is that perhaps Zaretsky’s take is kind of off the mark. For him, the Trump is the master of the image, in a time when the very form of image itself, has hijacked our reality. Focusing on the image as the problematic form this way, however, Zaretsky’s Situationists resonate somewhat too cynically. Indeed, it could be said they bear a familiar resemblance with the work of another famous French scholar, Jean Baudrillard. Now, Baudrillard doesn’t hail from Situationism. But he is a critic of contemporary capitalism, and he is particularly preoccupied with the rise of what he terms ’hyperreality’ — an economic era dominated by the logic of the image, wherein humans have been seduced into a state of passive consumption. For Baudrillard, where older modes of capitalism were predicated on production of actual goods, society today is a simulation; we are a consumer society, but what we consume is nothing more than signs, or symbols. In such a society, even political resistance has sort of dissipated into a kind of moral relativism; we no longer fight for any particular group’s “code” — instead we adopt a stance of ironic “fascination.”
This attitude of fascination, or what we might even call flanneurism, is exemplified in a scene in the recent Adam Curtis documentary, Hypernormalization. In this scene, we meet a young Patti Smith, giggling as she recounts the ironic prospect of poor people, watching movie trailers over and over, on a small screen outside of a cinema. Its as if she’s hypnotized herself, by the total surrender to passivity of the people watching the screen. She is overwhelmed by the cynicism of it all, and can only laugh.
But in the episode, we make the argument that this is perhaps precisely the wrong way to interpret the Spectacle. Situationism is much more than simply a critique of seduction; the theory of spectacle is NOT simply that we have been reduced to the status of a mass of consumers, or that we are simply distracted by the ongoing barrage of the media’s meaningless images. To the contrary, a key concept that has come up for us in our discussions is that of “separation” — which is something like the alienation experienced by everyday people, not just in capitalism, but also in other highly bureaucratized technical systems, like the Soviet Union, when rationalities of expertise work to delegitimize any demand they might make, for true collective participation in the productive systems that govern their lives. And, we argue, it is in this sense that Society of Spectacle is still very much a Marxist project. One need only consider how frequently the topic of the proletariat is discussed, and the various tasks to which it must attend, if it is to survive.
So, a little bit about our guests today. Both are from Ohio:
Charlie Umland is a cook. He likes to learn about art and philosophy and communism, and he is an unapologetic D&D fan.
Jim Calder works in public humanities, and supports the radical critique of everyday life, mostly through reading groups – and, he also loves smoking. Catch him on Twitter at @jamesdcalder
In the first part of the show, you’ll hear us outline some of the basic ground we want to cover: separation, the contrast with Baudrillard, the role of theory, the attitude of the situationists towards modernity, and the emancipatory potential of technology.
Next week we’ll be dropping Part 2 of this episode, which looks at Situationism in something more like an activist light. We’ll talk about the role of the Situationists in the context of the student uprising, in May ’68, their attitude towards the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, some of their scattered commentaries on war, and the question of what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say about Jordan Peterson(!).
Special thanks this week to Darren Latanick, who produced the episode. As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory