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.
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.
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!
As we’ve been arguing on this show for the last few weeks, there is no doubt at this stage that the left is ‘back’. Arriving admittedly a decade or two later than Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, the left has made electoral gains recently, both in Europe, and in the US. Yet it is also clear that the left is not used to having this kind of potential. To the contrary, suffering through its long period of post-Cold War defeat, it has been content to engage in a lot of internal squabbling, and become comfortable avoiding the tough question of how it might engage ordinary people with its ideas. David Bailey’s book is a very interesting intervention, in this sense. Without necessarily taking a side in the debates he examines (to what extent should the left embrace the state? Should we pursue reform, or revolution?), he surveys the history of some of the more prominent moments and modes of leftist protest and struggle. What is interesting, however, is he choses to do this in an optimistic way. Refusing the left’s traditional mournful stance on its history, and deliberately trying to focus on the things the movements got right, Bailey is out to capture the spark of revolutionary disruption in each of his case studies, where the impossible was somehow, suddenly, made possible.
I got to see an advance copy of the book recently, and more than anything I was kind of pleasantly surprised by his open-minded stance on left strategy, finding those sparks of disruption everywhere, from the early days of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to the anarchist movements of the Spanish Civil War, and even in post-war parliamentary reformism. The civil rights movements get a look in here, and there are chapters on the New Left, the history of feminism, and the rise of environmentalism. And those interested in more recent history will find the last chapters quite interesting I think, looking at the Occupy movement and, more interestingly, the influence of ‘Left Populist’ struggles Latin America on the rise of what Bailey calls ’left pragmatism’ in Europe and North America, embodied of course in parties like Syriza and Podemos, but even more recently in figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
Our guest for this week’s episode is Michael Tracey, of The Young Turks — Tracey by his own account is a man of the left, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that, to read some of the commentaries that have been written about him online. He’s known primarily known for his iconoclastic views on what he calls “the Russia derangement,” something we addressed on this show all the way back in Episode One, with Tara McCormack.
I encountered Tracey in Chicago last weekend, at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Convention. We set this interview up with a view primarily to talking about the Convention, and the state of the American left. In this episode, we do address those topics, including the controversy surrounding the election of Danny Fetonte to the DSA’s National Political Committee, or NPC. But with the tragic news of rightwing violence in Charlottesville, VA this morning (the interview was recorded early afternoon, on Sunday, August 13), it seemed proper to address the rise of fascism in the United States, too. In true form, Tracey has some views on that subject which might not be popular among left comrades — including a defence of the ACLU’s decision stand up for freedom of speech for Alt. Right activists. As you’ll hear in the show, however, he gives a good account of himself, and leaves us with much to think about.
Please enjoy the show. As ever, if you have any feedback, you can reach us on Twitter @occupyirtheory. You can follow Michael Tracey on Twitter @mtracey.
We have a very special guest for this episode. Douglas Lain, of Zero Books. In the interview, we discuss a range of topics, but I think the focus of the interview is on how capitalist narcissism is playing out in leftist online culture.
Specifically we address:
How podcasting has enabled a new debate among the left, concerning the priority of identity;
The rise of the Alt-Left, and whether or how the term functions to smear those seeking to re-assert the priority of revolutionary values in leftist discourse;
We also address the critical reception of Angela Nagle’s sensational new book, Kill All Normies, published by Zero Books … a book that is ostensibly about the emergence of the Alt-Right, but in this conversation, Doug and I focus mostly on the other main aspect of the book, which is Nagle’s explanation of the rise of “call out culture” on the left.
Finally, with the #DSACon17 (the 2017 Democratic Socialists of America convention) starting this week, I ask Doug if he has any advice for delegates to the convention.
Kelly has weighed in a number of recent ‘Foucault’ controversies, including the question of whether Foucault was a neoliberal. In this interview, we get into that debate. But I think for most listeners, the interesting stuff will be towards the end, where Kelly talks about Biopolitical Imperialism, and addresses the conflict in Syria.
The podcast was recorded on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. In the interview, you’ll hear Kelly comment on Donald Trump’s pivot a few days previous, on Syria. Two days after the recording, on April 7, the US military launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield. The attack was carried out in response to a chemical weapons incident in Idlib province, perpetrated allegedly by Syrian state forces. It would be hard to imagine a stronger confirmation of Kelly’s arguments about Biopolitical Imperialism.
An essay I co-wrote with Iver B. Neumann, ‘Worlds of Our Making in Science Fiction and International Relations,’ has just been published in a volume entitled Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, Pedagogies’. The book is published by E-International Relations, and is edited by Federica Caso and Caitlin Hamilton. The book is available on Amazon, or as free-to-download PDF.
The piece is largely devoted to the question of defining science fiction, and its interest to IR scholars. Here’s an excerpt:
“Taking this broad array of artefacts seriously, then, as artefacts proper to the literary genre of science fiction, the question becomes one of how consumer expectations are subject, among other things, to the expectations generated by the conventions of this genre. Following Cultural Studies theorists like Darko Suvin, we recognise that science fiction is ‘a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ (suvin, cited in Freedman 2000, p. 16). The term ‘estrangement’ (rus. ostranenie), coined originally a century ago by russian formalist Shklovsky, is that which gives the text the power, implicitly or explicitly, to give the reader over to a sense of the possibility of another reality. By contrast, ‘cognition’ refers to that which enables the text to rationally account for the way this alternative reality actually works. It performs this operation by posing explicit differences between the inner workings of its narrative world and those of our own.
As Freedman (2000) stresses, however, operations of estrangement are not in and of themselves all that politically significant. Texts orientated more towards estrangement, such as tolkien’s Lord of the rings, can be read for all intents and purposes as fantasy. Texts that focus more on cognition, on the other hand, tend towards realism at the expense of imaginative difference, thus potentially stretching the limits of the genre too far in the opposite direction. For this reason, as freedman cautions, the exact parameters of science fiction as a genre are somewhat difficult to nail down. For freedman, what is essential ultimately is the ‘cognition effect’, that is, ‘the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed’ (Freedman 2000, 18, emphasis in original). Thus, even though actual science may someday supersede the cognitively rational elements of a particular science fiction text, it should remain a part of the genre because the author originally understood what he or she was writing to have a potential cognitive validity. On this account, a definition of the genre would necessarily exclude the Lord of the rings, but it would feasibly include the more traditional estrangement-centric ‘pulp’ of Hugo Gernsback’s 1929 Amazing Stories, of which Star Wars would naturally be considered a contemporary exemplar.
For the sake of precision, however, we might want to narrow this definition down a little. By the time Shklovsky came up with the term ‘estrangement’, the idea that alternative realities were not only part of literature’s remit, but one of literature’s defining traits, was already firmly ensconced. A romantic such as Coleridge defined poetry in terms of a willing suspension of disbelief. Thomas more’s Utopia was first published in 1516. Indeed, taking into consideration that older literary traditions are basically part of religious traditions, and noting that religion is a social phenomenon that by definition operates with more than one reality – there is the profane and visible reality, and then there are one or more alternate realities – we would argue that the existence of what Suvin refers to as ‘an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ is the historical literary rule. It was only with the coming of modernity that the possibility of a wholly disenchanted literature emerged. In light of this, the oft-heard throwaway line that all literature is science fiction cannot be written off without argument.”
Title: Global Crises / Capitalist Expressions: Critical Connections
Where: EISA 9th Pan-European Conference, Sicily, 23-26 September 2015
Abstract: What are the ways that relations of global capitalism can be made intelligible through analyses of various “crises”? This panel seeks to develop the analysis of contemporary capital by way of capturing its expressions, or effects, in a range of contemporary global crises (economic, environmental, epidemic, colonial, militaristic, etc.). We hope to highlight different iterations of global capitalism through its intrinsic tendency to crisis, and by doing so, to underscore the possibilities of a variety approaches to the critique of capitalism. Thus, we invite papers addressing a breadth of potential sites and scenes of contemporary capitalism’s globality, from those involving more immediately situated struggles over the limits it places on everyday material existence to more widely-scaled analyses, focusing on the governmental and governmentalizing dynamics of globalization itself. Gathering these various approaches together, this panel will be an opportunity to explore the stakes of global capitalist discourse and practice as it advances norms of market-based existence, individual responsibility, flexible partnership and resilience, all the while beset by the aporias of uneven development, financialization, war profiteering, corporate welfare, and the reckless extraction and consumption of resources.
For more info, contact Nicholas Kiersey (at the address on this website) or Garnet Kindervater. Submissions no later than Monday, September 29, please.
The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick