This episode is about the biggest story of the decade so far, COVID-19, or the coronavirus. But its also an episode with someone I’ve been wanting to have on the show for a long time, Garnet Kindervater.
Before we get started, just a few observations about the politics of the coronavirus itself. I don’t know if its fair to say viruses have a politics, but their human victims certainly do. And, as some of you may have been following, we’ve seen a big debate break out this week over a piece on the virus by Giorgio Agamben. Garnet and I don’t talk about Agamben in this interview. At the time of recording, we were only just becoming aware of this debate. But I want to talk a little bit about it before we get started, as I think its relevant to the interview you’re about to hear. Continue reading Episode 23: Coronavirus, Catastrophe & Agamben, with Garnet Kindervater→
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