I hope my friends will forgive me for this post—which is meant as a constructive rejoinder to some of the political ideas I have encountered around continental philosophy circles of late. In line with my dreadfully old fashioned dialectical thinking, my sympathies have always been with Socrates type figures and the restless interrogation of prevailing wisdom. This way of approaching things doesn’t lend itself to being readily accepted as part of a clique, but with the manifest dreadfulness of the situation of leftwing politics today I excuse myself that all I seek is clarity. In the tireless quest to lose friends and alienate everyone, what else can one do?
The matter at hand concerns the crisis of politics and of political ideas. All those sensitive to the current situation of radical left politics—even politics per se—cannot fail to be struck with the sense that we are at an impasse. Something is not working. Politics seems to be struck in a permanent stasis following the Cold War; some might even say since the 1970s; others as far back as post-1968. Unions appears to have reached a dead end; and leftwing politics seems more depleted of hope than ever before. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. The good news, however, is that if you feel this sense of despair and frustration, it at least means you appreciate the full scale of the problem.
The question is how to respond? The fact that something is not working is an important insight; but in itself is rather free of determinate content for working out what would be the right approach. Numerous avenues have been proposed. Within the broadly continental tradition, we have had Laclauian populism. We have had Derridean respect for the Otherness of Other. And, most recently, we have had Hardt and Negri’s ‘Empire’, ‘Multitude’ and ‘Commonwealth.’ Enough has been said about all of these. Their failures to think an alternative leftism are already born out by the collapse of whatever real-world political correlates they once could have claimed.
Yet ideational production has not ceased. Arguably, we are on the cusp of a new generation of thinkers. What has been dubbed post-continental philosophy is associated with the return of metaphysics within the continental tradition. Also influenced by the the speculative realism ‘movement’ this strand of thought is distinguished by a move away from the philosophy of the subject, towards interest in objects and the thematics of materialism. Some of the names that are most popular in this field include Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Levi Bryant, Paul Churchland, and, more traditionally, Gilles Deleuze.
What is most interesting in this turn away from the subject is the convergence with analytic philosophical topics—the continental and analytic traditions have for a long time been contemptous rivals of one another—and, in turn, this has led to a certain re-continentalisation in favour of North American thinkers. Whilst one’s nationality is not generally of any concern to me, there are a number of implications here that any honest assesment of the political theory spun out of this new wave must take into consideration. Firstly, this is the first generation of new ‘continental thinkers’ to have had no direct experience with radical politics. Whatever we might think of Antonio Negri, Badiou, et. al, they were involved in seriously radical politics. Some of the Italian autonomist organizations of the 1970s had tens of thousands of members. Badiou was a raging Maoist, who never gave up on the spirit of 1968.
Secondly, other than perhaps the Black Panthers the United States has never had any really influential radical politics. On the left, very little indeed. U.S. leftism is qualitatively different to that in Europe insofar as no autonomous alternative to Democrat-style liberalism with a socially paternalistic bent seems to be prevalent. The U.S. left seems to concern itself above all else with cheerleading Latin American movements and involving itself in environmentalism. Which is to say, the dichotomy of ‘reform or revolution’ has always seemed a bit of an intellectual matter in a country in which revolution has never seemed a credible possibility. I do not want to overemphasize this aspect; still it needs to be kept at the back of the mind in the following discussion.
To understand this trendy new wave of thought, the rest of this post progresses through three sections, which deal with ‘folk politics’ first, followed by ‘object oriented ontology’ and, finally, ‘micro-revolutions’. These broadly go from what I will present as the negation of the leftist theory of action, to a negation of a leftist ontology, to the last category, acting as a kind of holding pen for alternative notions of ‘radical’ change. I will seek to demonstrate in this two part blog post that whilst residues of leftism are carried across into all of these theories—the semantics of ‘revolution’ for instance—they are stripped of all meaningful content, and when properly ‘cashed out’ in terms of a guide for political action add up to little more than a centrist, liberal agenda given a gloss of radicalism imported from the philosophical world.
To understand ‘folk politics’ one has to understand ‘folk psychology’. Paul Churchland’s endorsement of a hard eliminative materialism is meant to replace the traditional vocabulary that psychology supposedly inherited from ‘folk wisdom’ with a new lexicon culled from neuroscientific studies. The upshot of this is that such notions as desire and drive should be eliminated from the vocabulary of psychological discourse to be replaced by a new terms. And yet, there is also potentially more at stake than a new vocabulary to learn. If Thomas Kuhn was right that every scientific revolution entails a loss alongside a gain, then what is possibly lost in eliminative materialism is any notion of human, subjective freedom; the will to change. In contrast to thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek (who has sought in his fusion of Lacan and Hegel to give depth to the ‘passions’ of the subject Hegel left so famously underdeveloped), those influenced by theories of eliminative materialism are likely to reject any voluntaristic notion of historic or political change driven by the will of certain individuals or groups; possibly to the point of repudiating notions of human free will altogether.
My friends over at Speculative Heresy, and particularly Nick Srnicek, have taken Churchland’s theory and tried to extrapolate upon it to come up with a similar criticism of ‘folk politics’. In the same way that the term ‘folk psychology’ is primarily intended as a criticism of psychological notions, ‘folk politics’ takes aim as what are taken as the unnecessary constraints upon leftwing thinking. These include, in no particular order: class as a structuring principle, vanguardism for coordinating agency, and the reform or revolution dichotomy. Let us see if these criticisms stand up to scrutiny. The aim not being to provide a dogmatic rejoinder, but rather to see what, if anything, they add when measured against the theory they are positioned against, i.e. Marxism. In a piece called ‘Liquid Revolution and the End of Folk Politics‘, Srnicek writes:
The idea that revolution has to occur ‘all at once’ is a residue of folk politics – a notion of politics derived from our intuitive relation to the world, one where change has to be readily apparent in order for it to register. The sort of work I’m proposing is less intuitive, less based on immediate reactions, and less short-sighted.
Obviously the target here is the broadly Marxist notion that revolutions occur in a compressed space of time; although we could track this tradition back to the events of the French revolution too if we wanted. The problem with this negation is the idea that revolution is based on “our intuitive relation to the world.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For even if the term ‘revolution’ has been largely degraded within advertising and the political sophistry of mainstream liberal parties, there is nothing intuitive to derive the proper sense of the words from. We rarely, if ever, encounter revolutions in daily life; sometimes, furthermore, revolutions perceived in retrospect were not visible to people present at the time. Empirically we can see that revolutions do occur in a very compressed state of time, and although the groundwork might have been prepared for decades beforehand, the political crisis with engenders the political emergence and efficacy of the new ideas and social forces is only brought about by the collapse of the systemic constraints holding them back. This political procedure necessarily occurs in a compressed time scale as a seismic shift takes place. And to introduce ‘folk psychological’ theories into the equation, many of those who have taken part in revolutions note that they experienced a feeling which cannot be appreciated by those not there: A collective action leading to a momentary intensification of life, or a feeling of collective delirium. All these provide indicators that the opportunities to direct what those changes will actually be occur within a relatively short and intense temporality.
In Marxist terms the reform vs revolution dichotomy is one with a highly technical, structural justification and one with a history of its own. Of course, it is well known that before that Russian Revolution many of the prominent thinkers of the Second International adopted reformist principles; ones that 1917 shattered. However, Marx’s writings provide enough evidence that revolution is necessary for the elimination of capital. Since the source of value is the exploitation of labour, and a class system and entire social structure, gets built up on top of this fundamental exploitative relation, class consciousness will not always be effective until the motion of reversal begins. As Laclau and Mouffe note in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, there is no dialectical movement from contradiction (workers and capitalists) to antagonism—this surely is the situation of our limited class struggle today. Given those situations in which class consciousness emerges and the working class should seek to overturn these relations, the class consciousness of the opposing—capitalist—side likewise intensifies. All possibility of reform that will answer the demands of an overturning of capitalist relations are a non-starter. The side that will lose from this process (who hold the current political, economic and social power) are the ones with the police, army and so on, on their side. Quite clearly the reversal would require a concentrated period of time in which the state was split into factions, of which only one side would emerge victorious. These are not “intuitive” or “folk” notions; but rather derive from thinking politics at the highest strategic and systematic level. It is worth citing Rosa Luxembourg from Reform or Revolution on the matter for a brief reminder of the canonical position:
That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labour system but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.
One might counter this by saying that this notion of revolution is setting the bar too high. In our current historical period that might be true; although in itself this does not undermine the reform vs. revolution dichotomy as it relates to elimination of wage labour. If, on the other hand, the target of your ‘revolution’ does not relate to eliminating wage labour, then it is true that various reforms might suffice. It is noteworthy, though, that in a period in which class consciousness is extremely weak, and those social forces related to it mostly dormant, there is a spill over into even non-revolutionary political matters. If the Marxist thesis is correct—as it surely is—that production’s role in the reproduction of the social order is primary, then a shift to cultural matters, or networking, or whatever, in the absence of forces directly structured by, and in a feedback loop with, the productive relations, will be weak and superficial. Change of any sort in lieu of dialectical class mechanisms becomes difficult indeed.
Yet there is an even more profound aporia that relates to foreclosing class as a structural principle; that is, if one is aiming for ‘radical’ political changes, for whom are these changes, and are they the subject or object of this change (more on this in the next section)? The primary virtue of the Marxist approach is that the subject of change (the working class) is involved in the very abolition of its own objective existence. Any alternative approach has to also carefully delineate for whom the theory serves. Srnicek writes:
… on reflection, one of the significant points of my piece is that it doesn’t require a mass uprising, it doesn’t require class consciousness, and it doesn’t require coordinating a mass majority. It can be small groups, working in local communities to create social services for their neighbours and families. It can be small groups of activists, struggling to change the public discourse on issues, framing them in ways more conducive to change. (Think, for example, if Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen are successful in their project to change how a nation’s economy is measured – from GDP to a more fruitful measure. A small technical reform in a key measurement can have vast consequences.)
There is nothing much new, or indeed ‘radical’ about Stiglitz’s position though. His advocacy of Keynesian economics as a way to ‘save capitalism’ in the London Review of Books is in line with a social democratic tradition—one very much internalised within the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Ultimately, shattering the shibboleths of the left comes to look very much simply like a liberal, social democratic reformist tradition rather than any radical new modality of politics. In the end it comes down to elite thinkers tinkering with capitalism from the ivory towers of great financial institutions, thinktanks and academia; and has very little to do with a properly socialist program involving mass working class empowerment. The massification of the political subject is not some extraneous, romantic idol that needs to be jettisoned, but integral to the reversal of the objectification of the working class subject. The mass subject is, that is, the very end of radical politics; without it, you have nothing but well meaning reformation of the human object of your politics.
I think I have said enough to repudiate the anti-Marxist notions intrinsic to the jargon of ‘folk politics’. In the next section, this critique will be expanded to the entire edifice of what has become known ‘object oriented ontology.’ I will focus less on Bruno Latour and Graham Harman—I know the latter’s work well; and the former only through proxy via the latter—but instead on Jane Bennett’s new book ‘Vibrant Matter‘ which seeks to cash out these insights with a fully developed political theory. Here, in Bennett’s work, all aspiration to even present an alternative leftism falls by the wayside.