Slavoj Zizek: Just an entertaining 'shock jock', or a sophisticated and engaged philosopher?

Slavoj Žižek has always been a controversial figure, attracting devotion and revile in equal measure. But it is only recently that I have noticed something of a popular front forming against him—with a combination of far left bloggers and everyday cynics rejecting him in synch. Of the former category, Louis Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour portrays him as a racist, cheering on pogroms against the Roma—a charge converging with those of rightwing critics such as Adam Kirsch writing in the New Republic regarding Žižek’s alleged anti-semitism. Why do I feel both these characterisations are unfair? And what do I feel is motivating this anti-Žižek front? This blog post attempts to answer both these questions by rebutting both Proyect and Seymour’s charges.

Proyect’s ‘Lone wolf’ Žižek

In his post Proyect makes a good point about the fact that Marxist theory needs to be a collective discussion rather than just pursued by a ‘lone wolf’ like Žižek theorising for maximum impact to secure their academic niche. Or, it would be a good argument if I believed that was all Žižek was up to; because whilst he does have the tendency to drift off into mere provocation at times, I would say that for those who follow his work he has a clear political project in confronting the tepid sentiment of our time and the numerous discourses of liberal anxiety. So insofar as Proyect’s charge is correct it is valid, but also insofar as one can intuit a necessity to Žižek’s provocations then the ‘lone wolf’ charge does not stick. After all, given the shrunken and introverted nature of the Marxist left, if to be a ‘lone wolf’ means to pursue your debates beyond its confines and not necessarily just in discussion with other Marxists in pursuit of doctrinal purity, then I don’t see that as such a bad thing. I came to Marx and Lenin very much mediated though Žižek’s work, and I imagine he has pulled many others in too to what would otherwise look like a fairly stale field of regurgitated orthodoxy. Similarly, for all our gripes about how he deploys and conceives ‘the idea of communism’ (included his flat out claim regarding the absolute, unmitigated disaster that were all communist regimes in the 20th century) he has nonetheless been instrumental in putting the word back on the semantic horizon of the left, creating the attenuated possibilities for an articulation of a more radical politics.

These good points to Žižek’s political project have to be balanced against the less appetising tendency of his critics to seize upon almost anything (from either a left or rightwing perspective) in order to hammer home their crusade against him. In the process it is little recognized how the motivations of these criticisms point to entirely opposite commitments. On the one hand, there are those critcisms of Žižek from a liberal-lefty, postmodernist academic perspective, which see him a regressive turn to an outdated politics of universalism, Marxism and revolution. For these critics it is Žižek’s unwillingness to concede to the new politics of difference that riles them. Into the mix is thrown a certain amount of jealousy regarding his academic stardom and ressentiment about his marriage to an Argentinian model. Needless to say, inasmuch as we conceive the left’s project as related to class struggle and the overthrowing of capitalism, few of these critics would be said to have anything but the vaguest sympathies to the cause of the left. On the other hand, for critics like Proyect and others I have run across online, it is precisely the lack of purity for which Zizek must be held accountable. Every reading of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin he provides is pored across for inconsistencies, to draw up the charge sheet for the prosecution. The problem is that by not recognising Žižek as at least on the same side of the emancipatory, Marxist cause, critics like Proyect loose sight of the fact that at least they can have a debate with someone like Žižek. Given that most of Žižek’s critics come from a political and philosophical perspective that would consider the likes of Proyect as retrograde to the point of complete irrelevance, one should probably recognize the theoretical ally in Žižek rather than expending copious energies to slaughter his deviations from within the Marxist debating chamber. That is not to say don’t criticize: just to say, have some perspective on things.

Seymour’s racist Žižek

Richard Seymour of the blog Lenin’s Tomb (also author of The Liberal Defence of Murder & The Meaning of David Cameron, and all round rising theoretical star of the British Socialist Workers Party) has also been grinding an axe against Žižek for some time. Initially Seymour was enamoured by Žižek — despite outrage at some of his opinions — but around 2006 that started to change. Seymour confessed:

Perhaps it’s transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he’s writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say “well, he didn’t meanthat“. But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek’s latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric – well, actually, Christian supremacist – platitudes about Islam and secularism.

From this post Seymour’s gripes becomes apparent: his charge is that scrape beneath the seductive theoretical exterior and you will simply find a warmed up liberal with Eurocentric and racist tendencies. “The seductive Lacanian packaging positions the “ire” at the Muhammad cartoons (which Žižek still doesn’t acknowledge as racist, only blasphemous, only disrespectful within the confines of religion) as a reaction to the West as perceived through a distorting phantasmatic screen, “a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes”: this would be more impressive if Žižek did not reveal his own “complex cobweb” in the process.” From here on Seymour’s criticisms of Žižek have effectively operated via a single strategy: take Žižek’s reflections on a subject, from whatever angle they might be, and simply shout them down with charges of racism: a kind of rhetorical ‘nuclear option’. No one likes racism — a single Cartesian point across the political spectrum, aside from the far right — so repeatedly charging your opponent with it operates as vicious tool of deligitimation, and allows one to not even enter debate. In fact, to even debate the alleged racist’s position would be to enter into the same racist discourse. The example above acts as a case in point. Here, Seymour simply asserts that cartoons lampooning Muhammed are racist, ergo any attempt to think the reaction to them as anything more than justified rage against an obviously evil act of injustice is also racist.

This type of tautological rhetoric is repeated in his most recent post regarding Žižek’s commentary on an attack on a Roma community. For balance I will reproduce the quote isolated by Seymour and what I think is Seymour’s most substantial commentary on it.

Žižek wrote:

There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

Seymour commented:

This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn’t driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they’re anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its ‘legitimate concerns’, counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the ‘little man’ while slandering the little man’s victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.

Seymour refuses to countenance the idea that there are any legitimate antagonisms, even only in addition to the pure racist frenzy driving the mob. Žižek’s stab at metropolitan, liberal condescension is taken simply as a ruse to allow his own racist instincts some veneer of criticality. But really, is it so incredulous that there were genuine frictions over safety and property in this instance? And does to even consider that possibility make one a racist? It seems to me that there is a hysterical, liberal view of racism — in a purely voluntaristic, moralistic register — at work in Seymour’s denunciations of Žižek. Rather than thinking through structurally how racism is intertwined with class, economics, culture and mechanisms that perpetuate real racial divides and concrete problems with race vectors (those structurally constructed and emergent upon racism), Seymour’s absolute scepticism tends towards the liberal position Žižek is criticising, so it is no wonder that he is so upset by Žižek’s repeated criticisms of liberal anti-racists.

What is the deeper explanation for all this? We enter the realm of conjecture now, but I don’t think Seymour’s running battle with Žižek can be disassociated from the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. For a great deal of investment has been made by the party in the last ten years in defending the victimised Muslim, combating Islamophobia, anti-fascist campaigns and anti-racism music festivals, and so on. Indeed, the stock and trade of the SWP has increasingly come to be a variant of liberal anti-racism, with the establishment of permanent united fronts with Tories, rightwing Muslim groups, and so on.  So there is a lot at stake for the party in whether or not liberal anti-racism is the correct paradigm. Žižek has thus become a target for party-political reasons.


How much of the left's energy and finances is invested into producing newspapers and is it for the right reasons?

In the wake of the student movement’s success in stirring up some of the most rowdy street protests and wave of activism witnessed for decades in the UK, the inevitable internecine battles have begun. The division within the ranks has distilled into a war of words between young journalist, Laurie Penny (known for her well written and incisive street reports on the protests), and Alex Callinicos (central committee stalwart and key political theorist of the Socialist Workers Party) — a debate played out primarily on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, along with a meta-debate unfolding across numerous Facebook walls .

Penny’s offending words were an undeniably derogatory comparison between Socialist Worker sellers and cockroaches: “It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.” Consequently, the debate has for the most part centred on whether you need an organized movement in order to effect change, and, as a corollary, whether the print version of a political party’s newspaper is of any relevance for those involved in a networked movement of online blogs, Facebook events and Twitter feeds. In such fashion the question of technology is bundled in with the question of horizontal movement contra vertical, hierarchical direction.

Do online networks constitute a new form of mediating and constructing ideas, impossible for the centrally determined sectarian ideologies of the "old left"?

Furthermore, Penny’s more important point, for which the  anachronistic image of the dogged SW seller is merely a graphic representation of a much deeper jab at the Party—indeed, all Party structures—is that the ideological battles associated with Partys peddling their own, exclusive, ideologically orientated papers is defunct for contemporary political practice. One could even go a step further and read between the lines of what Penny is really trying to say: the only reason they are their pushing their particular paper, that they have specifically published in a print medium, is in order for them to distribute a controlled message in conformity with the specific ideological prejudices of their own Party. Thus, the SW paper comes to stand for a more sinister attempt to collapse the multitudinous particularity of the student movement—what has provided it with such forward movement and positivity—back into the quagmire of the sectarian politics of the “old left”.

Callinicos’ response was to negate Penny’s tabula rasa presentation of the student movement as an absolute break from the impasses and problematics of “old left” politics, and conversely to highlight the continuities suppressed by fixating on the technological medium used to organize – thereby delinking the question of technology with that of organization to highlight historical continuity. He writes:  “The student protests have in many ways been highly traditional forms of collective action. True, the internet and in particular Facebook and other social media have emerged as very powerful means of communication and mobilisation. But what they have helped to deliver were demonstrations that have confronted both the forces and the symbols of the British state, not in cyberspace, but on the streets.” Subtlety, Callinicos bypasses Penny’s central contention regarding the mediation, or outright vacation, of ideological difference, to focus on the historical continuity of the problem of jointly organizing workers and students to marshal sufficient economic and political clout; and how this still overdetermines any attempt to think ‘outside the box’ or in ‘day zero’ fashion.

On his own re-figured ground Callinicos is certainly right: the problems facing the radical left have not been undone via Twitter; the political continuities rendered invisible in the enthusiasm of youthful narcissism are stickier than anyone may want to believe. However, in another way, Callinicos’ answer serves merely to deflect from a greater underlying issue. It is not necessarily just a Twitter high induced, ahistorical mirage that gives the sense that ideological difference has been pushed aside. If technology is considered to operate in the communicative exchange of the superstructural realm, then it is apparent that it does not fundamentally refigure the structural basis upon which so many of the sectarian ideological struggles emerged. What Penny perceives as the irrelevance of ideological differences is therefore just a de facto repetition of what was previously consciously theorised and centrally determined as a moment requiring a ‘united front’: where said differences are put aside for a temporary defensive measure against a common enemy.

Rage Against the Machine Xmas Number 1: people power in defence of the status quo

This points to a more basic issue, not touched upon by either Penny or Callinicos — that the character of the movement, and its resulting organizational forms, are a product of its strategic aims. And this requires a recognition that at present the student movement aims for little more than maintenance of the status quo (or in its most radical fringes, abolition of tuition fees introduced in 1998).  This is by no means a bad thing given that the novel alternative is so obviously worse. But without a positive vision for reordering education, the economy, society, and so on, it is obviously that ideological differences are unlikely to divide the protest assemblage. Yet the very thing that provides the de facto unity of the movement is at the same time its most problematic limitation. It is increasingly easy to rally people in defence of the status quo, but it remains as difficult as ever—perhaps even more difficult—to win people over to a cause to implement change. For example, the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to Number 1 was in one sense an  expression of people power, but at the same time represented the regurgitation of the familiar and the commonly agreed upon in place of a new musical breakthrough. In ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher posits kitsch as the hallmark of the exhaustion emblematic of late capitalism; and could it be that much the same problem — the problems of real abstraction — have subsumed even the internal resistance to the capitalization process.

More than blogs versus newspapers, networks versus Partys, all those concerned with these issues may do well to consider, instead, the conclusion of Nic Bueret writing in The Commune: “Eventually the inspiration of the initial fight and victory will fade, and the content of the revolt will have to stand on its own. If the content of that struggle is only to restore that machine, to defend the freedom to be unequal, failure is all we can hope for.”

Was Plato an archetypal communist intellectual, not for his theory of the Republic, but for his embrace of metaphysics and abstraction?

In 1965 Louis Althusser opened his famous paean For Marx with a withering reflection on French theoretical culture at the time. He bemoaned the fact that ‘we have spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know’.[i] The result of which was ‘the stubborn, profound absence of any theoretical culture’; whereas, he claimed, ‘Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of fundamental investigation’.[ii] For this task Althusser saw as indispensable the role of intellectuals committed to necessary theoretical work.

Of course, nowadays an opposite problem appears to present itself: the apparent aloofness of ‘ivory tower’ Marxist intellectuals, cosseted by a conference circuit of stimulating debate allaying the, in any case long lost, angst about the severing of theory from practice. It is in this context that an either/or situation appears to logically follow: either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades. But in reality the two choices operate symbiotically. The studious academic can patronise the spirit of the hyperactive activist, whilst drawing back from engaged criticism (lest he or she be dragged into actual politics, or possibly dent the heroic will of those ‘daring to act’). Conversely, the activist declines to criticise the academic, seeing them as part of the theoretical/ideological wing of the struggle, happy with the current status quo of mutual non-interference.

The inadequacy of this cold peace between theoreticians and activists is both exemplified and problematised by the question of abstraction, which is not merely a register of theoretical depth, but moreover an intrinsically political question itself. Alberto Toscano’s recent book, Fanaticism, convincingly links the embrace of abstraction—and fear thereof—to the difference between universal, emancipatory politics and liberal-conservative politics. Toscano traces the connection back to the Edmund Burke, who in his denunciations of the French revolution condemned the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’, and ‘the ‘monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects.’[iii] Thereafter, the conservative criticism of Republican, and later Marxist politics, became obsessed by uncovering the will to power of scheming, abstraction obsessed intellectuals attempting to guide the masses’ spontaneous subjectivity to their own, pretentiously altruistic, ends.

Where abstraction links into the present debate is in regard to the foregoing discussion of the autonomy of Marxist intellectual work. Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What has to be done to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing. Without claiming to do justice to Kliman’s talk, the discussion centred on his claim that Marxist politics has been too focused on the political transition to communism, where, on the contrary, not enough thought has been given to the underlying economic basis of value production under capitalism. Most provocatively, he demarked the difference between the political and economic via reference to the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative in Hegel’s Science of Logic. So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.

During the talk Kliman refused to be drawn away from this emphasis on theorising the shift away from value production by discussion of imperialism, the need for a ‘green economy’, and suchlike diversions, giving the whiff of a faintly Platonic air to his project. Some attendants recoiled at the suggestion of the need for abstract, theoretical work, subtracted from really existing struggles. Yet, in Kliman’s defence, one needs to understand his grand career project of rescuing Marx’s labour theory of value to put his call in context.

In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” Kliman shows how Marx’s labour theory of value has been undermined by successive generations of economists as internally inconsistent. Whilst delving into the arcane debates underwriting the question of Capital’s inconsistency is beyond our scope here, the significant point is that like the conservative critique of political abstraction, many of the critics of the labour theory of value have rested on condemning its ‘metaphysical’ concept. Even Marxian thinkers in attempting to rescue the theory have implicitly acknowledged the critique by refiguring it in physicalist terms. The resistance to the abstract concept at the core I think operates on a number of levels. It is not just that the labour theory of value implies, somewhat horrifically, in a precise, scientific sense, that the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation; but, moreover, the sheer absence of intuitiveness to its concepts of ‘abstract labour’, ‘totality’, and ‘socially necessary labour time’ indicates an irreducibly intellectual compartment for understanding the economic base. In contrast to the ‘folk political’ demand to see actual exploitation, actual oppression, or to see the real accounting of profit and production[iv]—to see, touch, and hear their object of study—Marxist ‘economism’ seems to demand a level of abstract thinking, which suggests the separation of the intellectual and the masses.

By implication, accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement. Like Slavoj Žižek’s call for us to repeat Lenin’s pre-revolutionary gesture of studying Hegel’s Science of Logic, Kliman’s project, much as Althusser’s earlier remarks, treat speculation as the highest calling. Whether many are willing to stomach the political consequences of this division of labour is another question.

[i] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, 2005, p. 23

[ii] Ibid., p. 26

[iii] Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism, Verso, 2010, p. xiii

[iv] See Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of Order and Creorder, Routledge, 2009

Photo from the only Modern Movement demo, with Plane Stupid infiltrator in the background!

The following post is composed of reflections and recollections based on my experience inside the short lived campaigning group, Modern Movement, now defunct since 2009. I try to avoid drawing on the immense ammunition my involvement in this group has provided for possible character assassination or ridicule and try to stay at the level of observations fit for the purpose of what it tells us, more generally, about the way the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and its continuity institutions work—an anatomy, that is, of a group straddling the fine line between a committed cadre and a middle class cult.

But first, before these insights, a few good words about my former colleagues. Something which can be said of the new generation of recruits clustered around the Institute of Ideas is that they are on the whole more personable and open minded than the old RCP stalwarts. Indeed, the clique that originally banded together to form the majority of Modern Movement’s members were drawn to do so on the basis of their dissatisfaction with the present line of the continuity RCP’s leading lights—Frank Furedi, Claire Fox, etc.—and a desire for a space to stake out their own unique positions on the new issues thrown up by the 2008/09 financial crisis. From the start they  evinced a solid work ethic and seriousness, which is not to be underestimated. Meetings were kept on time, minutes taken, and names and slogans brainstormed efficiently.

Amongst the leaders of Modern Movement (henceforth MM) there was an unshakeable sense that our initial mission to support the construction of a third runway at Heathrow airport was an important and timely intervention that needed to be made. I might add that I also, and continue to support the general aim of MM to defend cheap flights. Yet for all the formal agreement on ends, the justifications of why we were supporting these aims were exposed to very little theoretical reflection. My sense was that it was supposed that we were all meant to know that flights meant progress, and that was justification enough for the endeavour. Ultimately this lack of theoretical consolidation, alongside the more banal procedural disputes and personality conflicts, led to the group’s eventual dissolution.

It all moved very quickly, and despite the fact that the group was supposed to be autonomous from the Institute of Ideas—it was never merely a front group—those members closest to the IoI quickly assumed leadership positions. These positions were never put to any form of democratic deliberation; moreover, democracy was always considered something of an embarrassing liberal formality, in contrast to the vague ‘Leninism’ the self appointed leaders espoused.

There were numerous examples of this ethos at work. From the highly formalistic meeting at Rob Killick’s workplace, to the insistence that only the ‘leadership’ speak to the media at the public demonstration, to even weirder secret invites to Capital reading groups. Those closest to the IoI seemed to be actively attempting to replicate the attitudes and approach of the RCP as closely as possible. There was a simmering sense of hostility and unease that permeated every meeting; a sense that screws were being turned and covert factions formed—and this before the ideological divisions surfaced. A pre-demonstration meeting came very close to a punch up, as one active group member insisted on a democratic decision as to whether to bring a loudspeaker, whereas the leadership clique seemed to consider the idea that a democratic decision should be made as entirely inappropriate. James Heartfield, who was standing nearby at the time, found this all very amusing, quipping that it ‘only takes two Trots to form a faction’!

Uncomradely behaviour is one thing; ideological infighting is another. One member of the group submitted a comment piece to the Guardian timed to be published on the same day as the demonstration. The text was passed through the leadership clique and to the surprise of the left leaning member all references to MM’s support for airline workers were systematically stripped away, leaving only something that read like a carte blanche endorsement of the likes of RyanAir. Thus, the schisms began to seriously open up.

In the short space of a month or two a left and a right faction of MM started to appear. Broadly speaking the rightwing leadership clique were closest to the IoI, most reverent for the traditions of the RCP, dismissive of democracy, and pro-capitalist. Conversely, the leftwing faction were more insistent on marking a break from the old formulas of the RCP, operating in a democratic fashion and taking an openly anti-capitalist line. These differences came to ahead in the build up to the G20.

MM planned to make two interventions timed to coincide with the G20. Firstly, by having a physical presence during the protests; and secondly, by organising a series of meetings to flyer at the events. In the planning process for the meetings, I came into my first contact with personality cultism. It is a curious phenomenon; one that leaves you feeling both bewildered and slightly pitiful for those under its spell. Things exploded when one member of the left was charged with organizing a meeting and Claire Fox was suggested as a speaker. The member rejected the suggestion and wanting to bring in someone from the ‘outside’. All hell broke loose. Within seconds there was shouting, screaming and almost tears. The idea that someone would not want to bring in Fox or Furedi was deemed to be highly political suspect and almost an insult to the rightwing members in itself.

The bust up probably marked the beginning of the end for this short-lived organization. On the email lists, relations between the left and the right further deteriorated. Members of the right started to flake away, leaving the rightist leadership clique increasingly isolated. And then, suddenly, they just quit. With the scales having tilted decidedly in favour of the left the democratic decision to take an anti-capitalist message to the G20 was too much for the leadership to stomach. They had made it clear from the start that only ‘loons’ go around calling themselves Marxists or anti-capitalists nowadays. In private one had admitted to being a secret, ‘right wing Marxist’ and described the chapter on the working day in Marx’s Capital as the worst thing Marx ever wrote.

In these dying debates it transpired that members of the leadership clique had been circulating our communications to Claire Fox. It was likely to be also on her advice that once MM moved to the left, and thus outside the parameters of IoI discourse, it would no longer benefit the future careers of those people to remain in the organization.

And so in a microcosm there you have a demonstration of the kind of shenanigans favoured by the post RCP. Secrecy, an aggressive ‘Leninism’ based on no respect for democracy, a tight control over ‘the message’, often at odds with the real aims. It could be added that the IoI itself reflects all these tendencies. Essentially a fringe political party in all but name, but lacking even the faintest trace of internal democracy, debate over fundamental principles or tolerance of dissent from Frank Furedi’s ideology. Evasiveness over core ideology is even promoted amongst new recruits; and as such, for all the endless show debates put on by the organization, there is next to no theoretical exposition or discussion of their central beliefs. The ‘line’ spread both inside and outside is that there is ‘no line’ and, as O’Brien tells Winston in Orwell’s 1984, 2 + 2 does equal 5.

The new Routemaster design: a rightwing bus?

Over the past couple of London mayoral contests why has the issue of the London Routemaster bus taken on a weirdly strange prominence? In the absence of any underlying differences between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson’s politics or priorities a semblance of political antagonism has been pried out of the debate over the old Routemaster design versus the bendy buses. One design is positioned as representing the left, and one design that of the right. It represents what we could see as a contest between a decision procedure pitting idealistic principle against hard nosed utilitarianism. On the one hand, emotive and inclusive principles are forwarded on a social justice basis for replacing the Routemaster buses—one injury jumping on and off is too many, they are not accessible to disabled people, and so on. On the other hand, the utilitarian argument accepts that occasional (even if rare) injuries are the price one has to pay for efficient transport and that the interests of the majority are overridden by pressing for universal, if seldom necessary, demands for access to all buses by the disabled population.

Yet there is no obvious class angle here, and so I would question whether there is any left-right distinction to talk of in the debate. Even given the success of a global communist revolution I think the questions surrounding utilitarianism would remain: its exact limits and remit. What is dangerous here, and why I think the left is currently in retreat everywhere against a wave of populist backlash against ‘political correctness gone mad!’, is the abandonment of basic utilitarian arguments to the right.

The same problem is iterated in the climate change debate. On the left climate change is presented as an all-or-nothing battle for survival, with advocates of the do nothing camp placed in the guilty company of the likes of Sarah Palin and the BNP. But surely the question of whether to cut carbon is, like the Routemaster bus, one of a utiltarian calculation. Since it is highly unlikely that class forces will be mobilised one way or the other on the question (since the source of the problem is not, at root, socially antagonistic) it is thus for policy makers a utilitarian issue. That is, weighing up costs and benefits and making a decision beneficial to the majority.

Recently, I have been reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘Cool It’ about climate change. He makes a convincing argument that measures at adaptation would be more cost effective and beneficial than carbon reduction. Indeed, he even raises the point that in many way warming could be beneficial to a great number of people on this earth. I have not read all of the book yet, but what looks likely to be a weakness from a leftwing perspective is the lack of any incorporation of class analysis. We hear a lot about global poverty and absolute conditions of immiseration, but very little about the future standards of living and political strength of the growing industrial working classes in China and India.

There is a similar weakness of leftwing critics of parochical ‘do nothing’ advocates in the West. They claim that this position affirms Western privilege and that Marxist advocates of it have renounced their internationalist credentials. And yet, again what seems to be lacking is any gesture towards a utilitarian reasoning. What may have negative effects for rural dwellers in Africa, may, through the attenuated development of the productive forces in China and India, have positive effects for the growing urban working class and their political prospects there. Of course, this is to grossly simplify the argument, but I hope you get the picture.

The danger is that climate change apocalypticism comes to be the global left’s bendy bus. Something neither representing the interests of the global working class, nor matching up to any reasoned utilitarian calculation of the majority’s interests.

On the uses of fanaticism

Alberto Toscano’s excellent new book, Fanaticism, explores the relationship between the pre-modern, millenarian impulse with the modern political movements following from the French revolution. His central thesis seems to be that the charge of fanaticism is an ahistorical trope leveled across the ages to deligitimize and pathologically psychologise those pursuing radical emancipatory and egalitarian political projects. With the return of the political religion thesis of late in response to overblown threat of political Islam, thinkers like John Gray have carved out media niches regurgitating the Cold War approach of comparing communism, fascism, Islamism, or whatever, to one another and drawing the conclusion that they are all united in their unrealistic hubris based on a millenarian religious impulse.

Ultimately, what this all seems to come down to is an argument that positions pluralistic, liberal capitalism as the unassailable correct line, with advocates of every other position treated as merely flip sides of an infinitely faced coin. In this context liberals’ demonisation of religious political movements cannot be taken innocently as broadly coterminous with the Marxist critique of religion. For what they are opposed to is not just the religious content, but rather all attempts to disjoint the status quo.

Thus revisionist historiography nowadays has to not just rewrite such movements as Bolshevism as an unmitigated evil, but all political movements whatsoever that divert from the linear  narrative of Enlightenment progress to democratic capitalism. Toscano particularly focuses on the story of Thomas Muntzer—Martin Luther’s radical rival during the peasant revolt—but it seems to me that an even more ambiguous and therefore intriguing figure to examine would be Muntzer’s Italian, Catholic contemporary Girolamo Savonarola.

In the recently released computer game, Assassin’s Creed II, Savonarola is portrayed as a totalitarian demagogue demanding absolute obedience to his fundamentalist line.

There is, of course, an element of truth to the game’s portrayal of Savonarola as a fanatic, and one who implemented many socially illiberal edicts. (Although pandering to the video game consumer demographic his ban on sodomy is not given as a rationale for the necessity of deposing him). But in order to force history into a depiction of the opposing forces of Enlightened, rational tolerance versus totalitarian demagoguery, the game’s script writers have to in fact divert from historical truth on a number of other counts. For one thing where the game depicts Savonarola as deriving power in a sinister putsch against the ruling Medici family the fact is that Savonarola was actually given power by Lorenzo de Medici. And where Savonarola is in the game portrayed as attempting to centralise all power in his hands, the fact is that he restored democracy to the city after many decades of Medici dictatorship and asserted his influence through charismatic authority.

The infamous bonfire of the vanities (1496) was not so much simply an act of puritanical thuggery as a high point in Florence’s religious fervour. Boticelli enthusiastically threw one his own paintings on the fire and Michelangelo is recorded as one of Savonarola’s admirers. Even Machiavelli professed admiration for the unarmed prophet’s ability to influence and persuade in the absence of coercive force. Savonarola also railed against the corruption of the Church and became its enemy for his outspoken criticisms. Eventually he was ousted in a coup d’etat by the returning Medici family resulting in his prolonged torture and eventually his public burning.

What is interesting about this story are the ambiguities. Savonarola’s Florence was socially illiberal yet democratic; religiously puritanical and defferent to hierarchy yet scathing about the actually existing religious order. To use one of those ahistorical similes Toscano rails against, if one had to find an analogue of Khomeinian Islamism in European pre-modern history, this would be it.

For the same reason as one needs to be careful with liberal revisionism in regards to Savonarola’s ambiguous story, one also needs to tread carefully in regard to denunciations of Islamism, especially by the likes of Nick Cohen, who drapes himself in the garb of Enlightened leftism. Because just as, I agree, there is nothing much to like about Islamism as a political ideology, at the same time critiques by Cohen and others are wedded to a more general anti totalitarian discourse that warns against all attempts—Islamist, communist, or otherwise—to radically break from the status quo.

The short documentary, The Burning of Girolamo Savonarola, alludes to the necessary caution required with respect to our treatment of political religion. One that Toscano’s book so thoroughly and convincingly explores across a wide historical and scholarly canvas.

Academia: An Epicurean plentitude of good food and conversation?

Graham Harman has responded to my earlier piece on Academic Nihilism. Unsurprisingly, for those who have followed his career advice strand of commentary on his blog, he doesn’t suffer from academic nihilism.

In the piece he sees a certain self flagellating, masocistic tendency representative of ‘killjoy puritanical’ moralism amongst leftists around the continental philosophy scene. He also objects to the argument’s assertion that academics have it pretty good on the whole in terms of salary and working conditions.

This isn’t really a debate that will run and run—since the starting premises and overall worldviews are probably incommensurable. But I do take objection to the killjoy charge. Although there is certainly a tendency around parts of the left to engage in a kind of relentless miserabilism, that is certainly not underwriting this post I hope. If anything, the present author objects to the academic day job (although still desperately hopes that the post PhD world will deliver one) precisely because it is not ‘enriched by good food, conversations with friends, excellent reading, and the teaching of students.’

The Epicurean plenitude of simple pleasures Harman lists here have been somewhat absent in my experience of academia so far. The PhD world seems to be (with, thankfully, a few exceptions) full of weirdly antisocial types whose catchphrases when faced with the prospect of good food, drinks, or conversation seems to be ‘I have to run’ or ‘Have to shoot off’.

To where? Why? Who knows. One would like to think it is because they have work commitments, baby sitters waiting at home, or at least something similar. But that is far from the case in many instances. So why the precocious drift into late middle age?

Similarly, one can’t help but notice that most academics seem a little depressed. Its hard to put your finger on it exactly. Its like a world weary burden that drags them down. However, Harman is right that given the right circumstances teaching can be a joy. Indeed, the life in the undergraduate body is one of the few things that kept me from sinking to the lower depths of academic nihilism in the past year or so.

So I think the killjoy charge is a bit of a red herring.

He probably gets is right, though, that those of us on the left who see things just getting worse and worse ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ do feel pretty barracked up in our monastic academic communities.

But I think the argument—and this is probably my fault for ordering of the piece—goes deeper than just pertaining to political commitments. More fundamentally, it is about the every increasing research and knowledge production that is getting diced ever thinner and thinner to the point where at some point we have to wonder what the point of it all is? As Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting (or something similar at least): ‘If you build a house that’s a house that a family gets to live in; building is an honest profession.’

And is he not right in some way? Could not the weariness that afflicts a lot of academics, the endless gripes about teaching, and the endemic cynicism, actually stem from the realisation of the futility and irrelevance of the majority of intellectual labour? The fact that is merely sinks into an ever widening void; the academic sink hole of proliferating journals and conferences.

I intend to write a further blog post  emphasizing more this political economy aspect of academia. It seems to me that academia nihilism is almost certainly connected to the expansion of university education, and a field of intellectual discourse that has not expanded at similar rate. Hopefully from this angle killjoy charges won’t stick so easily!