Sunday, October 26, 2008

McBama? No, the Communist Hypothesis

I am a communist. We who assert this identity need to think what this means given the communist hypothesis. If we are a communist in today's world our context is the current coordinates of power - what Alain Badiou calls that of capitalo-parliamentarianism. If an "American" communist, the main story at the moment is the election: the formal choice between McCain and Obama. Lenin made the important distinction between a formal choice and an actual choice (see the quote at this blog's header). So the question is, McBama?

Stated, communists everywhere are situated legally someplace, experiencing the formal choices available. Still, we have actual choices based on the communist hypothesis. This is the idea I want to offer for your consideration. I have developed this blog posting using the key ideas of Alain Badiou as expressed in his article about the 2007 election of Sarkozy in France, The Communist Hypothesis, published in February by The New Left Review.

The analysis by Badiou does, I believe you will find, anticipate the truth revealed by the event of Sarkozy's election is being repeated in the election of McBama. But the article is only nominally about elections. What is being clearly signified is the communist hypothesis. This is by definition always global or universal, and what strikes me deepest is what Badiou says about the present task before communists: this I interpret as the allegiance or fidelity to the communist hypothesis now being a revolution of the mind, as such the emerging Neo-MLM.

I wish to introduce the key ideas of the article as they are developed by Badiou and reference them to the nominal topic of this post, the McBama election. But I will begin from quoting from his concluding paragraph, which says it all, before partially unpacking its squeezed content. Excerpts from the final paragraph:

"In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th-century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the ‘service of wealth’, the nihilism of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; the cramped, besieged experimentation of a few groups seeking ways to express the communist hypothesis . . . Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground."

Nothing really need be said in comment about Badiou's concluding words, so let's move on to looking at the sequence of earlier development of the conclusions with selected excerpts; where we get at his precise ideas of the communist hypothesis and the present task of its renewal through the combination of thought processes. Excerpts from the body of the text:

In the McBama question as in the election of Sarkozy is evidenced the truth that the electoral system effectively excludes dissent:

"An initial factor was the way in which the outcome affirmed the manifest powerlessness of any genuinely emancipatory programme within the electoral system: preferences are duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will."

At a subsequent point it seems transferable in the description of the initial fear of the privileged French, the fear mainly that of Republicans: we substitute the American counterparts - the "Mexicans", the "terrorists", the Iranians et al; and substitute for the description of the French socialist, the more "leftward" contingency, the Democrats, with their fear of the fear - the continuing of Bush-ness by McCain and even the frightening cop-ness of Ms. Palin:

"... the fear felt by the privileged, alarmed that their position may be assailable. In France this manifests itself as fear of foreigners, workers, youth from the banlieue, Muslims, black Africans. Essentially conservative, it creates a longing for a protective master, even one who oppresses and impoverishes you further.. the fear of this fear: a fear, too, of the cop figure, whom the petit-bourgeois socialist voter neither knows nor likes.."

I tend to think that in America there is less reading of the press going on, except by the net-savvy, rather there is more talk radio and the likes of Fox, CNN and major networks informing the bulk of the populace about their formal choice of McBama - but is there not the same weakening of the real?:

"We should not underestimate the role of what Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’—increasingly through the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than tv and radio—in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments. Within the electoral process there has, it seems, been a weakening of the real; a process even further advanced with regard to the secondary ‘fear of the fear’ than with the primitive, reactionary one. We react, after all, to a real situation, whereas the ‘fear of the fear’ merely takes fright at the scale of that reaction, and is thus at a still further remove from reality."

Should one think that somehow it is still of paramount importance to exercise ones formal choice in McBama, sadly it may be seen of more pathetic dimension if one seeks the much touted "change" being bandied if one considers if indeed any new possibility is on the table:

"If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apolitical procedure. This can be seen in the gulf between the massive formal imperative to vote and the free-floating, if not non-existent nature of political or ideological convictions."

Will you yet trudge to your voting station, hopeful or hopeless in your McBama determination when you consider that:

".. capitalo-parliamentarianism, [is] ..appropriate for the maintenance of the established order, and consequently serves a conservative function. This creates a further feeling of powerlessness: if ordinary citizens have no handle on state decision-making save the vote, it is hard to see what way forward there could be for an emancipatory politics."

Today in "America the Beautiful" the bailout of banks, rooted in the basic need for housing, is the focus ("its the economy stupid"). It vies even with security concerns at this point, though in fact the predominant use of tax dollars is the drain from war. Yet, despite the unpopularity of the war itself, bilaterally recognized by McBama, the threat of terrorism leaves unquestioned in the U.S. as in France that:

"the maintenance of the existing order with its gigantic disparities has an irreducible military component; the duality of the worlds of rich and poor can only be sustained by force."

What is signified by Badiou in his article is far more important than simply the truth revealed by the formal choices sustained bycapitalo-parliamentarianism described above with reference to Sarkozy's election, or what may be seen its likely repetition in the McBama election. We now come to the actual choices possible in fidelity to the communist hypothesis:

"What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away."

Badiou turns to what it means to be a communist in revolt, in rejection of its formal coordinates of freedom. This begins with analysis of communist history - the following are excerpts from this much longer discussion :

"What remains is to determine the point at which we now find ourselves in the history of the communist hypothesis... The first sequence runs from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune; let us say, 1792 to 1871. It links the popular mass movement to the seizure of power, through the insurrectional overthrow of the existing order... The second sequence of the communist hypothesis runs from 1917 to 1976: from the Bolshevik Revolution to the end of the Cultural Revolution and the militant upsurge throughout the world during the years 1966–75. It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of the possessing classes... the revolution prevailed, either through insurrection or prolonged popular war.. but it proved ill-adapted for the construction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the sense that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the transition to the non-state.. the Cultural Revolution and May 68, in its broadest sense—can be understood as attempts to deal with the inadequacy of the party... 1871 to 1914 saw imperialism triumphant across the globe. Since the second sequence came to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the adversary in the ascendant once more.. The second sequence is over and it is pointless to try to restore it."

A new third sequence is at hand - Badiou appears to have defined for us both the existing coordinates of power as well as the exhausted history of two phases of fidelity to the communist hypothesis. Yet he affirms there remains an excess of creative power in that hypothesis available outside the coordinates of capitalo-parliamentarianism and all its particular manifestations such as the Sarkozy election or the formal choice in McBama:

"it is not possible to say with certainty what the character of the third sequence will be. But the general direction seems discernible: it will involve a new relation between the political movement and the level of the ideological—one that was prefigured in the expression ‘cultural revolution’ or in the May 68 notion of a ‘revolution of the mind’.. our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political experience. This is why our work is so complicated, so experimental. We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere."

So Badiou has now introduced the general direction of the new task for communists. He then proposes a specific modality for the revolution of the mind, a performative requirement for, not merely an assertion of an objective conclusion, that "there is only one world" - again excerpts from his detailed proposal:

"What might this involve?... might be the declaration: ‘There is only one world’. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, of course, that it has created a global order;.. The ‘one world’ of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelming majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. They are locked out, often literally so... The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The ‘problem of immigration’ is, in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other countries provide living proof that—in human terms—the ‘unified world’ of globalization is a sham... The simple phrase, ‘there is only one world’, is not an objective conclusion. It is performative: we are deciding that this is how it is for us. Faithful to this point, it is then a question of elucidating the consequences that follow from this simple declaration... A first consequence is the recognition that all belong to the same world as myself.. we can agree and disagree about things. But on the precondition that they and I exist in the same world."

Badiou anticipates a problematic: yes, there may be "one world" but this cannot exclude personal identity, the fact that we are individually, locally, culturally different from other people too. How is it that this would not engender continued divisions and inevitable conflict? Excerpts from Badiou's answer:

"The question then arises whether anything governs.. unlimited differences.. identity is the ensemble of properties that support an invariance.. Defined in this way, by invariants, identity is doubly related to difference: on the one hand, identity is that which is different from the rest; on the other, it is that which does not become different, which is invariant...The affirmation of identity has two further aspects. The first form is negative. It consists of desperately maintaining that I am not the other... The second involves the immanent development of identity within a new situation... not through any internal rupture, but by an expansion of identity."

Badiou addresses the possibility of both maintaining personal identity while expanding from that core to an experience of human unity using a wide range of examples from invariant individuality - racial, religious, sexual, cultural and so forth. Also he provides living actual events that have and are demonstrating fidelity to the egalitarian maxim of the communist hypothesis. As I said in the beginning, the message also applies to those of us who assert our personal identity as communists - the new phase, the revolution of the mind means not a struggle against the world, but being open to the insight that we are the world.

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