Saturday, April 4, 2009

John Steele: Revolutionary Faithfulness

This entry of John Steele's item at the Kasama Project introduces a series of articles, one of which I am contributing. Kasama has a very large readership and large number of participating communist writers providing extensive commentary and debate. First the introduction by Mike Ely:

Over the next week, we will be publishing a new series of Kasama essays by five writers — touching on interrelated themes: The London Conference on Communism, the theories of Alain Badiou, the reclaiming of communism, the revolution in Nepal, and the polemical engagement with exhausted forms of dogmatic Marxism. We urge our readers to set aside the time for them.

“In many ways this is the crux of Badiou’s thinking and work, over the past 25 years: how to ‘keep the faith’ in a creative way; how to do justice, theoretically, to a greatly changed world while remaining true to the project of a politics of emancipation.” - John Steele

Here is John Steele's contribution for you to read here but I am sure there will be a lot of interesting commentary starting at the Kasama site location:

Over the past week and more there have been daily posts on this site – news, commentaries, interviews, videos – about and from the recent London conference On the Idea of Communism. The conference, as I understand it, was organized by Slovoj Zizek, who holds a visiting post at the college in London which sponsored the conference, but it was French philosopher Alain Badiou whose advocacy of “the communist hypothesis” provided the governing theme of the conference.

Why was (is) the conference important? And why are Zizek and Badiou important – both as the thinkers and philosophers they are, and as figures within the larger political-intellectual landscape today? And by important I mean important for the purposes around which Kasama is organized: the going-forward of communism, important for reconceiving and regrouping. Those are the questions I want to address in this post, paying particular attention to the thinking of Badiou. Address these questions – not answer them in any final way but open them up for engagement.

A recent report from the Idea of Communism conference posted here[Frieze], noted that

“Badiou doggedly kept faith with the concept of communism at a time, after 1989, when it was both pronounced dead and criminalized, identified with the totalitarianism that a triumphalist liberal capitalism defined itself against.”

Well, one might respond, weren’t there others who did too – many readers of this site, for example, or some left groups and parties around the world? Certainly that’s true, and taking up this question can begin to get at what’s at issue and at stake here. The issue (or one of them) is this: how to respond to a crisis, to a change in the world, to a new situation. We’re all familiar with some wellworn reflexes: the nothing’s-really-changed, or the go-with-the-tide response.

Or you can respond by saying, yes, a new synthesis is called for in a changed world, and then produce something which is not very new and not really a synthesis. And we’re familiar with that response as well.
A Quick Look at Where We Are

The last 30 years have seen the brutal ascendency of capital worldwide – practically, politically, ideologically. For 20 years “the death of communism” has been proclaimed.

Now, in the midst of a capitalist crisis which is just beginning its work of laying waste to people’s lives around the world, a conference is held, organized by Zizek around some of the ideas of Badiou, proclaiming that the participants in the conference “share the thesis that one should remain faithful to the name ‘Communism’: this name is potent to serve as the Idea which guides our activity, as well as the instrument which enables us to expose the catastrophes of the XXth century politics.”

And the theme was expressed in a quote Kasama posted earlier:

“Zizek opened the conference by saying that the time for guilt was over, that in the 21st century we needed to reclaim the name of “communism” from the ill repute into which it has sunk.”

A thousand people, at least, flock to London to the conference, while thousands more – who knows how many? – heard about it, talked about it, read about it, and thought about these questions.

In a word - Wow!

How could this not be something to celebrate, to look at, to pay attention to, to discuss? Doesn’t this provide wonderful openings for talking about communism – not preaching, but really getting into these topics and concepts, including the ways in which the people who spoke at this conference unfold their thinking? How could this not be an important event in the political-intellectual realm?

But I know there are those – and I keep being surprised by how many – who don’t see it this way. So let me try to explain why I do.
A Changed World

I have myself been very excited, over the past several years, to discover and begin studying Badiou and Zizek. These are genuinely innovative and radical thinkers: radical intellectually and radical politically. They’re exciting in both those dimensions and particularly in the combination. It’s not just that their work is interesting and exciting (as it is); it’s necessary work – or at least work of this sort, and this sort of depth, is profoundly necessary today.

Maybe I can begin to make clear why I believe that’s so, by playing it off against two viewpoints which take up positions to the contrary, which I’m going to enunciate in a fairly crude way just for the sake of argument and contrast:

The first is that we don’t need this sort of purely theoretical or philosophical exploration; we need actual struggle (and real communists should be engaged in, or organizing, such struggle). And we’ve seen this expressed a few times on this site.

The second might be put as, we need theory, but not what people like Badiou and Zizek are doing – we have Marx (Lenin, Mao – or Bakunin - or Trotsky – or Avakian) – that’s what communism is all about: those principles, those theories, which we already have. So what’s Badiou’s problem with that?

The crux of the matter is this: Although seemingly viewing the question from opposite ends, these positions are two sides of the same coin. This coin could be characterized in various ways. But rather than throw labels around, I’ll just say that mostly what this is about is not seeing that the world has changed, and how much it has changed, and what that requires of us.

How has the world changed? A huge question, of course, and I’ll only point to a few features and indications.

Economically, the world is still is still capitalist (duh), and in fact more widely and deeply than it was 30 or 50 years ago. But the structure of our capitalist world is very different than it was 15, or 30, or 50 years ago. The structures and circuits of capital have changed, as has the structure of imperialism.

The world has seen huge demographic shifts in recent decades: massive urbanization (more than half the world’s population now dwells in urban areas – an historic shift) and great flows of human migration both within and between countries. The roles that different populations and age groups play has shifted, as well as the roles and social positions of women. Look at the demographic shifts in this country: by 2050 whites will no longer be the majority in the US – a dramatic marker of some of these rather rapid changes of recent decades.

The structures and dynamics of communication and social interaction have altered and shifted.

And intellectually too. Take any field of study or investigation, from physics to anthropology to history to philosophy: the prominent theories, the terms of reference, the axis of discussion and dispute – all these things have changed, often fairly radically, over the past, say, 40 years.

The question is not whether these changes have been for good or ill (or to what extent it divides into two); the point is that the intellectual landscape has changed.

Nothing is timeless, nothing is changeless (a clich̩, to be sure, but worth keeping in mind) Рnot in the physical world, not in the human social world Рand not in the intellectual world of concepts and theories.

If one is to navigate and do work in a changing world, your tools, including theoretical tools, have to undergo change as well. Or let’s approach it from the other side. Of course, if we hope to change the world we have to be very aware of what’s happening around us, and we have to understand it, not just perceptually, but conceptually as well. But in that case our concepts cannot be hidebound or remain static. This seems obvious and unexceptional enough.

But there’s more to it than that.

It’s not just that a changing world requires changing concepts; it’s that the concepts will change in any case. The intellectual world, and each individual’s conceptual apparatus, is not separate from the larger world, but part of it, and changes unavoidably. Even those who “stay the same” are changing in fact. First because the context changes: my beliefs in context y are no longer the same as they were in context x simply because what they mean in the new context is not the same as what it was in the old. An obvious example - the meaning of a “golden oldie” played on the radio today versus its meaning in the context of the time in which it originated.

As the world changes, the social landscape of human thinking changes too. This is part of the materiality of human thinking, that it is essentially social and that like the larger world of which it is a part, it changes, and its changes have a relationship (complex and far from one-to-one, but a relationship) to the changes in the larger world.

There’s much more to say and develop around this topic. But for the moment, just one more thought. In adapting what we have to new circumstances, there’s obviously no ready-made process to arrive at a needed “new synthesis.” But one thing that’s certainly necessary is ruthless criticism of previous automatic assumptions. Or the seeking out of critiques from others, and taking them seriously.

Hanging on to what we believe we know — doesn’t this sort of defensive hugging-tight pretty obviously betoken a lack of confidence in those very assumptions? Of course even worse is the “back to the basics” old-time religion response – not just because it’s mistaken, but because it’s a self-deceptive illusion. An old idea in new circumstances is not the same idea as it was originally.

There’s a further twist to this, though, in the contemporary situation. For it sometimes seems that nothing has so perversely marked our era for some time now as the endless recycling of themes, songs, tropes, styles, forms, genres, what-have-you — a proliferation of endless variety in which “everything old is new again” but nothing is actually new. One effect is that these floating signifiers, these themes and motifs and icons detached from their original context, lose their heft and weight, becoming imbued with an implicit irony. And this can equally apply to revolutionary symbols and ideas. A push against the outrages of the present, accompanied by admiration of great movements from the past, is often enacted through the icons and thematic statements of those movements — which can quickly become a form of camp, dressing up in old uniforms, as it were.

We really have to be part of creating something new.
Theories and expectations

A new world requires new theory. Sometimes the realization starts with the question, Why is the world turning out so differently from what I was expecting?

In the 1970s, many of us expected (I expected) revolutionary struggle, or certainly very major social upheaval, in our lifetimes, in the US and around the world – and sooner rather than later. Many of us thought that “revolution is the principal trend in the world today.” And we thought that this struggle would be guided by revolutionary Marxist theory and ideology of some variety.

In the 1980s many expected world war, or nuclear war involving the US and USSR.

In the 1990s a “movement of movements” oriented around the struggle against capitalist globalization seemed to many to be the revolutionary wave of the future.

Some wrong (or at least completely unuseful) reactions to all this would be “Wow, you guys musta not had a clue, thinking any of that was on the horizon,” or “So I guess it just goes to show you never can tell, and it’s pointless to try to figure it out.”

In fact none of this was wrong to expect – in the sense that the seeds of such developments in each case, or a dynamic pointing in that direction, were present. And of course those who expected there to be no real change from the status quo of the time, or those who projected other tendencies into the future, were equally wrong. But more than that, these expectations arose within the context of real movements for justice or of resistance; and to see, feel something developing, to throw yourself into a struggle for justice and liberation, to expect, to know that it can succeed even against long odds – that’s never foolish, or wrong. On the contrary.

But still we have to deal with failures of struggles and the turnabouts of history. And there are many ways to react to these, and to the unexpectedness of the ways in which history has actually developed. Most obvious is the need for analysis. Why did it happen, this unexpected turn of events? What was it we were not seeing? This goes further too: I would venture that any new creation will also involve a recasting of the past. Something truly new now will involve not only a new vision of the present but, inevitably, a new vision of the past as well.

We also clearly need to look at our theoretical equipment. We approach everything in life with a whole theoretical apparatus already in place, some of it explicit, much of it implicit. A crisis in our lives, a sharp turn historically, has got to make us reconsider what we thought we knew, theory as much as fact. If it doesn’t, we’re just being willfully blind, or stupid, or both.

Of course a crisis can sometimes provoke betrayals, the turning aside from a great project, going with the reactionary tide or into the enemy camp – that’s common enough, and easy enough to understand. But a blind or unthinking fidelity to “the principles laid down” during times of great changes of circumstances is not a true alternative. And neither is any sort of simple picking up and recycling of the great ideas of the past.

In many ways this is the crux of Badiou’s thinking and work, over the past 25 years: how to “keep the faith” in a creative way; how to do justice, theoretically, to a greatly changed world while remaining true to the project of a politics of emancipation.

I quoted a commentator above to the effect that Badiou had “doggedly kept faith with the concept of communism,” which is true, yes; but it’s also much more complicated than that. I don’t intend to really enter into Badiou’s philosophical concepts here. (I’ve written a bit earlier – here and here – and I intend to write more in future.) But I do want to say something pointing to why Badiou is someone who should have our attention and is worth our study.

Faithfulness or fidelity is a prominent concept in Badiou’s thinking. When one becomes involved in what Badiou calls a truth-process (and a revolutionary process and project would be an example), there is a matter of keeping the faith with the process to which one has committed, of fidelity to the unfolding of the truths of this process and making them real. But no process lasts forever, and at some point it may reach an impasse, the end of its fruitful development – become what Badiou terms saturated.

One might say (although Badiou would not it put it this way) that in such a case the parameters of the world have shifted, so that the project to which one has maintained fidelity, with its particular vocabulary, its projections and expectations, its hard-won truths – the whole project seems stuck, doesn’t offer new possibilities, ways of going forward creatively or effectively. (And isn’t that the way things have been for many of us, for some time now, politically?)

The question is, what do you do, what can you do, when a process becomes saturated? Badiou talks about this in an interview of about three years ago:

“I think a fidelity does not really finish, but sometimes it is saturated; that is my term for it. There is a saturation; you cannot find anything new in the field of your first fidelity. Many people, when this is the case, just say, ‘It’s finished.’ And really, a political sequence has a beginning and an end, too, an end in the form of saturation. Saturation is not a brutal rupture, but it becomes progressively more difficult to find something new in the field of the fidelity….

“When the fidelity is saturated, you have a choice. The first possibility is to say it’s finished. The second possibility is this: With the help of certain events…you find what I name a fidelity to the fidelity. Fidelity to the fidelity is not a continuation, strictly speaking, and not a pure rupture, either. We have to find something new. When I was saying yesterday that ‘from outside, you can see something you don’t see from inside’, that’s merely a rule by which to find something new.”

Fidelity to the fidelity – that’s a valuable concept: not a catch-phrase, but a concept that deserves exploration, deepening and discussion, both within the context of Badiou’s systematic thought and outside it. And there’s much more, of course, in Badiou, that’s potentially very valuable in a project of reconception and regroupment – concepts of event and subject as Badiou conceives them – all of them highly interrelated as Badiou conceives them, and deserving of real exploration and study.

This world we face is one of crisis and injustice and momentous changes – and of inspiring struggles, too, and people dealing with the same problems of theory and practice that we are, in different forms and circumstances. We need to learn from them, from all who are pushing against the fabric that binds us, and seek to be part of the creation of new forms, both theoretically and practically, seizing the courage to climb the unexplored mountain, in the words of our comrades in Nepal.

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