Ignatieff is not a Marxist

April 17, 2008

Marx had some trouble with the opening of Capital because he wasn’t sure what the core of the capitalist system was. The conclusion he came to, as we know, was that the commodity form was the basis of what makes capitalism capitalism. When this form seizes labour, capital begins in earnest. Trade in goods does not a capitalist system make – many countries traded goods long before they were capitalist. It was only after the English dispossessed peasants of their ability to live from the land, only after they were forced to sell themselves as labourers, that capitalism began.

I opened with the question of beginnings because I took another look at Michael Ignatieff’s CBC Massey Lectures today (The Rights Revolution) and it seems to me that he suffers from the same problem that Marx did, though he doesn’t know it – and it leads his philosophy in the wrong direction. That is, he starts from rights and moves backwards, rather than hunting the terrain for the proper place to begin and going from there. The end result is, well, liberal thought that portrays itself as neutral fact: “Right’s aren’t intrinsically in the service of either progressive causes or conservative one’s. They’re just there to keep our arguments orderly” (30). Well! If that’s not enough to make you scoff, curse, and gnash your teeth, let me try to give you reason to do so.

Rights and democracy

First, however, let me give some rather lengthy quotes so Ignatieff can himself lay out his basic position:

In the end, we will have to choose between individual and group rights, and I hope to show… why we should allow individual rights to prevail. […]

Certainly some civil inequalities between men and women, between gays and straights, between Quebecois and English Canadians, have been addressed by rights talk. But what about inequalities between rich and poor? One of the strange features of rights tallk has been that it makes visible some inequalities – sexual and linguistic inequalities, for example – while obscuring others – such as those based on class and income. I’m no Marxist, but I am astonished that social and economic inequality…has simply disappeared from the political agenda in Canada and most other capitalist societies. The disappearance has something to do with rights talk. It can capture civil and political inequalities, but it can’t capture more basic economic inequalities, such as the way the economy rewards owners and investors at the expense of workers (19-20).

No, Michael, you’re not a Marxist, (as much as you want to brag about the ‘[bourgeois] socialist passion’ you possessed as a student), and that’s why the economic thread breaks off immediately after this quote to return to a discussion of rights. Ignatieff’s project is not just to track the history of the development of human rights in Canada and it’s effect on the world, but to show how we can’t just go about infringing on people’s individual property rights. But let me show you what I mean:

Group rights – to language, culture, religious expression, and land – are valuable to the degree that the enhance the freedom of individuals. This suggests that when group rights and individual rights conflict, individual rights should prevail. […] So when you engage in rights talk, you are committed to a certain kind of individualism. This has its limits. … I’ve mentioned the difficulty rights talk has in focusing the social and economic inequality that accompanies… market society. Doing something serious about inequality means infringing on property rights. We hesitate to take this step not just because large capitalists have political power, but also because most of us are property holders ourselves, and we use our power in the political marketplace to resist the taxation necessary to make a redistributive dent in inequality. The problem, in short, is neither individualism nor individual rights. Nor is it capitalism. The chief obstacle to making a dent in inequality is democracy (24-5).

Slow down a second here, Michael, and let me get this straight: 1) property rights are sacred rights too, and should be respected. 2) ‘large capitalists’ and their political power are part of the reason inequality exists 3) We’re all property owners too, and avoid paying taxes. This, in addition to those ‘large capitalists’, is part of the issue. But 4) capitalism isn’t the problem. Oh, and 5) we’re only looking to ‘make a dent’ in inequality, not attempt to eradicate the system that engenders it. So the real issue is that ‘we’ hesitate to make changes because we have rights – to property. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is democracy.

For Ignatieff, it boils down to inequality existing because people haven’t voted to eradicate it. Or, as he puts it: “Most Canadians are unwilling to lend their support [i.e. their democratic vote] to serious measures of redistribution. Indeed, such measures are seen as infringements on the rights of individuals” (29).

Beyond democracy

The solution isn’t to get rid of liberal (capitalist) democracy, of course, but to keep with the ‘revolution’:

Modern societies are conflictual: class against class, interest against interest, men against women, workers against employers. In this, Marx was deeply right. Rights are there to help adjudicate these conflicts, and these adjudications are never final. The longing for finality is a reactionary delusion…. Rights bring conflicts out into the open. But there are ways in which they also help us to resolve them. […] Instead of a battle between right and wrong, the conflict begins to be seen as a battle between competing rights (25).

And let’s not forget, “Right’s aren’t intrinsically in the service of either progressive causes or conservative one’s. They’re just there to keep our arguments orderly.”

Now, though Ignatieff seems to like to use Marx’s name, and throw him a few cudo’s here and there (as an homage to his own, past ‘socialist passions’), the ‘reactionary delusion’ he’s talking about is not a reaction against, say, the Russian revolution, but the ‘rights revolution’. But lets remember what Marx (and Engels, via Lenin) says about some of these things. Marx would probably agree when Ignatieff writes that “Gross income equalities in our society may be wrong [hmmm… sounds like he hasn’t decided yet], but they are not illegal” (29). No, they’re not illegal, Michael. But lets talk about something else that “Marx was deeply right” about.

Marx’s aim was to show that the capitalist system was perfectly logical, based on a rational order and not on simple theft. What he saw was that the commodification of labour made it such that the capitalist had the right to demand the commodity he was going to pay for, and that the labourer had the right to dispute what it was that commodity consisted of (i.e. the amount of labour given, the length of the working day). Marx put is this way: “The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser…and the worker maintains his right as a seller…. There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides” (Capital I, 344). So no, Michael, it’s not illegal; but yes, Michael, it is wrong. Capitalism is the problem, because it exploits systemically: even if, under capitalism, a group of workers were able to secure a wage that paid them the value of what they produced, the company would fold, another capitalist would buy it out, and the ‘antinomy of rights’ would begin again.

In contrast to Marx, who saw rights as soluble only in conflict, Ignatieff sees rights as a means to resolve the conflicts between people. Let me turn to Lenin’s State and Revolution, in which he appeals to Engels’ work on the State to smash any ideas we have about it as a benevolent mediator of our rights, to show in what way we can see the falsity of this position:

[The state] is a product of a society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is left into irreconcilable antagonisms, which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power apparently standing above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict and keeping it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arising out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state (Engels in Lenin’s State and Revolution, 273).

That is, the state rises up to quell conflict – and so we have the charter of rights and freedoms embedded in the Canadian Constitution. Now, Ignatieff tells us, as I’ve quoted several times, that ‘rights aren’t in the service’ of any political group in particular, ‘progressive or conservative’, they’re just there to ‘keep things orderly’. We can be sure that rights aren’t things that act, but things used by people when they act. With this I’m sure Michael would agree – he tells of a Japanese judge who turned to Canadian rights discourse as a way of thinking the law in their country. This of course means that rights are the domain of the state. And Michael’s right – the state isn’t intrinsically oriented to the work of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, nor Dion and the Liberals, and not Layton and his NDP. There is a group, however, whom the state does represent, and that is of course ‘the ruling class’ – the people with access to all that capital that floats in and out of our country. So, no Michael, rights don’t intrinsically aid your party or those of your opponents, but they benefit someone – and it’s not primarily the people.

Michael sees the problem of conflicting rights as that of democracy, but democracy isn’t a problem. Zizek, however, does see liberal democracy as a problem. Restricting politics to those sanctioned by the state, the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’, leaves us in the clutches of capitalism. This is why Zizek has some praise for Chavez – he took hold of the state rather than asking it to do what he thought needed to be done. (I don’t know if I agree with his position beyond that – I don’t know much about Venezuela or what Z says about it in his new book): you can’t expect a state with capitalism as it main interests to take care of the needs of those who aren’t primary beneficiaries of capitalism. So no, Michael, you’re not a Marxist. And NO Michael, the ‘rights revolution’ isn’t the end all and be all. We don’t have to stop here – we can attack the thing that you see as the block to equality.

Zizek and Chavez

While some might say (I’ve seen in online in a place or two…) that Zizek just wants to seize power, I think the direction he’s taken follows the classic Marxist line – first the dictatorship of the proletariat, then rule by the people themselves (communism). Hence his remarks on Chavez in the London Review of Books:

far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees).

I think what most people attack here is that the things that are going down in Venezuela aren’t playing out very democratically. I think that, in part, it doesn’t matter: what Zizek is endorsing is the attempt to actually do something other than simply resist the state. It’s here (as in other places) that I think we can again see the influence of Marx or Lenin: even if this attempt fails, it will serve as an important lesson for the future. (If I’ve heard correctly, In Defence of Lost Causes talks about Chavez more. Perhaps this is the position Zizek takes?).


I’d like to add one last thing, for ‘the thing’: In State and Revolution that Lenin talks a little bit about violence with reference to Engels. He calls Engels’ discussion of violence a ‘panegyric on violent revolution’ (283). That is, Lenin saw the end of the state as the end of violence: “we set ourselves the ultimate goal of abolishing the state, i.e. all systemic and organized violence, all use of violence against man in general” (333). This doesn’t mean that violence won’t be needed or won’t be used in revolution – it means that it won’t become a means of governance, as it is now with the state (Canadian state forces beating/pepper-spraying/rubber-bulleting protestors in Quebec and elsewhere; training death-squads in Haiti; providing high-level military consultants for the US in its ongoing occupation of Iraq; Hunting and killing people in Afghanistan; Shooting Aboriginals (Dudley George); Recognizing ‘one China’; etc, etc, etc…the latter done in the face of human rights abuses of course. Harper has several times said he’s brought up China’s abuses to it’s leaser, but we can’t have rights getting in the way of trade and foreign investment, can we!).

I think that holding that violence can be eradicated as a means of action is naïve, but to enshrine it in law is just awful. This is the position Zizek takes on torture (See “Knight of the Living Dead” in the NYTimes): There are instances when it is conceivable necessary – in the face of an immediate threat to lives, it may be necessary to use – but to make it a matter of course is to threaten the norms of decency that we’ve historically earned and shouldn’t give up on. (He holds a similar position on Rights: In “Lenin’s Choice” he argues they should be taken all the way, i.e. not just used as a means of foreign intervention, but used to put American war-mongers in the courtrooms of the Hague). This may sound like a contradiction – well aren’t we just legitimating violence as a means of social change, using violence to end violence? I think we have to see it through Zizek’s Lacanian lens: In “Repeating Lenin” Z writes that violence as a political means is an acting out (he references Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which I havn’t yet read…) in the face of impotence: the Jacobin Terror is for Z the result of not being able to make further changes in the social structures of 18th century France; political assassination comes in the face of being unable to truly act. And in The Tick he argues that breaking from one’s fundamental fantasy will necessarily be violent – i.e. an acting out must be channeled through a political project to become an act, a transference must be used to bring the end of analysis. Zizek does talk about governments that simply fell when challenged because they had nothing left in them, however… I will have to look them up. Maybe I’m still caught in a contradiction…

But so was Lenin:

Gorky recorded Lenin’s very characteristic words spoken after he listened to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!” He then winked, laughed and added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves, I would like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody-for people will only bite off your hand; strike, without pity, although theoretically we are against any kind of violence. Umph, it is, in fact, an infernally difficult task! (Lukacs, “Lenin – Theoretician of Practice”)

There’s of course no comfort in that, but isn’t that the whole thing? There is no guarantee from the big Other, or from the Law: actions must be taken, but we can never know if they are the right ones to take until we make the leap.


P.S.: Monuments

The two pictures that follow are of monuments that can be found on the Gounds of City Hall in Ottawa. The one on the top is “The Canadian Tribute to Human Rights”, and the other is the Anti-poverty monument. One of them is on a main street, the other tucked into a little enclave and on a side street. Can you guess which one that might be?

In the Human rights monument you can see through the arch what it means to be a ‘liberal subject’ – A concrete robot with arms, no face, feet, hands, etc. It’s just an abstract being upon which you tack various human rights – which are listed somewhere on the monument (It’s been a while since I’ve seen it). The anti-poverty monument is a piece of bread that looks like it’s had a house punched out of it from behind, like the outline of a cartoon cat that’s run through a wall. On the inside of this house-outline there is an inscription that goes something to the tune of ‘no equality without material equality’. I think this demonstrates the contradiction at the heart of rights-discourse in Canada (or at least in Ignatieff): The question of material inequality and capitalism has been pushed into the background and forgotten. Trying to find images of these things I went onto the National Capital Commission’s website and downloaded their “Street SmART” brochure that lists various pieces of street art. While the human rights monument is in their, the pink-granite bread is missing…

Canadian tribute to human rights


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