Political Marxism

August 24, 2012

This blog revolves around the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood, David McNally, Robert Brenner, Heide Gerstenberger, and others.

Ideology is Cocain

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Teaser – Strike as Symptom

November 19, 2009

Here’s a few of the opening paragraphs from the Gorgon that I’ve been creating about the strike at York (carefull, you may return to stone, Freud styles):

What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one. – Lacan

What if democracy, in the second sense (the regulated procedure of registering the “people’s voice”) is ultimately a defense against itself, against democracy in the sense of the violent intrusion of the egalitarian logic that disturbs the hierarchical functioning of the social system, an attempt to re-functionalize this excess, to make it part of the normal running of things? – Žižek

Mid-way through our recent struggles a member of 3903 sent an email across a departmental list-serve pleading people to come to their senses and bring the strike to an end, and in so doing admonished people for getting-off “on this labour action stuff.” There were people who called this statement belittling, while another asserted that it needed to be acknowledged that there were in fact people who “got off” on striking. Rather than so quickly dismiss the possibility that “getting off” on political action is productive it is worthwhile considering in what way, in the context of the recent strike, “enjoyment is a political factor.”

Recognizing enjoyment in its political dimensions is, of course, the basis of the work of Slavoj Žižek. Rather than seeing it as an impediment to effective politics, as an obstacle to making rational decisions, he attempts to understand it in both its productive and destructive capacities – capacities that are not as contradictory as they may seem.

For Žižek the ethics of the political culminate in “enjoying one’s symptom.” At one point he evokes an episode from Rysard Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun as an example of this logic. Driving to Onitsha, Nigeria to visit its market, Kapuściński encounters a traffic jam that stays his progress. Stepping out of his car to follow the line of vehicles that waits ahead of him Kapuściński finds the source of the problem: a gaping hole has opened in the road. The only way to continue is to wait to have someone drag each vehicle down into, and then up out of, the muddy crater. Along with the hole, however, he finds a bustle of activity: newly painted hotel signs, vendors and people gathered to simply socialize. Žižek writes that “the hole had become an institution. …a ridiculous contingent and meaningless obstacle triggered a swarm of social activity; people started to enjoy their symptom” (Žižek, 2002, 254).

It’s not hard to see parallels in the recent strike: around the gap that separated us from the administration (and ourselves) arose a social and administrative institution: a new office with new “staff” (i.e. rank-and-file members); large plywood shacks constructed at each of the university’s seven entrances; food and coffee service; pick-up and tear down crews; frequent internal and external communications; radio-banter (who stole the cookies?); collections of media-vans at the main gate; the York is Us collective and the Unit 2 communications group; musicians, actors and a mime that traveled from line to line; the writing and performing of two short plays about the strike; frequent and well attended General Membership- and Steward’s Council-meetings; members of the community delivering doughnuts and stopping to talk (or, it must be admitted, threatening us with knifes, bottles and cars); and last but not least, the creation of new friendships and the continued presence, post-strike, of red felt-squares on the coats and bags of strikers that identify people as members of a political community. As for the hole itself, it should be noted that the York campus was largely empty – the strike was coupled with a lockout, where all classes were cancelled.

[…]

 

The Master’s Knave: S2 for the good of S1

In 1972 Istvan Meszaros was contracted to take a post at York University as a professor in the Social and Political Thought programme (i.e. my program), but was denied entry and permanent residence to Canada on the basis that his presence was not in the public interest. He was branded a security risk. Though in the end he did successfully take up his position at York, he shortly thereafter left because the Canadian Government made it nigh impossible for the rest of his family to follow him.

Meszaros was a student of Georg Lukács. While Lukács was both a theoretician and a member of a communist government, Meszaros was only the former – he held a position at Sussex University and had a reputation as a respected Marxist scholar. I bring up Meszaros’ case to point to a contrast with the way Marxist thought is treated today: whereas in 1972 left-wing thought was dangerous enough to merit keeping prominent Marxist scholars out of the country, today the Canadian government funds Marxist scholars to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. This contrast demands an answer as to why.

Meszaros and Chavez

Meszaros and Chavez

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The unambiguous “red” thread (both of Ariadne and Marx) that runs through Zizek’s work is the attempt to rescue universalism from naysayers of all sorts. A major core of this project are his discussions of the importance of the Cartesian subject. At one point, (I can’t remember where) he chastises Adorno and Horkheimer for not being historical enough in their denunciation of Descartes, in their claims that the Cartesian subject is the root of instrumental rationality and the destructive tendencies of modernism. Ellen Wood’s brief treatment of modernity and enlightenment in The Origin of Capitalism is highly enlightening on this point, providing an historical account that separates the universalism of the Enlightenment as it appeared in feudal France from the ideology of improvement that accompanied modern thinking in capitalist England. That is, she attempts to show that some of the core values – notably the progressive values of modernism – are in fact the product of a non-capitalist system, and suggests (she makes a point of making it clear that she does not consider her discussion a fully fledged argument) that the root of instrumental rationality is more likely to be traced to the philosophies produced under a capitalist one.

One of the first divisions that need be pointed out is that ‘bourgeois’ does not (or at least did not) refer to capitalists, but city dwellers. “Bourgeois” in absolutist France, for instance, were professionals, office holders and intellectuals (184). This means that something like the French Revolution, which is held up to be one of the culminating points of the Enlightenment, was not a revolution of a capitalist class over aristocrats but of professionals, etc. who wanted access to the offices of the absolutist state in order to make their fortunes. It is here, of course, that we find the discussion of universal suffrage and the rights of man at the centre of political discourse.

Wood points out that many of the biggest know Enlightenment thinkers in France were aristocrats, not capitalists, while in England they were closely linked to capitalist expansion. In France, she argues, one finds Cartesian rationalism and rational planning, in England one finds empiricism (think Hume) and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – i.e. the anarchy of the Market. In France, the ideology of universal human emancipation; in England the ideology of ‘improvement’ (i.e. making land profitable). She points to the French “Gardens of Versailles” and English “natural” landscape gardening as the cultural expression of these two versions of modernity.

A formal French garnden

A formal French garnden

An English landscape Garden

An English landscape Garden

While she acknowledges that there were overlaps and cross pollinations, Wood wants to show that the above were the dominant trends and that they accompanied very different economic logics. In this way she seeks to show that the emancipatory legacy of universalism as it appeared in France is worth keeping and shouldn’t be conflated with ‘capitalist logic’ or capitalist ideologies.

It’s worthwhile to note that the classic (Leninist) trivium runs English pragmatism, French politics, German Philosophy: it was Kant who synthesized the rationalism of Descartes and the “radical empiricism” of Hume; it was Hegel (according to Zizek) who was more Kantian than Kant, thereby completing the Kantian project; it was Marx who made Hegel walk on his feet and synthesized English political economy, French political thought (think The Eighteenth Brumaire of L.B., etc.) and German philosophy. Given the argument that Wood presents, the question that must be asked is in regards to the economic situation in Germany – i.e. what was it? That I can’t answer, but I suspect its beginnings can be found in a paper by one of Woods students, George Comninel, in his “Marx’s Context” (History of Political Thought, 21:3, 2000)

From Marx’s introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law:

…the German conception of the modern state, which abstracts from real man, was only possible because and in so far as the modern state itself abstracts from real man or satisfies the whole man in a purely imaginary way. The Germans have thought in politics what other nations have done. Germany has been their theoretical conscience. The abstraction and arrogance of Germany’s thought always kept pace wit the one-sided and stunted character of their reality. So if the status quo of the German political system is an expression of the consummation of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, then the status quo of German political thought is an expression of the imperfection of the modern state, the damaged condition of the flesh itself (Early Writings, 250-1).

The broken body made whole in the imaginary; Germany as superego; and the constitutional monarch as Jesus FTW!

One of the central tenets of Wood’s book is that capitalism is different from feudalism is several respects – most importantly that under capitalism the market acts a compulsive force, while under feudalism it is and opportunity to be taken; that under feudalism property is “politically constituted” and surplus is extracted via extra-economic means (law, force custom), whereas under capitalism the property relations legitimized by the state constitute it such that the economy becomes its own means of surplus extraction. The consequences of this thesis are felt in regards to the state as well as ‘modernity’.

In the case of the former, one must first take into account the contradictions that are part and parcel of capitalism. Wood mentions at least two: first, proletarianization created a market of people that needed to buy the basic means of survival (where the would previously have made these necessities themselves), but were too poor to pay much for these necessities. Capitalists then had to produce their commodities in large numbers to make these goods cheap enough for these people to afford (i.e. rely on economies of scale). This created the need to increase labour productivity. Based on this Wood concludes that “This was, in other words, the first economic system in history in which the limitations of the market impelled instead of inhibiting the forces of production” (140). Or as Marx describes the significance of capital’s internal contradictions in the 3rd volume of Capital, “the limit of capital is capital itself.” This logic is proven to be that of the other contradiction Wood presents.

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This may not be to people’s tastes, but what about putting together a panel for the upcoming Historical Materialism conference in NYC on Zizek, Marx and Method?

I told you so

The conference is more or less about the resurgence of interest in Marx, so I think a panel on Zizek would be pertinent.

It would also give some focus to the next few rounds of readings…

Marx 100-Mark-1971

P.s. What would Marx have thought of having his face on money??

 The recognition of the Party by the proletariat is not a pledge of allegiance to certain individuals. It requires, in turn, the recognition of the proletariat by the Party, i.e., not the submission of the Party to ready made opinions of the proletariat, but statutory design of giving them access to political life. This exchange where no one commands and no one obeys is symbolized by the old custom which dictates that in a meeting speakers join their own applause to the applause addressed to them. This happens because they do not intervene as individuals and in their relationship with the listeners there arises a truth which does not belong solely to the speakers, and which they can and must applaud. The Party in the communist sense is this communication, and such a conception of the Party is not a corollary of Marxism but the centre (Merleau-Ponty, “Western Marxism” in Telos, #6, Fall 1970, 140-161).

Great punchline around 22 minutes into this video.

Discipline, Thought, RED

April 8, 2009

In the last Issue of Upping the Ante there was a review of Defense of Lost Causes that I pointed out to a few of you. For the next issue I was asked by one of the editors to write a response to the review in the form of a letter. In an attempt to avoid a ‘battle of the egos’ I wrote something more-or-less unrelated to the review… and was told to rewrite it. What I ended up with was something that I think has a few good points in it, but nonetheless serves as an intellectual battle cry (though a weak one).

This is exacerbated by the edited version of the letter that is to be published later this month (or early the next). Below is the full version of my letter, as well as the author’s response to that response. The letters are posted here that the dialogue might continue. (The author will soon be added as an admin to the blog.)

As letters, they have the interesting strangeness of being directed to a non-person, the journal as such. I’d like to continue in that vein. Like the speaker of the house in the Canadian Parliament, “dear UtA” can act as the “symbolic medium” by which we discuss, without having to attack each other at the level of the ego… (“Mr Speaker, my worthy opponent…”)

[On second thought, ‘the speaker’ probably stands as the ego-ideal through which to attack another ego…]

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This looks like an interesting conference…  wish I could actually go!

On the Idea of Communism

Speakers:
Judith Balso, Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels, Terry Eagleton, Peter Hallward, Michael Hardt, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, Alessandro Russo, Alberto Toscano, Gianni Vattimo, Wang Hui, Slavoj Zizek