A Return to Communism?
Badiou, Rancière and Žižek lead an all-star cast of speakers at the ‘On the Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck, London
Towards the beginning of his paper at last weekend’s ‘On the Idea of Communism’ conference at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, self-described ‘anomalous sociologist’ Alberto Toscano cited the Observer’s recent review of The Meaning Of Sarkozy (2009) by Alain Badiou: ‘[W]hen he quotes Mao approvingly, and equivocates over the rights and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution,’ the review went, ‘it is hard not to feel a certain pride in workaday Anglo-Saxon empiricism, which inoculates us against the tyranny of pure political abstraction.’ Perhaps the inoculation isn’t as powerful as the reviewer hoped; the article goes on to admit that Badiou’s book is ‘strangely compelling’. In any case, it is an odd time to take a pride in ‘Anglo-Saxon empiricism’, since it is the unreflective, plain-speaking commonsense on which the British commentariat pride themselves that has led to the UK falling prey to the tyranny of another kind of abstraction, that of finance capital.
As you would expect, the current financial crisis was a subject that kept recurring at the three-day conference, and indeed may have partly accounted for the immense popularity of the event, which had to be changed to a larger venue because the level of interest was so high. But more than one speaker warned that it will take more than the crisis to undermine capitalism. As Slavoj Žižek rightly insisted, the dominant narrative of the crisis – whereby the excesses of particular capitalists are blamed, rather than the capitalist system itself – will only enable people to continue to sleep in the guise of waking up. Is it time for a return to communism? And, if so, to which idea of communism must we turn?
‘On the Idea of Communism’ was about Alain Badiou’s idea of communism. 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. The key reference points for Badiou’s anti-statist version of communism are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Jacobins and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The most obvious absence from this list is Karl Marx, and Badiou’s interjection in the closing discussion (see clip below) confirmed that he rejects the idea – fundamental to Marx – that the economic and the political are indivisible. For Badiou, the political must always hold itself at a principled distance from the economic. But is ‘communism’ the best name for Badiou’s egalitarian and emancipatory philosophy? And does the word ‘communism’ have any further political viability?
The two speakers who most emphatically answered ‘no’ to this second question were sociology professor Alessandro Russo and writer Judith Balso. Russo argued that the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the ’80s had its roots in the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s – a revolution that had might have had its epicentre in China, but which actually was manifested worldwide. The problem is that the co-ordinates of this discussion – party-state versus political organization – were set long ago and seem to have little relevance to the current situation. Balso’s model of the ‘state’ was so exorbitant – it included ‘opinion’ – as to encompass anything of which she disapproves. Certainly, Balso is right to highlight the way in which, far from retreating in late capitalism, the state is becoming increasingly authoritarian, with repressive measures against immigrants a particularly nasty expression of this tendency; after the bank bail-outs, though, it is surely clearer than ever that the state is at the whims of global capital.
Terry Eagleton was the only British-born speaker at the conference, and he prefaced his embarrassingly lightweight musings with a sarcastic reference to the fact that, as ‘a mere Anglo-Saxon’, he was honoured to be among such company. Hopelessly out of his depth on a panel with Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Eagleton’s smug presentation, which used familiar Shakespeare references to make the hackneyed point that true communism would be about aristrocratic languor rather than worker-toil, suggested that the UK’s university system is as decadent as its broadsheet media. Shamelessly playing to the middlebrow gallery, offering theory-sceptics an emollient antidote to theoretical abstraction, the implicit message of Eagleton’s presentation was clear: no need to think, no need to bother your heads with all this difficult French stuff.
The difference between Eagleton and the likes of Badiou, Rancière and Antonio Negri was evident in body language and mode of delivery as much as in the content of what they said. In their different ways, Negri and Žižek had the gestural animation of the militant intellectual rather than the complacent posturings of the career academic.
Žižek’s presentation at the conference eclipsed that of Badiou, his ostensible master. It was necessary to begin again, Žižek said – echoing Badiou’s call to rediscover ‘the communist hypothesis’ as if for the first time. Badiou remains a scalding and bracing critic of the present managerialist restoration of power and privilege, but it is difficult to be confident that he is orientated towards thinking the future. By contrast, Žižek’s focus, like that of Negri and Michael Hardt, was very much on how current (apocalyptic) conditions – ecological catastrophe, the crisis of private property brought about by digitization, the impact on human identity of neuroscience and genetic engineering – may lead to new possibilities. Žižek is ready to affirm the emancipatory potentials brought by science-fictional capital’s liquidation of territories and identities. If what most of the conference speakers still wanted to call ‘communism’ is to be achieved, it will require nothing less than the construction of a new type of human being. (Something that this conference, with its punitively long sessions, also seemed to demand: maintaining concentration through three 45-minute papers in a row exceeds the tolerances of the human organism.) As Toscano and Hardt made clear, concepts such as equality and the abolition of property only appear to be self-evident; in fact they are at the moment only dimly thinkable. Theory, in its destruction of the very ‘workaday Anglo Saxon empiricism’ which treats private property and commodities as natural and transparent concepts, must play a role in the construction of this new collective subject.