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Recently, a conference was held at Birkbeck College, London on “The Idea of Communism”. The doyen of the movement to reclaim a sense for the word “communist”, Alain Badiou, gave a contemporaneous interview to the BBC in which he graciously admitted that the ‘communist’ experiments of the 20th century had been failures, but explained that the political configuration of the present required reconceptualization involving communist premises. Although the strains of the economic present have resulted in an unusual degree of enthusiasm in the US for what might be called ‘social-democratic’ ideas and institutions, this is not the pairing which I wish to make in connection with our new communists; social democracy in the style of a Helmut Schmidt prides itself on a lack of dialogue with communism, yet since there are worse alternatives perhaps we ought to let it.
Instead, I want to rhetorically ask our new communists, who are also newly philosophical, questions about their core principles in connection with the ‘other’ anti-capitalist left, the socialists who have taken power in various places around the world during the last ten or fifteen years. Though all of these latter make some concessions to the globalized economy, I think there is some point — including in terms of clarity about ‘state socialism’ in the 20th century — to such a rhetorical dialogue, especially for the US left. Barack Obama’s victory has opened a crack in the neoliberal gentlemen’s agreement that brought us both the Clinton and Bush administrations and the encroachment of aggressively capitalist methods on the remaining standards and practices of the New Deal era; it is of the utmost importance that a red wedge be shoved in immediately if we want a leftist alternative to be conceivable in US civil society. Of what kind this implement should be is what I aim to provisionally determine.
Although Badiou makes the fewest concessions of former 68ers to liberal ideology, let us begin with a concept dearer to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt: “constituent power”. Constituent power, a concept deriving from Spinoza, situates the hidden wellspring of sovereignty in the masses and their activity: without a more or less disorganized yet noncapitalist stratum of activity on the level of the “Multitude” our state sepulchres would lack all sense and effectivity. According to them, the communist task is to embrace and amplify the effects of constituent power on society and minimize the effects of state power. Shades of Lenin, actually, not only in the sense of the “withering away of the state” but also “being as radical as reality itself”: so perhaps we should pose the problem of constituent power as the problem of liberation’s connection to facticity, not normativity.
I think that we should indeed do this, not least because the terms “facticity” and “normativity” indicate we are operating in a ‘theoreticist’ register (I am also gesturing at the German title of the “social-liberal” Habermas’ chief work on political and legal philosophy, Between Facts and Norms, aka Faktizität und Geltung). All of our contemporary communists operate within the ambit of a ‘Continental’ philosophy saturated with concepts drawn from the famous noncommunist Heidegger, and one of the ways to span Heidegger’s entire body of work is by describing it as concerned with “the Question of Being” in the form of the human being’s interaction with core reality, the human being’s having a ‘sense of being’ and commerce with material reality that cannot be explained as the drawing of correct inferences from normatively proper premises. Communism, as opposed to an “ethical” socialism, is rooted in the power of what is: bodies, minds, labor, transhumance involving flows of language and culture, but not ‘hearts’ or ‘beauty’ or any other transcendent ideals we must check the real against.
The sentimentally antifascist among us may desire to stay several paces from the Rector of Nazi Freiburg, and why not? A similar dialectic of matter can be developed working more closely with Marx and the concepts of ‘bourgeois’ economic sociology. Max Weber’s ‘cultural materialist’ innovations as against Marx, accepted by thinkers as diverse and politically powerful as the Frankfurters and Bourdieu, consist largely in accepting the premises of “marginal utility” economics. Since attention to marginal utility, developed by academic Junkers, is usually trotted out in canard form as a reason for ‘junking’ the labor metaphysic, the conceptual core of the method is rarely remarked upon. Marginal utility is built upon a Bayesian or ‘subjective’ analysis of probability, one that figures appropriate ‘degrees of belief and desire’ for economic states based on the evidence subjectively available to the agent, not the cumulative frequency available to people in general. Basically, the Bayesian forms his views based on a series of ‘impressions’, not the collective imprint of human history; it forms the basis of Weber’s ‘ideal type’ constructions because it is a type of idealism.
In a formalized version, Bayesianism is critically implicated in the game theory of modern economics; yet heterodox thinkers can easily find a literature devoted to its problems and the reasons for accepting a “frequentist” analysis of probability. (One of Keynes’ major works was a treatise on probability halfway between the Bayesianism of his friend Frank Ramsey and the objectivist chance of Kolmogorov.) Undoing the Humean skepticism of marginal utility and its descendants in our thought about economic reality is a ‘non-Theoretical theoretical’ level on which “the power and reality of the common” can be realized as a genuine force which should be obeyed, not commanded. In this way the communist insistence on the power of collective action (Badiou’s “Events”, the globalized protest movement) to provide a genuine interface to the Real is inspiring. Furthermore, the questions it raises about how seriously we must take the generalized productive power of human groups (as opposed to, say, an ultraleftist fetish for putschism idealistically justified by super-republican systems of representation such as workers’ councils, or its more contemporary congener, an unchecked enthusiasm for the ‘liveliness’ of an often seamy and pecunious counterculture). This could certainly also provide a window into unremarked-upon experiences of the “deformed worker’s states”: the street culture, the prisoners’ amnesties, even perhaps the minimal comforts of the gulag.
Yet this true teacher, practice, reveals that more than minimally comfortable residents of rich countries discovering the joys of ‘communism’ is not the politically powerful answer to the problems of the present. The lessons learned since Chavez took power in 1997 and the tide — we Northerners are perhaps not invited to care whether it is red or pink — spread across Latin America are many and signal; the resistance of Islamic populists to the unreasonable demands of the US and Israel and the more-than-reasonable demands of their mass support are an echo worth considering, though perhaps not at the length encouraged by Europe’s “Arab problem”. The appearance of a “democratic socialism” worthy of the name, with its ‘genuine liberalism’ (Adorno) when it comes to considering the religious and other ideological views of its people, is a more powerful model for revamping the world order than going ‘back to the future’ with neocommunism. Perhaps if we are invited to consider the question “’facticity’ or ‘validity’?” we can say validity becomes a material force when it grips the masses.
I’ve always liked the “canonical” version better than the Spinners version: a tighter lock between the harmonies and the rhythm section. A live video:
Speaking of food, I think the award for “most entertaining Kant work” has to go to Der Streit der Facultäten. Prompted by the chilly reception on the part of Prussian state officials towards Kant’s Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone), Kant’s late attempt at a “natural theology”, The Conflict of the Faculties has interesting things to say about the relationship between philosophy and theology: including a claim that is remarkably unremarked upon, that the critique of pure reason was a “philosophy of the person”.
However, by the time he gets around to the relationship between philosophy and medicine, we are treated to Kant’s diet and exercise advice; perhaps a not wholly serious manner saves Kant’s words concerning the temperature the head and feet should be kept at from being in a class with Nietzsche’s advertisment for morning hot chocolate (“No coffee. Coffee spreads darkness.”) — but sometimes details are indeed extraneous.
Thought for the day: cheesesteaks in The Provinces are made with provolone. However, in modern Philadelphia cheesesteaks are served with some version of Cheese Whiz. In other words, the “authentic” product is more inauthentic, and the inauthentic product more authentic.
A famous (reputed) phrase from the conviction and execution of the great chemist Lavoisier during the French Revolution is “The Revolution has no need of scientists”. If you are a “tolerant wet liberal”, this might well seem to foreshadow Lysenko and other follies of 20th Century state socialism’s great leaps forward; pair it with the observation that Newton’s Trinity College has produced more Nobelists than the entirety of l’hexagon and you’ve got something going. The quote is probably apocryphal, but in this age where “science must not be beholden to ideology” what “illiberal” interpretation could there be?
Perhaps this: the Revolution has no need of scientists, but the converse is not true. Real science needs currents of real political liberalization, not faux tolerance or less, to generate and propagate results: the idea that irrational modes of government beholden to decrepit “tradition” as the going justification are going to get at natural kinds is extremely suspect. For fifteen years or so, a pocket of the scientific community has had a little crush on Nazi science; “their methods were bad”, reason these people, “but the results are unimpeachable”. The real truth, however, is that fascist science is ersatz science the admiration of which “covers” for unjust social arrangements no rational comprehension of the “external world” could vouch for.
The “popular science” of the Soviets, where the position of scientist was viewed as one of the most desirable professions and a great deal of scientific knowledge was disseminated to the masses, was a much more significant achievement than the V-Waffen and homeopathy (Lysenkoism is an argument for the degeneracy of the workers’ state under Stalin, not against the general rationalism of the Soviet mindset). Could we do better? Perhaps, but who really knows what will be involved?
Six months have elapsed, and I’m now available for parties. However, much that the Democrats say and do still displeases me, and there are less jovial questions to ask about the viability of other left formations at present; I might try to join the CPUSA again, but I can already read the People’s Weekly World and vote for Dems by myself.