Friday 10 April 2009

Time to think

The Idea of Communism, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanites, London, 14 March 2009

‘Move over Jacko,’ a Guardian headline proclaimed, ‘Idea of Communism is the hottest ticket in town this weekend’. Despite the fact that tickets cost £100 - £25 more than the tickets to see Michael Jackson at the O2 - demand for the tickets was so great the organisers had to move to Logan Hall at the Institute of Education with a capacity of almost 1,000. Even this sold out several weeks in advance.

This is certainly unusual for what was planned to be a relatively small-scale academic philosophy conference. This prompted lots of discussion about why this was the case: following the credit crunch is communism now back on the agenda and being taken seriously by the public once more?  Will this event give birth to a new philosophy that will be internalised by activists during the predicted ‘summer of rage’? Or does the stellar line-up of speakers make this event the continental philosopher’s equivalent of going to see the Rolling Stones (see them all together in the flesh – as this could be your last chance)?

The crowd was surprisingly young: most were students in their twenties and thirties. In many ways the mood was similar to that at the early stages of the 1 April G20 protests: there was a strong mix of curiosity and anticipation, but no-one really knew why they were there. As one attendee exclaimed to her friends, ‘with a crowd like this, with the economy as it is and with Zizek, Badiou, Negri, Ranciere all talking about Communism… Something’s got to happen’.

But what wasn’t going to happen, as the co-organisers French philosopher Alain Badiou and Slovenian psycho-analyst Slavoj Zizek made clear, was any call for a return to ‘once more to Communism’ or immediate political action. As Zizek argued, in a time of crisis such as this, ‘now is the time to think. It’s crucial to resist the urgency of the call to ‘do something, people are starving, do something’. No, it’s time to think’. And whilst a return to an adoption of the Communist politics of the 20th century is off the table, it was declared by Zizek in the opening plenary that it was safe to come out of the closet: ‘The stigma associated with being a communist is over. All are permitted with no shame to be for communism.’

What does it mean to be ‘for Communism’? It is certain that PhD theses could be written on the differences between the understanding the range of speakers over the week, from ‘token Anglo-Saxon’ Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton to Alberto Toscano, however the common frame of reference was that of Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’ —the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable (2).

The introductory quote to the conference, on all of the posters, is one from Badiou:

‘The Communist Hypothesis remains the good one; I do not see any other. If we have to abandon this hypothesis, then it is no longer worth doing anything at all in the field of collective action. Without the horizon of communism, without this idea, there is nothing in the historical and political becoming of any interest to a philosopher. Let everyone bother about his own affairs, and let us stop talking about it… what is imposed on us as a task, even as a philosophical obligation is to help a new mode of existence of the hypothesis to deploy itself.’

Of even greater concern for Badiou was a perceived need to focus upon the very conditions of existence for such an hypothesis. Despite this, however, Badiou’s discussion of the idea of communism remained - as Peter Hallward aptly characterised things – as if what was being discussed was a Kantian abstract idea largely distinct from understanding of the specificities of the historical period in which we live. Many of the papers delivered took place on this level of abstraction, which – in the case of Hallward for example – gave some important insights into Rousseau’s concept of the General Will. This, after all was a philosophy conference. But it did not constitute the event that the curious audience had anticipated.

Zizek – who, addressing a packed crowd during a warm-up gig at the Southbank Centre earlier in the week, stalled during a discussion about ‘how to act’ and promised answers at this conference – was commendably alert to the lack of a concrete discussion regarding the possibilities of realizing Communism. In the short opportunities for questions after the delivery of three hour-long, consecutive papers, he made an effort to inject ‘spice’ into the proceedings. And it was only during the final session, which was opened by Zizek, that sparks began to fly and very real political tensions between speakers and audience, previously possible to ignore due to the level of abstraction of much of the discussion, became apparent.

Zizek recognised that the majority of people accept the ‘Fukayama-ist’ thesis that history has ended and noted that one could be forgiven for anticipating that those who accept such a thesis will emerge from the ongoing meltdown like ‘awakening from a dream’. However, Zizek argued, this is not going to be the case: the crisis is far more likely to lead to a panic – a ‘return to basics’, which will instead ‘create the conditions for future liberal therapy’. People, Zizek argued, won’t target their blame at the capitalist system itself. Reactions at present make it clear that ‘capital is the most real thing in our lives’. As Zizek pointed out, you can say, ‘Save AIDS patients, stop global warming’, but ‘Saving the banks is an unconditional imperative. Even democracy is suspended – congress gets it wrong and is told ‘the situation is serious, don’t fuck things up with voting’’.

Zizek characterises the contemporary reactions to the economic crisis as endorsing the naturalisation of capitalism as an elemental force. For Zizek this means that we live in ‘apocalyptic times’ with an impending ecological catastrophe, digital control over our lives, biogenetic developments, new forms of apartheid and new models of authoritarian capitalism are cited as some key concerns. Also, memorably, is a dystopian vision of the future where, ‘Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian and Murdoch is the greatest environmentalist’. To counter this, Zizek argues, there is a pressing need for a return to the left.

None of the speakers wanted to ‘write recipes for the cookshops of the future’ – or blueprints for a future Communist age – but it was clear that ecological thinking has begun to shape what a utopian future would look like. Zizek – unlike Eagleton, who hinted at potential limits to the world’s resources that means Marx’s original vision of Cornucopian Communism is no longer achievable – argues for a ‘resolutely modern’ vision of Communist society: ‘Whatever communism is, it’s not a return to mother earth.’ Correcting Heidegger, ‘incessant expansion is the only true goal.’

Whilst one may agree with Zizek’s vision of communism, however, where is the universal class that will drive us forward to this new society? For Zizek, we cannot ‘play a waiting game’ for a new historic class: ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for. Do not be afraid. Join Us. Come back’. Are, we – as Zizek suggests - simply rationalising our inactivity today? Is this due to fear of past failures? More fundamentally, however, who is the ‘us’? The audience Zizek was asking to ‘come back’ and adopt the idea of communism were broadly a post-cold war generation who had no lived experience of what they needed to ‘come back’ to. 

Nowhere was this clearer than when Zizek stood up at the end of the conference and asked for the whole audience to join him in a rendition of ‘a certain song that begins in I and end in E’. This act, he said, would demonstrate that some kind of progress towards Communism, no matter how small, had been made. The audience looked around at each other, muttered and broadly cottoned on to the fact that he was talking about The Internationale. ‘Do you know the words?’ a guy next to me whispered. ‘I think I know the chorus’ another said. ‘I know the first few lines in Italian’ someone behind me said. Despite – as much as anything - a general sense of not wanting to dampen Zizek’s wild enthusiasm, no attempt at a rendition of the Internationale took place. The vast majority simply didn’t know the words.

As one of the very first speakers form the audience over the weekend asked, why Communism? ‘Why not discuss the idea of Capitalism?’ The assumption that Zizek and Badiou were making even that the audience were ‘closet’ Communists was one that needed to be questioned. Even the fierce will and determination of Zizek could not bring together the thousand individuals in the room to join him in singing the Internationale.

Zizek is wrong to try to try the tactic of scaring us to the left through the range of apocalyptic scenarios he paints. He’s right, however, that now is the time to think. Trying to understand the barriers that lie in the way of this ideal these philosophers wish to achieve, the concrete factors that are threatening – as Badiou says – the very conditions of existence of the Communist hypothesis (should one choose accept that term) is a far more pressing task today.

(1) Move over Jacko, Idea of Communism is hottest ticket in town this weekend, by Duncan Campbell, Guardian, 12 March 2009
(2) The Communist Hypothesis, by Alain Badiou, New Left Review 49, January-February 2008

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