Re-booting Communism Or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy – I
Today, 13 March, a whole galaxy of philosophers and theorists got together for a three-day conference “On The Idea of Communism” under the auspices of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London University. The Conference opened to a jam-packed hall where all tickets had sold out (no jokes, this was a ticketed show where the likes of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jean Luc-Nancy, Toni Negri, Jacques Ranciere, Terry Eagleton and many many others are to perform on the ‘idea of communism’). The huge Logan hall with a capacity of about 800-900 was so packed that the organizers had made arrangements for video streaming in another neighbouring hall – and that too was half full! Very encouraging in these bleak days.
The conference began in the afternoon with brief opening remarks by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. Badiou made his general point (see below) about the continuing relevance of the ‘communist hypothesis’. Staid and philosopherly. And then, Zizek. Clearly, in the five brief minutes he spoke, he was the star – a rock star playing to the gallery and the gallery responding to him as it would to Michael Jackson (who, one of the organizers said was being given a run for his money by the communist conference, or so the Guardian said!). As a matter of fact Zizek and his audience seemed already tied in a bond of performing for each other. This once post-marxist but now relapsed marxist philosopher-theorist thundered, gesticulating with every word he spoke: “We must resist the temptation to act. We must refuse being told that children are dying of hunger in Africa or in the slums of India, for this is the philosophy of the present times. They don’t want us to think.” And he went on, amidst cheers from a hysterical audience, “We must do, you must do what Lenin did in 1915, after the war broke out, after th failure of the Social Democratic parties. He went to the library and started to read Hegel’s Logic. And this conference should be our moment of reading Hegel’s Logic. How much polemic is compressed in this one statement was of course evident only to Zizek followers, for he was not just making the simple point about reading and thinking as opposed to mindless ‘doing’ that is the mantra of our times; he was also polemicizing against all kinds of anti-Hegelians: Althusserians, postmarxists like Laclau and Mouffe, poststructuralists, Deleuzians and so on.
The background to the conference is an ongoing exchange between Alain Badiou and Zizek on the idea of communism. Badiou’s piece which kickstarted this debate appeared in the New Left Review shortly after Sarkozy’s electoral victory in France. In itself a very ordinary piece, it seems to have quickly become a major reference point for Left-wing discussions as it argued – courageously in this day and age – for the continued relevance of the communist idea. Badiou argued in this piece that Communism (or what he calls the communist hypothesis whose history stretches from the revolt of Spartacus to the present) was still relevant today. It was relevant however as a regulative ideal, not as a programme and that many of its earlier beliefs (like the party-form) had become redundant. Enter, at this point, the priest of Ljubliana, the new postmodern Stalin. Zizek, it may be recalled, rapidly reinvented himself after his initial post-marxist forays into theory. He took up cudgels on behalf of Marxism and revolution, claimed to ‘repeat Lenin’ and unabashedly claimed that the Truth of Marxism is only visible from the truly proletarian standpoint! Lest I be misunderstood, I quote here from the man himself: “Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided.” This could well be said of Islam or Hindutva – that its ‘universal truth’ can only be articulated or grasped through the partisan standpoint of the believer. And this is merely one of the many such statements that Zizek has made including his infamous ‘plea for Leninist intolerance’.
How could this Zizek accept the mild philosopherli-ness of Badiou’s position? So, he entered into a debate with Badiou. Communism as a mere horizon, without a programme? Isn’t this a mere Kantian regulative ideal? Truth to tell, Badiou’s piece itself is pretty orthodox, philosophically speaking, but Professor Zizek would have none of that. Communism is a programme, he had proclaimed. And the backdrop for the present conference was set up.
Today’s sessions had three presentations: Michael Hardt of Empire and Multitude fame, Bruno Bosteels, editor of Diacritics and Peter Hallward. Hardt’s presentsation was the only one that actually dealt with the ‘real world’ of contemporary capitalism and spoke about the new conflicts between two forms of property – material and scarce property versus immaterial and reproducible property. Hardt argued that some passages in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts also talk about conflict between two forms of property – immobile like land versus the new capitalist property embodied in the commodity form. He underlined the need to understand the political econ0my dimensions of contemporary transformations as also to recognize how capitalism was once again bringing forth its own ‘grave-diggers’. For an otherwise sophisticated presentation, it was strange that Hardt did not find it necessary to even refer to what happened to the earlier grave-diggers and whose grave was eventually dug! Partly this was the consequence of the atmosphere that prevailed there in a mehfil of the faithful.
Other presentations were disappointing. Bruno Bosteel’s because it was an orthodox restatement of the marxist-leninist position, despite repeated gestures to philosphers’ like Delueze, Agamben or Foucault. Peter Hallward’s entire presentation was fixated on the experience of the French revolution and Rousseau, Saint-Just and the Jacobins. At the end of the day, one marvelled at this discussion on communism in the twenty-first century which could conduct itself entirely with reference to a certain textual tradition and a certain European history. The idea of communism, if it has to have any relevance at all, can hardly be elaborated without reference to the ‘real movements’ of our times. The conference also displayed virtually no awareness of the fact that in our times, issues were much more complicated than mere capital-labour conflicts. Take for instance the new Left wing formations in South America where the indigenous leadership has led the re-emergence of the Left, representing interests of indigenous people, cocoa growers and on issues such as water privatization. Islam and Empire constitute yet another pole of the contemporary which was far away from the minds of both the speakers and the audience who asked questions (except one questioner). At which point I turned to take a look at the composition of the audience. Not one black in the audience. Some sprinkling of East Asians (four of five) and some South Asians in similar numbers.
The question then: Does this composition say something about the direction in which our thought is going? Does the radicalism of the white liberal have anything to offer to the non-white? Some years ago I had heard Alain Badiou speak in Princeton. There the audience was not communist. And it was not a ticketed show but free. There were Palestinians, north Africans and many others in the hall and Cornell West on the dias. Badiou, the French radical philosopher found himself beseiged after his talk – during the question answer session. Badiou had spoken grandly of why “9/11 was not an Event because it did not enunciate anything new” – a particularly Badiouan notion of event this. Half an hour into his talk, he was smuggling in old universalisms into his exposition, representing 9/11 as Evil. A woman student, possibly Palestinian, got up to ask him why then was Osama bin Laden considered a hero among a large number of people across the world. (By the way, I had been told just a few days ago by Sinclair Thomson of New York University, who had just returned from Bolivia that pictures of bin Laden and Che Guevara could be seen together in many places in the Bolivian capital.) Badiou, ably assisted by Cornell West tried in vain to answer her, giving rise to more and more questions in the process till someone asked: “What then does your universalism say regarding this complete lack of ability to understand the other?”
No such questioning or interrogation was possible today. It was a comfortable gathering of similar people – brought up in the same traditions. The only other person who was to attend but was not allowed to because he had a single-entry visa in the US (so Zizek informed the audience) was Wang Hui from China. One wonders however, what a single token presence of Wang Hui could have done to the direction of the conference. (Jean Luc Nancy could not eventually attend as he was unwell.)
At the end of the first day, it already seems that for all the sophisticated philosophical language that was being used, most participants simply wanted to re-boot the machine – as though it was just an initialization problem! Maybe the software itself needs rewriting? That thought seems far from most people gathered for the conference.