Michael Pugliese debsian at
Tue Aug 22 08:18:43 PDT 2000

Zizek, Jameson, Negri, looks like fun. And for the Zizek fans, the new Verso book of Lukacs response to orthodox marxist critics of History and Class Consciousness has some concluding words from him.

Michael Pugliese


Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut, Essen, February 2-4 2001 Confirmed Speakers: Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaid, Alex Callinicos, Fredric Jameson, Eustache Kouvelakis, Sylvain Lazarus, Domenico Losurdo, Toni Negri, Robert Pfaller, Slavoj Zizek, Alenka Zupancic

Organising Committee: Sebastian Budgen, Eustache Kouvelakis, Slavoj Zizek

Up to two or three decades ago, man1s productive relationship with nature and its resources was perceived as a constant, whereas theorists and political activists were busy imagining alternative forms of the social organisation of production and commerce. Today, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer, whereas popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming breakdown of nature, of the end of all life on earth - it is easier to image the end of the world than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the Real that would somehow survive even under the conditions of a global ecological catastrophe... This paradoxical fact tells us a lot about the new post-political1 ideological consensus which is reigning today; its basic premises are the acceptance of the global capitalism as the only game in town,1 and of the liberal-democratic system as the finally found optimal political organisation of society. The two-party system, the predominant form of politics in our post-political era, is the appearance of a choice where there is basically none. Both poles converge on their economic policy (recall recent elevations of the tight fiscal policy1 as the key tenet of the modern Left), while their difference is ultimately reduced to the opposed cultural attitudes: multiculturalist, sexual etc. openness1 versus traditional values. This choice - Social Democrat or Christian Democrat in Germany, Democrat or Republican in the USA - cannot but remind us of our predicament when we want artificial sweetener in an American cafeteria: the all-present alternative of Nutra-Sweet Equal and High&Low, of blue and red small bags, where almost each person has his/her preferences (avoid the red ones, they contain cancerous substances, or vice-versa), where this ridiculous sticking to one1s choice merely accentuates the utter meaninglessness of the alternative. It is a well-known fact that the Close the door1 button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo, placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey - when we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just pressed the floor button without speeding up1 the process by pressing also the Close the door1 button. This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor of the participation of individuals in our postmodern1 political process. The postmodern Left1 likes to designate itself as the Third Way, surpassing the old ideological1 oppositions. There is a curious enigma in this self-designation: which is the SECOND way? Did the notion of the Third Way not emerge at the very moment when, at least in the developed West, all other alternatives, from true conservatism to radical Social Democracy, lost in the face of the triumphant onslaught of the global capitalism and its notion of liberal democracy? Is therefore the true message of the notion of the Third Way not simply that THERE IS NO SECOND WAY, no actual ALTERNATIVE to the global capitalism, so that the Third Way brings us back to the FIRST AND ONLY way - the Third Way is simply the global capitalism with a human face, i.e. an attempt to minimise the human costs of the global capitalist machinery, whose functioning is left undisturbed. The Third Way is simply social democracy under the hegemony of liberal-democratic capitalism. i.e. deprived of its minimal subversive sting) thus succeeds in excluding the last reference to anti-capitalism and class struggle. It is against this background that one should conceive of the rise of the new populist Right in the last decade. This Right plays a key structural role in the legitimacy of the new liberal-democratic tolerant multiculturalist hegemony. They are the negative common denominator of the entire centre-left liberal spectrum: they are the excluded ones who, through this very exclusion (their unacceptability as the party of the government) provide the negative legitimacy of the liberal hegemony, the proof of their democratic1 attitude. In this way, their existence displaces the TRUE focus of the political struggle (which is, of course, the stifling of any Leftist radical alternative) to the solidarity1 of the entire democratic1 bloc against the Rightist danger. It is absolutely crucial that the new Rightist populists are the only serious1 political force today which addresses the people with the anti-capitalist rhetoric, although coated in nationalist/racist/religious clothing (multinational corporations who betray1 the common decent working people of our nation). The participation in the government of the far Right is not the punishment for the Leftist sectarianism1 and not coming to terms with new postmodern conditions1 - it is, on the contrary, the price the Left is paying for its renunciation of any radical political project, for accepting market capitalism as the only game in town1. In the populist new Right, the Third Way Left gets its own message back in its inverted - true - form. In today1s political discourse, the term worker1 disappeared from the vocabulary, substituted and/or obliterated by immigrants1 (Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the USA) - in this way, the class problematic of workers1 exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of the intolerance of the Otherness,1 as if we exploit Turks, Arabs, etc., because we cannot come to terms with the stranger in ourselves.1 Although Francis Fukuyama1s thesis on the end of history1 quickly and deservedly fell into disrepute, we still silently presume that the liberal-democratic capitalist global order is somehow the finally-found natural1 social regime, we still implicitly conceive conflicts in the Third World countries as a subspecies of natural catastrophes, as outbursts of quasi-natural violent passions, or as conflicts based on the fanatic identification to one1s ethnic roots (and what is the ethnic1 here if not another codeword for nature?). For that reason, when confronted with ethnic hatred and violence, one should reject thoroughly the standard multiculturalist idea that, against ethnic intolerance, one should learn to respect and live with the Otherness of the Other, to develop tolerance for the different life-styles, etc. etc. - the way to fight effectively the ethnic hatred is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is EVEN MORE HATRED, but the proper political hatred, the hatred directed at the common political enemy. This liberal-democratic hegemony is sustained by a kind of unwritten Denkverbot (prohibition to think) similar to the infamous Berufsverbot (prohibition of being employed by any state institution) from the late 60ies in Germany - the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim to seriously challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!1 The return to ethics1 in today1s political philosophy shamefully exploits the horrors of Gulag or Holocaust as the ultimate scare for blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement. This way, the conformist liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation, etc., but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, resuscitating the ghost of totalitarianism.1 One would expect such a retreat from the liberal renegades; what is more symptomatic is how even the self-proclaimed post-Marxist1 radicals participate in this game. They accept the topic of the multiculturalist tolerance towards the Other as the focus of the political struggle; they endorse the gap between ethics and politics, relegating politics to the domain of doxa, of pragmatic considerations and compromises which always and by definition fall short of the unconditional ethical demand. The notion of a politics which would not have been a series of mere pragmatic interventions, but the politics of Truth, is dismissed as totalitarian.1 The breaking out of this deadlock, the reassertion of a politics of Truth today, should take the form of a RETURN TO LENIN. Why Lenin, why not simply Marx? Is the proper return not the return to origins proper? Returning to Marx1 is already an academic fashion. Which Marx do we get in these returns? On the one hand, the Cultural Studies Marx, the Marx of the postmodern sophists, of the Messianic promise; on the other hand, the Marx who foretold the dynamic of today1s globalisation and is as such evoked even on Wall Street. What these both Marxes have in common is the denial of politics proper: the postmodern1 political thought precisely opposes itself to Marxism, it is essentially post-Marxist. The reference to Lenin enables us to avoid these two pitfalls; there are two features which distinguish his intervention. First, one cannot emphasise enough the fact of Lenin1s externality with regard to Marx: he was not a member of Marx1s inner circle1 of the initiated, he never met either Marx or Engels; moreover, he came from a land at the Eastern borders of European civilisation.1 (This externality is part of the standard Western racist argument against Lenin: he introduced into Marxism the Russian-Asiatic despotic principle1; in one remove further, Russians themselves disown him, pointing towards his Tatar origins.) It is only possible to retrieve the theory1s original impulse from this external position, in exactly the same way St Paul, who formulated the basic tenets of Christianity, was not part of Christ1s inner circle, and Lacan accomplished his return to Freud1 using as a leverage a totally distinct theoretical tradition. (Freud was aware of this necessity, which is why he put his trust in Jung as a non-Jew, an outsider - to break out of the Jewish initiatic community. His choice was bad, because Jungian theory functioned in itself as initiatic Wisdom; it was Lacan who succeeded where Jung failed.) So, in the same way St Paul and Lacan reinscribe the original teaching into a different context (St Paul reinterprets Christ1s crucifixion as his triumph; Lacan reads Freud through the mirror-stage Saussure), Lenin violently displaces Marx, tears his theory out of its original context, planting it in another historical moment, and thus effectively universalises it. Second, it is only through such a violent displacement that the original1 theory can be put to work, fulfilling its potential of political intervention. It is significant that the work in which Lenin1s unique voice was for the first time clearly heard is What Is To Be Done? - the text which exhibits Lenin1s unconditional will to intervene into the situation, not in the pragmatic sense of adjusting the theory to the realistic claims through necessary compromises,1 but, on the contrary, in the sense of dispelling all opportunistic compromises, of adopting the unequivocal radical position from which it is only possible to intervene in such a way that our intervention changes the co-ordinates of the situation. The contrast is here clear with regard to today1s Third Way postpolitics,1 which emphasises the need to leave behind old ideological divisions and to confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free deliberation that takes into account concrete people1s needs and demands. In a way which recalls Deng1s motto from the 60s It doesn1t matter if a cat is red or white, what matters is that it effectively catches mice,1 the advocates of the Third Way like to emphasise that one should without any prejudice take good ideas and apply them, whatever their (ideological) origins. And what are these good ideas1? The answer is, of course: ideas that work. It is here that we encounter the gap that separates a political act proper from the administration of social matters1 that remains within the framework of the existing socio-political relations: the political act (intervention) proper is not simply something that works well within the framework of the existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work. To say that good ideas are ideas that work1 means that one in advance accepts the (global capitalist) constellation that determines what works (if, for example, one spends too much money on education or healthcare, that doesn1t work,1 since it infringes too much on the conditions of capitalist profitability). One can also put it in terms of the well-known definition of politics as the art of the possible1: authentic politics is rather the exact opposite, i.e. the art of the impossible - it changes the very parameters of what is considered possible1 in the existing constellation. As such, Lenin1s politics is the true counterpoint not only to the Third Way pragmatic opportunism, but also to the marginalist Leftist attitude of what Lacan called le narcissisme de la chose perdue. What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist irresponsibility1 (advocating grand projects of solidarity, freedom, etc., yet ducking out when one has to pay the price for it in the guise of concrete and often cruel1 political measures): like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is not afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realising his political project. Kipling (whom Brecht admired very much) despised British liberals who advocated freedom and justice, while silently counting on the Conservatives to do the necessary dirty work for them; the same can be said for the liberal Leftist1s (or democratic Socialist1s1) relationship towards Leninist Communists: liberal Leftists reject social democratic compromise,1 they want a true revolution, yet they shirk the actual price to be paid for it and thus prefer to adopt the attitude of a Beautiful Soul and to keep their hands clean. In contrast to this false liberal Leftist1s position (who want true democracy for the people, but without secret police to fight counterrevolution, without their academic privileges being threatened...), a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it. Therein resided the greatness of Lenin after the Bolsheviks took power: in contrast to hysterical revolutionary fervour caught in the vicious cycle, the fervour of those who prefer to stay in opposition and prefer (publicly or secretly) to avoid the burden of taking things over, of accomplishing the shift from subversive activity to responsibility for the smooth running of the social edifice, he heroically embraced the heavy task of effectively running the State, of making all the necessary compromises, but also the necessary harsh measures, to assure that the Bolshevik power would not collapse. The return to Lenin is the endeavour to retrieve the unique moment when a thought already transposes itself into a collective organisation, but does not yet fix itself into an Institution (the established Church, the IPA, the Stalinist Party-State). It aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the good old revolutionary times,1 nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to new conditions,1 but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of initiating a political project that would undermine the totality of the global liberal-capitalist world order. One should approach this task in the spirit mercilessly (self)critical attitude, with no a priori sectarian exclusions.

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