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On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth

Jensen Suther

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Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing — even under alienated or distorted conditions — that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis — enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

Georg.Lukács seated in the darkness of his library (1913)

Georg Lukács seated in the darkness of his library

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices — there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.[1] Continue reading

KLUTSIS GUSTAV GUSTAVOVICH (1895-11.02.1938)

Persona non grata

So it’s finally happened. I’ve been officially declared a “persona non grata” by the elected leadership of the Platypus Affiliated Society — the Organizational Committee or OrgComm, if you prefer (in a delightfully Soviet portmanteau). An e-mail was sent out earlier today specifying that I’m no longer to be invited to any of its functions or events, and even actively discouraged from attending. Of course, this proclamation was circulated “internally,” on the Platypus listserve, but as everyone knows these things are never that secret anyway.

For many of you, this will come as quite a surprise, considering my outspoken support for the group in the past and repeated arguments against calls to boycott or shun it. Now, it would appear, I myself am to be shunned by the very group I’ve publicly defended on numerous occasions. Let it be known that I do not rescind any of these arguments, as I still consider most of the motions that counsel disengagement with the organization either pointless or unprincipled. In fact, despite the advice of the many who’ve told me I’m “better off without them” or assured me that “Platypus is just holding [me] back,” I continue to find the stated goals of the organization honorable and most of its methods unobjectionable, whatever complaints may be made regarding its needlessly vituperative internal rhetoric. Also, though some others treat the entire outfit as some kind of sad joke — and find its various panels, fora, and publications overwrought, if not simply boring — I stand my past statements that I often find them illuminating and insightful. Continue reading

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Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, & Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Tri Logos

Bhaskar Sunkara: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces — such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century. Continue reading

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Black politics in the age of Obama

Cedric Johnson and Mel Rothenberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On May 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society  hosted a conversation on “Black Politics in the Age of Obama” at the University of Chicago. The speakers included Cedric Johnson, the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007) and The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (2011); and Mel Rothenberg, a veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and coauthor of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR (1980). Michael Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, was unable to attend due to an emergency. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online.

Cedric Johnson: I want to demystify the Obama phenomenon, which dates back much further than the 2004 DNC, as it has unfolded over the past decade. I also want to demystify the notion of “black politics” generally.

I am not disappointed with Obama, because being disappointed would mean I had expectations that had not been realized. I certainly disagree with Obama, but he has done just about everything I expected him to do with respect to domestic policy, questions of inequality, or geopolitics. He has been fairly consistent.

The problem with the Obama phenomenon is that too many people got caught in the rhetoric of “change.” As a political slogan it was perfect: No matter where you were, you could find something you could connect with. This operated on at least three different registers. On one level, it simply meant a change to another party’s leadership. For some, simply turning the page on the Bush years counted as change. At another level, there was what might be called the Jackie Robinson effect: There were those who wanted to see Obama break the barrier and become the first black president. Finally, and this was the most dangerous, many believed that Obama was going to deliver some substantive revitalization of liberalism within the United States. The idea was that he would be the second coming of FDR. People have made the same argument more recently. Michael Eric Dyson made this case last year on Democracy Now!, in fact, urging support for Obama’s reelection bid. One or another of these arguments proved convincing for many who ought to have known better — not just liberals, but people who consider themselves Marxists or radical leftists. Continue reading

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Platypus’ “position” on “imperialism”

by Chris Cutrone

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Image: Czechoslovak avant-garde painter
Frantisek Foltyn, Imperialismus (1925)

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Note: Just to be clear about my own relationship to Platypus as an organization, I must again remind readers that I am not currently a member, though I am obviously still sympathetic to its cause. This letter clarifies a number of common misperceptions and baseless accusations that are leveled against it. Even if such accusations were true, however, I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone, especially university professors, would refuse to participate in Platypus events on the ground that it supposedly “lends ideological support” to reactionary ideologies like Zionism or imperialism. This is all the more true given the fact that most of them hold positions at universities and routinely speak on campuses subsidized by the U.S. military (and all the foreign military forces it aids), in return for the advanced weapons technologies their research and development departments provide.

Submitted as a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker on May 21, 2013.

We in Platypus have been called out for taking an alleged at least tacit “pro-imperialist” political position. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair and others have characterized our expressed opinion, that we “did not support” the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya), as implying that we also “did not oppose” them. This is untrue.

The Spartacists, for example, take the position of “no political support” for Right-wing military forces against the U.S. and its allies. But what they really wanted in Iraq was not the military and political victory of the insurgency against the occupation, but rather a meteorite to hit the Green Zone. But this was not a political position. For what the Spartacists among others wanted was a military defeat for the U.S. government et al. without this being a concomitant political victory for the Iraqi Right — former Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists. Let’s not mince words: such forces are the Right, at least as much as the U.S. government and its allies are. It is not the case that somehow the action of Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists increased democratic possibilities in Iraq against the U.S. government and allied occupation.

The actual Iraqi Left — the Iraqi Communist Party and Worker-communist Party of Iraq — chose politically not to mount its own let alone join in the existing military forces occasionally opposing the U.S. government and allied occupation, but rather to oppose the latter as well as the former in other ways, through working class organizing and strike action, to some limited success, for instance in preventing the privatization of the Iraqi oil industry. The international Left largely scorned them, in favor of a fantastical imagined “anti-imperialist” insurgency, which was not that but rather an ethno-religious sectarian-communal civil war among forces targeting each other far more than they targeted the U.S. government and its allies, jockeying for a position within the occupation and its political settlement, not against it. Continue reading

American Eugenics association

On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”

by Chris Cutrone

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Image: Photograph of measurements taken
to determine one’s “racial hygiene” (1933)

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The following is Chris Cutrone’s attempt to explain what he actually meant by this controversial formulation. Once again, it does not necessarily reflect the views of any other member of the organization, and certainly does not represent the organization’s views as a whole.

I must speak to my “rational kernel of racism” comment, which is being taken out of context to try to impeach me.

I did not mean of course that somehow it is reasonable or otherwise OK to be racist.

By this statement I was applying Marx’s comment about the “rational kernel” of the Hegelian dialectic, which aimed to take it seriously and demystify it, not debunk or dismiss it.

The same is true in addressing racism as ideology — as the “necessary form of appearance” of social reality.

I was trying to address the issue of supposed “racism” in terms of the Marxist tradition of “ideology-critique,” or the immanently dialectical critique of ideological forms of appearance, or, explained more plainly, the critique from within of ideologies according to their own self-contradictions, in the interest of seeking how they might be changed. Continue reading

Sidney Hook moment

Ben Campbell’s Sidney Hook moment

A harrowing account of cults,
neophytism, and reefer

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Image: Sidney Hook, American pragmatist
and ex-Marxist whistleblower (1950s)

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Sidney Hook, after disavowing his former political associations, wrote in his 1973 essay “The Cult of Revolution” that

[t]he cult of revolution has various roots. The longest and strangest of its tap roots grew out of the writings of those who, having revised Marx’s theory and ideal of revolution, still wish to be considered his dialectical successors and heirs. Nothing reveals so starkly the elitist, undemocratic bias of the cult of revolution. There is something snobbish as well as hypocritical in the spectacle of middle-class intellectuals, cradled in security and comfort, luxuriating in a standard of living dependent upon the intensive use of the latest technological refinements, hectoring the masses.

Of course, Ben Campbell will claim the opposite is true with respect to his own relationship to Platypus. He will claim that he was somehow “duped” by the ingenious schemes and made to “drink the Kool-Aid,” as it were. (Below it will become apparent, however, that it was only by smoking some weed and having a “bad trip” that Campbell was able to see Platypus for what it really was, through his bloodshot eyes). Yes, a “LaRouchite cult,” as if he has the slightest clue as to what that would entail. Luckily, Ben made it out of this “cult” and became a “real Marxist” so he could pursue his true calling in life: running a shitty webzine.

It’s uncanny how those who suddenly most have convert’s zeal — or maybe apostate’s zeal — in exposing a so-called “cult” tend to be the ones who behaved most unctuously during their time in the organization. Hence their obsessive, crybaby antics, which some have noted resemble nothing more than that of a “jilted lover.” Ben’s come a long way, though, realizing that what passes for the “Left” today is primarily a popularity contest (or a “fraternity,” as he himself once put it). Now that he’s been initiated into this fraternity, whose hazing rituals are no doubt far worse than that of the “cult” he just left, he’s able to finally emerge from the shadow of Binh, whose “terrible articles” were hogging all the attention on their website The North Star.

In the name of greater transparency, here’s a brief record of Ben’s assorted statements on the Left, on leadership, and his harrowing account (a Reefer Madness for our time) of a “bad trip” in Chicago. Continue reading

Housing development Ciudad Jardin Soto Real. 312 empty houses, 1169 houses not even built. 1

Radical interpretations of the present crisis

New York University
November 26, 2012
Platypus Review
56
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..Loren Goldner | David Harvey
Andrew Kliman | Paul Mattick

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Last autumn, chapters of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, London, and Chicago hosted similar events on the theme of “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” The speakers participating in New York included Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick. The transcript of the event in London appeared in
 Platypus Review 55 (April 2013). What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-NYC hosted on November 14, 2012 at the New School.

Preliminary remarks

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Loren Goldner:
The title of my talk tonight is “Fictitious Capital and Contracted Social Reproduction.” It is important to note that as we convene tonight, there are general strikes across the southern flank of Europe, the miners’ strikes in South Africa, and at least 50 strikes a day in China. While we convene to talk about the crisis, there are people in motion trying to do something about it.

Marx writes in his Grundrisse, “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”[1] Unpacking that one sentence can get us very far in understanding the crisis and the history of at least the last hundred years.

Capital can be broken down into Marx’s categories: surplus value (s), variable capital (v), and constant capital (c). Within constant capital there is a breakdown into (i) fixed capital, which refers generally to machinery and tools, and (ii) circulating capital, which refers to things such as raw materials.

With these categories I would like to address the question of fictitious capital, which I define as claims on the social wealth and social surplus that correspond to no existing social surplus. The origins of fictitious capital are the advancing productivity of labor in capitalism, which is an anarchic system, one that is constantly devaluing the constant capital invested by the capitalist class. Capital volumes 1 and 2 describe a pure capitalist system, in which there are only two social classes: the wage-labor proletariat and the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie. Other classes enter the picture, for instance peasants, in the long historical chapter on accumulation. But Marx is trying to set up a pure model and then move on to the more everyday appearances of the system.

Value is defined in Marx as the socially necessary labor time of reproduction; I want to emphasize the “re-” in reproduction. For, in the opening chapter of Capital, Marx talks a lot about the value of a commodity as the socially necessary labor time embodied in it, but later moves to social reproduction. There he is talking about an expanding system in which the early definitions are superseded.

Capitalists themselves tend to have only a vague idea of use-value. As they are running a society into the ground, say in the contemporary debates on infrastructure, capitalists come to a recognition that use-value plays some kind of a role. But, by and large, individual capitalists are interested in profit of which use-value is a mere by-product. One aspect of recent capitalist history that is important to emphasize is that the tremendous incomes that a part of the capitalist class gets from the sale and rental of buildings of all kinds has long superseded the total amount of profit directly derived from industry. This is important to understand for the contemporary situation.

There is another category that doesn’t attract the attention that it should: what I call “capitalist consumption.” Capitalist consumption does not refer to the consumption of the capitalists themselves, not the yachts in the Hamptons and the Malibu lifestyle, but the consumption of all the hangers-on of the capitalist class. Marx has a colorful formulation, in which he refers to king, minister, professor, and whore, as different embodiments of the hangers-on. But I would expand this category quite a bit to include state bureaucrats — let’s not forget that 35–40% of U.S. GDP goes to state expenditure at the local, state, and federal level. In 1950 there were ten workers for every manager; today there are three. The military police, prison system, and the biggest single group the so-called FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real Estate) sector, which represent the interest and ground siphon of surplus value, all of these elements enforce capitalist social relations. We also have the total wage bill, which is comprised of more than the pay packets or checks, but also everything that goes into education and training. The military has increasingly assumed this role over the last thirty to forty years in the U.S. with the collapse of a lot of vocational schools.

Though an incomplete picture, all the above points to different ways in which capital in crisis transfers variable and constant capital to a surplus, as a way of saving itself. In the United States and most countries in crisis over the last 40 years, we see the non-reproduction of labor power — just think of the fact that almost 40% of all high school students in NYC don’t ever finish high school.

Also important, perhaps more important, is primitive accumulation. This Marx defines as the separation of petty producers from the means of production. There is a lot of debate about whether Marx simply meant the expropriation of the English peasantry in the late-17th early 18th century. But I think primitive accumulation is a permanent feature of the capitalist system. In this respect, I follow aspects of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, which included chapters with examples of this process from the nineteenth century. I don’t think one has to go along with all of Luxemburg’s reasoning to recognize the mobilization by modern capital of labor power outside of the subsectors of the world economy, more specifically the peasantry of India, China, Latin America, and Africa. All kinds of people who are not wage workers are recruited to the wage labor system, after another subsector has paid their reproduction costs.

In short, what keeps this proliferation of fictitious capital afloat in all the forms that I have just described, is a general process of non-reproduction: both of labor power and of aspects of constant capital, such as infrastructure — concerning which, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost 2.3 trillion dollars just to bring things to a standard level.

David Harvey: I had an interesting experience in May when I was in Istanbul, where I was giving lectures and hanging out with social movement people. Istanbul is a boomtown and it is quite incredible what is going on there. Turkey is growing around 7% a year. There is talk of a new bridge across the Bosporus, and the population of Istanbul will grow from 18 million to 40 million in 10-15 years. Meanwhile, Athens, two hours away by flight, is a catastrophe. Argentina was a disaster in 2001–03, but by 2004 it had reneged on its debt and has been booming ever since. China in early 2009 had lost close to 30 million jobs due to cuts to export industries. Yet by the end of the year it recorded a net loss of 3 million jobs, which means that they created 27 million jobs in nine months, through expansive urbanization — basically, a huge infrastructure project. The bankers in China obeyed the orders of the Central Committee to lend. The huge labor absorption in China stands in contrast to the 7 million net jobs lost in the same year in this country. Why? For one thing, you have this stupid form of austerity here, whereas, in effect, there was a Keynesian expansion program in China. Argentina did very well, too, because it started selling all its agricultural commodities to China. It is now one big soy plantation for the China trade. How are we to create a theoretical apparatus that can encompass these incredible differences, as well as the dynamics that created them?

I tried to do a little of that in the Enigma of Capital, analyzing the ways capital flows. As Marx puts it, every limit and barrier has to be overcome. But as you surpass one crisis, it just manifests somewhere else. It has moved from the U.S. and the property markets, impacting consumers in China, and then spun over to the financial sector, creating sovereign debt problems, as in Spain. It is in Iceland, then Dubai, and then Greece. If you don’t have a theoretical framework that can understand the rapidity of these moves then you cannot really encompass what is going on. The crisis tendencies of capitalism are never resolved, but simply moved around from one space to another and from one sector to another. Continue reading

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Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

by Sunit Singh

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Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)

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Originally published in the Platypus Review.

New York: Grove Press, 2008.

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It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs [1952], hereafter BSWM), since in this first book, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre [1961], hereafter W of E), fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading

3rs frankfurt1

The 3 Rs: Reform, revolution, and “resistance” [Frankfurt, Germany]

The problematic forms of
“anti-capitalism” today

Untitled.
Image: Photo from the 3 Rs
event in Frankfurt, Germany

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Thomas Seibert, Norbert Trenkle,
Daniel Loick, and Janine Wissler

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Platypus Review 55 | April 2013

Originally published in the Platypus Review.

Last summer, the Frankfurt chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted the latest iteration of “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance,” a series of events for which speakers were invited to reflect on the contemporary state of anti-capitalist politics. Similar events were previously hosted in New York in 2007 and Thessaloniki in 2012.[1] Panelists included Thomas Seibert of Interventionistische Linke, Janine Wissler of Die LINKE/Marx 21, Norbert Trenkle of Krisis, and Daniel Loick from Goethe University Frankfurt; Jerzy Sobotta moderated. What follows is an edited and translated transcript of their conversation, which was held on June 25, 2012, at Goethe University Frankfurt.

Thomas Seibert: I don’t believe that the Left is at a historical low point today. The Left reached a nadir in the nineties, which was a depressing time, when many former leftists abandoned the Left. This has been reversed today, especially since 2011, since the return of a protest form that was thought to have become historically obsolete, i.e. of insurrections based on people rallying in public squares. Then they stay there and demand the overthrow of the government.

Let me begin, however, with a definition: resistance is rebelliousness and revolt. I see resistance as located in everyday life, in small matters such as sabotage at the workplace, skipping work, or located on an even smaller scale. You can also detect resistance where the political unconscious comes into play: people get sick by the thousands, for example, and mental illnesses have increased by 40% in Greece in the past months. The most determined form of resistance in its classical form occurred in Tottenham, England, in 2011. These sorts of riots are a central pillar of collective resistance, that is, rebelliousness and revolt.

Many people who see resistance as their approach to politics do so because they have turned away from such concepts as reform and revolution. And they do so to avoid posing the difficult questions that arise from the issue of reform and revolution: Are we confronted with a totality? Do we arrest this totality? How do we overcome this totality? There is a tradition on the Left that simply evades such questions that have supposedly become historically obsolete; these vexations are instead replaced by a notion of resistance, which is limited to specific aims, rather than at the social totality. This idea is evident since the 60s, in the work of Michel Foucault, and has appeared again and again since the 80s-90s. Such approaches no longer pose the question whether the whole, which is to say capitalism, can be abolished. This is seen as too complicated, unattainable, or simply theoretically wrong-headed. This is where this micro-political resistance comes in. Continue reading