Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”

Continue reading

Biography is destiny

Anne Boyer on Althusser

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once infamously asserted that “biology is destiny.” (What he actually wrote was “anatomy is destiny,” but this is a trivial distinction. Either way, the statement was clearly intended as a provocation). Of course, Freud made this remark in connection with the subject of female genitality, with a sideways glance cast toward “the feministic demand for equal rights” — which he held “[did] not carry far here.”[1] It should thus hardly come as any surprise that the milquetoast lefty Kulturzeitschrift New Inquiry would reject this formulation. By all accounts, however, if Anne Boyer’s recent “review” of On the Reproduction of Capitalism by the late Louis Althusser is any evidence, the online journal has embraced an opposite but equally dubious dictum. According to this view, it would seem that “biography is destiny.” Her examination of this text, the first translation of Althusser’s writings to be published in years, serves as a mere pretext for her bizarre tirade against philosophers’ incorrigible habit of reproducing “patriarchy,” here nebulously conceived as a kind of timeless or perennial entity or institution.

Normally I’d be the last person to mount a serious defense of Althusser. Theoretical antihumanism, the outcome of Althusser’s misguided structuralist approach to Marxism, has proved deeply problematic in its subsequent influence on the Left. His notion of a sharp “epistemic break” dividing the Young Marx from the Old, laid the groundwork for a whole generation of bad scholarship. Even more ironic is the fact that Althusser would propose such a drastic rereading of Marx’s mature works, especially Capital, so soon after the rediscovery of the Grundrisse in the 1950s, which all but confirmed the persistent Hegelian underpinnings not just of the early works (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, etc.), but his broader investigations into political economy more than a decade later. Althusser could scarcely have chosen a worse time, Marxologically speaking, to advance such a hypothesis. Besides this, there are any number of objections one might legitimately raise: his ahistorical notion of ideology, his rejection of historico-critical self-consciousness as the foundation for both individual and group subjectivity, or his botched anti-Hegelian interpretation of Lenin (who’d written that “[i]t is completely impossible to understand Marx’s Capital, especially its opening chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic!”). One could go on. Continue reading

Hal Foster’s critical turn

There’s a good review by Jeffrey Petts over at the low-key online publication Marx and Philosophy of Hal Foster’s excellent The Art-Architecture Complex (2011). Currently I’m writing a double-review of Foster’s book along with another very good book, Gevork Hartoonian’s recent Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (2013) for the LA Review of Books. Petts covers all the major points of Foster’s study with clarity and concision; I especially appreciate the way he elucidates the connection with Kenneth Frampton’s advocacy of “critical regionalism.” Indeed, the opposition between image and building, the visual and the tactile, the scenographic and the tectonic — frames the entire discussion. (Same goes for Hartoonian, incidentally).

But one thing I’m really grateful to Petts’ review for was its reference to criticisms Foster has recently leveled against the post-Marxist philosopher and aesthetic theorist Jacques Rancière. He cites an November 2013 review Foster wrote of Rancière’s Aisthesis, just translated into English by Zakir Paul and published by Verso. You can read that review in PDF form here. Rancière has been enthusiastically embraced by art critics and practitioners alike for too long. It’s high time that he be properly critiqued. And so below I am reproducing an article Foster wrote in December 2012 for The Brooklyn Rail on “post-critical” theory, focusing on Rancière and the French philosopher Bruno Latour. This represents Foster’s latest move away from his earlier promotion of aesthetic postmodernism in The Anti-Aesthetic (1981), a collection of essays he edited.


Hal Foster
Brooklyn Rail

Critical theory took a serious beating during the culture wars of the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 2000s were only worse. Under Bush the demand for affirmation was all but total, and today there is little space for critique even in the universities and the museums. Bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and, dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art. Indeed, the sheer out-of-date-ness of criticism in an art world that couldn’t care less seems evident enough. Yet what are the options on offer? Celebrating beauty? Affirming affect? Hoping for a “redistribution of the sensible”? Trusting in “the general intellect”? The post-critical condition is supposed to release us from our straightjackets (historical, theoretical, and political), yet for the most part it has abetted a relativism that has little to do with pluralism.

How did we arrive at the point where critique is so broadly dismissed? Over the years most of the charges have concerned the positioning of the critic. First, there was a rejection of judgment, of the moral right presumed in critical evaluation. Then, there was a refusal of authority, of the political privilege that allows the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was skepticism about distance, about the cultural separation from the very conditions that the critic purports to examine. “Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street (1928). “It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” How much more urgent is this pressing today? Continue reading

Art and politics in class society


Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket. Chicago, IL: 2013)


The following review was originally published by the CUNY Grad Center’s journal The Advocate. It is available in print and online, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to pick up a copy.

Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class has clearly struck a chord with contemporary artistic communities, critics and practitioners alike. Not all have responded the same way, however. While most applaud the admirable clarity of its arguments and readily acknowledge Davis’ gifts as a writer, some have lamented the book’s “rather bleak” tone and the seeming despondency of its conclusions. One review went so far as to accuse Davis of drawing “lazy caricatures” of his opponents, panning Art and Class as “crudely reductive” and given to “smug, self-righteous dismissals.” Yet others have welcomed its challenge to the conventional image of artists as born radicals, and praise Davis’ sober reassessment of the lofty political ambitions often claimed for their work.

Despite a few cautious endorsements from figures like Molly Crabapple and William Powhida, the book’s reception among actual producers of art has likewise been mixed. At a recent talk held at Housing Works in downtown Manhattan, Davis invited to the stage a group of practicing artists with whom he’d been in close dialogue while writing Art and Class. The discussion that followed was polite enough, touching on some of the book’s central themes, but there were moments in which the panelists could be seen practically squirming with discomfort at the language Davis used to characterize their vocation. Even though they’d all read it before, and were thus familiar with the text’s provocations, it was as if the wound was still fresh.

So what is it about Davis’ thesis that makes it such a bitter pill to swallow? Part of it is semantic. Though the sociological framework he employs throughout his investigation into art under capitalism is generally sound, Davis encounters terminological difficulties as soon as he tries to conceptualize class. How does one talk about a mode of creative activity that doesn’t neatly fit the division of society into workers and capitalists? What accounts for this peculiar survival of quasi-artisanal forms of labor within such a rarefied commercial sphere as today’s art market? Art and Class approaches these questions from an avowedly Marxist angle. But this presents problems of another sort. For although classical Marxism had at its disposal an arsenal of readymade categories with which to comprehend the position of the artist, Davis finds terms like “petit-bourgeois” (probably the most fitting designation for artists at one time) irretrievably démodé. Looking for a more accessible word that might replace it, he arrives at “middle-class.” Davis emphatically asserts that “the contemporary artist is the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.”1

This nomenclature is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the confusing cluster of connotations that already surrounds notions of “middle-class.” Class is commonly (mis)understood as a purely quantitative relation, a function of “pay scale” or “income bracket.” As Davis points out, this distorts the more precise definition offered by Marxist theory, which sees class as a specific relationship to the means of production — namely of ownership or non-ownership, combined with some owners’ ability to hire others to operate them. Beyond such bland technicalities, however, Davis anticipates a more basic objection artists might raise to his analysis. “The issue of class has moral overtones,” he recognizes.2 Artists, who tend to sympathize with vaguely leftist political ideas and issues of social justice, bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow “middle-class.”

Gustav Klutsis, Multilingual propaganda machine (1923)

Once one gets past this initial allergic response, and accepts the meaning assigned to “middle-class,” the rest of the book’s contentions about art in class society fall into place. Davis is hardly indifferent to artists’ plight, either. Quite the opposite: the narrative he unfolds in Art and Class has profound implications for the way artists orient their politics. “The upshot is that artists’ middle-class position is not merely a limit on their relation to larger social struggle but also on their ability to organize to transform their own conditions,” Davis writes. He goes over some of the efforts to orchestrate artists’ strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually none of which could be considered a success. “From whom would the artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike?” the book asks, quoting Carl Andre. “Alas, from no one but themselves.”3 By contrast, the closer artists get to wage-labor — those instances where they actually constitute a paid workforce, as with studio animators or industrial designers — the more effectively they can unionize and leverage demands. Continue reading

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe


On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading

Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

Toward the beginning of his latest work, Living in the End Times, Žižek briefly reprises Michéa’s final argument in The Realm of Lesser Evil.  While Žižek recognizes the book’s inarguable merit in elucidating the indivisible unity of political and economic liberalism, he regrettably buys into Michéa’s overly simplistic conclusion about liberalism’s shifting historical self-representation.  He thus retraces the path it ostensibly took from imagining itself as “the least worst society possible” to its eventual claim to be “the best of all possible worlds.”[208]  Thankfully, Žižek’s own statements on the matter of liberal thought in history, scattered throughout his various texts and proclamations, at times reveal far greater acuity and insight than those of either Losurdo or Michéa.  Despite his frequent criticisms of liberal multiculturalism’s hyperbolic tolerance and endless, self-flagellating gestures at “political correctness,” Žižek acknowledges the revolutionary contributions of early bourgeois liberalism:

[Historically], liberalism was quite a noble project if one looks at how it emerged.  Today it is a quite fashionable criticism with feminists, anti-Eurocentric thinkers, etc., to dismiss liberalism in principle for preaching the equality of all people, but in reality privileging the white males of certain property, addressing automatic limitations.  The next usual accusation is that liberalism is ultimately founded in what the American moral-majority religious Right likes to call secular humanism: the idea is that there is no Supreme Being or mystery in the universe.  Their criticism is that this idea — that the ultimate prospect of humankind is to take over as master of his own destiny — is man’s arrogance, criticizing that it always misfires and so on…

I don’t think it is as simple as that…It is an historic fact that at the beginning, the idea of human rights and all of those liberal notions, effectively in a coded way implied the exclusion of certain people.  Nonetheless, in this tension between appearance and reality (appearance: everyone has human rights; reality: many, through an implicit set of sub-rules, are excluded), a certain tension is set in motion where you cannot simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression.  Appearance acquired a social emancipatory power of its own…[A]t the beginning, women were excluded, but then very early on, women said, “Sorry, why not also us?” Then blacks said, “Why not us?” And workers, and so on.  My point being that all of these groups that criticize liberalism emerged out of these early bourgeois liberal traditions.  It set certain rules — this tradition of universality of human rights and so on — and in this way it opened up the space.[209]

Here Žižek almost seems to perfectly embody what Losurdo calls “vulgar historicism,” in the derisory meaning sketched briefly above.  Alberto Toscano has neatly encapsulated this phrase of Losurdo’s as “the facile historicist thesis according to which liberalism simply and gradually grew in extension ([first] to the propertied middle classes, then to the lower classes, then to women, then to people of color…) while retaining an intact original inspiration.”[210]  But Žižek is correct to point out that the universalizing overtones in language of bourgeois right, whatever the scope of its intended sphere of application, became the grounds on which certain demands liberty and equality could subsequently be placed.  Whatever excuses the radical bourgeois philosophers may have made for limiting the freedom and equality they proclaimed, even Losurdo must agree that “[t]he theorists and agents of the liberal revolutions…were moved by a powerful, convinced pathos of liberty.”[211]  Žižek’s crucial insight is that the postcolonial and postmodern critiques of liberalism, under which Losurdo’s own “counter-history” can also be subsumed, are all leveled from the standpoint of liberalism itself — and a tepid, eviscerated liberalism at that.  They are thus never able to transcend the built-in contradictions that liberal notions of freedom and equality (what Žižek, employing Rancière’s neologism, terms égaliberté) encounter in bourgeois society.  “The ‘radical’ postcolonial critique of liberalism,” Žižek writes, “thus remains at the standard Marxist level of denouncing false universality, of showing how a position that presents itself as neutral-universal effectively privileges a certain (heterosexual, male, Christian) culture.  More precisely, such a stance is contained within the standard postmodern, anti-essentialist position.”[212]

Against this superficial stance, Žižek correctly locates the unfreedom and inequality of bourgeois society in the alienated subjectivity represented by the commodity-form, in its peculiar position as estranged agency, equivalence, and universality (liberté, égalité,and fraternité, respectively).  Losurdo, though neither a postmodernist nor a postcolonial theorist, repeats their same basic error in overlooking “the emergence of the very form of universality.”  Žižek is thus right to ask: “How and in what specific historical conditions does abstract universality itself become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights?” By interpreting this universality as purely the outcome of white European chauvinism, one sacrifices the historically specific character of modern bourgeois subjectivity.  The importance of this point is nearly impossible to overestimate; indeed, the entire Marxist critique of capitalist society pivots around it.  Or, as Žižek aptly puts it, “[t]his is the point of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism: in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals themselves, in their daily lives, relate to themselves, as well as to the objects they encounter, as to…embodiments of abstract-universal notions.”[213]  Liberal-bourgeois human right, with its lofty pretensions to universality, could thus be extended more or less unproblematically to the rest of society after it first appeared.  Such extensions did not come without a fight, to be sure.  The “struggles for recognition” Losurdo describes were often hotly contested, but the antagonisms associated with such struggles did not prove to be insoluble.  Of course, these forms of discrimination — i.e., structural racism, sexism, and heteronormativity — have hardly disappeared.  The point is that liberalism is more than capable of accommodating difference.  Far from merely “tolerating” diversity, neoliberal capitalism positively thrives on it.  Various marginalized identities appear as only so many niche markets and target audiences.  “[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism,” reminds Moishe Postone.  “[B]ut [it] can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”[214]

Truth be told, liberal society has for some time now managed to outlive the moment it first passed into fundamental self-contradiction.  In the interim, it has incorporated quite a few groups that had formerly been denied rights under liberalism’s “exclusion clauses.”  At what point, then, did this contradiction reveal itself? “For Marx,” Žižek continues in another text, “the sobering ‘day after’ which follows the revolutionary intoxication marks the original limitation of the ‘bourgeois’ revolutionary project, the falsity of its promise of universal freedom: the ‘truth’ is that universal human rights are the rights of commerce and private property.”[215]  One point that remains underdeveloped in Žižek’s account, however, is the duration that was required to arrive at this “day after.”  For this feeling of disillusionment was not revealed all at once.  The liberal faith in bourgeois freedom did not die out in the aftermath of the Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, Waterloo, or even the Restoration.  The light from what Hegel referred to as “[the] sunburst which, in one flash, illuminate[d] the features of the new world” lingered for some time over the skies of Europe, until the black plumes funneling from the smokestacks of industrial society plunged it back into night.[216] And yet, even within the darkness of this night, a still more glorious dawn seemed destined to emerge.  The decisive moment at which this latent contradiction within civil society first manifested itself can be pinpointed with a degree of accuracy uncommon in the interpretation of historical periods — down to the specific date and place.  Such a date was June 22nd, 1848; and while similar conflicts would break out across Europe around this time, the place was the streets of Paris.

This can be bracketed for the time being, however.  One final essay by Žižek on the topic of liberalism should be mentioned before moving on.  His pointed declaration that “Only Communism can Save Liberal Democracy,” published some months back, serves as a sobering reflection on the post-1989 fate of both liberal and leftist politics, as well as the new challenge of right-wing fundamentalism.  Žižek thus underscores two primary forms of barbarism that have (re)emerged in the absence of a viable Left since this time: 1.) various fundamentalist ideologies sprouting up in some of the most exploited sections of the global economic system, and 2.) the recrudescence of regimes of austerity in the more developed countries of the West, as their welfare states swiftly unravel.  To combat this twofold crisis of liberalism, he maintains, an alliance is needed: “In order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left.”[217]  Here, the way Žižek phrases it is rather naïve, but his basic point is correct.

Beginning with the former of these two, he argues that religious fundamentalism is a necessary byproduct of the unchallenged hegemony of political and economic liberalism.  Fundamentalism, as Žižek sees it, is the mirror image of liberalism.  “Fundamentalism is a reaction — a false, mystifying reaction, of course — against a real flaw of liberalism,” he writes, “and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism.  Left to [its own devices], liberalism will slowly undermine itself — the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left.”[218]  Though it may be implied by the tenor of his statement, Žižek forgets to mention that the threat to liberalism posed by fundamentalism — a threat arising from the Right — appears only after meaningful opposition from the Left has disappeared.  On this point, Alberto Toscano has written a nice line vis-à-vis Islamic fundamentalism, noting: “The emergence of Islamism as a political subject does not necessarily represent an express reaction to emancipatory politics, but may rather constitute a capitalization on its absence, on the temporary incapacity of progressives to actually produce a present.”[219]  Another, related consequence should also be apparent from all this. This is that, despite liberalism’s persistence, one cannot speak of an emancipatory politics today — first of all because the Left is dead andsecond of all because liberalism has long since ceased to be revolutionary.  Even Losurdo, who tends to sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists in their various struggles against American imperialism,[220] is concerned by the fact that the most sustained militant movement against liberalism has arisen out of such a reactionary source.  The reason for his concern here owes to his belief that the stimulus for liberal reforms has nearly always come from forces operating outside the ambit of liberalism,[221] and his fear that the latter tends to move in the political direction of these oppositional movements when making concessions.  Losurdo’s evidence for this claim is fairly solid: the emancipation of the slaves in the South was a concession to abolitionist currents, while the welfare state was a concession to socialist currents.  Now that the leading force in the global struggle against liberalism is fundamentalism, however, the thought that the former might edge toward the latter is a frightening prospect indeed.

Religious fundamentalism, as an external challenge along the periphery of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, shaped the political landscape of the early 2000s.  The dismantling of the welfare state, as an internal crisis in the core of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, has shaped the political landscape since 2008.  Each can be seen as a legacy of the 1970s: radical Islam having come out of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and deregulationist neoliberalism out of the Oil Crisis of 1973.  But neither really of these posed an existential threat to liberalism until 1989, with the collapse of “actually-existing socialism” abroad and the final death of the Left at home.[222]  Other commentators, such as Postone, have similarly remarked upon the pattern of “the weakening of national states as economically sovereign entities, the undermining of welfare states in the capitalist West, the collapse of bureaucratic party states in the Communist East, and the apparently triumphant reemergence of unchecked market capitalism.”[223]  Žižek’s analysis of the interdependency of these phenomena goes further here than Postone’s, however.  Beyond simply noting that they took shape alongside one another, Žižek claims that it was the disappearance of the USSR from the world stage that opened up the floodgates for neoliberal hegemony and expansion.  “1989,” observes Žižek, “marked not only the defeat of the Communist State-Socialism, but also the defeat of the Western Social Democracy.”  The downfall of the Soviet Union in the East, he contends, simultaneously spelled doom for the welfare state in the West.  Žižek diagnoses the second of these defeats, the defeat of the Western (European) Social-Democratic welfare state, as symptomatic of the first, the defeat of Eastern (Soviet) Communism.  He describes this state of affairs in unreservedly grim terms:

Nowhere is the misery of today’s Left more palpable than in its “principled” defense of the Social-Democratic Welfare State: the idea is that, in the absence of a feasible radical Leftist project, all that the Left can do is to bombard the state with demands for the expansion of the Welfare State, knowing well that the State will not be able to deliver…This necessary disappointment [will then presumably serve] as a reminder of the basic impotence of the social-democratic Left, and thus push the people towards a new radical revolutionary Left.

As Žižek points out, this line of reasoning is cynical.  The breakdown of the welfare state by no means guarantees a shift to the Left; it could just as easily deliver the “people” unto “Rightist populism.”  While his analysis here is correct, Žižek’s proposed alternative — i.e., that “the Left will have to propose its own positive project beyond the confines of the Social-Democratic Welfare State” — is not much better.[224]  To be sure, the passing of the welfare state (a thoroughly conservative project from the start) ought not be lamented too much.  Without any real hope for achieving revolution, the fight for reforms has also lost any meaning it once had.  Losurdo, hitting a rare pessimistic note, makes this same point.  “In the West…,” he explains, “the disappearance of the challenge posed by a strong international Communist movement and the ‘socialist camp’ has led to a general process of involution.  This [has resulted in] the deconstruction of the welfare state.”[225]

Continue to Part IV: 1848