Political efficacy and the “right to resist”

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Jacobin
 published an article today by Tariq Dana titled “The Palestinian Resistance and Its Enemies.” It presents a rather sympathetic portrait of the origins of the group Hamas amidst the failed Oslo Accords and pervasive violence of the Second Intifada, mentioning some of the criticisms made of the Islamist group along the way. Dana doesn’t so much argue that Hamas deserves the support of the Left as he does resistance more broadly deserves its support. He alleges that Israel’s overt rhetoric against Hamas covertly attempts to delegitimate resistance as such. As Dana pithily puts it:

[Israel’s] propaganda war against Hamas targets the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance itself.

Of course, this argument could be easily inverted by apologists for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Just as specific denunciation of resistance by Hamas supposedly undermines resistance in general, so support for resistance in general can by extension be considered specific support for resistance by Hamas. Needless to say, this is a bit shortsighted, and precludes a more nuanced or qualified approach to the matter.

My skepticism toward contemporary natlib (national liberation) politics notwithstanding, the focus of Dana’s article seems a little off to me. Its mistake is twofold:

  1. First, in terms of the ideological composition of the forces resisting Israeli aggression. The issue is not, or should not be, whether “the right to resist” — a Lockean concept — is legitimate. Rather, it’s a question of what the political content of such a resistance amounts to. No doubt many in Gaza will feel that such resistance is justified so long as Israel continues to push a stateless population into increasingly cramped and unlivable conditions. But this does nothing to change the fact that the ideology of Hamas is fundamentally incompatible with Marxist politics.
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  2. Second, in terms of the practical efficacy of certain tactics of resistance and “resistance” as such. What is the actual effect of firing rockets into Israel, in response to airstrikes in civilian zones? Or, taking into account some of Hamas’ past tactics, suicide bombings? Considered simply as attrition, i.e. an attempt to “bleed” the enemy dry or break its will, this does not seem an effective or advisable strategy. If the significance of such actions is merely the gesture of defiance, symbolic but ultimately futile, then I’m unsure what their political payoff might be.

Broadly speaking, there is a confusion between means and ends in leftist politics today.

TOPSHOTS-ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT  MK2481

Here the goal should be an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign and its broader interference in the economic and political life of the occupied territories, to be followed by land concessions and the normalization of relations between Palestine and Israel. Whether a one-state or two-state solution is tenable can only be determined on this more stable basis.

To summarize the main questions raised above: Should the Left lend “critical support” to Hamas, despite its avowedly right-wing (even explicitly antisemitic) politics? Moreover, is the line of “resistance” it’s been pursuing likely to achieve the desired political outcome?

In a future post, I intend to assess the viability of international solidarity movements such as Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions as well as occasional declarations by Trotskyist groups of “unconditional but critical support” for organizations such as Hamas or the Irish Republican Army.

Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi
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May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .

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Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed. Continue reading

Why “cultural politics” is worse than no politics at all


Non-Site, № 9
Feb. 25, 2013
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In honor of Black History Month, I’m posting an excellent article by Adolph Reed, Jr. published almost a year ago on the shortcomings of “cultural politics” in the sphere of popular media. As Reed’s title suggests, such pseudo-politics is worse than no politics at all. His rather overlong (15,000+ word) essay could have benefited from closer editing, perhaps, but the contents are so outstanding that it more than makes up for the lengthiness. It takes the form of three separate reviews, all centered on period pieces from around the time of the American Civil War, each of which pitilessly picks apart the ideological undertones and false sense of agency that result from the glib, superficially edifying narratives typical of cultural politics. Such narratives somehow supposedly “resist” or “subvert” dominant or hegemonic narratives, according to an extremely shallow, decontextualized reading of Walter Benjamin’s imperative to “read history against the grain.”

Just a few highlights I’d like to point out. First:

Defenses of Django Unchained pivot on claims about the social significance of the narrative of a black hero. One node of this argument emphasizes the need to validate a history of autonomous black agency and “resistance” as a politico-existential desideratum. It accommodates a view that stresses the importance of recognition of rebellious or militant individuals and revolts in black American history.

Next up:

In addition to knee-jerk anti-statism, the objection that the slaves freed themselves, as it shows up in favorable comparison of Django Unchained to Lincoln, stems from a racial pietism that issued from the unholy union of cultural studies and black studies in the university. More than twenty years of “resistance” studies that find again and again, at this point ritualistically, that oppressed people have and express agency have contributed to undermining the idea of politics as a discrete sphere of activity directed toward the outward-looking project of affecting the social order, most effectively through creating, challenging or redefining institutions that anchor collective action with the objective of developing and wielding power. Instead, the notion has been largely evacuated of specific content at all. “Politics” can refer to whatever one wants it to; all that’s required is an act of will in making a claim.

Last but not least:

What [shows like Firefly] do perform regularly is liberal multiculturalism, which no doubt reinforces a sense that the show’s gestural anti-statism is at least consonant with an egalitarian politics. And that is a quality that makes multiculturalist egalitarianism, or identitarianism, and its various strategic programs — anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heteronormativity, etc. — neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. Their focus is on making neoliberalism more just and, often enough, more truly efficient.

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Django Unchained, or The Help

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On reflection, it’s possible to see that Django Unchained and The Help are basically different versions of the same movie. Both dissolve political economy and social relations into individual quests and interpersonal transactions and thus effectively sanitize, respectively, slavery and Jim Crow by dehistoricizing them. The problem is not so much that each film invents cartoonish fictions; it’s that the point of the cartoons is to take the place of the actual relations of exploitation that anchored the regime it depicts. In The Help the buffoonishly bigoted housewife, Hilly, obsessively pushes a pet bill that would require employers of black domestic servants to provide separate, Jim Crow toilets for them; in Django Unchained the sensibility of 1970s blaxploitation imagines “comfort girls” and “Mandingo fighters” as representative slave job descriptions. It’s as if Jim Crow had nothing to do with cheap labor and slavery had nothing to do with making slave owners rich. And the point here is not just that they get the past wrong — it’s that the particular way they get it wrong enables them to get the present just as wrong and so their politics are as misbegotten as their history.

Thus, for example, it’s only the dehistoricization that makes each film’s entirely neoliberal (they could have been scripted by Oprah) happy ending possible. The Help ends with Skeeter and the black lead, the maid Aibileen, embarking joyfully on the new, excitingly uncharted paths their book — an account of the master-servant relationship told from the perspective of the servants — has opened for them. But dehistoricization makes it possible not to notice the great distance between those paths and their likely trajectories. For Skeeter the book from which the film takes its name opens a career in the fast track of the journalism and publishing industry. Aibileen’s new path was forced upon her because the book got her fired from her intrinsically precarious job, more at-whim than at-will, in one of the few areas of employment available to working-class black women in the segregationist South — the precise likelihood that had made her and other maids initially reluctant to warm to Skeeter’s project. Yet Aibileen smiles and strides ever more confidently as she walks home because she has found and articulated her voice. Continue reading

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

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Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)

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Introduction

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This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

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The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

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There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading

Architecture in revolutionary times

Parallels after Emil Kaufmann

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Image: “Le Corbusier in Boullée” by Romeo D’Orazi

Determining the relation of architecture to revolution clearly depends in no small measure on how these terms are defined. Before revisiting this familiar counterposition, however, it is worth noting that revolutionary politics makes up only one part of politics proper. Even if one were to grant architecture some kind of inbuilt political status, this by no means guarantees the politics it embodies are of the revolutionary variety. Architecture can for instance be politically reformist in character, as in Ernst May’s Neue Frankfurt settlement or Walter Gropius’ Törten district outside Dessau, Karl Ehn’s iconic Karl Marx-Hof block in Red Vienna, and JJP Oud’s Spangen/Kiefhoek estates in Rotterdam.[1] In the last few decades, critical regionalists such as Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Tzonis, and Lilliane Lefaivre have likewise spoken of “an architecture of resistance,” understood as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself.”[2] Despite its many outspoken adherents, practical examples of critical regionalism are harder to come by than those associated with interwar Sozialpolitik.[3] Most of the time it’s tended to emerge alongside movements struggling for autonomy against neoliberal integration, as in Catalonia, Scandinavia, and the Baltics during the ’70s and ’80s. But objections have been raised even on purely theoretical grounds.[4]

So much for the architectures of resistance and reform. Is there, then, an architecture of revolution? Certainly, some have made the case that there is. Foremost among them is the Viennese art historian, Emil Kaufmann, who in his 1952 study Three Revolutionary Architects: Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu described these most radical bourgeois architects of the French Enlightenment as “men imbued with the great new ideals set forth by the leading thinkers of the century [who] strove, unconsciously rather than intentionally, to express these ideals in their own medium.”[5] Though the actual basis for this correlation is never spelled out in detail, inferred from a shared emphasis on the idea of “autonomy,”[6] Kaufmann’s chief merit consists in precisely this intuition of a nonsensuous similarity between the philosophic and architectonic modes of its expression. At times he came close to discerning its sociopolitical root. “Having lived in the atmosphere of growing political and social discontent,” Kaufmann wrote, “the revolutionary architects wished to realize, for the common good, the ideals of the time by contriving architectural schemes such as had never existed before.”[7]

Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s Monument to the revolution (1791)

Two aspects of Kaufmann’s classic account of revolutionary architecture deserve to be mentioned. First, there is the procedure he adopts in attempting to situate architecture and revolution. Rather than assume direct correspondence between them, either according to a linear model of cause and effect or a reciprocal model of mutual causation and effectuation, Kaufmann suggested a more circuitous and indirect link. In other words, architecture neither brings about revolution by itself nor prevents it from coming about, and vice versa. Still less could the matter be resolved simply by asserting that they simultaneously codetermine one another. Kaufmann instead contended the apparent isomorphism of moral and architectural conceptions of autonomy during this period arose out of their common participation in its revolutionary Zeitgeist.[8] A materialist would only add that this radical spirit of innovation he perceived was but the ideological reflection of real historical dynamics. Continue reading

Notes on “critical regionalism”

An ideological critique

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Image: Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo
town hall in Finland (1952)
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Frampton’s appropriation of Frankfurt School critical theory in his writings on architectural history is fairly typical of its reception by liberals in the Anglophone West. Still, this is often to be preferred to the uses that have been made of it by many so-called “radicals” within contemporary continental philosophy. Even then, Frampton is exceptionally skilled at identifying some of the central issues and thematics that concerned the critical theorists, and conveys them with remarkable accuracy and lucidity. In the introduction to his landmark Modern Architecture: A Critical History, he writes:

Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history, although even the most cursory reading of this text will reveal that none of the established methods of Marxist analysis have been applied. On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt colored my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production has from the natural world.[1]

Nevertheless, despite Frampton’s adept deployment of these concepts in his historical inquiries, a number of critics have found his own, positive architectural program — “critical regionalism” — rather problematic. Beginning in the 1980s, Frampton began speaking of critical regionalist models as furnishing “an architecture of resistance.” This he defined as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself…”[2]

Alvar Aalto,  Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

While the main political signifier for Frampton was in this case clearly “resistance,” critical regionalists such as Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (who originally coined the phrase) stressed “identity” as the center around which a counterweight to globalization could be organized.[3] To be sure, though, “identity” carried connotations of political resistance as well. Continue reading

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

The problematic forms of
“anti-capitalism” today

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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

The 3 Rs: Reform, revolution, and “resistance” (Thessaloniki, Greece)

The problematic forms of
“anti-capitalism” today

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Image: Poster for Platypus in Greece
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Costas Gousis, Thodoris Kariotis, Nikolas Sevastakis, and Aris Tsioumas

Originally published by the Platypus Review.

The following are excerpts from the transcript of a moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A on the problematic forms of anti-capitalism today, organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessaloniki. The panelists were Nikolas Sevastakis, associate professor at the School of Political Science of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Thodoris Kariotis, who participates in direct democracy and cooperative movements; Aris Tsioumas, a member of Movement for Labor Emancipation and Self-Organisation; and Kostas Gousis, member of NAR, a component of the anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA. The panel discussion was moderated by Giorgos Stefanidis of Platypus. The event took place in the Lodge of the Student Unions, Faculty of Philosophy, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, on May 30, 2012.

Nikolas Sevastakis: The appeal to resistance — and I am talking about the multiple appeals to democracy that have appeared in the last few decades — often reflects a puzzlement concerning the founding aspirations of the radical movement. Not only puzzlement, but also an actual avoidance of the target of transcending capitalism. Let me put it a little differently: The aim of radical systemic change is substituted by practices of stalling or blocking the most extreme and negative aspects of a state of domination, or of a governmental decision. At this point, resistance, accompanied by “radical” and “subversive” terms, evokes the idea that the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing, an idea formulated by Bernstein in the reformist tradition.

Despite the limits of the logic of resistance (and the appeal to resistance), i.e. despite the fact that it actually “carries with it” the experience of the losses and the multiple defeats of earlier emancipatory movements, I consider it politically and ethically problematic to “repress” this experience of loss or failure for the sake of some new truth as affirmation, by which we are “exempted with a leap” from the burden of a sad or guilty consciousness. I believe that the experience of loss as a starting point for the daring recognition of the ethical and political evil that has risen within the radical tradition (mainly, but not exclusively, within communism) is preferable to the charm exercised today by certain dogmatic trends. The necessary distance from older “disorienting” moments of postmodern mourning for the loss of meaning, or the liberal postmortem on the darkest aspects of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, should not lead to a kind of “ethical insensitivity” disguised under the veil of radical praxis — a combination of Carl Schmitt and Lenin that attracts many radicals of our era. Continue reading

Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

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Image: Cover to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899)

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The following are the prepared remarks to a Platypus panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance” with 1960s activist Todd Gitlin and WIL organizer Tom Trottier, held last March at NYU. A considerably expanded and improved version of this essay has been published by Upping the Anti (which I encourage everyone interested to buy):

Almost five years have passed since Platypus hosted its first panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.” At the time, many of us were trying to come to terms with the profound sense of disorientation we’d felt during our involvement in the antiwar movement, which was then in a process of rapid disintegration. We hoped to explore the relationship between these three categories, both to each other and to the greater project of human freedom, in order to determine whether an emancipatory politics was still even possible. How can the respective political modes of resistance, reform, and revolution be deployed to advance social and individual freedom? How might they reinforce each other on a reciprocal basis? Today, with the recent upsurge in global activism, we stand on the precipice of what promises to herald the rebirth of such a politics. These questions have acquired a renewed sense of urgency in this light. Now more than ever, they demand our attention if we are to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reform, revolution, and resistance — each of these concepts exercises a certain hold over the popular imagination of the Left. While they need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, the three have often sat in uneasy tension with one another over the course of the last century, however. The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg famously counterposed the first two in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, written over a hundred years ago. In her view, this ultimately turned out to be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was addressing a real dilemma that had emerged along with the formation of the Second International and the development of mass working-class politics in the late nineteenth century. Even if she was able to conclude that reforms could still be pursued within the framework of a revolutionary program — that is, without falling into reformism — this was by no means an obvious position to take.

Still less should we consider the matter done and settled with respect to our current context, simply because a great figure like Luxemburg dealt with it in her own day. We do not have the luxury of resting on the accomplishments or insights of past thinkers. It is unclear whether the solution at which she arrived then holds true any longer. History can help us understand the momentum of the present carried over from the past, as well as possible futures toward which it may be tending. But it offers no prefabricated formulae for interpreting the present, no readymade guides to action. Continue reading

Three models of “resistance” — Introduction

Introduction

Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading