Archive for the ‘communism’ Category

[Notes] Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle

June 16, 2010

Before beginning on a summary of the book, these words from Simon Critichely’s Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity are worth a look:

HERE is a link to the film of Society of the Spectacle, fully available on youtube. And HERE’s a link to the writings of all Situationist International thinkers available, in full, on-line.


Zizek and Badiou on HARDTALK: Unapologetic strangers

January 3, 2010

Badiou  HERE and ZIZEK   HERE

When I saw that Badiou and Zizek had been on HARDtalk, I was excited and apprehensive. To have two contemporary philosophical giants given prime TV time to answer questions on topics that are completely neglected by the mainstream media, feels like a progressive move, but also has a kind of ‘lambs to the slaughter’ feel about it, too, as philosophy and philosophers seem to be banished from television. Except for a few programs on existentialism that were made many years ago, I don’t think Heidegger, who seems to be the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, has probably ever been mentioned. For Badiou and Zizek to gain some prime TV time seems like times are changing. However, I do feel that appearances on these programs for both Zizek and Badiou were mixed blessings and also, partially wasted opportunities. I would have though that for a program whose title picture, which is begging to be etched with a hammer and sickle, wouldn’t look out of place in a Soviet style steel mill, may have been a little nicer to these two.

The recent Zizek interview was the more disappointing of the two. This is only because Zizek is the more fluently spoken in English and thus his sparing skills should be more than a match for Stephen Sackur’s antagonistic blunt style. The program is set up to ask the ‘hard’ and tough questions, to harass and force the interlocutor to slip up and generally be exposed as a feeble minded simpleton, who can’t articulate themselves and generally gets a bit flustered when their safety net gets taken away. Both Zizek and Badiou walked straight into the antagonistic form of the program. As philosophers, one would think they would try to undermine the structure of the program to bring a reflexive focus to the polemics at hand. This did not happen, they both tried to answer the questions as normal, falling into trap after boisterously set trap.

Zizek is characterized in the introduction as someone he sees the good in Stalin and thinks Communism is the answer to the ills of the twenty-first century. The antagonisms are set from the start, here is the enemy, now we can expose his nonsense or perversity’ as the interviewer repeats again and again. Zizek, who writes many big and deliberately flummoxing books (his Lacanian postponing the end point of clarity works at the level of form to force the reader to ‘traverse the fantasy’ of the ‘subject supposed to know’, i.e. that Zizek knows and that by reading his work they too will come to know). It seems like an exercise in condensation, but it is more one of intuition. The answers are not cut off because he isn’t given the time to respond properly, or because the program must end at a certain point. No, it is because the form is given credibility to provide a type of truth defined by the program (i.e. watch the interviewee squirm when confronted by their own words and actions), rather then forcing the phantasmatic stance of the program and its viewers out of their comfort zone.

For instance, Sackur exposes Zizek’s hypocrisy by quoting from him that Stalinism is favourable to any liberal democracy, after Zizek announces on the program that Communism was probably the biggest disaster of the 20th century, even more so than Nazism (as under Nazism, there was always a distinct set of persons demonized for a particular reason, while under Stalinism, it could be anybody for any arbitrary reason). Zizek explains that it is because of the possibility of a different social regime, other than liberal capitalism, is opened up by communism, whereas liberal capitalism promotes itself as an ontological realism (I’m paraphrasing here).

Sackur then asks him why is he a communist even after Zizek admits it was a ‘total failure’. Clearly, Sackur completely misses the answer Zizek gave previously or he wouldn’t have asked the same question again. Sackur was probably too busy listening to instruction on his ear piece or thinking about his set questions to give an intelligent answer to Zizek’s comment. Although it could be said that the repetition and incredulous tone of the interviewer is part of the format of the program, and thus a provocative tactic rather than an intellectually sincere one. Zizek stresses the importance of recognising the change in horizon between, what used to be ‘socialism with a human face’ to the now ubiquitous ‘capitalism with a human face’: capitalism, even with a human face, will not be able to solve the antagonisms we confront today at they remain external to the horizon of capitalism.

After being accused of Eurocentricism and ignoring the successes of India and China in raising people out of poverty through bolstering the middle classes, Zizek responds that these are not successes as they have resulted in segregation of public space, through favellas and immigration ‘problems’: in sum, those who are excluded and politically isolated. Unfortunately he then makes a statement about these places being concentrations camps, and then withdraws the comment after being challenged by Sackur. He does make the point that it its because of their isolation that makes it seem like they are in concentration camps, but he should not have conceded as there is a clear linearity between camp and favella that would have been more useful to expand upon. However, to expand upon this would probably not have suited the programs spitting contest style, so would no doubt have been cut.

The interviewer is keen to emphasise his reading of Zizek’s critics, who condemn Zizek’s claim that Islamic fundamentalism is a product of liberal capitalism. Zizek responds with the example of Afghanistan pre-soviet invasion, as an example of secular Islam that becomes fundamentalism through engagement with the international community. This again misinterpreted by Sackur who says that Zizek blames capitalism for all the world evils. Zizek responds with that quip that perhaps his readers (and interviewers) should read him correctly, so as not to confuse his critical examination of capitalism with a complete rejection of it: for Zizek, we cannot go back to a fantasy world untouched by capitalism, but apply our critique from within capitalism, which demonstrates that we cannot reject in its entirety that which founds our very mode of engagement with the world.

Sackur is concerned that as there is no clear example or even an abstract thinker who represents an ideal for communism: this, he insists, surely must be a bad sign. Zizek concludes that he isn’t after revolution in the standard sense. He makes it clear that “we need to form a new form of collectivity that will be neither market or state bureaucracy”, but he is a pessimist: democracy won’t deliver us from our problems: it may not be light at the end of the tunnel but a train coming towards us.

If we take out Zizek’s main points, those who have never read or seem Zizek before may be a little put off by the cerebral rants, excessive hand movements and conversational tangents, but I think he recognises the need to cut the crap and say as clearly as possible his position, because Sackur is determined to misrepresent him at every turn. Zizek does deal well with the questioning and he does seem to come off quite well and at times, unusually, focused on the main points.

Sackur applies the same style, albeit slightly slowed down, no doubt recognising the limited English skills of his guest. Although Badiou’s answers clearly weren’t suited to the medium, Zizek seems to have met his challenges with forceful and better presented summaries. It is still discouraging, that while any TV exposure for philosophers is always music to my ears, it is a shame that it is performed not through a careful and sincere dialogue, but through a sensationalist interview that is aimed not at ‘hardtalk’ but discouse that legitimises intellectual confrontation based upon misinformation, misreadings and misdirection of aggression. Sackur doesn’t present ‘hardtalk’ but a fake attempt at provocative discourse that can never agree with or arrive at any conversational synthesises or progression. It plays upon a fantasy of straight talking, ‘cut the crap’ style journalism that is not exposing anything but the farcical format of the show itself. The interviewer doesn’t want to understand Badiou and Zizek, but to attribute to what ever response they deliver to one of a ‘perverse’ nature or purely some form of ‘continental’ intellectual entertainment, suitable for a limited audience of pseudo radicals.

Even if Sackur’s position could be described as playing devils advocate with his guests, one gets the feeling that some of the time it is quite personal: such as this quote towards Badiou, that people at home are thinking “here is a man who is stuck in the romance of 1968, a time of course when you were on the barricade and you want to recreate the romantic idea that the working class can take to the streets and re-order society and you sit there, frankly, with your metaphorical Gauloises in your mouth spouting this French radical ideology but no one really buys it any more”. Partially, I think Badiou may not have heard him properly, as there was little sign of being flustered by this Francophobic question. It isn’t a helpful question and an ironic use of the word ‘buy’ as well. It may well be that people at home are struck in reductive caricatures of cigarette smoking Parisian coffee shop French intellectuals, but the programme, ultimately was giving the same message. What is clear from these interviews is not an open dialogue between communist philosophers and the BBC, but the desire to discredit ‘romantic’ emancipatory philosophies.

As a mobilization of unit operations (see Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operation), the program advocates a hostile incredulity to the idea of communism which involves the operations of cutting into sentences, swapping and changing topics, not allowing for follow up responses and presenting the interviewee with quotes taken out of context which would require more time than the program can allocate for its examination. The two central unit operation of HARDtalk are reductive positional generalization (to provoke aggression in the interviewee) and incredulous rebuttal (to mock the interviewee’s perspective). In general, I find any reliance on cultural theorists or academics on television tends to end is grotesque simplifications. For example, the pop psychologist analyst on Big Brother. These sound-bite simplifications may swing well into the next dazzling video clip, but offer little extended and more fruitful analysis. For self proclaimed philosophers to be guests on this TV program and to engage the show on its own terms is not only a little disappointing, but it forgets the elementary philosophical lesson of Plato’s Apology. If you remember, this is where Socrates asks the court to consider him a “stranger” to his new trial environment. It isn’t that Badiou and Zizek are “strangers” to television, but they are to the distinctly uncharitable style of the show. A reflexive response and recognition of the problematic televisual medium itself may have been a philosophically more thought provoking response to what were, at times, ignorant and antagonistic questions.

Salvagepunk, post-apocalyptic thought and idiosyncratic objects (part 1)

December 14, 2009

What is salvagepunk? Salvagepunk is “a return to the repressed idiosyncrasy of outmoded things”, so says Evan Calder Williams, inventor and sharp Marxist prose stylist over at Socialism and/or Barbarism. But what does this mean and why do I think it is a very important move towards recognizing the apocalyptic world in which we live, a world of excess consumption and waste, in contradistinction to the impotent Marxist waiting game of capitalism’s hoped for demise? It is this world we must attend to, not the promises of a new world, but the concrete conditions of our historically contingent moment. To quote the last line from his recent talk at the Historical Materialism conference (full audio available HERE)

I don’t believe another world is possible, because I know that all things superseded stick around and stink as unwelcome reminders of that we have to deal with, so another world is necessary but only built from the gutted hull of this one

Firstly, salvagepunk should be seen as the negation of salvage as we know it. Etymologically, as Williams investigated, salvage is synonymous with pay-off, with “saving the day and keeping things as they are”. Back in the 17th century, if a ship was saved that would have gone down or being captured, a payment would have been given to the salvagers. In salvage, there is always a “transfer of exchange value”, which we saw recently with the salvage of the banks as they were blasted to pieces by bad loans and pirate capitalist canon balls. We are in an era of salvage as “waste sorting and recuperation”, and capitalism biggest act of salvage is not the bank bailout, but time itself. Our free-time is a calculated countdown back to labour time as capitalism never sleeps, with round the clock consumption and production by supermarkets, television and factories. Night-shift, day-shift, split-shift, part-time, on-call, ‘unsociable hours’, the day and night of the post-Fordist labourer, “inhuman rhythms” of machinic repetition, re-training and dynamic flexibility. The capitalist salvages time by firing your work colleagues and giving you extra work. For sure, salvagepunk will not salvage the capitalist time of abstract labour time.

Salvagepunk is not like Guiyu City in China. Guiyu is an e-waste recycling center. The global sorting mechanism of low cost labour means the rich make high technology e-waste and the poor salvage the quality components and sell it back to the rich. The high cost of disposing this waste means it is outsourced to countries with little or no environmental and health and safety regulation, such as Guiyu in China. The ratified international laws banning such activities go unnoticed and unenforced. This is salvage in the image of exploitative late capitalism: exploit those who aren’t educated enough to know the ‘precious’ metals they’re extracting and smelting from old computer motherboards and cathode ray tubes are polluting their waters and slowly killing them. It is this logic that salvagepunk will gladly let decay and rot.

The punk of salvagepunk is what makes it revolutionary. Punk is not the commodified and commercialize image of Mohawked teens with pins through noses. It is certainly not the PVC slick technological wet dream of cyberpunk with its Deleuzian ‘intense’ nomadic multitudes and immaterial labour. Nor is it the “false dream image” of steampunk,where “its falseness lies in it being the wrong dream image, the ideological blind that is the dream image proper to the liberal escape plan for the contemporary crisis and its envisioned fall-out”. Punk is thus the “deep fidelity to its historical moment and the fact it no longer believed in a future – the present is already the hollowed out present of that future”. Punk is born from harsh experience. As Johnny Rotten says of the Sex Pistols song God Save the Queen “You don’t write a song like ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up of seeing them mistreated.”

The face of salvagepunk is not the “sneer of cyberpunk” but a “graveside smile and the perspective of looking toward what can be reassembled ‘wrongly’ and how”. Salvagepunk turns objects upside down. Objects are no longer just what they are given to us, packaged and ready hot off the factory floor. Salvagepunk is a view to the “idiosyncratic uses of given materials”, a recognition of the “already-present singular values of things”. In their ruin, their monetary value is lost and their real value comes forward, not as something with a particular purpose, but objects that in their singularity aren’t sublated into the warped simulacra of consumerist fashion and prestige. Objects become objects, not money and exchange value. As Guattari states “capitalism reduces everything to a state of shit, to a state of undifferentiated and unencoded flux, out of which each person in his private and guilt ridden way must pull out his part. Capitalism is the regime of generalized interchangeability: anything in the ‘right’ proportions can be equal to anything else”. Capitalism decodes and flattens out difference into a smooth space of homogeneous real abstraction. Where the fantasy of capitalist realism at the ‘end of history’ dictates that economic, environmental, democratic salvation is just around the corner, that things will ‘change’ only if the sweaty hand of the free market is not continually stifled by ‘regulations’ and socialist welfare systems. Salvagepunk, in contrast, is a heterogeneous time of the proletariat, of “fireworks and flares” (Negri), a post-apocalyptic subject.

Williams is keen to emphasize the post-apocalyptic is a “mode of though, not a state of affairs”. The world is apocalyptic, not in the Hollywood sense of asteroids and plagues, but the gradual banal entropy of unsustainable system of repetition without difference, the real abstraction of late capitalism. Post-apocalyptic thinking is the affirmation of concrete negation against real abstraction: the non-identical thinking of objects not as “undifferentiated and unencoded flux” but as “particular, sensuous objects that strain to declare, particularly in the context of their commensurability of the value form, their singularity”. In other words “we need to get back to real life, real things” as “the concrete is the exposure of real abstractions”. Post-apocalyptic thought turns the impotent fantasy of the wait for that right historical moment of communist revolution into a always already active political and social collectivity.

This is a metaphysical drive towards the object as object which recognizes the object as “registrations of and stores of historical energy to be released”. This abandons the post-modern world space as image, a Society of the Spectacle, and reaches for the “idiosyncrasy” of objects. This unsettling of objects is anti-representational and free the function of objects to their own historical moment. By doing this, we occupy materialist time, the genealogical time of Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism. The reawakening of past possibilities forgotten by the all-too-ready to dump and forget postures of capitalist consumer culture. The buried historical “traditions and horizons of collectivity, solidarity, and true antagonism” are the objects to be salvaged. The rethinking and reclaiming of these broken communist social relations are what is to be salvaged from our capitalist waste ground. Salvagepunk, as a form of subjectivity and thought, is a metaphysical attuning to the conditions of the specificity of historical-being.

In this regards, salvagepunk is venomously anti-Kantian yet sees in Kant a “radical misanthropic gesture”. The nature of human subjectivity is not an ahistorical givenness through the necessary conditions of transcendental apperception, but a historical givenness. “As the law is not transhistorical but the abstract will of life historical totality of a moment, so too “nature” (as perversion) is historical.” The Kantian framework, Williams argues, is clearly overthrown by capitalism’s propensity to generate irrationality in competition and “the elevation of the general misanthropic condition to the system as a whole”. Kantian human nature, the movement of man from ‘nature’ (ahistorical ‘crocked wood’) to ‘Nature’ (rational historical Will), is challenged by Williams who states “human actions are the becoming-necessary of the will to freedom”, where recognition is given to the “particularity of the actions at hand” – the situation is and produces the situation. The appeal is contra to any notion of the ahistorical absolute.

Part 2 will look at where Williams sees these themes of apocalypse staring back at us, such as in zombie movies and black metal music. Together with his look at post-apocalyptic visions in movies such as Mad Max and the Bed Sitting Room. I will also briefly summaries his work on Michael Jackson’s CaptainEO. But now, I’ve got to go, as I’m, off to see The Mars Volta play at the London Forum. Good times!

Historical Materialism audio uploads part 1

December 9, 2009

These are my three favourite talks from the recent Historical Materialism conference at SOAS and Birkbeck in London the weekend before last. I will upload some more when I get the chance:

Wendy Brown – Capitalism and Religion    HERE

Benjamin Noys – Apocalypse and Accelerationism    HERE

Even Calder Williams – Combined and Uneven Apocalypse    HERE

Notes from ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Marx and Engels

November 22, 2009

‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. The fundamental structure of the state machinery is arranged to perpetuate answering to authority.

Communism’s main argument is the following: that economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising there from constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch. Since dissolution of communal land ownership, all history is the history of class struggle, between the exploited and the exploiters. Only a total emancipation of the whole of society from exploitation can work. The aim is to ‘proclaim the inevitable impending downfall of present day bourgeois property’. It is not socialism.

Socialism is a maintaining of capitalism with a friendly face by eliminating social abuses. Communism is a total reconstruction of society, not just political revolutions. In 1847, socialism was a middle class movement and communism a working class movement, as such, Marx warns ‘a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’. In 1847, Marx’s epoch, he saw the bourgeoisie as having simplified class antagonisms: there is now only the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie has a hegemonic hold on values, and as Marx states, ‘the bourgeoisie has resolved personal worth into exchange value’, freedom now is equal to free trade. The bourgeoisie will revolutionize the instruments of production and therefore the relations of production and the whole relations of society. The aim, for the epoch of the bourgeoisie is the constant revolution in production methods, the uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting certainty and agitation. ‘All fixed, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed areas become antiquated before they can ossify… all that is solid melts into air… all that is holy is profane’. The market must nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’. Where all enter a domain of cosmopolitan consumption, the normalization of the use of capital and its paradigms of desire. The interdependence of nations perpetuates capital and the nation itself, where the ‘cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery’ which has now, at the end of history, smashed every last wall of resistance when and where ever it was seen. The bourgeoisie force the world to conform to its model and creates a world after its own image, as the world of the neoliberal springs from the Washington consensus, and engulfs mostly without resistance all that it touches. When there is a crisis of over-production, society falls apart, unless new markets are created and old markets are re-exploited.

The main aim of the bourgeoisie is to commodity the proletariat, to lose their charm and character, which are in tern redefined as expressible as commodities (what does this hat say about me? which colour ipod represents me the best?). The proletariat becomes an ‘appendage of the machine’, where labourers are arranged like soldiers, in rank, authority and worth. Differences in age and sex are neutralized by capitalism, all the instruments of labour of the consumer of commodities, more or less expensive to use according to their age and sex. Although child labour in developed society is behind us, child labour is still exploited by capitalists all over the world. Children in developed countries are accomplices to this as they are born as consumers and trained to consume wit the same hear no evil, speak now evil, see no evil attitude as the bourgeois society around them.

In bourgeois society the past dominates the present, in communist society, the present dominates the past. In bourgeois society, capital has freedom, people don’t. Communism is against freedom as promoted by the bourgeoisie, as individuality and free-trade. ‘Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that is done is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others as a means of such appropriation’, we should enjoy our arts and leisure only when it has been produced in conditions not equatable to exploitation, I,e, outside a system of wage labour and the squeezing of profit from it. The recent phenomenon of ‘fair-trade’ is not enough. Those that work, get as little as possible to perpetuate the necessity of their labour, those who acquire do not work.

Communism aims to abolish the family as we know it. The family of the bourgeoisie, the wife in an instrumental part of production (and adultery is the private prostitution within alienated bourgeois society). Communism aims to abolish all countries and nationalities, as Marx writes ‘working men have no country’. The abolition of property is not a communist aim: it is the abolition of private bourgeois property. ‘Abolition of private property’ is communism. This should happen when the proletariat is raised to the ruling class, to achieve what is known as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, means to abolish private property, a progressive/banded income tax, to abolish inheritance, confiscation of property from rebels and emigrants, centralize credit by setting up a state banking monopoly, to centralize transport, communications and factories, to all have the equal obligation to work, to bring agriculture and manufacturing together by merging town and city via the equal distribution of the population, to have free education, to abolish child labour. In sum, ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. It could be said, that people of no class have no reality and exits in the realm of philosophical phantasy. To think one can philosophize, as classless thing, is to flee from the relations of the world you are thrown, by inauthentically ignoring ones historicity: all history is the history of class struggle. ‘All history is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature: philosophy can be replaced by economic-historical science of society’, and accordingly, Marx questions Hegel, as ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determined their being but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness’.

We are in the age of the petite-bourgeoisie, where unions have numbers but have proven time and again to be in the pockets of politicians. The unions are a reaction to the fluctuating wages of the workers. Fluctuating wages causes anxiety: alienation is the existential state of the poor: the proletariat. The proletariat, the dangerous class, the social scum, is waged labour, capital needs labour and the bourgeoisie need capital. Liberal tools such as the minimum wage set the standards for bare existence. To the petite-bourgeoisie, all should become bourgeoisie! To eradicate social inequalities and let everyone enjoy the luxuries and products of their labour. Even those of the minimum wage can get credit cards to buy now pay later for that Playstation 3, car or fashionable haircut. The petite-bourgeoisie acts for the protection of the working class with these tools: the police, prisons and free-trade. The police reinforce, protect and perpetuate the capitalist state machinery, demonize enemies through media discourses and use prisons as the quantitative pecuniary measure of punishment, the ‘horror’ of being forced out of free society. Free society, free trade, free to consume as much as you like, hang the costs, borrow, pay later, you’re free.