Utopianism v. Radical Democracy

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Sun Jun 11 00:42:22 MDT 1995

Guy can't make up his mind whether the politics I espouse are that of a
Marxist mandarin, or a social democrat, or a plain sour-n-dour "heroic
thinker" (do my quotation marks properly represent the none too light attempt
at irony here?) But of one thing he is certain: they are conservative. For to
reject the notion of totalizing revolutionary projects which transform all
human relations, moving humanity from complete and utter objectification to
absolute subjectivity, is -- Guy would have us believe -- to renounce
meaningful social change altogether.

For the record, I understand my politics to be "radical democratic," close to
the theoretical positions charted by Laclau and Mouffe and the practical
politics of Cornel West. By no stretch of the imagination -- even the utopian
imagination -- do such politics involve an "wallowing" acceptance (it was
only a matter of  time before the swine metaphor was turned from the police
to the debating adversary) of the status quo. What they do involve is the
rejection of the utopian displacement of democratic politics rooted in the
classical Marxian vision of a communist society -- a vision in which class
struggle and social conflict are replaced by "an association of free men
working with the means of production in common." Marxian communism so
understood is a society in which the "social relations of  the individual
producers, both towards their labour and the products of their labour" appear
in a "transparent and rational form"  completely under human control. Class
struggle, social conflict and the state are gone. (The quotations are from
Capital for anyone who thinks such formulations were restricted to the more
flowerly passages in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The
German Ideology.)

The question of agency is at the core of any project of transformative
politics. In the classical Marxian texts, the proletariat is posited as the
agent, but there is never any useful explication of how the proletariat moves
from a complete objectification as the total denial of subjectivity and
humanity to absolute subjectivity as the creator of 'human history' properly
understood. "We have been naught, we shall be all" makes for a rousing
anthem, but damn poor social analysis and rudderless politics. Subsequent
thinkers in the Marxist tradition attempted to fill in that central, gaping
hole, albeit in unsatisfactory ways for those of us with fundamentally
democratic sensibilities. In History and Class-Consciousness, for example,
Lukacs makes what can only be called a philosophical leap of faith that the
proletariat will overcome the objectification of commodity fetishism, but
then has to smuggle in the vanguard party -- external to the class and its
development -- to actually manage the transition. The Lukacs example is
especially salient, since he returns to the Hegelian roots of Marxism in his
attempt to arrive at a solution to this problem, and still he found himself
forced, in the final analysis, into the same 'vanguard party' solution
adopted by Kautsky and Lenin. Once the vanguard party becomes the repository
of the communist future and the actual agent of history, the authoritarian
dynamic is in motion. It is democratic controls on and over the state, not
the state itself, which ends up "withering away," and none too slowly at

Now a radical democratic politics does reject this subject-object dualism in
a number of respects. It does not see any one social class or oppressed group
as the sole agent of historical change, and it understands every potential
agent as a subject-object duality, both shaped by and the shaper of history
and society. At no point in this process is the agent a complete object, the
mere bearer of social relations, or a total subject, the unfettered creator
of new social relations. Radical democratic politics have abandoned
teleological visions of social change, and seek to realize the democratic
possibility in each historical moment.

This will not due for Guy. His vision, attributed to Jerry, is not that
social conflict will disappear, but "only that the community should police
itself autonomously." Exactly what this might mean and how it might work is
left for the utopian imagination (excuse me if my historically grounded
minded finds in these vague visions an opening for so-called "peoples'
tribunals" and "popular justice" which have been nothing but instruments of
terror contemptuous of democratic notions of rule of law), but it clear
logically entails, at a minimum, the elimination of the state and the police.
It "is of course historically false," Guy further tells us, to claim that the
state and police can not be eliminated: again, the formulation is so vague as
to leave one wondering what the historical reference could possibly be -- Can
humanity return, by negating the negation, to the essence of an original
(pre-social class, pre-state) state of nature? (There are passages in Marx
which show how his vision of  communism was conceived in this way.) Or are we
to accept that the Paris Commune (substitute at will here: anarchist
communities in Civil War Spain, and so on) is somehow a model of a classless,
stateless society which could be practically adopted? (War Communism in yet
another incarnation, anyone?)

But if there is any doubt about the unreal quality of this analysis, Guy
settles this issue with this concluding piece of wisdom: "even as we speak,
capital's minions work to execute the contract on the state." That anyone
with a remotely  progressive dispostion could see the right's campaign to
dismantle and eliminate every democratic victory won and every democratic
beachhead established within the state -- from welfare measures to free,
public education, from affirmative action to environmental protections, from
the legal right to organize unions to attempts to actualize universal
suffrage -- as the end of the state was certainly beyond my limited
imagination. Now if only I wasn't enmeshed in my conservative politics, I
would understand how Newt Gingrich's Contract On America is the utopian
vision in action. The wonders of the negation of the negation never cease.

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