Utopianism v. Radical Democracy

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Mon Jun 12 21:28:34 MDT 1995

What a day! It started remarkably well, with a passionate discussion of
Cornel West's essay on Malcolm X and black rage in my 12th year political
science class (I teach in a New York City Public High School in Crown
Heights), but was quickly consumed with the problems of a teacher who had
been robbed and assaulted in the school parking lot (I am the union
representative in the school) and year end tests, and then spent the
afternoon counseling a teacher from a Manhattan school (I work as an union
staffer in the afternoon) on dealing with harassment. An evening return to my
apartment, I click on the computer and for a few minutes of postings it feels
like I stumbled into an editorial meeting of Workers Vanguard.

On principle, I do not respond to flames. I will only note -- since the rest
of this list has not had the opportunity to judge for themselves what Mr.
Booth of Harvard has condemned as my craven business unionism -- that my
henious crimes consisted of arguing against term limits for elected trade
union officials. In principle, I argued, term limits are not democratic, for
they deny voters the choice of reelecting representatives; they were part of
a Perotista style populism which was itself undemocratic (really a species of
Bonapartism/Caesarism); and they had the undesirable effect of increasing the
influence and power of non-elected, permanent 'staffers' (the bureaucracy, be
it in the state or in the trade union) at the expense of the elected and the
accountable. My position that Kirkland should be removed was clear, plain and
unmistakeable. If anyone is interested further in these matters, I will
forward the WWW and gopher sites that allow access to the public labor

I want to thank Howie for his very thoughtful post. At the risk of
redirecting some of my e-mail arsonists in his direction, let me say that I
find myself in near total agreement with the position he outlines.

There is no reason why class subjects and class struggle could not be, at
particular historical junctures, primary (in Howie's sense of the term). The
RD quarrel is with the notion that there is an immanent logic in history in
which any one factor -- Hegel's absolute spirit, Marxian class struggle --
is, by definition, always and eveywhere primary.  Moreover, the point of my
discussion of the theoretical trajectory of most RD thinkers is precisely to
highlight the ground which is held in common with certain Marxian (especially
Gramscian and Poulantzian) themes. The difficulty lies, I think (and this is
a partial response to Jerry's query on this issue) that the problematic of
classical Marxism contains incompatible and contradictory moments. Thus, if
one follows the notion of historical agency in the Eighteenth Brumaire ("Men
make history, but not as they please...") to its logical conclusion, it runs
up against other, more dominant themes of subject-object dualism. (The entire
discussion of commodity fetishism in Capital, for example, is based on
subject-object dualism.) Put otherwise, the Eighteenth Brumaire notion
carries an immanent critique of the other moments of Marxism. If one engages
in anything approaching an open minded reading of Laclau's and Mouffe's
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, it will quickly become apparent that they do
a similiar analysis of the notion of hegemony in the Marxian tradition,
showing how it carries an immanent critique of the primacy of class struggle
and a different logic of the 'openness'  of the social . I think this is
clearly a type of critique of Marxism which avoids the 'God That Failed'
crudity to which Howie correctly objects.

I would add that part of the RD critique of Marxism involves a
dissatisfaction with the way in which classes and class struggle are
conceptualized in the Marxian tradition. In other words, precisely because we
took class identities seriously as a matter of politics, we found ourselves
questioning the adequacy of the Marxian subject-object dualism here. By way
of illustration of an RD type approach here, one might consider the work in
labor history by Gareth Stedman Jones (on Charterism), Jacques Ranciere and
the later Joan Scott, all of which investigate the discursive formation of
working class agency. Left Weberians like Anthony Giddens also have very
valuable insights into issues of working class agency, and share considerable
ground with RD. Certainly in my own political work in teacher unionism and
public education, I have found discussions of teacher
languages/discourses/identities (discussions which are relatively new and
thus of uneven quality and sophistication) far more useful in thinking
through political strategy than discussions of alienation, surplus value,
monopoly capital and contradictory class locations. (And if classes are not
adequately conceptualized in the Marxian tradition, other crucial notions of
agency -- race, gender, sexual orienataion -- are not conceptualized at all.)
What is interesting and valuable in the RD approach to analysis here is
precisely the sense in which these identities are not givens, but historical
processes with are only provisionally closed.

I appreciate the generous tone of Justin's postings, for they make it easy to
maintain conversation over our differences. I am sorry that he thought my
characterization of the theoretical density of the work to be snooty; isn't
his description of it as opaque just a pejorative way of saying pretty much
the same thing. My intellectual training is in political philosophy, and I
have known and conversed with Laclau and Mouffe for many years, but I still
found HSS to be rough going and requiring close and repeated readings. Yet I,
for one, do not think that theory must be (or even can be) transparent for it
to be emancipatory. Indeed, if you reflect on it, isn't this complaint the
same objection hurled at Capital and Marx all the time. And you have to admit
that, notwithstanding its rhetorically powerful moments, Capital is not
bedtime reading. I was assuming _not_ that HSS was beyond the intellectual
grasp of our list readers, but that most folks probably did not have the time
or inclination to dive in, and that some more familiar guideposts would help
them situate the discussion.

In response to Justin's suuugestion, democracy is an immense topic, too
easily reduced to cliche when one is restricted by the time and space limits
of a posting . Perhaps what makes more sense is to take up the
sub-issue/problem of  state authoritarianism, and what that tells us about
democracy. I try to do this soon.

Finally, in response to Lisa's posting, I would note that subject- object
dualism is not limited to Marxism, but appears just as forcerfully in Fanon's
conceptualization of race and in many brands of feminism. The separation in
time and space of subject and object -- here objectified, there resisting --
is problematic. Consider, for example, the anti-pornography theory of
Catherine McKinnon. Women are completely objectified in pornography, she
argues, while true emancipated sexuality is unfettered subjectivity. Yet a
moment of objectification is an necessary part and condition of sexuality --
it must be embodied (our bodies are objects) and sexual attraction is not for
the world in general, but particular people in particular bodies (specific
objects). The notion of a unfettered subjective sexuality is utterly (dare I
say the word) utopian.

Good night, friends and flamers alike.

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