PEN-L exchange on post-Marxism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jun 18 07:23:11 MDT 2001

Leo Casey writes:

What brand of contemporary radical theorizing doesn't fall victim to this
sort of condemnation? You express a fondness for Jim O'Connor's brand of
Marxism, but I can not see how one could reasonably claim that O'Connor's
theorizing has had a more meaningful "practical effect" than that of a
Hardt & Negri, or a Zizek, or a Laclau & Mouffe? GIven that the nature of
this political conjuncture is defined, at least in part, by the absence of
a powerful critique of the status quo that has a mass following, it is
hardly dispositive to suggest that particular schools of thought do not
meet this criteria. In the dark of night, everybody looks the same.

Nor does it seem to me that you have made a case that "post-" theories
compound the alienation and atomization of our current social condition.
Asserted it, yes; demonstrated it, no.


Michael Keany replies:

Two days in central Finland getting burnt to a frazzle is nothing compared
to the heat going on here meantime.

Firstly my statement is not a condemnation, although it can be read that
way (and if the cloth cap fits...). It is an observation about the
attractions of theorising gaining precedence over the empirical struggles
of those with whom the theorists purport to be in solidarity. It's a
problem that faces all theorists, and I believe somebody called Lenin
(among many others) devoted some time to thinking about the problem, as has
Jim O'Connor, Paul Sweezy, and the vast majority of PEN-Lers. The point I'm
trying to make is twofold:

1) what drives the theorizing? A ruthless criticism of all that exists, or
an opportunity to accrue fame, notoriety, riches, interesting friends,
etc.? These are two extremes -- I have no doubt that many Penners find the
work involved in trying to understand the world in which they live
intellectually and emotionally satisfying. It's what happens when the
self-aggrandisement outweighs the positive externalities it generates. The
practical effect of much of this pomo stuff is pretty close to nil, in that
it is, at best, harmless, and, at worst, detrimental to the development of
praxis. So much effort spent on rhetorical flourish and mind-boggling
neologism could be better used. Take a look at Russell Jacoby's "End of
Utopia" for a good laugh at the expense of self-important academics. Their
pettiness, posturing and self-delusion only serves to alienate _them_
further from the people they supposedly stand beside and even deign to lead.

2) Without a grounding in concrete struggle, the political impact of the
theory is going to be marginal, at best.

In Finland just now, the successor to the old Communist Party, the Left
Alliance, is a member of the five-party "rainbow coalition" spanning left
and right, in office since 1995. Recently it has seen its share of the vote
shrink, in marked contrast to the fortunes of fellow coalition partner the
Green Party, which has prospered. Why is this? I think there are 2 reasons.
Firstly, environmental issues are ones that most people can readily relate
to, especially as they involve children. Only today, for example, there is
reported on the BBC that two children in the very poor area of Barrowfield,
in Glasgow, are being treated for mercury poisoning, after having found a
container full of the stuff, putting their hands in it and licking it off.
One does not have to be poor and living in Barrowfield to be horrified by
this. But one can also imagine the uproar had this occurred in the affluent
suburb of Bearsden. The green movement (as distinct from the Green Party)
is clearly the area of most growth in popular mobilisation. But, as I have
repeatedly intoned (with lots of gravity for good measure) here, without a
basis in internationalism and a class-based understanding of capitalism,
the green movement is open to capture and/or misdirection by nationalist
demagogues or cruise missile humanitarians like Joschka Fischer. What you
get is a very partial focus on one particular symptom of the capitalist
predicament, while the rest is ignored. Thus meliorative policies aimed at
environmental clean up, including egregious tradeable permits, gain support
as apparently "viable" options without any real analysis of or attack on
the root causes of the problem. It's a bit like New Zealand's David Lange
being paraded as a hero for sticking it to the US and the nuclear lobby
whilst Roger Douglas gets to work ruthlessly Thatcherising the economy.

The second reason for the Left Alliance's decline is its anachronistic
attachment to the older workerist mechanisms of its Communist forebear. Lip
service is paid to environmental issues, but that's really about it. Even
though the effect is much the same, it does make more sense to vote Green
if you are worried about pollution, since that's a much clearer message
than a vote for the Left Alliance. Look at the analogous position of the
PCF -- whilst protecting the gains of the French welfare state and acting
as a bulwark against privatisation, it has also a vested interest in the
perpetuation of the French state as is. Such defensive politics are
understandable in these times of retrenchment, but the PCF can hardly claim
to have a vanguard role since, like so many other parties of the Left, it
seems intent on promising us a better yesterday. The "Third Way" is one
response to this -- selling out, getting with the programme, making the
best of it, modernising. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, but assuage your
conscience by ensuring basic minima here and there and speak nicely. For
many washed up ex-Marxists and "New" social democrats, part of that
speaking nicely is a focus on culture, about the opportunities individuals
have to express themselves, to make lifestyle choices and be "free". The
arguments of the feminist and gay movements, for example, are thus
subverted via their co-optation and amendment by a system that commodifies
dissent and turns it into packages for sale. Show your rebelliousness --
buy the vodka advertised by Che Guevara. It's all very egalitarian, to be
sure -- it's also profoundly conservative, for it redistributes not one iota.

As the Barrowfield example shows, the environment is not just a middle
class concern, although it is that, to be sure. Environmental issues cut
across social strata and have the potential to act as the lynchpin of a
genuine popular front, rather than the sort of pathetic apologism
characteristic of Blair, Clinton and the rest of the "Third Way". It's not
as if Jim O'Connor is the only one attending to this -- he simply came to
mind first. Others, including Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster are
doing good theoretical and analytical work here, enhancing our
understanding of the processes involved, but from within a Marxian framework.

It's not as if the environment is the only major issue at stake either. The
time is surely ripe for a reactivation of feminism, as capitalism's
globalising media accelerates the transition from patriarchy to pornography.

Also, what do we mean by progress? Hardt-Negri appear to endorse a sort of
pseudo-Hegelian ex post rationalisation of global capitalism that, just
like neoclassical economics, justifies what has gone before (and is to
come) on the basis of lowest opportunity cost/moving closer to global
nirvana. That might be nice for me in my office overlooking the student car
park surrounded by forest, but it's gonna take some explaining to the
natives of the Amazonian rain forest that it's good their habitat and
culture should make way for the cattle necessary to feed the customers of
McDonald's. I certainly do not believe that the extermination of the
American Indian represents "progress". But if that's a misunderstanding of
Hardt-Negri by all means correct me.

In its own way I think Mark Jones' post [PEN-L 13446] regarding technology
and its embeddedness in our ecology explains this further and better than I
can. You might also try Alain Lipietz's thought provoking article,
"Political ecology and the future of Marxism", in CNS 11(1), published in
March 2000.

Louis Proyect
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