Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trust Theory: The Birbeck Communism Conference

As the rest of the speakers greeted each other on stage with warm effusions and European pecks on the cheek, literary critic Michael Hardt, the sole American-born speaker at the London conference, stood apart from the crowd. With folded arms, he gazed out not just into but somehow beyond the audience of the packed lecture hall.

Hardt's behavior seemed to be a defensive performance of self-sufficiency, as if to pre-empt his inevitable failure to fit in with the rest of the "glittering array of Continental academic rockstars," as Terry Eagleton put it, that had assembled that weekend for the conference titled "On the Idea of Communism." Nearly the entire emerging canon of (mostly male) contemporary Continental philosophers—including Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Eagleton, and Antonio Negri, Hardt's mentor and collaborator—as well as their translators and champions in the English-language academy and a few other European notables less well known outside the Continent joined Hardt at the conference. Hardt's reputation has always been doubled by a secret tendency to diminutivize him in relation to Negri—his more famous (or notorious), frequently jailed co-author on Empire and Multitude—and it was hard not to regard Hardt in this light when one saw him onstage next to the old masters. Yet he seemed even more out of place among the rest the other scholars who, Eagleton quipped, had "married in" to the elite circles of Continental philosophy, a group that included the two Badiou scholars—Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward—who joined Hardt in the first panel of the conference.

Ironically, what separated Hardt from the rest of the speakers at the conference was his distinctly American desire for everybody to get along. "My usual response is always to agree with people," he began to respond to a member of the audience who criticized the lack of attention to cultural hierarchies in his concept of "the multitude." Hardt continued with a humorous litany of apologies and self-effacing concessions—"So my way of agreeing with you on this … and I could easily criticize myself for this … "—but was unable to convince the questioner that he was actually in agreement with her. His intellectual performance came straight out of the ramshackle, pleasantly inconclusive manner of American literary studies seminars, where discourse proceeds by dialogue, constructive criticism, and synthesis of a diversity of possible "readings" rather than by the militant "line struggle" favored by the Badiouvians with whom he shared the stage.

I had always dismissed Hardt, with the kind of macho contempt that comes from reading too much Žižek, as a crypto-liberal who was too politically weak, too theoretically softheaded, and just too American to be a genuine radical. And in person he proved to be every bit the doe-eyed naïf he seemed on the page. It is an index of the just how strong a disillusioning effect the conference had on me and my enthrallment with the Badiou-Žižek complex that, by the end of the three-day event, I had completely reversed my attitude towards Hardt. What I used to see as weakness in Hardt, by the end I saw as an unpretentious generosity which was sorely lacking in general vibe, More so than any shortcoming in the philosophical ideas presented at the conference, this lack in the performative mode of the event was its most serious failure.

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The premise of "On the Idea of Communism," which was hosted March 13-15 by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, was to explore the possible positive meanings of the word "communism" for philosophical thinking. The conference would proceed neither by historical analysis of the past failure of "actually existing communism," nor by speculation on the practicalities of establishing communism in our time, but by a series of philosophical meditations on what Badiou has called "the communist hypothesis," that is, the hypothesis of an "eternal Idea" of radical egalitarianism that haunts every social order.

Žižek framed the conference by way of an analogy to Lenin. After the Second International failed to prevent the outbreak of World War, what did Lenin do? Retreat to neutral Switzerland to read Hegel's Logic. And this conference, Žižek declared, was to be the beginning of our retreat to read Hegel's Logic. "It's crucial to resist the urge to ‘Do something!'" he railed against those who'd rather join an NGO than stay cooped up in the library. "Now is the time to think! … Do not be afraid. Trust theory!" The response of the nearly 900-person audience was electric.

But, of course, how could it have failed to be? If this conference is remembered in the annals of intellectual history, it will be as the event that marked the official canonization of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek as the latest in the order of great (in Žižek's case, honorary) French theorists. When Badiou spoke, stretching out his sentences with pedagogical grandeur, a hushed awe came over the crowd. And when Žižek hijacked the question and answer sessions to do his intellectual stand-up routine, even those who groaned at first could not help but be won over by his manic charm. The romance continued over offstage rather more awkwardly. As he was heading out the door after the final session of the conference, Žižek was mobbed for autographs by a gaggle of bespectacled fanboys. When one young man asked for a photo with him, Žižek responded "I hate photographs" and then posed, impassive and haggard, for a photo with the smiling fan. One student handed Žižek a petition that had something to do the arrest of a friend for civil disobedience. Before the young man could explain the details, Žižek exclaimed—"My god! Yes, of course!"—and signed the petition.

Underlying the general good feelings at the conference, however, were uglier traces of elitism and smug passivity. The audience was made up almost entirely of middle class, white academics (or academics-to-be), and if it was well balanced in terms of gender, a certain boy's club mentality of macho one-upmanship still prevailed. Snickers filled the air during questions that went on for too long or seemed insufficiently scholarly, and nearly everyone complained of the poor quality of the questions between sessions. Particularly distasteful was the way the audience shouted down a clearly terrified man who, his voice shaking as prefaced his remarks with endless apologies, tried to speak up in defense of capitalism. Between the star power and awesome intellect of the speakers on stage and the discrimination of the audience, it was impossible for questioners not to fail in their performance of their intellectuality.

One had the distinct sense that the disapproving murmurs of the audience expressed not so much disagreement with any of the questioners as a deeper disquiet: that their enjoyment of the great minds on stage had been tainted. Despite the numerous rousing calls for militancy from the speakers, there was a sense that we were there to be spectators of, rather than agents of, our own intellectual emancipation. We were beaten down by Žižek's macho bravura, Bosteel's lethal wit, and Badiou's belabored teachings. Badiou's pedagogical style in particular typified what Rancière criticized, in his presentation, as intellectually stultifying "explication": by playing the role of the Promethean master who imparts knowledge to the student rather than facilitating the student to teach herself, Badiou performatively constituted his audience as intellectual inferiors who could only emancipate their minds by "maturing" into his place as master. Žižek perfectly captured the nature of this relationship in a remark meant as praise: "Alain is our Parmenides; he is the Father."

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There were two much more concrete forms of exclusion structuring the conference that deserve further comment. First was the cost of admission: £45 for students and £100 for the general public. The School of Africana Studies (SAOS) Student Union responded to the glaring incongruity between the subject matter of the conference and its high price of admission by passing a resolution entitled "No to the Commodification of Communism" and inviting the speakers at the communism conference to speak at SAOS for free. There was talk of a storming the Birkbeck stage, which, given the recent rash of student occupations at several universities and BBC headquarters in response to the war in Gaza, was no idle threat. But the students' outrage was quelled nearly as quickly as it flared up: Birkbeck apologized, set up a free simulcast room, and offered the SAOS students a brief spot on the program just before Saturday lunch break to launch an open-source books campaign. The students' actions were inspiring, but their victory pyrrhic. A Birkbeck staff person patronizingly announced the students' addition to the program, telling the members of the audience that "it would be very good of you for as many of you as possible to stay for the presentation." Naturally, over half the audience left immediately, and the rest awkwardly stood through the presentation, coats in hand, waiting to be released.

The second exclusion, which unlike the former did elicit some expressions of outrage from the audience, had to do with the homogeneity of the speaker's list. All of the speakers were white European men, with the exceptions of Hardt (white and male but American) and poetry scholar Judith Balso (white and European but female). No history other than that of the French Revolution and Marxist communism was looked to for inspiration in testing "the communist hypothesis." Other variants were represented only by proxy: Hardt made the sole homage to queer theory and feminism; Žižek gave a Eurocentric, Hegelian reading of the Haitian Revolution; Hallward perfunctorily cited Fanon and South African shackdwellers; Italian sociologist Alessandro Russo made general remarks about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Of all the speakers, only Rancière, in a breathtaking monologue that received tremendous applause, criticized the homogeneity of the conference. The only real engagement with non-European experiences with communism was Bosteels' excellent discussion of the writings of Bolivian vice-president Álvaro Garcia Línera.

The genius of the conference, however, was the way its very premise inoculated it from at least the most superficial, identity-politics-oriented criticisms of the homogeneity of the speakers. The decision not to bother with the history of "actually existing communism" freed the conference of the need to have a diversity of speakers that could broadly represent the various experiments in communist theory and practice outside of Europe. A radical defense of the self-sufficiency and principled universality of philosophy served as a bulwark against multiculturalist-historicist blackmail. However, that this should still produce straight, white, bourgeois males is lamentable, for in addition to being hypocritical, it gives multiculturalists ammunition against an idea of universal human equality that really does deserve to be reconsidered.

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Despite its austerely philosophical agenda, the conference was haunted by the notion, best articulated by sociologist Alberto Toscano, that "the Idea of communism cannot be separated from the problem, if not the program, of its realization." Inevitably, the panelists could not resist debating the Idea of communism in relation to more practical questions of the state and political economy, but ultimately little was said about these topics that had not already been rehearsed in the philosophers' writings about one another. Such questions were not the real focus. The real, implicit political question around which the entire conference revolved, yet which was never posed as such, was the obvious one: Why "communism?"

This conference was essentially the first step of a small but powerful—or at least respected—intellectual vanguard to reclaim "communism," to purify it, so that in time the word could only "legitimately" bring to mind the Jacobean-Marxist lineage of radicalism. This is not a new tactic: Rancière and Badiou have previously tried, in their own ways, to seize the signifier "politics" and narrow its semantic scope such that "politics" as such becomes synonymous with radical politics. But what is the political efficacy of trying to resurrect "communism," perhaps (after fascism) the most irretrievably corrupted in the political lexicon, as the name by which radical thought and egalitarian struggle takes place today?

Perhaps the corruption is itself part of its inexorable power, the most convincing illustration of which was a single declaration by Žižek that weeks later still strikes me as the most lucid utterance of the entire conference: "The future will be socialist or communist." The counter-intuitive juxtaposition of socialism and communism as antagonistic tendencies in this statement makes devastatingly clear the direction the world is headed and the choices we have to make. We must choose between either a world in which governance is reduced the depoliticized, technocratic management of productive forces at the service of a heavily regulated but naturalized global market, or a world of radical equality which opposes any form of economic or political exclusion. We must give up on the compromise of socialism, for, as the current global financial crisis and the response of governments to it demonstrates, socialism is not the prelude to communism but the future of hypercapitalism.

Still, it seems like a safer bet to have confidence, as Russo put it, "that political intellectuality will invent new names for radical egalitarian desire" than to try philosophize "communism" back into existence. Philosophy can't complete politics, but it can reinvigorate and expand politics, and with this in mind Žižek's "call to thought" is salutary. For this lesson and for the essential gesture of proposing a single banner under which all those committed to struggling for universal human equality can unite, the Birkbeck conference, for all its sins, represents a step in the right direction.