Introduction: All that is Solid Melts into ...Barbarous Empire-ialism
Frederick Luis Aldama, Robert Soza, Aaron Shuman
Issue #66, February 2004
"Marx and Theory": what are we to make of this configuration in a world where the facts of our material reality increasingly seem to contradict past and current scholarly theories — counter-hegemonic Empires or otherwise?
A self-identified Left Theory — poststructuralist, post-Marxist, postcolonial, post-you-name-it — has failed to make good on its promise: to decode, destabilize, and intervene into les grands recits (hegemonic master narratives). Despite constant outings that window-shop a new look, academic theorizing of the world-as-text, localized epistemic ruptures vs. globalized hegemony, and so on, certainly haven't curtailed our speedy spiral towards absolute barbarism. The world today looks bleak with skyrocketing unemployment and homelessness rates, delirious dissipation of basic civil rights, and gaping genocidal wounds worldwide. Heady Left academic ideas, solipsism, and obscurantist phraseology ("aporia", the "slippage of signifier and signified", difference, "politics of savagism", for example) simply don't make sense to those with common sense — especially when basic civil rights such as education, representation, health care, transportation, and communication are slipping.
And yet, while this liberating Leftist Theory has failed to supply the grand tourniquet it promised to cease the hemorrhaging of life in capitalism, it continues to steam-roll those who stand in its way. Those who shun its obscurantist mystical speculations and follow the rigors of reasoned method to build knowledge to better understand and clear space for the making of true social democracy have been railroaded. Think of the so-called "Sokal Affair" in 1996, when physicist Alan Sokal revealed just how reactionary Theory (in spite of its claims to the contrary) had become. After publishing a deliberately nonsensical piece on physics that peddled a so-called Left Theory in Social Text, he made public his hoax: "Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue: allusions, metaphors, and puns substitute for evidence and logic." Rather then simply a game, however, Sokal had a much more serious bone to pick: in the name of Left liberalism, academic Theory had rendered meaningless any "real" knowledge of the "real" world that might lead to "real" change.
In spite of this embarrassing episode — one might have thought it would have shamed the practitioners of such speculative Theory — facts, reason, and rigors are less in favor than relativist, constructivist, and/or esoteric mystifications, when it comes to research in history, sociology, economics, and politics that offer tools for analyzing our objective reality. And yet the gurus of Left Theory allude to such methods (even while damning them as hegemonic tools of the master) to bolster their speculations. In a recently published interview, for example, Gayatri Spivak tells us that because of the "law of curvature" it would be false to communicate in a clear and "straight line". Rather, to write obscurely and "counterintuitively" is not only following a natural law, but is the way for us to resist and intervene into capitalist hegemony and open the possibility for "critical practice" to happen. And Judith Butler considers the more obscure and difficult the writing, the more complex the "knowing". Obscure writing disarms and takes us to a place of "unknowing" that leads, paradoxically, to a clearer vision of life. In his essay, "The Morality of Form; or, What's 'Bad' About 'Bad Writing", David Palumbo-Liu claims that to write badly — to depart from "presumed norms" and use new forms of "linguistic expression" — is not only to write from the criminalized and "deviant" margins but to terrorize hegemonic centers in its creating of "an open-ended community-in-the-making" and "non-inclusive critical inquiry into possibilities of knowledge" that threatens "pre-existing ways of thinking". To write badly is to "think differently" and to resist, intervene, and even overturn power structures. And recently, Homi Bhabha continued to promote an obscurantist ("partial milieu") writing and local/communal identified counter-intuitive thinking as a form of resistance to capitalist globalization's "fever of frenetic speeds" and huge appetite for expansion. It is also to attain a "renewed sense of self-recognition that disturbs the language of self and Other, of individual and group, in its search for a discourse of passion in which to inscribe the notion of 'rights'". To write obscurely is to make visible "emergent, minority cultures in multicultural societies". It is to open up to a "wider world of access without a painful 'bending' of freedom". It is to declare the chiasmatic structure of an Adrienne Rich poem a " lateral 'side-by-side' solidarity where differences do not aspire to be represented in sovereign autonomy". It is finally to "protect the 'right to narrate' and thus "to protect a range of democratic imperatives".
Utopian rhetoric aside, we know from history that writing (obscurantist or otherwise) does not a democracy make. Certainly, writing of laws and constitutions are necessary for the functioning of the nation-state, but it is and always has been the collective will of the people (the "we" of the people) that transforms social and political reality. Indeed, the call for "bad" writing is a Left-identified intellectual elite gift wrapping then selling a capitalist entrepreneurial spirit in the absolute reification of social ideals. It is, as Rey Chow so aptly identifies, to peddle an "Otherworldly salvation" package that has "little to do with the resistance" and that has become a "potentially gainful means of generating cultural as well as financial capital".
Of course, that this Left-identifying Theory juggernaut has not lost steam shouldn't surprise. After all, if by writing badly (destabilizing master narratives and so on) one can change the world for the better, then why bother with organizing workers, unionizing labor, or creating class-based parties — the very entities that have historically proved to best further and maintain true democratic ideals? Symbiotically, those of the so-called Left can peddle an armchair social and political revolution with the full support of a bourgeoisie that seeks such inaction in order to fragment workers and exploit laborers worldwide.
This is perhaps best exemplified in the run-away best-selling success of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000). Presented as a powerful new political analysis and critique of global capitalism, this five hundred page tome (available now in dozens of other languages and sold worldwide) has been heralded as "nothing less than a rewriting of the 'The Communist Manifesto' for our time" by Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek. It caught the eye of U.S., Latin American, and European newspapers and was featured on Dutch TV. The New York Times declared it "a new way of thinking about global politics". Its authors have been variously held up with other "progressive" twentieth-century intellectuals such as Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Deleuze. Negri has been identified as one of the most "significant figures of current political thought". For many others, Empire announced the death of orthodox Marxism in its opening up of new possibilities for resistance in the reclaiming of "Utopia for the multitude" (cf. Nicholas Brown).
Prima facie, the synthetic historical and intellectual breadth of Empire is awe inspiring. In its pages, we travel from the turn of the twenty-first century back through the history of social, political, and philosophical ideas to imperial Rome. However, upon second glance, its historical and philosophical stretch makes for a rather conservative tapestry and deterministic portrayal of capitalism. Its erasure of the working class struggle, together with the ahistoricist approach to the evolution of capitalism and the nation-state — the revolution has already happened, and we are living in a new political system where resistance is happening everywhere — is problematic at best. Hardt/Negri propose the following: the traditionally structured nation-states have dissolved as a result of globalizing capitalism, and in their place we have a "universal republic" made up of "a network of powers and counterpowers structured in a boundless and inclusive architecture". Within this new economic system "there is no place of power — it is both everywhere and nowhere. Empire is an outopia or really a non-place". With power everywhere and bodies moving through ever-permeable borders, a so-identified "biopolitical" resistance is no longer working class vs. bourgeoisie, but is capitalism now "faced directly with the multitude, without mediation". As there are no "emperors" ruling bounded nation-states (no sites of power), political struggle and activism is now "completely open". Empire is a new world order not based on class struggle, but one characterized by a fluid, infinitely expanding and highly organized "supranational organism", a system that says power is everywhere and therefore resistance can be everywhere: it is where the fight for a true social democracy can happen as a simple negation in "the will to be against."
Nation-state and the emergence of a class consciousness are out, and a "supranational" empire with its abstracted working class ("subjectivity of labor" and/or the "multitude") is in. Power is everywhere and so too is resistance; it follows, then, that if a dog farts, it creates a "biopolitical" resistant act. Namely, power and resistance are nowhere. Indeed, like much other mystical (mystifying) Left Theory, that power/resistance is not locatable not only feeds the interests of the bourgeoisie, but more basically, it neglects the facts. As we know from the work of labor historians, for resistance to be effective it must begin with localized organization and with a specific aim (target). Of course, a quick glance at the history of working class struggles and domination of the bourgeoisie confirms that power is somewhere; state agents and the bourgeoisie assert their power (judicial and/or violent) to fragment identifiable sites of resistance like that of labor unions. And a quick glance at today's world events will tell you that where there is no nation-state structure in place (Hardt/Negri's "supranational organism") — no structure that, even in capitalism, must account for individual rights — Mafia-styled barbarous rule of the fist destroys any forms of resistance.
Empire is an avatar of Negri's erstwhile "autonomism" — a dangerous and destructive anarchism that, some editors believe, massively undermined the working class struggle in Europe in the 1970s. Of course, there is a much longer historical sweep of this type of utopic fantasizing in the name of Left politics. Fifty-plus years ago, intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse had already begun to theorize the working class off the face of the earth. Marcuse went so far as to propose that the true revolution would be brought on by the lumpenproletariat; others of the Birmingham Cultural Studies group looked to marginal groups like youth subcultures (subway muggers and punk rockers, for example) as the force of social transformation. The list of substitute candidates has increased infinitely since.
Such utopic formulations are not benign. Wittingly or not, in their fragmenting of society (youth vs. whatever) they undermine massively the coalition building strategies of working-class organizations. Youth subcultures typically rub up against an underworld that is flourishing and that, with pay-offs of government officials, more and more directly helps finance the very capitalist economy that neglects youth today — promoting a complacency in the face of the massive destruction of productive forces. Youth subcultures have not put in check the lowering of salaries, massive layoffs, and huge out-sourcing of production to undeveloped countries as well as prisons nationally. Youth groups (subway muggers, punks and so on) have not stopped the massive shutting down of services — schools, hospitals, daycare centers, roads, public transportation, energy, water — nor the cuts in social security benefits. Wittingly or not, such utopic thinking contributes to the destruction of collective bargaining agreements, statutes, and labor codes. Wittingly or not, it contributes to an economic system that has created the highest levels of speculation ever attained in the finance and money markets, and the highest levels in history attained by public and private debts.
So the problem is not at all a problem of ideas or ideals. It is much deeper than that. But ideas have their place too — albeit a limited one — both in the posing of the problems and in their solution. It's quite amazing how many present day gurus of Left Theory were formed in their youth by the Catholic, the Protestant, or some other Church: Mario Tronti, Antonio ("Toni") Negri, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Michel de Certeau, Carl Schmitt, Paul Ricoeur, Félix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Hans Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, and of course, the gurus of all gurus, Friedrich Nietzsche. Hardt/Negri and these others have a profound aversion to the working class; they are all deeply contemptuous of the many attempts the workers have made the world over since the nineteenth century to build their own organizations as weapons to fight capitalism and overthrow it, and they all blame the proletariat for the defeats it has suffered up to now. Nietzsche's aristocratism; Blanchot's, Gadamer's, Schmitt's, and Heidegger's Naziphilia; Bataille's dark mysticism and fascistic leanings; Guattari's, Deleuze's, and Lacan's loathing of science while saturating their writings with puns, portmanteau words, and neologisms based on scientific terms; Foucault's, Negri's, and Tronti's ultra-leftism that in fact aspires to a perpetuation of capitalism; and Althusser's strive to defend both the Stalinist bureaucracy and the capitalist regime worldwide — all this and more have been and still are among the most effective ideological weapons that the ruling classes have used to keep one generation after another of young students away from the knowledge that may lead them to join the emancipation struggle of working-class populations. And yet, many intellectuals today (in and out of the academy) believe exactly the opposite: that to further the cause of freedom from exploitation, oppression, and discrimination is to pour forth recklessly these ideas . It's the world upside down.
Of course, the survival of capitalism has been lethal for humankind. Those like Hardt/Negri have blamed (directly and indirectly) the working class for this instead of analyzing the problem rationally. What problems has the working class encountered; why hasn't the working class been able to build an independent party in the U.S. and worldwide; what has actually happened with actual people? We have records of what has happened since the nineteenth century; we know about Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, the Wobblies, to speak of the trade unionist and anarchist movement in the U.S. Hardt/Negri and other of today's self-identifying Marxist Theorists want the revolution without the revolution. They want to be able to assert that the revolution has already taken place, even though they shout that it is necessary, and spend a lifetime looking for a substitute for the class that failed — the proletariat.
Capitalism has survived itself; it exists still and there hasn't been a revolution to overthrow it. The more capitalism survives itself, the more destructive and lethal it has become. The revolution of 1848 in Europe, the Paris commune in 1871, and Russia in 1917 all failed; the latter degenerated into Stalinism. Capitalism continues to survive in the twentieth century and has led to two world wars with millions of soldiers and civilians killed, plus more than a hundred partial wars that have happened on all of the planet's continents, also taking millions of lives. Capitalism has led to the development of huge famines and epidemics like AIDS as well as the continued exploitation of the majority of the world's population; huge communities still must survive without even basics like water. This is capitalism in its most barbarous form, and not a bio-supranational organism of no-place — an Empire where the revolution has already happened.
The revolution has certainly not been televised — because there hasn't been a revolution. Nor will there be one if we continue to entertain fantasies of biopolitical power and empirical resistance based on magical, mystical, deceiving, disjointed, vague, openly mistaken and misguided, obscurantist thinking.
Much mopping up must happen post Marxist Theory of the Hardt/Negri brand. We must begin by showing how, in the name of Marxism, such alchemists stew up such otherworldly concoctions: that the fight against capitalism and all its monstrous consequences is no longer necessary, because the de facto chaos of capitalism has provided us with a form of communism. We must understand such brands of Marxist Theory include a long list of others who sought to reject programmatic political organization in favor of a rhetoric of anarchy and spontaneity. Some editors are reminded of the council of communism of Europe in the 1930s/1940s, and so-called "libertarian communists" such as Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and Otto Ruhle. If we historicize, then we begin to see that the working class has been struggling for at least two hundred-plus years for civil rights (representation, emancipation, and so on) in spite of the massive obstacles put in its way, including today's Marx Theorists, who have one way or another denied them a social/political efficacy.
Much of this mystical speculation arises from a basic misunderstanding of how the individual subject and nation-state are constituted. Contrary to the today's Marx Theory doxa, the subject (and world) is not constructed from language (textual discursivities). As a member of the human species, the subject (from the origins of our species) is both an individual (an indivisible unit) and a social being. That is, while our specific everyday experiences might differ, we all feel pain, grief, happiness, anger, and sadness the same way. We share a cognitive and emotive architecture that pertains to the species as a whole, at the same time that each member of the species is unique in the way he/she uses this universal endowment as well as in how he/she participates in the transformation of nature and society. The subject is simultaneously two things: human and belongs to a territory controlled by a certain state and a certain church. If you are a subject of the U.S., you pledge allegiance to the flag and swear on the Bible; in that sense, subject and citizenship are more or less similar. There is nothing mystical about the subject. We are from birth to death individuals and entities completely subordinate to the state.
The making of the subject is an historical process that begins in pre-history (the Paleolithic era) and that is not finished; it's ongoing. If you compare the subject from the time of independence in the U.S. with U.S. subjects today, you see a huge difference that was actually expressed explicitly by Jefferson: the American subject at the time of independence and the drafting of the Constitution considered that the worst possible evil was to be a subject of any kind of power external to him. People at the time realized that the state could overpower them and that they could only maintain a rule over the people through institutions that forbid the state from oppressing them.
In contrast, today, you see an uncritical alliance of the people with U.S. military power, even before 9/11/01. The Clinton 1990s — the heyday of liberalism for some — were in the eyes of many critics, years of drug war, "race war" and the entrenchment of a domestic police state — years when talk of a post-Cold War "peace dividend" trembled before the fortification of borders, the militarization of the police, and the policing of social services. Today's hugely inflated military budget, unparalleled in U.S. history, may simply entrench what Dana Priest calls a post-Cold War process of "U.S. leaders...turning more and more to the military to solve problems that are often, at their root, political and economic." Even as the borders of the homeland are rigidly policed, the border between foreign and domestic policy is permeable enough to admit $8.5 million for the city of Miami to police the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings, in the $87 billion bill to fund the war on Iraq.
Thus, the subject is constructed historically and also built and transformed through history by means of the class struggle. The subject is not identical when he/she has no legal traditional guarantees. For instance, those subjects incarcerated today under the Patriot Act, and those disparacidos in Argentina, differ from those subjects who are "protected" by those civil rights that the class struggle has struggled to build since time immemorial. And in a capitalist society, the subject can become a member of a different class: one might be born a worker but end up within the bourgeoisie. Class membership often changes: there are many examples of working class political or trade leaders adopting/defending the interest of the owning class; and vice versa, those born into the bourgeoisie (Marx or Engels, for instance) adopting and fighting for the interest of the working class. From the Great Depression to the Great Bubble of the late 90s, we have seen owners of the means of production lose all, and members of the working class fall down into the lumpenproletariat. This, of course, differs from the implicit abstraction of the working class in Hardt/Negri; they negate historical change brought on by the working class and therefore send us back to the middle ages where to be born a serf meant always being a serf.
The working-class developed within the confines of the nation-state; its formation is inseparably linked to the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the struggle between these two classes. Through its struggles, the working class imposed on the bourgeoisie a whole series of guarantees and protections under the law; one form or another of social security; and, of course, the right to organize, and to exist as a separate class with its own organizations — trade unions and political organizations. In many capitalist countries today, laws to protect the private ownership of the means of production — essential for bourgeoisie to exist — coexist with laws and general agreements that forbid people from working 18 hours a day, under unhealthy or dangerous conditions, or for no money.
But when the framework of nation-state is destroyed (the real consequence of a theory of a "bio-supranationalism"), the framework that stops the whole community from slipping into barbarism is also destroyed. For instance, today half of Argentina (the southern territory) has envisioned the possibility of becoming independent. This is where most agriculture, oil, gas, mines, water sources are located; the policy of American imperialism and the International Monetary Fund leads to starvation for the Argentinean people and dislocation of the nation as such. We see this fracturing throughout the world, from Yugoslavia to Iraq throughout Africa. The destruction of the nation-state has been a disaster for the working class, because it destroys the fabric of protections and guarantees that are essential to its constitution as a separate working class.
The subject, then, is a member of a class and capable of being active and effective in resisting oppression and exploitation in real life, in actuality — in fact. This is never considered when so-identified Marx Theorists talk of empowerment; they don't take into account the class struggle and therefore the existence of opposite interests between the classes, and the fact that the people they are talking about — the subjects of their discussion, if you will — belong to one class or another. They disregard actual history and instead provide an imaginary and grandly idealist history made by a series of intellectuals.
To understand the nature of capitalism (as well as the subject, nation-state, and class struggle) is the only way we can combat it. To imagine and bring into existence a true democracy is not to theorize the working class struggle into oblivion; nor is it to use obscurantist language to ensure basic rights to all. It is also to see that capitalism is not a determined element of human nature. It is to see it historically — arising within specific conditions in agrarian England and then spreading — and therefore as curtailable. Only a more historicized and economic based understanding of capitalism — with its wealth derived from its military, administrative and juridical practices — allows us to distinguish, unlike Hardt/Negri, between Greece and Rome's "empire of property" (that used a land-based system that stimulated unending territorial conquest) from that of Arab, Venetian and Dutch "empires of commerce" (dedicated to the protection of trade routes and market dominance), the British "empire of capital" (marked by the imposition of market imperatives on conquered territories), and today's "new imperialism" — a globalization that is not to be understood outside history.
To move away from the overwhelming sense of deterministic, reductionist, and mechanical understanding of history and political economy, we must not only historicize the subject, class, and the nation-state, but also capitalism. Taking into account the historical trajectory that produced the capitalist configuration of classes provides a counterpoint to those Marx Theorists who have followed in the tradition of an Althusserian ahistorical, culturalist based Marxism. It allows us to better account for how capitalism has shaped political issues such as the power to control production and appropriation by segregating them from the political and social sphere and relegating them to the economic arena. Indeed, it allows us to recognize that the nation-state is both the structure that allows for capitalist class domination — its concentration and regulation of power of people through juridical, police, and specialized means.
Capitalism only allows for "democracy" in its most diluted form. Today, most real political activism and progress made by working peoples worldwide has happened as a result of unions, protest movements, and so forth, and not through democratic means; this is to say, democracy today is becoming increasingly in the control of capitalists. However, as it has been historically, so it shall be in the future, it is the working people who continue to struggle against capitalist forces that seek to undermine all our civil rights.
This is to confirm what we already know to be a fact: that sites of power must be acknowledged if we are to have any concrete results in preventing our slide into barbarism. Before and during the war on Iraq, people all over the world have participated by the millions in the largest political demonstrations ever seen in history, to condemn the U.S./British military aggression against this country. The demonstrations and the myriad of forms of expression of opposition to the war have continued and will certainly persist until the war stops. The war on Iraq is part of the more general war against all working people, their families, the youth of each country. It is essential to give a more organized expression in each country and internationally to the resistance and opposition of all peoples to the criminal and barbarian political economy of capitalists. For any effective transformation of global capitalism, we need to look clearly at the historical, political, social facts, as well as build a solid social base for the kind of political organization necessary to prevent our slipping into a complete state of barbarous Empire-ialism.
This issue of Bad Subjects is not so much about re-thinking Marx as it is grounding our understanding of the world not only in a materialist, historicized method, but also in the more general reminder that Theory (poststructuralist post-Marxism) can not nor will it ever be able to transform for the better a world that we're seeing day by day slipping into barbarism. Rather, the essays collected here question a locatable power of capitalism to push for the maintenance of true democratic rights. They collectively form a critique of those who formulate a utopian power-is-nowhere-and-resistance-is-everywhere Theory where any type of cultural phenomena, from playing music to the film Jackass become forms of social and political critique and resistance. The essays resist peddling a Marx-identified Theory of borderless worlds, and instead look to fact and history that tells us that when nation-states no longer exist, governments quickly become Mafia-run operations. And the essays are critical of abstracting working-class struggles and nation-state structures ("imagined communities", "multitudes", "bio supranationalism" and etc.), because this undermines rather than enforces real struggles and labor organization for "real" coalition building among the working classes world wide.
In Cuba Libre, Frederick Aldama discusses how the U.S. and Cuba have worked together to systematically destroy the rights gained by the great worker revolts of 1958 — in the name of "democracy" and "communism". Like other umbrella labels ("Empire" for example), so-called democracy and communism have worked together to erase the workers' struggle historically that has led to key civil rights: equal access to education, medicine, modes of communication, and representation and organization independent from the state. (With the firm belief that ideas must be open to debate and discussion, we include a counter response that understands differently Castro's Cuba.) In Music Can Rock, Just Not the World, Aldama critiques those cultural studies practitioners who claim that music and music fests (any cultural phenomena) has the power to enact social transformation. In a historicized and materialist revisiting of global capitalism, we include in this initial line up an interview by Miguel Lara Hidalgo with Saskia Sassen, who is careful to temper a geopolitical/transnational (transnational citizenship) resistance with identifying the necessary role of the state, citizen, and urban center to advance the social and political rights of Latin America in the face of sweeping globalization. This interview is available in Spanish and English.
We follow these initial pieces with several more abstract yet materially based discussions of Marx and Theory. In Mrinalini Chakravorty's essay, Hegel-Marx: The "Other" Logic of Unproductive Labor, explores Marx's analysis of labor as implicated within a Hegelian logic of otherness. Chakravorty is critical of Marx's reliance on Hegel as she sees this as a way to abstract and make mystical the category of labor. In his essay, Marxism as the Art of Class War, Manuel Yang is critical of so-identifying "radical" academics who reify the "proletariat", proposing that we return to Marx (and Yoshimoto) whose dynamic economic theories of class and capital will help "demystify" a capitalist world to open the way for another economic system. In a like spirit, Robert Soza sits himself alongside Ngugi's "rabidly anti-imperialist Marxism and proud, resistant cultural nationalisms" to focus on history of genocides that have taken place within capitalism.
We end the issue by taking two trips to the movies. Elizabeth Krasnoff Levy reads director Roger Michell's film, Changing Lanes, as a Marxist class analysis, with race as a marker and technology as a measure of the class divide. Levy brings the collective "wisdom" of Roger Ebert, Frederic Jameson, Elvis Mitchell, and Edmund Wilson to conclude, "New Yorkers and all city dwellers must decide how much longer they want to be Chaplin, caught in the machine." And, in The Warning in Jackass: The Movie Rob Horning explores how this film, like all other reality shows, pretends to celebrate "averageness" to feed an ever hungry corporate media.