Friday, 9 December 2016

Solidarity with those listed on the "professor watchlist"

The list in question is of course disgusting - an attempt at intimidation that evokes unpleasant memories of fascist witchhunts. In view of my earlier criticism of John Bellamy Foster, I'd like to take the opportunity to express my solidarity with him and others on the list. Fortunately this thing is not (yet) a state project. Here's the message from him, which is now circulating on the Internet:

Dear Colleagues,

This is no game. We are a different period. I have not yet seen the environmental sociology discussion on this, but I am a PEWS, Environmental Sociology, and Marxist Theory section member (a former head of the section) and I am on the list. I believe I am the only one on the list in this region (the Pacific Northwest). In my case I am on it because of the Horowitz Dangerous Professors List of a decade ago, where I was listed. The Professor Watchlist has taken over the statements by Horowitz there word for word, I believe, but now it is more serious. There is a University of Oregon Chapter of the Professor Watchlist established over the last week and I am the principal target. Next week an NPR affiliated local radio station will be interviewing the head of the Chapter in a call-in show, where that individual will no doubt pinpoint me as the local rotten apple and use that as a weapon for threatening other professors. One of my sins is to be editor of Monthly Review. I have been asked to do a separate, “adjacent” interview on the same station, in which I will be able to respond.

Here we have to learn from history. The key to developing a coherent response is the Einstein First Amendment Strategy from 1953 developed in the midst of the McCarthy Era (the initial attempt to use the First in the case of the Hollywood Ten failed) in which Einstein declared that there should be determined non-cooperation and that the goal should be to use the First to attack the inquisition itself. His letter appeared in the NYT in June 1953 and let writers Leo Huberman and Harvey O’Connor, and then Corliss Lamont, Lilian Hellan, and Paul Sweezy, all of whom were closely connected, and linked to Einstein and MR, put it into practice in a succession of attempts to break McCarthyism. Sweezy was the most successful because he refused to turn over his lecture notes and to name names and they hit him with contempt of court and consigned him to county jail and he fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Things are obviously not at that critical state yet (we are not talking about subpoenas and prosecutions with possible imprisonment at the moment), though there are calls to reestablish the House on Un-American Activities Committee. But I think that the Einstein strategy is what we need to adopt from the start. If such a stance is taken from the beginning we may be able to head off further disasters. There should no arguing of specifics of charges, rather freedom of speech and academic freedom and challenging the goon squads should be everything. You might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire of 1957. You can find it online under its case number (354 U.S. 234). Welcome to Gleichschaltung.

P.S. The list has already attracted protests. One way is to turn being listed into a badge of honor and expressing solidarity by demanding to be on the list, as these academics on Notre Dame.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Coming across Lévinas

I'm probably always out of step with the times. Back in the days when Lévinas was in vogue I didn't care much for his philosophy, but today I can't help thinking of it with fondness. There's undoubtedly something right about it. An important moral intuition that what is right has very little to do with legality, the state or the nation. Why are there so few who dare to say that today? Maybe I'm nostalgic for the days when what he wrote didn't seem as controversial and bold as it does today? Today, ever since the "refugee crisis", those who speak up for hospitality are immediately accused of "lacking solutions", but we shouldn't forget that the accusers lack solutions too - namely to the other's suffering.

I came across an essay on Lévinas today, "What Do We Owe Each Other?". It's by Aaron James Wendland, a research fellow at the University of Tartu and it ends like this.
Levinas has taught us that our responsibility for others is the foundation of all human communities, and that the very possibility of living in a meaningful human world is based on our ability to give what we can to others. And since welcoming and sharing are the foundation upon which all communities are formed, no amount of inhospitable nationalism can be consistently defended when confronted with the suffering of other human beings. “In the relationship between same and other, my welcoming of the other is,” as Levinas puts it, “the ultimate fact.”

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos

I want to say a few words on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015). The strong point of this book is that it grasps neoliberalism as more than an economic doctrine. It is a governing rationality that disseminates itself throughout the social body, transforming the states as well as individuals into images of the firm, thereby crowding out the image of human beings as citizens that is indispensible to democracy. 

Unlike Marxist critics of neoliberalism like David Harvey, she is comparatively uninterested in the economic effects of neoliberalism - widening inequality, commodification and so on. Inspired by Foucault and governmentality theory, she instead sees it as a rationality transforming every human domain - from education to dating and social media - so that they become “framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized” (p. 10). Her claim is not that neoliberalism necessarily privatizes or marketizes all spheres, but rather that the model of the market is dissemminated to all domains and activities. Supplanting concepts like citizen, political public sphere and democracy itself by market terms, neoliberalism becomes "profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy” (p. 9).

A good example of the new practices of self-investment and attracting investors is the university. Universities turn into companies catering to consumers and investors, forgetting their role as providers of public higher education for citizens. Scholars have to be entrepreneurial and investment savvy while students are presumed to be oriented primarily to augmenting their human capital.

Brown's account is clearly useful. She provides the theoretical tools needed for understanding the subject's need today for continuous, compulsive self-investment. She also makes it eminently clear why the spread of New Public Management throughout the sector of public services is part and parcel of neoliberalization. Even if these practices of self-investment and pseudo-market behavior are not monetarized, they all orient themselves to the market as a model and site of truth or veridiction, as Foucault would say. Seeing them as part of the same process, it also becomes possible to diagnose a wide variety of protests - e.g. campus protests - as resistance against neoliberalization.

It's evident that Foucault is central to her account. Above all, she takes over his claim that neoliberalism's central trait is that it generalizes the enterprise form. This doesn't mean that she accepts Foucault uncritically. Above all, she criticizes him on two scores. Firstly, there are no citizens in his account. He lacks a concept of a “demos acting in concert”, making it seem that governing only emanates from the state. As a result, he never reflects on the effect of neoliberalism on democratic political life. Secondly, his aversion to Marxism made him neglect the role of capital (p. 73ff). It is tempting to see Brown as attempting to wed Marx and Foucault, but that would hardly be correct. The latter plays a far more predominant role than the former in her account. Despite her criticism that Foucault neglects the role of capital, capital is almost wholly neglected in her own analysis as well.

My major dissatisfaction with the books is that Brown says nothing of why neoliberalization happens. Why is the enterprise form generalized throughout the social body? Brown is very clearly issuing a sort of call for resisting neoliberalism and defending democracy, but to resist something effectively you need to understand its causes. All we get is a kind of negative delineation of what sort of explanation she rejects - mostly Marxist explanations focusing on economic causes such as Harvey's well-known thesis that neoliberalism should be understood as an attempt to restore class power to the capitalist class in the face of declining profitability. Brown empahsizes the new and revolutionary character of neoliberalism, but gives us few clues as to why this revolution occurs.

A final reflection. In these days it may seem as if the greatest threat to democracy is coming not from neoliberalism but from rightwing populism. Especially after the Brexit referendum and the "Trump shock" it may easily seem as if neoliberalism is defeated. I'm not going to repeat here the pertinent argument that neoliberal policy during the last decades has probably paved the way for these populist triumphs. Instead I'd like to add a thought that came to me the day that the results of the US election came in. I was doing some reading about a particular kind of neoliberal urbanism, namely the "entrepreneurialist" policy of attracting capital to a city by promoting its "brand", usually by creating an image of the city as clean, safe and creative. Here, incidentally, we have the enterprise form again - the city behaving like an enterprise. I asked myself while reading what rightwing populism on the level of urban policy would mean. Evictions of homeless people and penalization of begging? The adulation of "strongmen" mayors? And zero tolerance against graffiti? But these are things that that we've also been told characterize neoliberal urbanism. Isn't it precisely in order to promote the "city brand" that these policies of exclusion and so on are employed?

Neoliberalism may be associated with globalist elites and rightwing populism with the nationalism of "common" people, but on the level of city policies they mesh pretty well. Isn't this reflected in a surprising convergence between the subjectivities of rightwing populism and neoliberalism? The rightwing populist subject and the neoliberal subject both delight in excluding unwanted others. Both believe they have the right to things for which they have paid dearly and which they certainly won't share with freeloaders. The mad chant "Out with the immigrants" is the distorted echo of the neoliberal subject's irritated demand that nothing should be allowed to disturb his or her consumer experience. I have yet to see a rightwing populism that resurrects the idea of a citizenry or demos. What it does is to vent anger at unwanted competitors in a race that remains exactly as neoliberal as before. Urban policy helps us visualize what the rather abstract statement that neoliberalism paves the way from rightwing populism may mean. It is hard to see in what sense the latter implies a threat to the former.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Bloch reviews Lukács

I just read an old piece, Ernst Bloch's review of Lukács' History and Class Consciousness from 1923. No great surprises here, yet it's still an amusing read. Bloch saves his criticism for the last few pages. The review zooms in on the dialectical “now” when the subject freely assumes the future by creating it. According to Bloch, Lukács's social categories - which are "sociologically homogenizing" and miss the "polyrhythmic" character of history (p.618) - cannot do justice to this "now". By limiting himself to a merely social dialectics, Lukács is forced to adopt an ascetic "agnosticism" towards everything transcendent. Yet history is "not just the social acquisition by as yet concealed social humans, but also the artistic, religious, and metaphysical acquisition by the clandestine transcendental humans" (p. 618). All this comes into play in the longing that animates the "now". Lukács misses it, thereby also missing the dimension of the new, the not-yet-conscious. Utopia, in short. Predictable? Perhaps. But quite well argued. And I like Bloch's description of his own brand of Marxism as “the metaphysics of the cosmic interpretation of dreams [die Metaphysik der kosmischen Traumdeutung]” (p. 621)!


Bloch, Ernst (1969) “Aktualität und Utopie. Zu Lukács’ ’Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein’”, pp. 598-621, in Philosophische Aufsätze zur Objektiven Phantasie. Band 10. Gesamtausgabe der Werke Ernst Bloch in Sechzehn Bänden, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

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