June 22nd, 2010

S.C. Hickman

The Idea of Communism - Part I

     It is not enough to remain faithful to the communist hypothesis: one has to locate antagonisms within historical reality which make it a practical urgency. The only true question today is: does global capitalism contain antagonisms strong enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?

                         -- SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK  

Zizek outlines four possible antagonisms within the neo-liberal global system of exclusionary practices:

1. the looming threat of ecological catastrophe;
2. the inappropriateness of private property for so-called intellectual property;
3. the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments, especially in biogenetics;
4. and last, but not least, new forms of social apartheid—new walls and slums.

Zizek affirms that the global elite are appropriating the 'global commons' - following the logic of Hardt and Negri in their critique of the global governance structures of Empire in 'Commonwealth'. "First, there are the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of cognitive capital: primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also shared infrastructure such as public transport, electricity, post, etc... Second, there are the commons of external nature, threatened by pollution and exploitation—from oil to forests and the natural habitat itself—and, third, the commons of internal nature, the biogenetic inheritance of humanity." What all of these struggles share is an awareness of the destructive potential—up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself—in allowing the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons free reign.

He tells us: "It is this reference to ‘commons’ which allows the resuscitation of the notion of communism: it enables us to see their progressive enclosure as a process of proletarianization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance; a process that also points towards exploitation."

The crucial point is the exclusion of the disaffected in a new social apartheid: "It is, however, only the fourth antagonism, the reference to the excluded that justifies the term communism. There is nothing more private than a state community which perceives the excluded as a threat and worries how to keep them at a proper distance. In other words, in the series of the four antagonisms, the one between the included and the excluded is the crucial one: without it, all the others lose their subversive edge."

As Zygmunt Bauman ('Living on borrowed time') states it: "given that politics consists in the act of naming the enemy and fighting the enemy, and the decisionistic nature of soverignty, it must be clear that someone becomes 'the other' and 'the stranger', and ultimately 'an enemy', at the end, not at the statrting point, of the soverign's political action." That the world's poor and poverty striken have slowly been excluded from this neo-liberal utopian vision is beyond doubt, that as Bauman relates it the very institutions of state, the Welfare System, "were tapered down to focus on a small minority of the unemployable and invalid," and that now the excluded who make up the "feral, failed cities", of Third-world nations, as Mike Davis puts it: "will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century(Planet of Slums)". The true terrorist of our times is the Pentagaon mentality which sponsors a forever war of "of unlimited duration against the crminalized segemts of the urban poor(Davis)". The new social state dreamed of by the neo-liberal elite is as Bauman suggests an agency that "runs something like a ghetto without walls, a camp without barbed wire(thought densely packed with watch towers!)."

That we need a new emancipatory politics of inclusion rather than exclusion is at the forefront of Zizek's manifesto: "The new emancipatory politics will no longer be the act of a particular social agent, but an explosive combination of different agents. What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletarians who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, we are in danger of losing everything. The threat is that we will be reduced to an abstract, empty Cartesian subject dispossessed of all our symbolic content, with our genetic base manipulated, vegetating in an unliveable environment." Otherwise we will all become Homo Sacer. The idea of the Homo Sacer, "the accursed man", according to Giorgio Agaben describes an individual who exists in the law as an exile. There is, he thinks, a paradox. It is only because of the law that society can recognize the individual as homo sacer, and so the law that mandates the exclusion is also what gives the individual an identity.

Agamben holds that life exists in two capacities. One is natural biological life (Greek: Zoë) and the other is political life (Greek: bios). This zoe is related by Agamben himself to Hannah Arendt's description of the refugee's "naked life" in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The effect of homo sacer is, he says, a schism of one's biological and political lives. As "bare life", the homo sacer finds himself submitted to the sovereign's state of exception, and, though he has biological life, it has no political significance.(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sacer)

Zizek speaking of this states: "What one should add here, moving beyond Kant, is that there are social groups which, on account of their lack of a determinate place in the ‘private’ order of social hierarchy, stand directly for universality: they are what Jacques Rancière calls the ‘part of no part’ of the social body. All truly emancipatory politics is generated by the short-circuit between the universality of the public use of reason and the universality of the ‘part of no part’. This was already the communist dream of the young Marx—to bring together the universality of philosophy with the universality of the proletariat. From Ancient Greece, we have a name for the intrusion of the excluded into the socio-political space: democracy."

As Agamben argues, "the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man prove to be completely unprotected at the very moment it is no longer possible to characterize them as rights of the citizens of a state", following in this Hannah Arendt's reasoning concerning the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which tied human rights to civil rights. Although human rights were conceived of as the ground for civil rights, the privation of those civil rights (as, for example, in the case of stateless people or refugees) made them comparable to "savages", many of whom were exterminated, as Arendt showed, during the New Imperialism period. Arendt's thought is that respect of human rights depends on the guarantee of civil rights, and not the other way around, as argued by the liberal natural rights philosophers.

What is to be done? In Living in the End Times Zizek presents three alternatives:

1. the "Bartleby politics" of doing nothing;
2. preparing for a radical violent Act, a total revolutionary upheaveal;
3 engaging in loval pragmatic interventions

Which of the three alternatives is the appropriate one for our moment? Zizek's answer: why impose a choice in the first place? He goes on to say a "Leninist "concrete analysis of the concrete circumstances" will make clear what the proper way to act in a given constellation might be - sometimes, pragmatic measures addressed to particular problems are appropriate; sometimes, as in a radical crisis, a transformation of the fundamental structure of society will be the only way to solve its particular problems" and, sometimes, "it is better to do nothing than to contribute to the reproduction of the existing order."

It seems that this new idea of communism is in process of  redefining itself, or as he says "reinventing itself":

"One should be careful not to read these lines in a Kantian way, conceiving of communism as a regulative Idea, and thereby resuscitating the spectre of ‘ethical socialism’, with equality as its a priori norm or axiom. Rather, one should maintain the precise reference to a set of social antagonisms which generates the need for communism; the good old Marxian notion of communism not as an ideal, but as a movement which reacts to actual contradictions. To treat communism as an eternal Idea implies that the situation which generates it is no less eternal, that the antagonism to which communism reacts will always be here. From which it is only one step to a deconstructive reading of communism as a dream of presence, of abolishing all alienating representation; a dream which thrives on its own impossibility."

(Quotes from: http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2779)