Archive for March, 2009

Travel Journal (part I)

March 29, 2009

I have been traveling for the month of March without a chance to write anything. Now that I have a moment there are too many things to remember, so that only ‘chance operations’ can determine the retrospective, as John Cage might say. I can tell that this blog is becoming biographical, and therefore drossy/artless in an era of ‘crude biographism’ (Toscano diagnosis). I will try to keep it interesting, at least by staying off topic


I should start by defending the dictatorship of the proletariat. (You can see already that ‘chance operations’ truly do take any direction…but in reality they make me stumped, like Mr. Martins in the film version of The Third Man, when the literary critic asks, “do you believe in the stream of consciousness,” and Martins becomes speechless; you could say Martins’ stream of consciousness seizes when asked about the stream of consciousness, in the same way that nothing operates when I try chance operations. So I will start chronologically, with a conversation I had on the eve of my departure, a late-night chat about the dictatorship of the proletariat…)

I now find that Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not need a new name, despite being nutrition for the Gulag Industry, which in any case should be dismissed because it cheapens horror in order to pedal the capitalist system. First of all, it should be noted that Marx spoke with immense subtlety of the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Those who have read the 18th Brumaire know that Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has nothing to do with ‘totalitarianism’ and everything to do with a bourgeois state that is contradictory and precariously divided. The word “dictatorship” for Marx is not the 20th century Arendtian signifier now synonymous with “totalitarianism.” Rather, it refers to a class’s ability to dictate the conditions of existence of society through the medium of the state, always contestedly.

In tracing the lineages of the absolutist states of Europe, it becomes clear that the bourgeois revolutions began overturning what today we would call “dictatorships.” In other words, for Marx, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat are both versions of the post-absolutist dictatorship of democracy. In the wake of the historical revolutions, modernity is a choice between two forms of democracy: parliamentary-capitalist or council-communist. I highly recommend Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique, in this case his chapter on ‘Marx and anarchists’ (p. 165), where he shows that the difference between the two has been scandalously overplayed, a scandal perhaps started by Bakunin himself when he chose as a line of attack to ally Marx with Lassalle, even while Marx strongly criticized Lassalle for advocating state socialism (see the Critique of the Gotha Program, and in this respect, see Toscano’s discussion of ‘equality of right’ in his paper presented at the Birkbeck conference).


I travelled to London, where I would attend the famous ‘On the Idea of Communism’ philosophy conference at the Birkbeck Institute. First I reunited in Russell Square with my closest friends, who were travelling from Canada to visit UK family and to hear what the media now dubs the ‘super-star philosophers,’ particularly Zizek. In Russell Square we watched greedy pigeons imitate Hitchcock’s film while learning from Bahram (author of the Seven Theses) that he was swarmed and then harassed in Philadelphia by five members of the US National Guard. Bahram, who is Iranian-Canadian with a dual citizenship, was forced to miss his flight while playing the role of the countryman from Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ parable. In some anonymous airport back hall, he was literally forced to wait at the door (of law) – although this time with a techno-modern twist: Kafka’s ‘lowly gatekeeper’ was made redundant by an automatic door buzzer.

In the end, Bahram was informed that the ‘hang-up’ was not his fault but the fault of security in Seattle, who had not properly interrogated him. “In the future,” the Philadelphia inspector suggested, “you should always find a security agent and ask him to interrogate you properly…”, a piece of advice from which it is tempting to conclude that we truly are in the era of the self-policing of internalized subjects, although it should be added that no level of self-policing could succeed in hiding one’s Iranian background – indeed, the police are as ‘external’ as ever in the racist war on terror.


In Russell Square we also met Alberto Toscano, Badiou’s great translator and a great philosopher (or self-described ‘anomalous sociologist’) in his own right. Before the meeting we already had opinions about the unforgivable hypocrisy of a £100 general public cover fee for the conference, but Toscano revealed some more interesting information. Students at SOAS had threatened to occupy the conference if their demands where not met: 1) broadcast the conference for free in a Birkbeck lobby, 2) allow us to present during the conference on the Free Our Books initiative. In a turn of events, the institutional radicals were being out-radicalled. In the end, after negotiations, the demands were met, and the Free Our Books presentation was one of the best presentations of the conference, in my opinion (the initiative extends the ‘hypothesis’ of the knowledge commons in the form of a concrete task: to have our universities and institutions free knowledge to the commons).

Thus, although it is little known, the conference narrowly missed the ignominy of an occupation, a crucial reminder that the intellectual left teeters always on the verge of being the figurative Adorno who calls the cops on his students.

The practice in Britain today is to occupy one’s institution. This positive repoliticization has taken the form of several dozens of occupations on UK university campuses over the past two months. Across the Atlantic, the occupation maxim was properly taken to its logical end when the ultra-left section of the New York New School occupations asserted that occupations are ‘pure means not means for ends’. The latest occupation is the Sheffield occupation, which follows occupations at Oxford, Essex, LSE and many, many others. Although the occupations are single-issue affairs, as international solidarity actions for Gaza, the spirit has carried over to London for the current G-20 meetings (see here for videos, this one , and then here for some standard ‘sober’ left commentary.


We stayed in a Bloomsbury hostel called ‘Generator,’ an 800-bed jock-backpacker’s after-club romp-room seemingly converted from a laser-tag operation. Therefore we blended in seamlessly, as proven when Andrew was asked by an American girl if he would like to ‘bump’ her friend. Delightful. Wisconsin fraternity girls are so charming, and sophisticated, too.

I will not write very much about the conference, since a lot has already been written (see especially Steven Shaviro’s summary of the conference and of Michael Hardt’s talk).  Just a few remarks: The Commons – communism is to do with the commons, a category that transcends the concept of “public” in its binary opposition to and dependence upon the “private”; Communism against the state – communism has the state as its foremost antagonist, especially for Judith Balso (“politics is alone”) and Badiou (“politics at a distance from the state,” “politics without party”), a thesis that nonetheless Zizek, Hallward, Bosteels, and to a less extent Toscano, problematized in their presentations; Communism of the will – I should point out that Peter Hallward’s inspiring and innovate exploration of the concept of the will, delivered in the starkly clear language of struggle and popular mobilization, was far more radical than any other single presentation; Gender trouble – the organizers arranged an entirely male dominated conference (subversive ‘Fantasy Programme’ here). One consequence of patriarchal leanings, among many: due to Badiou’s insertion into the place of master-signifier, Judith Balso’s presentation was reduced by many to a mere recapitulation of Badiou’s philosophy, when in fact it well exceeded Badiou in important ways. And on the other hand, given that Balso is a French writer who has been writing in the name of emancipatory politics since the 1970s, I would be surprised if Badiou has not gained more than one or two ideas from Judith Balso.


Next post: Paris, general strike March 19, CRS violence