4 letters on Politics
Dear Eyal Weizman,
European socialists surrendered long ago to liberal anthropology. Since 1968, the European left believes in individual freedom and hedonism more than in justice and re-distribution. Faced with the clumsy, desperate desire for community of the poorest and less educated among Europeans (currently expressed by poor, badly trained French voting for Marine Le Pen and poor Italians voting either Silvio Berlusconi or Beppe Grillo), European socialist parties are simply not able to listen anymore. They just do not recognise these voters as political subjects anymore. Indeed it looks like the European left can only address people who are at least able to claim something as individuals. And the ones who are not even able to ask, they will simply not be listened too. Their desires are so uncool that nobody will ever take them into consideration.
Isn’t European socialism in the need of radically different anthropological presuppositions? In the end this is not just a problem with respect to the poor part of the population of rich countries, but relates to the poor, untrained, uneducated in general (and so it pertains to the large majority of the world).
What to tell to anybody who does not claim to be special? What to tell to all the ones who cannot even afford individualism? Isn’t a new socialist anthropology necessary in order to start a possible dialogue?
Pier Paolo Tamburelli
Dear Pier Paolo,
your question seems to rearticulate a classic Gramscian problem. He asked why the “base” does not bring about the socialist revolutions (the working classes were duped by a bourgeois common sense of something like that…) and you ask why socialist parties lost their interest in and appeal to the same traditional base (and say that socialism itself has itself now become liberal and disconnected).
By limiting ourselves to act in the fields of ethics and culture — professing a corrective humanitarianism abroad and concentrating on “culture” at home — much of the European left seems to serve something of the traditional function of the church, with the biennales and cultural festivals fulfilling a similar function of a moralistic passion play… just a feeling as I am now just watching the amazing enthusiastic following of the Pope in Palestine — maybe we need to learn one or two things more — he seems to be super successful in generating ecstatic enthusiasm for things beyond the state? It used to be that the poor were local and the rich were global. But the precariat (no stable jobs /no social security) and poor (many pepole in the midst of a trajectory of migration) are now the most mobile dynamic and global… in this sense every local engagement — as crucial as it may be — must also be an action beyond the borders of Europe — whatever and wherever they are.
Dear Pier Paolo,
My difficulty with your question is that I’m not sure I share its premise. Can we really speak about the “European left” as a body to which we can attribute a certain number of positions or political commitments? Can we say, for example, that, since 1968, the “European left” believes “in individual freedom and hedonism more than in justice and redistribution”?
I’m likewise troubled by the suggestion that we might perhaps subsume the left entirely under socialism — which Marx and Engels regard as a stage, a sort of infancy, of communism. Socialism would be outgrown or, better said, would grow into communism.
The left has always been animated by deep divisions, socialism being one strand of it. And wasn’t 1968 the manifestation of the dissatisfaction, on the part of workers and students alike, with the policies of the French Communist Party? What I mean is that one of the “victims” of 1968 was the notion that Marxism was or could be the universal (or universalizing?) discourse of the left, the cynosure around which these disparate discourses could cohere and find a common core. (As a side note, Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis argues that the financial crisis of 2008 has put us again in a position where Marxism might be able to serve precisely that function.) The sites of struggle had become too many, and the claims fueling them, or being revindicated by them, could not all be easily reconciled with Marx or Marxism, a fact that didn’t necessarily render them reactionary. The divisions of the left were no doubt exacerbated by 1968, and so too are our attempts to identify a “base”, to pick up on Eyal Weizman’s answer. There is today, for example, an alarming lack of solidarity, not to say outright hostility, on the part of blue collar workers towards immigrants, migrant labourers, the sans papier and so on — this may be behind the fact that certain classes vote against their own “interests” in voting for Le Pen or Berlusconi. And these divisions, and their history, are important in the effort to understand why — and here I agree with your diagnosis — socialism has become the only politically valid form of left-wing politics in Europe, and why it has become essentially protective of its gradually dwindling patrimony and unwilling to risk any of its “gains”.
Dear Pier Paolo and friends,
I thank you for inviting me to this conversation. Some of the previous messages seemed to have placed importance on the theoretical dimension of politics (anthropological premises, etc.) but in my view politics is today over-theorized. That is, we remain too much in the idea that “if we have the right idea, we’ll have the right solution”. We don’t find ourselves in a neutral political situation today but a world that was very much designed to prevent the possibility for socialist revolutionaries to gain concrete power. Crushed and defeated in the mid-seventies, the core insights of revolutionary socialism have found safe haven in the cultural and academic domains during the last few decades. Although in a position of defeat, the academic “left” has indeed done its best to do its job. We can see this in the list of brilliant writings of left thinkers and this is certainly obvious in the cultural and academic response to the last (2008) economic crisis. Some of the best minds from the globe have worked on the theoretical development of Marxism (we might even include here non-Marxist currents like anarchism and soft-left approaches in the ecological movement). What has actually been done? We have seen incredibly sophisticated means to diagnosing, analyzing and theorizing the current economic-political situation. With respect to the current global climate of exploitation and repression, there is certainly no lack of clarity and understanding of contemporary capitalism in current discourse.
The problem today is not to be found in theory, as brilliant as it is, and certainly not the adjustment of worldviews or anthropological assumptions. Clarity is important, of course, but we need long term strategies and immediate tactics. Politics is first and above all about organization. No theory can ever replace the investigation needed to map the current political topology of counteracting and often contradictory forces. Echoing previous remarks, the fact that there is no global left movement is due to the fact that there is no actual and concrete power behind any such designation. To grasp the real political faultlines of our world, we must strategize in those places where we have power, that is, where we have organization.