16 05 08
‘The Central Fire’: History and the Predicament of Critique
– VICTOR SERGE, UNFORGIVING YEARS
The gathering took place in the gallery space of the Kunsthalle Exnergasse in the WUK complex, appropriately enough surrounded by the exhibition “Have the Cake and Eat It, Too.” Co-curated by Charlotte Martinz-Turek and Luisa Ziaja, and featuring the work of Zanny Begg and Oliver Ressler, Chto delat?, Marcelo Exposito and Nuria Vila, Bini Adamczak and Persson Baumgartinger, among others, the exhibition aimed to make concrete EIPCP’s notion of institutional critique as “instituent practice.” The mix was a stimulating and felicitous one; probing and inventive, the conference contributions provoked spirited responses and a few sharp exchanges. Impressively organized and well-attended, the event was a model of focused critical culture produced beyond the usual sites of museum and university.
Asked by the organizers to respond to the conference as a whole, I will try in what follows first to remark some of the larger streams of critical thinking in play in and across the papers presented. This kind of initial mapping may be less than satisfying, insofar as it necessarily fails to do justice to the richness and singularity of the ten contributions, each of which deserves and calls for a singular response. But this approach will at least provide a needed opening to some general reflections and remarks on the places and predicaments of critique today. These obviously have to do with the constraints imposed by the historical moment, as well as what can still be called the current “conjuncture.” It would be wrong to say that the contributors were unconcerned to specify this historical context. Indeed some – notably Marina Garcés, Chantal Mouffe and Maurizio Lazzarato – explicitly tried to do so. But I find myself uneasy with the characterizations offered and will try in this essay to discover the reasons for this discomfort. If this critical reflection fails to invent another new form of critique, it will at least make an attempt to clarify the historical problem that a transformative critical project must still address today.
The first would be constituted by Foucault’s reflections on power, resistance and governmentality, especially in the 1978 lecture and essay “What Is Critique?” – and especially as mediated through Judith Butler’s 2002 reading of Foucault’s text. Foucault’s re-conception of critique looks back to Kant’s critical project of “knowing knowledge” and in particular the task of knowing its limits and boundaries. If for Kant critique “suspends judgment” in a first moment, in order to assess what can and cannot be known of its objects, it is only in order, in a second moment, to reach a more rigorous judgment within the proper limits of what Foucault calls a “regime of truth.” In contrast, Foucault was interested precisely in practically transgressing the epistemological horizon of knowledge set by a Kantian approach. Instead of recuperating critique into a higher and more authoritative form of judgment, Foucault wanted to go beyond all established authority and open up new forms of practice – new arts or technês of self-production and transformation.
In terms of his paradigm of biopower and governmentality, Foucault’s notion of critique is the practice that answers the question “how not to governed like that... not like that, not for that, not by them.” For Foucault, forms of governmentality produce corresponding forms of subjectivity; governmentality remakes individuals into specific kinds of subjects. The relation between “government” (les gouvernants) and the governed (les gouvernés) can be external, as in the legalized operations of a government or state, or internalized and embodied, insofar as an individual practically accepts an established regime of truth as the real horizon of possible thinking and acting. Critique is the thinking that accompanies forms of a “desubjugation” of the subject of governmentality and its operative regime of truth – a de-linking or evacuation from the government/governed relation, and thus from the domination implicit in this relation. Critique, in this sense, opens the way to a desubjugated form of practice.
This Foucauldian notion of critique of is explicitly endorsed by Gerald Raunig, who links it to the Deleuzean trope of the “machine.” Clearly legible in the published announcement of the Vienna conference, it also informs, to varying degrees, the contributions of other participants – notably those of Lazzarato and Isabell Lorey and, pushed specifically in the direction of more embodied modes of being, feeling, thinking and acting, those of Marina Garcés and Patricia Purtschert.
A second stream would be oriented more directly toward the Marxist tradition and Frankfurt critical theory. For this tradition, the transformation of society as a totality remains the ultimate object of critical theory and radical political practice. Even if indirectly, critical theory supports the practical struggle to go beyond capitalism as a global system of exploitation and domination, and for this reason critique must remain concerned with the strategic problems of recomposing the dispersed local struggles of micro-politics into an organized agency capable of a global displacement of capitalist power. There is a difference, after all, between an individualized practice and one that is organized and strategically collective. For this stream, dialectics remains a potent form of critical thinking, even if this dialectic is now a negative one rather than the basis for a mythical automatic progress. In Vienna, Alex Demirovic spoke eloquently for this tradition, which was also endorsed by Karl Reitter and, in some respects, by Hakan Gürses.
The third stream would flow from the “post-Marxist” revision of the second stream carried out by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in their 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. This work, which informs and inspires various “discourse analysis” approaches to politics, sees society as a field of irreducible antagonism, over which order is installed as a contingent and necessarily unstable “hegemony” through specific articulations of discourses and practices. Mouffe and Laclau reject the goal, traditional in orthodox Marxism, of a society reorganized to eliminate antagonism and social conflict once and for all; for them, there can be no such thing, for every society must impose order through a new hegemonic articulation. Socialism would be no different in this regard, and Mouffe and Laclau try to rethink socialist strategy accordingly.
Thus, they accept the controversial label “post-Marxist,” while insisting that their theory is “post-Gramscian” as well; while they openly rely on Gramsci’s re-conceptualization of hegemony, they argue that the Italian Communist failed to grasp fully the implications of his insights. For this revisionist approach, critique can only mean a practice of “counter-hegemonic intervention” aiming to disarticulate the current hegemony and form a new, more “progressive” hegemonic articulation. The new articulation is necessarily the basis of a collective political identity; it has to clarify both the “we” and the adversarial “they” of a political antagonism. However, they argue, such recomposing and unifying identities can never be essentialized into a single (class) antagonism and final (class) form, as in Marxist orthodoxy. Given the irreducible antagonism and instability of all social formations, strategic re-compositions and identifications can only ever be contingent, provisional and open to disarticulations in turn. Radical politics in these terms is nothing other than the continuous and, indeed, endless struggle for hegemony at the level of discourses and practices. This stream was represented at the conference by Mouffe herself.
The real differences in approach would still need to acknowledged and clarified, of course. One such difference produced some heat in Vienna. In the course of arguing for critique as counter-hegemonic intervention, Chantal Mouffe criticized the strategy of exit advocated by Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno. Disengagement from the state and institutions of power, in order to open spaces to develop the autonomous constitutive power of the multitude, misrecognizes the task, according to Mouffe. To challenge the hegemony of the social order, it is necessary to engage with the state and its institutions. The disarticulation of the given hegemony and its re-composition on a more progressive basis cannot be attained outside state and institutions, but must take the form of a political struggle for control over them – a struggle that goes on in and through the state and all the institutions of civil society. The radical break with the modernist nation-state that Negri and company call for sets up social movements for practical failure.
This question of the state and state power is enormously important, and I will return to it below. Mouffe may be right on this point, at least in terms of political endgames and the goal of socialism. But she probably fails to appreciate the ways in which a Foucauldian desubjugation and evacuation of the relations of domination (ie, governmentality, and especially government – the state and its system of formal institutions) can be locally empowering. In an art context, for example, exodus could be a strategy for a collective subtraction from the control and exploitation of the dominant institutions of the art system, in order to open space and time for building networks of counter-institutions with more progressive or radical goals. EIPCP functions admirably as an enabler or catalyst of this kind of movement. Mouffe’s critique still holds on a more global level: even if it were more productive, politically radical and durable than in fact it is, this vector of exit-exodus would not itself be socialism. The goal of major displacement of capitalist social relations could never be reached by evading the state and the problem of its function as the enforcer of capitalist power.
The stakes here could also be specified in terms of the ultimate object of critique. For Foucault, the object is always a specific and situated relation of domination between “government” and governed. The task of critique is to open a practical pathway that carries the governed subject out of this relation and thereby desubjugates the specific form of dominated subjectivity constituted by this relation and the regime of truth it imposes. While it may be possible to read Foucault in a more collective and global direction – arguably, this is precisely what Negri attempts to do – Foucault’s formulations tend to shift the focus to the level of micropolitics. The emphasis on the cultivation of technês of self-transformation tends to reinforce the individualism central to capitalist ideology.
For the Marxist tradition, of course, the object of critique could never be anything less than society as a totality – capitalist power as a historical system of exploitative and oppressive social relations. The Marxist critique of Foucault is familiar enough: the notion of governmentality, even deepened by the associated notion of biopower, reproduces the dominant ideological separation of political relations (government/governed) from the economic and social relations (exploiter/exploited) with which they are entangled. The cultivation of the desubjugated self may be individually liberating but leaves intact the whole system of material exploitative relations that constitutes and grounds capitalist power. Local liberations of Foucault’s kind would not affect the global condition of unfreedom, but could only take place within it.
For Marxist critical theory, which needless to say is not be confused with the crude reductions of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in any of its familiar historical forms, the horizon of emancipation has to include the global, strategic problems of breaking with the real sources of capitalist power. In Adorno’s version, as Alex Demirovic pointed out, this means that critique has to oscillate continuously between the immanent and transcendent, the abstract and the concrete, the global and local. “Negative dialectics” would be a name for the form of critical thought that never allows this movement to come to rest in any tempting reification.
In this light, it is clear that Negri’s “post-operaist” theory of empire and multitude attempts to synthesize the insights of Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari with the global emancipatory focus of traditional Marxism. Indeed, the enormous excitement that the publication of Empire initially generated indicates the depth of the desire for such a synthesis in both academe and the social movements. Hardt, Negri and Virno point to the openings and possible pathways to a re-composition of global anti-systemic struggle within the post-Fordist mode of production. The network form, developed into what Virno calls a radical “non-state public sphere” (what Hardt and Negri tend to call radical “democracy”) is supposed to fill the gap between dispersed local struggles for autonomy and the organized agency that can counter and neutralize capitalist power. And just there, it must be said, lies the major weakness of post-operaism.
The practical problems and shortcomings of this approach are at this point no secret and are conspicuously on display in the frustrations of the alter-globalization movement. The multitude lacks the organization and strategy that could make it threatening to capitalist power and shows few signs of consciousness of this lack. In the “movement of movements,” this lack even tends to be misrecognized and celebrated as a strength. There is where the problem lies, and the blockage it reflects is none other than the one that defines our historical moment and, with it, the predicament of critique today.
The call to rethink critique and invent new forms for it presumes that the existing inherited forms have failed in some decisive way and are inadequate to contemporary needs. This presumptive judgment itself can certainly be questioned. It can be argued, and is argued regularly, that critical theory is premised on a continuous assessment and self-critique of its own methods and results and therefore is potentially self-correcting. In that case, the need is not to imagine some radical break with the traditional critical project that would purportedly lead to the invention of radically new practices. Let’s remember, after all, that with Marx critique already makes a radical break with existing society. The need rather would be to carry out a concrete self-critique of inherited forms and practices, in order to determine precisely where these are defective or inadequate and then to accept these shortcomings as problems to be worked on and solved. This approach assumes and emphasizes the continuity of the radical critical tradition and the practical revolutionary tradition to which it is historically and inseparably linked.
I would not want to deny that attempting a radical break with the “old” critique is, on the level of affect, exciting and can inspire and mobilize great inventive energies. I think that has been the case with the Foucauldian stream and with Hardt and Negri’s “post-modern” conception of empire and multitude. But it’s also the case that many of the problems and blockages we inherit are traditional ones, and are not to be overcome merely through emphatic rejections of tradition. The state as a material nexus of power and social functions is, unhappily, one of these problems.
In a now classic essay on Gramsci, Perry Anderson has noted the slippages in the concept of hegemony. Sometimes Gramsci used the term to denote an operative combination of persuasion and force (or consent and coercion); in some passages of the Prison Notebooks, though, he emphasizes consent and cultural leadership in contrast to the use of force and repression. In authoritarian societies, hegemony is mainly a function of civil society outside the state; in the liberal democracies of the West, however, the state is itself one of the main elements of hegemony and begins to merge categorically with civil society. The Marxist tradition is at least crystal clear regarding the ultimate functions of the capitalist state. So long as ruling class hegemony can be maintained through consent and cultural leadership, then force and violence can be held in reserve. But as soon as this hegemony is threatened by a real disarticulation, then even in liberal democracies “the gloves come off.” At that point, the strategic problem for radical politics is how to respond to repressive state reaction. Given that the nation-states of the capitalist world system have and will continue collectively to oppose, by all means, pressures from below for radical social change, how can a counter-power be organized to defend societies reaching collectively for transformation?
The endgame of system change cannot avoid or evade this problem. In this respect, longstanding debates over the forms of revolution seem misdirected. There is little to support the idea that revolutions must follow the same pattern in different times and contexts or must be organized in the same way – though it’s clear that they must be organized in some adequately effective way. Answers to the question, must revolution be a violent seizure of state power or could it possible be realized peacefully, for example through the voting booth, will never depend on the intentions and desires of the revolutionaries alone. However the revolutionary process is conceived, it ultimately is the state and the forces of reaction that set the terms and intensity of struggle. And they have never yet conceded power gracefully. The problems of revolutionary violence and ethics therefore have to reckon with the character of specific states and conjunctures and with the nature and strength of the complex bonds that link states to dominant social classes. What will this or that state do, should hegemony crumble and the “emergency” arrive? What will the other states do? The worst, as we know, goes all the way to fascism. Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony, reflected in their rigid rejection of classical revolution, strangely underestimates or willfully forgets the ferocity of reactionary violence that guards the sources of capitalist power behind the political struggles over discourses and practices.
In the Marxist tradition, strategies for dealing with the capitalist state were developed over a half-century of practical experience. The fate of the Paris Communards was eye-opening proof that the bourgeoisie would be terrible and pitiless in defense of its power and privilege. The mass executions by the walls of Père Lachaise left no doubts that a way would have to found to neutralize the state’s repressive capacities. In practical terms, taking power from the capitalist class meant seizing and transforming the capitalist state, in order to open the possibility for reorganizing social relations. The seizure of power itself was not considered any final triumph but only the opening of a new and crucial phase of struggle. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” referred to this difficult period after the old state has fallen. As famously theorized by Lenin in State and Revolution, the task of this phase was to ensure the survival of the new emergent society by defending it against the forces of reaction and restoration – internally, against tendencies to reconstitute the old state and its power; externally against military alliances of other capitalist states. If the revolution could be defended in its confused and vulnerable beginnings, then the conditions for socialism could be organized. In the new society, the raising of the material and cultural level of the whole population could lead to the gradual emergence of communism. Eventually, with the reduction of work-time and the leap from necessity to freedom, the state would wither away to nothing. Such was the vision.
As is well known, the Leninist vanguard party model was developed specifically to organize the struggle against the Czarist state. The survival of the Russian Revolution, however, was thought to depend on the spread of revolution to Germany and the capitalist core countries, where the development of productive forces had already achieved a high material and cultural level and where working class power and liberal and parliamentary traditions had favored legal forms of organization and struggle. With the defeat of revolution in Germany, Hungary and Italy, the tragedy of Communism in the twentieth century began to unfold. The brutal pressures of scarcity and the global capitalist context, the weakness of the commitment to democratic forms within the Party, vanguard arrogance, ethical lapses and ordinary cynical ambitions all combined to undo the revolution. Stalin and the horrors of “socialism in one country” followed.
The post-operaist approach to this history is to consign the whole tragedy to the history of the modernist nation-state and power as sovereignty. In general, it’s hard to disagree with that, but the problem comes with the question of how a radical break with this modernist framework can be realized. The pathway Negri tries to theorize becomes vague or is silent when it comes to the concrete practical challenges that are sure to be encountered in any viable attempt to contest capitalist power. The idea seems to be that the networking multitude simply ignores and “flees” the state, in order to build “the common” of its own radical public sphere and autonomous constituent power. Eventually, the state, evacuated and no longer needed, withers away. The scenario is appealing but problematic, and will probably prove to be untenable. The experience of the last decade shows us that the state is happy to encourage all forms of networking that do not fundamentally threaten capitalist power but will quickly move to crush any that do. Local struggles trying to recompose themselves into a globalizing anti-systemic agency – i.e. the movement of movements – face all the traditional forms of repression, now enhanced by technology controlled by the security-surveillance state and the expanded powers asserted in the so-called war on terror.
The experience of Argentina in 2001/2 shows that it is still possible for a state to be brought down by massive, more or less spontaneous practical contestation from below. But if the problem of state power and reaction is not anticipated and planned for, the old state will be able to reconstitute itself in the vacuum. With the support of state power, social reorganizations and redistributions can at least be attempted. Without that support, and even less with the active opposition of state power, such attempts have little chance of surviving and becoming durable. While I understand and also deeply feel the appeal of Zapatista-inspired calls for “changing the world without taking power,” à la John Holloway, I have to conclude that they are self-defeating illusions – symptoms of overreaction to historical defeats and shared disappointments with the party form.
It is possible to argue, as Maurizio Lazzarato did in Vienna, that the reason this traditional revolutionary project leaves people cold today is that the very structure of everyday life and the contemporary modes of exploitation and control have made it irrelevant. This is a claim that deserves serious consideration and would need to be explored in depth and detail. Here I can only say that it seems just as plausible to me to conclude that the obvious and evident lack of popular support for the traditional revolutionary project lies elsewhere – in the absence at this time of any convincing and confidence-inspiring pathway through the problem of state power. The struggles of the past show that the exploited and oppressed are willing to take great risks and make tremendous sacrifices in contesting established power, when they are convinced that the organizations and strategies are adequate to their struggles and can achieve emancipatory results. When there are no adequate organizations or strategies, or when the “really existing” societies of the old ones come to power themselves prove to be exploitative and oppressive, then people become disappointed, disengaged and quiescent. Some, despairing, go the way of desperate acts. When these are the choices on offer, who can be blamed for refusing the game?
For millions of workers over much of the twentieth century, the Communist Parties inspired this kind of hope and confidence. Today everyone knows how misplaced that hope and confidence was. But given the stakes and the urgency of thoroughly processing this history, there is surprisingly little helpful critical investigation of the reasons for the failures and defeats. Leninist vanguard partyism and the lapses, corruptions and deformations of the Russian Revolution had their critics from early on, of course, both from within the revolutionary movement and from without. Grappling with the evident persistence of exploitation and repression in Stalinist Russia, streams of critical Western Marxism developed theories of bureaucracy and “state capitalism.” Later, the so-called New Left of the 1950s and 60s rendered a crucial critical service by exposing the illegitimacy of the Party’s monopoly of authority over the revolutionary project, while at the same time maintaining a radical rejection of capitalism. By 1968, the Party and its allied unions were seen by many as part of the enemy camp – a judgment that May and its aftermath in France fully confirmed.
But it must be said that the critique of historical revolutionary movements and struggles that we inherit today, in the wake of the defeat of struggles of the 1960s and 70s, tends to be extremely crude. In Situationist critical theory, for example, Lenin eventually becomes a demonized bête-noire and the party form as such is anathematized without any serious inquiry about what, precisely, went wrong and why. Anticipating the Holloway fallacy, the practical and strategic problems of state power are glibly displaced into a quasi-mythical investment in workers’ councils. In the consensus currently prevailing in those parts of the movement of movements that I’m in touch with, party and state tend to be categories that produce not critical thinking but mere reflexes of hostile refusal and condemnation.
There are exceptions to this kind of refusal to accept the task of real critical processing, of course, but they are astonishingly rare: Samuel Farber’s meticulous 1990 examination of the rise and fall of radical democracy in the Russian Revolution and Fernando Claudin’s monumental 1970 critique of the foundational misrecognitions and subsequent disasters of the Moscow-directed Third International are exemplary demonstrations of how to ask what went wrong without surrendering the whole socialist project. These and the small number of comparable works should be shared landmarks for continuing discussion and debate. Yet no one I know reads them today, and in the movements how many people feel obliged to acquire any kind of detailed knowledge of the history they so easily reject? It may be time to ask if elements of the New Left consensus have not over time reified, paradoxically enough, into a new “autonomist” orthodoxy. In its combination of intransigent anti-capitalism and respect for the inviolability of the individual, autonomism is a rebuke and corrective to a traditional Marxism that tended to subsume the individual entirely under the sign of the collective. But it, too, carries the risk of disaster insofar as it encourages the reflexive or dogmatic avoidance of the real nexus of strategic problems around the liberal-democratic (capitalist) state and state power as such.
In Marx’s time, the party was the site and the vehicle for a collective leap beyond this circle of impotence and paralysis. If the Leninist party form is to be rejected, as it should be, for its anti-democratic aspects and its later monstrous mutations, then what could replace it? What organizational form could play that role today? The network form? Hardt and Negri’s “expanding, virtuous spiral” of common and multitude? A beautiful dream, no doubt, but probably one that, like the young Marx’s luminous vision of “true communism,” lies only on the far other side of a successful struggle with the state and forces of reaction. In the meantime, the urgent problem – if history hasn’t ended and if superseding capitalism remains the condition of social progress – is how to reorganize agency. How to reinvent the party form on a radically democratic basis without dispersing and dissolving its capacity for timely and effective action? And what kind of actions, tactics and strategies would be appropriate to a reinvented revolutionary process that has assimilated the hard lessons of the last century? How to ground a revolutionary ethics that refuses anti-humanist brutality and the sacrifice and destruction of singularities and at the same time can guide a practice capable of neutralizing the reactionary violence of the state? How to anticipate the problems and avoid repeating the old mistakes?
Hardt and Negri have at least attempted to answer these questions through their own Foucault- and Deleuze-inflected Marxist method. But until the hard questions have been answered in a way that is more compelling and has more to show by way of practical confirmation, no one should be surprised if the global majority is quiet. Nor can these questions be answered by theory alone: to use the old language where it still holds, the qualitative leaps needed here will come only through a dialectic of critical theory and the real praxis of renewed struggle on a massive scale. (Or, perhaps, in Gerald Raunig’s “non-dialectical” Deleuzean idiom, through a global “assemblage” of textual and social machines.) But these are questions for critique – and, if I’m right, the defining questions for radical critique today. They are daunting ones, to be sure. In the face of them, one response is to say: impossible! The state is too strong! The Left, as always, eats its own tail! Revolution is finished, tout court! I would prefer to say: that revolution, that particular model, is finished, yes. But the capitalist state remains, and so new forms of revolution, ones capable of opening and defending a passage beyond capitalism, must remain on the agenda.
What is critique? What are its aims, its objects, its functions? My conclusion is that radical critique remains today what it has been since Marx. Critique is the practice of thinking, sharing and discussing that aims to dissolve whatever is blocking a revolutionary process adequate to the times. Critique produces the theory that seeks and elaborates viable pathways beyond the social given. Critique accompanies and supports all the struggles to emancipate a dominated and exploited humanity. These formulations don’t deny that the forms of critique may be plural and diverse. I don’t want to dismiss or give up the Foucauldian stream – the cultivation of desubjugating technês, Virno’s exodus, Negri’s constituent power. By all means let’s continue to explore and push further in these directions. But it will take critique in a more global sense to remember, if I can put it like that, that the endgame hasn’t changed. If it’s true that in the deepest sense of human potential, none are free so long as any are enslaved, then none will be free until we find a way to break the hold of capitalist power and the states that enforce it.
I thank Steve Corcoran and Henrik Lebuhn
for their helpful comments and suggestions.
 Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?” trans. Lysa Hochroth, in The Politics of Truth, eds. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (New York: Semiotext[e], 1997); Judith Butler, “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in David Ingram, ed., The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy (London: Basil Blackwell, 2002). Butler’s essay was published online in the Transversal issue on Critique (August, 2006), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/butler/en.
 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985).
 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2004); and Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, et al. (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2004).
 Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” in New Left Review I/100 (November-December 1976), pp. 5-78.
 Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism (London: Verso, 1990); Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement, trans. Brian Pearce and Francis MacDonagh (London: Penguin, 1975).
 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, pp. 350.