File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/97-04-03.022, message 58

Date: 2 Apr 1997 14:13:47 -0500


The "Between Capitalism and Democracy" conference at SUNY-Buffalo (April
18, 1997) held by the Graduate Group in Marxist Studies (GGMS) is an
occasion to place the left academy in a world-historical context and
examine some of its practices that have made it the most trusted ally of
capital ism now.  The theatre that passes as “left” at SUNY-Buffalo,
should not be treated simply as an amusing but irrelevant side-show.  The
performative left is representative of the academic left in the US today. 
As such it requires a sustained analysis.
	At the core of this performative left lies the idea that
“identity” is founded on an “impossibility” — the “lack” of a reliable
anchorage in the extra-discursive real — which when “revealed” subverts
the “concept” and leads to the free and equal disseminati on of “pleasure”
for everyone.  “Pleasure” is meant to reference that “moment” when
everyday means-end rationality — the conventional adequation of signifier
to signified — is disrupted and “meaning” is liberated from its compulsory
cultural normativity.  The performative left does not accept that there
finally is an “outside” of normative cultural “values” however — in other
words, a practical economic basis (exploitation) that causes and thus
explains the seemingly autonomous status of such cultural sup erstructures
like “morality”, the “everyday” and what gets marked as “compulsory”
itself — and this leads them to valorize “resignification” as an end in
itself; as a transhistorically and universally effective means for the
personal “liberation” of “plea sure” in the “undecidability” of
“meaning”/“values”. It is, in fact, the subject as a subject-of-a-lack
(the subject-of-desire who lacks concept) who pursues his own “pleasure”
regardless of the systematic consequences of this that is the dominant
identity of postmodern capitalism and its compulsory regime of
consumption.  It is the performative left’s support of this dominant
subject that makes it the trusted ally of capital today.  The seeming
universality of “resignification” as a means for the realiz ation of
personal liberation is thus not only not universally applicable but in
fact a class based practice; it corresponds to the position of the petty
bourgeois who, already having his primary needs met, has nothing left to
do but speculate on the expan sion of “new” opportunities of consumption. 
The performative left gives the petty bourgeoisie a false consciousness
about its social position, however, which is designed to make its
particular form of exploitation — which stems from the fact that it can
not accumulate capital and thus cannot enter the ranks of the ruling class
who have already monopolized the means of production — the sign of its
radical difference from the mass of the working class. 
	Not only is “resignification” not universally socia lly relevant
as a means of transformation but it is also an historically determined
form of “pleasure” as well.  The performative left advocates
“resignification” rather than revolution as a means of liberation at a
time when the petty bourgeoisie has alr eady been massively
proletarianized (i.e. has entered the ranks of wage laborers).  Because
the performative left has abandoned Marxism however it does not have the
capacity (we don’t say the will) to understand the political economy of
its own emergence as the false consciousness of the postmodern petty
bourgeoisie.  As a result it sees the current class polarization of the
world not as the vindication of Marxism — the global consolidation of
world capitalism and its division into two antagonistic classe s already
foreseen in the Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital — but as
itself a symptom of a finally unknowable, because “absent”, cause that
Zizek calls the “Real” and Lyotard the “sublime” (to name a few).  In
other words, the performative left takes the collective “lack” of primary
needs that has been socially engineered by the bourgeoisie through, among
other things, the defeat of the Soviet Union (which was the primary means
to insure the most massive transfer of social wealth in the industr
ialized countries from the workers to the owners since the 30s), as a
transcendental given (an “event”) in need of no explanation.  It is in
Zizek’s work most of all that the compulsory subject of consumption is
secured by trivializing recent history by m aking class struggle itself a
transcendental (“sublime”) object of ideology.  In his texts class
struggle becomes an automatic “structure of repetition” that mimics the
“libidinal economy” of “desire” (projection, identification, disavowal)
that has no ob jective connection to the daily exploitation of labor-power
(the extraction of surplus-labor) which is what finally divides the
owning-ruling class from the working class.  The performative left is
constantly searching to “resignify” the effects of this c lass antagonism
in the workday into such unconsciously compulsive repetitive structures of
“desire” because such troping of real social contradictions as imaginative
ones is the epistemological pre-condition of the “subversion” of
“identity” through new methods of consumption; their particular panacea
for the growing inequality and escalating social crisis of capitalism in
decline.  They think that through the “subversion” of normative cultural
“identity” the masses will “learn to live with lack” (Silverm an, Male
Subjectivity 65)  of their primary needs and the social crisis thus become
diffused.  But all that this deconstruction of identity produces is the
same old liberal pluralism which serves to whitewash the ruling class, the
only social class who act ually benefits from the racist patriarchal
subjectivities the performative left overstates as “compulsory” to
capitalism.  By reducing these reactionary ideologies to habitually
(unconsciously)  repeated “necessary fictions” in the way that the
performativ e left does when it treats “identity” as a cultural practice
fueled by “desire” with no necessary relation to economic exploitation
they sever them from the materiality of existing social relations and
imply that workers have an (libidinal) interest in ma intaining their own
oppression and exploitation.  The obverse side of this perverse notion of
the “libidinal economists” of the performative left is the idea that the
actual oppressors and exploiters of others can “desire” their own undoing
and morally re form themselves through the “conspicuous consumption” of
their property through socially symbolic acts like shopping! 
	The “Between Capitalism and Democracy” conference is another
instance of the ludic “subversion” of “identity” as a means to produce th
e pleasures of anti-theory.  The title itself announces that it is to be a
“critical” gathering where the normative identity of “capitalism” with
“democracy” is deconstructed.  But, because it is not explained how such a
deconstruction of identity leads t o practical transformative results
within the conditions of the ongoing class struggle (i.e. in the
“pleasure” of the “non-concept” according to the dominant ideology), it is
self-evidently accepted by the authors of the flyer that “critique”
amounts to s uch deconstruction and that this “critique” is a sufficient
end in itself that need not be interrogated for its presuppositions and
consequences.  It is because they dogmatically assume that the
epistemological deconstruction of “identity” marks the limit
 of critique that the authors of the conference flyer feel free to bypass
concepts altogether and represent their position graphically (“≠”).  In
short, we are here marking this “≠” graphic as the practical “moment of
pleasure” of the conference announcem ent text that occupies the space of
their “lack” of theoretical engagement with other critique-al knowledges
and attests to their allegiance to the reigning ideology.  “≠” means “is
not equal to”; the beginning and end of deconstruction as critique.  On e
ncountering this “≠” potential conference attendees are reassured that the
conference will be a space in which concepts are not taken seriously (i.e.
“literally” in contestation with and in a position of antagonism to other
concepts) but “figurally” and t hus allowed to “play”.  “Antagonistic?
Parasitic? Mutually supportive?” are possible signifieds the GGMS thinks
to be relevant and valid at this time so to appreciate the plenitude of
“≠” (inequality).  This series of free-floating signifieds implies that
 the list of possible significants is endless and thus “exceeds”
theoretical reduction which not only points up the positive value the GGMS
assigns to philosophical eclecticism as a counter to the determination of
the concept through class struggle at the level of theory, but underlines
the liberal pluralism that is to rule the conference.  Such a “playful”
(“pluralist”) space is premised on the suppression of critique-al
contestation.  Such a playful space makes it impossible to show how “≠”
naturalizes inequality by making the political economy of inequality into
a graphic self-evidency.  Bourgeois ideology is constructed of such local
self-evidencies that disguise class.  “≠” is like when Justice Bork and
his Republican friends say “equality of outcome s” is “impossible” or when
Chantal Mouffe calls socialism “the dangerous dream” of “substantial
homogeneity” founded on the impossibility of “perfect consensus, of a
harmonious collective will” (Radical Democracy 20).  “Inequality of
outcomes”, in other w ords, is the common-sense of late capitalism. 
“Inequality of outcomes” (“≠”) is common-sense because it merely
(re)describes in figurative language the actual equal opportunity to sell
one’s private labor-power to the highest bidder under the general con
ditions of existing social inequality where the means to consume labor is
privately owned and like all individual rights already secured by law. 
“Inequality of outcomes” is the socially necessary form of equality under
capitalist relations of production.  The program of “radical democrats”
like Laclau and Mouffe, as well as Judge Bork, is in fact to “extend”
(Mouffe 20) such equal “rights” while leaving the dominant political
economy untouched and uninterrogated.  “Radical democracy” does the work
of the ruling class because it makes “equal rights” a panacea for economic
exploitation and thus legitimates the existing class structure.
	What are the politics of holding a conference whose “theme”, to
use the words of the conference announcement, is “between capitalism and
democracy” under the banner of Marxism in today’s “death to communism”
climate under the dominance of postmodern intelligibilities?  To read the
conference flyer symptomatically the reactionary tendency becomes clear,
it asks “What is the relationship between these two terms?” For
revolutionary Marxism “between” capitalism and democracy is, of course,
revolution which would be the attainment of control over the means of
production by the working class lead by its vanguard party.  It is on ly
through social revolution that the global majority (the proletariat)  will
be enabled to finally realize their democratic freedoms — political and
economic self-determination.  This worker’s democracy would be, at the
same time, a dictatorship against t he bourgeoisie and its allies, a
reversal in fact of the present dictatorship of the bourgeoisie against
the workers and their allies, but, of course, in the process of withering
away with the spread of revolution on an international scale.  Marxism
makes it absolutely clear — everywhere all the time — that there can be no
“democracy” so long as classes exist; i.e., no “democracy” as such as the
conference flier implies.  Democracy is always a means to an end dictated
by historic class interests and neve r an end in itself.  To imply that it
is possible to theoretically abstract “democracy” as a “term” (another
kind of floating signifier like “≠”) from the totality of present social
relations in order to consider “alternative” possibilities in the way tha
t the conference flyer does is a thin alibi to renounce taking an active
and interventionary role in present social contestations.  Even postmodern
intelligibilities already problematize this kind of “neutral” and
“contemplative” cognitive formalism from a “political” position (in which
“politics” signals embeddedness in the signifying chain and the absolute
lack of transcendence).  Capitalism and democracy, in short, are not
abstract “terms” that are opposable to an atheoretical practice
transpiring “els ewhere” or in “the future”, but are themselves already
concrete (i.e. theoretical) practices.  It is the historical series of
these practices that one must first grasp in their social materiality (the
labor relations) as a precondition for changing the wo rld.  It is because
the conference announcement does not situate itself in relation to the
latest knowledges while it presupposes their self-evidency and blurs them
with liberal humanist categories in an eclectic way that suggests their
possible peaceful co-existence that we say it plots a reactionary
tendency.  Furthermore, what’s “between” “terms” (what we are calling
practices) like “capitalism” and “democracy” is not reducible to a “theme”
that is innocently being proposed to be “investigated” or “sur veyed”, but
a part of a more encompassing social practice that either
goes-along-to-get-along with the existing or is in irreconcilable
opposition.  In the case of the GGMS conference, which reduces the
historical praxis of Marxism in relation to capitali sm and democracy to a
“theme” of cognitive contemplation (haven’t they heard that the
philosophers have already interpreted the world?), what is given a space
is what is already given a space everywhere else; the dominant ideology
that says opposition to the existing “might” take the form of a
post-marxist “radical democracy” of the type found in Ellen Meiksens
Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism.  We contest this abdication to the
dominant that would imply that “radical democracy” had anything opposition
al about it.  It is in fact “radical democracy” itself which is the
dominant ideology of late capitalism because it reproduces and maintains
the common sense self-evidencies of bourgeois rule under the guise of the
“new”.  The “new”-est version of the “ne w” “radical democracy” is of
course Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism which disguises itself as a
Marxist critique of post-marxism while practically ending up in exactly
the same place.  The rise of Wood to the status of a “folk hero” of the
left these days is itself highly symptomatic of the complicity of the left
(especially its so-called “radical” wing that in its literature critiques
more obviously reactionary moves such as neo/post Marxism) with
cybercapitalism.  Wood’s recent appointment to the bo ard of editors of
the left reformist Monthly Review (whose current editors Sweezy and
Magdoff have done so much to “revise” Marxist political economy and thus
prepare the road for the post-al orthodoxy of “market socialism”) has been
celebrated in left ci rcles (both on the internet and other places) as a
moment of triumph of the radical Marxism.  The only way to “read” this
jubilation is to understand it as a death-wish of the left: what Sweezy
and Magdoff’s revisionary economics has done to Marxist polit ical
economy, Wood’s revisionary analytics (her destruction, for example, of
“base and superstructure”) is doing to Marxist epistemology.  How she — a
bourgeois radical democrat who is continuing the conservative humanism of
E.P. Thompson — becomes the “h ero” of the “radical” left in the U.S.
above all shows the theoretical backwardness of the U.S. left.
	“Democracy against capitalism” is an old story of the left.  What
seems to give it a “new” found social relevance is the return to it on the
part of the academic left after the historical “detour” through, and
subsequent bankruptcy of, poststructuralist intelligibilities.  The
academic left is now in high-gear attempting to reconcile the theoretical
presuppositions of “ludic” theory (premised on the “pla y”-full-ness of
the signifier)  with the existing extra-discursive objects of the activist
left (the “body” “pleasure” “community” “identity” etc. ) in the attempt
to reform capitalism through “the extension of the democratic ideals of
liberty and equality to more and more areas of social life” (Mouffe,
Radical Democracy 20). They have united, therefore, against the
revolutionary opposition who maintain theory as a guide for social
transformation (Marxism).  For the reformists theory as praxis is the prob
lem because it establishes a relation of priority between the
extra-discursive and the discursive wherein the former is explained as
causing and thus determining the latter.  The reformists all say that by
maintaining a scientific relation between the sub ject and the world
Marxism reproduces the violence of capitalism.  Whether they come to this
conclusion through old New Left critique of “theory” as bureaucratic
“instrumental reason” that “alienates” the humanist subject of the
traditional romantic left or through the postmodern critique of theory as
“totalitarian” irradication of “difference” doesn’t finally make much
difference.  Marx called the idea that his “method of determining the
value of labour-power, a method prescribed by the very nature of th e
case, is brutal” “an extraordinarily cheap kind of sentimentality”
(Capital 277).  Without revolutionary theory (Marxism) all that’s left for
oppositional practice is “volunteer-ism”;  the ideology of
business-as-usual.  Behind the self-consciousness of the reformists who
are all (always) very decided in that they don’t want theory as
critique-al praxis lies the problem of those who must manage the social
contradictions of late capitalism in decline; how best to determine the
limits of the working day in a manner least conducive to antagonizing the
working class.  The GGMS conference, albeit symptomatically, is “aware” of
this historical problem but it presents it as an epistemological one only
in this way to “resolve” the pressure upon ideology through an eclectic
pluralism.  The conference, we are told, is to determine what is “between
capitalism and democracy” by “how... each [is] related to that entity
known as ‘the Enlightenment’”. By attempting to determine this relation —
which for the reformists is basically the problem of the “rate” of
exploitation, on whether it should be increased absolutely through the
deconstruction of the social wage, for example, or relatively through
incremental technological innovations and ad hoc legislation etc. — thr
ough reference to an “idea” the conference shows the dominant that they
are “good” subjects because they can agree-to-disagree about the
“heritage” of the Enlightenment (whether it should be “extended” [ą la
Habermas/Clinton] or “ended” [Lyotard/Gingrich] etc.).  In maintaining the
idealist tradition the GGMS occults the determination of the conference by
the political economy of capitalism in decline (which is nothing else than
the decline in the rate of profit due to the inevitably increasing organic
co mposition of capital that Marx explained scientifically).  Finally, in
a typical move, they opt to “resolve” the contradiction for themselves by
(what else?), an appeal to a higher authority; they make Professor Wood a
“keynote speaker”. 
	The consistent attempts by the GGMS to suppress the ongoing and
incessant critique-al oppositions generated by existing social
arrangements — be it through such high-tech devices like computer graphics
(“≠”), old-tech means that attempt to preserve the relevance of lib eral
humanist scholarly categories (“theme”, “terms” etc.), or simply low-tech
attacks on others like when on 24 November 1995 one of their members
physically assaulted us as he acted out his racist imaginary (and said,
“Get your ass out of UB...  English courses. Give... us... room!”) —
manifests itself yet again in the way they have (pre)determined the
conference “theme”.  The “theme” of the “show” “between capitalism and
democracy” is what it is because the “star” (what the flyer announcement
calls a “k eynote speaker”) is the “author” of Democracy Against
Capitalism and other “hits” (that they list).  What is the ideological
function of “keynote speaker”?  Why “conference” now?  Why should anybody
be interested in going to a “conference” on “democracy a nd capitalism”? 
Although the GGMS do not even formulate such questions — such questions
problematize the business-as-usual of the movers-and-shakers they imagine
themselves to be as they “mingle” with the academic “celebs” — we do not
have to depend on t heir own lack of theorization for the answer.  We
simply read back to them the literality of their own practices from which
a “subject-of-conference” is implied. We have already seen him swelling
with pride when he encountered the “≠” of the flyer announ cement (as he
is already familiar with aesthetic de-familiarization), but now we want to
read him at the “conference” itself.  “Conference” is a “scholarly” safe
haven from contestation from which knowledges are abstracted from their
cruel literality, the historicity of their presuppositions and
consequences, in which he is secure as a “participant” who has
“questions”.  At “conference” one can not implicate practices in the
reigning political economy by showing how their formal self-reflexivity
contradic ts their practical implication in maintaining exploitation. Such
pressuring and pushing contradictions to crisis, which is, at least
initially, the purpose of an ideology critique, is seen as “crude”.  It is
already decided at “conference”, in other word s, that critique is to be
an immanent affair (NO IDEOLOGY CRITIQUE).  It is always already decided
at conferences that if one critiques “conference” as a repressive
bourgeois institution that segregates knowledge practices from the
systematicity of domina nt social arrangements one simply lacks
self-reflexivity because you are at conference!  Just like when the GGMS
member who assaulted us because we critique our courses first said, “If
this course isn’t good enough for you, then don’t take it” and then sa id
“if the presence of such a course offends you so, get your ass out of UB!”
(see, the Alternative Orange Fall/Winter 1995-96 Vol. 5 No. 1, 19).  In
the “conference” “about” “democracy” (and “capitalism”) it is already
decided that these are “terms” that above all are never (never!?) equal
(just say, “≠”).  At such “conferences” about “democracy” it is already
decided that Red Critique is “undemocratic” because it does not privilege
what individuals think or feel they are doing and bases its practices on
 the reliable knowledge of social totality instead.  As we have written
“we are, by any standards of a bourgeois democracy ‘authoritarian’ — we
simply do not accept the masquerade of democracy which is put forth by the
liberal state as ‘democratic’; we be lieve that radical equality is not
the function of purely political practices... but entails struggles to
completely restructure all the social... institutions of the liberal state
and to abolish the regime of exploitation that undergirds them” (Alternati
ve Orange Fall/Winter 1995-96 Vol.5 No.1, 4). 

The Revolutionary Marxist Collective at the University of Buffalo (SUNY).

April 2, 1997

Full text to be published in the upcoming issue of the Alternative
Orange (Spring/Summer 1997).  Send response/critique and/or subscription 
requests to 
Brian Ganter and Stephen Tumino at

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