Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ideas... but what action?

The Idea Of Communism

Edited by Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek (Verso, £14.99)
Tuesday 04 January 2011

The Idea Of Communism

In 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the global financial meltdown, Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek brought together 15 of the West's leading left philosophers to discuss "the idea of communism" and their contributions have now been published in this book.

Marx famously insisted that the job of such people was precisely not to "create recipes for the cookshops of the future" - to speculate on what communism might look like - but instead to analyse precisely the contemporary arrangement of political economy and the balance of forces within it.

Strange, then - given the timing of the conference - that there is very little discussion here of the actual ongoing capitalist crisis. Indeed many of these writers seem bent on avoiding any discussion of real-life contemporary struggles in favour of an overly abstract preoccupation with defining and in some instances inventing high-falutin' phrases. But that's philosophy for ya, I guess.

Standing out from the pack are Zizek himself who, though usually happy to play the joker, on this occasion comes across as the most serious guy in the room, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

All three identify modern capitalism, despite the professed "anti-statism" of neoliberalism, as becoming ever more reliant on the power of the state.

Profits are increasingly made, they argue, not so much through the extraction of the surplus value of the labourer as through the monopolisation and renting out of access to - what should be - "the commons."

This relates to the extraction of raw materials but also particularly to the "knowledge economy," or what Hardt and Negri call "biopolitical production" where not only ideas but even the genetic codes of life itself are rented out via the mechanism of patent law and intellectual copyright.

Capitalism is thus moving from hidden exploitation via the market to overt extortion based on legal frameworks and state coercion.

The bankers' bailout was the ultimate evidence in support of this thesis as capital, unable to make profits in the usual manner, simply held an economic gun to the head of governments and demanded money be raided from the public purse instead.

This analysis is well worth getting to grips with, yet there are inexcusable omissions here.

Only Susan Buck-Morss addresses the key issue of the growing Third World revolt and the need for communists to engage with this struggle on its own terms.

Western leftists, she argues, have for too long either ignored or dismissed massively important revolutionary intellectuals such as Sayyib Qutb and Ali Shari'at or attempted to "interpret away" the religious dimension of their thought.

Likewise China, if mentioned at all, is only ever dismissed as a supposedly self-evident example of "authoritarian capitalism" ignoring both its deeply participatory democratic structures and the crucial role it is playing in challenging poverty and global inequality for literally hundreds of millions of people today.

In the era of Western decline, getting to grips with the pernicious influence of cultural supremacy is a task of paramount importance for communists in the West and it is sad that, of all these "great minds," only Buck- Morss was apparently able to recognise this.

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