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WHATS'S LEFT AFTER IRAQ? Arrow vol 4 no 2 CONTENTS
About borderlands VOLUME 4 NUMBER 2, 2005

 


INTERVIEW

What's Left after Iraq?

Warren Montag & Tassos Betzelos

 

Interview with Warren Montag by Tassos Betzelos, on 12 March 2004, first published in Out of Line (Greece); Montag had several weeks earlier delivered a presentation to the Nicos Poulantzas Society in Athens entitled "Intellectuals and the Iraq War: the Crisis of the U.S. Left," and a presentation on Althusser and Foucault in Thessaloniki.

Tassos Betzelos: In the discussion following your presentation to the Nicos Poulantzas Society (Athens, February 24, 2004) you mentioned that the condition of the Left in the USA has improved since the war with Iraq, compared to its condition in the months following 9/11. Can you give us a more specific account of the condition of the Left and the Anti-War movement in the USA today?

Warren Montag: Immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, the Left in the US suffered a kind of paralysis. In part, this was a response to the enormous rightwing mobilization not only for a military attack on someone somewhere who could be linked to the attacks, but also for a renewed imperial policy that could bring order to a world suddenly perceived as chaotic. This very dangerous development was in turn accompanied by a sacralization of the victims in the World Trade Center which made it extremely difficult to find a way to speak critically about the US's role in the world or to ask why the victims of US military interventions were not the object of similar reverence and mourning. To attempt even to explain the attacks rather than recite a ritual denunciation was almost universally seen as not only excusing, but also justifying them. In this initial period, violence and coercion by the state and in "civil society" increased significantly.   Racist assaults on all those perceived to be Muslims (who often turned out to be non-Muslim Indians and Arabs, or even Sikhs), combined with very real intimidation of faculty at public universities by rightwing politicians who threatened to investigate those who publicly criticized the US's foreign policy to make it extremely difficult to speak effectively against the Bush regime, let alone to mobilize against "retaliation."

The actual attack on Afghanistan, initially supported by a large majority of population and a sizeable part of the Left, marked the beginning of a shift in the situation. The revelations of thousands of civilian casualties began to erode the legitimacy of the Bush regime's war on terror. When the war on terror led from Afghanistan to Iraq, this legitimacy was in full crisis. The anti-war mobilizations around the world strengthened the anti-war movement in the US. Bush began to seem like a renegade who flouted international law and preferred military to peaceful solutions. The movement was huge and extended far beyond the Left.

Unfortunately, while the anti-war Left was able to provide a kind of infrastructure, if not leadership, for the movement, it remained politically primitive, unable to create something permanent out of the movement by formulating the political concerns that could unite a mass movement. Meanwhile, the center Left represented by such journals as the Nation and Dissent played a particularly despicable role, publicly red-baiting the antiwar movement, after confidently predicting it could never become a real force. Today, the Left expends much of its energy trying to elect Bush's Democratic opponent, without any real sense that Bush's defeat would spell the end of the war on terror. The election of Kerry would further demobilize the Left who will refuse to oppose a Democrat for fear of helping the Republicans. This is the tragedy of the US Left, which, for its part, shows no sign of breaking the cycle.

TB: Movements against globalization have marked the last decade. What is your opinion of these movements? What is the relation of the Left to these movements? And what, according to you, are the characteristics of a contemporary Left, and how should this Left differ from that of the 20 th century?

WM: I find the emergence of the anti-globalization movements tremendously hopeful. There is a kind of internationalization of politics and of strategy not simply at the top of official organizations, but really from below, with serious and meaningful exchanges at every level. I think the most important challenge facing the anti-globalization movement is to articulate an alternative to capitalist globalization that expresses the needs and hopes of the South as well as the North. It is imperative that the workers' movements find common ground with the tens of millions of displaced peasants (who must be present in and not simply represented by the anti-globalization movement). This, of course, will require organizational forms, and the examples of the Socialist and Communist Internationals, while instructive (and not only in a negative sense), cannot serve as models. They were not and could not be truly global or international. We should study these movements very carefully to imagine ways in which a Global Left can organize as many activists as possible in a way that is both democratic and effective.

TB: In Greece a discussion has recently started amongst the Left, but also more widely, regarding the role of parties nowadays. What is your opinion? Does the Left always need this structure of the Party or should we move beyond this structure?

WM: This has been an important question for some decades now. I don't find it useful to counterpose the Party to a condition of "partylessness."   On the one hand, the traditional interpretation of democratic centralism has proven itself disastrous. The model of a combat party (whether of Communist, Maoist or Trotskyist inspiration) in which a leadership (whether elected or not) issues commands to the activist base, who then carries them out, leaving the evaluation to the leadership, simply doesn't work. It inevitably fails to adjust to new conditions and situations, alienates the membership and degenerates into a cult. On the other hand, the model of organization in which the membership cannot carry out campaigns or evaluate the results of their interventions doesn't seem to work either. Further, there exists what we used to call "the tyranny of structurelessness," in which the absence of structure far from leading to democratic decision-making, allows small groups or cliques to dominate a movement.

We can and must move beyond both the CP and Social Democratic models of the Party, but I don't think this necessarily means giving up every notion of party or allowing things to lapse into a loose network. For me, the regroupment process underway in Greece, Britain, Germany and France is a tremendously hopeful sign. The Left is turning its back on the legacy of sectarian divisiveness, without simply decomposing. New organizational forms have emerged not on paper or in theory but from the exigencies of practice, particularly, the experiences of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. As such they are unprecedented; there are no models to be found in Party manuals. It will be a matter of experimentation, which necessarily includes failures and setbacks as well as successes. The question is really that of the conjuncture: what is the most effective possible organizational form today? Which form will allow the combination of the most activists into the most effective force? These are the questions before us.

TB: At the same discussion, in Athens, you criticized the standpoint formulated by Negri and Hardt, according to whom the war with Iraq was "a coup d'etat against Empire". You also said that you don't agree with the standpoint of Hardt and Negri's Empire. Could you explain to us your reasons? Do you consider Lenin's Imperialism to provide better tools for analysis, or do you suggest that the Left should move beyond that, too ?

WM: The central problem of Hardt and Negri's Empire, in my view, remains the conception of history that dominates the analysis of the present that the text offers. It corresponds exactly to what Althusser in Lire le Capital called "Historicism." History in Empire is a succession of closed totalities the transition between which is difficult if not impossible to explain without resorting to the crudest kind of Hegelianism, a caricature of Hegel, really, according to which each moment contains the seeds of the next in a teleological progression. Of course, nothing would be more paradoxical (although no less predictable) than any Hegelianism on the part of Negri, who has for decades maintained a kind of phobic attitude towards Hegel and any idea of the dialectic. For the kind of historicism that dominates Empire intelligibility resides in chronology, in the difference between a before and an after, a then and now. The political effects of this kind of historicism can be disastrous: we have left the epoch of the nation state, imperialism no longer exists, trade unions no longer matter, social movements should (or can) no longer make demands on the state. This is a kind of prophetic discourse applied at the level of strategy and tactics. Let us recall that Spinoza regarded the knowledge contained in prophecy to be inferior to notions common to all people by virtue of their everyday life. The Iraq War served to call not only the model of Empire into question, but more importantly called into question the very notion of historical time found in Empire. The historical present cannot be described as a totality centered on empire, even if there exist certain tendencies toward what Hardt and Negri described as Empire. The present is far more overdetermined and contradictory than their text can account for.

There is also the danger that Empire will be seen according to their historicist scheme as superior to that which it succeeds insofar as it marks a kind of progress. It becomes necessary to support the forces of progress, no matter how unpalatable, against the forces of reaction, not only those states still clinging to an outmoded notion of national capitalist development and competition, but also, those dark "pre-capitalist" movements arising as if from the past, threatening the universalism of Empire with destructive particularisms. We have already seen a part of the Left support Empire "faute de mieux."

Is Lenin the alternative to Hardt-Negri? Absolutely not: Lenin's Imperialism is a very different and far more modest text than Empire. It has no pretensions beyond offering a conjunctural analysis to explain the First World War and the mass chauvinist intoxication that destroyed the Socialist International and permitted the slaughter of millions. To invoke it as if it were an article of religious dogma would be another way of theologizing politics and making strategic and tactical interventions impossible. Lenin is an extremely important thinker, in my view, both politically and philosophically; he is a great theoretician not simply of a conjuncture but of the conjuncture, one of the few to think the extraordinary complexity and non-contemporaneity of which the historical present is composed. Althusser's book on Machiavelli is simultaneously a book about Lenin, the other philosopher of the conjuncture. That said, I'm not sure that the concept of imperialism is completely outmoded or that there isn't more to say about it in the present historical situation, which would obviously be very different from what Lenin had to say.

TB: The concept of the multitude has a long history. Through the discussions of Empire the concept of the multitude has been brought again at the center of political discussions. Do you consider it a useful implement of analysis for the Left? Negri distinguishes between the "multitude" and the "masses" in his latest texts. Do you agree with this distinction?

WM: Negri's use of the term "multitude" derives exclusively from Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus, where for the first time Spinoza uses a term for a non-juridical political collectivity that isn't exclusively or primarily pejorative (as "vulgus" - a frequent term in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus - was). It was the concept through which Spinoza thought the positivity of mass movements. Is this term different from "the masses" as it actually existed in Socialist and Communist discourse? I'm not so sure. The Roman historical writing that inspired Spinoza, also inspired generations of Marxists (think of the function of the Spartacus narrative). One would have to do a study of the term and the concept of masses in the last century and a half of Left discourse to make the argument Negri does. Of course, he argues that the masses in the eyes of the Communist Parties were passive followers or something like an army to be commanded. That's part of the truth, I suspect, but not the whole truth and the same could be said of "multitude" in Roman literature and even to a certain extent in Spinoza who finally tries to place juridical limits on the multitude (as I have discussed at some length in Bodies, Masses, Power ). In fact, in Left thought the masses were contrasted to the working class as the real to the potential: the real revolutionary movement was never reducible to the sociological category, nor could the fact of exploitation in the strict sense entirely explain mass revolutionary movements. Again, I think the problem lies in a certain way of thinking about history which would allow us to confine a term like "the masses" to a single meaning and function and to declare that it "belongs" to the past. Things are a good deal more complicated than that and it's our business to think about this complexity. Balibar's work on the multitude in Spinoza offers both a model and a starting point in this regard.

TB: During the discussion in Thessaloniki (February 26, 2004), you brought up the relation between Althusser and Foucault. You refer to the same issue in many of your texts. Do you think that Foucault can help us to read Marx and Althusser in a different way? Could the problematic of the modes of production and class struggle be combined with a problematic of genealogy and event, which we find in Foucault? In what way could we think our times with Althusser, but also with Foucault?

WM: First of all, I'm not sure I would want to identify Althusser so strictly with "the problematic of modes of production and class struggle." While Balibar (in his contribution to Lire le Capital) certainly helped made possible an approach to understanding history as a succession of modes of production, he himself rather quickly took his distance from such conceptions. He pointed to the danger of a kind of ahistorical formalism in which an ideal order of modes of production (a formal combinatory) would generate history out of itself as the realization of a pre-existing potential. This was, of course, Althusser's critique of the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss. Does this mean that the notion of mode of production is somehow inescapably contaminated with such metaphysical ideas? I don't think so and it may be that the genealogical conception of history associated with a certain period in Foucault's thought helps us rethink the notion of mode of production in terms of immanence rather than transcendence. To what extent is it possible to think mode of production as a "singular essence," as the effect of encounter and conjunction, recognizing with Althusser (referring to Lucretius and Spinoza) that certain encounters generate worlds (and modes of production!) that persist indefinitely? Althusser, from the mid-sixties on, counterposed a theory of the encounter to both structuralist combinatories and phenomenological geneses.

On the relation between Althusser and Foucault more generally, they were theoretically closer in certain periods than others. Foucault's work of the early sixties, Folie et deraison and Naissance de la clinique was, as is well known rooted in the thought of Georges Canguilhem, who was an important inspiration for Althusser was well. The latter took these works very seriously and read them carefully (although by no means uncritically); he regarded them as great texts. His attitude towards the work of the mid-sixties, beginning with Les mots et les choses was much more hesitant. He declared, (although only in private) even the final sections of Les mots et les choses (the famous attack on humanism) theoretically problematic.

For me, the most important and fruitful exchange between the two occurred in the period 1970-1975. Although indirect and perhaps not even fully conscious, a kind of dialogue emerged around the themes of ideology, discipline and power, emerging in the key texts of the period, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" and Discipline and Punish . Both works carry out a philosophical devaluation of consciousness and a rehabilitation of the body as the object of analysis. Both can be read as extended commentaries on the Scholium to Proposition 2, Part III of Spinoza's Ethics: the body is not moved by the mind but by other bodies. This is the necessary starting point for any effective critique of the liberal tradition, a tradition that is today as strong as ever.

Unlike Althusser's "ideology" essay, Discipline and Punish remains one of the least appreciated of Foucault's books. I believe this can be attributed to the fact that it is really a Marxist text, an expansion of certain chapters from the first volume of Capital which is itself one of the great critiques of the subtle violence and coercion that permeate "civil society" and the "public sphere" those places deemed free because the state allows individuals to interact at will (within certain limits, of course). I believe that it is this analysis, unflinching in its portrayal of "democratic" societies as "the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, " more than the labor theory of value or mode of production that proves intolerable today to the powers that be, the real "scandal and abomination" of the work of Marx, Althusser and Foucault.

 

Warren Montag is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College, Los Angeles, U.S.A.   Warren in the author of numerous essays and books, including Louis Althusser (2003), Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (1999), and The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man (1994).   Warren has also co-edited, introduced, or translated a number of other important books, including the edited volumes Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere (with Mike Hill) and The New Spinoza (with Ted Stolze). He is currently working with Mike Hill on a book-length study of Adam Smith's philosophy.

Tassos Betzelos is a translator of French philosophy into Greek, and his translations include, among others: Derrida's De quoi demain , Deleuze 's Foucault, Balibar's Politics and Truth - a part of La crainte des masses with M. Bartsidis - and Derrida's Positions (forthcoming). He is a member of the editorial board of Ektos Grammis (Out of Line), and collaborates with the Marxist reviews Theseis and Outopia .

Warren Montag: A bibliography

(Only publications in English are given here. For more details, including details of Warren Montag's numerous publications in other languages, go to the following website: http://departments.oxy.edu/ecls/wmontag.html )

Books

Louis Althusser, London: Palgrave-McMillan (2003).

Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries, London: Verso (1999).

The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man, London: Verso (1994).

As co-editor with Mike Hill: Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere, London: Verso (2001).

As editor: P. Macherey, In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays (trans. Ted Stolze), London: Verso (1998).

As co-editor with Ted Stolze: The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1997).

Essays:

"Tumultuous Combinations: Transindividuality in Adam Smith and Spinoza," Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (forthcoming).

"Necro-Economics: Adam Smith and Death in the Life of the Universal," Radical Philosophy (forthcoming).

"Jonathan Swift," Encyclopedia of British Literary History, Oxford University Press (forthcoming).

"Louis Althusser: the Intellectual and the Conjuncture", in D. Bates and P. Reynolds, Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics, London: Palgrave (forthcoming).

"Foucault: the Immanence of Law in Power," in A. Beaulieu and D. Gabbard, Michel Foucault and Social Control, University of Toronto Press (forthcoming).

"Who's Afraid of the Multitude: Between the Individual and the State," South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 104, Issue 4 (Fall 2005).

"Spinoza's Spirit: the Concept of the Trace in Levinas and Derrida", in J. Wolfreys, Specters of Derrida, SUNY Press (forthcoming).

"On the Function of the Concept of Origin: Althusser's Reading of Locke", in S. Daniels, Current Continental Theory and Early Modern Philosophy, Northwestern University Press (forthcoming).

"Materiality, Singularity, Subject: Response to Callari, Hardt, Parker and Smith," Symposium on Louis Althusser , Rethinking Marxism, 17:2 (April 2005).

"Politics: Transcendent or Immanent? A response to Miguel Vatter's 'Machiavelli after Marx'," Theory & Event, 7:4 (2004).

"Towards a Conception of Racism without Race: Foucault and Contemporary Bio-politics," Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, 13 (2002).

"Spinoza and the Concept of the Shekhinah", in L. Goodman and H. Ravven, Jewish Themes in Spinoza's Philosophy, Albany: SUNY Press (2002).

"From the Standpoint of the Masses: Antonio Negri's Insurgencies" (review essay) Historical Materialism, 9 (2002).

"Descartes and Spinoza" and "Althusser", in J. Wolfreys, The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Literary Criticism and Theory, 1945-2000, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2002).

"Gulliver's Solitude: the Paradoxes of Swift's Anti-Individualism," Eighteenth-Century: Theory and Interpretation, 42:1 (2001).

"The Pressure of the Street: Habermas's Fear of the Masses", in M. Hill and W. Montag, Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere, London: Verso (2001)

"The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein', in M. Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. J.M. Smith, New York: St. Martin's (2000).

"Spirits Armed and Unarmed: Derrida's Specters", in M. Sprinker, Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx, London: Verso (1999).

Preface to E. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, London: Verso (1998).

"Althusser's Nominalism: Structure and Singularity 1962-1966", Rethinking Marxism, 10:3 (Fall 1998).

  "Second Response to Carole Fabricant", Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 9:3 (1997).

"The Universalization of Whiteness: Racism and Enlightenment", in M. Hill, Whiteness: A Critical Reader, New York: New York University Press (1997).

"Response to Carole Fabricant", Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 9:1 (1996).

"The Soul is the Prison of the Body: Althusser and Foucault, 1970-1975", Yale French Studies, No. 88 (1995).

"Beyond Force and Consent: Althusser, Spinoza, Hobbes", in A. Callari and D.F. Ruccio, Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press (1996)

"A Process without a Subject or Goal(s): How to Read Althusser's Autobiography", in A. Callari, S. Cullenberg, and C. Biewener, Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order, New York: Guilford Press (1995).

"Althusser and Spinoza Against Hermeneutics: Interpretation or Intervention?", in E.A. Kaplan and M. Sprinker, The Althusserian Legacy, London: Verso (1993).

"The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein", in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, ed. R.C. Murfin and J. Smith, New York: St. Martin's Press (1991).

  "The Emptiness of a Distance Taken: Freud, Althusser, Lacan", Rethinking Marxism, 4:1 (Spring 1991).

"Spinoza: Politics in a World Without Transcendence", Rethinking Marxism (Fall 1989).

"What is at Stake in the Debate on Postmodernism", in E.A. Kaplan, Postmodernism and Its Discontents, London: Verso (1988).

"Macherey and Literary Analysis", Minnesota Review (Spring 1986).

"Lacan and Feminine Sexuality", Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Fall 1985).

"Marxism and Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Encounter", Minnesota Review (Fall 1984).

"Michel Pêcheux: 1938-1983," Minnesota Review (Fall 1984).

 

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