Agon Hamza, Ph.D. in philosophy, is the author of Reading Marx (Polity, 2018; with Frank Ruda and Slavoj Žižek), Althusser and Pasolini: Philosophy, Marxism, and Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo (Kolektivi Materializmi Dialektik, 2013; with Slavoj Žižek). In addition, he is the editor of Althusser and Theology: Religion, Politics and Philosophy (Brill, 2016) and Repeating Žižek (Duke University Press, 2015), as well as co-editor, with Frank Ruda, of Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He is founder and co-editor (with Frank Ruda) of the international philosophy journal Crisis and Critique.
Below is the ILNA's interview with this authoritative thinker about the international worker's day, the rise of far-right and the question of the proletariat.
ILNA: "We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to," Marx wrote to Arnold Ruge in 1843 (Collected Works, vol. 3, p.144). More than a century from then has the proletariat realize what to fight for?
The questions of proletariat and proletarisation are one of the crucial aspects of contemporary Marxism. There have been attempts to think and move beyond the Marxist concept of proletariat, for instance in one of the exercises of the Left to move to the field of depoliticization of its concepts. However, I think that it is of crucial importance to repeat Marx. We know that the best conceptualization of the proletarian position can be found in his Grundrisse, where he speaks about the substanceless subjectivity. Employing the notion of the proletariat (and proletarisation, proletarian position), is crucial for remaining within the field of politics. Because this is a very complicated and long topic to be discussed here, I will limit myself to making a few observations.
First, it is interesting to remember that in the history of Marxism and revolutions of the 20th century the revolutionary agent was not only the proletariat but also the peasants. But when the working class failed in accomplishing its role as a revolutionary subject, Marxist theory was searching for other social agents, be them students, excluded, third world workers, etc. Perhaps I can pause here for a moment and make a comparison with the (on-going) refugee crisis in Europe. There is a tendency among some European Leftists to believe that the millions of refugees that are coming to Europe will constitute a revolutionary agent and that we will once again see the re-proletarisation of the continent. But, importing the revolutionary agent will have unimaginable consequences: even now, with only some two million refugees on the continent, we are seeing the fast rise of far Right forces across the continent. We have to see the results of the upcoming EU elections, but the prospects don’t look very positive. But, what this Left fails to see is that the refugees are not only coming in a desperate attempt to escape from war-torn countries, and therefore, looking for a job, as has been the case up until now.
Also with the horizon of full employment increasingly distant, it is becoming clear that we need an analysis which describes the relation between the worker and the other “non-worker,” the unemployed or underemployed, who is the true “subject that is supposed to enjoy” what the worker loses. Hence the structural role of resentment within the working class – especially in the case of immigrants and people who require or depend on assistance from the state.
Marx was very careful to distinguish between the working class, as a category of social being, and proletariat, as a category of the revolutionary agency. Now, there is a dialectical relationship between “knowing” and “doing”, and it can take many levels. For instance, György Lukács held the position that the proletariat is the Hegelian historical subject-substance. But, in the contemporary situation, I don’t think that “knowing” is the condition for “doing” – in fact, one can know very well but continue (not) acting.
I think that the politics of emancipation will not stem from or be carried out by a single revolutionary agent, but a combination of different and many agents. In the previous century, the Left often evoked Marx’s slogan “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Today, I think we are forced to reverse it. Our predicament points to the danger of losing everything, precisely as a result of proletarisation, that is subjectivity devoid of any substantial content, that is: the utter destruction of natural and social substance in a “downward spiral” that does not recognize any “reality testing” in this destruction.
ILNA: How can the proletariat peruse their demands, given the fact that we are living in times in which Bill Gates represents itself as the ultimate humanitarian and a fighter for workers’ rights?
It is very interesting to analyze how people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and other “progressive” capitalists are the ones who dare to talk as well as envisage the post-capitalist society. First, this is not a reason to celebrate or be happy about: the overcoming of capitalism is being prepared, planned and appropriated by the capitalist class itself.
It is also easy to make fun of them, or even to question “their socialism” as not genuine, or not “authentic” enough. It might as well be “humanitarian socialism.” While this most likely is true, however, the problem lies elsewhere. And the obvious question to be raised is, why does the Left lack a positive vision of socialism? The same holds even for the most prominent propagators of socialism – do they have a clear and elaborated vision and programme of what socialism for the 21st century should be? I very much doubt that! The problem of the Left is its reactive position in politics, which has been going on for some time now. Sometimes it seems to me that the Left exists only insofar as it is a response to the political and ideological agendas initiated and implemented by the Right. The Right has set its vision over reality and in fact, reality as such is structured by the perspective of the Right.
Now, here we should ask the following question: what does socialism as a term mean in the contemporary present? Does it stand for the abolition of property as such (as Marx envisaged in The Communist Manifesto), or does it represent solely a transformation of ownership, so we have the shift from private property (capitalism), to state property (socialism)? It appears that it is easier to envisage what socialism is not, rather than what stands in the name of it today. Socialism is not the negation of property as such, but it is a negation of one particular type of property, thus leaving untouched the field of social relations in which property (private, or state) operates and remains the touchstone of the existing social relations. Following Marx, Žižek is right to refer to socialism as “vulgar communism.” In this sense, the future of socialism is always capitalism, because of the structural dimension of the property itself. It is the flaws of the idea itself, which are constitutive of the idea of socialism, which necessitates its transformation into capitalism. Therefore, we should abandon the illusion that socialism is the “first phase” towards full communism. Žižek argues that “the future will thus be communist… or socialist.” To push Žižek’s thesis a bit further, we might say that in order for capitalism to survive as a dominant form of organization of production it must become ‘socialist.’ So in a certain sense, the future might as well necessarily be socialist, and this prospect is not very emancipatory because it will permeate for an unseen dynamics of capitalist reproduction.
ILNA: We are witnessing the rise of far-right all around the world, from AfD in Germany to Bolsonaro in Brazil. Can this be an indication of the Left breakdown in the political arena?
The rise of the far right is exclusively a product of the weakness or/and disappearance of the left. But, this is not a new thing to say. Nor it is an unexpected turn of events, if we only analyze the dynamics of the capitalist reproduction even from before the financial meltdown of 2008. But what is surprising is the surprise of the left itself by the on-going turn of events. In my understanding, this is due to the fact that the left has clearly abandoned its ambitions and pretentions to take the state power, or to think beyond the capitalist form of social organization. Instead, it took recourse to the safety and comfortability provided by identity politics, neo-colonial studies, or other morally grounded disciplines and practices. But, what the comfortable position of what Hegel called “beautiful soul” fails to take into account is that moral insights don’t have a say in how the spirit actualizes itself and takes a given form. While this position allows the left to declare the crisis of our situation, it is, in fact, the left which is in a serious crisis. When you think about the far-right, from Bolsonaro to Duterte, what characterizes them is not a new form of fascism, as many on the left like to shout. I would like to emphasize the fact that I do not think that we are living through a period which is either already fascist, or is the beginning of a “new” form of fascism. Fascism as a term and a concept, includes in itself certain economic and political directives, which cannot be provided by the economic base of the current historical situation. These singular name (and others) are figures of a new ideological phenomenon. We do not yet have the correct term to name this current, which as such also requires a new or different logic of thinking. By this, I do not want by any means to relativize their horrendous policies. They mark a new record in the lowest point of politics since a very long time.
On the contrary, I would even say that this new current might turn out to be even more catastrophic than the fascism of the 20th century. This is one of the problems of the left: those who are the loudest in condemning Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini, and others as fascists, should follow Hegel’s advise and get themselves busy with concepts. As some have already pointed out, labeling this new phenomenon of reactionary populism as fascism is nothing but a banal intellectual laziness. For instance, if one wants to understand the rise and the victory of Bolsonaro in Brazil, s/he should not only think of the limits of the Left, which was structured only as a response to the military dictatorship, and not so much for its aftermath, but also (and maybe even more crucially) has to study the rise of Neo-Pentecostalism, which together with Catholicism, is a structuring instance of Brazilian society.
Here we should add the “appropriation” of certain elements of social policies from what normally and “naturally” belongs to the Left. It suffices to see the economic proposal of Marine Le Pen, or some policies implemented by PiS ruling party in Poland. Or, even Steve Bannon’s idea of progressive tax for the rich (up to 40%). The left cannot imagine itself to propose and discuss something like this. Structurally, the struggle against the far right is the same as the one against religious fundamentalism. If the religious and national fundamentalism is a reaction to the liberal values of the West, then in order to fight fundamentalism, we should not look for an ally in democratic and liberal values, which themselves carry a good dose of idealist spirituality, but focus on the authentic reinvention of the idea of the Left itself. The rise of the reactionary populism is a symptom of the weakness of the left, and not the potency of the right.
ILNA: Some believe that the process of separation of trade union leaders from the First International and their accession to the Liberal Party showed that labor movements could not stand on their own feet. Do you think the Left has overcome this problem? How can radical Left take the power and break the endless cycle of losing the battle and holding merely a moral stand?
Earlier I spoke of the reduction of the Left at the level of minor ambitions, or what Žižek refers to as Fukuyama-isation of the Left. This is complementary to the (not so new) philosophical trends. One of the ways to characterize post-Hegelian philosophy is through either development of philosophical thinking and systems which would oppose Hegel (Kierkegaard, Marx, etc), or the other current, which is that of “taming” Hegel, turning him into the theorist of “recognition” or of “discourses.” Philosophy has abandoned “big questions”, its metaphysical and ontological commitments. This parallel between philosophy and politics is interesting, not because philosophy is the determining field of politics, but because today they both represent the lack of conceptual rigour. Both disciplines are operating under the banner of false urgencies.
Following this, my intention is not to look for the “original sin” of the Left, namely the point in which the Left deviated from its initial principles and aims. Of course, by the Left today I understand all that which falls within the Idea of Communism. If this is analyzed from a Hegelian position, that is to say, it is a concept which should not be understood as an a priori axiom, but we should maintain the reference to the networks of social contradictions and antagonisms which make the reference to communism necessary. That is to say, the idea of communism is the idea which has the power to actualize itself in the world. And only in this sense, it is an Idea.
At this point, we can schematically elaborate some theses. The principal problem of capitalism is not in neoliberalism, or in austerity politics, nor in new forms neither of authoritarian or apartheid regimes, nor in sexism, homophobia or racism, and so on, but in the capitalist form itself, that is, in the value form. Instead of referring to neoliberalism as the cause for our plights and miserability, we should (at the risk of sounding archaic), bring back the critique and the overcoming of capital as the ultimate goal of our thinking and actions.
In the current conjuncture, in which capitalism is successfully neutralizing all possible resistances and the alternatives to it, Žižek’s reversal of going back from Marx to Hegel gains its relevance. In terms of conjuncture, we’re closer to the Hegelian rather than the Marxian universe. While Marx was writing on a revolutionary situation (i.e. 1848), identifying and theorizing the contradictions that might lead to the revolution, Hegel was mostly concerned with the effects of the revolution in the post-revolutionary situation. We are in a similar conjuncture: the period of the socialist revolutions is over and capitalism has become a global system. The socialist era is over and we need to radically rethink the idea of communism.
Marx’s famous response to Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty was to return the message in its inverted form: The Poverty of Philosophy. Today, when the value of thinking has become itself measured by the standards of incessant activity and production which organizes all forms of labor, the time has come to supplement Marx’s own position. The crisis of the Left is no longer the crisis of idealism, of a “poor” philosophy disconnected from the material basis which conditions it – ours is a poverty of philosophy, a blatant absence of any form of thinking subtracted from the imperative of compulsive activity.
The decision to affirm the critical and transformative power of philosophical thinking also allows us to shed light on our contemporary predicament from a renewed perspective, one in which the crisis of the Left, more than the crises of capitalism, becomes our main concern. Considered from the standpoint of our “poverty of philosophy”, it suddenly becomes possible to recognize the imposture at the heart of some of our diagnoses of our enemies and struggles: for example, the supposition, shared by most of the Left today, that we live in post-ideological times, in which all that is left for us to do is to act, or – in its most current version – the idea that “neo-liberalism” names our true enemies, a conclusion which all too comfortably allows us to bypass the production of new critical resources, and therefore confront our current lack of any robust conceptual framework, given that our adversary is conveniently cut off from its complex political-economic grounding. Paradoxically, today, the impasse of philosophy alone marks, within the Left, our most important tasks: 1) the task to develop a more profound and comprehensive account of the Left’s failures in the 20th century and 2) the task to think the problem of political organization anew.
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran