Capitalist globalization has gone sufficiently far now to generate a yet-to-be-resolved conflict between its economic base and the political form of the nation-state. This conflict is another determining factor in nationalism as a highly overdetermined symptom.
Adrian Johnston is an American philosopher and chair of and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. He is the author of Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (2005), Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008), Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change (2009), and Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy (2013), all published by Northwestern University Press. He also is the author of Adventures in Transcendental Materialism: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
Below is the ILNA's interview with this authoritative thinker about the rise of far-right and re-defining Left in today's world.
ILNA: What is the reason for the increasing interest in nationalism in today’s world and its success among the masses?
My sense is that this flows from global capitalism’s recent, and steadily intensifying, loss of legitimacy. Especially thanks to the 2008 international financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, neoliberalism’s pro-globalization ideological narratives have been stripped of whatever credibility they enjoyed in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, neoliberal globalization itself has brought about socio-economic volatility and wealth inequality rightly inspiring anti-capitalist discontent.
However, today’s triumphant nationalisms are a sad confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum according to which “Every fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.” The freshly reinvigorated anti-capitalist discontent of the present, at least thus far, has been captured and contained by the very capitalism generating it. And, I think nationalism, specifically in the guises of jingoism, racism, sectarianism, xenophobia, and the like, is capitalism’s current favored means of mistranslating and misdirecting away from itself the discontent it generates.
From a traditional Marxist perspective, globalization’s internationalization and accompanying multiculturalization of humanity are consequences of capitalism ultimately to be celebrated. At the same time, such consequences understandably lead to capitalism being consciously or unconsciously associated by many of those suffering under it (i.e., “the masses”) with its effects—including the real and imagined proximity of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, etc. others. These associations, in which the cause (here, capitalism) tends to be confused with its effects (for example, multiculturalism), provide capitalism and its ideologues with opportunities to deflect anti-capitalist sentiments and grievances onto racial, etc. others. Through nationalism, capitalist globalization has managed to hide behind some of its own features and thereby survive its ongoing crisis of legitimacy. These features, passed off as characteristics of things other than capitalist economics (cultural, religious, civilizational, and so on phenomena), serve as scapegoats bearing the brunt of negativity that might otherwise properly be directed at the economic foundations of capitalism as a mode of production.
Additionally, the global economy of the early twenty-first century, despite its border-crossing, world-spanning international integration, is simultaneously riven by tensions and clashes between multiple competing capitalist economic nation-states. The numerous observers who, in recent years, have drawn parallels between the geopolitical situation immediately preceding the First World War and our contemporary circumstances are not without ample justifications. So, there are new great power rivalries traversing the global economic field that further fuel mutually antagonistic nationalisms. Relatedly, capitalist globalization has gone sufficiently far now to generate a yet-to-be-resolved conflict between its economic base and the political form of the nation-state. This conflict is another determining factor in nationalism as a highly overdetermined symptom.
ILNA: Today, the extreme right has seized many of the slogans of the left, such as egalitarianism, improving the living conditions of the general public, and so on. Why has the Left not been able to defend its legacy in this field?
The Left has largely abandoned these issues. It did so in ceding the economy as the central battleground of political contestation. Hence, one might risk saying that this Left has not wanted to defend its legacy in this field.
Obviously, I am generalizing. There are exceptions to this rule. That said, I still consider this generalization to be anything but inaccurate.
Over the course of the past fifty-plus years, much of the Left has been significantly affected by a combination of two interrelated forces: one, at the intranational level, domestic defeats in its economically-focused struggles (ideological stigmatizations of economic leftism, union bashing and busting, slashing of social safety nets and top-tier tax rates…); and, two, at the international level, the reactions against and eventual implosion of twentieth-century Really Existing Socialism (not to mention the “own goals” of this Socialism’s self-delegitimization). Under the influence of these combined forces, leftists distanced themselves from the theoretical and practical orientations of variants of Marxism seen to be complicit in the disasters of Stalinism and its ilk. Likewise, effectively stymied by right-wing, pro-capitalist adversaries on economic fronts, the Left shifted its attention to non- or more-than-economic sites of struggles.
Admittedly, the past half-century of leftist activism prioritizing race and gender (rather than class) has succeeded at bringing about some genuine progress. There clearly is much more progress needed along these lines. But, nobody should doubt that the Left has won some real, important, and (hopefully) irreversible victories for various racial and sexual groups.
Nonetheless, while not sidelining the categories of race and gender, the category of class urgently needs to be reintegrated as crucial within leftist politics. So long as this reintegration is not pursued, factions on the Right will remain free to continue capitalizing on anger and demands produced by stagnant and declining wages, falling living standards, income inequality, outsourcing, automation, and so on. And, so long as the Right is allowed freely to hijack and profit from such anger and demands, this potentially explosive dissatisfaction with global capitalism will remain disoriented, deceived, and powerless, vainly spinning its wheels within a capitalism containing and neutralizing it.
What is more, the relatively recent leftist tendency to dismiss egalitarianism as passé at best is a huge mistake with detrimental concrete political consequences. The progressive “identity politics” replacing universalist solidarity with fetishizations of non-economic differences, marginalizations, abjections, etc. is guilty of abandoning the economic Kampfplatz to the Right. Doing so in this fashion, such (centrist, anti-revolutionary) leftism deprives itself of the ability credibly, consistently, and non-hypocritically to oppose right-wing identitarianisms (i.e., racist ethnic nationalisms) valorizing identity categories pointedly prohibited from joining in progressives’ celebrations of various racial and sexual groups. As epitomized by Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous, and class-tinged, 2016 dismissal of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” left-wing identity politics goes so far as to drive certain segments of the masses it antagonizes into the arms of far-right ethno-nationalists. Many of those thus antagonized have socio-economic profiles placing them in classes exploited by capitalism. But, the non-Marxist Left counterproductively pushes these victims of capital into the embrace of the Right.
Fighting on the superstructural terrain of the particularisms of competing identity categories has shown itself to be a losing battle. Continuing to participate in the infinite regress of eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth identitarian squabbles merely perpetuates culture wars benefitting the Right. Taking the fight back to the infrastructural ground of the economy, oriented by a new universalism linking together capitalism’s myriad discontents, is the only viable way on the road ahead if the Left, and humanity along with it, is to have a chance at a worthwhile, livable future.
ILNA: Many theorists, including Slavoj Žižek, regard the wave of nationalism as a chance for the left to review their values. How can this revision take place?
I want to begin by counterintuitively daring to suggest that today’s Left might renew itself by (temporarily) suspending its (ethico-moral, cultural) values. Center-left liberal progressives have become too wedded to their love of simply hating, as hateful as they indeed are, the disgusting demagogues of right-wing populist capitalism. This hatred is fully justified on the basis of any version of leftist values. Yet, such passion (or, in Lacanese, jouissance) seems to have become an all-consuming obstacle to thinking and acting in manners not dominated by mere furious reactions to a Right thereby ceded political initiative and momentum. Leftists are prone nowadays to being reduced to horrified-yet-fascinated political rubberneckers, immobilized and impotent, in regards to phenomena like the daily, Tweet-driven spectacle of the Trump show. See-sawing between cynically despairing of news headlines and laughing with center-left comedians mocking these same headlines goes nowhere.
In the ugly face of ethno-nationalist, right-wing populism, the Left might need to learn how to start holding its nose for a while when it comes to those segments of the masses caught up in this (the frontmen and bankrollers of this are another matter). Leftists must wean themselves from their current addictions to the devouring enjoyments of self-righteous indignation, finger-wagging sermonizing, and serene sense of ethical superiority vis-à-vis those exploited by capital who remain in thrall to nationalism. They must dismount from their moral high horses.
Likewise, class-inflected slurs such as “bumpkin,” “hick,” “redneck,” “rube,” “yokel,” and the like should be made as unacceptable to the Left as every racist and sexist slur. Today’s Left not only downplays or ignores class—it also lamentably tends to place itself on the wrong side of class conflict. Privileged progressives look down their noses at the impoverished, drug-addled inhabitants of rusting former centers of decaying industries and barren rural hinterlands.
Many amongst the masses are acutely aware of a gulf between global elites (including progressive identity-politicians condemning them as “deplorables”) and everyone else “left behind.” Those with such awareness who have been drawn into right-wing populism also accurately register the class-colored condescension openly directed at them by well-off cosmopolitan progressives, comfortable campus activists, and “business-friendly” pseudo-leftist politicians. The portions of the Left indulging in their self-satisfying, paralyzing pleasures of moral masturbation at the expense of such segments of the masses foolishly play into the hands of right-wingers. They make it all too easy to typecast them as smug, pampered, and immeasurably more concerned with, for example, transgender bathroom access rights than lost jobs and declining living standards blighting sizable swathes of whole populations.
Much demographical/social-scientific evidence suggests that there is a far from coincidental correlation, in various countries, between class identity and material quality of life (including educational opportunities and levels), on the one hand, and attitudes about nationalism, race, sex/gender, etc., on the other hand. Maybe a renewed leftist focus on simply raising the living standards and socio-economic prospects of the masses, including those who have anti-progressive attitudes, would do a lot to undermine rightist positions and views apropos race, sex/gender, and the like as well as apropos class, etc. It might even do more, given that leftist critiques of right-wing non-economic positions/views, divorced from addressing economic matters, appear to be provoking and entrenching backlashes by those thus critiqued. Perhaps, in line with what both classical historical materialism, as well as much recent empirical evidence, would predict, many poor ethno-nationalists will eventually shed their racism, sexism, and other cultural bigotries with improving material conditions and opportunities. Would they still be inclined to demonize immigrants, foreign workers, and so on if their circumstances ceased being precarious, threatened, and miserable?
At least to some extent, the leftist extension of an economic hand to these poor ethno-nationalists will involve, as I put it above, leftists holding their noses. It would be hard to deny that the racist and sexist anti-progressivism of these segments of the masses make them seem undeserving of help and solidarity. But, this impression must be set aside and disregarded. I am tempted to plead here for a secularized socio-political touch of Christianity: With respect to right-leaning sufferers under capitalism, we should try to turn the other cheek, forgive them their non-economic sins, and reach out to them in various manners as fellow anti-capitalists. In certain ways, this would be to place forgiveness above retributive justice. Especially thanks to our values and emotions, it would not be easy. But, as Bertolt Brecht, in his “In Praise of Communism,” put it, “It is the simple thing that’s hard to do.”
ILNA: Nationalism has played an anti-colonial role in many Middle Eastern countries, as well as some Asian countries. And, during these histories, nationalist movements have put the fight against capitalist colonialism in their propaganda. What is the reason for the alignment of this kind of nationalist approach and left ideology?
To begin with, I would want to give due credit to Lenin and Mao. Such innovations within the Marxist tradition as Lenin’s doctrine of “the weakest link” and Mao’s distinction between “primary” and “secondary contradictions” paved the way for and facilitated the forging of alliances between socialist/communist and national-liberation movements. As roughly the past century of history has shown multiple times in various parts of the world, colonized societies provide radical leftists with chances to achieve a critical mass of support for their causes through alliances with anti-colonial elements focused on national liberation. Correlatively, any serious, consequent analysis of colonialism by national liberation thinkers inevitably must bring to the fore the inseparability of colonialism from capitalism.
Yet, I wish to avoid making “nationalism” a pseudo-concept falsely blurring the Right-Left distinction (as is done with the notion of “totalitarianism,” through which fascism and communism indefensibly are equated). One ought to distinguish in principle between, on one side, a nationalism manifesting itself in the guises of jingoism, racism, sectarianism, xenophobia, etc. and, on another side, national liberation as anti-colonialism. This could be articulated as a difference between offensive and defensive nationalisms respectively.
Of course, in specific actual cases of national liberation struggles, there may well be admixtures of these theoretical categories of offensive and defensive nationalisms. Nevertheless, I would maintain that there remains a real distinction between these dimensions regardless of however they may complexly intermingle. And, as with what I said before about economically allying with nationalists, the challenge would be the same: establishing solidarity with the emancipatory kernel (defensive nationalism as anti-colonial national liberation) despite the backward shell (offensive nationalism as jingoism, etc.). Self-critically overcoming the intellectual and affective resistances to performing such Marxist extractions of rational kernels from mystical shells will be essential to radical leftist political movements if they are to prevail in the multiple battles confronting them.
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran