Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable

Corbyn
These last few days, as I found my attention drawn to the Labour leadership contest in the UK, I kept coming across the claim that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would be unelectable, or, for short, that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. What does this claim say?

For starters, it isn’t really a claim about Jeremy Corbyn at all. It is a claim about Britain’s electorate. It says that given the choice, British voters will not vote in sufficient numbers to put a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn into government. The Labour Party won 9.3 million votes at the last election, whereas the Conservative Party won 11.3 million, with an overall turnout of 66%. Labour won 232 seats, the Conservatives 330. To say that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable is to offer a hypothesis that there is no way, given the policies the party would advocate, that these figures can be reversed.

It’s hardly a stupid hypothesis. It’s very difficult for a political party to engineer a sea change in public opinion. Especially when many people in that political party have no inclination even to try. The task becomes all the more difficult when the country’s media are overwhelmingly in favour, not of the status quo, but of the policy agenda of privatisation and stripping away of social rights, pursued by the Conservative Party but also pursued -in an ever-so-slightly watered-down form, by the Labour Party as it is.

I wouldn’t say the comparisons to the Michael Foot years are altogether inappropriate either: Corbyn as leader would be the object of merciless attacks from the press, just as Foot was in his day. Then we have the conditions of the ballot box itself. Jean-Paul Sartre, I think, is right: “No one can see you, you have only yourself to look to; you are going to be completely isolated when you make your decision, and afterwards you can hide that decision or lie about it.” Whilst the kind of message Corbyn might transmit as Labour Party leader would have undoubted ethical appeal, and may even chafe against the conscience of large numbers of Conservative voters, the act of casting a vote is conducted free from such disturbances.

There are a few problems that this hypothesis does not take into account. One is the fact that the implementation of austerity reshapes the way people see the world. I am not saying that austerity produces more progressively-minded people: it is not necessarily so. But it is simply wrong –when not a dishonest self-fulfilling prophecy- to suggest that the outlook of the British public has held static since the days of Michael Foot, or that it is unlikely to change in future.

Another is the fact that what people think, and what they end up voting for, are two different things. An Independent article the other day, for example, showed that in fact, people at large tend to agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s position on a host of issues: railway nationalisation, higher taxes on higher incomes, a ban on nuclear weapons, rent controls, a mandatory living wage, cutting tuition fees, opposition to wars in the Middle East.

If we say that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, then, perhaps we are really saying that the British political institutions cannot deliver what its public actually wants (assuming, of course, we actually care about that). Or we might put it slightly differently: the British public appears unable to get what it wants from its political institutions.

Now, this is a rather naive way of looking at things. “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” really means different things depending on who is saying it. Some people are saying “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” precisely because Britain’s political institutions work just fine for them, thank you very much. The way things are is, by and large, the way they should be.

When certain others say “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”, it isn’t because they’re acutely preoccupied by such a malaise afflicting democratic aspirations in Britain and want to find a way of tackling it. Rather, it’s because they want to take advantage of the malaise. They have an active stake in the malaise continuing. In fact, some people saying so are the embodiment of that malaise: for example, Blairite careerists in the Labour Party, or the sector of elite opinion in Britain whose calling is to shit smarmily upon anything that gives off even the slightest whiff of being socialist.

Beyond the question of Jeremy Corbyn’s electability, you see, lies a question about the reality of power in Britain. To wit: given the fact that it has a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, and given the fact that the current arrangement is laying waste to the prospect of a decent life for millions in society, what ought the majority of people in society do about it?

As far as I can see, it looks like there are a lot more people in Britain thinking about this question than there were a few years back. And they realise that the answer is not voting for political Robocops such as Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham. Clearly the answer entails a great deal more than simply voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. But it seems to be one way among many of posing the question.

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Craven Counterfactuals

ahern

Bertie Ahern

In last week’s column, Irish Times column, Kathy Sheridan reminded the paper’s readership that politicians were human. This came as a useful corrective to those who believed they were shape-shifting lizards from another dimension. This week, the columnist wishes us to imagine that even the most crooked timber of humanity in politician form, in this case Bertie Ahern, can be wielded as the most virtuous of instruments.

Basically Sheridan says that Bertie Ahern would have done a better job negotiating on behalf of Greece than its former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. She contends that personality, in particular that of Varoufakis, was a decisive factor in the shape of the so-called agreement finally forced upon Greece. A more wily and amoral operator, under the same circumstances, she suggests, would have produced a substantially better outcome.

The trouble is, she provides no convincing evidence in support of this suggestion.

Ahern’s achievement in negotiating the Belfast Agreement forms the basis for Sheridan’s claim. But a moment’s reflection should reveal that the Belfast Agreement negotiations were completely different to those revolving around Greece’s austerity packages and debt burden. To state the obvious: it was a different time, different place, different stakes, and different power relations.

When Kathy Sheridan’s anti-hero was conducting negotiations, he enjoyed broad backing not only from the Irish political establishment, business groups, the media and broad civil society, but from Irish America and the US government.  Ahern also had a good relationship with the other key actor in negotiations, the UK government.

What was more, there was a will and momentum on the part of all participants to reach some form of agreement. And above all: reaching a deal was perceived by and large as a good thing for capitalism in Ireland.

No doubt Ahern played a part in establishing a deal, but the overall tendency was towards a deal anyway. The singular brilliance of Ahern’s performance in this regard is mostly a myth concocted by a political establishment and an admiring media that likes to narrate Irish history in terms of the grand feats of heroic statesmen.

In the case of Greece’s negotiations with the Eurozone countries, there was no will on the part of any of the other countries to reach any kind of agreement that might have altered the initial position of continued austerity and insurmountable debt burdens for Greece.

As many commentators been already pointed out, the political cost to the participants, the Irish government included, was unthinkable. A deal that involved anything other than a humiliating climb-down from the Greek government would have undermined the entire premise of economic policy throughout the EU.

Let us recall, not least because it is largely ignored by the press, that the EU’s overarching economic policy entails, variously: removing the welfare state provision that formed the basis of Europe’s post-war settlement; protecting the financial sector at all costs; promoting an ever-deepening competition between the workforces of member states for the purposes of capitalist exploitation –the race to the bottom-; and of placing key decisions over economic management beyond any kind of democratic control.

All this would be undermined if the Eurozone governments were seen to relent in their stance on Greece. It is unthinkable, given these circumstances, that someone like Bertie Ahern would have the ability, to say nothing of the inclination, to deliver a better outcome for the Greek people.

It is only if you accept, as a self-evident and natural fact, that the ‘national interest’ and the interests of capital are one and the same that you might imagine Bertie Ahern playing such a role. Unfortunately, this acceptance runs deep and wide in Ireland, and public commentators are particularly afflicted.

The narrative rehearsed by Kathy Sheridan, that the failure of the Greek government to get a better outcome all boils down to Varoufakis’s intransigence, or his naivety, or his Burberry scarf, or his pointy-headed intellectualism, is largely the same as that offered by senior Irish politicians -who, according to the Sunday Business Post, referred to Varoufakis and Tsipras as “clowns” and “eejits”.

epa04817993 Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan (L-R), Dutch Finance Minister and President of Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and French Finance Minister Michel Sapin at the start of a special Eurogroup Finance ministers meeting on Greek crisis at EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 25 June 2015. Eurozone finance ministers will reconvene on to assess the situation, before the European Union's 28 leaders kick off their two-day summit in Brussels later the day. A special meeting of the 19 eurozone leaders could also be held.  Greece and its creditors continued marathon talks on how to avoid a bankruptcy in the country, just hours before an EU summit meant to bookend the crisis.  EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
I suppose we can imagine the amazed incomprehension of someone like Michael Noonan, when confronted with a finance minister unwilling to go along with the dogma that animates Eurogroup meetings. It must be like what an everyday person might feel on coming downstairs on a Monday morning to find a drunken zebra sprawled on one’s sofa. But even such disorientation and annoyance have little to do with personality, or intellectual mien. It is just that the drive of the Eurogroup is strenuously opposed to even the sort of mild alleviation that the Syriza government was seeking on behalf of the Greek people. If Varoufakis was a pain in the hoop to them, it was because of the forces he represented.

The same narrative also presents the rest of the Eurogroup –and let us recall that this group is an informal grouping, 95% of its members are men, and it is subject to neither democratic oversight nor accountability- as experienced and sensible lieutenants of their respective ships of state. It reduces politics to the ultimate insider game, beyond the reach of democratic control.

The ultimate function of this narrative is to cloak the naked class savagery on display: the utter contempt for democracy, the vindictive destruction of Greek society, the matter-of-fact looting of public assets, and to propose that Greece -and, by extension everyone else- should just submit to Europe’s neoliberal consensus.

What is most ridiculous about this particular version, however, is the way we are supposed to think that someone like Bertie Ahern could stand up against such robbery, whilst ignoring the fact that the present finance minister, Michael Noonan, who serves the same masters, got stuck right in. But since politics is no place for novices, we are suggested it might be best if we keep our noses out of things, lest we cause even more damage, or lest we crack the thin veneer between civilisation and barbarism. Craven conservatism is what will keep us right in the end.

Won’t it?

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Joan Burton and the “Language of Priorities”

Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan

In recent days, particularly in light of Syriza’s submission to what has been described, rightly, as a ‘Carthaginian’ austerity package for Greece, I have been wondering whether the Irish Labour Party might have had a better handle on things than I had given credit. Whereas what awaits Greece is further misery, it looks as though there are the makings of some kind of recovery along social democratic lines in Ireland. And whilst I have been trenchantly harsh on this blog about the decisions taken by Joan Burton and her party in government, I think that events call for a reassessment. Certainly there were elements of her address to the MacGill Summer School last night that, if not made of the stuff that will shift us substantially towards socialism, at least promise some sort of change of direction.

After all, if the choice is between inflicting harsh punishment and inflicting even harsher punishment, then opting for the former is a reasonable course of action, if the point is to preserve what exists in terms of social welfare provision. And whilst some of the Minister for Social Protection’s actions may have appeared as scapegoating, particularly in relation to welfare payments, what if there was no alternative? What if greater stringency in welfare provision is a precondition for forging a political path toward a more equal society?

Burton:

I have put a lot of my time and effort over the last four years in government into enforcing the standards people want for Ireland and our life together as a community. It was never about finicky rule-making or catching people out in a vengeful way. It is about the fundamentals of a fair society. It is about the balance of power in a democracy of equal citizens. It is about making sure each person makes a fair contribution.

Perhaps what we have failed to recognise in recent years is that proper democratic renewal requires public virtue. It is not enough to single out corrupt elites as the source of the problem: it is a matter of collective citizen responsibility. Unless there is sufficient consciousness of the need for each to work in the benefit of all, then the pursuit of a socialist agenda is doomed to failure. So too, I think, is the simplistic notion, voiced by the new Social Democrats formation in recent days, that one can simply import a social model from another country –in this case the Nordic model- for our own ends.

I think Burton recognises this, as illustrated below:

Our task together is to be a civilised and free society, rooted in our distinct Irish history and culture. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, it’s about the content of our character. In a democracy, the government will reflect the content of the character of the people. It can also foster and sustain civic values and standards.

Pragmatism far too often appears as a dirty word in the vocabulary of the left. But pragmatism is neither good nor bad: it is the outcome of pragmatic action that counts, not the method itself. In this case, Burton is surely right to recognise both full employment and excellent public services as the immediate goal to be achieved, upon which a more fitting foundation for socialism can be built.

We have to build and secure our common standards and values. And we have to do this while we implement the right policies to secure full employment, to build excellent infrastructure and public services, and develop all the regions of Ireland.

Burton is surely right, moreover, to point to the corrosive corruption in Ireland’s public culture, brought about by “white-collar fraud”, “political corruption”, “rip-offs of consumers”, and “tax evasion”, as the source of “cynicism about the political and democratic process”.

The question is whether we as a socie…wait, did I say Joan Burton, last night at the MacGill Summer School? Sorry, I meant Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats.

In 2002.

Sorry about that. Well, it just goes to show: talk is cheap.

Joan Burton’s real speech did contain some items worth highlighting. Whilst I think the Social Democrats are a fairly pointless exercise, they may have caused Joan Burton to profess her faith in the religion of socialism.

Burton’s Damascene conversion, revealed at MacGill’s happy hunting ground for seasoned observers and political insiders, comes only days after attacking the Greek government for proposing to resist the imposition of savage anti-socialist, anti-democratic measures on the Greek population.

In her MacGill address –the real one-, Burton quoted Dostoevsky that ‘compassion is the chief law of human existence’, and said that ‘ensuring the State is compassionate in its duty to its people’ was the starting point for the future.

Seasoned observers of compassion will recall how both George Bush and David Cameron cited it as the cardinal virtue for political action.

Burton, of course, is not the only Irish politician to séance the ghost of Aneurin Bevan in recent times in a country where only a minority have experience of the National Health Service or free education. Her colleague in government, Leo Varadkar, who in his capacity as Minister for Health opens up Accident and Emergency departments in private hospitals, likened the roll-out of free GP care to children under the age of 6 to the foundation of the NHS. But whereas Varadkar’s channelling of Bevan is a half-assed afterthought geared at masking his neoliberal outlook, Joan Burton’s is…oh, never mind. But it is worse, in a way. It is the same ghoulish performance that on other occasions summons James Connolly to provide a posthumous seal of approval for the idea that There Is No Alternative.

Burton:

That great politician Nye Bevan, who created the NHS, had some valuable words of wisdom for those who wanted more than could realistically be delivered.

The language of priorities, he said, is the religion of socialism.

Bevan’s ‘words of wisdom’ were not intended for those ‘who wanted more than could be realistically delivered’. They were made initially, at the Labour Party conference in 1949, in response to a call from Labour MP Richard Acland that the Labour Party ought to pursue a “spiritual approach”.

Bevan contended that the programme the Labour Party was carrying out meant that ““Suffer the little children to come unto me”” was ‘not now something which is only said from the pulpit.”

He said:

We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.

In Ireland, the deprivation rate for children rose from 24.5% in 2011 to 30.5% in 2013, as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition pursued the same overall economic policies as its predecessors. The consistent poverty rate rose from 6.9% to 8.2%.

Bevan revisited his remarks following the Labour Party defeat in the 1955 general elections. He said –defending nationalisation- that the fact so many working-class people had not voted Labour was a problem

of education, not of surrender! This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society. It is a society in which priorities have all gone wrong. I once said –and I do not want to quote myself too frequently- that the language of priorities was the language of Socialism, and there is nothing wrong with that statement, but you can only get your priorities right if you have the power to put them right, and the argument, comrades, is about power in society. If we managed to get a majority in Great Britain by the clever exploitation of contemporary psychology, and we did not get the commanding heights of the economy in our power, then we did not get the priorities right. The argument is about power and only about power, because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities right.

Whereas for Bevan, priorities meant “ethical choices on a national scale” that gave “the women, the children and the old people” first claims on the national product, Joan Burton took to the streets brandishing a placard bearing a tricolour, insisting that the EU’s neoliberal stability treaty –which buried ethical choices and prioritised debt repayments to banks above all else- was in the national interest.

So too was putting the boot into the already impoverished people of Greece.

Whilst Burton might utter the same words as Aneurin Bevan, she certainly does not speak the same language.

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On Not Knowing

In a radio interview this morning, which I translated here, Pablo Iglesias, Secretary General of Podemos, said something that I thought was very worthwhile. He was asked how he would react in Tsipras’s position, and he said: I don’t know.

This kind of admission is not exactly a winning formula for getting elected. Quite the opposite, in fact. Political leaders are supposed to know how to act in any situation, how to handle that 3am call. They are supposed to inspire confidence, to reassure the populace that they know what they’re doing. Pablo Iglesias, who along with his party is seeking election based on the idea of a ‘government of the best’ –the brightest minds, equipped with the best training and experience- would not know what to do in Alexis Tsipras’s position.

There are lots of things Pablo Iglesias says that I don’t like very much. But I like the fact that he said he didn’t know. On reflection, he may have preferred not to admit such a thing. I think it is much better for him to say that than to come out with some sort of garbled bluster. To be honest, quite a lot of what he said in that interview is garbled bluster. And grasping at straws.

Who cares, for example, if Alexis Tsipras “fought like a lion”? What ought to be at stake is the effect on the people he claims to represent. We have already endured more than enough exaltations of bravery and derring-do on the part of political representatives, who claim to be acting in the best interests of their people, when the net result, for those they are supposed to serve, is more catastrophe.

Here lies the bitter truth behind Podemos’s much-criticised claim that the left-right axis is not a sufficient guide for understanding what is going on. What recent days show is that under neoliberal capitalism you can have a government that says it comes from the radical left but that nonetheless ends up implementing a raft of neoliberal measures that undermine any real prospects for democracy, let alone socialism.

Pablo Iglesias is also right to say in the interview that what is politically possible depends on the correlation of forces. But the fact of a self-declared left-wing government implementing neoliberal austerity weighs heavily in that correlation, and not on the side of democracy. Here lies the truth of Bakunin’s dictum: ‘In the republic the State, which is supposed to be the people, legally organized, stifles and will continue to stifle the real people. But the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labelled “the people’s stick.”

Indeed, they may well feel much worse.

There are far worse things than not knowing how to address a problem. One is pretending to know, and carrying on as if you did know, saying: leave it to us, it will be fine. One of the key features of neoliberal rule is government by those in the know, with the population treated as ignorant and seething with irrational passions. Such rulers may not know what they are doing. Or, in what is the current norm, they know full well what they are doing, because it is beneficial to them though deeply harmful to the vast majority in society.

I would not go as far as to claim that there is a silver lining to Greece’s humiliation. But it has exposed something to common knowledge, namely, the utter contempt for democracy and social justice on the part of European elites, the fact that the European Union is, to use Cédric Durand’s term, a ‘a class-warfare machine’. The solution to this problem simply cannot come from a switcheroo in political leadership, or a wager on a ‘government of the best’, but on a deepening of solidarity among the peoples of Europe against government by the Beast.

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Interview: Pablo Iglesias on Greece

Image from Pablo Iglesias's Twitter avatar, 17th July

Image from Pablo Iglesias’s Twitter avatar, 17th July

This is a partial translated transcript of an interview with Pablo Iglesias held this morning on radio show La Cafetera. It deals with the situation in Greece, the broader situation in the EU, and how it affects Spain and Podemos. You can listen to the full interview here.

The papers are saying you appear resigned. Is that true?

Pablo Iglesias: Well, as the Secretary General of Podemos I’m a political scientist, and I understand that politics is power relations. Power is a relation, and the correlation of forces in Greece presents a very difficult scenario. The government has found itself in an extreme situation, in which it has had to take a decision that no-one likes. The government doesn’t like it, we don’t like it. It is a solution that at any rate, apart from allowing there to be talks on debt restructuring, which is a good thing, wins time. The agreement is appalling. No-one is going to like it. But it was either that or exit the euro. And I think that in the game of chess that Alexis is playing, it has been a very painful move, but a tactical move, very tough but undoubtedly inevitable. And now it is a matter of accumulating forces to recover in the next round. Sometimes in politics, when you are weaker than your adversary, it is chess, they can lay traps for you and you need to show a great amount of shrewdness.

Would you have done the same thing as him? If the citizens had said No in a referendum?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to ever find myself in such a situation, where I have to choose between an awful agreement and my country leaving the euro where it means the savings of the citizens of my country devalue because you have to exit the currency, and what citizens of the country have in the banks ends up worth a fifth of what it had been. I think it is a choice between death and death. I hope in my life I don’t ever have to take a decision of that kind, and I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know if I would resign or if I would continue. At any rate I think Alexis’s decision has been brave. I had the opportunity to speak to him last night, and I admire him hugely. I think he is a brave person, a gladiator, and not only will he count on my support when he sweeps the board in a referendum but also in the difficult decisions that he doesn’t like, nor do I like either, but our friendship and our political collaboration will go on, through thick and thin.

So you’ve spoken to him?

Yes.

And how did he come across?

He is a great statesperson, and logically he is worried, but assuming his responsibility, with a huge commitment to his people, very conscious of the difficulties, he is conscious that we have to win time, that it is very important that more pro-Europe and pro-sovereignty forces win more weight in Europe. It is a battle that cannot be fought solely in one state. And I think he is showing bravery and keeping his sights high against adversaries that are, well, losing the plot. You only have to listen to the IMF and the US saying reasonable things whilst Germany has a very clear roadmap, which is to defeat the Syriza government, to defeat us (i.e. Podemos), and eject Greece from the Euro, which is hugely irresponsible. Tsipras has had to fall back, but the game of chess goes on. I still admire him. You admire someone when they confront difficult situations, not easy situations. It is hugely painful to see certain people attacking him so harshly when he has shown in the past months that he has defended his country and his people.

In the PSOE there are those who have seen parallels between what has happened in Greece and the conjuncture confronted by Zapatero, and the way in which he had to renounce elements of his electoral programme. Do you think such parallels exist?

Yes, and I have a great deal of respect for Jose Luis [Rodríguez Zapatero]. I have spoken to him about that, precisely that, that moment. I think the fundamental difference is that Tsipras has fought, and fought to the end, and he’s going to go on fighting. I think that the way José Luis saw things there was no point in fighting, and he surrendered right from the start. I think that, well, you must fight like a lion. You cannot give up without a fight.

(In light of) what has happened in Greece, should the hopes that Podemos promised be revised?

Not at all. We are a very different country. We are a much stronger…Spain is a much stronger country than Greece. In fact our main problem here was not going to be with German elites, we would have to confront elites right here who don’t want to pay taxes and who are not so strong. They are a totally different proposition. A Spanish government would be much stronger, it would count on far more resources, we are a country with much more weight in Europe, with a difficult economic situation, but luckily much better than that of Greece. It is totally different. I have a great amount of sympathy for Greece but their situation does not compare to ours.

So what has happened there has not changed your electoral programme? Because there was talk in recent days of certain climbdowns that Podemos was making, for example, the restructuring of the debt?

We have always advocated a restructuring of the debt. Now, more over, everyone is advocating it. Even Montoro [finance minister] is calling for it with regard to the regional governments. Krugman, the Nobel prizewinner has called for it, even the IMF itself, and so, it’s a reasonable thing that has been done many times. But it is not the cornerstone of what needs to be done in terms of Spain’s economic policy. I think the Partido Popular is going to cling to the argument that Greece is very similar to Spain, but it is not true. Here we would have sufficient resources to ensure that those who have been robbing the citizens will have to contend with the law, and with a government that makes sure that the nominal rates [of tax] in this country start reflecting the real rates.

Yes, and I have a great deal of respect for Jose Luis [Rodríguez Zapatero]. I have spoken to him about that, precisely that, that moment. I think the fundamental difference is that Tsipras has fought, and fought to the end, and he’s going to go on fighting. I think that the way José Luis saw things there was no point in fighting, and he surrendered right from the start. I think that, well, you must fight like a lion. You cannot give up without a fight.

But has what has happened affected you negatively?

Personally, it pains me a great deal. The contempt for democracy shown by the Germans and certain financial elites pains me. For someone to be brave enough to call a referendum, and with such a wide majority, and for the Greeks to say “enough”, and for there then to be such contempt for democracy, such that it seems that cynical reason has triumphed – “it doesn’t matter what people vote for, we are going to go on calling the shots. It doesn’t matter how you vote. It doesn’t matter what people think.” Well, this is bad news for democracy, and it prefigures bleak future scenarios. If it goes on like this, perhaps the next elections in France will be won by Marine Le Pen. And France has nuclear weapons, Le Pen would have no trouble forming an alliance with Russia, and I don’t want that. But I think we are governed by anti-democrats that are moreover showing a lack of common sense. They are bringing us along a very dangerous slope. What has happened in Greece these days is the worst of news for democracy. The European financial elites have responded to a referendum like dictators. That is bad. That is dangerous.

And does this affect you in Podemos negatively, in terms of elections?

I don’t think so. And the proof lies in the fact that people can see things going on as normal. There were those who said that the Metro in Madrid would stop working in Madrid and Barcelona if Ada and Manuela were to win. And suddenly it looks like we have City Councils that are far better, mayors who say that wages [in the City Councils] need to be cut, and things need to be done better. those who said that Podemos would bring chaos are seeing that it is quite the contrary. Even newspapers that are not favourable [to us] recognise that even in those regional governments where we have voted for the PSOE’s investiture, there are now evictions stopped and there is now a social agenda that involves citizen rescue plans. I think Spain is showing that not only does Podemos know how to govern but that it knows how to govern better.

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Down The Rabbitte Hole

PatRabbitteChainsaw
Pat Rabbitte was so convinced a right-wing single party government would collapse that he saw Labour’s participation in coalition as a must. But he is not a right-wing politician. We are told of this in today’s Irish Times, which publishes his response to an article written by Diarmaid Ferriter last Saturday.

Whilst the sound of the respective surnames suggests a debate alive with animal spirits, Rabbitte’s piece is more Golden Cleric Award than bloodsport. Rather than address the substance of Ferriter’s piece -that Rabbitte’s condescension towards the “chaos out there” is of a piece with his drift rightward, along with the rest of the Labour Party- Rabbitte mounts a defence of his record and that of his party, shot through with an anti-intellectual streak that also characterises some of the other more voluble members of his party.

Rabbitte’s brandishing of the word “adduce” cannot hide the fact that he doesn’t know what Peter Mair’s term “democracy without a demos” actually means. The ‘national unity government’ Rabbitte cites most certainly does not indicate the presence of a demos.

Mair’s point was that the institutional mechanisms of the European Union ‘depoliticize much of the policy-making process at the domestic level – by reducing the policy range, instruments and repertoire available to national governments and to the parties who organize them’. Hence the fact that there is a government with a sizeable majority -‘effectively a government of national unity’, in Rabbitte’s words- is neither here nor there.

The policies carried out by Rabbitte’s ‘government of national unity’ were entirely in keeping with the broad parameters of Troika demands. The public did not come into it. In the context of bank bailouts, the point of ‘national unity governments’ is generally to ram through measures to which the population would not consent if it were consulted directly. The mantra of the early years of this government was, after all, the ‘loss of economic sovereignty’.

As Mair saw it, the weight of European institutions that were free from democratic controls would cause publics kept at a remove from the sphere of decision-making to end up wondering just what the point of toothless local democratic institutions was, to say nothing of what the point of Pat Rabbitte is.

Rabbitte includes the obligatory paragraphs about Syriza and pointy-headed intellectuals who think there is an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. But the difference between Rabbitte and Syriza is that for the former, the will of capital must be assumed as one’s own will ex ante. This is all the easier when you have no idea what democracy means, no demos to hold you to account.

Events in Greece and Brussels in recent days have shown that EU ruling elites can crucify a country through openly sadistic measures. They can openly overrule the express democratic wish of a populace in ways that contradict even their own economic orthodoxy. As Yanis Varoufakis pointed out: the grouping of Eurozone ministers is not even a legally constituted entity and its meeting proceedings are not even recorded, and yet it has the power to lay waste to a country that is not willing to bear the social cost of keeping speculative finance profitable. This situation is a threat to democratic life that, far from being solved by easy electoral formulations, will require deep deliberation by real democrats across Europe. But Rabbitte seems to thing the current balance of forces and structure of power is fine and dandy. Maybe I would too, if I was on his pension.

But Rabbitte, for one, welcomes our new finance sector overlords. For have they not been gracious indeed in inflicting less punishment on Ireland for capitulating swiftly? His injunction, to look at Greece to see where that carry-on will take you, not only shows he is not a democrat, and that along with his Labour colleagues he has not the slightest sense of internationalism (though we already knew this from his dire warnings that millions of Polish migrants would ‘displace’ Irish people from their jobs), but that he sees a slave mentality as the political norm. Doesn’t the master, after all, treat some slaves better than others? We sick, boss?

Rabbitte rebuts Ferriter’s charge that he is ‘more right than centre’ by saying that the ‘rescue’ of a market economy -he does not outline what this entailed- was not a question of ideology, right, left or centre. Well indeed: right-wing politicians always say that policies that transfer wealth to the richest in society and attack working conditions and social rights are not a question of ideology. Power for such figures, after all, triumphs over the principle of truth.

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Translated Interview – Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval: “The challenge of the politics of the common is to move from representation to participation”

Laval-Dardot

Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval

This is a translation of an interview with Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater, and originally published on the Interferencias blog at eldiario.es on 3rd July, on the topic of their new book Commun. Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle.

First, a translation note. One of the difficulties with translating from Spanish is that English does not have a neuter article. Hence the term ‘lo común’ in Spanish (‘le commun’ in French), is most closely translated to English as ‘that which is common’. For the sake of brevity and sanity, I have translated most instances of ‘lo común’ as ‘the common’, since it means something different to ‘the commons’. However, The New Way of the World, the English translation of La nouvelle raison du monde: Essai sur la société néolibérale finishes off, impeccably but somewhat unhelpfully for the purposes of this piece, with ‘la raison du commun’ translated as ‘the reason of the commons’. I have left this phrase in its official English translation.

Laval & Dardot: “The challenge of the politics of the common is to move from representation to participation”

Some months back, we interviewed French intellectuals Pierre Dardot (a philosopher) and Christian Laval (a sociologist) on the topic of their penultimate work: The New Way of the World. It is an ambitious reconstruction of the history and present of neoliberalism, understood simultaneously as a macro- and a micro-politics: structural adjustment plans side-by-side with the production of certain subjective ways of living in the world.

A few months later, their latest book appeared in Spain. It is titled Common, with the subtitle Essay on revolution in the 21st Century. Having critically analysed neoliberal logic, Dardot and Laval now sketch out the alternative: the common as the central terminus of a logic of thought and action that might break the deadlocks of the politics of the 20th century (left/right, State/market, public/private).

In our introduction to that interview, we said that Common could become a major reference point for contemporary political thought, just as Empire by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt was in its day. Indeed, the book is already the object of lively debates in France and Italy. But it is perhaps in a country such as Spain where it may find a more active and practical readership, both among people involved in grassroots movements and those taking part in new political and institutional forms.

It was not by chance that certain councillors from Ahora Madrid swore into their posts with the phrase Omnia sunt communia! (“Everything for everyone”), nor that the word “común” appears in the name of important municipal initiatives such as that of Barcelona. What, then, is this new politics of the common?


From neoliberal reason to the reason of the commons.

  1. What was your intention in writing the book? Why set out this key idea of the common here and now?

Pierre Dardot: This book follows the same trail as our previous works, particularly The New Way of the World. The latter ends with a somewhat elliptical expression: “the reason of the commons”. We wanted to suggest that the ‘counter-conducts’ we spoke about in the book, that is, the practices of resistance and subjectivation, ought to be articulated as a new political reason, an alternative political reason to the neoliberal reason we had analysed.

What we were not so sure about was this very articulation, or, to put it another way, what kind of direct and positive participation in conducts of resistance could help build an alternative rationality. We had in mind an opposition between two principles: competition (a principle of neoliberal logic) and the common [lo común], but it was still very abstract. Ultimately, what was at stake was what we might call the positivity of practices of resistance: we cannot be satisfied with a resistance to power that is purely defensive or reactive. Rather, we have to think about a resistance that can produce new rules. It is only in this way that we will be in a position to overthrow neoliberal reason.

Christian Laval. We were prepared to map out the path from resistance to emancipation, in that sense moving beyond Foucault and his mistrust of the “big projects”. But what was ultimately decisive in writing this book, with this title, were the different movements contesting the private and state-led appropriation of resources, spaces, services, etc. And, most especially, the movement of the occupation of squares (15M, etc) which has set forth new demands with an incomparable energy.

In all these movements a radical questioning of ‘representative’ democracy has developed, in the name of a ‘real’ democracy, linked in certain cases to ecological demands concerning the preservation of ‘common goods’ (urban spaces above all). So something that was for us still rather a matter of intuition at the end of The New Way of the World has now taken shape. We believe that the common is the principle that literally emerges from all these movements. The common is not, then, something that we have invented, but rather emerges from current struggles as their own principle.

 

The common: co-participation and co-involvement

  1. What is your definition of the common?

Pierre Dardot: The definition of the common that we propose at the beginning of the book does not seek to be a general definition, independent of time and place. If we go back to the etymology of this term (cum-munus) it is certainly not to give the impression that the common has always held the meaning we give it today. In Aristotle, the koinôn is what arises from the activity of common endeavour that constitutes citizenship, the activity that involves the back-and-forth between the rulers and the ruled. In the Roman Republic, the word munis meant, above all, the dimension of obligation imposed upon all magistrates that held public office. Today, by the lights of the movement of the squares, the term has a rather different meaning: the only valid political obligation is that which proceeds, not from belonging to the same thing, but from participation and involvement in the same activity or task. This demand is one of participative democracy and as such it stands opposed to representative democracy, which authorises a few to speak and act on behalf of the many.

 

  1. Could you explain the difference between your approach to the common and what we find in other discourses at play in more or less the same field? To be specific: 1) What distinguishes the common from the public-state owned? 2) What distinguishes the common from ‘common goods’? 3) What distinguishes your thoughts from those of other intellectuals such as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt?

Christian Laval: The public-state-owned rests upon two demands that are perfectly contradictory: on the one hand, it purports to guarantee universality of access to public services; on the other, the state administration reserves the monopoly over running these services, thereby reducing users to consumers, and excluding them from any kind of participation in their running. The commons must be precisely to put an end to this baleful division between “public servants” [funcionarios] and “users”. To put it another way, the common could be defined the public/non-state: to guarantee universality in access to services through direct user participation in their running.

Pierre Dardot: Secondly, the common is for us a political principle and not a property that might pertain by nature to a certain kind of “goods”. We distinguish between the common [lo común] as a political principle that is not to be instituted but rather applied, and the commons, which are always instituted through the application of this principle. The commons are not ‘produced’, but rather ‘instituted’. This is why we are very reticent with regard to ‘common goods’. Because all goods considered in this way share this quality of being ‘products’. We think this reasoning needs to be turned around: every common that is instituted (whether natural resource, knowledge, cultural space etc.) is a good, but no good is in itself common. A common is not a ‘thing’, even when it relates to a thing, but rather the living tie between a thing, an object or a place, and the activity of the collective that takes charge of it, that maintains it and cares for it. The common can only be instituted as that which cannot be appropriated.

Christian Laval: Finally, our perspective also calls into question the thesis set out by Negri and Hardt of a spontaneous production of the common, which would be at once both the result and the condition of the process of production (in the same mode as the expansive dynamic of the forces of production in a certain kind of Marxism). We think that by idealising the autonomy of immaterial labour in the era of ‘cognitive capitalism’, this thesis fatally ignores the mechanisms for subordinating labour that capital nowadays operates.

 

Instituent Praxes

  1. ‘There are no goods that are not common goods [by their very nature, by their intrinsic qualities], but rather commons to be instituted.’ These are the words that round off your work and in a certain way summarise it. How is the common instituted? What kind of institutions are appropriate?

Pierre Dardot: To institute does not mean to institutionalise in the sense of rendering official, of consecrating or of recognising a posteriori what has already existed for some time (for example, in the form of habit or custom), nor does it mean to create out of nothing. It means to create the new with -and starting from- what already exists, as such in conditions passed down independently of our activity. A common is instituted by a specific praxis that we call ‘instituent praxis’. There is no general method for the institution of any given common. Each praxis ought to be understood and carried out in situ or in loco. That is why we must speak of ‘instituent praxes’ in plural.

Christian Laval: Opening up a service that had been until that moment closed down, in a psychiatric hospital, following a discussion with the health workers and the patients, involves an instituent praxis, though it might be a ‘micropolitical’ extension, as Foucault would have it. Similarly, instituting a seed bank for peasants or setting up a cultural centre for common use. And it is these practices that prepare and build the revolution understood as ‘auto-institution of society’.

Bolt Hostel, Dublin

Bolt Hostel, Dublin

  1. There is a classical suspicion among the more egalitarian and horizontal movements with regard to the idea of ‘institution': the danger of bureaucratisation, the consecration of tradition, the excessively rigid channelling of the ‘flow’ of the movements, etc. How would you respond to this suspicion? How should we think of the institution in a way that responds to these risks? How can we crystallise without freezing?

Christian Laval: Throughout history: there is a ‘curse’ that lies in wait for social mobilisations, for movements of struggle, for revolutionary experiences: the alternative between their swift dissolution due to lack of structure, or their bureaucratisation. Certain writers hold that we cannot escape the petrification of movements, their degradation into a fixed organisation, headed up by a small conservative oligarchy. Sartre, for example, thought that the insurrectional episode of the groupe en fusion inevitably led to an institutional reification. The concept of institution therefore wound up in one thing: the inertia of a dead body.

But this thesis can only be understood as the reverse of the old Marxist-Leninist theory of the Party that saw, in the absence of a disciplined organisation capable of seizing the centre of power, the cause of the defeat of revolutions (particularly the Paris Commune). The Marxist-Leninist party, the keeper of the knowledge of history, was no more than a simulacrum of State, based on the model of the central bureacracy. The challenge of contemporary movements consists in having the capacity to refute this double fatalism.

Pierre Dardot: We have to tackle this feeling of historical impotence that says that effective and lasting politics can be nothing other than the monopoly of the dominant. And to this end there is only one solution: to create institutions whose principle is such that the rules can be the object of a constant collective deliberation so as to avoid a bureacratic ‘freezing-over’. What is essential is that the institution, whatever it might be, should have the capacity to open up to the unforeseen and adapt to new necessities: its functioning must therefore allow at every moment a relaunching of the instituent. [lo instituyente]

Present struggles: reinstituting society

  1. Thinking about movements of the squares such as 15M, Syntagma or Gezi, and electoral instruments for the ‘institutional assault’ on political power, such as Syriza and Podemos, how do you weigh up the struggles and movements against neoliberalism in recent years, from this question of yours about a new institutionality?

Pierre Dardot: The movements of recent years are profoundly inventive, creative, the bearers of new political forms. This does not so much mean that they bring with them, spontaneously, a new ‘constitution’ (in the political-legal sense of the term) but rather that they pose (in practice) the problem of the link between the construction, in the ‘here and now’, beginning from existing conditions, of new forms of relating and of activity, and the general transformation of society. That is how best they can be characterised, and the Spanish process is in this sense gives very clear testament.

Christian Laval: Each experience has its particularities. Syriza was born, for example, out of a coalition of small left parties, whereas the municipal lists that have won the elections in Barcelona and Madrid have been constituted from multiple associations and groupings that are not confined to Podemos and that are rooted in the experience of 15M. The shared element is the will to rupture with an entire ‘system’, that is, an oligarchical political order, tightly bound up with the economic interests of dominant social groups. But one cannot struggle against the ‘system’ without inventing, at the same time and on the plane of practice, new forms of society and politics. We think that this is another important ‘lesson’ of the struggles of recent years.

Pierre Dardot: In this sense, the recent movements are deeply ‘autonomous’ in the etymological meaning of the term: they show by their acts the need to reinstitute society as a whole according to the logic of the common. And it is for this very reason that we say that they are revolutionary movements, giving the term of ‘revolution’ the very precise meaning of ‘reinstitution of society’. The revolutionary direction of the current movements does not so much lie in the mode of action they opt for, whether electoral or not, nor in how clear the awareness is of the final objectives being pursued, but rather in the transformation, of the tenacious and courageous resistance of broad fractions of society to austerity policies, into the will and the capacity to change the political relation itself.  That is, in passing from ‘representation’ to ‘participation’.

 

  1. At what point are we right now in this struggle?

Christian Laval: The dominant forces in Europe and the world have deliberately entered into a logic of political confrontation, under the pretext of returning debt to creditors, in order to break these fractions of the population that resist neoliberalism and rip the heart out of any will for political rupture. We are entering a new period of struggles. Greece and Spain are the vanguard. The important thing is that they must not remain alone, and that other forces in other countries must come to their aid in order to break these austerity policies.

The situation of confrontation on a European scale shows the practical need for a new internationalism. And hence one of the current risks, undoubtedly the major risk, is that when confronted with the ravages of neoliberalism, some end up succumbing to the deadly siren calls of nationalism and sovereigntism. This is what is currently happening in France, not only on the far right with the Front National, but also in the ‘radical’ left.

The common and the movements

  1. We believe one of the virtues and strengths of your book is that it can appeal both to those involved in grassroots experiences as well as those who have opted for the ‘assault on the institutions’. Regarding grassroots movements, how might your book help to rethink and reassess one of their major problems, that of duration? How can the (egalitarian, inclusive etc) political practices that emergge in exceptional moments of struggle be turned into ‘habit’ or ‘custom’?

Pierre Dardot: Regarding the movements, the reach of our book, at least that which we are seeking, is that the institutional dimension of ‘real democracy’, in the words of 15M, be taken seriously, that it become the object of experiments, debates, collective reflections. For us, real democracy is a matter of institutions. And this is the condition for ensuring the duration and the strength of the movements. It is for this reason that we are opposed to all these illusions regarding the spontaneous development of ‘immanent communism’ in grassroots struggles. These illusions are dangerous, because they short-circuit the decisive question of the institution, that is, in our perspective, the investigation regarding the effective forms of instituent praxes. The dialogue can be established on these grounds.

We should not underestimate how difficult it is to invent new institutions whose functioning is geared explicitly towards preventing their appropriation by a small number, the distorting of their purposes, or the ‘rigidification’ of their rules. The question is not how to ‘create’ new ‘customs’ or ‘habits’, because neither one nor the other can be the object of acts of institution, but rather how to allow practical rules to prevail that allow for debate, deliberation, collective decision-making even in the very definition of the rules that organise collective life.

 

  1. Do you have practical organisational examples in mind?

Pierre Dardot: We do not want to ‘give lessons’, and less still offer an instruction manual to those who are involved in alternative economic, social or political practices. Rather, we have a gret deal to learn from the experiments taking place everywhere. For example, the experience of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana involves in its own way an instituent praxis.

Asilo Filangeri

Asilo Filangeri, Naples

There is an abundance of initiatives and experiments carried out independently of the State, out of which the phenomenon of ‘occupations’ of places that have been abandoned or are in disuse is one of the most striking. For example we have the old palace in the centre of Naples, L’Asilo Filangieri, which has been turned into a centre for various cultural activities (theatre, dance, cinema). This case poses the question of use arising from a collective decision-making regarding its fate, not so much who owns it. “The space belongs to whoever uses it” is its slogan.

The common and public institutions.

  1. And regarding public institutions, how might one contribute from these towards the common? Is it possible, for example, to transform public institutions into institutions of the common?

Christian Laval: As we have said, there is a close relation between the ephemeral nature of mobilisations and the more or less ‘grassroots’ spontaneity that condemns any kind of political activity in the name of distrust regarding everything that looks like “politics”. But at the same time, it is not enough to “conquer power” and “occupy the positions” of the State in order to change things. The deep and undoubtedly irreversible crisis of representative democracy in the neoliberal era clearly shows the need to invent another politics, another relation to politics. And that is precisely the challenge of the politics of the common.

Pierre Dardot: We must remember that the common does not come from the State. The State is by no means the owner of the common, except illegitimately. It is from the very inside of society’s movement, through the struggles that transform it, that new political forms are invented. Institutions are born out of conflict. It has been forgotten, no doubt owing to the degeneration of the organisations of the socialist and labour movement, that workers in the 19th century were able, under very difficult conditions, to build new institutions in their day, such as unions, cooperatives, mutuals etc.

The current abundance of associations of struggle and defence of citizens links back to this history while at the same time gives it a deep renewal. It is not only the workplace that needs to be reinstituted politically, as socialists of years past wanted, but all social activities and all spheres of life: the hospital, the school, the home, the city, the culture.

Christian Laval: There is no preestablished plan for this new politics. We only have concrete experiences that need to be considered, compared, synthesised. For example, all that has been explored for years under the name of ‘participatory democracy’ at a local level, in very different regions and under very varied forms, in Latin America, in England, in the Kurdish region of Rojava with its communalist utopia etc. And, above all, this irresistible wave on a global level of collective care of ‘common goods’, which entails (despite its erroneous designation) the participation of citizens in its definition, care, production. The example of the democratisation of water services in Naples, as promoted by the mayor Luigi de Magistris, stands out in this sense, despite its limits.

  1. To be more specific: what message would you give to the municipal initiatives (Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, Marea Atlántica) that view ‘the defence of common goods’ as a key axis of their programmes?

Pierre Dardot: One of our ‘proposals’ is to transform public services into instituted commons. This would mean that they would no longer belong to the State as if it were the proprietor, the sole custodian, the overall authority. A public service is only worthy of that title if it is a service that society gives to itself in order to realise its rights and satisfy its needs. We need to break the monopoly of state administration in order to guarantee universality of access to these services: users must be considered, not as consumers, but rather as citizens who take part in the deliberations and decisions that concern them, alongside the ‘public servants’.

Christian Laval: Another condition to be imposed: politics must not be a matter for professionals. Politics is not an office, and least of all an office for life. On the political plane, one of the hinges of the revolution we are tasked with today is the radical modification of the definition of the political mandate, at every level, in order to eliminate the political ‘caste’, who, ever closer to the ruling economic powers, has done so much harm to our societies.

 

The common and history

12. Finally, in your book there is a very considerable amount of historical work. Without historical analysis, you say, there is a risk of superficial answers, of contradictions, of inconsistencies. Our question is: what does it mean for you to think historically? What can history teach us? How can we avoid the construction of new ‘grand narratives’ (and now that of the common) that crush the singularity of the present, its novelty.

Pierre Dardot: Indeed, we do think it is very important to capture the common in its historicity. This is a necessary condition for thinking about it in the singularity of its emergence rather than inscribing it in a transhistorical continuum. ‘Thinking historically’ does not mean waiting for history to teach us the right ‘lessons’ for the future, but above all thinking onl the level of a historical singularity, that which constitutes our present moment. This is what we have tried to do in our book.

Christian Laval. Two examples. If we have dedicated an entire chapter to the critique of the way Common Law presents itself as self-perfecting and self-purifying simply by dint of its organic growth, it was not to suggest there was a really existing ‘customary right’ equipped to uphold the promises that Common Law could not keep, but rather to question the idea that the coming law of the common could be constituted simply by extending ‘common law’, whatever its form. The law of the common opens the present state of practices onto the future, whereas common law subordinates them to the past.

Or, if we have reviewed the thesis of a ‘customary right’ of the poor (Marx) or of a ‘proletarian customary right’ (Maxime Leroy), this is not to set out its contemporary relevance, but rather to highlight the intrinsic insufficiency of all customary right, whatever its social content. The question today is not that of passing on old customs, or the institution of new customs, but rather the creation of new institutions through the production of laws that can be turned into customs through force of practice.

Pierre Dardot: Generally, examining the past can teach us to mistrust rushed and misleading analogies that arise very often within movements contesting the existing order. In particular, there is the one that establishes a parallel between the current struggle for the commons of knowledge and that of peasants for common lands in the 15th to the 16th century. To think historically, then, is to reject the flattening out of the singularity of the present under analogies and similarities that distract us from the struggle to transform the present in a revolutionary direction.

Christian Laval: And this is also the reason we did not want to build one of these ‘grand narratives’ that postmodernism roundly denounced: the common does not at all take up the batton of ‘citizen emancipation’, the ‘realisation of the Spirit’ or the ‘society without classes’ (to take the main narratives mentioned by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition in 1979). We have no need to link up again with this tradition that orders history towards an ‘end’ that supposedly confers it meaning.

On the contrary, we believe that it is desirable and necessary to subtract the idea of emancipation from the empire of ‘grand narratives’. Our idea of emancipation therefore cannot be dissociated from the logic of confrontation: it does not announce the end of struggle, nor does it promise the advent of a society that is finally transparent and pacified. It recognises that the problem of conflict is insurmountable. When asked by an American journalist what his idea of happiness was, Marx replied with a single word: “struggle!”. That is, we will never be finished with the struggle or with conflict. There is no “final struggle”, there is only a struggle that opens up again and again, each time in a mode that is singular, historic.

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