Daniel Hartley interviews Richard Seymour, author, journalist, online editor for Salvage, and member of Historical Materialism's Corresponding Editorial Board. The interview was first published in French on 3 May 2017 in Periode.
Often, when intellectuals are interviewed – I am thinking especially of the recent series of interviews carried out by George Souvlis (e.g., Davis 2016; Eley 2016) – it’s the task of the interviewer to invite the interviewee to connect her academic research more directly to immediate strategic political concerns. In your case, it’s the reverse. If there is one thing that defines your intellectual activity, it is your ability to respond immediately to constantly shifting political and historical events. Consequently, the aim of this interview is to invite you to expand upon the more theoretical aspects of your work (albeit with the obvious caveat that your immediate political responses are themselves theoretically informed). Perhaps you might begin by telling us about your theoretical and political formation. How did you become involved in Marxist politics and who were the intellectual figures that most influenced you?
My early, formative influences as a Marxist all come from the International Socialist tradition. It is difficult not to speak ill of this tradition given where its major legatee, the British Socialist Workers’ Party, ended up. And I’ve always been hugely unconvinced by the sentimentality with which some of its apostles today recount its past triumphs. Still, it is a tradition that was able to produce Marxists, and that isn’t a small thing.
I joined the SWP at the inception of New Labour rule in 1998, and was immediately immersed in its theoretical traditions. Mike Kidron and Chris Harman for economics, Alex Callinicos for political philosophy, and Tony Cliff for the weltanschauung (which was strangely both sober and excitable). There is a type of Trotskyist orthodoxy that used to call itself ‘Third Camp’, identifying the workers’ movement as a potentially autonomous source of socialist democracy as against Stalinism and US-led capitalism. SWP orthodoxy, you might say, was ‘No Camp’. The USSR was a state-capitalist dictatorship whose implosion was almost a given, the ‘Free World’ was perpetually heading toward its worst crisis, social-democracy had become an agent of the capitalist system, trade union leaders were part of the system’s successful functioning, and the only plausible alternative was in the ‘rank and file’ of the working class — except the rank and file didn’t really exist any more. It is hardly surprising that the most damning thing anyone in this tradition could say about someone was that they were ‘pessimistic’, since the entire edifice was constructed over a repressed knowledge of the most comprehensive destruction of the possibilities for revolutionary politics.
The second layer of influence comes from the ‘political Marxists’, Ellen Wood and Robert Brenner. I read Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism and was struck by the fact that as well as being persuasive in its own right, it entirely lacked any appeal to teleology and was happy to accentuate the contingent in a way that Marxists generally do not. The appeal of this was both political and theoretical. In the context of the ‘war on terror’ with its revived, Whiggish empire myths, there was a premium on dissecting and confounding progressivist views of history. Theoretically, I liked the aleatory element of political Marxism. I think it was Freud who argued that to think contingency is unworthy of determining our fates is to lapse into a kind of spiritualism. And you could argue that there’s a displaced spiritualism in some forms of Marxism. The thrust of political Marxism is to attack certain connotative associations that more Hegelian variants of Marxism insist upon — say, between urban development and capitalism, or between capitalism and democracy. The idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ in particular raises the ‘political Marxist’ eyebrow, since they don’t think the bourgeoisie had a great deal to do with democracy. There was also an hysterical function of identifying with the ‘political Marxists’, which was to begin to challenge (in a relatively safe way) the orthodoxies of the SWP.
The third layer of influences comes from a series of Marxist theorists who each, in their different way, emphasised the conjuncture, and particularly the formative role of ideology in determining the placement of class actors and the outcomes of their struggles: Althusser, Gramsci, Poulantzas, Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School. This made a certain sense since I was increasingly writing about racist ideology, and I was particularly interested in understanding how ideas of race and nationality were so powerful in Britain that the major beneficiaries of the disappointments of New Labour were not the radical left or anticapitalists, but the far right. It was the BNP who ended up with close to a million votes, while no radical left vehicle really got off the ground. It was then UKIP which took off after the credit crunch, while the far left got nowhere. Obviously, there had been a lot wrong with our thinking if we got it that badly wrong. One of the things I thought we had got wrong was our relative inattention to ideology, and there discovering Gramsci and Hall were a useful corrective. Another was that we had totally misunderstood the nature of modern states and their neoliberal constitution, and in that case Althusser and especially Poulantzas had something to say. In particular, since Poulantzas did not reify the state like most Marxist theorists, he made it possible to understand it as a condensation of a balance of forces — that is, as a social outcome, a product of struggles. Not one that might be pushed determined in any direction, willy-nilly, since the format of a capitalist state selects in favour of capitalist-reproductive outcomes. But, for example, the struggles for democracy, welfare, social security, comprehensive education, trade union rights, public sector jobs, and so on, are all struggles by the left within as well as against the capitalist state.
Your Ph.D. thesis, entitled “Cold War Anticommunism and the Defence of White Supremacy in the Southern United States” (2016), argues that anticommunism was a “hegemonic project” whose exclusionary form of Americanism “cemented the role of the Jim Crow South within American nationhood.” Could you expand upon the main lines of argument? How did the intersecting scales of the Cold War conjuncture – the international, the national and the regional – overdetermine the hegemonic project of anticommunism in the US South from 1945 to 1965?
The “intersecting scales” could be taken as a reminder that the term anticommunism doesn’t correspond to a single process or practice. At each level — international, national and regional — anticommunism meant something quite different. But what they each have in common is that anticommunism emerges as a way of managing a transitional period, a period in which traditional authority, political relations and forms of production are breaking down.
In the international sphere, broadly speaking, the colonial form of white-world supremacy is breaking down, and anticommunism organises US-led interventions to defeat its opponents, while both conserving and reforming it. At the national level, it was part of a process that brought to a conclusion the period of liberal reform initiated in the 1930s, formalising its accomplishments while disorganising the popular CPUSA-led coalitions, including incipient forms of civil rights organising in which communists played an important role, not reducible to the ‘long arm of Moscow’. The role played by Southern politicians, usually drawn from the class of planters and textile-capitalists, in both the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), and Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), is hugely important. It becomes more important after the decline of McCarthy himself, and the haut anticommunism of the period before 1956.
The thawing after 1956, coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision to gradually desegregate education in Brown vs the Board of Education (coterminous with the reversal of a series of anticommunist legal rulings by the Court), made the role of the South in anticommunism even more important. First of all, the emphasis of federal investigative apparatuses shifted from harassing the CPUSA and toward investigating civil rights activists, because a new generation of activists was discovering new repertoires of tactics. The breakdown of the old Southern geoeconomy predicated on rural authority relations, the urbanisation and industrialisation of the South, drew millions of black people into new forms of collective subjectivity, created a layer of new black churches who were more radical, and expanded a black middle class with the resources and a degree of state access, able to support ongoing forms of moderately successful activism, and incremental legal action - which was too much for the segregationists.
So, anticommunism became the basis for urgent counterinsurgency in the South. Senator James Eastland, a wealthy planter from Mississippi linked to White Citizens Councils and other forms of segregationist activism, used his position in SISS to ritually terrorise black civil rights activists, hoping to elicit from them confessions of communist enticement and agitation. Carl and Anne Braden were dragged before HUAC. But more importantly, Southern states underwent a drastic shift to the Right in this era, often setting up their own localised variants of HUAC called State Sovereignty Commissions. They were if anything more secretive, more terrifying, and more dubiously linked to civil society organisations like the Citizens Councils. They organised purges of the NAACP and, linked to the activity of attorney generals, hounded and harassed left-wing teachers and trade unionists. That worked roughly until 1960, by which time the federal authorities had effectively demonstrated that local states did not have the capacity to resist them.
After that, the international vector comes in, in a new way: the very success of decolonisation disrupted the already thawing Cold War binary freeze, and opened up a new political imaginary. It also put new pressure on federal authorities, aligned to big Fordist monopoly capital, to somehow contain and deal with the crisis in the South. Civil rights actors were able to exploit the emergent schism between the Southern ruling class fractions, and the national power bloc, as well as the emerging tension between domestic forms of hegemony and international forms of hegemony. Even from this thumbnail sketch, you can see how the ‘political opportunity-structure’ that civil rights actors were ultimately able to exploit was produced and structured by transitional crises happening on several scales of production, representation and politics.
You write that the “master-concept” of your thesis is the Gramscian one of “hegemony”. Why does hegemony specifically lend itself to an analysis of the complex intersection of anti-communism and white supremacy in the Cold War US South? What distinguishes this approach from others? Inversely, how do your findings alter or nuance our understanding of the concept of hegemony itself?
If hegemony ever came close to being an accomplished state-of-affairs, as opposed to a process, a set of practices oriented toward that state-of-affairs as a goal, it was in the post-war United States. There, the ruling class did not merely rule, but led. It articulated an historic mission, a moral cause - fighting communism, defending ‘the Free World’ - which assembled broad popular consent, excluding only a truculent but easily dispersed and controlled minority.
The Southern ruling classes, of course, gained from this, even though they were always subordinate in relation to the national power bloc. But in what way? One of the ways we can think about this is to ask why they opted for red-hunting at all. Why wasn’t white-supremacy enough? Most historians seem to agree that anticommunism was a necessary element in assembling the consent of Southerners for a programme of Massive Resistance, and for dragging the whole organisation of Southern states and culture to the Right. Leaving aside whether Massive Resistance was ultimately a good idea — I think it was less effective than the strategy of ‘pragmatic segregation’ which ascended to dominance after 1960 — it is terribly interesting that the publicity said things like “Race-Mixing Is Communism” rather than “Defend the Supremacy and Integrity of the White Race”.
The idea of hegemony allows one to grasp the strategic dimension of this, and it also allows one to think that such slogans may be psychologically meaningful if they are able to summon loyalty and support. It permits one to understand how such ideologies are materialised in rituals of terror and violence (be it the ritualised interrogations of state apparatuses, scurrilous media attacks, Citizens Council terror, or Klan murder, or something else). In the past, the category of hegemony was misleadingly reduced to the problematic of ‘consent’. In fact, as I think Peter Thomas has shown us, hegemony is about specific combinations of symbolic and physical force, specific embodiments — violent or otherwise — of the moral and political ideologies of rule.
When you look at anticommunist terror, what is striking is how its popular basis allows it to be dispersed through the institutions of civil society, how it percolates through workplaces, unions, the cultural fabric, and so on. It would not have been anywhere near as effective if people didn’t rat on, betray and ostracise leftists. When you look at white-supremacist terror in the South, something similar applies. It only took the tiniest infraction of the immensely cumbersome and complex codes of racial civility, to produce crazy outbursts of popular violence, lynchings, usually backed up by state power. In each case, consent was achieved through violence, and vice versa, so that it was not just a question of the power bloc defending its interests through the organisation of state power, but ‘society’ as such defending itself against what were experienced as existential threats. That is far closer to capitalist hegemony in its actual operation than purely consensual, persuasive incorporation.
Of course, there’s something which the category of hegemony cannot do, and that is go beyond situating the subjective aspect of this. To apprehend the subjective meaning of white-supremacist anticommunism, I turned to Lacan, and the symptomatic reading.
From Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields’ work on “racecraft” in the US to Sadri Khiari and Houria Bouteldja’s work on races sociales in France, to Satnam Virdee’s reconceptualisation of the history of the “English” working class from the perspective of the “racialized outsider” in Britain, the contemporary theoretical conjuncture is characterised by a series of attempts to rediscover, reconceptualise or to (re)invent Marxist understandings of race and racism. How would you position your own work within this field, and what sets contemporary racism apart from its historical predecessors?
I came of age, politically, in an era in which there was a lot of empire nostalgia — fantasies of global omnipotence being a major cultural response to the 9/11 attacks. Coupled with that was a revival of Spenglerian and Pearsonian ideas about ‘the West’, its moral and civilizational superiority, and its existential crisis — and, of course, its Islamic Other. Underwriting all this was a racial metaphysics which, because it didn’t have reference to race as an organic entity, was able to disavow its racism.
The novelty here was therefore the energetic disavowal of the category of race. Contemporary racism is the stupidity that dare not speak its name. “Islam isn’t a race,” its arbiters said. That was true, of course, but made little difference to those who suffered surveillance, harassment, internment, shooting and extraordinary rendition as if they were a race. So, there was a need to understand, if Islam supposedly wasn’t a race, what a race actually is. Said’s Orientalism thesis helped, allowing us to think that the ‘Islam’ that was being talked about, the ‘Islam’ that had become an object of knowledge — internally cohesive, monolithic, etc — had nothing to do with what Muslims were actually practising.
But, of course, the axis of colonialism and empire was nowhere near adequate in understanding race; one had to comprehend the ‘domestic’ dynamics, the aspects of everyday capitalist society that were being organised by race, and which lent themselves to racist symbolisation. This was particularly important to understanding the direction of British politics in particular after the credit crunch. The ‘Islamic Question’ became reconfigured as part of a wider story about the losses incurred by white Britons. Class trajectories, regional forms of decline, crises in gender relations and family structures, changing patterns of socialisation, were all refracted through race. As you would expect, I have tended to be most interested in works that grasp the interconnections between race and other levels of social reality in a Gramscian register — not just Hall and the Birmingham School, but also Omi & Winant’s ‘Racial Formation’ thesis, despite the latter’s political limitations.
The concept of hegemony, as both your own sociological work and Peter D. Thomas’s (2009) recent philological elaborations make clear, entails an expanded conception of the state – what Gramsci calls the “integral state.” Among the most significant critical inheritors of this theory are, in different ways, Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas. Of Althusser you have written that “there is a real sense in which the ‘aleatory materialism’ which I think is characteristic of his work, and particularly the concepts of ‘overdetermination’ and ‘contradiction,’ has a formative role in guiding my interpretation of situations” (Seymour 2016: 26); likewise, of Poulantzas, you have said that you “consider [his] work on the state to be unsurpassed within the Marxist tradition” (25). Could you tell us more about the importance of these two theorists for your work?
Well, readers of Althusser’s On The Reproduction of Capitalism will notice, I think, that he is less of an Althusserian reader of the state than Poulantzas is. It’s actually surprisingly close to Pashukanis in its reading of the law, inasmuch as he ultimately locates the basis of the legal form in the commodity form (although I understand that he was more interested in the Kantian legal theorist Hans Kelsen). Poulantzas’s approach in State, Power, Socialism seems to me really does offer an account of law’s overdetermination and relative autonomy.
This, taken in conjunction with the fact that Althusser continues to use an idiom associated with the ‘repressive hypothesis’ - and this does not appear to be ‘mere coquetry’ - suggests to me that on this subject he was in the position he ascribed to Marx, that of trying to develop his ‘scientific’ discoveries within borrowed ‘ideological’ language. I also wonder to what extent his writing on the state and law is symptomatic of a displacement, viz. the attempt to analyse the class nature of the USSR.
So, I think what Poulantzas did was to take Althusserian terms of analysis, increasingly in a productive dialogue with Gramsci (as well as Foucault, the ‘capital logic’ school and so on), and develop them in the solving of concrete problems of strategy.
Incidentally, do you notice Poulantzas’s profound ambivalence about the state? He wants, on the one hand, to demystify it, to treat it as a product of human labour like any other social phenomenon, to argue for the left to stop worshipping it (or, which is the obverse, adopting a noli me tangere attitude of incorruptibility toward it — as if we are not all already inside the state). On the other hand, he finds the state idea both enthralling and horrifying, the real “Kafkaesque castle”, embodying the logic of “Kafka’s penal colony,” the grundnorm of ‘totalitarianism’, and so on.
I don’t think this is just a poetic heuristic. Poulantzas describes well the “mechanisms of fear,” the rituals and theatrics of state power, without which it is difficult to understand rather a lot of what capitalist states do — obviously, HUAC and SISS are prominent in my thinking. But implicated here, there is a dimension of state action, law, and so on — its erotics — which he is not really able to account for in theoretical terms, hence he quite properly reaches for a starting point in literature.
With the growing success of a new authoritarian, statist Right, predicated on spectacles of sadism and punishment (spectacles which were prepared by neoliberalism — Trump was a reality television star before he was president-elect), I’m increasingly inclined to think we also need to account for the mystique of the state idea in psychoanalytic terms.
What, in your view, are the key components of a Marxist theory of social movements? What distinguishes your own understanding of social movements from the general “social movement studies” literature? Could you exemplify your response by way of reference to your work on the white supremacist “Massive Resistance” movement in the Cold War US South, and – in a very different conjuncture – recent calls to transform Corbyn’s Labour Party into a “social movement”?
In my thesis, I try to identify some starting points for a Marxist theory of social movements, largely because there isn’t a theory of social movements. Almost all of the ‘theory’ is descriptive, and predicated on a reification — that is, treating the social movement as an accomplished fact to be explained. I was influenced by Peter Bratsis’s re-reading of Poulantzian state theory through an exegesis of Gaston Bachelard’s work on fire, which struck me as a very smart reading not only of the state but of reification as such. It occurred to me that this was as central an epistemological obstacle to understanding movements as states.
One of the problems with social movement theory is that it spends its time trying to identify a number of uniform characteristics of social movements which can form the basis of a theory. What you actually end up with is quite nebulous: it has to be sustained (though no one knows for how long), it has to involve some noninstitutional action (though how much is unclear), it has to be aimed at transforming or conserving something (which basically describes all political action), and so on. It’s not clear where a campaign becomes a social movement, or what differentiates a movement from a mobilised interest, if anything. What kind of theory can you derive from this?
Following Bratsis’s cues, I thought: what if we start from the fact that a movement is not a coherent substance or subject in itself, but an outcome of other processes? Rather than trying to identify a number of characteristics and seeing if they can be functionally related to one another, it makes more sense to start with the inputs. I think a Marxist method would start with the social relationship as the fundamental unit of analysis. It would start with the way in which social relationships are organised within a particular mode of production along axes of exploitation and oppression, and thus are overdetermined by antagonism and struggle. It would look for the ways in which these relationships have to be reproduced on an extended and open-ended basis over time, in part through struggle.
On the basis of a relational and processual perspective like that, we can identify the conditions under which a social movement might emerge. We can say that the reproduction of a given social relationship will have been put into question, and that classes and social groups in antagonism will have come into open (though overdetermined) conflict, activating their own relationally endowed capacities while drawing others in alongside them. We can say that since reproduction is a political issue, they will have some reference to state power (the idea of being totally ‘noninstitutional’ is a liberal myth that even liberals don’t believe in), and that since it is necessarily organised in spatial contexts, it will have a geography a type of setting (Civil Rights being a movement of big cities, Massive Resistance being a movement of the rural Delta). These are just coordinates, investigating principles, to help guide the concrete analysis of concrete situations.
But one fall-out of this way of looking at things is that you have to wonder about those who say they want to ‘build’ a social movement, or ‘create’ one, or turn a party into a movement. It has nice resonances, because movements seem (even if they are not) innocent of the evils and trappings of state power, unlike parties. But you can’t summon a social movement into existence any more than you can engineer a secular crisis in the rate of profit. It makes more sense to talk about we can do, whether we are in a party or a campaign, or something else, and that is organise the class — or ‘the 99%’ if you prefer the populist interpellation.
One of the hallmarks of the work of Stuart Hall, as well as many of his colleagues and contemporaries at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, was an ability to combine solid empirical analysis with extremely nuanced and sophisticated theory. Arguably, these analyses reached their apotheosis in Hall’s analyses of Thatcherism and authoritarian populism. In one of your recent analyses of the politics of “austerity,” you wrote that “[i]f you want to begin to understand what happened, you have to go back and read Stuart Hall. You have to read Policing the Crisis, and ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. Hall, whatever you think of his practical politics, grasped the breadth of the transformative project being undertaken by the neoliberals, the fact that it was a comprehensive attempt at constructing a new hegemony which operated as much on the level of culture, and ideology, and the techniques of governmentality, as on the level of industrial class struggles, and privatizations” (Seymour 2013). Could you speak about the importance of Hall’s work – or that of the “Birmingham School” more generally – to your own? What are the specific features of this theoretical approach, and what are its strengths and limitations?
It is impossible to do justice to the Birmingham School, because it revolutionised the analysis of race and culture in Britain, practically invented the discipline of cultural studies (and thus rendered a whole lot visible that hadn’t been before), and forced these issues up the agenda of all Marxists bar the knuckle-draggers. Even today, if you teach race analysis, you find it hard to move far outside the orbit of these thinkers, so that is crucial. Whoever cannot talk about race sacrifices their probity on class.
What struck me, however, was that Policing the Crisis, and the essays of that era, were all extremely urgent investigations of concrete situations, of the conjuncture. They were, perhaps for that reason, theoretically rather opulent. The Gramscian motifs were dominant, but the School continually replenished its theoretical armoury through engagements with feminism, Foucault, Derrida, screen theory, and anything else that could be made ready-to-hand in analysis. The result was the most extraordinarily acute representation of power, crisis and the insurgent Right that was on the brink of taking hold of the situation. They described, with great prescience, an emerging mode of dominance that — by the time I began reading their work — had entered into its own crisis.
On a personal note, I had also been alarmed by the unavailing dogmas of the far left in response to the capitalist crisis, noted the failure of our predictions, registered the economistic assumptions underpinning our fruitless strategies, and was delighted to come across ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ and its merciless head-on assault on what were then hard left catechisms. It was a leap forward in light years.
Of course, it is easy and conventional to dismiss all that on the basis of where it ended up — in the case of Hall and his allies in the Marxism Today magazine, it passed through Kinnockism toward incipient Blairism, and then concluded with crashing disappointment once Blair took power. My feeling about Hall is that perhaps in his particular reading of Gramsci, notwithstanding the theoretical breakthroughs he was able to make with it, he participated in that tendency to reduce hegemonic practices to their consensual, discursive side, being far less attentive to the side of outright force. I think his underestimation of the importance of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, and his overestimation of Kinnockite soft-leftism, was implicated in this. He over-valued Thatcherism’s persuasive appeal, and as such invested too much importance in trying to negotiate with and sympathise with the forward-moving elements in its cultural sources. This resulted in self-inflicted defeat of a kind, in that it meant ceding ideological terrain that did not have to be ceded, while paying insufficient attention to the war of movement taking place in key industries.
But after years of right-ward-moving social democracy, the evisceration of left-wing cultures and organisation, the secular decline of unions, the mediation of more and more social relations through markets and market-like mechanisms, and the transformation of popular culture by the competitive ethos, the situation was very different. Confronting the age of austerity, we needed a language for addressing political situations where the conflict wasn’t primarily structured around industries and workplaces, and where there were indeed large and puzzling wells of consent for some of the nastiest and most perverse legislation. On top of this, the growing articulation of neoliberalism with nationalist racism in recent years has finally produced a genuine, though germinal, fascist reflux — with elements of it present in the Trump campaign, some of it in the basis of Farageism, and plenty of it slathered across Europe. We need to know how this political and ideological terrain was formed. We need to engage in the analysis of the conjuncture, and its relationship to structure. And that’s where the Birmingham School is invaluable.
It seems to me that many of your writings are informed by a dual impulse: to render multiple, contradictory and complex that which gives itself to thought as homogeneous and simplistic (be it race, the state, gender, or entire conjunctures), and to think this contradiction and complexity from the perspective of the multiple – and equally contradictory – subjectivations that they enable or compel. Your more recent writings especially seem to tend towards a more sustained engagement with psychoanalysis and the work of Jacques Lacan. What is the political and theoretical importance of psychoanalysis for Marxism, and how has it informed your work?
I’ve hinted at some of the issues driving me to psychoanalysis in my previous answers. But I can add that part of what I wanted was to resist the ‘rational kernel’ style of analysis, and spend some time with the ‘irrational kernel’. There is a rationalising tendency in all theory, Marxism included: a drive to ‘make sense’ of things. One of the virtues of psychoanalysis at its best is that it is comfortable making do with nonsense for a while — it doesn’t move too quickly to sense-making. And when you have people beating up Mexicans, or Poles, or behaving politically in ways that seem profoundly injurious even to themselves, there is a temptation to try to rationalise and move quickly to solutions. To say, “ah, they’re doing this because of economic insecurity” or “they’re doing this because the media have misinformed them about the real causes of their situation”. It might be worth spending time with the nonsense before moving to problem-solving.
In my work, I was looking for a way to understand why, beyond instrumentality, white-supremacists were using the language of anticommunism. I thought that it would be flattening the subject in an unwarranted way to neglect the extent to which it was psychologically meaningful. For example, if I just said, “they used anticommunism because that was more popular than explicit and unmediated white-supremacism, and thus a better mobilising tool,” I would be telling a very impoverished story that was only partially true.
But the methodological problem for me was, how am I supposed to understand the subjectivity of people I can’t even speak to, because most of them are now dead? Even if I could speak to them, what would I be able to tell? According to the Weberian concept of Verstehen, we know enough about one another to be able to imaginatively sympathise with others and grasp the meanings attached to their behaviour. But is this precisely the problem with ‘understanding’, in Lacanian terms — often, when we ‘understand’ others, we find only ourselves. This is discourse in the Imaginary register, discourse in its capacity as a mirror. That is, we find only the meanings that make sense to us, that are commensurable with our existing sense of reality. We are thus apt to ignore and overlook that which we can’t make sense of. The same critique applies to all psychologisms.
Lacanian psychoanalysis usefully resists this tendency. Lacan’s advice to analysts, do not try to understand too soon, was based on the insight that ‘understanding’ could just be a countertransference — that is, a resistance on the part of the analyst to the analysis. And social theorists are not less susceptible to this resistance, not less likely to want to avoid difficult truths, not less charmed by the lure of intelligibility. But that leaves us with the question of what we should be doing if not trying to understand. In the analytic context, the analyst is supposed to exercise a free-floating attention, listening out for the holes in meaning, the places where the ego doesn’t successfully cover its tracks and there is a cut into a subterranean current of meaning — the slip, the slurred statement, the joke, the gaffe, the compromise formation, and so on. At these points of what Lacan calls “full speech”, discourse is something other than a mirror: the Imaginary register gives away to the Symbolic register. Here, the analyst pays attention to the formal, material properties of language: what you actually said, not what you ‘meant’.
Well, this approach has a number of advantages. It is a hermeneutics of suspicion, but it means taking people fully at their word. It is interpretive, but its interpretation is based on the logical properties of statements, rather than attempting to infer what they might mean from extraneous evidence. It is concerned with subjective meaning, but at the same time language is a collective, public property, and so the iron wall between the ‘individual’ and society, between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’, is problematised. So, it was possible to extract certain principles or guidelines of interpretation from the strictly clinical context in which Lacan’s theory was developed — and that is what became Lacanian discourse analysis.
Marxists have struggled to adequately explain and theorise the subject, because it is a theory of the relations between different levels and structures of social reality, not a theory of subjectivity. And all I would say is that psychoanalysis has made unparalleled, groundbreaking and tendentially subversive advances on this terrain, so it is incumbent on Marxists to take this seriously.
Finally, I would like to ask you about the art of writing itself. There exists among a certain type of Marxist thinker an insistence, which occasionally (though not always) goes hand in hand with a residual philistinism, upon the urgent political necessity of a “plain style”. The irony of this, of course, is that plain prose is ideologically highly ambiguous – with a certain Protestant-tending, empiricist heritage that runs from Francis Bacon and Thomas Pratt to George Orwell. One remarks in your own work, however, a clear sense of the joys and jouissances of writing. How do you understand the relation between style and politics?
Oscar Wilde has one of his characters say, “Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”
I can afford a little more sympathy to naturalism, provided it is aware of its -ism, of its artifice. People who write in a “plain style” can sometimes be extraordinarily effective with it, if they know that it is just another literary form with — to use your phrase — its own “joys and jouissances”.
Even the business of simply telling a story, from beginning to end, is an artifice. Stories never really happen that way, there are no natural beginnings and the ‘finished’ work is an ideological form. Even explaining things purely and simply, is a lie. As Wilde again said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Most of the time, it barely makes sense.
Writing is an artifice in its essence; it is an art of embodiment, giving physical form to being. “Putting it into words” means giving form to existence, and there is no omnipotent father, Big Other, or whomever, to guarantee that superiority of one form over another.
The metaphysic of writing that is implied by “plain style” zealots, however, is that wherein writing is a ‘window on reality’, with the subject neatly extruded — and that is, lamentably, how many people are taught to write. Nancy Welsh in her very fine book on writing, Getting Restless, is scathing about the advice given to students to suppress their own role in the writing of knowledge — “this isn’t about you, don’t talk about yourself”.
On the left, this has to do with a half-digested puritanism, and a degree of ‘workerist’ (patronisingly anti-working class) anti-intellectualism. There’s almost a sense of shame at the intrinsic excess of writing, at the fact that it is never reducible to communication, that it always produces effects other than knowledge-effects. Words are aesthetic objects, erotic objects, and that produces a certain phobia in parts of the left. And, I suspect, there’s a degree of aggression toward the reader among leftists who write in this ‘plain’ style, a desire to bore and bully readers as much as possible — I’ve suffered for my vulgar exhortation, now it’s your turn.
This approach is giving us the worst of both worlds. People, to the extent that they go along with the idea that they can take themselves out of their writing, become bad writers, and bullshitters. They become bad writers because writing becomes yet another means of repression, rather than sublimation; it also becomes a guilt function, since having turned it into a joyless process, people can’t understand why they’re so bad at writing. They become bullshitters to the extent that they present a version of reality as if from a god’s-eye-view, as if told by a non-desiring, Buddha-like being.
Radical politics must be, if nothing else, radically de-naturalising. It must stress the art in living, the extent to which we produce and design the world we live in, even if not under circumstances and not with materials of our choosing.
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Eley, Geoff 2016. “Europe, Democracy and the Left: An interview with Geoff Eley,” Salvage. URL: http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/europe-democracy-and-the-left-an-interview-with-geoff-eley/ [Date last accessed: 11/10/16]
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–––– 2016. “Cold War Anticommunism and the Defence of White Supremacy in the Southern United States” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, LSE).
Thomas, Peter D. 2009. The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden: Brill).