Posted on Sunday, March 13th, 2011 at 1:00 am
Author: GlobalComment Editor
Gc contributor: Emily Manuel
The Verso Book of Dissent, Ed. Andrew Hsiao and Andrea Lim, Verso, 2010.
The Idea of Communism, Ed. Coustas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, Verso, 2010.
Stephen Colbert once famously said that “reality has a liberal bias.” It is possible however that reality is even more radical than that. The events of the past couple years would seem to play that hypothesis out, from the economic crisis of 2008 to the blatantly ideological cuts of the “austerity” era in Anglophonic countries exposing the inequalities and incoherencies of neoliberal capitalism. The time has never been better for intelligent Leftist writing, and there are few better than the venerable Verso imprint.
Two books that have made welcome appearances in my mailbox lately have been The Verso Book of Dissent and The Idea of Communism. Each in their own way addresses the questions of inequality, and the need for practical action to create a fairer, more equitable world.
The Book of Dissent is a strange beast, almost a Leftist coffee-table book. The book traverses an enormous amount of material, compiling together over 400 quotations from dissidents from many time periods, countries and political movements from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad (as the subtitle goes). Writers of every kind appear, from poets like Sappho to the rapper 2Pac, theorists from Marx to Naomi Klein, musicians, politicians, dissidents and activists from across the globe. Concentrating on, as Tariq Ali says in the introduction, “revolution from below,” the result is a universalist peon to the marvelously stubborn resistance of oppressed people throughout history. Marxists, communists, anti-communist dissidents, feminists, gay-rights advocates, anti-slavery campaigners and anti-imperialists are just some of the groups represented here.
The extracts are short, with few even reaching a page. This is both a strength and a weakness, with sometimes startling aphorisms (“a writer must refuse to turn himself into an institution” – Jean Paul Sartre) and other excerpts that felt like they required a longer length to do justice to. The result is a melange of material, some inspiring, while others inevitably are almost banal (John Lennon’s “power to the people, right on” does not as it turns out translate well to the page).
In some ways, the format feels roughly like one of those quotation tumblr blogs, and certainly contains gathered enough material to keep one running for a year or two. It’s hard to imagine reading the book in order – with it being just as rewarding (if not more) to flick through randomlym to stumble upon inspiration. Less an encyclopedia than a starting point, The Verso Book of Dissent would especially make a good gift for budding activists and writers.
By contrast, The Idea of Communism is an academic collection dedicated to thinking through the past, present and future of communism. Based upon papers delivered at a conference at London’s Birkbeck Institute For the Humanities in March 2009, the collection gathers together many of the theoretical Left’s best known thinkers – luminaries like Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Terry Eagleton and the book’s co-editor (with Costas Douzinas), the inimitable provocateur Slavoj Žižek. The result is is an often illuminating collection of papers drawing together thinkers from disparate fields in an attempt to resuscitate the idea of the “commons.”
Though has become almost verboten recently, even in the West, communist ideals (or fear of communist revolution from the disaffected working class) drove many of the great social projects of the twentieth century, as in the aftermath of World War Two where the UK established its universal healthcare system NHS from a position of greater debt than that currently being used to decimate social services. Against the capitalist survivalism of all-against-all, communism asserts the idea of the common good.
Papers are arranged in an egalitarian alphabetical order, happily beginning and ending with heavyweights Badiou and Žižek. Each contributor in their own way looks both backwards to the failures (and successes) of Really Existing Communism and forward to new forms of communist social organisation. This is not mere idealistic attachment to a long dead political movement, as Žižek puts it, “it is not enough to remain faithful to the communist Idea–one has to locate it in real historical antagonisms which give this Idea a practical urgency.”
After a short introduction from the editors, Badiou opens proceedings with a typically formalist reflections on “truth procedures” and the Event of revolution. This is tough going, especially if you’re not a philosopher, but yields some interesting insights on the cult of revolutionary personality (he’s for it, claiming it condenses the universal promise of revolt into a particular person) and the role of the State. But if you can make it through that, Badiou concludes with an electrifying final two page analysis of the current historical situation, pointing out that the present day has much in common with the rapacious capitalism of the 19th century. Rather than cause for despair, this may breathe new life into what he calls the communist hypothesis – “we can, we must,” he finishes.
Žižek’s chapter draws together the four crises he discussed in 2010’s Living In The End Times – ecological, private ownership of intellectual property, the implications of bio-genetic engineering and the new forms of apartheid and exclusion (slums, walls, nativism). Each of these require collective solution in his estimation, a compelling argument particularly in relation to the environment where self-regulating individualist solutions have had little to no effectiveness.
Michael Hardt’s chapter “The Common in Communism” is another standout, a lucid take on how “corporations steal the common and transform it into property.” An excerpt can be found here at the Guardian website. Also worth a read are Jean-Luc Nancy’s fascinating look at the etymology of the word “communism” and Terry Eagleton’s take on aristocratic indolence and two Shakespearean models of communism. And in a provocative paper sure to shock more than a few readers afraid of sharia law, Susan Buck-Morss’s chapter deals with the revolutionary qualities of several Muslim writers (Sayyid Qotb and Ali Shari’ati. She argues for understanding this work specifically as religious, compared to the aestheticised post-secular appropriations of Christianity in Badiou, Zizek, and Georgio Agamben’s work on Saint Paul. Buck-Morss’s contention that religion may fuel social change is certainly a strong one (and equally applicable to Christianity in the United States), and one that could benefit from a larger project–it will be fascinating to see if she develops it further.
Both of these books are a veritable cacophony of Leftist ideas, contradictory at times, but all in agreement about the need for a just world. As events develop across the Middle East, as well as closer to home, one can only hope that social change is fueled by the same drive for justice on display here.
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