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Month: September, 2015

Our Greatest Political Novelist?

by Tim Kreider

Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun. It’s hard to think of any “serious” literary writers in the United States under the age of fifty who engage the big political issues of our time as directly as Boomer authors like Paul Auster (“Leviathan”), Thomas Pynchon (“Vineland”), or Robert Stone (“A Flag for Sunrise”), let alone in the way that muckraker novelists like Upton Sinclair used to.1 When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics. If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.2

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

Kim Stanley Robinson is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers; collectively, the three novels of his “Mars” trilogy—“Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” and “Blue Mars”—have won all the major science-fiction and fantasy awards. He is also, for my money, one of the most important political writers working in America today. In his Mars novels, Robinson uses the Red Planet as a historical tabula rasa, a template for creating a saner, more sustainable, and more just human society. What’s most powerful about the Mars books as political novels is that they envision a credible utopia, one that doesn’t—unlike, say, Skinner’s “Walden Two”—rely on a revision of human nature. Robinson’s characters are cynics, opportunists, idealists, narcissists, drug-dependent, manic-depressive, borderline Asperger’s, and emotionally frozen survivors of abuse, but with all their flaws and conflicting agendas they manage to remake their world in more humane and equitable form.

The first wave of his Martian settlers are all scientists, who are no more perfect than any other human beings but have been rigorously trained in a kind of intellectual integrity. Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:

  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.

You could argue that, if I didn’t fundamentally agree with his politics, Robinson’s fiction might seem contrived and didactic to me, the way Ayn Rand’s does if you’re not predisposed toward her brand of enlightened assholism. It’s true he likes to write lectures and speeches, but they’re more engaging than some of Tolstoy’s, who nearly succeeded in stomping my clinging fingers off of “Anna Karenina” with his ruminations on Russian agriculture circa 1870. But I don’t just admire Robinson’s ambitions or agree with his agenda; I’m not recommending his books because they’re good for you. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite novelists, period. I know the characters of his “Mars” trilogy—John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Sax Russell, Anne Clayborne (none of whose names I needed to look up)—like I know old friends from college. I love them; they exasperate me; I talk about them behind their backs with my other friends. The history shared by these characters becomes so long and fraught and tangled over the course of his hundreds of pages and years (thanks to genetic longevity treatments, Robinson’s able to keep the same ensemble of characters around for centuries) that it gives me a pang of longing and nostalgia and bittersweet sense of life’s length and brevity. In a bold authorial gambit, Robinson kills off his most charismatic characters—the alpha males, the movers—by the end of the first novel in the trilogy, allowing his secondary characters to come to the fore, expose new facets, and evolve in unexpected and beautiful ways. The strength of his characterizations is inextricable from his power as a political visionary; Robinson is realistic about human beings but nonetheless optimistic about our capacity for change. In the last pages of the “Mars” trilogy, a character who has bitterly resisted change for a hundred and fifty years reminds herself, “Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids.” Put this way, it sounds like such a modest utopia to hope for.

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Listen, Anarchist!


A personal response to Simon Springer’s “Why a radical geography must be anarchist”

by David Harvey

Simon Springer (2014) has written a lively and polemical piece in which he argues that a radical geography must be freshly anarchist and not tired-old Marxist. As with any polemic of this sort, his paper has its quota of misrepresentations, exaggerations and ad hominem criticisms, but Springer does raise key issues that are worthy of discussion.

Let me first make clear my own position. I sympathize (but don’t entirely agree) with Murray Bookchin, who in his late writings (after he had severed his long- standing connection to anarchism), felt that “the future of the Left, in the last analysis, depends upon its ability to accept what is valid in both Marxism and anarchism for the present time and for the future coming into view” (Bookchin, 2014: 194). We need to define “what approach can incorporate the best of the revolutionary tradition – Marxism and anarchism – in ways and forms that speak to the kinds of problems that face the present” (2014: 164).

Springer, judging from his piece, would want no part in such a project. He seems mainly bent on polarizing the relation between anarchism and Marxism as if they are mutually exclusive if not hostile. There is, in my view, no point in that. From my Marxist perspective, the autonomist and anarchist tactics and sentiments that have animated a great deal of political activism over the last few years (in movements like “Occupy”) have to be appreciated, analyzed and supported when appropriate. If I think that “Occupy” or what happened in Gezi Park and on the streets of Brazilian cities were progressive movements, and if they were animated in whole or in part by anarchist and autonomista thought and action, then why on earth would I not engage positively with them? To the degree that anarchists of one sort or another have raised important issues that are all too frequently ignored or dismissed as irrelevant in mainstream Marxism, so too I think dialogue – let us call it mutual aid – rather than confrontation between the two traditions is a far more fruitful way to go. Conversely, Marxism, for all its past faults, has a great deal that is crucial to offer to the anti-capitalist struggle in which many anarchists are also engaged.

Geographers have a very special and perhaps privileged niche from which to explore the possibility of collaborations and mutual aid. As Springer points out, some of the major figures in the nineteenth century anarchist tradition – most notably Kropotkin, Metchnikoff and Reclus – were geographers. Through the work of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and later on Murray Bookchin, anarchist sentiments have also been influential in urban planning, while many utopian schemas (such as that of Edward Bellamy) as well as practical plans (such as those of Ebenezer Howard) reflect anarchist influences. I would, incidentally, put my own utopian sketch (“Edilia”) from Spaces of Hope (2000) in that tradition.

Social anarchists have typically been much more interested in and sensitive to questions of space, place and environment (core concepts that I think most geographers would accept as central to their discipline). The Marxist tradition, on the whole, has been lamentably short on interest in such topics. It has also largely ignored urbanization and urban social movements, the production of space and uneven geographical developments (with some obvious exceptions such as Lefebvre and the Anglo-French International Journal of Urban and Regional Research that began in 1977, and in which Marxist sociologists played a prominent founding role). Only relatively recently (e.g. since the 1970s) has mainstream Marxism recognized environmental issues or urbanization and urban social movements as having fundamental significance within the contradictions of capital. Back in the 1960s, most orthodox Marxists regarded environmental issues as preoccupations of petite bourgeois romanticists (this was what infuriated Murray Bookchin who gave vent to his feelings in his widely circulated essay, “Listen, Marxist!”, from 1971’s Post- Scarcity Anarchism).

Shortly after I got interested in Marx and Marxism in the early 1970s, I figured that part of my mission might be to help Marxists be better geographers. I have frequently joked since that it proved much easier to bring Marxist perspectives into geography than to get Marxists to take geographical questions seriously. Bringing Marxist perspectives into geography meant taking up themes on space, place making and environment and embedding them in a broad understanding of “the laws of motion of capital” as Marx understood them. Most social anarchists I know (as Springer admits) find the Marxist critical exposé and theoretical account of how capital circulates and accumulates in space and time and through environmental transformations helpful. To the degree that I was able, and continue to work on, how to make Marx’s critique of capital more relevant and more easily understood, particularly in relation to topics such as urbanization, landscape formation, place- making, rental extractions, ecological transformations and uneven geographical developments, I would hope that social anarchists might appreciate and not disparage the effort. The contributions of Marxism in general and Marxist political economy in particular are foundational to anti-capitalist struggle. They define more clearly what the struggle has to be about and against and why.

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Yidlife Crisis

New Social Contradictions


An Interview with Cedric Johnson

Gregor Baszak: Most on the Left claim that the recent cases of police violence suffered by Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others are racially motivated. Some even say that it has an aspect of ethnic cleansing. Do you agree?

Cedric Johnson: The truth is that cops intensively patrol and surveil particular neighborhoods within America’s cities. Blacks and Latinos bear the brunt of this form of policing, which was set in motion by the so-called “War on Drugs.” This has gone on for decades now. Arguments that it amounts to ethnic cleansing or that it is directed against black people have a certain emotive and rhetorical force. However, ultimately they misdiagnose the problem. According to a Justice Department report on arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009, including cases where people were killed in car accidents during police pursuits and those who committed suicide during an arrest, blacks are overrepresented (as are Latinos), but they are not in the majority.1 When I present such information to my liberal anti-racist friends and students, they have little to offer in response other than “Yes, of course, whites are the majority of the population, so you would expect their numbers to be higher.” But why don’t those deaths figure into the conversation? Isn’t it possible to condemn police violence against blacks while simultaneously demanding justice for all victims? What do these victims—black, white, Latino, male and female—have in common? Why do so many Americans view the current crisis strictly in terms of anti-black racism, when we have evidence that suggests we are facing a more complex and more daunting problem, one that cannot be addressed with yesteryear’s analysis and slogans? We need a more dialectical appreciation of historical progress: How have the defeats and victories of earlier anti-racist struggles produced new social contradictions, altering the conditions we now confront? Additionally, when we look at those who carried out the killing of Freddie Gray, three of the six police officers involved were black. In the case of Eric Garner, a Latino officer choked him to death. So, the fact of integrated police forces needs to be considered. These individuals are not motivated by racial animus. Rather, their behavior reflects a mode of policing that targets the working class, the unemployed, and those who live in areas where the informal economic sector is dominant. On the national level, even in rural areas, small towns, and places where blacks do not live in large numbers, the same dynamics are at play with whites and Latinos. This is the dominant means for managing social inequality in an era of obsolescence and pervasive economic insecurity.

GB: For Michelle Alexander and her many followers on the anti-racist left, these are instances of a “New Jim Crow.” How do you respond?

CJ: The same. If you look at the prison population, blacks are not the majority. African Americans are certainly overrepresented, and in certain states they constitute a majority of those incarcerated or under court supervision. Therefore, we are not looking at something motivated exclusively or even primarily by racism. I’m not suggesting that the system is not racialized, or that racist policing is not a part of the equation. It is. But there is much more that we need to get a handle on, especially if we want to build a movement powerful enough to change the current state of affairs.

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China Crash


The Faltering of Economic Transition. Ralf Ruckus

In days of panic selling and bursting bubbles, the Chinese stock markets appear to be a casino of roulette bets on future economic trends. Beyond the daily ups and downs of the stocks game, we can identify maneuvers of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other players, as well as long-term trends of Chinese capitalist development.1

What started all the fuss? Chinese share prices have been volatile for years, but started to rise especially fast in November 2014 – also in comparison to those in other countries.2 All in all they increased by more than 100 percent in six months before the market collapsed on June 12, 2015. The government started buying large amounts of shares, canceled new stock market launches, ordered state-owned enterprises (SOEs) not to sell shares and used other measures to stop the free fall of share prices. Only when half of the shares had officially been taken off the market and many of the remaining had been bought by state agencies did the fall slow somewhat. It continued, though, with more short periods of panic around July 27 and August 24, then leaving the index 40 percent lower than on June 12.3

These events happened in a financial sector framework that has stayed more protected and state-controlled than those in other capitalist countries throughout China’s “reform” period – i.e. from the late 1970s until today. Stock exchanges were set up in Shanghai and Shenzhen only in 1990 and 1991, in part to support the restructuring of SOEs. However, they played a minor role until the early 2000s, when the government made more efforts to further commercialize the financial sector to make it more suitable for capitalist expansion. A first large stock market bubble popped in early 2007, when shares went down after rumors that the government would raise the benchmark interest rates and go after credit-financed speculation.4 After 2007, the financial sector was further extended in the course of government policies to cushion the effects of the global economic crisis – i.e. a huge government stimulus program based on credit generated through the state-controlled banking sector.5 The effects of the crisis also led to the expansion of a “shadow” banking sector, which is largely outside the control of the government but plays an important role in financing private business and local governments’ development projects.6

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berlin #doom

The following text is an excerpt from a longer intervention by Franco Berardi (Bifo), ahead of a conference planned by the Effimera journal in Milan, Italy. We are not planning on attending this conference, as we find both Bifo’s and Effimera’s approach very far away from our understanding of the world. It is clear, for example, that these people placed a lot of hope in Syriza, a tendency visible in many parts of the (disoriented) global Left which we never really comprehended. And we find this “sudden” realization of the failure equally surprising. [Or else, as a friend said: “Like what, gonna give up now bitches just cause your boys in government couldn’t do shit?”]. Furthermore, we have no time whatsoever for a narrative that explains and understands the european crisis management as a mere continuation of the geopolitical plan of Nazi Germany with different means, an utterly ridiculous notion that one can read (at their own risk) in the second (non-translated) part of Bifo’s original text. But what we did find attractive in this text was its description of loss and defeat, as well as the poignant way it destroys (their) illusions about the parliamentary Left. In this context, we thought it interesting to translate and publish it here, if nothing else then as a historical document that records how parts of the Left understand our predicament.


[…] The idea for a conference was born out of the endless flow of material towards the Effimera journal in the frantic days of July, after the referendum and before the “capitulation”. A conference seemed urgent to everyone, while in reality it was not. For a few days we believed that “action and will” will come back on stage, but this was merely an illusion. In reality, things developed towards the only possible direction, the financial-economic robot prevailed and society found no way out -no road that leads to autonomy.

After the referendum Tsipras realised (and in fact said openly) that neither he nor his comrades have the “special” knowledge/skills that are necessary to find a way out of the castle of the techno-linguistic binding provisions of governance. And they did not possess this knowledge for the simple reason that it does not exist. Can somone square the circle? Of course not, in the same way that one cannot possess the necessary knowledge to escape the vicious circle of debt. If you accept it [debt], you are dead. If you reject it, you are also dead.

And thus, without any haste, the conference will take place on October 3-4 in Milan, giving us a lot of time to think. What would be the topic? The horizon? I don’t have a specific proposal, nor a ready-made program to suggest, but I do believe that it would be for the best to build towards it without presupposing that “we will be able” to do something in the coming period. For the last 30 years every social conflict, every struggle against power, ends with our retreat, only in order to regroup a few meters further-back, hoping that we might finally hold through the next attack and maybe start a counter-attack. Please, stop. There will be no resistance or counter-attack. Let’s look at Syriza’s “capitulation” realistically. At an electoral level the immediate result of this capitulation is the collapse of any remaining credibility that the parliamentary Left had. Why should the Spanish or Italians vote for the Left after Syriza’s performance? Why align yourself with someone that will inevitably be defeated? Why should we aimlessly bother Schäuble when there is no Left alternative?

This is the first lesson of the bitter summer, if we want to understand what happened and not simply remain bitter. In between the day that 62% of the Greek people said no to the blackmail and Tsipras took off his jacket and said “you can have this too”, the last battle of the Left, in my opinion, was lost. It is possible that Tsipras called for the referendum hoping that he would lose it, so that he would then be mandated, through the vote, to recognize and accept the irreversible character of the financial-economic automatism. From then on, he was forced to betray the result of the ballot since the only alternative would be chaos, violence in the streets, a possible intervention of the police, with the well-known influence that Golden Dawn has inside…

Tsipras is a decent person, and this is the reason why Greeks support him, he is not a radical economist like Varoufakis. That explains his choice not to take the country towards a civil war, towards the direction that the criminals of the Eurogroup were pushing for. The defeat of Syriza is not the result of mistakes, nor is it a betrayal of some sort. It is simply the admittance that the domination of those who govern, that is the domination of the financial-economic abstraction over the reality of social life, does not allow for political changes. After the end of the Greek story, we will neither sabotage nor ridicule any attempts to re-awaken and re-activate the Left. But it is time to come to the realization that the Left’s ability to resist politically is nothing but a remnant that twitters ever so weakly.

Do we need a conference to come to these conclusions? Probably not. But in order to have a conference which is not mere rhetoric or pure self-pity, we need to reverse the standpoint from which we look at the whole situation. To abandon unambiguously the idea of resistance and of hope, and to consider as given the upcoming disastrous developments. For more honesty and a better understanding, I would propose the following title for the conference: how to survive and be happy in the forthcoming period of poverty, slavery and war. Such a title has two inter-connected consequences. On the one hand we are led to recognize that the social and psychological-educational conditions for resistance do not exist. So resistance does not resist. On the other hand, it becomes necessary to come up with a proposal for the production of a map of collective existential “escape routes” […]

Schrei Nach Liebe / Cry for Love

Schrei nach Liebe
Du bist wirklich saudumm.
Darum gehts dir gut.
Hass ist deine Attitüde
Ständig kocht dein Blut
Alles muss man dir erklären,
Weil du wirklich gar nichts weißt!
Höchstwahrscheinlich nicht einmal, was Attitüde heißt!

Deine Gewalt ist nur ein stummer Schrei nach Liebe.
Deine Springerstiefel sehnen sich nach Zärtlichkeit.
Du hast nie gelernt dich zu artikulieren.
Und deine Eltern hatten niemals für dich Zeit…

Warum hast du Angst vorm Streicheln?
Was soll all der Terz?
Unterm Lorbeerkranz mit Eicheln,
Weiß ich schlägt dein Herz!
Und Romantik ist für dich
Nicht bloß graue Theorie…
Zwischen Störkraft und den Onkelz
Steht ne Kuschelrock LP…

Deine Gewalt ist nur ein stummer Schrei nach Liebe.
Deine Springerstiefel sehnen sich nach Zärtlichkeit.
Du hast nie gelernt dich zu artikulieren.
Und deine Eltern hatten niemals für dich Zeit!

Weil du Probleme hast,
Die keinen interessieren.
Weil du Schiss vorm Schmusen hast,
Bist du ein Faschist!
Du musst deinen Selbsthass nich auf andere projezieren.
Damit keiner merkt was für ein lieber Kerl du bist.

Deine Gewalt ist nur ein stummer Schrei nach Liebe.
Deine Springerstiefel sehnen sich nach Zärtlichkeit.
Du hast nie gelernt dich artizukulieren.
Und deine Freundin die hat niemals für dich Zeit.

Cry for love
You are really dumb,
which is why you’re doing so well.
Hate is your attitude,
your blood boils constantly.
Everything needs to be explained to you
because you really don’t know anything,
most likely not even what attitude means!

Your violence is only a silent cry for love,
your combat boots long for tenderness,
you have never learned to articulate yourself,
and your parents never had time for you … ohhh… asshole!

Why do you have fear of caressing, what’s the meaning of all this nonsense?
under the laurel wreath with acorns, I know your heart beats,
and romanticism is only grey theory for you,
between Störkraft and den Onkelz (nazi bands) is a Kuschelrock LP! (Cuddle rock, a soft rock compilation franchise)

Your violence is only a silent cry for love,
your combat boots long for tenderness,
you have never learned to articulate yourself,
and your parents never had time for you … ohhh… asshole!

Because you have problems that interest nobody,
because you have fear of intimacy you are a fascist.
You don’t have to project your self-hate on others,
so nobody notices what a lovely man you are … ohhh…

Your violence is only a silent cry for love, your combat boots long for tenderness,you have never learned to articulate yourself,
and your girlfriend never has time for you … ohhh.

On Queer Privilege


In these intersectional times, it will not, I hope, be too controversial of a claim to suggest that, in different contexts and at different moments, hierarchies of power shift, and with them the relationship of different groups and individuals to what we have come to call “privilege.” Among the most common expressions of privilege as it is widely understood is a certain priority of speech: the right to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be seen and heard as speaking from a position of conceptual and experiential authority. That priority of speech is often accompanied by the tacit assumption of an equivalent moral priority.

I would like to speak about something I can only call “queer privilege.”

Queer privilege is not everywhere. Even after decades of activism and “theory,” there is still a bigoted wide world out there, full of enforced normativity, compulsory heterosexuality, and relentless, violent policing. That goes without saying. Plenty are the spaces where queers are still shunned, vilified, or punished. But there are also spaces where the opposite is true. Activist spaces, social justice spaces, critical theory spaces; universities and meetings and small presses. Oh, and Tumblr. In these spaces, where a generalized ideology of anti-normativity holds sway, queerness is a badge of honor, a marker of specialness, and a source of critical and moral authority: in short, a form of privilege. It is the privilege that allows social justice discourse to use the phrase “cis white patriarchy” a shorthand for everything that is wrong with the world; it is the privilege that allows academics like Lee Edelman and Tim Dean to claim not only a value but an ethical imperative for non-reproductive sexual acts; it is the privilege that leads people who have never had sex with someone of the same gender to write impassioned essays about their choice to identify as queer because of their discomfort at being identified with the oppressive forces behind the label “straight.” Queer privilege is what allows a tenured NYU professor, tongue supposedly in cheek, to talk about starting a “barstool-roots movement for left wing urban homosexuals,” as if it’s heterosexuality that keeps most people from drinking in the West Village while they theorize and not the fact that they have to work 3 jobs and don’t have tenure at one of the most powerful universities in the world.

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Gangs of Berlin


Turkish Grey Wolves vs. Kurdish Dead Rabbits continue their old rivalry in the new world.

Berlin, 2015

The Other France

Fouad Ben Ahmed never paid much attention to Charlie Hebdo. He found the satirical magazine to be vulgar and not funny, and to him it seemed fixated on Islam, but he didn’t think that its contributors did real harm. One of its cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, also drew for Le Petit Quotidien, a children’s paper to which Ben Ahmed subscribed for his two kids. On January 7th, upon hearing that two French brothers with Algerian names, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had executed twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices—including Charbonnier—in revenge for covers caricaturing Muhammad, Ben Ahmed wrote on Facebook, “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps. Nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, can justify these barbaric acts. Don’t talk to me about media or politicians who would play such-and-such a game, because there’s no excuse for barbarism. #JeSuisCharlie.”

That night, Ben Ahmed left his house, in the suburbs outside Paris, and went into the city to join tens of thousands of people at a vigil. He is of Algerian and Tunisian descent, with dark skin, and a few white extremists spat threats at him, but Ben Ahmed ignored them—France was his country, too. On January 11th, he joined the one and a half million citizens who marched in unity from the Place de la République.

Ben Ahmed’s Facebook page became a forum for others, mostly French Muslims, to discuss the attacks. Many expressed simple grief and outrage; a few aired conspiracy theories, suggesting a plot to stigmatize Muslims. “Let the investigators shed light on this massacre,” Ben Ahmed advised. One woman wrote, “I fear for the Muslims of France. The narrow-minded or frightened are going to dig in their heels and make an amalgame”—conflate terrorists with all Muslims. Ben Ahmed agreed: “Our country is going to be more divided.” He defended his use of #JeSuisCharlie, arguing that critiques of Charlie’s content, however legitimate before the attack, had no place afterward. “If we have a debate on the editorial line, it’s like saying, ‘Yes—but,’ ” he later told me. “In these conditions, that is unthinkable.”

Ben Ahmed, who is thirty-nine, works as a liaison between residents and the local government in Bondy—a suburb, northeast of Paris, in an area called Department 93. For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France. Two recent books by the eminent political scientist Gilles Kepel, “Banlieue de la République” and “Quatre-vingt-treize” (“Ninety-three”), are studies in industrial decline and growing segregation by group identity. There’s a French pejorative for that, too: communautarisme.

After the Charlie massacre—and after a third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, gunned down a black policewoman outside a Jewish school and four Jews at a kosher supermarket—there was a widespread feeling, in France and elsewhere, that the killings were somehow related to the banlieues. But an exact connection is not easy to establish. Although these alienated communities are increasingly prone to anti-Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class; many have come from bourgeois families. The sense of exclusion in the banlieues is an acute problem that the republic has neglected for decades, but more jobs and better housing won’t put an end to French jihadism.

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We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Anselm Jappe

Anselm Jappe was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1962. Now based in France, he is the author of several major works of critical theory and analysis in German, French, and Italian, with many translations of his works appearing in other languages, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He currently lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Sassari in Sardinia. Alastair Hemmens interviewed him for Field Notes in August.


Rail (Alastair Hemmens): Let’s start by talking a bit about your intellectual development as a critical theorist. Could you say something about the historical and intellectual context in which your approach to critical theory first developed? Can you pinpoint any particular personal experiences that originally drove you towards the radical critique of capitalism?

Jappe: One of the strongest expressions of the vision of the world shared by many young people in the Seventies is Patti Smith singing “Outside of Society / That’s where I wanna be” (“Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger,” 1978). It is also one of the best summaries of the change that has occurred since then. Today, there’s lots of talk about “exclusion” from society, about “marginalization,” about the necessity of “including” all kinds of people in society. To be “outside of society” is now thought of as the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. This is not surprising, given that today the greatest threat that capitalist society poses to every one of us is that we are virtually superfluous and might easily become factually so. But in my adolescence, which took place in the latter half of the 1970s in the German city of Cologne, the echoes of the ’68 rebellion were still quite strong, even among very young people. And the very last thing that I and other unruly young people like myself wanted was to “integrate” ourselves into a society which seemed contemptible to us.

School and family, work and the state, bourgeois culture and traditional morality, everything seemed to want to “get us” and force us to “adapt.” For me, as for some others, it became the challenge of our lives to refuse to “adapt.” Naturally, that turned out to be much more difficult than we believed; but I dare say that I have tried at least to stay faithful to the spirit of my early youth, in two senses: First, in the attempt to understand and criticize capitalist society essentially through reading and discussion—let’s call it the political side of rebellion, which comes from the “head.” Secondly, in the refusal of the forms of life that the authorities imposed on us—that was the “existential” side of the rebellion, which comes from the “gut.” To me, it was a clear choice: neither sacrificial militancy, nor “love, peace and happiness” (nor “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”, which is another version). Rather, to quote another song: “We gotta get out of this place” (Eric Burdon, 1965). So I chose Saint-Just and Bakunin for models. A little later on I started to read Marx, Marcuse, and Adorno, but I was also attracted to what was then called the “counterculture,” especially in its hippie form. I took part in a number of “collectives,” as they were called then, from opposition to authoritarian school measures to the anti-nuclear movement. When I was fifteen, a special teachers’ meeting was held to discuss whether I should be expelled from high school as punishment for my articles in the student newspaper. I wasn’t expelled, but it was a very close call.

My intellectual choices essentially served to deepen my rebellious spirit. I get the impression that this is much less common these days. Today, for certain people, a critical understanding of capitalist society goes hand in hand with a quiet university career (or the attempt at one) and does not appear to entail a rejection of bourgeois life and integration into society. On the other hand, “existential” refusal of bourgeois life today is often inarticulate and easily becomes a sort of alternative lifestyle choice, which can be recuperated into the logic of the commodity; the other possibility is that it leads to total self-ghettoization. There is a lot of discontent today but it is nearly always directed at some specific issue, from ecological disaster to racism, and very rarely at the totality of capitalist society. Postmodernism has profoundly reshaped even the antagonistic spirit.

So, I grew up with the myth of the French Revolution, and in 1974 – 75 (when I was only twelve years old) I thought that the Portuguese revolution was repeating it. You might laugh at my naïveté, but I prefer it to the attitude of those who, already in their teens, were preparing to “lose their life by earning it,” as we say in French. I was always somewhere between anarchism and heterodox Marxism, and never had any sympathy for Stalinist, Maoist, Leninist ,or any other authoritarian conception of revolution. Very early, I also became aware of the dark side of technological progress—a new theme back then—and I read authors like Ivan Illich and Régine Pernoud. But I had no ideological blinkers: I also read Nietzsche with great emotion.

Rail: In the English-speaking world, you are still best known for your work on Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI). I would even say that your Guy Debord (1993) is still, more than twenty years on, considered to be the work on the subject. How did you first discover Debord? What effect, if any, has he had on your critical thinking? And why do you think your approach to his work still resonates so strongly?

Jappe: I got to know the Situationists in the context I’ve just described. A friend of mine, who was some years older and a kind of mentor to me, was one of the very few people at that time in Germany who knew about the Situationists. But I not only found their ideas quite hard to understand, they also really shocked me: they were directed against all of the radical left militantism that I was so close to (even though I was suspicious of it, but it seemed impossible to have any other kind of collective action). On the one hand, I felt that they struck at some of my innermost convictions; on the other, I was also fascinated by something much more profound, radical and, at the same time, poetical than the leaflets that the political groups around me distributed, which normally adopted a very moralizing tone. I was also very much seduced by the call for a revolution of everyday life. But it was only some years later that I read the work of Debord and the other Situationists systematically. Because I chose the Situationists as the subject of my Master’s degree, I was able to dedicate a lot of time to reading them. By that time I had moved to Italy and I studied philosophy in Rome. I did a Master’s degree under Mario Perniola, a professor of aesthetics who had known Debord and the Situationists personally and had been close to them around 1968. Officially, however, the SI did not exist in the academic world, or in the media. (It’s not right to complain about this: their strategy of resisting institutional and spectacular recuperation had worked quite well up until that point.) When Perniola suggested that I publish a part of my doctoral dissertation as a monograph about Debord, it turned out to be the first one dedicated to him.

If this book has been translated into five or six languages, and if it is still read today, even after the “discovery” of Debord, after his death in 1994, by a broad public and the consequential stream of publications about him, this might be due to the fact that I tried to stress his importance as a radical critic of capitalist society, both in theory and in praxis, as well as somebody who had succeeded in living as he wanted to live: outside of the spectacle. Most of the publications that came afterwards have emphasized—too much, I think—the aesthetic side of his activity, or his biography, or reduced his social critique to just a form of media theory. As such, they contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the incorporation of Debord into the postmodern culture industry.

But I did not want to foster the creation of a legend, nor did I want to become a “specialist.” Indeed, I continue to refer very much to his ideas, but I am also searching for the possibility of further developing a critique of the totality of the capitalist system. So, I cannot sympathize with those who develop “psychogeographical” mobile phone apps or other things like that! Nor with academics who praise Debord as a “prophet of the media age,” which ignores the fact that he articulated a merciless critique of all “permitted” forms of life, including nearly all forms of contestation—especially art! This “bitter victory of Situationism” was probably inevitable. It is all the more remarkable that the core of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle still stands as a landmark of critical social thought and that it can still be an important source of inspiration. Equally, his life and attitude can still be inspiring—and there are not very many figures of the 20th century about whom this might be said!

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Embrace Communism

Captain America couverture 001

The entire nation has come to idolize professional athlete and scholar Chuck Blayne. Watching a televised program of Blayne are Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Bucky points out that Blayne has become a real role model to teenagers and wonders if the media star will eventually eclipse even Captain America in popularity. Listening to Blayne’s speech over the television Bucky finds himself motivated, however the words remind Steve of somebody but he can’t quite place it.

Unknown to the two heroes Blayne is really a communist spy who meets with his superiors. Impressed by how Blayne has easily won the respect of the American public they decide to step up to the next phase of their plan, planting a bomb in the United Nations and having Blayne denounce the organization and urging the public to side with him in order to prevent the bomb from going off and destroying half of New York City.

Blayne follows everything according to plan and during the next meeting with the United Nations, Blayne interrupts the proceedings with his bomb threat, telling the people of America over television cameras to abolish the United Nations and embrace communism or risk having half of New York blown up. The United Nations building is evacuated and Blayne taken into police custody, but he refuses to reveal the location of the bomb. Hearing the news, Captain America and Bucky arrive on the scene to help search for the bomb. Cap suggests cutting the power to the entire building and they begin searching for the bomb. Without the hum of other electronics, Captain America easily finds what he believes to be the only bomb and disarms it.

However, he wants a full confession out of Blayne and has him brought into the UN building to confess, not making him aware that the bomb has already been removed. With the clock ticking Blayne suddenly cracks and reveals that there is not one bomb, but two, and the second more powerful explosive is hidden in the clock in the UN assembly forum. Captain America holds back the clocks hands while the authorities disarm the bomb. With the crisis averted and Blayne exposed as a communist on live television Captain America suddenly remembers where he has heard Blayne’s speech before, as it is the same one that Adolf Hitler made during World War II.

Why Your Rent Is So High and Your Pay Is So Low


IN THE 1950s, the average New York City apartment rented for $60 a month — around $530 in today’s money. With the US median wage at $5,000 a year, New Yorkers spent 1/10 of their salaries on rent. After World War II, apartments were so cheap and available that Manhattanites would regularly move every September just to get the landlord to repaint their new home. In those days, an apartment was a place to live. Now it is as much an investment as shelter.

Imagine trying to find an apartment in Manhattan for $530 now. It is almost inconceivable. These days a depressing number of young New Yorkers spend over half their income on housing. Rent hikes have transformed a once-democratic city into a playground for the privileged. Hardly anyone can afford to move to New York on an entry-level wage. It sometimes seems that the only twentysomethings that come to New York today have parents who help pay the rent.

During the boom years after World War II, Americans’ real wages more than doubled. A 30-year-old earned twice as much by the time he or she hit 50. This broad-based prosperity transformed the nation. In 1939, 25 percent of Americans didn’t have running water, only 65 percent had indoor toilets, none had television. By 1970, almost all had cars and dishwashers. The luxuries of an earlier age had become necessities. Between 1945 and 1973, the United States and the world experienced the greatest economic growth in history, not replicated before or since. Economic historians call those postwar years the Golden Age.

This explosion of affluence did not extend to New York City landlords. Rent control kept rent increases lower than inflation. Apartment prices remained stagnant. In 1976, you could buy a classic four-bedroom Park Avenue apartment in a doorman building for $36,000. Owning a building back then didn’t make you rich. Instead it was a drain on capital. The fires that devastated huge swaths of New York in the 1970s were generally set by landlords who saw insurance fraud as the only way to profit from their properties. The average rent that decade was just $335. You could rent a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village for $250 a month.

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The tyrant has too many friends


In the roar of uninterrupted proclamations that inform us of the triumphs of the dominant society on the terrains of its overwhelming, energetic power, its gross national product, its modernized crises, its cultivated computers and so many other pleasant abstractions, one too modestly forgets a concrete phenomenon of an immense significance: the worldwide organization of society that is being put into place with an always-increasing speed, has in the second half of the 20th century  succeeded in abolishing six of the seven deadly sins (or, to put it in the terms that are more transmittable today, a percentage approximately equal to 86%) […]

Pride is obviously dead for the administered voter, the sounded-out automobile driver, the polluted tele-spectator, the inhabitant of the flat and the highway vacationer. No one who has accepted surviving in this way can even hope for the possibility of experiencing a fleeting moment of pride.

Avarice no longer has any basis, since property tends to become concentrated in the State, which squanders on principle. Read individual property, accessible to very few people, is gnawed at by hairsplitting control and the right to intervention by a thousand public or corporate authorities. The salaried worker can no longer hoard a little poor money, which is of a value that is always changing, fictive and as fluid as water. This same money distances itself into an always-further away abstraction, simply “plastic,” a game of accounting that is played without the worker’s participation. And if he thinks of accumulating a few more precious objects than what is offered daily on the market, a thief carries them off.

Lust has disappeared almost everywhere, with the liquidation of real personalities and real tastes. Lust has withdrawn before the flood of ideology that is too obviously insincere, cold simulation and the comic pretensions of the robot to automatic passion […]

Gluttony has surrendered its weapons in the face of the findings of the food-processing industry. Moreover, the spectator – here as well as at the theater — no longer believes himself capable of judging the taste of what he eats. Thus he is guided by the stimuli that are the names of the fashionable dishes, advertising and the judgment of gastronomical critique.

Anger has so many reasons [for existing] and so few manifestations that it is dissolved into the general cowardice and resignation. In good faith, does a voter have the occasion to become angry with the final result of an election, which in truth is always the same and thus precisely foreseeable and guaranteed? Ill-advised to play with disappointed and humiliated innocence, the voter is in any case guilty. He can only feel anger at himself and this is an uncomfortable position that he ordinarily wants to avoid.

Laziness is no longer possible: there is too much noise everywhere. It is even worse for all those unfortunate people who hurry to work or their vacations. Laziness is only a pleasure for the one who is pleased with himself and in his own company. The modern countries can have an elevated number of unemployed people and others who work on many completely useless things. But they cannot preserve laziness for anyone; they are not rich enough for that.

One might object to us that this exposition, despite its profound truth, is a little too systematic because reality in history is always dialectic and that it is an impoverished schematization that presents all the deadly sins as being condemned to the same ruin. This objection is not founded: we have not at all forgotten envy, which contradictorily survives and which is the only inheritor of all the other annihilated powers.

Envy has become an exclusive and universal motive. Envy has always proceeded from the fact that many individuals measure themselves according to the same scale. Most often, this is power and money. Beyond this common measure of limitation, reality remains diverse and those who do not care too much for power and riches obviously remain sheltered from envy. On another side, some envious characters can always be in rivalry with people in their spheres of activity. A poet might envy a[nother] poet. And such envy can be manifested by a general, a prostitute, an actor or an owner of a cafe. But the largest number of individuals hardly arouse the envy of others. Today, when people have almost nothing and love nothing, they want everything, without neglecting the contrary. Any [given] spectator envies almost all of the stars. But he can also simultaneously envy all of the traits of all the stars. He who has the baseness to make a career, and who is thus hardly satisfied with that career (others are always higher up), would also have the honor and pleasure of being considered as someone who is misunderstood, insubordinate and “cursed.” And since this pursuit of the wind is absolutely vain, all of today’s cuckolds are thus condemned to run unceasingly. Ignoring real life, they do not know that almost all the human traits are actually grounded by necessarily excluding many of the others.

We say that the intensive and extensive repression of personality inevitably involves the disappearance of personal taste. What can actually please someone who is nothing, has nothing and knows nothing — other than lying and imbecilic hearsay? And almost nothing displeases such a person: such is exactly the goal that the owners and “deciders” of this society propose, that is, those who hold the instruments of social communication, with the aid of which they find themselves in a position to manipulate the simulacra of disappeared tastes.

[…] The tyrant, as La Boetie showed, has many friends. For there are many people with small interests who, on behalf of those with large interests, want to see history and memory abolished.

Crisis of Civilization


by Gilles Dauvé

All historical crises are crises of social reproduction. We will try and investigate how the present crisis, like and unlike others in the past, forces society to face the contradictions which formerly stimulated its dynamics but now drive it into a critical juncture. (1)

Every major crisis forces social groups to come to grips with the deep contradictions of society. In capitalism, class confrontation is the prime mover that drives society forward : it forces the bourgeoisie to adapt to labour pressure, to “modernize”. Crisis is when these formerly positive pressures strain the social fabric and threaten to tear it apart.

Contradiction does not mean impossibility. Up to now, all big crises have ended in the system managing to pull through and eventually becoming more adaptable and protean. No “ultimate” crisis is automatically contained in even the most acute contradictions.

1 : Why “Civilization” ?

Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an un-heard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the 20th century.

No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even good or noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geo-historical socio-cultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese or Islamic civilizations.

The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labour and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Djakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labour couple.

The concept of a mode of production is contemporary to capitalism. Whether or not Marx  invented the phrase, it has become common since the 19th century because capitalism imposes on us the image of factors of production combined to beget a product or a service bought or sold on a market, and of a society ruled by supply/demand and productivity.

Then the concept was retrospectively applied (often inadequately) to other systems, past and present: the Asiatic or the domesticmode of production. (2) Whatever relevance these derivations have, they pay tribute to the overwhelming presence of the capitalist mode of production.

Capitalist civilization differs from empire, which has a heart, a core, and when the core withers and dies, the whole system around it goes too. On the contrary, capitalism is a polycentric world system with several rival hegemons, which carries on as a global network if one of the hegemons expires. There is no longer an inside and an outside as with Mesopotamian, Roman, Persian, Hapsburg or Chinese empires.

A crisis of civilization occurs when the tensions that formerly helped society to develop now threaten its foundations: they still hold but they are shaken up and their legitimacy is weakened.

As is well known, tension and conflict are a sign of health in a system that thrives on its own contradictions, but the situation changes when its main constituents overgrow like cancerous cells.

A century ago, capitalism experienced such a long crisis, of which the “1929 crisis” was but the climax, and capitalism only got out of it after 1945. Going back over that period will help understand ours.

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A Conversation with Theodor W. Adorno (Spiegel, 1969)


Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Gerhard Richter 

“Philosophy, which once seemed passe,” Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dia­lectic begins, “remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed” (“Philosophie, die einmal überholt schien, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward“). (1) This perspective encrypts the double movement of a simultaneous resignation or lament and a productive, enabling force. It is only because the philosophy of which Adorno speaks— negative dialectics—was not realized that its actualization is yet to come. That it once existed without becoming an actuality means that it still remains to be thought, as both a failure and a promise. The erratic traces of this double movement not only name but also enact Adorno’s notion of a negative dialec­tic. The movement of the negative dialectic of failure and promise has strongly marked the reception of the English translations of his writings. After all, Adorno’s German, and the thought that it enacts, is rigorously and infamously resistant to translation. His writing is both strange and foreign—fremd—even in its “original” German.

To acknowledge this strangeness is also to acknowledge that what Adorno says cannot be separated from how he says it. As Samuel Weber, one of Adorno’s earliest translators so apodictieally and incontrovertibly puts it in his 1967 “Translating the Untranslatable,” the “specificity of Adorno’s thought is inseparable from its articulation,” so that “conceptual concreteness may be measured by the density with which thought and articulation perme­ate each other.” (2) For this reason, any translator who, in spite of these difficul­ties, attempts to translate Adorno’s sentences runs the risk of constructing an Adorno who. in the words of one of his most astute American translators, Rob­ert Hullot-Kentor, appears “dubbed rather than translated.” (3) Thus, as Hullot- Kentor points out, while many admirable English translations of Adorno’s texts exist, others deserve to be retranslated. (4) The process is now well under way, with, for instance, Hullot-Kentor’s responsible retranslation of Aesthetic Theory which replaces the problematic British version of 1984. (5)

The following interview with Adorno has not received the attention that it deserves. It originally appeared on 5 May 1969, three months before the phi­losopher’s death, under the title “Keine Angst vor dem Elfenbeinturm” in the widely circulating German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel (6) Shortly after it appeared in Germany, an English translation, which has been virtually ig­nored in the American context, was published in a British journal. (7) In a very real sense, then, the “moment of its realization was missed.” To present this important document today in an entirely new translation, in agreement with Der Spiegel, means to take seriously—with a bit of Blochian non-syncronic- ity—the critical potential that it still may hold for readers interested in the relation between aesthetics and politics. But the re-presentation of the docu­ment today also requires an explanation of historical contexts and political ref­erences, glosses that culturally aware readers in 1969 may not have required and that were provided neither in the British translation nor by Adorno’s Ger­man editors, who later included the text in his collected writings (Gesammelte Schriften). (8) I have therefore provided explanatory footnotes to clarify histori­cal references for today’s readers.

To appropriate the conceptual content of the discussion with Adorno for our time also requires some contextualization in the tensions of its own time. The immediate occasion for the highly visible interview was Adorno’s can­cellation of his University of Frankfurt lecture course “Introduction to Dialec­tical Thinking” during the summer semester of 1969, following confrontations with student activists who disrupted his lectures with heckling. During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” (9) On the day that the Spiegel in­terview appeared, Adorno writes to his friend and Frankfurt School colleague Herbert Marcuse: “One should refrain from |… | demonizing the police whole­sale. 1 can only repeal that they treated the students much more gingerly than the students treated me. That was beyond description.” He continues: “The other day I was told by Mr. Cohn-Bendit during a departmental town meeting that I only had the right to call in the police if people actually wanted to beat me up with metal rods. I answered that then it would be too late.” (10)

The irony of the tensions between Adorno and some student activists are legible enough. On the one hand, his theories had contributed to the es­tablishment of the first general wave of political activism in Germany after Word War II and to a general critical engagement with the legacies of Ger­man fascism, a subject that had largely remained taboo after 1945. Examples of Adorno’s theoretical interventions that were especially significant in this regard included his and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry, his dis­section ol’the authoritarian personality, his subversive reflections on what it means to be German, his meditations on education “after Auschwitz,” and his anti-fascist reflections, among many others. But on the other hand, more con­crete signs of solidarity were expected of Adorno after December 1966, es­pecially on the part of the “APO.” “APO” stands for “Außerparlamentarische Opposition” (“Extraparliamentary opposition”), the collective name of the German student and New Left movements, along with a variety of smaller op­positional groups that were not presented in the German parliament. The APO came into existence in 1967, in response to the “Grand Coalition” formed between Kurt Georg Kiesinger’s conservative CDU/CSU and Willy Brandt’s social-democratic SPD on 1 December 1966. that is. when almost no opposi­tion remained within the German parliament itself. Many in the APO now- looked to Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt .School for practical po­litical leadership, often in vein.

In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967. and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures. For instance, when he was invited by Peter Szondi and Wilhelm Emrich on behalf of the Depart­ments of German and Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin to deliver a lecture in July 1967 on “The Classicism of Goethe’sIphigenie,” a meditation that was later included as an essay in his Notes to Literature, Adorno was greeted with heckles on the part of some. Adorno had earlier re­fused to write a letter of support exculpating the activist Fritz Teufel, whose controversial hand-outs and leaflets had been read by his accusers not as a sat­ire but as a concrete incitement to arson and violence. Because Adorno refused to conduct a political discussion instead of delivering his lecture as planned, his detractors regarded his decision to speak on Goethe as a retreat from po­litical intervention into classicist aesthetics.

But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

The tension and misunderstanding between Adorno and some of the student activists was by no means universal. Indeed, many found the public provocations of Adorno by a minority of students misplaced and embarassing. Those critical of the activities to which Adorno was subjected must have re­called not only their indebtness to the theoretical apparatus for a critical analy­sis of society and culture that he had supplied, but also Adorno’s general in­terest in being a public intellectual open to discussion and to a sustained engagement in concrete political causes. For instance, after the so-called German-American friendship week had been marred by severe street violence and clashes between protesters and the police in May 1967, Adorno, along with his colleague Max Horkheimer and others, on 12 June 1967 engaged in a pub­lic discussion with students and activists regarding the relationship between Critical Theory and political praxis. Similarly. Adorno spoke out publicly against the German Notstandsgesetze (Emergency Laws). Hessischer Rundfunk (Hessian Broad­cast Service). (11) And as Adorno reveals in a November 1968 letter to the writer Günter Grass, he maintained friendly relations with the Social Democratic politician Gustav Heinemann—then West Germany’s Minister of Justice and later, from 1969 through 1974, President of the Federal Republic—whom he closely advised regarding West Germany’s progressive criminal law reform. Similarly, Adorno was instrumental in helping to work out a compromise agreement between the “IG Metall.” West Germany’s Metal Workers’ Union, and their companies. But while he supported these and other political causes, such as then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancelor Willy Brandt’s concrete at­tempts to loosen the iron collar of Cold War ideologies through a new politi­cal relationship with countries to West Germany’s East, he remained suspicious of certain “aporias of the politics of reconciliation” (“Aporien der Versöh­nungspolitik’’).

These included the politics that he feared would disguise the ways in which the Soviet Union’s gestures of political reconciliation with its satellite states could also be read as attempts at even greater domination of these slates. Here, he feared, the questionable and deeply problematic politi­cal interests represented by both Washington and Moscow found a possible way of supplementing one another in their expansivist quests for world domi­nation. Rejecting what he often denounced as “erpreßte Versöhnung” (“forced reconciliation”), Adorno confesses to Grass his “mounting aversion to any kind of praxis in which my natural disposition and the objective hopelessness of praxis in this historical moment may meet each other.” (12) Between the writ­ing of these lines and his death some ten months later, this aversion may have grown ever more pronounced in light of the heightening intensity with which the personal attacks against him were carried out.

These Emergency Laws were to enable the German government to suspend certain basic demo­cratic citiziens’ rights when protests and concrete opposition threatened to destabilize the basic order of the state. The proposed bill that would make Emergency Laws legal in Germany was passed on 30 May 1968. Two days earlier, Adorno had made a last-minute effort to derail the passing of these laws, formulating a firm rejection of these curtailments of civil liberties in an address entitled “Gegen die Notstandsgesetze” (“Against the Emergency Laws”) in the “Große Sendesaal” of the

In the interview reproduced below, Adorno explains, in more lucid and conversational terms than is characteristic of his formal writings, his concep­tualization of the political relevance that his theoretical work may have. For Adorno, the political impact of his work is not to be measured by the extent to which it enables unmediated social praxis but rather by the extent to which it effects a broad change in consciousness. Here, the oppositional pair of thought and action itself is suspended. The text belongs in the general orbit of similar meditations that Adorno devoted to this subject in the late 1960s, such as his texts “Resignation” and “Marginalia on Theory and Praxis,” and his conversation regarding Critical Theory and the Protest Movement with the Südeutsche Zeitung. (13) Indeed, there is no sentence in Adorno’s mature work that is not touched by the political implications of the thoughts that he expresses in the Spiegel interview.

In my English translation, I have attempted to capture some of the in­formal conversational tone of Adorno’s sentences, a tone that may strike some readers as belonging to a surprisingly different register than that found in the formal and rigorous precision of his written works, where his German prose, in its persistent self-reflexivity and performativity, often appears, quite strate­gically, to resemble no living language. The sinewy lucidity of Adorno’s spo­ken and improvised language in this interview cannot be explained fully by Der Spiegel’s editorial practices, as listeners to the recently published collec­tion of five compact disks containing a variety of his speeches and interviews can attest. (14) Adorno’s fluid style as a live interlocutor and public speaker—es­pecially as he developed it for his various radio, television, and mass print ap­pearances soon following his return to Germany from American exile in 1949 —should be placed into a dynamic constellation with his written language to assess the shifting contours of his imagined relationship to the audience.

I wish to thank Der Spiegel for kindly granting me permission to trans­late and reprint this interview.


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