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You are here: Platypus /Crises of the radical imagination: a conversation with Max Haiven

Crises of the radical imagination: a conversation with Max Haiven

Marc James Léger

Platypus Review 73 | February 2015

In the Fall of 2014 Marc James Léger interviewed Max Haiven about his recent publications: Crises of the Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons (2014), Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life (2014) and The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (2014), co-authored with Alex Khasnabish. Max Haiven is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Art History and Critical Studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Canada. Marc James Léger is a cultural theorist, author of The Neoliberal Undead (2013) and editor of The Idea of the Avant Garde–And What It Means Today (2014). Both authors submitted their discussion to be published in the Platypus Review. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Marc James Léger (MJL): In one of your essays, “The Financial Crisis as a Crisis of Imagination,” you discuss both the financialization of the economy and society, as well as potential leftist responses to this financialization.1 You call on leftists to move away from the singular focus on the labor theory of value (LTV)—on the labor-capital relation—but also away from the emphasis on lifestyle politics. Would you say that the paramount problem for the Left is ideological? How can the Left translate our current situation into a coherent alternative political vision that does not subsume itself into the two paradigms you critique?

Max Haiven (MH): First, let me say that I am not at all averse to the LTV: it is central to my thinking and central to any anti-capitalist politics worthy of the name. My argument is that the LTV has typically been understood quite narrowly, as merely a way to explain the basis of all economic value under capitalism in the exploitation of “socially necessary labour time,” as Marx formulated it. I am interested in re-reading the LTV as a way to explain not only the process by which labour becomes a commodity, but the way social values are conscripted and subordinated to economic value. This may be an unpopular approach amongst more traditional Marxist economists, but I think it is important precisely because it allows us to move beyond a Left moralism.

An expanded understanding of the LTV can help us explain not only the persistence but the centrality of structural oppression and exploitation, and the fundamental devaluation of certain groups of people based on race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship. I think it can allow us to do this without recourse to some outmoded or simplistic base/superstructure argument, as if the economy mechanically determines every kind of social relation in a one-sided direction. My interest in the LTV is an attempt to envision anti-capitalist morality in a dialectical fashion.

I agree that anti-capitalist politics must, by necessity, move beyond the affective realm of outrage. At its worst, such a limited, emotive approach delivers us into the hands of the so-called “sharing economy” whereby we end up celebrating Airbnb and Uber as post-capitalist exemplars of the commons because they do not immediately appear to be about or driven by the individual profit motive. Likewise, we come to imagine that the organic relationships of a community garden are somehow revolutionary in and of themselves. On the one hand, such practices might stem from moralistic refusals of the capitalist paradigm of value, but on the other, they are always already part of a process whereby capital seeks to subsume and enclose the commons, to conscript labor in new diabolical ways, or to externalize its crises onto the spheres of everyday life.

By the same token, can we do without moralism in struggles on the Left? Can we mobilize or theorize without fury and hope? It’s easy for those of us who have the odd pseudo-privilege of being theorists to disown these affective and emotional “structures of feeling,” but I don’t think we should. We can look to a theorist like Sara Ahmed for a very interesting attempt to dwell with the radical politics of emotions and develop a theory of capital, exchange, accumulation and dispossession in that realm. That work is important, and if you are actually seeking to mobilize people towards revolutionary change, you must start with pain, suffering, outrage, panic, anxiety, loneliness and fear. You must tarry with revenge and the erotic.

Marx knew this well. We can feel the vitriol, the rage, and sometimes even the heartbreak in the rhetoric of even some of his most ‘scientific’ work. It was also key to the success of movements in Latin America, where they often talk of feelings, emotions, and—critically—about morality, or the immorality of capitalism. This is actually one reason why the bourgeoisie hate populist leftist figures like Hugo Chavez so very much, and why the working classes return them to power. Such emotional earnestness in politics chafes the bourgeois sensibility. But, of course, emotions can also be very dangerous.

As much as I value both vigorous debate and theoretical sophistication, the revolution to come cannot require that everyone become a Marxist intellectual. I suspect we need to revisit the power, and of course the immense danger, of the emotive and the question of morality.

MJL: We have seen, for instance, in the case of the 2012 Québec student strike, that the inventiveness of the resistance was largely thanks to the organizational principles of combative syndicalism. Even if this political structure was overdetermined by the power of the state and the view of the majority that things would be decided through the electoral process, there was an overall skepticism about hierarchical political relationships and more of an emphasis on horizontalism and direct democracy. Likewise, we have seen cases in Latin America where communist party politics continue to be effective means of organizing even the poorest masses into the political process. These are not utopian social projects, but they have been effective at least in pointing to the problems of neoliberal capitalism and showing that an alternative organization of the economy is possible or at least desirable.

MH: I deeply distrust any kind of verticalist revolutionary political party apparatus, but I think they are an understandable response to the vicissitudes of capitalist society. And my distrust does not mean dismissal. I think the examples of state-led politics in the Bolivarian Revolution have a lot to teach us, both good and bad. I recall, though, that what has made these initiatives resilient has been the fact that they were built on top of strong grassroots, community-level organizations struggling at the level of everyday life. I think that the “either/or” option between, on the one hand, total horizontal ethereal communalism and, on the other, vertical political organization, is one that can only exist in the abstractions germane to our place and time: the highly alienated, highly abstracted conditions of late capitalism in the wealthiest imperialist nations. I think, in practice, any successful Left formation needs to at least think about both, to dwell in the contradictions.

For instance, I have been doing ethnographic research on social movements for a few years now, and I am constantly impressed by the fact that the alleged “anarchists”—those committed to so-called prefigurative politics—are much more organized than their critics would imagine. Contrariwise, the “communists”—­those associated with explicitly anti-capitalist parties or cadres—are much more focused on internal group dynamics, interpersonal politics and their “prefigurative” dimensions than they would let on.

MJL: Perhaps what we need to do is confront the complex of the “post-traumatic Left,” which fears organizing a political-ideological response to global capitalism and instead tends to vacillate in the liberal-left “Third Way” middle ground, which you correctly identify as mainstream, institutionalized and academic. Do you think that because the Left has not been able to overcome its historical baggage it de-radicalizes its struggles, and reduces them to reformism?

MH: Well, who wishes to dwell in trauma? The answer is, of course, most of us—perversely. There is a guilty attitude or allergy towards developing a revolutionary platform, largely thanks to a—usually hackneyed—narrative of how Soviet and Chinese communism went wrong. And I agree that this trauma fundamentally forecloses possible horizons if it is not worked through and overcome. So I do recognize and in some ways admire the theoretical neatness in posing a refusal of that trauma, of reclaiming both the ideal and the actuality of “the party” and “communism” without apology. But I fail to see its practical implications for organizers at this point.

I would say that the problem for our hypothetical party-to-come is not one of theorization: we have an abundance of that, and in any case, history has a funny way of mocking the best-laid plans. Rather, I sense that the problem is finding ways to generate cadres of charismatic, compelling and responsible public leaders. Are we, Left intellectuals, prepared to reorganize and transform ourselves to do this? What sorts of sacrifices would we need to make? I think it is easy to say that some will theorize so that others might, in turn, act, but does that actually work? Does that circuit ever get completed? I am skeptical. Or at very least, that circuit is very complex.

In Latin America, for example, the Bolivarian Revolution is not something so much implemented from above as actualized from below. Its longevity and resilience has less to do with a well-organized and charismatic leadership and more to do with the fraught interface between leadership and movements for grassroots self-sufficiency and new commons. Here in North America, we are, with a handful of important exceptions, utterly lacking in these grassroots and community-based self-sustaining alternatives. We are dealing with levels of alienation, commodification and abstraction of a magnitude almost unimaginable in Venezuela or even Greece or Spain. We have little historical memory of revolution and our “infrastructures of dissent,” as Alan Sears calls them, are brittle and unstable. I think that any revolutionary effort will depend, ultimately, on building these autonomous infrastructures. How could a party enable and empower this process? Theory has a lot to teach us, but in the end we need to get our hands dirty, so to speak. Ultimately, I think there are no correct answers to this question, but that does not mean there are no better answers.

MJL: A related obstacle to politicization on a mass scale is the problem of intersectional theory, with the radical democracy that advocates the equivalence between struggles based on race, class, gender and sexuality. The postmodern game of plurality that is now highly academicized and corporatized makes it necessary that we do not ask certain questions about how to subvert capitalism. How do you think the current preoccupation with questions of identity, multiculturalism, intersectionality, and so on, has affected the conditions for organization on the Left?

MH: It is certainly true that the particular balance of historical forces—notably the rise of post-war liberal academe, the individuating tendencies of neoliberalism, the rise of the voraciously theory-hungry art world, and the strange career of identity-based social movements—has created a situation that allows for a liberalist takeover of identity categories and conscription of people into the service of individualistic careerism. This has been quite widely acknowledged within various “intersectional” movements for some time, and we owe the development of this important line of analysis and critique to the Black Feminist tradition, to the anti-colonial refusal of “development,” or to groups like INCITE! who have done some of the most sophisticated work in parsing out how to hold true to a politics of liberation while rejecting the lure of cynicism or opportunism.

INCITE! Poster

Poster designed for INCITE! by Favianna Rodriguez to build a national women of colour response to the invasion of Afghanistan. Courtesy of INCITE! at http://www.incite-national.org

I have learned an immeasurable amount from queer activists, feminists, indigenous militants and others who are also phenomenal and inspiring anti-capitalists and Marxists. In fact, if Marxism has developed at all in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, I think we need to honestly recognize that it has done so precisely because of, or in response to, these lines of radical political formation. Some of the most important Marxists I have learned from have come to Marxism through feminism, through queer activism, or through anti-racism, as well as through working class mobilization. I find I learn little from the critiques of so-called “identity politics” from Eurocentric male theorists who seem all too eager to put these questions to bed, but perhaps this is my own failing.

MJL: I would say that the resistance to proletarian politics on a global scale has a great deal to do with our avoidance of a project of universal emancipation that goes beyond the various nationalist, identity-based and religious particularisms. I am not saying that we have to choose between identity and socialism—what I am saying is that identity conflicts are generated by class struggle, that capital forms the very conditions for the emergence of the myriad of shifting political subjectivities, and so we must be alert to the ways in which identity gets hegemonized as liberal politics and sometimes worse. A universal politics is generic, in the sense that Alain Badiou understands it, which is exactly the kind of equality that people appeal to when they denounce racism and sexism.

You yourself discuss this problem in your essay on convoking/prefiguring the radical imagination in Halifax, where activists were divided over whether to discuss anti-capitalist strategy or whether to engage in discussion about patriarchy, sexism, and heteronormativity.2 The discussion among young activists especially tends to be de-politicizing, in the sense that identity politics transform macro-political analysis into victim politics, which in no way challenges the existing liberal institutions and biopolitics. The strategy in academia has been, up until the anti-globalization movement, to mostly bury Marx, the dialectic and almost everything having to do with revolutionary politics. We all have identities, inevitably, but we do not all have decent jobs or a healthy environment to live and work in.

MH: I think there are some regrettable ways that various forms of “identity politics” or “intersectionality” discourse have become resonant in younger activist circles. I have seen young people bash each other over the head with them in quite dispiriting ways. The same goes for their domestication within academe, NGOs or art institutions. Domestication is the correct word here: there is a taming of radical fury. But that by no means exhausts or belittles the crucial importance and centrality of the analyses of oppression and exploitation. And let’s be honest, this domestication is also true of Marxism as it has been filtered through hegemonic institutions.

I have seen plenty of very clever Marxist theorists use their mastery of theoretical material or their institutional power as weapons against meaningful solidarity. It is all too common, and often repulsive. So, of course, as “identity politics” leaves the realm of grassroots struggle and enters academe and liberal discourse, it can be and is wielded in nasty ways. Yet for all that there are some facts we cannot lose sight of.

First, to an unavoidably real extent, capitalism and class today work through racialization and oppression, and more broadly, through the objectification and abjection of certain bodies. Capitalism also clearly depends on the cultivation and reproduction of oppression, both structurally and in everyday life. Women still perform most of the world’s unremunerated reproductive labour, on which capital depends fundamentally. Racism of the institutional, structural and interpersonal varieties fundamentally devalues non-white labour, which is essential for capitalist accumulation, both locally and globally.

Racism remains a key means by which proletarians are divided. Queer folks remain at a much higher risk of violence and workplace discrimination in spite of many liberal gains. More vitally still, the radical queer critique of the capitalist family and of the bourgeois narrative of love and community still aims squarely at the dark heart of capitalist social relations. Radical trans politics still target the terrorism of the binary gender system and the way it conscripts our bodies and souls for the reproduction of capital. And we know well that capitalism is inseparable from colonialism, from resource exploitation, from extractive politics, and that these, in turn, demanded and still demand the brutal, genocidal subjugation of indigenous people. These are material relations of capitalism; they are not contingent or ephemeral or merely superstructural.

The more liberal and institutionalized aspect of what is called “identity politics” today picks up on the symptoms of these relations and seeks to elevate these to a universal field of struggle, one in which terms like “privilege” replaces “capital” as the wicked totality. In this mode of thinking, individuated subjects and their daily practices—rather than society at large and its institutions and structures—come to be seen as the site of transformation. And yet, to reduce all struggles against oppression and the various gendered, racialized, colonial elements of capitalism to such moribund “identity politics” would be wrong. Real solidarity means more than saying that these struggles are merely symptomatic of capitalism—that is to my mind the same as saying that struggles over wages, the length of the workday or unsafe working conditions are only symptomatic of capitalism.

I think if we are to have any chance, we must find ways to weave solidarity between these struggles so as to build a vehicle for revolutionary momentum, rather than for liberal capitulation. Yet that is a difficult balance to find, especially when our social and bodily relations are themselves fractured and riven by inequality, oppression and unequal rates of exploitation. One simply will not build a popular or resilient movement if one cannot address issues that are labeled “identity politics” or “intersectionality” beyond dismissing them or subsuming them.

Marx’s method offers the intellectual resources to understand and map a capitalist totality in singularly crucial ways. But it can also allow us to outsmart ourselves as organizers and paint ourselves into corners. I am concerned that in our particular historical mode of Marxian theoretical production, if you will, we risk the seductions of a profound detachment from actually-existing class struggle in all its myriad complexities, including where it intersects with other forms of oppression and exploitation. We cannot afford to do that anymore, if we want a revolution, let alone a decent one.

MJL: Well, struggles over wages are in fact symptomatic of capitalism, and recognizing this fact has certainly led to political action. I would suggest that what we have become increasingly aware of in the last decade or so are the limits that difference politics—which focus not only on identity but on the fluidity of identity and the mobility of desire—have come to represent in so far as they have been instrumentalized as a feature of biocapitalism. What we require, politically speaking, if we are to avoid the ways that proletarians are divided, is the organizational leadership of more leftist political parties, grassroots organizations and autonomous collectives, more “impractical literati” like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, more combative syndicalists, anarcho-syndicalists, council communists and libertarian communists. And it goes without saying that their platforms will be anti-racist and anti-sexist, but not without a political concept of universal emancipation beyond identity.

MH: You say that we need more leftist organizations. I agree, though I’m not sure that this gets us any further along towards the end of capitalism than we are now. We have seen how eager and content actually-existing anti-capitalist parties are to tear one another up, to become self-isolating and pedantic. Are we to assume that the pluralization of party forms will create a competitive ecosystem in which the strongest or best will survive and thrive? How do we get from this plurality to some sort of radical momentum capable of transforming power? I do not have an answer. |P


  1.  Max Haiven, ‘The Financial Crisis as a Crisis of Imagination,’ Cultural Logic (2010), 1-23. See also Haiven, ‘Finance as Capital’s Imagination? Reimagining Value and Culture in an Age of Fictitious Capital and Crisis,’ Social Text 29:3 (Fall 2011), 93-124.  

  2.  Alex Khashnabish and Max Haiven, ‘Convoking the Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research, Dialogic Methodologies, and Scholarly Vocations,’ Cultural Studies 12:5 (2012), 408-421.  

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