The Book that Everyone Needs to Read




Imanol Galfarsoro interviews Santiago Zabala

The Book that Everyone Needs to Read

January 19th, 2014 reset - +

IN THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW Imanol Galfarsoro talks with Santiago Zabala about his book, co-authored with Gianni Vattimo, Hermeneutic Communism. They discuss what drove the authors to write, in the words of Eduardo Mendietta in these pages, a “manifesto” for the 21st century that does not simply try to resuscitate classic philosophers such as Marx, but also radical politicians such as Evo Morales, José Mujica, and Hugo Chávez. 

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IMANOL GALFARSORO: Whom is this book for? Is there an ideal reader?

SANTIAGO ZABALA: One doesn’t often come across works of political philosophy that treat theory and practice together, as a single concept — in that sense, the book is bound to surprise people, and the ideal reader, for me, is the one whom this book will take by surprise. In that sense, our ideal reader could be pretty much anyone. Nonetheless, we could distinguish two specific ideal readers: a Western antiglobalization protester and an analytical philosopher. While the first needs to understand how change is almost impossible through violent revolts within our “framed democracies” (given the force of our establishments), the second should avoid presenting the analytic position as more democratic just because Heidegger (the principal continental philosopher) was a Nazi. If we follow this logic, then we have to also jettison Frege, since he was an anti-Semite, and Hume, since he considered black people inferior to whites. All philosophers make political errors (we do, too, no doubt!), but such errors are not always part of their philosophical intuitions. And don’t forget all those who thought the late Chávez was a dictator. They should read the book, too. Section 11 is intended to recall how the Venezuelan president received more democratic support than any EU president. 

We are witnessing a revival of communism as an ideal and many authors and thinkers are embracing Marxism in a variety of ways. Why is this?

I don’t think it has much to do with the economic crisis, as many seem to believe. After the autumn 2008 global financial crisis, new editions of Marx’s texts returned to our bookstores accompanied by a large number of introductions, biographies, and new interpretations of the German master. While this resurrection was undoubtedly caused by the financial meltdown allowed by our democratic governments, Marx’s revival among philosophers is not as simple — considering how in the early 1990s the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida anticipated this return as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s (self-proclaimed) “neoliberal victory” at the “end of history.” Against Fukuyama’s predictions, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, or the protests in Greece demonstrate that history calls once again for a new beginning beyond the economic, neoliberal, and international paradigms we live in. As Slavoj Žižek would put it, these events and protests should not be read as “part of the continuum of past and present” but rather as “fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential”; and this future, according to Žižek, will be communist.

But what is “communism”?

In today’s public opinion the term “communism,” which has acquired many different meanings throughout history, is not only considered a remnant of the past but also imagined as a political system in which all cultural, social, and economical components are controlled by the state. Although this might be the case in China, Vietnam, and North Korea, for most philosophers this meaning is not only outdated but also stands in sharp contrast with their existential justifications for its revival. In short, the historical failure of the Soviet Union and its dissolution in 1989 did not dismiss the idea of communism, but rather disclosed its unrealized potentialities that must be endorsed in order to modify, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, the “coordinates of what appears as possible and give birth to something new.” Hence communism is not an eternal set of rules that are present in every epoch of history to be applied rapidly, but simply a movement that “has to be reinvented in each new historical situation.”

So communism nowadays must break away from state communism?

I’m pretty sure we can all agree today that state communism didn’t work. But the endeavor to break out of the constraints of the State does not imply the end of communism, but rather another interpretation that conserves its social meaning but leaves aside its ideological impositions. This is why we believe statal forms of organization must be replaced with “direct” nonrepresentative forms of self-organization. Communism, as the antistatist realm for equal opportunities, today has become the best idea, hypothesis, and guide for nongovernmental or stateless political movements, such as those that arose from the protests in Seattle (1999), Cochabamba (2000), and Barcelona (2011). Although each of these movements fought for different specific causes (against injurious economic globalization, the privatization of water supplies, and harmful financial policies) their enemy was the same: democracy’s system of property distribution through capitalism’s private impositions. As the increasing poverty and slum populations demonstrate, this model has left behind all those who do not succeed within them, generating new communists. However, communism is not proposed any longer as a program for political parties to repeat previous historical regimes, but rather as an existential response to the current neoliberal global condition. The correlation between existence and philosophy is constitutive not only of most philosophical traditions but also of politics in its responsibility for the existential well-being of humans. After all, politics is not supposed to be simply at the service of everyday administrative life, but also to provide a reliable guide for everyone to fully exercise existence. But when these and other obligations are not met, philosophers tend to become existentialist, that is, to question and propose alternatives.

What does hermeneutics mean for you?

There are several ways to explain the meaning of hermeneutics, but in general hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation that runs proximally from Aristotle through Schleiermacher to Richard Rorty. Although Plato in the Ion presented hermeneutics as a theory of reception and practice for transmitting the messages of the gods of Olympus, it soon acquired a broader philosophical significance and began to refer to the alteration of meanings, that is, their possibility for being interpreted differently. We use hermeneutics as a way to indicate this flexibility in communism. This is why the motto of the book (rephrasing Marx’s famous statement from Theses on Feuerbach) is that “the philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.” Both hermeneutics, which favors interpretation over truth, and communism, which strives for state control of national resources, are alterations within our established intellectual institutions.

You’ve said that your hermeneutic approach is pitched against “realist” thinkers. Who are you referring to?

In part one of Hermeneutic Communism, which is called “Framed Democracy,” Vattimo and I produce what is really a deconstruction of the “‘winners’ of history”: that is, of the conservative realist positions of philosophers like John Searle, Robert Kagan, and Francis Fukuyama. These philosophers are nothing other than defenders, as Herbert Marcuse declared decades ago, of “the subordination of reason to metaphysical reality [which] prepares the way for racist ideology.” This racist ideology is at work today through capitalism’s impositions: inequality, exclusion, famine — economic oppression — have never affected so many human beings. As for Searle, it is worth recalling that he did accept the National Humanities Medal from President Bush in 2004 for his “efforts to deepen understanding of the human mind, for using his writings to shape modern thought, defend reason and objectivity, and define debate about the nature of artificial intelligence.” The realism he defends throughout his writings is very dangerous politically, because it reduces our possibilities of freedom and change. The priority of Searle’s, Kagan’s, and Fukuyama’s metaphysical realism is to conserve institutional facts in order to control any alterations. Even though such events as the terrorist attack on 9/11, Obama’s election, and the economic crisis of 2008 are presented to us as alterations, sudden changes, they are actually intensifications of the existing order: 9/11 was a response, unjustifiable of course, to decades of Western military constraints in the Middle East; Obama was always a member of the elite Washington establishment; and the economic crisis was created by the same financial speculations that sustain the capitalist economy. Against this intensification of realism in philosophy and politics, we indicate how it is possible to practice politics without truth, how hermeneutics can renew communism, and why South American politics can become a model for our Western democracies’ military, political, and financial logics. I understand this last point might be very difficult for Western intellectuals to recognize, but is it really so outrageous to suggest that South American politics might help us improve, too?

One thing that struck me while reading Hermeneutic Communism is the attention given to slums in relation to the idea of the “weak.” Where do these concepts come from, and how they relate to each other?

Yes, perhaps this is one of the most important innovations the text offers. The idea is that the “slums” and the “weak” are the “discharge of capitalism” — or, as I explained in my previous book, The Remains of Being, they are what does not belong to framed democracies and to the rational development of capitalism. These democracies have been building walls, not just the ones on borders (of Mexico, Israel, India, Afghanistan, Spain) but also, in the words of Mike Davis, “epistemological walls” in order to increase indifference toward the weak. This indifference — similar, on a theoretical level, to analytic philosophy’s attitude toward continental philosophy — is simply a symptom of fear, fear of the possibility of emancipation that these discharges imply. I’m certain this is also the main reason that a group of analytical philosophers led by a known supporter of Searle attempted (without success) to convince Cambridge University to avoid honoring Derrida in 1992. 

Ghosts everywhere! Derrida’s Specters of Marx is one of the texts that help you to develop the idea of “weak theory” stemming from your hermeneutics. When you talk about the present return of communism, however, you also present communism as a “radical alternative.” How do these seemingly contradictory ideas — the “weak” and the “radical” — link up?

Actually, together with “alternative” we also emphasize the term “alteration” when we discuss communism because it does not imply a simple alternative of our neoliberal system, but also an alteration of communism’s previous historical meaning. As Derrida explained in Specters of Marx, communism, together with Being, is a remnant of the past, the specter of a conquered fear overcome by Western capitalism and the artificial annihilation of philosophy. It is precisely in its great weakness as a political force that communism can be recuperated as an authentic alternative to capitalism. But the fact that it has virtually disappeared from Western politics as an electoral program does not imply it is not valuable as a social alternative. Being a communist today is not only a consequence of the existential threats posed by European capitalism: it was actually made possible by the failure of Soviet communism. The weakened communism we are left with in 2013 does not aspire to construct another Soviet Union but rather proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism. Marxism has gone through a profound deconstruction that has contributed to dismantling its rigid, violent, and ideological claims in favor of democratic edification. Being weakened from its own scientific pretexts for unfettered development allows communism to finally unite its supporters through its own theoretical weakness and political marginality.

The end of a dream, the end of ideology, the end of history … too many ends! And as you have already mentioned, this too is a problem, no?

Yes, it’s a problem, but only if we do not know how to end in a productive way. This is really the problem that tormented Heidegger at the end of his life: how to overcome metaphysics? If metaphysics is simply left aside, forgotten, we will inevitably repeat its errors. However, if we manage to twist it, and for this he used the term Verwindung, we will be able to move forward without falling back into it, that is, seek another end. This is also why we continue to talk about communism, but in a weakened form. As far as the EU is concerned, the problem is that its policies are presented as if we have reached the end of history. Although Europe is finally united culturally, economically, and soon also militarily, it does not mean it’s the sort of unification we were looking for. 

So you envision the present European Union as a bit of a disaster, then?

I wonder how many Europeans still believe in it. Unfortunately, since the Euro began to circulate and austerity plans were imposed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF (recently grouped together as the “Troika”), the metaphysical nature of the European project also began to disclose itself. Despite the fact that these measures are not ideologically “racist,” they are certainly metaphysically “violent,” as the current reforms imposed on Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and other nations demonstrate. While some believe there is no alternative to these measures given the world financial crisis that started in 2008, others have begun to seriously doubt the European project because there are no signs of change of “direction”; on the contrary, the values of “equality” and “solidarity” that inspired the Union have not only been lost but also replaced by a greater and growing inequality and indifference.

It seems as if you still hold on to the imaginary fantasy of what the European Union could or should have been.

My co-author, Gianni Vattimo, believes the EU, as a “project of political construction totally based on the willingness of citizens and states with equal rights to join,” aroused great enthusiasm at first. This was partly because it was the first time in history that a state formed without a violent conquest, and partly because of its initial “fidelity to a political tradition inspired by values like equality and solidarity that today more than ever appears to be the only one capable of promising a future that will not be totalitarian, militarized, and unlivable.” The “unifying” step Europe took after the second World War was not only meant to prevent further political conflicts but also cultural ones. Similarly, for many nations the European Union also represented the possibility to overcome social, legal, and economic restrictions that impeded a common progress toward greater possibilities and economic prosperity. As it turned out, this last feature was particularly attractive because of the inability of the European nations to compete against the dominant economic blocs of Asia and North and South America. It’s interesting to notice, for example, how the Union is useless as far as the attack on Syria are concerned. Each nation is deciding autonomously whether to join this unfortunate adventure.

Here and there you have mentioned notions such as communist “hypothesis,” “fidelity,” and “revolutionary event” — all of which resonate very much with the work of Alain Badiou. Yet I sense that your hermeneutic approach to the event differs from Badiou’s, which is framed within a mathematical ontology.

The main problem with recent philosophical accounts of the event, not only Badiou’s, is not their restriction by unexpected incidents (such as the 9/11 attacks), hopes (the election of Barack Obama), or disclosures (Snowden’s revelations), but rather by the fear of being shaken by them. Those actually shaken by these sorts of events are often the ones most framed within metaphysical knowledge, a knowledge accustomed to submit to the established structures of reality, politics, or, as Heidegger puts it, the “unsurpassable self-certainty, where everything is held to be calculable and, above all, where it is decided, without a preceding question, who we are and what we are to do.” If events have become an issue, it is not because of their ontological status but rather because of their potentiality to shake our current condition, that is, to transform it. Having said this, what probably drove such a prominent philosopher as Badiou to attempt to frame the event within his mathematical ontology is the fear of being shaken or disrupted by the unpredictability of events. As I mentioned earlier, contrary to this philosophical position, hermeneutic ontology not only is compatible with events, given that it necessarily does not submit to the metaphysical function, but is itself also a generator of events. The history of philosophical hermeneutics comprises events, achieved in the name of interpretation, that have shaken theological, scientific, and psychological paradigms; this is because hermeneutics is not only always already shaken but also determined to shake. This is probably why, as Vattimo recently reminded us, hermeneutic philosophers are often described as “crypto-terrorists and fomenters of social disorder” even though their objective is to preserve freedom through interpretation. The event of Being is an opportunity, rather than a threat — it is an opportunity for change, that is, for further interpretations, and hermeneutic ontology is a transformative thought interested in both welcoming and generating events. The problem is not being shaken by events but rather the fear of being shaken, a fear which leads metaphysicians to create refuges from difference, alterity, and also the proper practice of democracy.

So your position can ultimately be reduced to yet another version of Marxism, but one that differs from Badiou’s and also Negri’s approaches to the communist idea?

If we tend to prefer Derrida to Badiou and Negri it’s mostly due to the historical nature of deconstruction, which allows communism to return through its failure. The recent reevaluations or reassessments of Marx and communism connected not only to the current crisis of capitalism but also to the possibility of a kind of communism different from the one we saw in the last century. Communism has now become the realm for an emancipatory political project. Nevertheless, yes, our book is very different from Badiou’s texts or Hardt and Negri’s for that matter, and I doubt Hermeneutic Communism will be associated with their works. While they continue to use metaphysical notions (empire, multitude, revolution), we insist on the post-metaphysical political project of hermeneutics in order to weaken such notions where necessary. Hermeneutics is as much a part of communism as the other way around; each completes the other’s post-metaphysical goals. Also, while Negri and Hardt see in the “common” (i.e., where private and public immaterial property can be held in common), and Badiou in insurrectional experiences (the Paris Commune, for example), the possibility of non-state “forms of self-organization,” that is, of communism, Vattimo and I have suggested looking to the new democratically elected leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, and other Latin American nations. If these leaders have managed to enact communist policies without violent insurrections, it isn’t because of their theoretical or programmatic strength but rather because of their weakness. Contrary to the “scientific socialism” agenda, weak (or hermeneutic) communism has embraced not only the ecological cause of degrowth but also the decentralization of the state bureaucratic system in order to permit independent counsels to increase community involvement. It should not come as a surprise if many other philosophers, now made communist by the destructive actions and life-destroying policies of neoliberalism, also see the alternative this region offers, especially because the Latin American nations have demonstrated how communist access to power can also take place through the formal rules of democracy.

Hermeneutic Communism concludes with the rather bold suggestion that late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was a model for the American President Barack Obama. Are you afraid that Chávez’s recent death, or other changes that might occur in the next months or years, will invalidate this theory?

No we are not afraid at all. Although it’s too soon to know whether Maduro will be able to continue his policies, we’re certain he made the best choice. The problem is that Maduro is not as charismatic as his predecessor, and also not as popular among the other politicians of South America. While we are sad Chávez died considering everything he did for his country, we used his policies as a model that ought to be interpreted the same way we use communism. However, since we wrote the book there have been some other significant changes as well, such as Dilma Rousseff’s becoming the first female president of Brazil, Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, calling for better relations with Venezuela, and Uruguay and Argentina’s recognition of Palestine as a nation following the 1967 borders. (Meaning they view the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, including occupied East Jerusalem, as parts of Palestine.) I’m sure there will be many more changes in the region in coming months and years; either way, our book, as with every other political interpretation of the contemporary world, can grapple only with those events that happened before it was written. After all, and I think this is the first thing we say in the book: it was written between the reelection of President G. W. Bush in 2004 and President Obama’s decision to increase the soldiers deployed in Afghanistan in 2010. Hence, the very thesis that Chávez was a model for Obama should also be read within the philosophical context of the book.

Do you think the fact that both were reelected is a confirmation of that thesis?

It’s not so simple. After all, both were reelected for very different reasons. If “change” was Obama’s catchword, it has come first to Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Let’s take Obama’s health care reform. It’s nothing compared to what Chávez managed to do: offering free health care to millions of people for the first time, cutting extreme poverty by 70 percent, and quadrupling public pensions, among many other things. As for foreign policy, there is no question that Obama has been much more violent, considering the ongoing military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and, of course, the detainees in Guantánamo. Although Obama is certainly a decent man, we are still waiting for his “change”; on the other hand, Chávez not only delivered it but also imposed it when necessary. 

But still, why should Chávez be a model for Obama? After all, the changes the Venezuelan president brought about cannot all be suitable in the United States. Is it not perhaps that you, along with people like Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, are “in love” with the figure of Chávez?

Let’s not go too far. The point is that it is in Obama’s hands to make changes, and whether we like it or not, what Chávez did should still be a model for him. Let’s be clear though: Obama is much better than Bush or Romney, but he presented himself as an agent of change that we have not seen either internationally or nationally. One of Obama’s greatest mistakes was to call for bipartisanship when he had the majority in the Senate during his first two years in office and so could have done as he pleased. Instead, Chávez used his majority not only to leave the IMF but also to nationalize most of the country’s national resources in order to fund social programs that have led to, among many other things, the eradication of illiteracy and the creation of medical clinics throughout the nation. If we look at the differences between Obama and Romney, they were not as marked as the ones between Chávez and Capriles. It’s true we just experienced the US presidential election, but it is clear that not enough would have been done differently under a Republican administration to justify Obama’s call for change. While there are many issues I could mention, from appointing the same people who created the economic crisis or indiscriminately using drones in the Middle East, there is one issue that binds all three of them together: slums. Slum populations are growing by 25 million people a year and are becoming a major social and security issue for every nation. Some ministries of defense even see it as the battlefield for the 21st-century wars. While Chávez channeled massive state resources to offer houses to these populations, in the United States the slum population is growing at an alarming rate.

Why do the slums have such an important part in your book?

We focus on slums not only because they are increasing everywhere but also for philosophical reasons. In our book we refer to slums as one “discharge of capitalism,” and other, philosophical discharges are those positions (deconstructionism, critical theory, hermeneutics) considered marginal and unnecessary because they do not submit to metaphysical or scientific realism. But if these positions do not submit to scientific realism, it’s not for theoretical reasons but rather for ethical justifications, for their interest in the weak, the marginal, and the losers of history.

But then again, is it not a bit far-fetched to compare a regional power, Venezuela, with such global players as the United States? And is this comparison useful?

It’s useful as long as we recall we have entered an era where we are constantly told by our politicians “there is no alternative.” In this condition, Venezuela does not only represent an alternative but also an ethical alternative considering its interest in the weakest citizens. Also, Chávez did not simply represent his country: he was also the leader of all the Latin American countries that have joined forces (through UNASUR, ALBA, and Mercosur) to emancipate from IMF and the Washington consensus in general. Let’s remember South America is expected to grow by 10.1 percent in 2013, more than any other region in the world.

Was Chávez communist? Or for that matter people like Morales in Bolivia and other Latin American leaders who reached power via the formal democratic electoral process? They certainly do not call themselves “communist,” and, on the other hand, many people believe Chávez in particular was an undemocratic or populist politician!

It’s true; they use terms such as “socialism for the 21st century” or “Bolivarian Revolution.” The point is that capitalism is struggling for survival, and in this condition communism does not return as a repetition but rather as a possibility for emancipation from the neoliberal frame we are in. While China is still proceeding within the ancient and authoritarian Soviet parameters, in Venezuela the democratic electoral procedures have not only been respected; the state bureaucratic system has also been decentralized through social missions for community projects, called “missiones.” Overall the basic idea here is that the United States, the EU, and other Western democracies are “framed,” that is, politically neutralized. In this context, Chávez, or the Arab Spring — and Occupy for that matter — are really at the margins of the so-called proper functioning of finance, politics, and society because they enact alterations or, better, non-authorized changes. No wonder then that the media portray people like Chávez in a negative way, to make sure no one sees his policies as a model or example to follow. We thought of this when we began to notice how many intellectuals, such as Thomas L. Friedman, Moisés Naím, and Francis Fukuyama, portrayed Chávez as despotic. It must be said that, thanks to economists like Mark Weisbrot, journalists like Richard Gott, and filmmakers like Oliver Stone who devote much of their work to denouncing disinformation, Chávez has gotten some recognition that, although he passed away, will hopefully remain as an example, model, or indication of what we ought to do.

Finally, Chávez would invoke his allegiance to “socialism for the 21st century” or the “Bolivarian Revolution” just as often as his belief in God. Vattimo and yourself are also quite open about your religious beliefs. Would you care to briefly explain how you reconcile these two seemingly opposite or contradictory strivings?

While Gianni justifies communism through Christianity, I prefer to do it through hermeneutics. Either way, we both think Heidegger’s famous statement “only God can save us” ought to be modified to “only communism can save us.” If salvation is still something we can strive for — and we should — then religion’s emphasis on spirituality ought to be the point of departure for our political discourses. Now that Chávez is gone, but remains as a symbol of progress and resistance, his image can be used as a guiding star or model that is not very different from spirituality. The point is not to idealize models, but to allow models to be idealized, something that we are not always allowed to do. If, as Heidegger said, “the only emergency is the lack of a sense of emergency,” then we must invite everyone to overcome those politicians and philosophers who call for more security, stability, and, most of all, truth.

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Imanol Galfarsoro conducts research on diaspora politics, multiculturalism, and nationalism.

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