A Dialogue on Democracy and the Republic, Part 2

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Here is the second part of a dialogue with philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop on the idea of the republic. This is a continuation of the discussion started here on the 29th of October last.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop taught modern philosophy in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid from 1981 to 1986. He translated Spinoza’s correspondence into Spanish and, as a member of the Association des Amis de Spinoza, has taken part in seminars and congresses in France and Italy. He is currently working as a senior translator in the Council of the European Union and is specialized in foreign policy matters. He is an advisory editor of the review Décalages (on Althusserian studies). He writes in European and Latin-American publications on Spinoza, Althusser, modern philosophy and political philosophy. His latest book is La dominación liberal (Liberal Domination. Essay on liberalism as a power apparatus) (Tierra de Nadie, Madrid, 2010). He is currently linked to the Philosophy Center of the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is preparing a PhD on Spinoza in Althusser. His blog, in Spanish, is Iohannes Maurus.

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RMcA: I’d like to relate what you’ve been saying here to the present situation in Europe. Before I do, a couple of comments. I think you -and the rest of the line of the damned!- are right about the common-wealth as an originary reality underlying capitalism itself. Indeed, the legal architecture of a capitalist State rests, at a very basic level, upon a conception of something that is common to all. And it’s also true about the way neoliberalism puts knowledge of this originary reality to its own ends.

 

JDSE: There is much to say on common-wealth or even on communism as the very fabric of any society, even of the one which most utterly denies it, capitalism. What we, on the “line of the damned” construe as the commons, has in bourgeois legal terms, an equivalent: the “public” as synonymous with State-owned and/or -managed. This is, of course, a mystification of the common ground of society, placed as a transcendent One above the multitude. This is exactly the way Hobbes thinks of the union of a Commonwealth in his political works. Against this we consider the multitude as rooted in the common, as an ever open set of incomplete singular individualizations as the French philosopher Simondon put it, in a very Spinozist way (even if he never was aware of this connection). From this point of view, the common is always-already political, and the relevant question is not the one about the origin of the political or the common, but the one about individualization and its modes.

Neoliberalism is an effort -possibly the last effort- by capitalism to get asymptotically as close as possible to the communist fabric of society, and even of the human species, in order to exploit it. That’s why it has been identified by Michel Foucault as “biopolitics”. Life and the reproduction of capital are getting ever closer to each other. The very span of labour time or space is nowadays indefinite and becomes identical to human individual and social life. There is no longer a closed space and a definite time for labour, as was the case in the classical Fordist or even pre-Fordist (Dickensian) factory. Today, life reproduction and labour are the same: Marx would say that we have entirely completed the “real subsumption” of labour under capital.

RMcA: Under neoliberalism you have all these ideas relating to entrepreneurship, but also, increasingly I think, you have a kind of communist equality informing the organisation of the capitalist firm: so workers, whilst encouraged to think of themselves as unitary subjects who  must use others for their own ends, are also, at the same time, part of a ‘family’ (albeit one that will expel you forever if and when the need arises) who are called upon to ‘share’ their knowledge and capabilities -and even details about their personal lives, their own personal idiosyncrasies and stories- in the service of the common good, i.e., profit.

JDSE: That’s exactly it. A hardline defender of the North Korean regime in Spain said in a debate on TV that “family values” were paramount in North Korean society and that the Leader is for them a father, society being consequently a big family. It’s precisely the biopolitical image of society that mainstream political thought in the West has consistently repressed since Hobbes or, even more explicitly, Locke in his polemic against Filmer’s Patriarch in the First Treatise, and of course Rousseau. The sovereign, for this tradition, is not a Father, and society is not a family, but the unnatural result of a contract. I think we’re moving back from this contractualist tradition to some open forms of familialism in the representation of power, be it in society or inside the firm. By the way, power in broader society or in the State and power in the firm bear some important analogies. Under Fordism, power in the firm was based on a contract, as was representation in the whole of society. Nowadays, the contract tends to be replaced by other forms of flexible -and unequal- cooperation: you have an affective relation to your boss and to your firm and consider your fellow workers as brothers and sisters inside a big family. Of course inside this “family” relations are intense, but not very solid. No kidding: you directly co-operate with other people for a common goal, but you don’t own the firm with them and can be fired at any moment, because you are not tied to the firm you consider yours by a strong contract, but by a very fragile partnership agreement. In fact, the firm is seen as a cluster of micro-enterprises acting towards a transitory goal: affectively it functions as a family, but it lacks the permanent ties of the kinship. From a psychoanalytical point of view one could say that present day firms are not so different to the other “families” existing in neoliberal capitalist societies, since in there is no symbolic father in either of them, but only a brutal real father who knows no other law but his own enjoyment.

RMcA: And I think it is also the case that schools, universities and media institutions and so on dedicate ever greater resources toward the shaping of such a subjectivity: a kind of caring, sharing homo economicus who has to attend to a set of very real material obligations, in terms of personal debt burdens, constant retraining in order to maintain employability, assumed private costs of education and health, and so on. This ‘communism’ extends even into the discourse of political representatives: when the gravity of Ireland’s economic crisis became apparent, for example, this republic of the commons was invoked by none other than the right-wing prime minister, who, whilst warning that living standards would have to fall and public spending would have to be cut, appealed for a ‘Meitheal mentality’, referring to co-operative labour practices that traditionally existed in rural Ireland.

JDSE: “Meitheal for capital” is a nice oxymoron, but it describes our situation quite well: communism is fought against as a political objective and declared utopian or totalitarian (or both), whilst simultaneously mobilized for profit. Maybe Nikita Khruschev was right when declaring to the Americans that their grandchildren would be communist, but he didn’t know communism would eventually be the key to the survival of capitalism. We live all the time in a tension between the fabric of society, i.e. direct productive cooperation based on the commons, and the political and legal forms imposed by a capitalism which has ever more radically withdrawn from production or from the organization of production since the 70s. Ownership of the means of production is not as essential as it once was; now the main tool for social control and exploitation is credit, and the related policies of debt. Credit dominates the reproduction of the new kind of “homo oeconomicus”, who is no longer defined by the mere calculation of profit but by his ability to make an enterprise of himself through production -and reproduction- of human capital. One should observe that a scheme of free cooperation among workers should imply some education and training of the individual in diverse skills, cognitive, productive, social and others. These education and training could exist -and in some restricted way have existed even in Fordist capitalism- as common resources. But they can also take the form of commodities. In neoliberalism they are commodities one should pay for in order to acquire what Gary Becker calls “human capital” and thus capitalize your individual enterprise, the firm you are. This means you get them from private providers which are allowed by the capitalist State to own and sell a whole range of common goods. Of course, acquisition of “human capital” is based -just like the investments of the traditional firms- on credit. The free individual involved in free cooperation is thus heavily indebted before even being able to work.

RMcA: To relate this to the situation in Europe: one of the things I’ve noticed about Ireland -the Republic of Ireland-  is just how far along this line so many people are with this aspect of the neoliberal project, by comparison with places such as Greece and Spain. That is not to pretend that the situation is excellent in either of the latter countries. However, there does appear to be a greater potential, in both of those places, for the emergence of a new emancipatory political subject. I’m not concerned here with the question of why there has been less visible mobilisation against Troika rule and bank bailouts in Ireland than elsewhere. However, I think it’s useful to think of Ireland perhaps as an example of precisely the kind of depoliticised docility, where frustration is consigned to the private realm, that is sought by neoliberal project in Europe: a population held up as the ‘good’ pupil in contrast to the unruly Greeks.

JDSE: Maybe this can be the result of an Americanization of Irish society through the years of the Celtic Tiger. In America people tend to react to social frustration through private feelings more than through a political reaction. You feel you have to pay for being a loser in a society where you “experienced” you could win. I think one of the main obstacles against the development of a meaningful left-wing alternative in Spain is an attitude very close to the one you describe prevailing in the Spanish population. After all, the PP, which is responsible for huge cuts to income and rights damaging the majority of the Spanish population, is still leading in the opinion polls and the “social-democratic” party, the PSOE, has never dared to oppose the current government’s hardline neoliberal policies. I think the social left has to fight on an anthropological and cultural field before even dreaming of a political re-birth. This situation is different in Greece and Portugal, since these countries have never experienced a long period of growth and relative prosperity through indebtedness as Spain, Ireland or Italy have, to varying degrees.

Now, bearing in mind what you were saying about how freedom in the Roman Republic came from tumultus. At the time of writing it has been just been announced that Ireland is officially exiting the EU-IMF bailout. This is being trumpeted as a great moment in Ireland’s history, a turning point at which Ireland’s national sovereignty was regained. Obviously, this good news story is pure fantasy. The Irish government will still be subject to the dictates of the bond markets and the stringent conditions on debt repayment set out in the Fiscal Treaty. There will be more cuts to public spending, more privatisations and continued high levels of unemployment.  But the story is interesting in that it illustrates the way political resistance can be confined within certain boundaries. The government has been able to present the destruction of Ireland’s social fabric -’the recovery of sovereignty’, according to the official narrative, as in the best interests of society as a whole. There was a capturing of political imagination within two poles -either subjection to European tyranny or national independence. This kind of capture, it seems to me, is entirely compatible with the institutional architecture of the EU: control of monetary policy in the hands of the ECB, the passing of legislation at European level beyond the remit of national parliaments, budgetary oversight by the European Commission, and so on, with a kind of allowance for some degree of resistance on a national plane. Do you agree? And if this is true, given what you said above about the need to occupy the spaces of representation, and of government, what do you think the prospects are, what kind of political approach is needed, for this kind of operation at a European level?

JDSE: The bailout package was defined in terms of what Foucault would name a disciplinary power. Its goal was to correct and normalize through external discipline what was “flawed” in some European economies just as the prison or the madhouse does with bodies reluctant to work. The goal of this disciplinary intervention was thought to “free” the subject, once its bad inclinations were corrected. It is now the case: no more external discipline is needed, since the subject can be autonomous in applying the therapy to himself. Now that the main legal and regulatory changes are enshrined in national and EU law, disciplinary power can be replaced by a loose control allowing some scope for “freedom” and the re-establishing of some illusion of “sovereignty”. Even for Greece the bailout package will soon be lifted, but this means that for the coming years our countries will see more of the same: what was initially a normalizing exceptional procedure has become law and normal management of economic and social affairs. As Althusser said of the subjects as produced by the Ideological State Apparatuses: “the subjects walk by themselves”(“les sujets marchent tout seuls”). They walk in some way like walking dead…

I think the political terrain where a victory could be won by the Left is no more the national one. At a national level resistance is still possible and much needed, but the scope for decision and real action is too narrow. The key problems behind the crisis, the debt, impoverishment, social services, rights, etc. can only be solved at an European level. No single country in Europe would be able to resist the pressure of financial markets on its own. That’s why I support Syriza’s view that the countries of the European periphery should exert their rights as members of the European Union and put pressure and conditions on the European Commission and the other Member States in order to re-establish normal, civilized conditions of life for people throughout the Union.

RMcA: There is an orthodox strand in the thought of the ‘damned’ which says resistance on a national plane ought to be the priority: Engels says as much in the prologue to the 1892 Polish edition of the Communist Manifesto: ‘A sincere international collaboration of the European nations is possible only if each of these nations is fully autonomous in its own house.’ Then you have Marx in the text saying that ‘The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.’ What are your thoughts on this? Can the proletariat and the bourgeoisie still be said to exist in the same national terms set forth by Marx and Engels?

JDSE: Everything Marx and Engels say on this matter is now outdated. It’s not that I think States don’t have any weight, but they are completely overdetermined by overarching European -and even global- powers. Economies were in the 19th century far less integrated than they are today in the European continent; capital reproduces itself at a continental and even global level. I would advocate -against this methodological nationalism- a methodological Europeanism and globalism. We urgently need a democratic and federal European government, which we don’t have at all. The EU institutions are still based on national competency and not on the principle of a federal competency; that means that the right to give competences is still a competence of the Member States. In fact, the Member States and their delegate organs like the European Commission decide on everything relevant and the European Parliament is given the role of an old regime parliament with no legislative initiative. What we most urgently need is a multi-level democracy with a real federal level able to politically represent the European political, economic and cultural commons. The difference between Marx and Engels’s time and ours is precisely the massive existence of the European -and global- commons. This means that any proletarian struggle reclaiming the commons will have to be continent-wide and not only nation-wide.