Talking Badiou, Borders, and Bernie

I’ve been getting more interested in Badiou lately—I bought and have been reading “Theory of the Subject,” casually, or at least as casually as one can read such a book. What is good about Badiou is that he offers a real revolutionary lucidity; he doesn’t get led astray in the sense that the so-called “crypto-fascist” leftists do, the leftists who always happen to find themselves on the Right whenever it counts (there is, of course, often still something of value in those “crypto-fascists” like Zizek). Badiou always tries to stay faithful to the Event, the instance of collective liberation that establishes the Truth of radical egalitarian politics. If Badiou is “bad” it is because he is too committed to this, the “unrepentant Maoist.” Whatever my thoughts on the Cultural Revolution, I think this is refreshing.

Badiou’s history of work with migrant workers and marginalized populations is particularly relevant today. In the Verso Blog (as always):

Faced with the refugee problem, the left is deeply divided between NPA-style internationalism and the protectionism defended by Chantal Mouffe or La France Insoumise. What is your position?

Today, it is impossible to consider any major political problem except on the world scale. The consequences to be drawn from an organizational point of view are another matter… If you do not focus on this level, you cannot understand the situation. It is not completely wrong to say that there are no more manual workers in France. At the world level, on the other hand, there have never been so many workers as there are now. Simply that they are all in China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Brazil or Romania. We seriously misinterpret the political and social situation, in the broadest sense, by seeing it only through the French keyhole. Forty years ago, in this country, there was a complete social fabric, with peasants and workers in large factories. The changes of globalized capitalism force us to change our thinking accordingly. If you don’t have the same measure as your opponent, you’re bound to fail! Today’s proletariat is a vast nomadic proletariat seen as immigration or migrants. In reality, this is a question of class relations at the planetary level. This implies, at a minimum, prioritizing international relations and having a position on this nomadic proletariat that arrives in our country or wants to settle there. I like these divisive questions! Those on which there’s a consensus are rarely the right ones. This is the major political issue that divides, in a confusing way. Positions on the left are unclear. After all, what would an organization of the nomadic proletariat mean? We are far from having solved this problem. But you have to raise it. The strategic political stage is global. On this point, capitalism is a good step ahead because it is comfortably established on this stage.

I’ve written before about how socialist electoral politics faces an impasse with the issue of this nomadic proletariat. For the democratic socialists taking power in a country such as the United States requires, at the very least, winning over the existing “settler” working classes—the working classes that were long satisfied with the post-WW2 semblance of endless plenty, the classes who were invited into a way of life that resembled the rich and bourgeois classes but forced back out once their labor was no longer the most cost-effective option, the classes on the internal periphery of the core of capital, the dispossessed white blue-collar Trump voters archetype we have heard so much about. Carrying the torch of American social democratic politics, Bernie Sanders must speak for these people if he wishes to be elected president; he must, per Zizek, consider the jouissance that obstructs the “coming-together” of the dispossessed Rust Belt worker with the Other of the undocumented nomadic proletarian of Central America, the outsider from the external periphery, beyond the polis. The insistence that there is no impasse or tension whatsoever between these different groups is false.  This is not to say that Sanders must be racist, in the crass or vulgar sense, but it almost certainly means that he must leave some racist institutional structures unquestioned.

Let me put this another way: the total abolition of borders, the unconditional affirmation of the principle of absolute freedom of movement, and so on, is not a promising electoral strategy because it offers little to the people who will vote. (I will not specify the abolition of ICE in particular because that refers to the inhumane practices of the agency and not necessarily the theoretical stance of “no borders” overall.) Even if the nomadic proletarians do not steal the jobs and enjoyment of the dispossessed citizen-settlers as much as the nativist reactionaries claim, the impression, the popular mood, is what counts. The people Sanders must win over will not vote for him if the electoral socialist left’s messaging is that they (the citizen-settlers) are seen simply as white devil petit bourgeois class enemies—even if they really are.

(I am speaking of collectives, of myths, essentially. The “Trump voter” identity is the silliest myth of all. But we must use these broad strokes because we don’t have a discrete subject we can talk to, as in psychoanalysis. Instead, we have a sort of necessarily-inadequate aggregate nebula of moods.)

The woke-PC democratic socialists are right to say that these dispossessed Trump voters aren’t really the “proletariat” in the grand scheme of things. And to turn back to Badiou, “it is impossible to consider any major political problem except on the world scale.” But the very next sentence: “The consequences to be drawn from an organizational point of view are another matter…”

The abolition of borders is impossible in the context of a democratic electoral program that maintains continuity with the existing order. If we want to organize the nomadic proletariat we need to think outside of electoral politics, outside the nation-state—we must think in terms of international relations.

This impasse is something that polite democratic socialists do not want to accept exists. Either they must identify with democracy, the nation-state, the parliamentary status quo, and work with the settler classes or they must reject electoral politics entirely and side with the nomadic proletariat, taking the path of revolutionary politics and effectively ceasing to be American (“Amerikkkan”). The latter option is the real rejection of identity politics since its goal is the end of identity, full stop.

What this ultimately comes back to is a question of what the Left should be trying to achieve, the organizational question. A Sanders presidency—a best-case scenario for the DSA faction—would by definition maintain continuity with the status quo, sanctioned by authority of the Constitution written by all those slave owners, and whatever. It would not be Communist. But that isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be better than what things are now. I will leave this question hanging here. The DSA faction will only trip over itself if it thinks it can legislate its way to revolutionary politics and abolishing the nation-state. If we just want some of the “nice things” that social democratic Europeans get to have, then we can skip the revolution—but we have to beat the imperialist bourgeoisie at their own electoral game. Is it worth it?

How can multiculturalism contradict working-class solidarity?

This is part 1 in what will be a series of blog posts.

In response to my last blog post, I was asked a good question: “what exactly is multiculturalism and what is its contradictory relationship with international solidarity?”

Multiculturalism is something that can have many different definitions, so I’ll try to stick by the understanding that has to do with the context of “why Zizek was right” and antagonisms with international working-class solidarity.

To start, in the most general, theoretical sense, there is no antagonism between multiculturalism and international solidarity. In short: immigrants can and should be considered part of the broader workers’ struggle. This is not, in principle, something that needs to be fundamentally revised. In a globalized world, we need to think about these issues in a “global” sense. So I think I made a mistake when I said:

“There is, however, still an unavoidable antagonism between a left-theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a left-theoretical commitment to working class solidarity under global neoliberalism: the left needs to come to terms with the practical-left commitment to a working class displaced and alienated by widespread de-industrialization.”

The issue shouldn’t be framed as an antagonism between the theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a theoretical commitment to working class solidarity, but between a theoretical commitment (multiculturalism) and practical commitment (working class solidarity). I think I was incorrect to imply that the issue necessarily occurs at the theoretical level.

So what is the practical contradictory relationship between multiculturalism and working class solidarity?

To get an idea of what is at stake in this, consider the line that the Clinton campaign used against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primaries—that Bernie Sanders is a “single-issue candidate” for running on a platform of economic justice, opposition to Wall Street, and so on. Part of what was implied in this is that Sanders’ program is “just for white people,” that the struggles of women, minorities, and others are not fundamentally tied to a critique of capitalism—and that, if anything, the capitalists, the well-educated and well-mannered elites, are precisely those who are on the side of the marginalized, as opposed to the racist, provincial, backwards white working class.

Of course, the Clinton campaign alone does not demonstrate that there is a theoretical contradiction between multiculturalism and working class solidarity at all. In fact, from this, we can affirm the theoretical compatibility of those things. The opposition between “intersectionality” and “socialism” that the Clinton campaign set up is best countered by demonstrating that there is no opposition—that many of the most structurally oppressive issues that marginalized people face are fundamentally economic, and that it is the “Woke Capital” ideology that is more concerned with empty gestures and tokenism. But does this calculating Clintonite sleight of hand reveal something deeper?

This brings us to where the practical contradictory relationship between “multiculturalism” and working class solidarity occurs. The Clinton campaign’s “Woke-Capital” ideological opposition of multiculturalism with working class solidarity is nonsense on the theoretical socialist terrain—but it mirrors the concrete functioning of global capital, and poses and urgent practical obstacle for organizing in developed countries. I will summarize crudely. Capital expands outwards to avoid the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The rate of profit is sustained by creating global value chains of production, extracting resources and labor from the global periphery—“developing countries”. As this expansion toward the periphery occurs, the industrial base in the economic core is no longer needed, because the cost of labor is higher and the potential returns are lower. These former industrial regions in the global economic core themselves begin to resemble the “underdeveloped” periphery, facing widespread unemployment, poor social services, and other issues (the “Rust Belt,” the Ruhrgebiet, and so on). By contrast, the new cores of the developing countries, benefiting most from the windfall profits of global value chains, begin to look much more like the core—embodying the logic and the appearance of “cities of the future” than the core itself (Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg…). The consequence of this is that there is a form of “multiculturalism” that is taken up and assimilated into the logic of global capital. This logic does validate the rainbow-colored masses of “the developing world,” but it only understands their value through the exploitation of their labor (“Immigrants: they get the job done!”). But what this logic has no use for is the post-industrial “leftovers,” who are themselves backwards and forgotten, as if excluded from the progression of history (“Why do people support a racist like Trump? Don’t they know it’s [the current year]?”).

The Left’s confusion over the apparent impasse between multiculturalism and the interests of the “leftover” working class has done little to stop right-populists and fascists across the developed world from achieving previously-unimaginable electoral success. The now-popular identification of developed-world post-industrial working class interests with the Right is inexcusable for leftists. Accepting the left’s position on the conservative side of a radically-flipped political spectrum of late capitalism is the fast track to obsolescence.

How can we get around this impasse? To start, the Left’s theoretical understanding must take into account the nuanced, shifting, and increasingly-muddied distinctions between global economic cores and peripheries. It must to take into account the leftover working classes in the “peripheries of the cores” that have been left behind by history.

But this is only a tiny part of the beginning of the solution. We must go much deeper to truly work through the problem of contemporary racism posed by the issues facing multicultural western societies. For this, we should turn to psychoanalysis, and in particular, the concept of jouissance. Zizek is correct to identify this as the kernel of the problem in his fascinating 2015 feud with Sam Kriss:

“Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence? The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.”

I intend to go into more detail on the meaning and significance of jouissance as an obstacle to solidarity across cultures (and discuss how the Zizek-Kriss debate is the microcosm of the Left’s theoretical difficulty grasping this issue) in another blog post.