Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Antonio Gramsci said, “the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned”. In other parts of his writing he separates the intellect and the will — pessimism in the former and optimism in the latter. Is this the only way to get through the impasse of working for new alternatives within our political reality?
SC: Funnily enough, I sent that quotation, those very words to Thomas Hirschhorn, an artist who has been running a Gramsci monument in the Bronx under the auspices of the DIA Art Foundation. He’s built a fantastic, precarious, transient monument with a library and media centre with all sort of Gramsci-related activity. I sent him that quotation and it was put on the wall. The quotation is interesting because the point is not to become disillusioned while living without illusions. Maybe we could add another twist to that line of thought by saying the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned but to accept that politics is the creation of an illusion that we know is an illusion. I think that illusion has a positive function and that it’s not all bad. It is not that we move from illusion to reality, necessarily. Politics is often about the creation of forms of positive illusion, which can stitch together a political movement and political front around a slogan or image. I don’t think we can just disregard illusions but we have to inhabit illusions while knowing they are illusions.
While we’re on the subject of Gramsci, another quotation I like from his work is when he says that the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In many ways this describes our situation -— the old is dying and the new is struggling, with difficulty, into existence. We are in a critical state between a world that is falling apart and a new world that we’re unsure of what it will look like — it might even look worse than the old world. But the old order in Europe and North America has collapsed and something is struggling for emergence, and all these signs we have — different movements such as Occupy, the Indignados and all the other mass movements that have appeared around in the world in the last few years — are symptoms of this difficult birth (whatever name we’re going to give it).
JGF: The need for a new political identity is one of the driving forces of Infinitely Demanding. Now that communism appears to be politically useless, at least for the moment, the ‘commons’ has emerged as a viable alternative name around which to organise new forms of political action, from Indian peasant’s saving seeds to open source computer hackers. Firstly, what’s in a name? And does political action always require some form of self-identification (communist, indigenous, commoner, etc.)?
SC: I think it does, yes. In Infinitely Demanding I argue that politics is about acts of nomination; it’s about naming a political subject that can come into existence. The example I give in Infinitely Demanding is the indigenous subject or indigeneity as a new form of political identity in the Mexican context. What this reveals is that there has to be something around which an identity takes shape. This could be a slogan that functions to shape an identity, such as Occupy’s ‘We are the 99%’. This is a good example of how an identity was shaped around the 99% against the 1%. So politics is about the activity of naming and the construction of identities around which groups can conform, and this is the activity (to go back to Gramsci who is on both of our minds at the moment) called hegemony. Hegemony is the shaping of an alliance or a common front, a construction of what Ernesto Laclau used to call a ‘chain of equivalences’. Hegemony is the art, and it really is an art and not a science, of the construction of a political front and one of the things that forms a front is a name, an identity.
The question is whether such a name exists at the present time. There are some philosophers like Alain Badiou who think that names are lacking and that we need a new name, like Proletariat was for Marx. I’m not so pessimistic. I think that names like immigrant, say, can become mobilising forms of identity for new political fronts but names do have to be invented and identities have to be formed: and then it is around those that political action can take shape.
JGF: One of the major concerns of your work is the question of motivation. How do you understand the motivational deficit in our recent political history, and does Occupy represent the emergence of a new participatory paradigm?
SC: I would start by clarifying my thoughts here: I think there is a motivational deficit in regards to the citizens’ relationship to the institutions of existing states. We have a demotivated relationship to the party system, institutions like parliament, various institutions of government and all the rest. We did, arguably, in the past feel some affinity to those institutions but now we feel a distance from them and one symptom of this is the decline in party membership in countries like Britain. So political parties are now technocratic elites rather than the consequence of genuine popular movements, which was the case with the Labour Party a long time ago.
The double movement of motivation, though, is if there’s deficit in regard to normal politics, then there has also been a motivational surplus with regards to abnormal forms of politics. What’s happened in the last 15 years is a shift of political energies away from normal, electoral, politics into activities we could link with the alterglobalisation movement, critiques of globalisation and capitalism, anti-war movements, and then into movements like Occupy and the Indignados. There is a transfer of motivation from the usual avenues of politics into new avenues. Again, the meta-question, the key question, is how we take that new motivational energy and shape it politically into a more powerful force? In particular, what relationships those political energies are going to have to the existing state and institutions of the state. Are they, on the one hand, going to seek the elimination and annihilation of those institutions and state, in the guise of a classical anarchism? Or, are they going to aim at some other kind of space within the state, which I call in my earlier work, a creation of interstitial distance within the state that can exert a pressure upon the state and aim for its amelioration.