Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Radical Political Theory

Another draft syllabus for Winter 2009:

POLI 364: Radical Political Thought
The Theory and Practice of Revolution

For the purposes of this course, radical political thought is understood to encompass the three revolutionary and leftist political tendencies of the 19th and 20th Centuries: Marxism, anti-colonialism, and radical feminism. Radical movements are revolutionary in that they seek to break with the liberal and capitalist political order rather than perfect that order. That is, these movements do not want a more inclusive or expansive liberal order, but desire the overturning of that order itself. They are leftist in that they do not seek to recover some pre-liberal, traditional order, but try to create something new: a post-modern politics for a post-modern society.

The particular itinerary of our investigation will follow radical movements as they have attempted to answer three questions: 1) What is revolution, and how is it to be accomplished? 2) What role does violence play in maintaining the present state of society, and what role will it play in the overthrow of that state? 3) What is ideology and how does it function? We will begin with Marx’s discussion of revolution in his mature political writings, then examine a) the revolutionary Marxist tradition, b) its assimilation and critique of Sorel’s theory of mythical violence, c) the anti-colonial appropriations of revolutionary Marxism, d) feminist and post-structuralist rearticulations of the revolutionary project, and e) the strategy of refusal articulated by the Italian Autonomia movement.

Reading Schedule:
January 6-8 Introduction
Marx, Capital, Chapter 6

January 13-15 Marx, Capital, Chapters 26, 31 & 32, and selections from the ‘Grundrisse

January 20-22 Marx, selections from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
and The Civil War in France

January 27-29 Lenin, selections from What Is To Be Done?

February 3-5 Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution

February 10-12 Sorel, selections from Reflections on Violence
Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”

February 17-19 Fanon, “Concerning Violence”

February 24-26 No Class

March 3-5 Mao, On Contradiction

March 10-12 Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

March 17-19 Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”, Lectures One and Two

March 24-26 MacKinnon, “Desire and Power”

March 31-April 2 Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto”

April 7-9 Castellano, “Living With Guerilla Warfare”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Keep Your Pants On

This last week saw something of a collective tizzy fit on the liberal/progressive blogosphere over the fact that Obama seems poised to nominate a bunch of not-so-progressive insiders to his cabinet. The Rahm Emanuel pick caused a similar, if smaller, stir. reactions seem to run the gamut from horror through disappointment to "I told you so" and "What else did you expect."

I've touched on this before, but Obama's appeal has always been both that he is a game changer and a competent player. For this reason, I think it's a little early to be reading the tea leaves, whether to find signs of Obama selling out or to find signs that he's always been a Washington insider, centrist type (i.e., not a true progressive).

Does anyone remember the beginning of the Clinton administration? Clinton made all sorts of outsider-y, aesthetically pleasing staffing choices...and was promptly rewarded by Congress bucking him and the beltway media treating him like one of the rude mechanicals. Maybe Obama's always been a centrist technocrat, or maybe he's selling out for the sake of the power, but I really don't think anyone can tell from what has happened so far. Let the man actually do something, and then we'll see.


To clarify a bit, I was not attempting to say that Obama's appointees (or potential appointees) should not be scrutinized and criticized for their past positions and actions. I'm as happy as anyone that John Brennan is out of the running for both CIA Director and DNI. The only thing I was trying to caution against was drawing conclusions about how Obama would govern and which policies he would pursue based solely on news reports about appointees.


Nate Silver says what I tried to say, but more clearly, and even backs it up with a nifty chart.
There is, to say the least, a lot of jumping to conclusions about just which type of President Barack Obama is liable to be, by which I mean whether he'll govern from the left or the center. This speculation has been principally based on his cabinet appointments, a subject that people may be reading too much into. The initial Bush cabinet contained a number of people who could be described as moderate or center-right, including Colin Powell, Tommy Thompson, Norman Mineta, Christine Todd Whitman, Paul O'Neill and arguably Mitch Daniels and Ann Veneman. Obviously, this was balanced out to some degree by the Rumsfelds and the Ashcrofts, but it is not clear that Bush's 2001 cabinet was any more right-wing than Obama's 2009 cabinet is left-wing. Bush ran a very conservative government -- but the authority came from the top down.

Most of this discussion, moreover, has dwelt in the realm of tactics, presentation and salesmanship rather than grand strategy. One can "govern from the center" and implement a number of liberal policies -- by shifting the Overton Window a couple of panes at a time, and selling classically liberal policies as commonsensical and centrist.
The whole post is excellent.

On This Day In Idiocy...

Via Andrew Sullivan I find this, in which Eric Posner argues that the Iraq War may be a humantarian success story because more people would have died had the sanctions had stayed in place for an additional 10 years.

In other news, Jeffrey Dahmer has been named humanitarian of the year, since what he did to his victims was so much less horrible than what he considered doing to them but didn't.

Also, Napolean has been awarded a posthumus Nobel Peace Prize for not starting all the wars he didn't start, and Stalin has been canonized on the basis that the population of the Soviet Union increased under his rule.

(Is Posner's argument "tongue in cheek," a la a very modest proposal? Brian Leiter thinks so, which is probably evidence of the argument's sincerity. Then again, Andrew Sullivan takes the argument at face value, which might be evidence of ironic intent. Hmmm...)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Medium Is the Message

Nate Silver has an interesting and fairly convincing post at FiveThirtyEight, arguing that modern American conservatism's dependence upon talk radio has, after almost twenty years of paying real dividends, finally begun to fatally undermine their ability to compete against a resurgent liberalism. I would have liked to analyze Silver's argument by putting it into the context of Marshall McLuhan's (another Canadian!) arguments about the material effects of media. (I once taught McLuhan in a journalism ethics class, and the students just stared blankly at me. I admit it was far from my strongest teaching outing, but I also have a pretty low opinion of journalism majors. Worse even than education majors in my humble opinion.)

Anyway, I was going to do that, but then I got sidetracked by this effort to spin out Silver's argument into a whole series of correspondances between political ideologies and communication media. There I found the following (intentionally) provocative claim:
The libertarian medium is the doctrinaire treatise (or treatise pretending to be a novel). There is no liberal or conservative equivalent to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. There are, of course, Marxist equivalents. This is one reason why sectarian libertarians and Marxists find arguing with each other more congenial than engaging with viewpoints that have real political importance. The two sides agree on what kind of thing political debate should aim to discover: the right Book.
This seems to grasp a kernal of truth only to lose hold of it as quickly as it has grasped it. I agree that real libertarians (as opposed to glibertarians like Glenn Reynolds, et al) share many characteristics with Marxists--including a propensity to give away books for free on the internet. But I don't think it has much of anything to do with the desire of proponents of either ideology to discover "the right Book." I would say instead that libertarians and Marxists are the most rationalistic of contemporary political ideologies, and those most devoted to a robust notion of truth. Hence, both are frequently given to grand exercises of polemics and are naturally disposed to sectarian schism.

Interestingly, the other ideology most congenial to Marxists is, in my opinion, Straussianism. Interestingly, Straussians tend not to feel the same respect for Marxists. Except for Kojeve, but he was barely a Marxist anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Things I didn't know (part of an infinite series)

If the rejection letter I just received is to be taken at face value, Philosophy and Social Criticism is currently experiencing a glut of papers devoted to Marx and Marxism.

UPDATE: For the record, the ratios of the number of articles on Marx and Marxism (NB: based on little more than a perusal of article titles) to the total number of articles published in Philosophy and Social Criticism over the last five years are as follows:
2004: 0/43
2005: 1/45
2006: 1/39
2007: 1/42
2008: 1/44
To be sure, my essay might suck, and P&SC has fulfilled their one article per year quota of Marx and Marxism for 2008.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Call for Papers: Rethinking Marxism

RM09: New Marxian Times

RETHINKING MARXISM: a journal of economics, culture & society is pleased to announce its 7th international conference, to be held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst on 5-8 November 2009.

RM09: New Marxian Times is dedicated to exploring the possibilities and challenges of Marxism for understanding and engaging with the contemporary world. Neoliberal capitalism, long criticized by Marxists and others on the Left, is now going through its own long-term economic and social crises. What new possibilities do these crises create for Marxist and other progressive ideas and visions? How does Marxism, and left-wing thought more generally, need to be rethought to respond to these challenges?

Perhaps coalescing in the financial crisis acknowledged in the autumn of 2008, these dynamics represent both a significant crisis for currently constituted capitalism and modes of governance as well as a set of challenges and possibilities for all of us concerned with working towards a non-exploitative and more equitable world.

In that light, we are seeking intellectual, political, and cultural works that address the possible contributions that Marxist ideas and forms of analysis can make in responding to the challenges of these new times. Human rights, democracy, environmental concerns, new organizing movements in South America and elsewhere throughout the globe, the growth of social activisms represented as anarchist, anti-imperialist, or in response to globalization, workers subjectivities and movements, contradictions within emerging and transitional economies, emergent nationalisms, and debt and the credit crises all represent possible areas for contributions to new thinking about the role of Marxist theories, cultures, and politics in today’s world. We strongly encourage papers that address these topics in relation to the global south.

Of course, we also understand the vital importance of analyzing history in order to help us to understand and respond to contemporary conditions. To understand the new, we must reflect upon and learn from the old. In that light, we are also interested in panels and papers that emphasize historical analysis such as the history of Marxism(s), labor history, historical analysis of academia, histories of social movements and political practices, the historical development of Marxist/Socialist feminism, imperialisms, and the historical relationships between class and race- based movements.

Since Marxism covers a wide variety of fields, from literature to public health and forms of political practice, from environmental organizing to opposing global inequality and envisioning new economic and social practice, anyone engaging with Marxism in any discipline or form of activism is encouraged to submit paper and panel proposals.

Proposals for papers, films, or other formats should include:
* Paper title
* Presenter's name and contact information (mail, email, phone, affiliations)
* Brief abstract (no more than 200 words)
* Technology needs for presentation

Proposals for panels should include:
* Panel title
* Name, contact information, and paper title for each presenter
* Brief abstract (no more than 200 words) explaining the panel's focus
* Brief abstract for each paper (no more than 200 words)
* Names and contact information for any discussant(s) or respondent(s)
* Technology needs of presenters
* Title, contact, and address for any sponsoring organization or journal

The appropriate preregistration fee must accompany all proposal submissions. Unfortunately, any proposal not accompanied by the appropriate preregistration fee cannot be considered. Proposals that are not accepted will have their preregistration fees returned in full. If you are submitting a proposal for an entire panel, please make sure the preregistration fee for all members of the panel is paid.

The deadline for proposal submission is 1 August 2009.

To submit a proposal and to pay the preregistration fee, follow the instructions on the conference website:

All information pertaining to the conference, including paper and panel submission instructions, preregistration and on-site rates, lodging suggestions, travel directions, possible childcare arrangements, cultural events, the conference program, and much else will be posted on the conference website when details become available. The web address is:

Inquiries concerning the conference can be addressed to:
Vincent Lyon-Callo
Department of Anthropology, Moore Hall Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo MI 49008

Call for Papers: Is Black and Red Dead?

Is Black and Red Dead?
7th - 8th September, 2009

An academic conference organized and supported by the PSA Anarchist Studies Network, the PSA Marxism Specialist Group, Anarchist Studies, Capital & Class, Critique-Journal of Socialist Theory and Historical Materialism.

Hosted By: The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, University of Nottingham

What is the political relevance of the ideological labels "anarchist" and "Marxist" in the contemporary geo-political climate? Despite recurrent crisis, the costs typically borne by the people, neoliberal capitalism continues to colonize the globe in a never ending quest for profit and new enclosures. Meanwhile, an effective political response from the left to the wars, ecological destruction, financial collapse and social problems created by capital and state has so far failed to garner the widespread support and influence it needs. Indeed, the sectarianism of the left may well have contributed to this failure.

Still, despite fracture, there have always been borrowings across the left. Most recently, post-'68 radicalisms have contributed to a blurring of the divisions between the anarchist and Marxist traditions. Traditionally regarded as hostile and irreconcilable, many of these ideas find expression in the "newest social movements", taking inspiration from the Situationists, left communists, and social anarchist traditions. The anti-statist, libertarian currents within the socialist movement have repeatedly emerged during periods of acute political and economic crisis, from the council communists to revolutionary anarchism.

Is this one such historical juncture in which dynamic reconciliation is not only welcomed but vital? To rephrase the question, what can we learn from 150 years of anti-statist, anti-capitalist social movements, and how might this history inform the formulation of a new social and political current, consciously combining the insights of plural currents of anarchism and Marxism in novel historical junctures? Indeed, to what extent have these traditional fault lines been constitutive of the political imagination? The modern feminist, queer, ecological, anti-racist and postcolonial struggles have all been inspired by and developed out of critiques of the traditional parameters of the old debates, and many preceded them. So, to what extent do capital and the state remain the key sites of struggle?

We welcome papers that engage critically with both the anarchist and the Marxist traditions in a spirit of reconciliation. We welcome historical papers that deal with themes and concepts, movements or individuals. We also welcome theoretical papers with demonstrable historical or political importance. Our criteria for the acceptance of papers will be mutual respect, the usual critical scholarly standards and demonstrable engagement with both traditions of thought.

Please send 350 word abstracts (as word documents), including full contact details, to:Dr Alex Prichard (ESML, University of Bath): Closing date for receipt of abstracts: 1st May, 2009

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nineteenth Century Political Philosophy

A draft version of the syllabus for my upcoming course:

Philosophy 445: Nineteenth Century Political Philosophy
Government and Society: The Rise of Political Economy

The Nineteenth Century saw the dramatic decline of the classical model of political philosophy that had dominated the previous two centuries, and had consisted largely of defining the natural rights of persons and proposing the sovereign legal framework within which these rights would be best respected. The modern political order had taken hold to such an extent that such encyclopedic articulations of that order were no longer necessary. Instead, the new century was marked by “sociological” and historical investigations into the conditions of modernity (Tocqueville, Burkhardt, etc.), polemical defenses of and attacks upon the ascendant modern order (Constant, Nietzsche, etc.), imaginative utopian schemes (Fourier, Cabet, etc.), and most importantly for the purposes of this class, increasingly elaborate and rigorous efforts to establish a scientific discourse that would amount to a social physics of this modern order. This aspirational physics of society was originally called “political economy” but came to be known simply as “economics.”

In this course, we will consider the rise of economics by observing its effect on two of the great tomes of Nineteenth-Century political thought: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Capital. The former is, in a sense, the last of the classical articulations and large-scale apologies for the new social and political order. Hegel was deeply impressed by Adam Smith early in his life, and was deeply respectful of political economy’s claim to explain the laws of motion of modern society. In the Philosophy of Right, he writes; “Political economy is the science which must go on to explain mass relationships and mass movements in their qualitative and quantitative determinacy and complexity. This is one of the sciences which have originated in the modern age as their element” (§189). Nonetheless, Hegel was also quite critical of the civil society described and advocated by political economy, and emphasizes the necessity that other sources of meaning and community justify civil society.

Marx, on the other hand, is the consummate critic of modern society, and the subtitle to Capital is “A Critique of Political Economy.” Economics is the primary ideology of the modern world, according to Marx, mystifying and sanctifying historically and violently created relations such that they appear as natural and immutable, the destiny of human life. However, Marx’s relationship with political economy is just as complex as Hegel’s, in that he too accepts that the economic relations are very real and very determinative of modern social and political existence. Our investigations of these two works will be illuminated by supplementary readings from political economy itself. We will seek to understand the basic outlines of both classical political economy and the rise of marginal utility theory that overturned the classical model in favor of what would become neo-classical economics. We will look carefully at Hegel’s attempt to synthesize this economic model of society with classical and even ancient understandings of the political republic. Finally we will delve into Marx’s critique of political economy. The readings for this course are extremely difficult, and will therefore require patience and careful attention. Our course meetings will be spent in close, interactive examination of the texts.

Reading and Lecture Schedule:

Weeks 1-7
  • Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
  • Smith, from The Wealth of Nations
  • Ricardo, from On the Principles of Political Economy
  • de Tracy, from “Elements of Ideology”
  • Constant, “The Liberty of Ancients [and] Moderns”
  • Mill, from Principles of Political Economy

Week 8 Mid-winter Break

Weeks 9-14
  • Marx’s Capital
  • Jevons, “General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy”
  • Pareto, “New Theories of Economics”
  • Marshall, from Principles of Economics

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I welcome our new Maoist overlord

Haven't been this happy about a political outcome since...ever. The weather is beautiful here, and the forecaster on the CBC referred to it as "Obama air" coming up from the south.