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Althusser, Spinoza and Revolution in Philosophy: An Interview with Warren Montag
George Souvlis: Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?
Warren Montag: My political and intellectual formation was governed, fittingly I suppose, by a logic of the encounter: that is, I was extraordinarily lucky. If I had not been in the right place at the right time and in proximity to the right people, I would not have thought or written as I have. In the mid to late seventies in Los Angeles (to which I returned after receiving my B.A. from UC Berkeley), I met both Geoff Goshgarian and Mike Davis and we soon formed a kind of collective with a few others (in particular I remember Samira Haj, now a historian at CUNY, I believe). We also organized a study group in which we read the three volumes of Capital, as well as Mandel’s Late Capitalism and other works.
Through Mike (who had recently returned from Britain where he had been close to the International Marxist Group [IMG]), I was introduced to the Trotskyism of the Fourth International (or more accurately its dominant tendency), that is, of Mandel, Krivine, Bensaid, Tariq Ali and others. This variant of Trotskyism, which had virtually no presence in the US at that time was very much a codification of the political experiences of 1968 internationally, combining a notion of the direct democracy of workers’ councils, consistent opposition to the bureaucratic regimes of the USSR and its satellites, and intransigent support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements around the world. I saw it as an open Marxism that sought to understand the strategies of other movements and traditions, from the forms of armed struggle in Latin America, to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Solidarnosc in Poland, each of which, even in their ultimate, in certain cases catastrophic, failure, provided lessons and illuminated problems that couldn’t have been posed apart from them. It did so without the automatic denunciation based on theoretical or programmatic differences so typical of Trotskyist groups. The often heated debates over questions like armed struggle and revolutionary strategy in Latin America were fascinating to me precisely because neither side offered abstract condemnations of reality for failing to correspond to a theoretical model, but represented genuine attempts to think strategically about how best to advance a given movement in a specific conjuncture.
Through my participation in various multi-tendency revolutionary socialist organizations, all of whom maintained friendly relations with both the Fourth International and the International Socialist tradition in the years that followed, I came into contact with a number of figures who I now recognize as extraordinary: Mandel, of course, Michael Lowy, Tariq Ali, Livio Maitan, Michel Pablo (Michaelis Raptis, an exemplary supporter of the Algerian liberation struggle); from Mexico, Adolfo Gilly, and human rights activist Rosario Ibarra, Peruvian peasant leader Hugo Blanco, as well as Alex Callinicos from the International Socialist tradition,. I was a founding member of the US group Solidarity where I learned a great deal from those who organized Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union. From the mid-seventies to the early nineties I participated in a number of movements: the anti-apartheid movement, Central American solidarity, Palestine solidarity; I worked with the Justice for Janitors campaign and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers union to organize community support and was active in opposition to the Gulf War.
Paradoxically, nearly all the people I was close to politically from the mid-seventies to the early nineties, whether academics or not, were strongly anti-Althusserian, often from very different perspectives, but convinced that Althusser represented either a Stalinist or reformist perspective dressed up in fashionable structuralist jargon. Indeed, my initial theoretical orientation was a kind of mixture of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Lukacs’ History of Class Consciousness, which made me pre-disposed to reject Althusser from what I thought, wrongly, was a Hegelian perspective. But, prodded by Geoff Goshgarian, with whom I began to read Althusser’s works carefully, I discovered that most of his critics had very little to say about his actual texts and focused instead on what they assumed he meant by “humanism” or “historicism.” To this day, I remember the experience of reading “Contradiction and Overdetermination” for the first time and encountering that strange combination of lucidity and density that is the hallmark of Althusser’s best work. I knew immediately that the vast majority of his critics weren’t engaging with what he wrote but had constructed an imaginary Althusser that told us a lot about them and very little about him.
My “training” had little to do with academic institutions and was much more a matter of reading with others or on my own, outside of any institutional setting. The first things I wrote were consciously or unconsciously addressed to Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, Michel Pêcheux as if they my interlocutors even before I met them. This is what made possible one of the most fortuitous encounters I have experienced to become something that endured. In the summer of 1983, I arrived in Paris very interested in developing Althusser’s suggestion that there is an essential link between ideology and the unconscious and therefore between Marxism and psychoanalysis. I had written to the two people most concerned with this question at the time: Michel Pêcheux, whose Language, Semantics and Ideology had a big influence on me and Elisabeth Roudinesco who had written some interesting theoretical texts before she turned to historiography. Pêcheux at that moment was preparing a talk for a conference in the US and realized that he needed a translator. I had earlier convinced Roudinesco to meet with me, at which time I had agreed to do some research for her in the US. She asked if there were others I wanted to meet, and when I mentioned that I had written to Pêcheux but hadn’t gotten a response, she immediately called him. After scolding him for not responding to my letter, she handed me the phone. The ensuing conversation resembled an oral exam in which Pêcheux fired a series of questions at me about specific philosophers and their works: Althusser, Lacan, Bachelard, Canguilhem (but also Jean-Claude Milner’s L’amour de la langue which I had just read) and of course Spinoza (if I recall correctly, something about the appendix to part I of the Ethics). The fact that I passed this exam was signaled by the phrase, uttered as a kind of coda: on a fait ses devoirs. I then spent the next week translating his text (“Discourse: Structure or Event”) at the kitchen table of his apartment. The next year, Roudinesco introduced me to Macherey. Soon after I met Balibar, Lecourt, Negri and others. By the late eighties, Balibar and Macherey were friends and mentors.
GS: The topic of your first published study, The Unthinkable Swift, is the political thought of Jonathan Swift. Why did you decide to study his thought? You argue that his writings were overdetermined by the historical conjuncture that extends from 1688, the “Glorious Revolution”, to 1714, the emergence of the modern British state. To what extent does this reflect a dialectical relation between base and ideological super-structure? Which part of his thought goes beyond the specific time period and retain a kind of relative autonomy in relation to the balance of forces?
WM: Swift (1667-1745) was a priest in the Church of Ireland (a tributary of the Church of England) whose two major works, A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels, were for me a kind of laboratory in which I could test and in certain cases modify the materialist practice of reading developed in Althusser’s introduction to Reading Capital and Macherey’s Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (both of which I had read “to the letter” with Goshgarian). The fact that both of Swift’s works were not only satires (which complicated the idea of a symptomatic reading), but satires whose norms were themselves constantly called into question by the operation of an irony that left no moral or political position intact, posed particular challenges for this theory. In A Tale of a Tub, for example, Swift simultaneously attacked both the enemies of the Church (atheists, dissenters and Roman Catholics) and the origins and institutions of the Church itself, as if the satire exceeded its target to bring about a general destruction that left nothing standing and Swift no ground to stand on. Rather than stop the analysis at this point there in the manner of 1980s American deconstruction which was driven by the need to de-politicize and de-historicize literary works, I approached Swift with a preliminary question: what are the contradictions proper to the attempt to abolish all contradictions, not in some a priori way, but in a particular conjuncture realized in and through the literary, philosophical and political materials at hand. I answered this question by reading the text word by word and following the semantic chains that led outside the text to other works to which it remained tied. If I wrote the book today, it would undoubtedly look very different: I would move from the inside to the outside. Rather than begin as I did with a long analysis of English and Irish history and the place of the Anglican church in it, I would follow the trail of words and phrases to these histories. Critics didn’t like my historical overview, not because they disagreed with it (few were concerned enough with this history to agree or disagree with my account), but because they couldn’t see its relevance. I would say that this reaction is the objective effect of my procedure, for which I am clearly responsible, which ended up affirming a kind of base and superstructure model. Had I done it differently, readers might have more easily seen the extent to which speaking and writing from within the Church understood as a condensation of social forces (to use Poulantzas’s phrase), whose starkly ideological and disciplinary functions preceded their own doctrinal justification shaped the materialism that Swift’s satire produces.
I wouldn’t say that Swift’s work has a universal or transhistorical value or meaning that would remain unchanged in the face of the constantly changing world around it. Nor would it be accurate to see it as a kind of Rorschach blot on which each age projects its own meanings. Instead, a work like Gulliver’s Travels has functioned as something like a found object, detached by the movement of history from its original context and re-presented in a way that is neither reducible to nor independent of its initial form. Instead of asking what reality it reflects, as if it were “epiphenomenal”, real only to the extent that it refers to the more primary reality it reflects, we might ask what effects it has produced as a singular thing, entering into relations with a succession of other singular things which cause it to be read (a way of talking about one of its effects) in different ways.
GS: In the introduction that you wrote for the collection of Pierre Macherey’s writings, In a Materialist Way, you argue that in his first book A Theory of Literary Production, far from advancing a formalist analysis, Macherey endorses a close reading of the literary work that leads to the wider historical context. Could you elaborate more on this method? What does it imply in epistemological terms in the analysis of a literary text? Could we apply the same to a text of political theory? How does Macherey’s manner of reading help us avoid a sterile reductionism?
WM: However ironic it may seem, especially for English language readers who remain fixated on the anti-Hegelianism of Althusser, Balibar and Macherey, circa 1965 (despite the evidence to the contrary from both before and after that time), there is something irreducibly Hegelian about Althusser’s reading of Marx (even of Marx’s residual “Hegelianism,” the specific tendency in Hegel to which Marx as one of histories “fatherless children” turned in order to theorize the specific form of capitalist accumulation and exploitation). This is equally, if not more, true of Balibar and Macherey and their reading of philosophical and literary texts. We could summarize this inheritance from Hegel as the notion that these texts are intelligible, that is, become the objects of an adequate knowledge, only on the basis of contradictions that may be understood as their immanent cause. But contradiction, a word that Macherey systematically avoided using in Literary Production, cannot be understood in a formal sense (Hegel himself vehemently rejected the idea of a “formal dialectic” as the imposition of a single form indifferently on any content) as having a single invariant structure. Macherey had proposed replacing “contradiction” with “conflict” or “disorder,” which may be understood as recasting of its concept. In the case of literary texts, the idea of form or genre requires the division of the text into a disorderly and chaotic surface and a hidden order or deep structure (in the linguistic sense) that reveals that this surface disorder is simply a concealed order. Macherey, in opposition, insisted that “the work has no interior, no exterior; or rather, its interior is like an exterior, shattered and on display. Thus it is open to the searching gaze, peeled, disemboweled.” In this way, the text is only surface, without a hidden dimension on the basis of which its discrepant and contradictory elements could be reconciled. Here we can detect the presence of Spinoza, specifically chapter 7 of the TTP, and his critique of the existing practices of Biblical interpretation. In the absence of depth, the faults, lacunae, and inconsistencies of the Scripture harden into irreducibility and must be explained causally rather than explained away.
This in turn allows us to understand the paradoxes of the current counter-offensive against Althusser and Macherey that opposes a “surface” reading to a “symptomatic reading” (understood as an operation of revealing hidden elements which necessarily devalues the surface in favor of what it conceals). “Hidden,” like “depth,” is defined very broadly: even “lacunae,” gaps, and absences can be defined as hidden even if they are nowhere present inside or outside the text. In fact, what is clearly visible, at the surface of the arguments for surface reading, is the drive to restore order to the text by defining the textual surface as “structure” or “form.” In this way, order precedes disorder, as the essential precedes and defines the inessential. That which is inconsistent with the structure is not hidden in the text, but denied by the method itself and excluded as “epiphenomenal.” Conflict is banished and with it any possibility of explaining the text as anything other than the realization of a pre-existing form.
What I have called the peculiar Hegelianism of Althusser and Macherey that, as in the case of Hegel, made every philosophical text readable and in an important sense valuable, no longer the expression of a doctrine but the site of conflict. For me it was tremendously liberating to read Althusser’s Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: philosophical texts exhibit antagonistic tendencies and the act of reading is a drawing of lines of demarcation to outline these antagonisms.
GS: In 1997 The New Spinoza, of which you were the co-editor, appeared. Pierre Macherey once suggested that: “to study Spinoza after Hegel but not according to Hegel allows us to pose the question of non-Hegelian dialectics”. Does Spinoza offer such a possibility? What would that mean?
WM: I am tempted to say that the proper place to look for a non-Hegelian dialectic (which would have produced its own concept in the process of its self-determination, the self-knowing that is the correlative of the movement by which it becomes itself) would be in Hegel himself. In the Science of Logic, Hegel defines the “dialectical moment” as that in which the Absolute Idea “determines itself as the other of itself.” Macherey’s Spinoza, separated from Hegel’s Spinoza, the Spinoza who has a place as a necessary but subordinate stage in the process that culminates in Hegel, may be understood as Hegel’s other, the other proper to Hegel which marks him, as Balibar notes, as a “we” instead of an “I.” Spinoza too is divided by virtue of being inscribed in Hegel: the “Oriental” Spinoza, thinker of the world as emanation from the indeterminate One and Spinoza the thinker of absolute immanence for whom “God could not have been prior to his decrees nor could he be without them.” If we remove the guarantee of the negation of the negation, itself inextricably bound up with Hegel’s insistence that substance must be understood as a subject capable of acting with an end in view, teleology which not only guarantees the arrival of the end, but the necessary succession of moments along the way, vanishes. The result: “not only is the real relation between philosophies no longer measurable by the degree of their hierarchical integration, this relation is no longer reducible to a chronological lineage that positions each in relation to the other in an order of irreversible succession. In this history, which is perhaps not material but which is no longer ideal, there emerges a new kind contradiction: a struggle between tendencies that does not carry within itself the promise of its own resolution. Put differently: a unity of contraries without the negation of the negation.”
Admittedly, this doesn’t sound very Spinozist; in fact, Macherey has translated Spinoza into a Hegelian idiom or perhaps the idiom of Hegel as read by Lenin (the struggle between tendencies) all the better to contrast him to Hegel. But the concept of a dialectic driven by struggle without either teleology or the labor of the negative necessary to it negation is already present in Spinoza, in particular in his definition of “singular things in definition 7 of Ethics II:
By individual things [res singulares] I mean things that are finite and have a determinate existence. If several individual things concur in one act in such a way as to be all together the simultaneous cause of one effect, I consider them all, in that respect, as one individual.
It is crucial here to recognize that when Spinoza says “individual things concur” he uses the Latin verb concurro instead of convenio or conjunctio. Convenio suggests agreement, compatibility and harmony, while conjunctio suggests a connecting or joining together, with the implication that the individual things unite and remain united. His use of concurro introduces a more complicated notion of coming together, the running together of opposing forces who meet in battle and who thus form a kind of “unity of opposites” by virtue of the antagonism that brings them together in battle to become the “simultaneous cause of one effect.” If we can distill a dialectic from this notion it would emerge as the Spinozist development of Machiavellian ideas rather than an anticipation of the Hegelian dialectic.
GS: In Bodies, Masses and Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries you argue for “Spinoza’s paradoxical and unsuspected contemporaneity”. Where does this contemporaneity lie?
WM: It seems that contemporaneity has two different meanings here. First, the question of fact: has Spinoza, insofar as he is revived, resuscitated or rehabilitated, become our contemporary, figuring not simply as a reference point but as a living body of thought capable of growth? The answer here is certainly yes. For reasons I explained in the preface to the New Spinoza, the radicalization that occurred internationally around 1968 produced as one of its effects a resurgence of Marxist theory whose weaknesses and gaps became apparent in practice. Neither philosophies grounded in Hegel or Kant nor, later, those grounded in Analytic philosophy were capable of identifying let alone addressing these weaknesses. The former proved incapable of separating themselves from the teleologies that plagued Marxist thought, while the latter which tended to see teleology everywhere (especially in structuralism) turned to the methodological individualism of Hobbes and Adam Smith without any awareness of the providentialist and thus teleological tendencies to which it is linked.
From these perspectives, Spinoza was unintelligible. But for Althusser and his colleagues, as well as Negri, Spinoza’s critique of concepts like order and providence, of emanationist and expressive causalities, that is, his thorough assimilation (but also transformation) of Epicurus and Lucretius, as well as Machiavelli (as both Filippo Del Lucchese and Vittorio Morfino have demonstrated) allowed us to see these problems as problems for us. Similarly, Spinoza’s problematization of the idea that the mind through an act of will moves the body and thus that belief “causes” action poses a profound challenge to political theory past and present..
But there is another question concerning Spinoza’s relation to the present: not simply does he belong to it, but what does he have to offer it? The answer of course is that he has a number of concepts, including those that exist in the practical state in his work, that can be put to use. As far as I am concerned, the most important and also the most difficult is the concept of the immanent cause which is captured perfectly in Spinoza’s declaration in Ethics I, P33, sch.2 that “God did not exist prior to his decrees nor can he be without them.” Althusser insisted that the notion of structural causality, “the presence of the structure in its effects,” another way of saying the cause is absent outside of its effects, always already re-presented by delegation through a metonymic structure, marked a “shattering of the classical theories of causality.” The model of base and superstructure, the determination of ideologies by the economic base, conceived along the lines of an emanative or expressive causality, had the paradoxical effect of tying the realm of ideas to material existence but at the expense of maintaining the immateriality of ideology which existed in the realm of consciousness as beliefs and ideas. Althusser’s notion of the ISAs was predicated on the thesis that “ideology has a material existence,” one effect of which was to eliminate the possibility of an ontological hierarchy whether of the primacy of spirit over matter, soul over body or matter over spirit, body over soul. I emphasize Althusser’s objective here because it is at risk of being forgotten. I refer to certain tendencies in that very Anglo-American movement of the new materialism which strike me as profoundly idealist. First, a declaration of independence from the history of philosophy (mimicking Analytic philosophy) as if one can free oneself from historical determination by a decision or act of faith. Second, a turn to objects (and more recently matter) instead of the subject or subjects through whose mediation alone objects were available to us, which declares language or discourse mere “epiphenomena,” a term whose primary function is to dematerialize that to which it is applied on the (Platonic) grounds that it is too distant from the source of truth. It is absolutely predictable that in another decade or so we will witness a return to the subject in a reaction against a crude and reductive objectivism, if not materialism. We are a long way from the notion that philosophy must, before anything else, understand the theoretical and political conjuncture in which it exists in order to act effectively, that is, it must confront its own material existence.
GS: You make a strong case for a radical reconsideration of Althusser’s work in the light of new material. Αgainst the mainstream literature, which presents him as an austere structural Marxist, you suggest that it is more appropriate to conceive him as a philosopher of the conjuncture. Could you elaborate more on this?
WM: We’ve now reached the point at which the posthumous publications outnumber those published during Althusser’s lifetime. Many of the former are texts, abandoned at various stages of completion, whose grandiose ambitions rendered them unfinishable. This doesn’t mean they are without significance: the impasses that Althusser reached are in no way peculiar to him but are indicators of the points at which the development of Marxism in all its diversity was blocked by external causes, the defeats and demobilization that became increasingly obvious in the seventies), as well as by internal causes (the inability to explain these defeats or sometimes even to acknowledge them given the persistence of teleological or providential modes of thought). Moreover, his refusal either to deny what he called the crisis of Marxism or to abandon Marxist thought to regress into political and theoretical positions that had become for him unthinkable, that is, what he called his theoretical prudence, sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. Geoff Goshgarian has recently edited three books based on manuscripts from the seventies: Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, Être marxiste en philosophie and Les vaches noirs.
Not all of the posthumously published work, can be put into this category. Both Machiavelli and Us (even in its incomplete state) and the recently published but still untranslated Cours sur Rousseau are among his most powerful works, as are, to a lesser extent, Marxism in its limits and The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter. Above all, the posthumous publications lay to rest the notion of an easily separable early and late Althusser. Indeed, it appears that there is a continuing struggle that takes different forms and occurs at different sites; the work of analysis was interminable and required a constant reconsideration and rectification of basic principles. This doesn’t imply that his work could be understood as simply progressive in nature: on the contrary, I would argue that the problems posed by the aleatory materialism of the late Althusser lead us backwards precisely to the high point of his supposed structuralism, to the ideas of structural causality and the existence of a structure in its effects. In particular, his definition of necessity “as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies.” The question of causality, which one might imagine is excluded from any discussion of the aleatory, remains a central problem in the late text: “no determination of these elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction. If we must therefore say that there can be no result without its becoming (Hegel), we must also affirm that there is nothing which has become except as determined by the result of this becoming – this retroaction itself (Canguilhem).”
Thus, his late work can be seen as a continuation of his equally elliptical speculations on structural causality, the structure immanent in its effects, not a hidden or transcendental order, but a diagram of dispersion and divergence according to which an absent or immanent cause and the becoming-necessary of the encounter may be understood as one and the same thing. If this is true, and Althusser’s oeuvre can be understood as an unfinished disjunctive synthesis, the idea that he is best understood as a structural Marxist who has applied the linguistic model to social and historical phenomena, is clearly false. But perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the idea of structure in its concrete historical forms to discover those moments in which structure is not reducible to order and unity but allows the knowledge that is consubstantial with a diverse and conflictual reality to open itself to our participation.
We cannot forget the importance of Althusser’s work on the subject and ideology. I would argue that the line of inquiry at the center of which is the notion of the interpellation of the individual as subject and which begins with Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses and concludes with the ISAs essays (to which in this regard On the Reproduction of Capitalism unfortunately adds very little) lives on, though not without breaks and mutations, above all in the work of Balibar. What Althusser presented in the form of an allegory, the interpellated subject who is both an agent of action and a subjected being, Balibar considers historically in order to show the primacy of subjection over subjectivation, as if the modern subject in Kant’s sense could only have developed in relation to a subjection that takes the form of imputing freedom to an already subjected being. Balibar considers the emergence of citizen as a form of what he will call equaliberty, but which also becomes a principle of abandonment and exclusion of that other figure: the stranger. My colleague, Hanan Elsayed, and I have edited a volume of essays (including two by Balibar himself) devoted to these themes: Balibar and the Citizen Subject.
GS: In 2014 you co-wrote a book, along with Mike Hill, with the title The Other Adam Smith. Who is the other Adam Smith? Was Adam Smith an uncritical advocate of the rationality of unrestricted market, allowed by the state to obey only the laws immanent in it?
WM: We very deliberately avoided posing, let alone answering, the question of whether Adam Smith was good or bad which unfortunately dominates, whether explicitly or implicitly much of the scholarly discussion of Smith. The prevailing view of Smith is that he was a kinder, gentler soul than was once thought, certainly more humane than Milton Friedman or Hayek. After all, his Theory of Moral Sentiments establishes sympathy or fellow-feeling as the foundation of morality, a position that opposes or at least qualifies the notion of interest (or self-interest) as the passion that leads to society as the most rational means to that end (in chapter 2 of the Wealth of Nations). To question this view is to be seen as an apologist for the crudest expressions of market fundamentalism, that is, as a philistine who didn’t bother to read anything other than a few parts of the Wealth of Nations.
We set out to read as exhaustively as possible and paying particular attention to the many passages in Smith’s supposedly well-known works that virtually no one discusses. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, the scenes of torture, punishment and execution, the imperviousness of individuals to the screams of their “brother upon the rack,” the remarkable ability of American Indians to withstand the most exquisite tortures and the “transport” that a man feels upon witnessing the hanging of a common criminal, all in a book devoted to sympathy. In the Wealth of Nations, the indelible, but seldom examined, images of the carcasses of dead dogs and cats, “though putrid and stinking” that Chinese laborers manage not only to survive on but which provide nourishment for their offspring (or those who survive the exercise of the parents’ “liberty of killing them”).
We were able to draw lines of demarcation that made visible the crevices running through his texts, although they do not correspond to a division between good and bad, or capitalist and non-capitalist. What we discovered was a fear, but also an acknowledgment of labors fighting to preserve current wage levels in the face of the masters’ united front to lower them, as well as the organized violation of property right when food prices have risen beyond the ability of the people to pay and the mob redistributes the grain from merchants’ storehouses. But Smith’s interest extends to even to the body of the individual worker insofar as it resists the subtle coercion of work as a function of life. Outside of the division of labor and the organization of space and time it imposes on the worker without a single word from the master, this resistance takes the form of the body’s own conservation of energy: the worker “saunters” or “trifles” and he is “indolent.” This resistance is resistance to market demand and therefore to market rationality, and like the “plunder” of storehouses, represents the point at which the immanent logic of the market runs up against life. This is where Smith suspends his argument, leaving the reader to reach the conclusion that the otherwise preventable death of some of the starving is an evil that must be permitted so that a greater good may follow. In places like England or France, he argued, where there can never be a real shortage of grain, only temporarily “inconvenient” price fluctuations, the unavailability of food must be left to the market to resolve without state interference through price controls or emergency distributions. The Wealth of Nations in particular shows the existence no so much of another Adam Smith, a good one to oppose to the bad one, but the other always present in his exposition. His fear of great numbers is thus a fear of what he himself has demonstrated: the irreducibility of the collective resistance that necessarily arises as a result of and against the immutable laws of the market.
GS: More than a year ago you wrote a text dealing with the Greek conjuncture with the title, “No”. The situation has changed radically since then for the worse. Syriza signed new a memoranda and is implementing the most radical neoliberal measures that Greek society has ever experienced. Despite these, what do you think is the most important political heritage of the decision that the Greek people made in July 2015?
WM: At the time I wrote that text, just before the July 5 referendum, I was absolutely convinced that Syriza, by proposing the referendum on the bailout conditions offered by the Juncker commission, the ECB and the IMF, had seized the political initiative. It seemed to me then that Syriza had devised a strategy that could not fail: if the referendum passed, the party could declare itself unwilling to carry out the measures outlined in the bailout document and step down; if it failed, especially by a significant margin (as it did) Syriza would have begun to mobilize the people for the struggle to come, revealed the extent to which unelected leaders of institutions that operate largely outside of any democratic control or accountability in effect ruled Europe and would show other debt-laden nations that it is possible to stand up to these powers. This would encourage their populations to mobilize for similar objectives.
The next few weeks showed that this analysis was based on a set of illusions and apocalyptic fantasies that are the inevitable result of a long term balance of forces unfavorable to the left, a kind of permanent marginalization that discourages the left from “preparing for power,” even the limited power that comes from having a parliamentary majority and becoming the ruling party. Syriza and the rest of the Greek left were unprepared both for the intensity and rapidity of the offensive launched against them, and for its specific strategy. There are contradictory accounts of the internal debates and discussions preceding the referendum, but the results are clear: the left inside and outside of Syriza did not have a viable and comprehensive plan either for returning to the drachma or for retaining the Euro under new, more favorable terms.
Faced with European control of banks, it was clear that the Greek economy could be brought to a halt quite easily and that the Germans and their allies were prepared to starve the Greek people if the ruling party did not comply with the conditions of the bailout. There was no need for an invasion as might have been the case once upon a time, nor even a coup d’etat engineered by the ECB and the IMF. The threat was great enough to force Syriza into wholesale retreat, with a righteous remnant prepared to hold their ground against the barbarians. In reality, the strategies of both tendencies depended on equally unrealistic best-case scenarios: the Syriza leadership hoped the Troika might pull back in the face of the expression of the will of the Greek people which conferred total legitimacy on the party. The left wing of Syriza pushed for a break from the Euro but with neither a plan for the transition, beyond a few skeletal outlines, nor, more importantly, the popular mobilization necessary to the implementation of any plan. To decree a break from the Euro without the active support of a large majority of the population would have been tantamount to Putchism and doomed to immediate failure, the consequences of which for the people could have been devastating . The signing of the memorandum on July 13, 2015 undeniably marked a massive defeat and served as a warning to parties like Podemos and to the populations of Spain and Italy that however bad things are, they could far worse and with little more than a few strokes of the keyboard.
But Greece represents a protracted battle in the global class war that should be studied in detail. How might the left have anticipated, pre-empted and countered the Troika’s assault? This struggle exposed the weaknesses of a left accustomed to the role of parliamentary opposition supported by mass demonstrations but it also revealed the strategic options available to the ruling powers given the new and constantly evolving financial forms of domination and the technologies available to them. These are no longer secret and there can be no strategy for a transition to a different kind of society without careful consideration of how best to organize a defense of the people against them and, more importantly without an understanding of what a counter-offensive might look like. The left today, whether in Greece or elsewhere, cannot afford many more such defeats. We disarm ourselves if we allow moral terms like betrayal and fidelity, heroism and martyrdom to substitute for an exhaustive analysis of the defeat and a comprehensive strategy based on this analysis for bringing about a decisive shift in the balance of forces. And as Machiavelli noted, the unarmed prophet will come to ruin.
This interview will be published also in greek at ektosgrammis.gr