Broken Power Lines


{ 2010 02 27 }

Interview with Wendy Brown

CPS: In your work you describe today’s left as being disoriented, fragmented and melancholic about the possibility of achieving alternative political futures.  In this situation, is it possible or even desirable to revitalize old leftist concepts such as communism, people’s democracy, and the like?  Do these concepts have any remaining life in them, or do we need to experiment with new political forms?

Wendy Brown:  In the Euro-Atlantic world, what we call the West and the Global North, those terms have pretty much become counter-productive for describing a left vision.  I think the reason for that is obvious: in the 20th century, for many people, communism as it was actually instated in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, in China, North Korea, a few other places – so much carries the signification of a heavily policed society, of strong and authoritarian states, of what gets called for better or worse totalitarian culture and society – that divesting what we might value in communism in its theoretical formulation and in our political attachments to it, divesting that value from that actual lived history is ve2010+10avatar_wry difficult in the popular sense.  I certainly still teach The Communist Manifesto and try to get students to appreciate what it was that Marx was articulating and imagining.  I think it is worth teaching other texts, as well, that do the same thing, but I think it is very difficult at a popular level to make arguments on behalf of communism that don’t simply deposit your argument back with that history.  That said, it is probably a little different in the Global South where I think it is possible to speak about Marxism, about socialism and about communism without necessarily having that same recurrence to especially the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.  I think it is possible and probably essential there as well, though, to begin to use some other terms.

CPS:  Are there any terms you have in mind? Any new signifiers?

Wendy Brown: I don’t particularly have a good answer to that question.  In my own work, I have tended to use the language of democracy.  In using it I have had to first make a move that is similar to the one I just described with communism, only at another end of the spectrum, which is to separate democracy from its colonization by liberalism.  When I talk about a vision of a different world than the one that we have in contemporary market democracies, contemporary Western states neoliberalized and otherwise, unfree and inegalitarian, my first move is to separate democracy from the contemporary versions of it that are used both to legitimate Western states and to legitimate imperial exploits with democracy.  My move is always just to remind us of the etymology of the term, that it means very simply in its Greek formulation: the people rule or popular power.  There are lots of arguments about the demos; some argue such as Ranciere, that it really means the poor; others argue that it really means the people.  Those arguments are interesting but I think what is important in using it is to be able to seize a term that people think they do value, people who are not necessarily on the left, and seize it for left purposes.  That is one approach.  I am open to other possibilities as well, things that get a little closer to the political economic end of what we used to mean by communism than democracy necessarily does.  I am open to ideas that people have about what those terms ought to be.

CPS:  Thanks, so that leads to my next question.  Many democracies, especially in the Global South, are limited in the socioeconomic reforms and democratic policies they can pursue, by the demands of capital – such as IMF conditional loans and the fear of capital flight.  Do you perceive the relationship between late global capitalism and democracy as intrinsically incompatible?

Wendy Brown:  Yes, if by democracy we mean that rich sense of democracy. If what we mean is the elements of shared power, shared control over conditions of life that I take democracy to entail, then of course they are incompatible with what you just described.  That said, obviously there are other claims about what democracy means.  If you get the Von Hayek and Milton Friedman types in front of this microphone, they will explain why not only are those forms compatible with democracy, but that the world of neoliberalism is the world of democracy – it is all that democracy means.  It means that kind of freedom.

CPS:  You have argued, speaking of neoliberalism, you have argued that neoliberalism does not simply promote economic policies but to quote you “disseminates market values into every sphere of human activity.”  What distinguishes your perspective here from the despair found in someone like Adorno?  What would it require to translate the despair that many people experience in very personal and de-politicized ways into a form of political mobilization?

Wendy Brown:  That is an interesting question because it assumes that neoliberalism produces despair.  I wish it did but I am not convinced that it does.  I think that the process that some of us have called neoliberalization actually seizes on something that is just a little to one side of despair that I might call something like a quotidian nihilism.   By quotidian, I mean it is a nihilism that is not lived as despair; it is a nihilism that is not lived as an occasion for deep anxiety or misery about the vanishing of meaning from the human world.  Instead, what neoliberalism is able to seize upon is the extent to which human beings experience a kind of directionlessness and pointlessness to life that neoliberalism in an odd way provides.  It tells you what you should do: you should understand yourself as a spec of human capital, which needs to appreciate its own value by making proper choices and investing in proper things. Those things can range from choice of a mate, to choice of an educational institution, to choice of a job, to choice of actual monetary investments – but neoliberalism without providing meaning provides direction. In a sad way it is seizing upon a certain directionlessness and meaninglessness in late modernity.  Again, I am talking mainly about the Euro-Atlantic world: without providing meaning, it provides direction.  So I think it is quite a different order of things from the one that Adorno was describing.

CPS:  Do you see within this order any points of fracture, points of entry that could be tapped or worked upon to transform the way people engage their contemporary conditions?  That can change the way they think … to start thinking more politically, in a more meaningful way?

Wendy Brown:  I see what you are saying.  Is there just neoliberal flattening of the human subject and human culture, or are there little places where there is a cry or a need? Yes, I do think that many, many people actually find the current conditions in which they live their lives to be deeply dissatisfying, and not just personally – but it was the kind of thing that you see ranging from the hope that was invested in the Obama campaign to the anger and resentment invested in the Tea Party movement.  I think it is wrong to simply see the population as entirely interpellated by neoliberal governance; I think a lot of people manage and navigate around neoliberalism without necessarily ingesting its values as their own.  There is a chafing there; there is an opening, an interval there.  I am not convinced that any of us, left or right, have figured out exactly how to exploit it.

CPS: You mention the Tea Party.  What exactly do you think the Tea Party is a symptom of, and is there any way to harness this kind of populism to a more progressive agenda?

Wendy Brown: I think a lot of us are very new to figuring out what the Tea Party is and is a symptom of – so I am not quite ready to commit on that subject.  I am just reading the same New York Times articles that everybody else is and trying to get the hang of it.  Clearly, it is polyglot.  Clearly, there are a lot of different political dissatisfactions that are being harnessed by what for the moment is a single movement but doesn’t necessarily look like it will stay unified.  That said, I think one thing that one can see in the Tea Party political attachments, if that is what they are, is a sense of deep frustration with a state that cannot solve political, economic or social problems.  I am especially struck by the number of Obama supporters – let’s put it this way, Obama voters – who now identify themselves with the Tea Party movement.  They haven’t even necessarily turned against Obama but they are clearly frustrated by an economy out of control, by the absolute scandal of bailed out big banks and big corporations, by the extreme inequalities in income that seem incommensurable with the old principle of hard work and reward.  Obviously, that kind of dissatisfaction and anger could be captured by left as well as by right.  I am not even convinced that it makes sense to see the Tea Party movement as right.  It is taking all kinds of reactionary positions, but I am not convinced that everybody attracted to it has the desire to be or will be, in some permanent way, a card-carrying member of what is being characterized as right-wing extremism.  I think that the very kinds of dissatisfactions that many left liberals feel with a state unwilling to actually dominate the corporations that have it over a barrel, and the finance capital that has it over a barrel, are shared by Tea Party types. Yes, I think there is exploitable material there.  That said, one of the really painful things that the Tea Party movement also reveals is what it means to have disinvested in education in this country.  There is just an extraordinary amount of political ignorance and fantasy in what I’ve seen as some of the leading Tea Party analyses and positions.  It’s not that fantasy and ignorance are new to politics, but you can really see what it means to have given up on having an educated citizenry in this country.  It is not just that the facts are wrong but the ability to make arguments and analyze what are admittedly complex situations is just woefully missing in a lot of what you hear in Tea Party formulations.  That is true on the left too, so we’re in a very serious crisis of knowledge and education in this country, and I do worry that our concern to try to figure out how to mobilize discontent, despair, and resentment for the left rather than the right probably doesn’t take the measure of what is needed in the domain of education.

CPS:  Actually, I was going to ask, what you are saying right now seems to have a link to a talk you gave two nights ago on the crisis within the humanities.  You were arguing – correct me if I mischaracterize you – but you were arguing against the way that there is such a specialization and jargonization of what we do – where it becomes hard to explain what we do to people outside of academia.  Do you think this kind of insulation within academia helps feed political ignorance and this divide?

Wendy Brown:  Sure, we’ve really lost the ability – and I am not blaming us as individuals – it is really part of a creation of niche industries everywhere in capitalism today. But, we’ve really lost the ability as social and cultural scholars – I want to say humanists but I am trying to get social scientists in there too – we’ve lost the ability to be able to talk about what we do and promulgate the knowledge we have in an everyday fashion.  I think that happens in the classroom and it is not even just a question of what is outside. More and more, for example, political science educates its undergraduates in the profession of political science, rather than in the study of politics. That means we are cranking out students who may know how to behave like professional political scientists but they don’t really know how to analyze political problems.

CPS:  Speaking of political discourse, when I was listening to your lecture “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty” you mentioned that the physicality of walls, this pre-modern physicality of walls built along nation-state borders is a way of both condensing and managing anxiety.  There is something reassuring about a wall, even if it is only a theatrical performance.  If you could, just speak a little about walls and anxiety, or just anxiety in a broader picture, of how you think anxiety plays a role in shaping contemporary political discourse.

Wendy Brown:  That is a really great question. I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately and it is partly because I am so aware of how much anxiety is a feature of everyday discourse in the US when people are just describing their personal state.  One of the things I’ve been trying to think about – it is not quite related to the walls question but we will go back to that – is whether the sheer level of anxiety in human beings has been increasing in ways that are commensurate with the loss of certain kinds of boundaries, the denigration of defining features of communities, all that we associate with globalization.  I think the answer is probably yes, and I hope somebody will do a study on this: historicizing anxiety and thinking about the history of the human subject in terms of a more anxious subject today than ever before. There are lots of reasons that students, for example, are anxious in ways that I don’t remember being anxious as a college student. There are concerns about performance and job markets, but I am really talking about a world of anxiety that is quite disseminated and quite general and does not simply pertain to the high ambition end of the American middle class.  On the subject of walling, I do think that part of what walls are doing is addressing a very understandable anxiety about the loss of bounded political entities.   I talk about that at length in the work on walls in terms of a decline of state sovereignty but I also would talk about it in terms of the decline of a sense of place that the nation, among other things, has provided for these last several hundred years.  Globalization is tearing at that.  It is tearing at it in the sense of both leaving people without a sense of what the nation is as it becomes ever more heterogeneous, as immigration transforms the literal population and culture of the nation.  But it also is a decline in the sense of the nation as something that one has membership in and belongs to in a way that is significant in comparison with the sense of being part of a planet or a globe.  I think human beings need a sense of place – to put it really simplistically – that is increasingly hard to find today.  Not only because of intense mobility, but because of the loss of a sense of the containing dimensions of a nation.  I think walls very much address that; in a fantasmatic way they produce the image of a bounded, settled jurisdiction and of a we.  They produce a we and they produce a they that is hardly real, and hardly significant at a demographic level but is very significant at the level of political imaginary.  My answer to your question is yes, a lot of anxiety about not having that we can be addressed by building a wall and saying: this is us, this is who we are.  I also think it can work to produce a purified, idealized sense of the nation. This is an old we; this is a white we in the case of Europe or the US; this is a we that has at its door an other that endangers it sense of identity.

CPS: What you just said brought something to mind – would you disagree with the fetishism of the loss of place in contemporary philosophy? The idea of multiplicity and play – I am talking about an approach that critiques this very human need to be bounded and to have a home and identifying markers, and instead, celebrates a form of Nietzschean Dionysianism?

Wendy Brown:  That is an interesting question.  I would actually give a different account of Nietzsche.  I think Nietzsche is very clear on the importance of horizons.  He understands that without horizons the human being goes crazy.  He is our big horizon thinker. Dionysian maybe, but Dionysus hung out in Greece, and was not a global god, so yes, to answer your question, I strongly believe that human beings need some sense of place, of I-ness, of we-ness, that theories of cosmopolitanism either elide altogether or sneak in while pretending they’re not.  Obviously, a strong conception of a global citizen, a cosmopolitan ideal, could have that global citizen actually living and connecting to a particular place, but most theories of the global citizen and of the global village insignificantly honor the need for a human-scale sense of place.  A nation-state is too big for that sense of place but human communities provide it, and so do slightly larger or even non-human ways of bounding what and who we are.  I do think that is really important and I don’t think that political theory will get us very far if it can’t acknowledge and attend to that particular dimension of being human.

CPS: Thank you so much. As just a final word, what new work or book projects from you, do we have to look forward to?

Wendy Brown:  The walls project is coming out in June, or July maybe, with Zone books.  Then, I’ve been working for a couple of years on something I hope to finish in the next year, which is a rethinking of Marx’s critique of religion.  What I am trying to do there is think about what is often treated as an early and relatively unimportant concern of Marx, one that he is presumed to have dropped once he moves on to full-blown materialism and study of political economy.  What I am doing is tracing the ways in which his engagement with Feuerbach and his critique of religion extends all the way through his work right up into Das Kapital.  One of the things that has allowed me to see is the ways in which Marx can contribute to understanding a contemporary problem of ours, which is this: why is it that at the very moment that capitalism seems finally to have painted all the colors of the globe and really has ascended as a global power – why is that moment coterminous with the resurgence of world religions?   Marx is often thought to not be able to help us think that problem at all because Marx is usually thought to be saying that capitalism secularizes and even abolishes religion and that religion is one of the casualties – in his sense, good casualties – of capitalism’s desacralization of the world.  I think that is a wrong reading.  I actually think Marx has a deep understanding of just how religious capital is and how much it requires and entails religion.  That is what the re-reading of Marx is for, and I hope that book will be done in another year, but we’ll see.

CPS: Wendy Brown, thank you so much for taking the time.