Sophie Fuggle’s Review of Vattimo and Zabala’s “Hermeneutic Communism”

Review by Sophie Fuggle – click the title to go to the page and see the book cover and Mdm Mim cartoon.

Review of Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala (Columbia University Press, 2011)

At the end of In Defence of Lost Causes, Žižek calls for a return to the egalitarian terror of the Stalinist regime as the only option for circumventing the imminent expiration of the planet. His deliberate misreading of Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s ‘enlightened catastrophism’ along with his avowal that this will most likely fail (in accordance with the Beckettian maxim) does little to convince despite his compelling argument for being done with the weak thought that has paralysed the intellectual left for so long.

This seems to be just a substitution of one set of atrocities for another. And at the same time I am also left wondering whether much of the apparently incendiary remarks made by the intellectual left – calls to revolution, insurrection and terror à la Robespierre as a response to the cuts, crises and general fucked-up state of the world under the shadow of neo-liberalism – don’t actually continue to embody the ‘weak’ thought of the 80s and 90s.

First off – it seems highly unlikely that today’s tenured academic has the wherewithal to organise anything other than a seminar series and sometimes even that proves too much. Or the guts to carry out the systematic violence demanded by the type of revolution they appear to be advocating. Standing up to a colleague in a departmental meeting or writing a nasty book review is not tantamount to operating the guillotine. Academic discourse takes place within certain conditions of possibility and strives to maintain these conditions which is really a safe playground where a lot of overgrown children can kick sand in each others faces, fight over whose turn it is to go on the swing and still be friends when the bell rings.

Second, and this is really the point being made by Vattimo and Zabala, is revolution or insurrection a genuine possibility and, moreover, genuinely desireable? The police brutality during the protests over tuition fees in the UK at the end of 2010 and more recently at UC Davis during a rally against, erm, police brutality should make it clear that there are more than enough mercenaries for hire prepared to do the dirty work of those with power and wealth.

Coupled with the continued growth of the war industry, that marriage of convenience between global, deterritorialised flows of capital and nation-state building, anyone planning a serious affront to capitalism needs to think carefully about the tools or weapons at their disposal. Security, torture and imprisonment are now all part of the service industry and as such can all be outsourced to the cheapest bidder. Someone, somewhere will always be willing to do the job. Even Macbeth managed to put together some sort of army against MacDuff.

Direct physical opposition which while it might begin peacefully enough must eventually lead to violent confrontation in the form of evictions, arrests, kettling, pepper spraying, water cannons and beyond. The bottom line of fighting back is that capitalism has the missiles and is happy to use them.

So where does dispensing with the ‘might is right’ principle leave us? Back at ‘weak’ thought, it appears.

Here I can’t help but think of the fight between Merlin and the witch, Madam Mim, in the Sword in the Stonecartoon. As Madam Mim transforms herself into increasingly larger, more threatening creatures, Merlin’s somewhat ad-hoc magic turns him into ever smaller, more useless animals. The weak thought in the face of the ever-growing, fire-breathing monster of capitalism.

Where we are repeatedly reminded by Vattimo and Zabala that ‘the weak are the discharge of capitalism’, weakness should not simply be taken as a state or position of passivity. Instead what is at stake is a process of weakening which needs to be carried out upon existing political, social and economic structures. And herein lies the role of hermeneutics. Interpret the world again and again in order to resist prescriptive forms of truth which have totalising function. This means engaging in conversations not staging dialogues (which always presuppose given positions and conditions of possibility).

The failure of communism in its earlier manifestations is due to its being underpinned by a will to power which can only lead to despotism. What happens once the revolution is declared complete? The (re)imposition of the very power structures that were the ideological basis for revolution in the first instance. Communism must thus always be considered a process which whilst based on utopian, romantic desires as opposed to the quest for scientific, totalising truth can never be declared complete.

Hermeneutic Communism is compelling in its pursuit of a postmodern project long considered ineffectual and self-defeating. However, it unfortunately does little more than go through the motions with the obligatory rehabilitation of Heidegger as voice of dissent against totalising systems of truth. More interesting perhaps is the discussion of emergency – highlighting the precise lack of emergency as precisely what is wrong in contemporary society. An antidote to all the empty claims of urgency by the intellectual left which are thinly disguised marketing strategies for selling more books. Again, Capitalism is not in Crisis, it is crisis. War does not stop industry, it is industry. There’s nothing human about human rights. And so it goes on.

South American communism. Having already rehabilitated Heidegger, the final part of the book is focused on giving Chavez a bit more positive spin than he tends to get in the mainstream press. In my view, this section promises much and should be the selling point for the whole hermeneutic communism argument. But the discussion feels vague, tacked on as an afterthought. This is the kind of writing I warn my students against –shoving in a case study at the end of an essay is an exercise in bad faith. Sadly, Hermeneutic Communism does little to further debates around the various political regimes currently operating in Latin America. Chavez et al. seem to have been fetishized simply because they offer alternatives to the CIA-imposed governments of previous decades. This is not to say there are not useful, contemporary models to be explored here but this can’t be done in 20 pages or so.

So in a sense Vattimo and Zabala fall short of their own maxim – more interpretation is needed…

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I like this review a lot, but I have issues with the ‘failure of communism in its earlier manifestations’ paragraph.

‘The failure of communism in its earlier manifestations is due to its being underpinned by a will to power which can only lead to despotism. What happens once the revolution is declared complete? The (re)imposition of the very power structures that were the ideological basis for revolution in the first instance. Communism must thus always be considered a process which whilst based on utopian, romantic desires as opposed to the quest for scientific, totalising truth can never be declared complete.’

- in what sense do we think that early communism was a failure? – I mean compared to the wreck that is capitalism, communist successes – 1917, 1949, 1959, 1975 – were quite something. Incomplete yes, but that was always understood, at least by Lenin, Luxemburg, and even the renegade Trotsky, but pretty near everyone else as well, especially Mao with the GPCR, insisting on permanent revolution. Mao and the ‘gang’ of four died at the hands of those who declared the Chinese experiment over (well, Mao also died a bit from old age I suppose). Yet it seems you mean to say something more/different than that the Chinese restoration of Capitalism was ‘re-imposition of the very power structures that were the ideological basis for revolution’. By suggesting communism always, unless its just an ‘idea’ (pace Zizek), ends up in trouble is effectively regurgitating the despotic as scare-mongering and this is not useful – to then contrast this despotism with some flighty utopio-romance version of communism is flakey. The alternatives are not hippies v Stalin, its socialism or barbarism.

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