Interview with Cécile Laborde

Political theorists have only quite recently started to reflect on their use of the concept ‘religion’. They often do so in response to critiques pointing out liberal theory’s unsatisfactory and partial construal of this concept. The liberal secular approach to religion is, these critiques argue, strongly influenced by its use of a specific definition of religion as something that is ‘private, voluntary, individual, textual, and believed’ (Sullivan 2005, 8). Many critical scholars draw attention to the specifically western European historical trajectory in which a modern notion of religion took shape. Reflecting on the concept of religion has thus led to an interest in the genealogy of that concept and in that of related liberal ideals such as ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘separation of church and state’ (See for example the works of Asad 1993, 2003; Mahmood 2015; Sullivan 2005, Hurd 2015; Danchin 2008).

In Liberalism’s Religion (2017)Cécile Labordepresents a profound and nuanced response to these challenges. Laborde, who currently holds the Nuffield Chair of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, was previously a Professor of Political Theory at University College London where she founded UCL’s Religion and Political Theory Centre (RAPT).RAPT was the home of the research project ‘Is Religion Special? Secularism and Religion in Contemporary Legal and Political Theory,’ (2012-2017) funded by the European Research Council. Her most recent book is a result of that project and a thorough reflection on the project’s main questions regarding the unique status of religion in western law and politics.

Western states and legal systems single out religion as something that deserves special treatment. States grant special protections to religious beliefs which are not granted to non-religious commitments – e.g. rights to worship or legal exemptions from certain general laws. On the other hand, religion is also treated as something that needs to be contained. The constitutional principle of non-establishment identifies religion as something the state should keep itself separate from – e.g. by not subsidizing religious organization or banning religious signs in government buildings. While the principles of religious freedom and non-establishment can be interpreted in many different ways, western states and transnational legal systems generally treat religious beliefs, organizations, and individuals in a way that differs from the manner they treat political opinions, soccer clubs or art enthusiasts.

In her book and other recent publications, Laborde contributes to the active debate in which legal scholars and philosophers question whether religion’s special status is compatible with the state’s equal treatment of religious and non-religious citizens (e.g. Boucher and Laborde 2014; Dworkin 2013; Laborde 2014; Leiter 2013; Nussbaum 2005; Schwartzman 2012). Laborde builds on the work of liberal egalitarian scholars who argue that religion should only be protected as ‘a subset of a broader category of respect-worthy beliefs and activities’ (Laborde 2017, 42), but is critical of the way these authors analogize religion using broad and vague categories such as ‘comprehensive doctrine’ or ‘system of personal ethics’. She instead aims to ‘to revise the liberal egalitarian theory of religion and the state, providing a more complex picture of what religion is like, by identifying an array of politically or legally-relevant dimensions of religion’ (Laborde 2017, 12). In what Laborde designates as her ‘disaggregation approach’, she distinguishes different features of religion – features it shares with non-religious commitments, identities, and activities – and shows how they are connected to different liberal values. Laborde thereby also steps away from those critical scholars who state that delimiting the ‘religious’ in an objective non-biased way is simply impossible and who claim therefore that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate legal or political category at all (see Sullivan 2005; Hurd 2015). By taking seriously the critiques which point out the ‘historical embeddedness’ of liberal thought on religion, and by constructing a theory that is responsive to such challenges, she brings the debates on religion’s special status to a new level.

Before the publication of Liberalism’s Religion, Cécile Laborde had already published extensively in the areas of liberalism and religion, state secularism, tolerance, and immigrant integration. She also worked on the broader topics of theories of law and the state, pluralism, syndicalism, and on contemporary theories of nationalism, multiculturalism, secularism and global justice. In her 2008 monograph Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy in Political Philosophy, Laborde explored the tensions between the French philosophy of state laïcité and the reality of Muslim domination in France by meticulously analyzing the arguments and discourses surrounding France’s 2004 ban on religious signs in schools. The book develops a theory of critical republicanism that challenges official interpretations of laïcité but reinterprets and upholds certain core tenets of republicanism. ‘Liberalism’s Religion,’ Laborde states, ‘takes on a broader view of western political theory than Critical Republicanism’.In it, her own preferred theory of critical republicanism is presented as one of several reasonable traditions of thought, falling ‘within the broad umbrella of liberalism’. Laborde’s latest monograph thus presents a meta-perspective on topics that already figure prominently in her earlier work. This time she does not primarily focus on the gaps that exist between norms and practice but points out internal tensions within liberal political theory itself – tensions that can be brought to light by closely analyzing religion’s place within the liberal tradition.

At a recent event in Amsterdam, Anna Blijdenstein sat down to discuss some of these themes with Cécile Laborde.

Anna Blijdenstein: Before starting the ERC project on religion and secularism you had already written about the topic of religion, for example in Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (2008). What led you to pose the question ‘Is religion special’?

Cécile Laborde: I worked on religion before, and not only on the hijab controversy. I have also written about Islam in Senegal, religious exemptions, state laïcité, and immigrant integration. And I was just quite struck by the fact that the only concept people always took for granted was the concept of ‘religion’. It was always used as if it was quite clear what it was, a ‘thing’ that had to be dealt with or managed. This was particularly the case in the work of political philosophers. They – or maybe I should say we – employed an un-reflected-upon concept of religion that was also very limited. When pushed, we thought of religion as what John Rawls called ‘a conception of the good’. So we always worked with an analogy. Every time we said ‘conception of the good’, what we really had in mind was a religion, and every time we said ‘religion’ we had in mind something like a private conception of the good.

We talked about the separation of state and religion;the free exercise of religion, freedom of religion, butthe term itself was never clearly defined. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if all these concepts might not mean something different in different contexts. My starting point was that in the idea of the separation of state and religion,the notion of religion is quite a complex one, and is going to be different than in the context of questions of religious freedom. So that was the starting point of the project: to interrogate the concept of religion.

AB: You say that political philosophers, in particular, failed to reflect on religion. Did other, more reflexive disciplines influence your project?

CL: I found the lack of reflection particularly puzzling because other disciplines had worked on religion quite a lot. I wanted to bridge that gap. There are well-established British and American schools for the sociology of religion for example. Reading these mainstream sociologists has been very good simply to grasp the diversity of religious experiences and the richness of the vocabulary with which these authors describe a variety of religious experiences: from faith to ritual to collective identity. It was really about getting a sense of something a bit more complex than what political philosophers were working with.

And then there is a more critical school that I am also interested in: scholars, mainly influenced by Talal Asad and his followers, who take both a Foucauldian and post-colonialist approach to religion. This project is mostly critical of the categories of liberal modernity and state secularism. I am interested in both and wanted to see which criticisms political philosophy should take seriously and which were irrelevant to the work that we were doing. So I wanted to do that work: seeing if there was anything we should learn from traditional sociology of religion, history of religion, the comparative study of religion, and the critical, post-colonialist, Foucauldian views. I wanted to see how we should respond to them – by taking them seriously.

AB: You want to take these disciplines seriously but you also argue that not all critiques are relevant to the work political philosophers are doing. Could you explain this position a little further?

CL: I think the main criticism that has been coming from both quarters – both from sociologists of religion and adherents to the more critical school – is that political philosophers don’t ‘get’ religion. They argue that philosophers are working with an empirically flawed concept, a too narrow, too restricted, too individualistic view of religion. And that this is not what religion really is. This is what I take to be the most interesting criticism and this is the one I am trying to formulate a response to.

The answer, however, is twofold. I want to disagree with the general idea that the law of liberal states should work with a concept of religion that accurately describes religion and religious experience as a whole. Capturing the whole of reality is not what the law should do. So it can’t be a criticism in itself to say that we do not work with religion ‘as it is’. The point of law is not to describe an empirical reality, but to capture the ethically or normatively relevant features of a phenomenon.

For this reason, I would agree that there is something a bit wrong with a law of freedom of religion that captures a very contested notion of conscience as the only relevant form of individual integrity. In so far as the law of freedom of religion exists to protect dimensions of people’s relationship to the world in a way that expresses their deeper integrity, then, of course, not only conscience-based religions do that. So I concede that liberal philosophy but also liberal law should have a richer notion of the ethically relevant dimensions of religion, one that protects not only conscience, but also the practices and forms of association people see as essential in living by their ethical commitments and projects. I introduce the notion of integrity as the normative value that stands for religion in freedom of religion cases. It is this value that the law should aim to protect in cases of free exercise. But when we think about why there should be a separation between state and religion, I think the law picks out a different ethically salient dimension of ‘religion’. So the question of state secularism is a much more complicated story.

AB: Do you think that religion poses a specific problem for liberal-democratic states? And is secularism the most suitable term to describe the relationship between religion and the state?

CL: In my book, I pose the question of whether liberal legitimacy requires secularism – or separation between state and religion – and if so, which form that separation should take. I argue that the best way to answer this question is to ‘disaggregate’ religion into four constituent elements, and I argue that the liberal state is secular in four distinct senses. I identify four different features that, when a religious organization or conception has them, the state should not endorse, enforce, or establish. When religion does not exhibit these features, it is perfectly okay for a state to be ‘religious’ is that sense. There is a case for the separation of religion and the state, and it is in virtue of certain features that some religions might have, but that might also be shared by non-religious identities or conceptions.

AB: Could you describe these four senses in which a state should be secular?

CL: The first feature is about epistemic justification. Some people argue that religious arguments are always illegitimate in the public sphere but I disagree with that. I think there is a large scope for all kinds of religious arguments in the public sphere, and certainly citizens are under no obligation to refrain from using any argument they wish. To be clear, for me, a ‘secular state’ means that it is the state that should be secular, not the citizens. This view of secularism differs greatly from other well-known versions such as French laïcité in which everybody has to be secular, including ordinary citizens, including girls wearing hijab in a public school. As you know, I have written against that view. However, I do think the state and its officials have a duty of restraint in the expression of their religious beliefs.

Now, this does not mean that an official cannot make reference to her deeply held ethical or religious belief. It is an epistemic criterion, and by that, I mean that it is a criterion of accessibility. The state, when it justifies its laws, should appeal only to reasons that are epistemically accessible. Other people can understand them, even if they don’t agree with them, so they can be the object of public debate. If you put it that way, you can see that many religious views and ideas are not epistemically inaccessible. There are lots of things about religion that communicate meaning and can be understood. And you can also see that many non-religious ideas are epistemically inaccessible. So religion is not special in that sense. So that is my first criterion. The state is secular in so far as state officials do not appeal to epistemically inaccessible reasons. This is what I call justificatory secularism.

The second relevant feature of religion is that it can signal an identity that is socially divisive. When we think about what is wrong with a state enforcing and endorsing a religious identity – what’s wrong with the establishment of Christianity, Islam or Judaism by a state – it’s that it makes non-members of those religions into second-class citizens. If you live in a state that is openly Christian and you are not Christian yourself, then you might think you are not an equal citizen. So that is the second criterion, civic inclusiveness. These cases where the endorsement of one religion causes the people who do not belong to feel excluded, highlight a different dimension of religion, the dimension of religion which makes it a possibly divisive identity. Here religion is much like race or gender: the reason we don’t want a religious state is the same as the reason why we don’t want an ethnic state or an apartheid state. But of course, not all religions are socially divisive in that way. So this criterion, in a different way from the others, is a contingent, context-specific one. An example I often use is Senegal, a country with a 90 percent Muslim population. The state endorses symbols of Islam in its institutions. I don’t think that this is problematic because people in Senegal, including Christians and atheists, do not see Islam as a socially divisive identity. In that particular context, the endorsement of Islam by the state is fine. I have a different view of countries like Egypt and Turkey where religion is clearly politicized and you cannot really say religion is a non-divisive identity.

A third reason we think the state should not enforce religion is that we believe that many religions seek to regulate the whole of our lives. They want to regulate what we eat, whom we sleep with, how we dress, what we do with our bodies and our lives. Now it’s perfectly fine for religions to do that. But a liberal would think it wrong for the state to endorse or enforce any of those particular religions because it forces one into living a comprehensive life, which is not the one you would have chosen for yourself. That is a very basic liberal idea of personal liberty. And here peeks out a third dimension of religion which is that religion is a comprehensive system of ethics. And again there are other comprehensive systems of ethics, religion is not the only one, but a liberal state is a non-comprehensive state. On the whole, a secular state would let people decide how they want to lead their lives.

I will go to the last one, which is the most fundamental one. The state is secular, the fourth sense of secular, when it is non-theocratic. This idea, which may sound a bit simple or obvious, but it goes to the heart of secularism, has to do with sovereignty. Who has the final say in the state? Who decides what pertains to personal liberty, and what does not? Who decides on what goes where? The ultimate source of legitimacy in a democracy has to be the demos. There is no alternative unless you think we have to refer to the will of God. I don’t think of the demos as a general will, Rousseau style. It might be a pluralist demos, but in the end, the only way we can make decisions is together collectively and democratically.

AB: Veit Bader argued that the notion of ‘secularism’ or the ‘secular state’ should be replaced by ‘priority for liberal democracy (2007)’. Your disaggregation approach also seems to identify specific values a liberal state aims to protect. Why do you find it necessary to hold on to the notion of the secular?

CL: I believe our projects are not dissimilar. Like Veit Bader, I am trying to understand the normative logic of liberal institutions. But what I try to show is that at the heart of liberal constitutionalism there is a political-religious conflict. The western liberal state emerged out of the crucible of the European religious wars in the 17th century. To understand where we come from, and the kind of problems the liberal state has to solve, or thinks is trying to solve, we have to understand the concept of religion that for me underlies the very liberal democratic order. What Bader does is similar to the other theories I engage with in my book. Like other liberal egalitarians, such as Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager, and Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure, he wants to dissolve religion into a broader category of the good. I want to do more disaggregative work. Like Bader, I think one should not say that ‘the state’ should separate itself from ‘religion’ in general. However, one should explain which dimensions of religion it should separate itself from.

Some liberal pluralists like Bader would say that the state is just a framework, a neutral framework for the accommodation of difference. I disagree with that. I don’t think the state is neutral in that sense. When the state says that individuals are sovereign in the domain of ethics, it really takes a position against some religious views. And that is not a neutral stance at all. Many religious people are right to say “hang on, the state is not neutral when it says you have a right to an abortion” for instance. I want to say they are actually right to say “for us, abortion is murder, so allowing it is not neutral”. They are right because liberals always prioritize what, following Dworkin, I call ‘ethical independence’: the idea that we are always responsible for what we do with our lives and will always prioritize this over other goods, be it the family, unborn life or marriage. These are important goods but, on the liberal view, you can only pursue them privately, the state should not promote them itself. But by not abstaining from taking a view on say, whether the fetus is a person, the liberal state is clearly not neutral about the good.

Bader might argue for a more neutral framework of accommodation. I have a more robust view of what the liberal state is. The state is not a neutral arena, the state promotes a particular view of the person. This is a thin view, it is not a comprehensive view, of the person as free. This gives us an answer, a response to religious critics of liberalism. But again, it is a response that is a concessive one: I agree with their critique of many of the liberal claims to neutrality. I think they are right to tell us that liberalism is not neutral, and I think that we should bite this bullet.

AB: Is this fact of non-neutrality a reason for the extensive accommodation of religious groups and individuals?

CL: That is possibly the case. I don’t take a position on that in my book. I am interested in the justification of the liberal state and how it justifies itself in relation to religion. Which particular policies it would then implement towards religious groups is a completely separate question. Politically, I might agree that there would be quite a lot of state support that should be channeled towards various religious institutions. But there would be a separate justification for that. For me, it would be in the name of freedom of association, or in the name of rights to education or healthcare. These are secular goods the state provides and it would support religious organizations so they can help provide these goods. I don’t think the state should provide or help provide directly religious goods.

I also believe that when a religious group engages in activities like teaching, healthcare, or commercial activities and wants to be exempted from anti-discrimination law in the name of freedom of religion, the state should be critical. They might say: “hang on, we are a religious group. When we run schools and hospitals or when we have businesses, for us these are religious. Our businesses are Christian, our teaching is Christian, so please can we get an exemption from Obamacare?” The state should come in and say “actually, you are not entitled to claim religious freedom in this case”. Jean Cohen has written about the case in which Hobby Lobby Stores were exempted, on religious grounds, from having to implement a healthcare plan for employees which included contraceptive methods (Cohen 2014). When you operate in the marketplace I think you should be treated like any commercial organization.

AB: Do you believe that to be true for schools as well? Should they not be exempted from anti-discrimination law to be able to employ teachers that adhere to a specific faith?

CL: Schools are a harder case because some schools indeed have a right to teach religion. But when you are teaching a secular subject to children who are not of the faith, this is quite far removed from the core purpose of the religious association. The problem is that these organizations might have hundreds of employees. Many of them are not members of the church and the people they teach might not be members of the church.

In the end, where the boundary lies between what is properly religious and what isn’t is going to have to be democratically decided. This doesn’t mean it will not be on the side of religious groups. In a society that is very religious or that prefers religious provisions like the Netherlands, it might mean that democratically – and judges might follow that view – it may have an expansive view of what counts as religious. My point is ultimately this is what democratic communities must decide for themselves.

Another way of putting it is that this is not a human rights matter, not something that can be decided universally for all societies. It can’t be defined prior to democratic deliberation and it cannot be decided by assessing the content of the doctrines religious organizations adhere to. These can never be the ultimate source of legitimacy. There has to be a democratic discussion, and each society decides what should be considered as a proper exercise of religion and what isn’t. This is what I mean by the fourth dimension of secularism. The competence-competence lies with the demos.

AB: There has been a change in European societies to see minorities as ‘religious’ minorities instead of ethnic or racialized, especially when it comes to Muslims. In some cases, it might be useful for minorities to be put into a religious category and in other cases not so much. Could you share your views on this?

CL: Many Europeans ‘discovered’ religion after 9/11. They discovered there was a religious problem in the wake of a particularly violent episode of Islamic terrorism. And then many of the issues related to immigrant integration started to be described in terms of a conflict of civilization between Islam and the West. The idea took hold that Islam is fundamentally anti-secular and anti-democratic and that there is a fundamental incompatibility between religion and liberalism. I want to look at the much more complicated relationship that liberalism has with that ‘thing’ that we call religion. This is what I want to push on. I want to provide clarity about which bits of religion should be protected, and which bits of religion the state should be protected from. Now we just bundle all these issues together.

If we feel clearer about these two main things, the non-establishment side and the free exercise side, hopefully, we can relax a bit about the Muslim question and realize there is no such thing. So I hope my approach disentangles what is too often perceived as a ‘Muslim problem’. In fact, some issues discussed in these debates have to do with civic exclusion, others with religion as comprehensive systems of ethics. Some forms of Islam are indeed quite comprehensive, in the sense that they regulate norms of social and personal life in a manner a liberal state would not do. I am hoping that instead of seeing it as a problem with Islam or as a religious problem, we can identify the different kinds of issues at stake and show that for every issue there is no specificity for Muslims. It is actually a whole set of different problems about education, about the norms of public debate, about equality and about different European societies going their own way. So I am hoping the book can provide a kind of map for thinking about these problems, not in isolation from other problems and not as specific to Islam as a religion.

AB: Is discussing religion as vulnerability class, as you do in your article ‘Religion in the Law: The Disaggregation Approach’ (2015), a way to show how religion is connected to other categories?

CL: When I call it a vulnerable class, I show that religion can be very much like race, sexuality or gender. It can be a way to be defined through the eyes of others, a third-party identity. And in that way, it can be an obstacle to equality. I have discussions with my liberal friends who say “oh, religion is not at all like gender! And it is not like disability!” And no, of course, religion as an experience is not similar to gender or disability. But when you look at what it is like to be discriminated against, whether it is on grounds of religion, disability or sexual preference, it can be exactly the same thing. Of course being disabled is different from being a practicing Jew. The category ‘vulnerable class’ doesn’t say what religion is for the people who experience it. It is just that if you want to look at certain political and legal problems like discrimination, discrimination on grounds of religion is not so dissimilar from discrimination on grounds of disability. It is about forms of animosity or hostility that block access to equal opportunity. That is my formal definition and if you take that to be discrimination, there are many things that can stand in the way of equality and can be grounds for discrimination.

AB: Even though you are disaggregating, the focus of your book is still on religion, even though it is pulled apart. One could also argue other perspectives are more productive at this point. Post-colonial or migratory perspectives or those departing from the history of race might shed new light on issues that are now continuously examined through a religious-secular framework.

CL: I agree there are different paradigms to understand the current European paranoia. One of them is post-colonialism and another one is race theory, and I believe these are both very fertile. I am still interested in religion for the following reasons. When I finished my book on Republicanism, that is really where I left it: I had presented my view on the debates about Islam in Europe. And then I spent a year in Princeton and got involved in U.S debates. There, the European categories – of minority exclusion, problems of integration, etc. – are completely inoperative. When the debate is about autonomy for Christian associations in how they deal with women’s bodies, homosexuality, abortion, and sexuality, it is about the scope of religious autonomy. I don’t think the categories that do the explanatory work in Europe can do the same explanatory work there. So, if that’s the case we could say that the U.S. is completely different, which I don’t think is correct, or we could say that there is a blind spot within liberalism in how it thinks about religion. And that will be one of the facets of the Muslim question. Maybe not the main one, I agree, but if you want to understand the connections between European and U.S. debates I think they have to do with “the knot” of liberalism and religion. And that is what my book is about.

It was easy for the left in France and Europe, for all of us, to identify how we feel about the European obsession with Muslims. Quite clearly it is deeply problematic. It is connected to very problematic strands in European history. I think it was quite easy to see where we stood in these cases. I was more interested in cases in which I did not know where I stood. Whether to side with rights of the small religious group to be autonomous. Or whether to side with the dissident – the woman, or the LGBT person – within such an association. For the Left, for people who are thinking about these issues within a progressive, emancipatory framework, it is not as easy to take sides. That is why I loved being in the U.S. because these are harder cases to think about. Back in Paris, the kind of things the French go on about in the name of laïcité– whether women should be allowed to wear this or that – seem insignificant compared to what is at stake in the U.S. debates where you have large-scale denial of women’s rights. Not by small dominated minorities, but by very large, very powerful Christian majorities.

The Blind Spots of Left Populism

In the profusion of essays recently published on populism (Müller 2016, Moffitt 2017, Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017) one stands out for its claim of the term, the idea and the program: Chantal Mouffe’s (2018) manifesto For a Left Populism, which has received much attention from political scientists as well as politicians. Whereas most authors writing on this timely topic distance themselves from what they regard as a nefarious ideology or a treacherous disguise, the Belgian political theorist promotes it as the only way, for the left, to respond effectively to right-wing populism and, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes.

The starting point of her argument is a relatively straightforward political diagnosis, which she develops in four steps (9-24). First, we are living through a populist moment. Populism is not an ideology but the discursive strategy that sets up an opposition between the elite and the people and is therefore able to accommodate various institutional frameworks. Second, this moment results from the crisis of the neoliberal hegemonic formation which has itself replaced the social-democratic welfare state in the 1980s. This crisis corresponds to the disarticulation of liberal principles of freedom and the rule of law from democratic principles of equality and sovereignty of the people, the former remaining alone after the elimination of the latter, thus causing the advent of current post-democracy. Third, the left has committed two historical errors. Initially, its class essentialism has made it impervious to the emergence of new social movements involving race, gender, sexuality and environment. Later, its attempt to propose a third way to create a consensus at the center generated a post-politics which did not leave space any more for contradictions and conflicts. Fourth, the combination of post-democracy (decline of social justice and distrust in representation) and of post-politics (extinction of the right/left opposition) paved the way to populism as the only alternative to neoliberalism and the sole response to people’s discontent. Q. E. D.

Based on this diagnosis, Mouffe draws her plan for the left, taking as her model Margaret Thatcher who gained power by using populist arguments (25-38). Indeed, the Conservative prime minister successfully contrasted the oppressive establishment of the state and the unions with the industrious people who did not receive the benefits of its labour. But once in power, she implemented a classical form of authoritarian neoliberalism which not only allowed her to apply her Hayekian political project but which was later adopted by her successors of the Labour Party under the aegis of Tony Blair. Right-wing populism had therefore served as a stepping-stone for imposing a hegemonic model. For Mouffe, this is what the left should in turn do, but with as an objective the advent of a new hegemony reuniting liberalism and democracy. In her view, populism is a short-term tactic for a long-term strategy. She sees Jeremy Corbyn as the best example of the successful application of this winning scheme based on his espousal of the opposition us/them. More generally, for her, populism is the means, whereas radical democracy, which supposes pluralism and representation, is the end (39-57). Contrary to other radical thinkers, she does not consider pluralist representative democracy itself to be in crisis. It is rather its contemporary post-political expression that is failing because it does not allow for the agonistic confrontation between various hegemonic projects. The objective is therefore not to reject representation but to render it more democratic, which is what left populism achieves. But for populism to exist, there has to be a people. As an anti-essentialist, Mouffe proposes to construct it (59-78). Indeed, what she means by people has no empirical reality; it is a discursive construction including and excluding various segments of the population. Thus, while a few decades ago, the left was focused on the working class, ignoring new social movements, it is today the opposite. To avoid this counter-productive segmentation, the left then needs to retrieve the social question, while not losing sight of the causes of minorities, feminists, immigrants, and the environment. But it must not do so in a horizontal way. Left populism is vertical. The people have to be represented – in its plurality – and it shall have a leader – though not an authoritarian one. Moreover, the struggles to be fought should not be global. They need a national frame, in which affective identifications that are crucial to populism can occur.

Such is the outline of the diagnosis and the project proposed by Chantal Mouffe. Although the examples she provides mostly come from the European context, the type of left populism she calls for in her essay is profoundly influenced by the national and regional context in which her late husband developed his theory of populism. Like the great majority of leftist intellectuals in Argentina, Ernesto Laclau was a kichnerista, that is, a supporter and even occasionally an informal advisor of Nestor and later Cristina Kirchner, who are the most recent reincarnations of Peronism. For Laclau, Kirchner epitomized left populism, with personalized charismatic leadership, vertical political organization, broad popular support, anti-establishment rhetoric, and nationalist discourse. But beyond his Argentinian experience, he also regarded as a welcome alternative to the expansion of an aggressive and predatory neoliberalism in Latin America a series of political experiments conducted by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. For Laclau, these countries showed that, with the mobilization of grassroots organizations, peasant communities and the working class, left populism could succeed, leading to the election of progressive leaders.

The fact that Mouffe does not mention any of these left populist leaders who inspired Laclau’s (2005) theoretical book On Populist Reason is revealing. Probably, the deteriorated image of Chávez and his heir, the hold on power of Morales, the authoritarian style of Correa, and the corruption scandals surrounding Cristina Kirchner demonstrate that the passage from the conquest of power to the mode of governing poses complex problems, which they have not been able to resolve. To be fair, however, a thorough analysis of their action would give a more balanced assessment than is found in most Western media and would acknowledge the notable achievements of these regimes, in terms of reduction of inequality and illiteracy, for instance. But obviously, Mouffe prefers to discuss European countries where left populism is still relatively untainted for never having exercised responsibilities, with the only exception of Syriza whose problematic alliance with ANEL, the right-wing populist party, she surprisingly forgets to mention. Indeed, neither the newly re-oriented Labour Party, nor Podemos, nor Die Linke, nor La France Insoumise – inasmuch as these parties can be characterized as left populists, as Mouffe affirms – have been in government. In this respect, her affirmation that La France Insoumise represents the main opposition to the government of Emmanuel Macron is somewhat optimistic as for the European elections in May 2019, the party came in fifth with only 6 per cent of the votes, almost four times less than Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and hardly half of Yannick Jadot’s Les Verts. Thus, examining attentively and rigorously the experiments of left populism in Latin America, so often caricatured by international conservative and liberal media, would have been a good starting point.

But to return to the two sides of Mouffe’s argument – the diagnosis and the project – I will limit my comments to one point on each.

Part of the diagnosis, if not original, is accurate: the general shift to the right of the political spectrum, the de-legitimation of the ideas of the left, the blurring of ideological divisions, and the hegemony of neoliberalism. I would still be more severe than Mouffe and argue that the decline of democratic life is also accompanied by a decline of liberal principles. Not only is inequality growing and popular sovereignty waning, but freedom and the rule of law are also threatened by law-and-order policies, securitization and surveillance. However, my main point is distinct. I do not think that present right-wing populism is a response to a crisis of neoliberalism, first because it is not a response, and second because there is no such crisis. On the contrary, right-wing populism is often a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. Examples abound, but one should suffice. The coming to power of Donald Trump is an electoral victory for populism but a political victory for neoliberalism. The grotesque figure of the president, that is, the unsettling combination of ridiculous and odious, of absurd and obscene, which so effectively attracts the attention of the media and the public, allows his political allies and rich donors to discreetly get their neoliberal agenda through. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, budget reductions for social and health programs, deregulation of finance, consumer protection and environmental preservation, among other decisions less discussed than the President’s tweets, have largely benefited the upper segment of the population while contributing to the increase in economic disparities. This triumph of neoliberalism has been interpreted by some as a typical example of false consciousness since the blue-collar workers who succumbed to the populist candidate’s sirens and voted for him were among those directly affected by his reforms. Yet, it would be more interesting to note two facts: first, exit polls of the presidential election indicate that the percentage of votes in favour of Trump was higher among the well-off than among low-income households; second, international comparisons establish that the abstention rate, which is always higher among the poor, increases with inequality, the United States having therefore one of the lowest turnouts of Western countries. In other words, rather than stigmatizing the alleged false consciousness of the working class, it would be more accurate to speak of the enlightened consciousness of the more privileged who vote for the candidate whose policy will benefit them not only directly via his neoliberal policies favouring the rich but also indirectly by affecting the abstention rate of the lower social segments.

Regarding the project, even if one accepts the idea that left populism is the lifeline of the left, the version proposed by Mouffe is revealing of a somewhat old conception of democracy and the people, as it leaves little space for participative democracy and people’s say. First, in Mouffe’s vision, democracy is classically representative and mostly vertical, with the dominant figure of the leader. In the case of La France Insoumise, while it is indisputable that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s talent of populist tribune explains in good part the initial success of the movement, there is little doubt that its rapid decline after the presidential election has been largely facilitated by his bullish personality, and we have to remember that he went as far as declaring to the surprise of even his supporters: “My person is sacred.” The contrast between the quality of the debates inside the party and the intellectual openness of its members, on the one hand, and the simplified messages and dogmatic discourse of the leader, on the other, is striking. It is more than an idiosyncrasy: it derives from the very populist idea of the supreme leader. Second, in Mouffe’s program, the imagined people do not seem to have a voice; it is rather spoken via the leader. People are supposed to be affected emotionally by discourses, images, mobilizations, but they are on the receiving end and not on the emitting side. They are represented rather than representing themselves. Although she cites the Indignados three times in passing and even quotes their “We have a vote but we have no voice,” she does not refer to any such movement when she analyzes the construction of the people. For her, the people is discursively constructed by the leader, it does not seem to construct itself. Significantly, the attitude of the French left parties and trade unions to the mobilization of the gilets jaunes – undoubtedly populist and popular, composed of the working class and low middle-class – has been at the outset prudent, if not reluctant, as protesters were depicted by the government and journalists as Poujadists, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic (Fassin and Defossez 2019). Among the numerous interesting aspects of this almost entirely spontaneous uprising which long refused leaders, two can be retained for our topic. The first lesson is that  the France Insoumise has not taken advantage of the situation, dividing its voting intentions by half during the first six months of the mobilization, while both the Rassemblement National and the presidential party have slightly progressed. In sum, no benefit of the populist uprising has accrued for left populism. The second lesson is that on the roundabouts and in the street it seems that attempts at political exploitation, in particular by the far right, have failed, and that, on the contrary, right and left populists often decided to leave aside their ideological differences and to fraternize against their common enemies, which was interestingly deemed to be the state rather than capital. On the ground, the right-left division seemed to ease somewhat. Beyond this particular example, it is essential to acknowledge actual movements and to try to comprehend them – even when they do not fall into the theorists’ categories.

In the critical moment many polities are going through globally, confronted as they are with the rise of right-wing populisms, from the United States to Russia, from Israel to Hungary, from India to Brazil, the idea that left populism could counter this disquieting wave may have a seductive power. This is probably what explains the reception of Chantal Mouffe’s book within some leftist circles. But whereas left populism has had electoral successes in a few Latin American countries, it has encountered profound difficulties in transforming these remarkable victories into sustainable democratic practices, often even facing the opposition of the very organizations and unions which had brought them to power. This is no coincidence. The vertical structure of left populism, its substitution of an imaginary community for the actual people, and its call for nationalism to produce an affective identification underlain by xenophobic subtexts, have generated a form of populism in which the left has lost its soul without gaining a constituency. Of course, one could legitimately argue that the expression “left populism” covers a wide range of political forms, from Sara Wagenknecht’s program for Die Linke, with its dangerous flirtation with nationalism, to Bernie Sanders’s reorientation of the Democratic Party, which would be assimilated to a form of social-democracy in the rest of the world. But it is clear that Mouffe’s view is inspired by the Latin American version of it, which mirrors right-wing populism with its critique of the elite, the rhetorical construction of a people and the overwhelming presence of a líder máximo deaf to the voice of his constituency. Rather than this populism, what the left needs is to refocus on its core principles of social justice and have the courage to defend them.

Moderne onzekerheid

Recensie van: Isabell Lorey (2016) Het regeren van pecairen, vertaald door Marten de Vries. Amsterdam: Octavo, 144 pp.

Precariteit heeft gedurende de laatste jaren groeiende aandacht gekregen, zowel in sociologische en politiek-filosofische kringen als daarbuiten. Discussies over toenemende onzekerheid in woon- en werkomstandigheden spitsen zich meestal toe op een verontwaardiging die berust op de kloof tussen de welvaart van de moderne samenleving en de beangstigende onzekerheid over de toegang tot basale levensbehoeften die deze samenleving diende te bewerkstelligen. Deze onzekerheid is zichtbaar in velerlei vormen, zoals de steeds onmogelijkere situatie van mensen met een laag inkomen op de grootstedelijke woningmarkt, maar bijvoorbeeld ook in de afschaffing van de studiefinanciering. Deze ontwikkelingen passen in de geleidelijke afbraak van het sociale vangnet ten gevolge van jarenlang neoliberaal beleid. In beide gevallen worden er essentiële mogelijkheden ontzegd aan bepaalde groepen, waardoor deze groepen in een steeds sterkere staat van onzekerheid verkeren – onzekerheid over woonplaatsen en baankansen. Het zou verassend moeten zijn dat kwesties omtrent zulke basisbehoeften, na alle industrialisatie en verhoogde welvaart, opnieuw zo’n prangend probleem zijn, niet alleen in Nederland maar binnen de gehele Europese Unie en de Verenigde Staten. Toch heeft deze onrust tot dusver niet geleid tot een protestbeweging die een fundamenteel effect heeft gehad en blijken neoliberale partijen standvastig herkozen te worden.

Het is precies deze schijnbare tegenstrijdigheid, een vreemde dynamiek die eigen is aan de neoliberale samenleving, die Isabel Lorey in Het regeren van precairen (2016) probeert te verklaren. Zij vraagt zich af hoe een cultuur van angst en onzekerheid zo heersend heeft kunnen worden, waarom mensen zich toch bangelijk schikken naar het systeem dat deze onzekerheid produceert, en waarom er ten slotte zo weinig verzet is tegen precaire levensnormen. Lorey stelt dat kennis van precariteit een noodzakelijkheid is om de samenleving te kunnen begrijpen en om enige mogelijkheid voor verbetering te kunnen creëren.


Volgens Lorey is er eigenlijk geen sprake van één vorm van precariteit, maar is er nood aan een drietal concepten die tezamen het probleem uiteenzetten: precair-zijn, precariteit en precarisering. Hoewel dit onderscheid in eerste instantie wellicht tot verwarring kan leiden, stelt het Lorey in staat om allerlei verschillende vormen van precariteit te bespreken zonder reductionistisch te zijn. Allereerst richt zij zich op het precair-zijn, waarbij zij Judith Butler volgt in de wijze waarop zij deze term gekenschetst heeft. Butler stelt dat het leven inherent existentieel precair is en dat de mens noodzakelijk afhankelijk is van anderen voor bescherming om in leven te blijven (Butler 2009, 22-23). Deze bescherming kan echter nooit volledig zijn; precair-zijn is een onoverwinbare eigenschap van het leven waartegen men zich altijd slechts gedeeltelijk kan beschermen (Lorey 2016, 33). Lorey vat de mens dus op als een wezen dat altijd fysiek kwetsbaar is en dat berust op de zorg van anderen. Deze opvatting draagt al een nadruk op zorgethiek in zich, een thema dat later in het boek terug zal keren.

Precariteit ontstaat wanneer de bescherming tegen precair-zijn onderwerp wordt van politieke regulatie. Doordat verschillende groepen op verschillende wijzen en in verschillende maten bescherming wordt gegeven, ontstaat er een hiërarchie van precariteit, met een onderlaag van (vrijwel) geheel onbeschermde mensen en een opeenstapelende reeks groepen die in gedifferentieerde mate beschermd zijn. Zulke politieke regulatie bestaat voornamelijk uit het toekennen van rechten die een sociaal vangnet geven aan burgers, zoals het recht op een uitkering of op een sociale huurwoning. Bepaalde groepen verkeren in een hogere mate van precariteit doordat zij deze soort wettelijke bescherming niet ontvangen. De wettelijke status van personen bepaalt dus de mate van zekerheid die hen wordt gegeven. Dit contrast is duidelijk zichtbaar in het verschil tussen de rechten die bezitters van een paspoort uit een land dat deelneemt aan het Schengen-verdrag ontvangen, die door hun paspoort van sociale zekerheid gegarandeerd zijn in al deze landen, en migranten zonder verblijfsvergunning.

Precariteit staat in nauw verband met de term biopolitiek. Deze term, ontwikkeld door Michel Foucault, beschrijft de wijze waarop staten hun politieke macht gebruiken om populaties en lichamen te controleren, te reguleren en te beïnvloeden. Foucault herkende hierin een nieuwe vorm van de toepassing van staatsmacht. Praktijken als het gecentraliseerd wettelijk vastleggen van zorgbeleid toonden voor hem aan dat de staat zich tegenwoordig voornamelijk bezighoudt met het organiseren van het leven zelf. Lorey herkent in de ontwikkeling van precariteit een soortgelijke dynamiek. Volgens haar is het voornaamste onderwerp van regulatie onzekerheid geworden. Maar deze regulatiepraktijken komen niet slechts voort uit de staat, wat ook voor Foucault een essentiële wending is. Burgers voeren zelf deze praktijken uit en zijn zo zelfcontrolerend. Deze controlemechanieken zijn hierdoor productieve onderdelen van de manier waarop mensen hun eigen leven vormgeven, een zogenoemde gouvernementaliteit. Dit betekent dat de manier waarop precariteit gereguleerd wordt ook voortkomt uit de relatie die mensen tot zichzelf hebben. Wanneer iemand beslist om zich bij te scholen, een nulurencontract aanvaardt, of onbetaald werk doet omdat het goed zal staan op diens cv, is dit een individualistische manier om met precariteit om te gaan. De manier waarop het individu zich verhoudt tot precariteit noemt Lorey precarisering, de term die de voornaamste focus van het boek blijkt.


Om te begrijpen hoe precariteit geworteld is in de liberale samenleving, analyseert Lorey de manier waarop er in de liberale traditie naar de samenkomst van precariteit en het functioneren van de staat is gekeken. De stroming van het sociaalcontractdenken begrijpt de staat als een rationele overeenkomst tussen een groep mensen die collectief beter af is door het bestaan van een staat. Lorey bespreekt twee pijlers van deze liberale traditie: Hobbes en Rousseau.

Volgens Hobbes koos de mens rationeel een staat te stichten om daarmee uit een natuurstaat van anarchie en zelfredzaamheid te stappen. Lorey stelt vast dat dit hobbesiaanse gedachtegoed de staatsmacht fundeert op een diepe angst voor de ander, die feitelijk voortkomt uit de angst voor het eigen precair-zijn en het besef dat de ander dezelfde angst voelt. Er kleeft dus een tweeledigheid aan deze angst; de angst voor de dreiging van buitenaf, maar ook de angst voor de onvermijdelijke gevaren van het mens-zijn zelf. Elke poging tot het neutraliseren van dit gevaar zal noodzakelijk falen. Deze angst vormt vervolgens de garantie en legitimering voor het oprichten van het staatsbestel, dat als taak heeft om burgers te beschermen van de natuurstaat. Lorey stelt dat deze denkwijze een permanente dreiging vereist en dat deze dreiging tevens de balans verstoort. Van oudsher betaalde de burger voor veiligheid met gehoorzaamheid, maar onder het neoliberale systeem muteerde deze dynamiek en wordt er door middel van onzekerheid in plaats van bescherming gereguleerd. De staat blijft continu op zoek naar de minimaal noodzakelijke afscherming tegen deze onzekerheid om de gangbare machtsrelaties in stand te kunnen houden.

Lorey vervolgt haar analyse met Rousseau, die zij in foucaultiaanse termen interpreteert. Zij stelt dat de opvatting van Rousseau een subjectiveringswijze creëert waarbij de burger zowel soeverein als subject is. Vanuit dit geïndividualiseerde en atomistische mensbeeld ontstaat er onder het neoliberalisme een gouvernementaliteit waarin mensen over het eigen lichaam als productiekracht regeren en hierdoor hun eigen precair-zijn beïnvloeden. Tevens wordt het individu regeerbaarder, aangezien de mogelijkheid ontstaat om subjectiveringswijzen te veranderen door de omstandigheden te reguleren waarin het subject ontstaat.


De term precariteit is niet nieuw. Het concept is gemunt in de jaren ’80 door Franse sociologen die opmerkten dat er een verschuiving plaatsvond van vast gesalarieerde arbeid naar tijdelijke contracten, instabiel werk en stages, terwijl er tevens enorme werkloosheid heerste (Castel 2016, 163). Een van deze sociologen, Robert Castel, zag deze nieuwe precariteit als een terugkeer naar een tijd waarin loonarbeid een instabiele arbeidsvorm was waardoor mensen onderworpen waren aan de grillen van de markt. De kracht van de verzorgingsstaat was dat het een minimum aan sociale afscherming bood die de autonomie van de arbeider waarborgde. Vaste contracten creëerden een sociaal compromis dat arbeiders stabiliteit en zekerheid kon garanderen en bedrijven economische voordelen bood. Maar de afbraak van de verzorgingsstaat heeft een terugkeer naar de oorspronkelijke instabiliteit veroorzaakt. Wat Castel herkende was dat onzekerheid niet langer een tijdelijke conditie was, een onzekere periode die je moest doormaken voordat je een permanent contract ontving, maar tot een permanent onderdeel van het leven was gemaakt. Een belangrijk verschil tussen Castels tijd en de periode voor het instellen van dit sociale stelsel was dat een veel significanter deel van de samenleving bedreigd werd door sociale kwetsbaarheid. Hoewel de situatie in het vroege kapitalisme oneindig ellendig en gevaarlijk was, vormde de groep van stedelijke arbeiders in Frankrijk een kleinere portie van de samenleving dan in de jaren ’80 (INSEE, 2018). In de moderne geïndustrialiseerde samenleving diende deze situatie zich aan bij vrijwel alle burgers. Castel beeldt deze opstelling van de samenleving uit als een stabiel centrum van afgeschermde burgers, een periferie van ontkoppelde burgers, en een groeiende groep van precaire burgers. Dit precariaat vormt een bedreiging voor de stabiliteit van het centrum en dus voor de stabiliteit van de samenleving als geheel. Deze groep kan, echter, middels de verzorgingsstaat geneutraliseerd worden en zodoende opgenomen worden in het centrum (Lorey 2016, 57). Toch bestaat er altijd een groep ontkoppelde burgers over voor wie dit proces van integratie onmogelijk is, waardoor die groep een permanente dreiging blijft vormen voor de bestaande machtsverhoudingen.

Lorey benadrukt dat Castel precariteit bekijkt als een metaforisch virus dat zich verspreidt over de samenleving en haar van binnenuit ondermijnt. Het idee dat de integratie van een groep precairen zou leiden tot stabiliteit, noemt Lorey een immuniseringslogica. Het is niet noodzakelijk om het geheel aan precaire burgers te beschermen, maar louter een groep van dusdanig formaat dat stabiliteit mogelijk blijft. De terugkeer van een uitgebreid sociaal vangnet is voor Castel essentieel en afdoende. Deze opvatting is te bekritiseren omdat het alleen sociale veiligheid opeist voor een grote groep, maar het bestaan van een precaire groep als zodanig niet als een probleem opvat. Voor Castel is het echte probleem dat de samenleving kan ontbinden bij een te grote groep aan precairen, en niet dat de samenleving een groep mensen niet genoeg ondersteuning biedt om uit deze staat van onzekerheid te stappen. Zijn visie vormt dus een verdediging van de bestaande maatschappijstructuur en legitimeert het gebruik van veiligheidstechnieken om het niet-integreerbare deel en diens voortdurende bedreiging van de samenleving in toom te houden. Hoewel Lorey voortbouwt op het werk van Castel benadrukt zij ook dit fundamentele probleem van Castels opvatting. Volgens haar is zijn visie doordrenkt van een hobbesiaans beschermingsidee waardoor hij precariteit als onderdeel van de liberale samenleving ziet. Voor Castel blijft er steeds een voortdurende dreiging, een niet-integreerbare ander die verzekert dat gehoorzaamheid het beste volgbare pad is (Lorey 2016, 58).

Daarnaast benadrukt Lorey dat er veel feministische kritiek op Castel is geleverd. Systemen van veiligstelling waren ingericht rondom heteroseksuele mannen die aan het hoofd staan van een familie. Terwijl de man zekerheid verkrijgt door arbeid te verrichten, ontvangt de vrouw veiligheid door een familie te vormen. Voor vrouwen ontstaat sociale zekerheid pas door vrijheid op te geven. Dat maakt de vrouw afhankelijk van de man voor bescherming tegen existentieel precair-zijn (Lorey 2016, 65-66).

Lorey meent tot slot dat Castels visie ontoereikend is om te verklaren waarom de middenklasse tegenwoordig ook in toenemende mate geprecariseerd is, zonder dat deze infectie van het centrum een uiteenval van het systeem veroorzaakt, zoals Castel het zich voorstelde. Volgens Lorey valt de groep geprecariseerde burgers niet meer te onderscheiden van het stabiele centrum (ibid, 77). Er is dus iets anders gaande dan wat Castel beschrijft. Mensen leren tegenwoordig leven met precariteit: risico wordt geprivatiseerd en genormaliseerd.

Lorey heeft ook een andere goede reden om de theorie van Castel te verwerpen. Castel vreesde dat het niet mogelijk is om een verenigd front te vormen tegen precariteit, zoals dat wel gebeurde bij eerdere problemen binnen het kapitalisme. Precariteit is zo alomvattend en divers, en de instabiele banen die precairen hebben geven geen mogelijkheid voor het vormen van een vakbond, waardoor er, aldus Castel, geen duidelijke ingang lijkt te bestaan voor protest. Door zich tegen de theorie van Castel te keren wekt Lorey de suggestie dat Het regeren van precairen gelezen kan worden als een poging om aan te tonen dat zulke mogelijkheden wel bestaan. Maar het boek werd oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd in 2012 en er lijken in de tussentijd geen nieuwe, grootse protesten tegen precariteit zoals EuroMayDay te zijn ontstaan. Dit suggereert dat de mogelijkheden voor protest toch zo beperkt zijn als Castel het voorspelde. Tegelijkertijd sluimert precariteit onder het oppervlak van allerlei politieke ontwikkelingen. Donald Trump probeerde bijvoorbeeld de sympathie te winnen van groepen Amerikanen die in onzekere industrieën zoals de kolenmijnen werken, door een anti-globaliseringsdenken uit te dragen met als doel om baanzekerheid te creëren binnen de Verenigde Staten. Ook bij de Tweede Kamerverkiezingen in Nederland leek precariteit een rol te spelen. Partijen over het gehele politieke spectrum, van de PVV tot aan GroenLinks, probeerden stemmen te winnen van kiezers die zich achtergelaten voelden door ‘Den Haag’. De strategie van dit soort partijen lijkt te bestaan uit het erkennen van deze onzekerheid en het garanderen van allerlei vormen van bescherming. Het idee van Lorey dat de liberale samenleving omgaat met precariteit door zich te beroepen op bescherming komt hierin naar voren.

Lorey suggereert dat het gebrek aan protest tegen precariteit niet zozeer voortkomt uit de huidige arbeidsvormen van mensen die onzeker leven, maar dat mensen geleerd hebben op een individuele wijze om te gaan met precariteit. Volgens haar bestaat de privatisering van risico uit gouvernementele technieken van zelfregering die mensen ontwikkelen om te kunnen concurreren op de arbeidsmarkt. Verschillen tussen vaardigheden, lichamen, en handelingen worden economisch gewaardeerd zodat mensen zich aan kunnen passen om zichzelf veilig te stellen (ibid, 87). Zodoende is sociale onzekerheid gemuteerd tot een fenomeen waar mensen op een individuele wijze in plaats van op een politieke wijze mee proberen om te gaan. Mensen worden geregeerd door onzekerheid en blijven regeerbaar doordat zij alleen naar individuele oplossingen op zoek gaan. Hierdoor kan zelfs het centrum niet langer veiliggesteld worden en wordt er slechts het minimum aan bescherming gegeven zodat de samenleving niet uiteenvalt (Lorey 2016, 81-82). Precariteit wordt gemaximaliseerd, bescherming wordt geminimaliseerd.


Lorey vraagt zich af waarom arbeidsvormen eigen aan het huidige, postfordistische tijdperk in deze mate leiden tot precarisering. In dit kader bespreekt zij Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of The Multitude waarin hij betoogt dat postfordistische productiewijzen berusten op de cognitieve en communicatieve vaardigheden van het individu. Een essentieel aspect van dit soort arbeid is dat het performatief-virtuoos is. Dit soort arbeid werkt op basis van een vervaging van de scheiding tussen privé en publiek: openbaarheid is dusdanig aan het veranderen dat relaties tot het zelf en relaties tot onze arbeid in elkaar overlopen (ibid, 89).

Dit idee van performatieve arbeid ontleent Virno aan Hannah Arendt. Zij beweerde dat dit soort arbeid wordt gekenmerkt door dat het niet als doel heeft om objecten te produceren maar om een zogenaamde affectieve voordracht te leveren. Moderne arbeid omvat de gevoelens van de arbeider, maar is ook altijd gericht op een publiek. Voor Arendt vormt politiek zelf ook arbeid van deze soort, en vormt het dus een uitvoerende kunst die verandering probeert te bewerkstelligen middels een uitvoering van politiek handelen. Doordat politiek een performatieve aard heeft, is zij alleen mogelijk als handelende personen in een openbare ruimte bevinden waarin zijn aanschouwd kunnen worden (Ibid, 93). Alleen onder deze omstandigheden kan het individu vrijheid verkrijgen, door de blootstelling aan het openbare, door uit de privésfeer te stappen en zich over te leveren aan het onvoorziene. Vrijheid gaat hierdoor altijd gepaard met vormen van onzekerheid. Als arbeid tegenwoordig ook een performatief karakter heeft, betekent dit dus dat zij essentieel vervlochten is met precariteit. Als arbeid daarnaast communicatief wordt, vereist dit van een persoon dat diens denken en affecten zich vervlechten met diens arbeid. Als gevolg hiervan vindt zelfverwezenlijking openbaar plaats, door middel van arbeid (ibid, 101). Hierdoor wordt het gehele zelf onderdeel van het kapitalistische productieproces en precariseert zelfs het sociale leven.

Natuurlijk dekt deze beschrijving van postfordistische arbeid maar een deel van de moderne vormen van arbeid, voornamelijk de werkvormen die de middenklasse tegenwoordig aanneemt. Toch zijn er allerlei werkvormen die uitermate precair zijn maar geen performativiteit vereisen, of waarbij performativiteit en affectieve voordracht maar zijdelings betrokken zijn. Een deel van dit soort banen was van oudsher al precair, maar als Lorey bepleit dat er geen harde lijn te trekken valt tussen verschillende soorten precairen, tussen een zogenaamd centrum en een periferie, onderstreept zij hiermee zijdelings toch een verschil. Postfordistische arbeid zou namelijk op een eigen manier precair zijn, een manier die daadwerkelijk verschilt van andere soorten precariteit.

Het idee dat arbeid tegenwoordig ook de gehele persoon van de arbeider zelf opeist zou kunnen verklaren waarom er zo weinig verzet is ontstaan in de laatste jaren. Maar door te stellen dat het inherent is aan postfordistische arbeid om met precariteit om te gaan, maakt deze verklaring precariteit intern aan de huidige soort arbeid, in plaats van extern eraan, bepaald door omstandigheden als baanzekerheid, contractduur, enzovoorts. In een bepaalde zin wordt precariteit door deze verklaring een minder politiek probleem, aangezien het minder het product is van politieke keuzes. Dat lijkt een probleem voor verzet tegen precariteit.

Lorey bepleit dat het huidige ideaal van vrijheid een van soevereiniteit en autonomie is. Om dit te bereiken maken mensen gebruik van zelfregeringstechnieken die ten dienste staan van hun economische bruikbaarheid. Het performatief-virtuoze subject zal telkens blijven streven naar veiligstelling om zich vrij te voelen, maar zal de relatie tussen precariteit en veiligstelling niet ondervragen (ibid, 104). Dit subject is alleen maar gericht op het bereiken van succes en de veiligheid die ermee gepaard gaat. Toch beweert Lorey dat de performatieve aard van huidige productiewijzen potentieel politiek kan worden doordat deze reeds een omgang met precariteit vereist. Een probleem voor deze analyse is dat, als politiek een omgang met precariteit behelst, dit niet betekent dat precariteit ook een omgang met politiek behelst. Lorey betoogt dat moderne arbeid al dichtbij politiek handelen ligt, maar zij maakt niet duidelijk op welke manier de stap tussen de twee gemaakt kan worden. Alleen het feit dat beide soorten handelingen een omgang met onzekerheid bevatten, is niet genoeg om aan te tonen dat de kloof tussen de twee makkelijk overbrugbaar is. Op het punt waar Lorey van het probleem probeert te vertrekken om tot een analyse van de mogelijkheid tot verzet te komen, beginnen er onduidelijkheden in haar boek voor te komen.

Lorey bespreekt in dit kader de activiteiten van verschillende bewegingen die zich hebben bekommerd met de notie van precariteit. Het voorbeeld dat het meest uitgelicht wordt en het meest relevant blijkt, is precarias a la deriva, een Madrileense beweging van vrouwen die zich verzet tegen de bestaande logica van zekerstelling en precariteit. Zij richten zich op de herwaardering van zorg, om zodoende zorgarbeid een centrale plek te geven in politiek-economische discussies, maar ook om onze relatie tot anderen te benadrukken (ibid, 114). De precarias stellen meerdere activistische tactieken voor, zoals een zorgstaking of dérives – wandelende ontmoetingen met andere precairen. Hiervoor worden ruimtes die afgebakend zijn voor onder andere werk, transport, winkelen en wonen doorlopen en gebruikt als anti-individualiserende ontmoetingsplaatsen. Het initiatief had de intentie om door middel van een onderzoeksproject het activistische project te informeren en vorm te geven. Het resultaat van dit onderzoek was om binnen het activisme nadruk te leggen op precarisering boven precariteit en op het nastreven van een versterkte publieke sfeer waarin zorg centraal staat. Hiermee werd ook op de zorg voor het zelf gedoeld, zonder dat dat verbeterde productiviteit of gouvernementeel zelfregeren als doel heeft. De precarias hadden voor ogen deze acties op te volgen met grotere initiatieven, zoals het organiseren van algemene stakingen bij precaire werkplekken en campagnes om onzichtbaar werk – zoals sekswerk en huiselijk werk – meer onder de aandacht te brengen (Precarias a la deriva 2004). Met het bespreken van de precarias probeert Lorey met een hoopvolle noot te eindigen door te tonen welke mogelijkheden er zijn voor verzet tegen de huidige stand van zaken. Het project van de precarias is echter nooit uitgevoerd en vanaf 2005 lijkt de groep uiteen te zijn gevallen. De activistische modellen die Lorey bespreekt zijn dan ook vooral kritieken die precariteit bespreken, maar zij geven geen beeld van hoe nu verder te gaan.

In principe zou Lorey niet zo’n suggestie hoeven geven, maar toch wijdt zij de laatste sectie van haar boek aan een bespreking van precies deze mogelijkheid tot verandering. Lorey bepleit dat die mogelijkheid immanent is aan de huidige machtsstructuren: zij herkent mogelijkheden in de affectieve arbeidsvorm van het postfordistische tijdperk, waarvan zij stelt dat die ook altijd tot het ontstaan van nieuwe sociale relaties leidt die buiten de logica van het neoliberalisme vallen. Hierin schuilt dus een mogelijkheid voor mensen om te breken met de huidige precarisering en om daartegen in verzet te komen. Lorey beschrijft echter niet wat zulke nieuwe sociale relaties of verzetsstrategieën zouden kunnen zijn. Het wordt dan ook niet duidelijk waarom Lorey gelooft dat de huidige machtsstructuren van binnenuit geneigd zijn tot verandering. Als precariteit daadwerkelijk zo diepgeworteld zit in de liberale traditie als Lorey probeert aan te tonen, is het de vraag of en waarom het er immanent aan zou zijn om precies hiermee te breken. De abstracties waarmee Lorey de mogelijkheid voor verandering duidt zorgen ervoor dat het toch voelt alsof het boek onduidelijk eindigt.

Het regeren van precairen biedt dus vooral een duidelijk conceptueel kader bij een heersende problematiek. Het onderscheid dat Lorey maakt tussen drie dimensies van precariteit verheldert op welke wijzen mensen tegenwoordig met precariteit omgaan. Het idee dat precariteit vandaag voornamelijk op een interne wijze gereguleerd wordt en hiermee uit het publieke, politieke domein wordt getrokken, vormt een overtuigende verklaring voor het gebrek aan openbaar verzet. Op het moment dat Lorey probeert aan te tonen dat er nog steeds mogelijkheden voor zulk verzet bestaan, blijft het echter vaag waar deze mogelijkheden uit bestaan. Duidelijke richtlijnen weet het boek niet te bieden, maar Lorey geeft wel een sterk pleidooi tegen een diepgeworteld huidig probleem en wijst daarmee de richting aan voor een mogelijke tegenreactie.

An Activist Scholar’s Approach to Theorizing No Borders

Review of: Natasha King (2016) No Borders: The Politics of Immigration Control and Resistance. London: Zed Books, 196 pp.

In the past few years, the word “crisis” has attached itself to migration. There is a migration or refugee “crisis” going on, and it is somehow understood as a “crisis” for Europe and all the other receiving countries that must deal with this problem. But what about the “crisis” that migrants, those struggling to stay alive, are facing? During the last couple of years, the ‘jungle’ of Calais has been bulldozed, the EU has made an agreement with Turkey to send Syrian asylum seekers who reach Greece illegally to Turkey, and the United States government has been detaining the children of families that illegally cross the border into the US in what can be described as cages. Sanctuary towns across the United States are telling undocumented students to proceed with caution before enrolling in community colleges, as they may leave a paper trail that will enable the immigration authorities to find them. The “crisis” continues to shift geographies, and has gone from being highly visible to scattered here and there. It is against this backdrop that Natasha King’s No Borders emerges as a timely and necessary contribution to the way we think about migration, borders and resistance.

This book, arising from her PhD thesis, is motivated by King’s “desire to create scholarship that’s directly relevant to existing struggles against the border now, and a research method that embedded me in those struggles and that used my experiences of activism as a subject of study” (King 2016, 9). This approach highlights the urgency of the work while establishing an innovative approach to research. King develops much of her theoretical foundation by drawing upon the works of Étienne Balibar, Nicholas DeGenova and Alessandro Mezzadra. By drawing from what could be characterized as radical migration and border literature, she effectively establishes her stance as someone who understands the border as productive, in the sense that the border produces violent notions of “illegality” and constructs a particular reality that is by no means natural. King’s focus is resistance to the border, and she understands illegal border crossing, as well as acts such as hunger strikes that occur in detention centers, as a “refusal” of the border. She emphasizes that one of the central issues or dilemmas which guides her research and the book is: “how to refuse the state while also engaging with it” (King 2016, 5). For King, “this book is not really about migration at all, but about a certain way of being that’s other to the system” (King 2016, 7). In this stance, she opens space for tying migrant activism with anarchist theorizing.

King opens the book by introducing us to the realities faced by people migrating to Europe; those escaping war, famine, and other forms of violent oppression continue to face extremely adverse conditions, where they are sometimes held indeterminately in detention centers, or die during the course of their journeys. She then proceeds to explain migrant activism as grounded in the idea that migration can be a social movement composed of “people who move as active participants in the construction of reality, not simply as people reacting to economic or social factors” (King 2016, 29). Examples of such activist movements include the Sans Papiers movement in France, No One is Illegal in Canada, or We Are Here in the Netherlands. By engaging in acts such as protests on the streets, sit-ins, or seeking legal advice, the groups act as citizens although they do not have the requisite legal status. Migrant activism thus presents challenges to how we understand the relationship between citizen, state, and resistance.

Making her standpoint clear as an activist scholar, King establishes this project as political in nature. It also sheds light on the possibility of a type of academic work that is often underrepresented in academic research on migration. In the end, it is King’s first-hand experience, her interviews and nuanced understanding of life and modes of resistance in Calais and Athens, that is the strength of this book. Her honest assessment of the shortcomings of openly protesting in Athens and Calais, or of the schisms that form within movements, for example, is refreshing and significant. In Athens, the struggle to keep the assemblies composed of anarchist and migrant activist alliances was difficult. She states “Collectives were poorly represented, turnout poor and decision-making slow” (94). These insights form an important part of King’s research methodology.

This research methodology appears to be distinct from ethnographic research because it does not rely upon a standpoint of a distant observer who seeks to understand certain cultural or political practices. Her involvement as a participant in the cause that she is describing, and making a case for, might lead one to call this type of work action research. One could indeed call it action research because of how King uses the “data” she collects (experiences of migrant activists and others) in order to try to help the cause. But unlike action research, she does not emphasize solving the problem per se. King appears to be more interested in elaborating on the multiple dimensions of the problem without proposing a clear solution. In a way, the solution seems quite clear: do away with the borders. At the same time, the alternative to a global system without national borders is not fully elaborated. Thus, her research occupies a middle ground between action research and critical theorizing.

Having established both the context and the methodology, King argues that for her, “a no borders politics is an anarchist politics” (18), a politics that seeks escape from the state. She sees the freedom of movement, black power and gender liberation all as struggles for autonomy. Her autonomy of migration approach is one that is rooted in Post-Marxist theories as expressed in the Autonomia tradition. This tradition has its roots in the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian movements which emerged during the 1970s in Italy. Amid revolts in factories and at universities in Italy, a particular strain of Marxism known as operaismo or workerism was developed by the left-wing intellectuals of the time. Autonomia was both radical as a movement and as a theory. Building from this theoretical and social movement lineage, King conceptualizes autonomy of migration as “a way of looking at mobility that takes seriously the agency of people who move” (29). Autonomy of migration focuses on the ways that people organize and strategize while on the move, and how these methods become acts of resistance.

At the same time, she acknowledges that practices of living outside the state go back much farther, drawing on anthropological work by David Graeber. Indeed, in certain parts of the book, she draws from Graeber’s anthropological works to confirm that many of these theories and practices, many of the constructs that she is referring to, are not Eurocentric and “are as old as humanity” (150). While it is a great step to acknowledge that anarchism does not necessarily have Eurocentric roots, it would have been more effective to actually provide examples, or maybe use someone other than Graeber as the authority.

From the beginning to the end of the book King makes it clear that if there is one theoretical framework that she finds useful for understanding and advancing the No Borders mission, it is the anarchist view. She explains that No Borders can be understood as “collaboration between people with broadly anarchist views and people who practice autonomy by moving without permission” (72). King’s placement of the anarchist movements as natural allies to the No Borders movement is logical because she is drawing on what she actually observed. In both the Athens and Calais contexts it was often self-proclaimed anarchist groups that came to the aid of migrant activists. The Calais Migrant Solidarity group, for example, included citizens who were choosing to live in the jungles in order to participate in the “mobile commons” (109).

Theoretically, however, King’s placement of the anarchist movements as natural allies to the No Borders movement can feel a bit forced, as becomes clear from some of the dilemmas presented in the chapters on Calais and Athens. It is clear from the accounts that King provides of migrant solidarity groups that alliances between migrants and anarchist groups tend to be problematic due to power differences, and divergences in ultimate aims. When describing the solidarities between anti-fascist groups and migrant activist groups in Athens, King explains how, at times, the anti-fascist groups have come to the conclusion that the migrant struggle is simply not the same as the anti-fascist struggle. For anarchists who completely reject the state, the “legal and rights-based dimensions” of the migrant struggle are too complex for them to get involved in. King writes “for many within the movement, this lack of a coherent or consistent ‘stance’ on or engagement with migration issues has amounted to a failure to stand alongside migrants in their struggles for their rights” (66). Even if anarchists and migrants both value autonomy, is that really enough to tie migrant resistance to an anarchist lens? While King at one point describes the jungle as a “beautiful place” (109) where the idea of the mobile commons was able to really exist despite the atrocious conditions, it is clear that the main aim of the migrants is to get out of there. As she explains, “No Borders politics doesn’t articulate a ‘we’ very easily” (149) and this lack of “we” makes it difficult to conceptualize the anarchist-driven movements with migrant activists who are often seeking the refuge and rights that come with being granted entry into a state.

King aims to develop an anarchism that is beyond Eurocentrism, but it is not clear that she is able to do that in this book. Her theoretical foundations are European. She is relying on Marxism and the Italian Autonomia, and perhaps if she drew from non-European work it would make sense to try to see anarchism as transcending Eurocentricity. There are traditions outside the European context that interpret anarchism and Marxism through a post-colonial lens that could be helpful here. For example, the works of Frantz Fanon, Amical Cabral and Wole Soyinka, or even the anarcho-pacifism often attributed to Gandhi or Buddhist philosophy, could be instructive to look into. However, in the book, the very non-European experiences of migrants are conjoined with anarchism, as it is understood in European philosophy.

King explains that what underlies the “crisis” she witnessed in Calais and Athens is a much larger problem with the “system.” She makes it clear that the state is a central part of that system, and is bound to the oppressive forces of capitalism and post-colonial racism. In fact, it is neoliberal capitalism, the various private and public institutions that make up the border regime, along with a particular logic that determines the way we think about the border and migration, that keep the “system” going. Although King does not provide us with a succinct, clear definition of the “system” she is challenging, her analysis of the various logics and institutions that make up the system does compel one to ask, why is the state so necessary? Why are we unable to think beyond the state? King argues that it is precisely our inability to think beyond the state, to think beyond capitalism, that helps to sustain this “system.”

Throughout the book, King makes a point of acknowledging the intersectionality of her approach. She describes how in Greece “race and migration are deeply intertwined, such that any person of color in the country is also an immigrant, both in the minds of citizens and in legal terms” (87). Throughout the book she also highlights the gendered complexities within migrant activist groups. These are important insights that are strengthened by the fact that King witnessed these dynamics and problems firsthand. One cannot expect to move forward in theorizing the border, migration, or the activism surrounding it, without taking these intersections into account. This is surely one of King’s strengths.

All in all, this book serves an important purpose for those of us who want to understand how migration challenges the system. It presents us with a survey of those who write about migration and the border, and goes further by providing first-hand knowledge of how migrant activism occurs and develops in the oppressive conditions of Athens and Calais. It challenges the reader to think about how we understand resistance and solidarity. We want to help, but as we see, it is not as straightforward as living alongside migrants in the jungle. It is a great foundational text for anyone interested in thinking about the border in a way that moves beyond convention. King insists that the “crisis” is not really over or resolved; she reminds us that it is something that has existed and continues to exist because it is rooted in something much greater than the border itself.

Perspectives That Matter

Review of: Ryan Muldoon (2016) Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance. New York: Routledge, 142 pp.

In Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance, Ryan Muldoon offers a liberal and non-ideal alternative to public reason. Public reason is a standard by which moral and political rules, laws, and institutions can be assessed. It requires moral and political rules to be acceptable or accepted, justifiable or justified, to all those persons on whom such rules would be imposed. In its different versions the idea of public reason relies upon implicit or idealizing assumptions that disagreement is not that deep. But our societies are increasingly more diverse than philosophers of public reason tend to think, and we need theories that can deal with this diversity. This is Ryan Muldoon’s initial observation.

Scepticism of the ways that public reason, especially in its Rawlsian vestiges, addresses the increasing diversity of contemporary liberal democratic regimes is not new. Both liberal thinkers and scholars, such as Chantal Mouffe and Iris Marion Young, with a more critical, if not radical, attitude towards public reason, have challenged some of the aspects defining the idea of a political conception of justice valid for all reasonable citizens who recognize the need for fair terms of cooperation, and who advance their interpretation of such terms according to the shared fund of values that inform a democratic society.

We can find, with different expressions and motivations, a recurring motif of reproach for Rawls’s version of public reason. Namely, for the sake of normative cogency, people have argued Rawls idealizes the boundaries of the relevant political community, and, simultaneously, conceives what fills these boundaries and the ways moral agents convey their disagreement on moral issues, such as which religions are to be tolerated, cultural exemptions, and who has the right to vote.

In the first chapters of this book, by stressing the observation that public reason’s diversity problem is ultimately “an account of how diverse individuals actually share the same political conception” (and why this is the case), Muldoon echoes these criticisms, while still remaining explicitly within a liberal paradigm (Introduction and chapter 1). In deliberation of the public-reason kind, he says, moral agents express their similarities, not their differences.

Even if not original, Muldoon’s critical argument is persuasive. Like the authors of a series of other influential books in contemporary normative political theory (i.e. Landemore 2017), he borrows insights from Scott Page’s demonstration that groups of diverse problem solvers can out-perform groups of high-ability problem solvers (Page 2008). Diversity (i.e. many persons who approach the same problem with different backgrounds; persons who have different skills and cooperate to solve a problem; persons who hold different moral or religious doctrines and approach a collectively relevant issue), in other words, is epistemically beneficial. So far, this theorem has gained credit in epistemic arguments for democratic legitimacy. One of Muldoon’s merits is that he brings these ideas to the debate on social contract theory and diversity.

Since modern liberal democratic societies are more diverse than standard social contract theory tends to think, the main claim of the book is that “if diversity is taken seriously, much of social contract theory is subject to revision” (115). Most of the book, then, is devoted to such a revision.

As I understand Muldoon’s position, he is making two related claims. The first is epistemic, if not fallibilistic. It is a rejection of the kind of unwarranted moral generalization that, in his view, is typical of public-reason liberalism. Muldoon argues that we tend to give moral agents too much epistemic credit. In present circumstances, moral agents do not have adequate information to make totally reliable moral judgments. Simultaneously, he warns us against false universalisms. Muldoon thinks there is no epistemic grounding for a uniquely correct set of regulative ideals. Individuals, he says, reason in different ways and do not have the same access to information. It is therefore difficult to identify a priori standards, such as deontological moral imperatives with a universal scope, which can be compelling for all those subject to them.

The second claim is normative. Diversity, Muldoon says, is not only an empirical fact but something we should celebrate and encourage as a normative commitment. Moreover, just as there is no single best life-plan for all citizens, Muldoon argues we have no reason to believe there is a single best social contract for all societies. Any attempt to contain moral disagreement within a priori moral predicates, which regulate society once and for all, would affect the potential benefits stemming from the opportunity of living in a diverse community. For this reason, the ambition of social contract theory for a diverse world should be to motivate each society to rethink which social contracts are appropriate and to discover new ones.

In this vein, Muldoon (chapter 2) rehabilitates Mill’s idea that we learn about the good through “experiments in living” (1977, 261). Conceptions of the good must be tested, Mill argued, by the experience we have in living with them (Anderson 1991, 4). Along these lines, by maintaining that people are not completely identical in every respect, a social contract theory for a diverse world needs to generate rules for particular societies “to come to discover principles of justice that are best suited to their particular circumstances” (118). This is Muldoon’s substantial revision of standard social contract theory. Specifically, his argument does not produce a unique social contract whose suitability is motivated through a mechanism of justification. Rather, Muldoon offers a procedure for discovery where there is no particular endpoint to the process. This procedure, he thinks, is the way to develop social contracts that are responsive to the particular needs and wants of affected individuals without compromising social stability.

Muldoon constructs his argument around the concept of perspective. “Each political theory,” he writes, “is a representation of a particular perspective” (63). Perspectives, he continues, categorize “the world in terms of the values that the theory holds dear” (63). As such, perspectives shape preferences over potential political outcomes, and they also “determine what we see as the outcome” (63). This second attribute is crucial in the book. Perspectives, he says, are “the filters that we use to view the world” (48), mental schemata that provide a general ontology within which choices and evaluations are made. Muldoon’s idea is that an evaluative belief supported by different perspectives is stronger and that by combining perspectives, it is possible to find the most robust moral beliefs (chapter 3).

Given such a variety of perspectives, Muldoon provides a model to determine moral principles wecan take for granted at the beginning of the political process (chapter 4). Central to this part of the book is the move from deliberation to bargaining. Muldoon argues that unlike deliberation – which, in his view, begins with an a priori political conception of justice – during bargaining among parties with a similar set of constraints, each party has to be convinced on his or her own terms. In this situation, moral agents with different perspectives engage with one another in a way that does not privilege any given framework. Actually, as he goes on to say, by balancing the benefits and burdens of a rights distribution, each party may have its own perspective-dependent reason for endorsing the contract despite disagreement at a more substantive level. The goal, therefore, is exactly that of individuating the set of evaluative beliefs that have the greatest number of independent lines of argumentation across different perspectives. This set of evaluative beliefs would be the starting point for the definition and re-definition of social contracts.

If such a model is to sustain an experimental approach to social contracting in a diverse society, it remains to be demonstrated that social experimentation, and changes to the initial cross-perspectivally robust social contract, does not produce an unstable social environment. In the absence of strong cultural bonds, Muldoon argues, material ties can provide strong-enough reasons to keep people together. Diversity, in other words, is also economically beneficial. Muldoon devotes chapter 5 to demonstrating this claim. One assumption (however debatable as it could be) – that the economy is productive and not a zero-sum game – supports the argument for stability. Here he combines the trial-and-error method with Ricardo’s idea of comparative advantage (2004): countries and people should specialise in what they do best.

First, Muldoon argues that diversity leads to more specialisation and greater returns in trade. And since in complex economies we need to have many kinds of tasks performed and diverse problem-solving abilities, trade among diverse specialists increases social production and reduces labour-market competition. If each individual can only be made better off as production (intended as the process of combining inputs to make something for consumption) is made more diverse (diversity in production has no negative consequences), individuals have reason to want more diversity in production. Second, Muldoon claims that without cultural connections, diverse societies are stable insofar as they provide members with benefits greater than those they can find in some other social arrangement. By distributing the gains of uniting in a society to make sure parties are made better off than they would otherwise have been, parties have reasons for remaining in the society. Eventually, all parties, he says, have reasons to participate in a social contract that celebrates and encourages diversity.

One of the explicit ambitions of the book is to bring the notion of perspective to political theory. To do so, Muldoon recalls Amartya Sen’s observation that all major conceptions of justice have some notion of equality (Sen 2009). In other words, they see equality from different points of view. From this, Muldoon argues that “each political theory is a representation of a particular perspective” (63). This is fascinating, but Muldoon stops his philosophical analysis of perspectives all too early. From time to time, the reader has the impression that perspectives have the same, or nearly the same, meaning as other popular expressions in political theory, such as viewpoints, views, points of view, and the like. Sometimes the notion of perspectives does not seem to add much to the canonical vocabulary of epistemic arguments for diversity. Some passages of the book would have benefitted from an investigation into the philosophical foundations of perspectivism. For instance, I am curious to know why different, and perhaps contrasting, perspectives of the same moral object can coexist. Why are different perspectives on the origin of species entitled to be heard? Or why are religious extremists entitled to have a say about syllabuses in schools and academic institutions? Moreover, it seems important to know whether all perspectives can coexist or just a subset of all possible perspectives. If the latter, what defines the threshold of inclusion vs. exclusion? These are normative questions that have received some attention in modern philosophy, from phenomenological thought all the way down to contemporary philosophy of science (i.e. Conant 2005 2006; Giere 2006; Merleau-Ponty 2013). Without opening a dialogue with these traditions, the risk is that Muldoon’s argument will engage with only some of the epistemic arguments for diversity in political theory.

Muldoon offers an original bargaining model which, all things considered, depends less than he seems to think on the notion of perspective. Muldoon assumes each agent is able to engage in the bargaining on her own terms. And he thinks that if the agent is losing more than she gains, then she will withdraw from the agreement. These assumptions make things a little too easy. First, for the most marginalized agents, assuming a bargaining position may necessitate that they comprehensively re-articulate their views. Or, at least, it requires they be recognized as negotiators. Moreover, I am not sure it is so easy to exit revisable but still binding social contracts. In this regard, feminist contributions to the debate on multiculturalism have shown how difficult it is to exit formal and informal contracts. For instance, Ayelet Shacar suggests that, in the case of private religious arbitration, some vulnerable members of minority groups may find it particularly difficult to initiate judicial review over intra-group violations of human rights (2008, 598). Or, in many other cases, vulnerable members would have to pay a heavy social price for defecting otherwise-default, but informal, rules.

The model, I think, would have benefitted from more critical sensitivity towards existing power structures. Muldoon devotes a large part of chapter 5 to defining equality in terms of relative bargaining power. He rightly points out that an agent’s bargaining power is contextual and somehow relative to the other sides of the negotiation. However, a number of other aspects determine the most favourable price in a negotiation, such as looks, asymmetry, reputation as a good negotiator, liability, patience, power to make proposals, and sex. Without factoring these aspects into the design of the model, the risk is to provide a too idealized non-ideal social contract theory.

Muldoon relies heavily on economic theory and on examples to show that his account has a good grasp of the reality of social relations. This makes his book very readable and clear. Sometimes, however, I have the impression that relying on too many examples cuts the complexity of philosophical reflection short.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, I do not mean to deny the importance of the argument internal to the model. Muldoon brings fresh air to liberal debates on diversity and social contract theory. He does so with clarity and analytic rigour.

Field Philosophy and the Societal Value of Basic Research

Review of Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (2016) Socrates tenured: The institutions of 21st-century philosophy. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 167 pp.

As expressed in its mission statement, Krisis: journal for contemporary philosophy has always sought to combine high academic standards with critical engagement with public issues. It “stands in a European philosophical tradition that takes its public task seriously” and intends to play an “active role in a range of public debates, in the Netherlands and elsewhere”. Socrates tenured similarly argues for a broad conception of “post-disciplinary philosophy”, consisting of three types of philosophical practice (122-126).1

The first is disciplinary philosophy. Its institutional home is the “department of philosophy” and its primary audience consists of fellow disciplinary philosophers. This type of philosophy is specialist, difficult, and therefore not accessible for non-philosophers. Second, there are the philosopher-bureaucrats: academically trained philosophers who have left academia for a job in all kinds of public or private organizations. We may think of ethicists who work in the ethics committee of a hospital, logicians who participate in the research of a computer company, or philosophers turned journalists who investigate controversial sociocultural issues.2 The focus of the book is on the third category: field philosophy, a notion modeled on the features of field sciences and their differences with laboratory sciences (119-120). Institutionally, field philosophers can be found both in philosophy departments and in all kinds of other sites of the university. They differ from disciplinary philosophy in that they aim not only at an academic audience but also (and substantially) at non-academic audiences.

The goal of field philosophy is to “help excavate, articulate, discuss, and assess the philosophical dimensions of real-world policy problems” and its approach is to “pursue case-based research at the meso-level that begins with problems as defined and contested by the stakeholders involved” (124). Note the “begins” and “assess”, which imply that field philosophy preserves its own independence; it is not a form of empirical or experimental philosophy. In particular, Frodeman and Briggle strongly emphasize that field philosophers should literally “enter a local field” and concretely interact with the relevant publics. Furthermore, they should explicitly reflect on the impact, or lack of it, of these interactions, and feed these reflections back into their academic context. As an example of a field-philosophical project they review the participation of one of the authors (Adam Briggle) in environmental debate and action concerning a plan for a more renewable electricity production in the town of Denton, Texas (89-92). On the one hand, this participation in actual local debate and action distinguishes field philosophers from social-critical philosophers who exclusively focus on academic discourse. On the other hand, field philosophy is still defined as a type of academic philosophy, which constitutes a difference with what, in the Netherlands, is called publieksfilosofie (“philosophy for the public”).

The stated reason for writing this book is the claimed dominance of disciplinary philosophy and the corresponding marginality of field philosophy in academia. A considerable part of the book is devoted to a development and defence of this point. In three substantial chapters the authors provide detailed discussion and assessment of the institutional history and the recent literature in applied philosophy, environmental philosophy and bioethics. The first two are shown to be largely captured in disciplinary philosophical practices. In contrast, bioethics has made significant contributions to field philosophy, even if it faces several remaining problems that need to be tackled (101-107).

Thus, there seems to be a significant agreement between Frodeman and Briggle’s view of philosophy and the mission of Krisis as stated at the beginning of this review. Similarly, I myself am in broad sympathy with the analyses and assessments of this book. Still, I would like to add a few points of comment, some constructive, some critical.

The book is strongly US-centered. This is quite clear in the institutional histories of applied and environmental philosophy and bioethics. For instance, at one point (97) the account of the latter seems to move on to the situation in the UK, but after only one sentence the authors return to the US. To be clear, the problem is not a focus on the US as such. The point is that the book does not show much awareness of its almost exclusively American approach.

A central subject of the book concerns the politics of academic inquiry: how should academic disciplines, in particular philosophy, relate to each other and to society? In this respect, the criticism of the current institutionalization and professionalization of philosophy, its insularity in a separate department and its fragmented discourse of specialists, has a point. In the Netherlands, some have broached similar criticisms and argued for a return to the “Central Interfaculty” as the appropriate institutional haven for philosophy.3 However, professionalization is only one of the crucial changes that universities have undergone in the past decades. In addition, there have been far-reaching processes of hierarchization, bureaucratization and commodification (Radder 2016, chaps. 5-8). Strengthening and concretely institutionalizing field philosophy would also require halting and reversing these processes. Although the authors occasionally refer to the neoliberal university, this issue deserves to be addressed much more systematically.4 Furthermore, my hypothesis for a broader, worldwide study would be that outside the US the position of non-disciplinary philosophy may not be as marginal as claimed by the authors. For instance, field philosophy may also be practiced under the heading of Science & Technology Studies (see Felt et al. 2017), an area of research hardly addressed in the book.

Frodeman and Briggle see field philosophy as a form of mode-2 inquiry, that is, research that is context-driven, problem-focused and transdisciplinary (23-25). Their general conception of philosophy does include classical disciplinary (that is, mode-1) philosophy. Yet, philosophy as a whole should be transformed by adding field philosophy as a major, mode-2 part of it. Field philosophy includes normative judgment: it not only concerns what is but also what should be (47). But its endorsement of the mode-1/mode-2 discourse leads one to ask: how critical is field philosophy? At what kind of assessments does it aim? After all, mode-2 discourse has often been severely criticized for its advocacy of a neoliberal science policy. See, for example, this comment by Mieke Boon and Tarja Knuuttila:

As universities have sought to renew their financial base through contract research, educational services, consulting, and the commercialization of research results the mode-2 ideology legitimizes the status quo by offering a rosy vision of the organizational and other changes that are taking place (Boon and Knuuttila 2011, 76-77).

Although this criticism does not necessarily apply to all mode-2 research, it does entail a strong warning against naively joining the mode-2 rhetoric. I suppose, for example, that Frodeman and Briggle do not simply agree with the views and practices of the “entrepreneurs and technologists of Silicon Valley and other hubs of innovation [who] function today as de facto philosophers” (122). But how they would assess these practices (through “critical thinking” aimed at “serving a common good”, 124) remains rather vague. In this respect, the social-critical mode-3 approach proposed by Harry Kunneman is much more explicit about its own normative stance (Kunneman 2010). The same applies to René Gabriëls’ critical analysis and assessment of the Dutch debates on nuclear energy and poverty (Gabriëls 2001).

Above, I stated that the criticism of the dominance of disciplinary philosophy “has a point”. Yet this claim should be qualified by acknowledging the nature and societal value of basic research. First, we should note that basic research is not the same as disciplinary research. In fact, much basic academic research is interdisciplinary. Examples from philosophy abound, especially if we broaden our perspective by including philosophers from outside of the US. We may think of the many interdisciplinary studies building on the work of Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault or Jürgen Habermas; or of integrated history and philosophy of science and empirically-informed ethics. Thus, even if there certainly is a strong tradition of disciplinary philosophy, there is also a significant movement of interdisciplinary philosophers.

My second qualification is more critical. Again, it concerns basic science. Frodeman and Briggle require that academic inquiry should aim for more or less direct societal impact. From the perspective of their “philosophy of impact” (137-149), they strongly criticize the idea of basic research (in particular in the humanities, including philosophy) as motivated by individual curiosity and as possessing an intrinsic value. It is, however, not at all necessary to interpret basic research in terms of individual curiosity, as the authors do. Furthermore, we can, and should, go beyond the idea of intrinsic value and defend the societal value of basic research.5 Since societies have to cope not just with current complex problems but also with hard to anticipate future complexities, they need knowledge resources that are optimally multi-purpose and open-ended. As many examples from the history of science show, basic scientific knowledge offers the best epistemic possibilities for coping with future complexity and uncertainty. This appraisal of basic science is not meant as an endorsement of the scientistic doctrine that science, and only science, is the royal road to solving all our problems. What it says is that, in as far as science is useful for the purpose of anticipating future complexity and uncertainty it is basic science rather than the much more specific application-oriented disciplines. This applies just as well to the humanities and hence to philosophy. Therefore, a comprehensive, critical philosophy should not be limited to the specific problems of particular target groups but also acknowledge the interests of those future generations that will be affected by our current policies. Furthermore, in contrast to what is suggested by critics of the so-called linear model of the relation between science and technology, including Frodeman and Briggle (137-139), we do not need to interpret basic research as a sufficient, or even as a strictly necessary, condition of technological invention and economic or social innovation. A good enough reason (which is not at all “mysterious”: 139) for promoting basic research from a societal perspective is that, frequently enough, the results of this kind of research constitute a significant and indispensable component of processes of invention and innovation (see also Carrier 2011). Due to the dominance of neoliberal politics, in many countries basic research is under pressure and sometimes even marginalized. The above arguments imply that this type of research, with its characteristic long-term perspective, deserves our support: the societal value of academic inquiry, including philosophy, should not be limited to its short-term, local impact.

Finally, should Socrates be, posthumously, tenured? Although Frodeman and Briggle briefly address some critical interpretations of Socrates (15-16), they still see him as a worthy representative of field philosophy, who certainly deserves tenure. I disagree. As I.F. Stone (1989) has convincingly demonstrated, the philosophy and politics of Socrates was strongly essentialist, elitist and anti-democratic. For this reason, he is not the icon of field philosophy that Frodeman and Briggle claim him to be.

Freedom or Private Government?

Review of Elizabeth Anderson (2017) Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about it). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 196 pp.

Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government is an important and timely contribution to contemporary political theory, especially for anyone thinking about freedom in the workplace or about reforming or replacing existing economic institutions. It combines historical inquiry into the egalitarian origins of free-market capitalist theory with a critical examination of the structure of the contemporary capitalist workplace as a form of “private government” (see below) – a subject that deserves much more theoretical attention than it tends to receive.

The book has three main parts. First, in two essays Anderson tells the story of how free-market ideology started with coherent and compelling commitments to freedom, equality, and free trade, to becoming a defence of deeply unfree and unequal capitalist social relations, after which she argues that modern workplace relations are best thought of as a form of private government. More precisely, she argues that workplace relations are properly political relations; that bosses govern their workers much like ministers and monarchs; and that they do so as dictators, lacking any meaningful accountability to those they govern. Anderson’s two brilliant essays are followed by four critical commentaries by Ann Hughes, David Bromwich, Niko Kolodny, and Tyler Cowen, to which Anderson responds.

In the early free-market thinkers that Anderson discusses – including Adam Smith and Thomas Paine – a commitment to free trade and emerging capitalist society was wedded to broader egalitarian commitments and aspirations, which capitalist social relations were (perhaps not entirely implausibly at the time) taken to promote. However, as the results of capitalism became clearer – especially, she argues, with the industrial revolution and the rise of more intensely collective workplaces and strict managerial control thereover – free-market ideology became increasingly disconnected from the lived realities of capitalism. If anything, free-market theory was re-deployed to support anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic authoritarianism in the name of freedom.

Although the authoritarian and deeply undemocratic nature of workplace relations is clear, “[s]ince the decline of the labor movement, […] we don’t have effective ways to talk about this fact” (Anderson 2017, xx). Anderson’s project is intended, therefore, as a project of ideology critique and conceptual innovation, or at least advocacy.

We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government. (Anderson 2017, 6).

According to Anderson, thinking about the politics of workplaces today requires reviving the concept of private government (Anderson 2017, 40), which she defines as follows:

You are subject to private government wherever (1) you are subordinate to authorities who can order you around and sanction you for not complying over some domain of your life, and (2) the authorities treat it as none of your business, across a wide range of cases, what orders it issues or why it sanctions you. Government is private with respect to a subject if it can issue orders, backed by sanctions, to that subject in some domain of that subject’s life, and that subject has no say in how that government operates and no standing to demand that their interests be taken into account, other than perhaps in narrowly defined circumstances, in the decisions that government makes. (Anderson 2017, 44-5).

This defines “private government” as something inherently anti-democratic and gives good cause to reject it for anyone committed to ideas of freedom requiring non-domination or many relational conceptions of equality (which Anderson has explored extensively elsewhere).

Anderson is careful to point out that a government’s privacy is defined relative to those subject to it. This means that whether something is a “private government” focuses not only on whether an institution is kept separate from the state, but on whether “the governed are kept out of decision-making as well” (Anderson 2017, 45). With this concept, she hopes, we can begin to re-assess the structure of workplace relations from an egalitarian point-of-view.

An interesting question in this regard is the extent to which Anderson’s analysis applies to workplaces with more stringent workplace regulations than the United States. In countries with stronger workplace protections and systems of co-determination – such as the Netherlands or Germany – it’s not clear whether she would think that bosses treat it as none of your business which orders it issues or why it sanctions you. (In fact, Anderson is positive towards German-style co-determination.) This does not mean, however, that bosses do not wield a great deal of arbitrary power in these workplaces, and that as a result there are justified concerns about how free and equal (much less democratic) they can justly be said to be. It would therefore also have been interesting to see a more detailed discussion about the extent to which co-determination can render workplaces free and/or equal in an ambitious sense, whether they are able to guarantee workers much effective power over, and voice within, their workplaces, and, if they do, how stable they tend to be over time given how this encroaches (or would encroach) upon the power of bosses.

In general, the book is (as one would expect) exceedingly well-argued and compellingly written. It tackles a very important and under-theorised set of issues, and it does so excellently. However, I do have some quibbles about the terminology that is sometimes employed, such as “communist” being used to label workplace relations in the contemporary United States (which I find misleading) (Anderson 2017, 38), and the Hobbesian state of nature being described as “a state of anarchist communism” (which is wrong) (Anderson 2017, 46), but these are minor points which are not central to the argument.1

In the final few pages of the second essay, Anderson considers four general strategies for dealing with private government in the workplace: (1) exit; (2) the rule of law; (3) substantial constitutional rights; and (4) voice (Anderson 2017, 65-71). Although she supports both workers’ effective rights of exit and protection under the rule of law, her main focus is on (3) and (4). Here she argues for, on the one hand, introducing a workers’ bill of rights to protect them from discrimination and harassment and to protect their rights to privacy when not off-duty, and, on the other hand, introducing a German-inspired system of co-determination, though she stops short of recommending any single model solution (Anderson 2017, 70).

Of the book’s illuminating critical commentaries, followed by Anderson’s response, Ann Hughes’ argument that the Levellers are not best read to be as pro-free-market as Anderson seems to suggest, and Niko Kolodny’s pinpointing of a tension in Anderson’s critique of workplace relations with respect to democracy, are of particular interest.

Kolodny points out that on the one hand much of Anderson’s argument – her emphasis on economic relations being relations of government, her critique of domination and unequal social relations in the workplace, etc. – invites comparison between economic and state institutions. This would seem to call for the standard response given by many republican and liberal thinkers (including Anderson herself) when considering state institutions: democracy. On the other hand, however, Anderson clearly wants to reject democratising workplaces. Ideas for doing this are somewhat briefly dismissed as being inefficient, but the empirical evidence, I think, deserves greater discussion. Anyone concerned with changing capitalist workplace relations needs to seriously consider the efficiency gains or losses involved in democratising workplaces (and more from an empirical view than that of neoclassical theory), the definitions of efficiency used in those assessments, and the trade-offs between efficiency on the one hand, and the value of more free and equal social relations on the other. Given the limitations of the book’s size and format, any discussion of these matters is bound to be a bit too short to be completely satisfying. It is, sadly, impossible to do everything in-depth in a single book, especially one which needs room for commentaries and a response. Going forward, however, these questions are vital.

The history of social democracy teaches us something important here. Neither strong workplace regulations, co-determination, or the strongest union power ever seen has been sufficient to create free and non-dominating relations in the capitalist workplace. Should we give up on the former and look to replace the latter with a more democratic alternative?

The Aesthetics of Ideology

Review of: Aesthetic Marx (2011) edited by Samir Gandesha & Johan F. Hartle. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 283 pp.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, challenges to neoliberalism, and cultural-political tensions over race and gender politics, Marx’s thought – seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history after 1989-91 – is once again attracting attention. Samir Gandesha and Johan Hartle’s Aesthetic Marx makes a distinctive contribution to this revaluation, highlighting the relevance of Marx – as theorist, writer, and icon – for contemporary critical strands of artistic production and cultural-political engagement. The idea for this volume is inspiring but the resulting texts are more mixed, reflecting conflicting tendencies in contemporary scholarship as much as Marx’s ambiguous cultural legacy today.

The editors note the pervasive role of the aesthetic – understood to encompass “aesthetic strategies of distinction and the modulations of affects” (xi) – within contemporary capitalism, which has long embraced the “society of the spectacle” diagnosed by Guy Debord. This suggests that it is time to return to the question of Marx and the aesthetic: “How is the aesthetic, the senses and their objects, conceived of in the classical writings of Marx? How does Marx, himself, who always insisted that he was no “Marxist,” figure in contemporary aesthetic strategies and practices?” (xi). These questions guide the essays collected in this volume. Their sprawling Introduction undertakes a number of contextualising tasks: they underline what they call the post-Nietzschean/postmodernist context that marks the contemporary reception of Marx, the role of Marx in post-Kantian aesthetic theory, and the aesthetic and literary character of Marx’s language. They also emphasise the pervasive influence of Marx on key twentieth-century critiques of aesthetic ideology, from Marcuse’s 1936 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (Marcuse, 1968), Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1983), to Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990). To this are added sections on the aesthetic turn in political theory, reflections on the “Machiavellian Marx,” accounts of materialist histories of subjectivity (from Lukács and Benjamin to Negt and Kluge), concluding with some commentary on the figure of Marx in contemporary art over the past 150 years (since the publication of Das Kapital) right up to the 2015 Biennale. This overwhelming array of topics and connections is held together by three main claims: the under-recognised role of the aesthetic within Marx’s political thought, the significance of style in Marx’s texts, and the uptake of Marx by critical theorists as well as artists. To this end, the editors divide the book into three parts, the first focusing on aesthetic issues in Marx’s texts, the second on their literary aspects, and the third canvassing a sample of contemporary artists explicitly using Marx, both as textual source and visual icon.

Gandesha’s opening chapter offers a fine-grained account, mapping out three logics of the aesthetic in Marx’s texts. The challenge, he claims, is to avoid three reductionist attempts to link Marx with post-Marxist aesthetics and politics. The first is to apply Marxist categories to aesthetic discourse, the second is to cherry-pick Marx’s comments on art and submit them to interpretation and analysis, and the third, following Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Rancière, is to argue that all radical attempts to theorize the political are dependent on figures of the aesthetic (3). The latter move results in the claim that the “aesthetic-political” comes to refer to “all aesthetic dynamics that cross (and confound) the hegemonic orders of reason and the established channels of perception” (3). All three strategies, Gandesha contends, underplay “the aesthetic potentials of Marx’s work itself,” which displays three identifiable logics of the aesthetic (4). The first, to be found in Marx’s early critiques of Hegel, concerns sensuous perception; the early Marx “develops a “transformative critique” of Hegel’s understanding of the labour of the concept and develops a sensuous-practical concept of labour” that would inform his later work (4). The second logic concerns the transformation of the senses as the work of history itself. It appears in The Communist Manifesto, which shows how the transformation in capitalism, in particular the objective forces of production, will “transform the conditions of all aspects of life,” presumably including art. This radical transformation of society and culture – “all that is solid melts into air” – was supposed to lead to the radical transformation of the senses that would enable the proletariat to “perceive the “real conditions” of social life” with a social vision of co-operation and equality. This transformation of the senses would thereby lay the groundwork for the “genuine realization of the totality of human power, of species-being (Gattungswesen) in communism” (4). Whatever one makes of this claim philosophically, it gives way to the third logic of the aesthetic, found in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where Marx modifies the linear, teleological conception of the history of productive forces culminating in communist revolution, proposing the idea of history as the repetition of previous forms of representation that inhibit such a production (4). Instead of a dictatorship of the proletariat we find the “farcical triumph of Louis Bonaparte” “under the aegis of the party of order” (4). For Gandesha, the role of the aesthetic, in this third logic, is to serve as a hermeneutic model “through which the compulsion to repetition could be broken” (4) – an aesthetically oriented, decidedly “modernist” (or Deleuzian) attempt to free the future from the past via differential repetition as the creation of the new (17-19).

A couple of authors take an historical comparative approach to Marx. Henry Pickford examines the Aristotelian underpinnings of key concepts in Marx such as poesis and praxis, the concept of aesthesis (the basis of aesthetics), and the distinction between change/movement (kinesis) and activity (energeia). Although the classical Aristotelian model of production appears under the guise of labour in modern political thought (Arendt and Habermas), Aristotle’s second model of production (as energeia but also poesis), involving activities that have their goal or telos outside of themselves, appears in Marx’s work in the account of labour as an expression of our human species-being. Moreover, Aristotle’s conception of phronesis (practical wisdom) as involving practical perception, along with social aesthetic production, has fruitful potential, Pickford argues, for “a Marxist-inspired practical aesthetics” (23).

Johan F. Hartle compares Marx and Freud, focusing on the concept of free association, which does different service for each thinker (the egalitarian community of producers versus the technique of the “talking cure”). Hartle suggests a convergence between Marx and Freud concerning “a specific method that echoes a specific dimension of aesthetic rationality” (85) – a subversive use of reason that disrupts established orders of representation (87-88). Sami Khatib considers, in a textually focused manner, the “aesthetics of real abstraction,” that is, the sensuous representational/metaphysical aspects of the abstract dimension of value at the heart of commodity “fetishism”. He explores the parallel between linguistic value and economic value, and the underlying exploitation concealed by the dialectical abstractions of value, as well as the “theological,” symbolic, and allegorical mystifications to which it gives rise within capitalism. Readers perplexed by what this densely deconstructive analysis of value has to do with aesthetics are reminded that it does not refer to its philosophical senses but rather to an analysis of the logic of real abstraction operating in commodity exchange.

In Part II, authors turn to the literary, rhetorical, and aesthetic aspects (in the narrower sense) of Marx’s texts. Anna-Katharina Gisbertz discusses the influence of Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s writings on Marx’s early interest in aesthetics and critical engagement with German idealism. She points out the explicit study of Vischer’s texts evident in Marx’s notebooks, especially Vischer’s account of “the active role of the subject in the appearance of the beautiful” and the role of imagination against abstraction and “mechanical materialism,” along with “the role of myth and its relation to poetry old and new” (97-98). Vischer’s account of comedy and sublimity – mediating the Hegelian understanding of these concepts—also played a role in the young Marx’s transition from poetry to philosophy to politics. The young Marx was clearly influenced by Vischer’s account of aesthetic wholes, and although the later Marx eschewed this early aestheticism, the ideas of tragedy and comedy continued to shape his thinking with regard to history and politics, later turning to the “idea of farce as an unredeemed aesthetic form” (105). From tragedy to comedy to farce as a “grotesque repetition,” for Marx history becomes an “inverted world” that needs to be revolutionised “to fight the “sublime” Prussian power” (105).

Hayden White’s “Marx: The Philosophical Defense of History in the Metonymical Mode,” from his 1973 book Metahistory, is presented in abridged form. It is included for its account of the “problem” presented by culture and art, from a dialectical materialist perspective on history. Art seemed to be accorded a “loose determinism” in order to account for its transhistorical value, which remained a “mystery” that “not even the theory of “commodity fetishism” could clear up” (111). The work of art could be thought of as “a simulacrum of the commodity” that literally presents itself as a product of human labour rather than a token of the wealth of its owner (112). Art is a commodity that resists the “expropriative relation of its market existence”; it is a manifestation of free labour, while artists could be regarded as “an avatar of the free worker in an ideal future society” (112). White acknowledges, moreover, that his treatment of Marx in Metahistory is susceptible to the charge of “Formalism,” the view that Science (whether of history or economics) was a matter of form as much as of content, but defends his approach as aiming to show “how Marx’s historiographical writing might be better understood as a work of art rather than as the kind of science he himself had hoped to create for a better understanding of history” (112). Without going into the details of White’s formidable analysis, it is clear that aesthetics plays a central role in his account of Marx’s approach to the historical field in “Metonymical mode”. It is also relevant for his thesis that Marx’s thought has recourse to a set of “tropological structures” – above all the strategies of Metonymy (for the severed condition of humankind in its current social state) and Synecdoche (for the glimpse of unity evident at the end of history) – as a means of developing “a comprehensive image of the historical world” (115). Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony offer not only means of conceptualising meaning, according to White, but also “the categories by which such self-conceptualizations are to be comprehended as stages in this history of any aspect of the Superstructure” (146). This tropological system of categories provided a basis for Marx’s categorization of different classes of events “and the stages through which they pass in their evolution from an inaugural to a terminal condition” (146) – from repeated tragic conflict to the comic resolution of the process at the end of history.

Terrell Carver argues that Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte offers a novel account of how “aesthetic practices are crucial to political action” (151). Taking “the aesthetic” in a broad sense, Carver focuses on Marx’s use of imagery in his texts, coupling this with “an imputed visual imagery common to the period” (152). He takes Marx’s journalistic pieces as performative political interventions that have a strongly aesthetic character; The Eighteenth Brumaire thereby becomes a key work of political activism, especially given the rhetorical effects of Marx’s colourful language, his “extravagant imagery, withering scorn, and scathing satire” (155). Marx’s famous (Hegelian) apercus – concerning repetition in history, first as tragedy, then as farce, and about history as freely made by “men,” but not in circumstances of their own choosing – are taken as emblematic of the performative political aesthetic in this text, one geared to arouse the emotions through striking imagery and to activate our political imaginations for a revolutionary repetition of the past.

Inspired by Althusser’s analysis of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Daniel Hartley analyses Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man as a text on aesthetics that also serves as political allegory. He uses it to read the young Marx’s texts in order to reveal an implicit aesthetic logic within “Marx’s developing theory of revolution and the state” (165). Reading these texts together reveals an aesthetic element to Marx and a political slant in Schiller: “a radical Schiller and a young Schillerian radical” (177). Here, as in a number of other essays, the aesthetic serves as a catalyst to explore the productive intersections between Marx and a variety of other thinkers.

In Section III, the authors turn to the relationship between Marx and art, focusing on how (political) artists have taken up Marx in different ways. Boris Groys reflects on how Marx (and Engels) anticipate the shift from individual artwork to the collective installation work, particularly those “that are designed as a means to reflect on the contexts of art production and functioning” (187). Commenting on Suprematism (Malevich), Groys points to the manner in which such works, precisely because of their “context-free” presumptions, prompt a Marxist reflection on “the dependence of art on its social, economical, and political context” (188). Russian artists El Lissitzky and Ilya Kabakov used Malevich’s Black Square as the starting point of their artistic practice, rendering visible the implied background or “infectious context” of the work (190). Indeed, contemporary installation art similarly occludes the “violence” of the social and political orders that underpin their self-presentation of autonomy and artistic independence. Russian Constructivism embraced the destruction of the individualist work in favour of a politically engaged art serving the purposes of revolutionary society. El Lissitzky, for example, drew a parallel between “the sovereign, creative freedom at the core of the Soviet experiment and the creative freedom of the artist as author of an installation that reflected this freedom” (192). Kabakov, by contrast, critically reflected the reification of this artistic freedom “after it was officially and institutionally installed by the Soviet Power and took a certain definite form” (192). Groys’s fascinating discussion of these artists’ work shows how aesthetic experimentation can be coupled with political expression, especially when installation art engages critically with its social contexts of production and circulation.

The final three chapters canvass contemporary art that activates either the spirit of Marx’s ideas or deploy his image for artistic and political purposes. Robin Greeley considers Conceptual art in Mexico after 1968, a time when the legacy and import of Marx’s philosophy and its relationship to aesthetics and to political action were central concerns. The aesthetic activist use of Marx, commemorating his death as an occasion for political engagement (205), led to “experiments in direct democracy” taking the form of collective art actions occurring in the street rather than the gallery (211-212). Such art interventions showed the political potentiality of Marx’s thought in a volatile social context.

Sven Lütticken turns to film, exploring contemporary cinema art projects that can be viewed from the Jamesonian perspective of “cognitive mapping”. These films both map contemporary social reality under conditions of economic destabilisation, and foreground their status as cultural commodities that are both produced and distributed within globalised networks. Sekula and Burch’s The Forgotten Space (2010) examines “ocean transport and the labor conditions it entails,” reflecting on the notion of “abstraction” both in social-economic and aesthetic terms (232). Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity (2008) offers a more streamlined version of “filming Capital,” one that seems “almost over-adapted to the productive logic of the present” (233). Revisiting Eisenstein’s aborted plan to for a film version of Das Kapital, Kluge presents a “seemingly endless series of segments “which consist of conversations between Kluge and various cultural practitioners as well as mock historical figures. He abandons any Eisensteinian dialectical montage in favour of a televisual “flow” of abruptly juxtaposed talking heads, offering an “open-ended dialectic of intermingling discourses that regularly collapse into virtuoso sophistry” (233). Other essay films explore different ways to “film Capital,” from lecture-performance presentations of the idea of “mass-art production” (Hito Steyerl) to Ehrmann and Farocki’s Labour in a Single Shot (2015). The latter offers a controversial assemblage of footage covering workshops with the underprivileged across the globe, which Lütticken criticises as problematic because of the unacknowledged debts of Ehrmann and Farocki’s “networked” approach to collective authorship (245). John F. Hartle’s concluding chapter focuses on representations of Marx in contemporary art, showcasing an array of artistic uses of Marx’s image – from posters, photographs, drawings, sculptures, installations, and videos – in political art aiming at mobilising activists, energising critique, and tapping the latent radical energies of Marx’s iconic image.

Aesthetic Marx offers a fascinating array of texts dealing with Marx and aesthetics, aesthetic elements in Marx’s texts, and the artistic uses of Marx (and his image). The contributors remain mostly focused, however, on the academic reception of Marx or bringing Marxist thought to bear on contemporary artistic problems. Despite the virtues of these approaches, there could have been more exploration of how Marxist ideas have been adapted across a range of contemporary aesthetic and political theories (critical theoretical analyses of the new “attention economy” (Bueno, 2017), for example, or the commodification of affect, attention, and experience as an intrinsic feature of contemporary “cognitive” capitalism (Beller, 2006)). Although Marx the thinker, writer, or icon retains the potential to energise aesthetics and politics, it is the Protean plasticity of Marxist critique that allows it to be critically and creatively adapted within our post-Marxist capitalist world.

Bezint eer gij bezet! (of niet)

Recensie-essay van: Joost De Bloois (2016) In naam van het Maagdenhuis. Amsterdam: Leesmagazijn, 120 pp. & Casper Thomas (2015) Competente rebellen: Hoe de universiteit in opstand kwam tegen het marktdenken. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 192 pp.

De twaalfde Maagdenhuisbezetting

Op 25 februari 2015 bezetten boze studenten het Amsterdamse Maagdenhuis, als orgelpunt van een reeks eerdere bezettingen en protesten aan de UvA. In een kruitvat aan ontevredenheid vormden de aanhoudende bezuinigingen en verschraling bij de geesteswetenschappen de vonk, maar de bezetting was ook een aanklacht tegen een regenteske bestuursstijl, een gebrek aan inspraak en democratie, een universiteit die zichzelf steeds meer als onderneming ging zien, het daarbij horende ‘rendementsdenken’, de gebrekkige aandacht voor diversiteit en dekolonisering en de groeiende greep van het bedrijfsleven over de universiteit.

Al snel kwamen docenten en sympathisanten hun steun betuigen, lezingen geven en meediscussiëren over de zorgelijke toestand van de universiteit en de wereld. Tot aan de doortastende, zelfs gewelddadige, politionele ontruiming op 11 april, zesenhalve week later, was het Maagdenhuis een publiek centrum van activisme en debat, een goudmijn voor de media en een focuspunt voor het landelijk protest tegen ontsporende universiteiten. Midden tussen de toeristen en de winkelende massa van het Amsterdamse pretpark hingen studenten hun spandoeken op en verklaarden zij het statige bestuursgebouw tot hoofdkwartier van De Nieuwe Universiteit.

Na de Maagdenhuisbezetting verschenen twee boeken die deze protestactie probeerden te duiden. Het eerste en meest nuchtere boek werd geschreven door Casper Thomas, journalist bij De Groene Amsterdammer, die gedurende de bezetting regelmatig even langsliep om poolshoogte te nemen, op weg naar zijn redactie, om de hoek aan het Singel.1 Competente Rebellen (CR) geeft een journalistiek verslag van de bezetting, beginnend bij de voorafgaande schermutselingen, via de ‘euforie’ (CR, 83) van de bestorming zelf, tot de tragische ontknoping. Thomas plaatst de bezetting echter ook in het veel bredere kader van de obsessie met rendement, de vastgoedavonturen van de UvA en de wereldwijde protesten tegen New Public Management aan universiteiten.

Het tweede boek is een veel passionelere duiding van de bezetting, vol revolutionair vuur en volgens de auteur in een roes geschreven, tijdens de twee weken na de ontruiming. Het zou wat faciel zijn om een extra week redactie te suggereren, want daarmee was met de occasionele herhaling waarschijnlijk ook de hartstocht gesmoord. Schrijver Joost de Bloois is docent Cultural Analysis and Comparative Literature aan de UvA en ook hij maakte de bezetting van nabij mee. Zijn In de naam van het Maagdenhuis (NM) verscheen uiteindelijk een jaar later, voorzien van een wat afstandelijker nawoord. Veel meer dan Thomas plaatst hij de bezetting in het kader van bredere analyses van het neoliberalisme, met wat extra hulp van radicale theoretici.

Beide boeken lijden enigszins aan grachtengordelcentrisme door deze bezetting, midden in de navel van Nederland, te verheffen tot de landelijke avant-garde van het universitaire protest. Ook aan andere universiteiten werd immers eerder moedig bekritiseerd, geprotesteerd en bezet (‘koekjesfabriek’, weet u nog? VU 2012); al wist (eerlijk is eerlijk) men het nergens zo koppig en militant door te zetten als aan het Spui. “Laat ik een voorspelling doen,” schrijft Thomas boud, “ooit kijken we terug op deze studentenprotesten als een moment waarop Nederland definitief genoeg kreeg van […] marktwerking” (CR, 16). Inmiddels zijn we een rechts-liberaal kabinet verder, dat zelfs twee failliete ziekenhuizen in een week tijd een aanvaardbare consequentie van marktwerking vindt. Het geloof in de marktwerking lijkt daarmee voorlopig nog niet op zijn retour, in ieder geval niet op rechts, en waar het geloof tanende is, blijkt de praktijk taai.

Een paar jaar en verscheidene kleinere bezettingen later, is het tijd voor een meer afstandelijke reflectie op de Maagdenhuisbezetting. Ik zal dat doen aan de hand van drie vragen. De Bloois’ boek onderzoekt waar het Maagdenhuis ‘de naam van is’ (een frase van Alain Badiou), of waar de bezetting voor stond. Dat roept de vraag op wat ‘de naam van de tegenstander’ is, of waar de bezetting precies tegen reageerde. De tweede vraag is wat beide auteurs precies bedoelen met de suggestie dat de bezetting ‘prefiguratief’ was. Beiden benadrukken ze dat de bezettingspraktijk door veel betrokkenen en commentatoren werd gezien als een doel op zich, een ‘prefiguratief experiment’, een voorafspiegeling van hoe een universiteit of samenleving óók zou kunnen zijn. De derde vraag is een stuk nuchterder en instrumenteler: als we nu naar de opbrengst kijken, is het bezetten van zo’n universiteitsgebouw dan wel een goed idee? Wat valt er mee te bereiken en hoe pak je dat dan aan?

Bezet waartegen?

De eerste vraag is meteen ook de lastigste: waartegen reageerde de bezetting? Daarmee vragen we namelijk in welke context we de bezetting moeten plaatsen. De directe aanleidingen zijn betrekkelijk duidelijk: ontevredenheid over het beleid aan de UvA en specifiek de verschraling bij de geesteswetenschappen, waar financiële tekorten werden opgelost door gespecialiseerde opleidingen weg te fuseren. De bezetters zelf plaatsten hun daad van verzet in het kader van een regentesk universiteitsbestuur, eigenlijk net zoals de bezetting van 1969. Waar men zich in ’69 echter tegen een cultuur van autoritaire professoren richtte, bestond het doelwit nu uit autoritaire professionele bestuurders. Tekenend was de aansporing van het College van Bestuur om “ons Maagdenhuis” te verlaten, alsof ze er een alleenrecht op hadden. Hiertegenover plaatsten bezettende studenten en docenten hun eigen aanspraak op het gebouw, een echo van het Wir sind das Volk dat de Berlijnse muur neerhaalde: het is ook óns gebouw. Tegenover het exclusieve bestuurlijke paleis plaatsten de bezetters een publiek gebouw dat gedurende de bezetting ook letterlijk en consequent open bleef (CR, 87), meer toegankelijk dan het daarvoor was geweest, een openbaar forum. ‘Bezetting’ is daarmee eigenlijk een verkeerde term, want de bezetters wilden eigenlijk het Maagdenhuis ontzetten, uitgedrukt met termen als publieke ‘toe-eigening’ (NM, 9), ‘restitutie’ (NM, 124-5), of zelfs ‘bevrijding’ (CR, 89).

De bezetters keerden zich ook tegen een universiteit waarin ‘rendement’ een dominante logica was geworden, waarin de inherente waarde van kennis en onderwijs werd overstemd door een financiële afweging van kosten en baten. Het is belangrijk om de logica van het verfoeide ‘rendementsdenken’ precies aan te geven. Het gaat namelijk niet zomaar om een kostenbewustzijn. Natuurlijk moet een universiteit op de financiën letten, net zoals elke organisatie. De crux van de logica van ‘rendement’ is dat de opbrengst van een publieke dienst wordt uitgedrukt in meetbare en onderling vergelijkbare termen: de ‘output’. Studiepunten, diploma’s en/of publicaties worden vertaald in een financieel equivalent of worden op zijn minst commensurabel gemaakt. Het alternatief is financiering van de input, op basis van hoeveel tijd het kost om bijvoorbeeld een vak op te zetten, een uur college goed voor te bereiden, of om een student goed op te leiden. Met output-sturing mogen organisatieonderdelen en uiteindelijk ook geflexibiliseerde docenten zelf uitzoeken hoe ze aan hun resultaten komen, als het maar goedkoop is.

Het afrekenen op output maakt het mogelijk om als publieke universiteit te vergelijken of je meer verdient door een master- of een bachelorstudent op te leiden, een arts of een filosoof, een Europeaan of een Chinees. Het maakt het ook mogelijk om uit te rekenen of je als universiteit meer verdient aan een gebouw als je er studenten opleidt, of er een hotel of fitnesscentrum in vestigt, zoals de UvA Holding die organiseerde. Deze financialisering maakt het ook mogelijk om de waarde van een universiteit uit te drukken in de monetaire termen die banken kunnen overtuigen om leningen te verschaffen voor nieuw vastgoed (Engelen, Fernandez, & Hendrikse 2014).  De vraag is dus per se niet of een publieke instelling op de centen moet letten, wat conservatieve economen de bezetters kwaadwillig onder de neus wreven, maar welke afwegingen daarbij gepast zijn en welke waarderingen daarin zwaarder moeten wegen. Het gaat niet eens om rendement op zich, maar wat en hoe daarin wordt gewaardeerd en met welke perverse effecten.

Met de output-logica van ‘rendement’ wordt het ook mogelijk om docenten af te rekenen op stukloon, namelijk per nagekeken scriptie of afgerekend studiepunt, eigenlijk net zoals thuiswevers in de vroege industriële revolutie werden betaald per lap. Met het verdere argument ‘dat er nu eenmaal geen geld is’ en dat het niet kan ‘vanwege de flexwet’, worden horden docenten daarmee op precaire contracten gezet, bijvoorbeeld als een collega zich met een onderzoeksbeurs vrij kan kopen van onderwijsverplichtingen. De risico’s van fluctuerende inkomsten voor de organisatie, veroorzaakt door bijvoorbeeld scholieren die plots andere keuzes maken, of de beurzenloterij van de competitieve onderzoeksfinanciering, worden daarmee geïndividualiseerd: afgewenteld op de ‘precaire schil’ van docenten die dit jaar het éne vak geven en volgend jaar weer wat anders. De kwaliteit van het onderwijs wordt er doorgaans niet beter van, maar echt zichtbaar wordt dat niet. Het ‘rendementsdenken’ vereist immers enkel kwaliteitsbewaking, waarvoor een politioneel regime van evaluatie en controle is opgezet. Een optimale prijs-kwaliteitsverhouding betekent dat er ook zoiets is als te goed (want te duur) onderwijs. De waarde van kennis en onderwijs wordt daarmee versmald tot een indicator, financieel of pseudo-financieel, een ‘key performance indicator’, die kwaliteit transmuteert in kwantiteit en al gauw alles wat niet meetbaar is ook als waardeloos wegsnoeit, of afwentelt op zondags liefdewerk.

Zowel Thomas als De Bloois plaatsen de bezetting echter ook in een breder kader. Ze zien deze bezetting niet alleen als een reactie tegen wat er aan de UvA of zelfs aan Nederlandse universiteiten gaande is. De bezetting wordt ook gezien als een protest tegen het uitleveren van de openbare sector aan het New Public Management, dat publieke instanties wil managen als waren het bedrijven. Met meetbare output en rendement wordt namelijk een equivalent van winst geconstrueerd, een vergelijkbare indicator van succes en falen. Daardoor wordt het niet alleen mogelijk om dezelfde managementtechnieken toe te passen, maar ook om competitie te organiseren en virtuele winnaars te identificeren in rankings. De belofte is dat de burger daarmee beter is gediend, omdat er kosten zullen worden bespaard en de dienstverlening zal verbeteren: door concurrentie en optimalisering krijgt de burger maximale waarde voor de betaalde belastingen. Inmiddels bleken dat grotendeels valse beloften (Heijne 2018).

De prijs van het markt-utopisch experiment is een sluipende privatisering van het publieke domein. Universiteiten en ziekenhuizen gaan meer op bedrijven lijken, waar de burger in de eerste plaats ‘klant’ is en waarin participatie niet verder gaat dan overlopen naar de concurrent of smal tevredenheidsonderzoek. Steeds grotere delen van die instellingen worden ook effectief private bedrijven, met nevenactiviteiten, opleidingen die buiten het publiek bestel opereren, BV- en consultancy-constructies. Zoals De Bloois fijntjes opmerkt: in naam van publieke doelen (verantwoord uitgeven van belastinggeld) wordt de publieke sector steeds verder geprivatiseerd (NM, 31). Hij gaat zelfs nog verder en schuwt de hyperbool niet door het te hebben over ‘de (voormalige) publieke sector’ (NM, 24) die ‘in de praktijk allang [is] geprivatiseerd’ (NM, 123).

Die reorganisatie is niet alleen een proces dat de zorgzaamheid van die instellingen verminkt met de ijdele belofte van efficiëntie, het maakt ze ook kwetsbaar voor inhoudelijke aansturing door dominante maatschappelijke krachten. Een publiek domein waarin substantiële argumenten over rechtvaardigheid of sociale ontplooiing zijn vervangen door ‘efficiënte processen’ kan zich slecht weren tegen overname door handige zakenlui die nog meer efficiëntie beloven. De strakke aansturing vanuit het New Public Management creëert daarmee een pluche stuurcabine voor geldkrachtige particuliere belangen. Het is een klacht die ook uit andere publieke sectoren klinkt en die de bezetters ook sympathie opleverde van bijvoorbeeld artsen of rechters.

Zo belanden we dan bij de tweede contextualisering, die met name De Bloois flink aanzet: de Maagdenhuisbezetting als daad van protest tegen het neoliberalisme, of de specifieke wending die het kapitalisme nu lijkt te nemen: het ‘cognitief kapitalisme’, waarin waardencreatie cruciaal draait om kennis (NM, 63 e.v.). Het sterkst is zijn analyse als hij daarna laat zien hoe schuld een steeds terugkerend thema is: in studieschuld of in de schulden van universiteiten aan banken om hun vastgoed op peil te houden (NM, 99 e.v.). Door mensen en publieke instellingen voortdurend net kopje-onder te houden, creëren schulden permanente afhankelijkheid en verantwoordingsplicht. Met de Italiaanse radicale socioloog Maurizio Lazzarato roept De Bloois op om schuld te weigeren, om te weigeren om homo debitor te zijn, ten voordele van autonomie. Het aanhoudende verzet tegen het studieleenstelsel is ermee te duiden, maar eigenlijk ook de drang van onderwijsinstellingen om financiële reserves aan te leggen. Het is niet wat De Bloois bedoelt, maar ook universiteiten proberen zo hun autonomie te beschermen tegen beleidsbevliegingen of wisselende vastgoednoden. Helaas blijft vooralsnog onduidelijk hoe je als student dat regime zou kunnen ontwijken.

Het vertoog waarmee De Bloois het neoliberalisme of cognitief kapitalisme neerzet, is daarmee naar mijn mening problematisch. De maatschappelijke ontwikkelingen worden met een noodlottige onvermijdelijkheid geponeerd. Het cognitief kapitalisme is een onbeheersbaar monster dat alles corrumpeert, het neoliberalisme is alomtegenwoordig, de privatisering heeft zich al voltrokken, de markt is almachtig, de Apocalyps heeft al plaatsgevonden. Soms lijkt het wel alsof er zich achter de schermen van de geschiedenis een kwaadwillende neoliberale demon bevindt, die tegen ons complotteert: “Precariteit is het gevolg van de neoliberale eis tot voortdurende mobilisering en beschikbaarheid in dienst van de kapitaalvergaring van de 1%” (NM, 84). Het ronkt, als aanklacht, maar loont het ook?

Kenmerkend is de stelligheid waarmee deze fataliteit wordt geponeerd, bijvoorbeeld: “In een dergelijke context is de universiteit niet langer een plek waar fundamentele, onvoorwaardelijke kritiek op de status quo wordt geformuleerd en onderwezen kan worden, maar een plek waar kennis altijd in dienst staat van de neoliberale logica van de privatisering” (NM, 61). Als het zo erg is, wat doet De Bloois dan nog aan deze reddeloos verloren universiteit? Het is een vergelijkbare knoop waarin ook Willem Schinkel zich maneuvreerde met zijn afwijzing van WOinActie (Schinkel 2018): als deze universiteit zo fundamenteel verwerpelijk is, dan is elk protest toch zinloos? Ook de Maagdenhuisbezetting zelf kan tegen zoveel overmacht enkel een tragisch gebaar zijn, een symbolisch verzet, want hoe kan een groepje bezetters aan het Spui nu het einde van deze oppermachtige demon bewerkstelligen?

Natuurlijk is de hyperbool een aanvaardbare stijlvorm van een manifest. In de Naam van het Maagdenhuis is immers een aanklacht. Bovendien levert de analyse van steeds terugkerende maatschappelijke patronen een beeld op van de cruciale uitdagingen, de systematische dreigingen van privatisering, schuld, of precariteit. Het is ook cruciaal om te begrijpen dat de voorwaarden voor ons academische bestaan zich niet in een politiek en economisch vacuüm bevinden. Maar door deze systemische condities als noodlottig te presenteren, dreigt de aanklacht defaitistisch te worden. De analyse biedt geen aanknopingspunten voor verandering, geen politieke strategie voorbij afwijzing, geen ruimte voor verbetering. De aanklacht kan een nuttige stijlfiguur zijn, maar er ligt inmiddels een berg klaagliteratuur die ‘schande!’ roept over de universitaire ontsporing – en die overigens ook systematisch en met veel gemak wordt genegeerd door de macht (Halffman & Radder 2013).

De stelligheid waarmee het neoliberalisme, New Public Management, of cognitief kapitalisme als boosdoener wordt aangewezen, heeft nog een ander nadeel. Ze gaat namelijk voorbij aan de variatie en diversiteit die in deze configuraties is aan te treffen. De Nederlandse variant van het universitaire New Public Management is namelijk niet zo rabiaat als bijvoorbeeld de Engelse, waar output rechtstreekser is gekoppeld aan financiën (De Boer, Enders, & Schimank 2007). Daar is het dan weer niet zo krankzinnig als in China, waar individuele onderzoekers aanzienlijke financiële bonussen kunnen opstrijken voor een publicatie in een high-impact tijdschrift.2 In Wageningen rekenen ze harder af dan in Nijmegen, onder economen is de outputgekte groter dan onder chemici (Horbach & Halffman 2019) en echt geprivatiseerde universitaire (elite)opleidingen zijn in Nederland nog relatief uitzonderlijk. Misschien lijken dat voor de academische zwartkijkers slechts tinten grijs in een grauw kapitalistisch universum, maar die variatie laat zien dat alternatieven niet alleen mogelijk zijn, maar dat ze in onderdelen overal om ons heen al bestaan! Of in ieder geval: het kan nóg erger – en weerstand tegen nóg erger is best zinvol.

Het probleem is hoe we de aard van het beest dan wel moeten begrijpen. Een te grote stelligheid over universele, systemische oorzaken onder de oppervlakte van de maatschappelijke fenomenen leidt tot de val van een structuralisme waarin mensen slechts slachtoffers kunnen zijn van hogere machten. Het omgekeerde is een voluntaristisch universum, waarin vrijheid of falen een keuze is, te bereiken met verruiming van de geest. Ter verdediging van De Bloois kunnen we stellen dat hij vooral ideologische patronen weergeeft. Als hij schrijft dat het neoliberalisme algehele privatisering van het hoger onderwijs eist (een personificatie, vergeeflijk als stijlfiguur), is dat wellicht op ideologisch vlak wel aan te wijzen, bijvoorbeeld bij de meer radicale neoliberale ideologen of in een schematisering van de dominante logica ervan. Maar als dat waar is, is verandering slechts een kwestie van anders denken: als we deze ideologie onklaar kunnen maken, krijgen we dan uiteindelijk een betere wereld? Het tegendeel is natuurlijk ook problematisch: als er geen grote, noodlottige systemen werkzaam zijn in de wereld, is dan alles lokaal onderhandelbaar en reparabel? We dreigen daarmee te belanden in een keuze tussen fatalisme en naïef optimisme. Misschien is dat nergens duidelijker dan in de contrasterende interpretatie van de bezetting zelf door beide auteurs. Waar Thomas al het klaroengeschal van een nieuwe tijd meende te horen (het einde van het marktdenken), was er voor De Bloois in de niche van het bezette Maagdenhuis eerder een tijdelijke ‘prefiguratieve’ glimp van een mogelijke verre toekomst te zien.

Hoezo ‘prefiguratief’?

Dat brengt ons bij de tweede vraag: wat betekent de claim dat de bezetting ‘prefiguratief’ was? Als oppositionele praktijk hoeft een bezetting niet noodzakelijk een alternatief te bieden: een bezetting kan ook gewoon ergens tegen zijn. De bezetters claimden echter meer te bieden dan enkel weerstand en richtten de hal van het Maagdenhuis in als een demonstratief experiment in egalitair communiceren (met bijvoorbeeld ook Occupy-gebarentaal); zelfonderwijs bevrijd van de dwangbuis van een curriculum met arbeidsmarktgerichte ‘competenties’; alternatieve kennisproductie, zoals onderzoek naar wat er misging bij de UvA; of publiek debat in plaats van onderwijs afgeschermd door betaalmuren van collegegeld. Niet alleen kreeg hier het College van Bestuur van de UvA een krachtig schot voor de boeg, de bezetting zelf moest een voorbeeldfunctie krijgen, een levend bewijs dat een universiteit niet voortdurend hiërarchisch moet zijn; dat de universitaire gemeenschap ook hard aan de slag kan zijn zonder dat er credits tegenover staan. In de centrale hal hing een groot spandoek dat opriep tot ‘direct democracy’ en ook de bezetting zelf werd gedirigeerd door de logica van een General Assembly: de met consensus besluitende vergadering van iedereen die aanwezig is, die ik zelf leerde kennen op het Occupy-Beursplein. Met deze organisatievorm zouden de bezetters-bevrijders de voorhoede vormen van een zelfbestuurde Nieuwe Universiteit.

Thomas en De Bloois verwijzen beiden naar de bij de bezetting opgedoken antropoloog David Graeber om aan te geven dat deze exemplarische egalitaire praktijken nadrukkelijk niet moeten worden gezien als een blauwdruk (NM, 22). Hier werd geëxperimenteerd, niet ontworpen. De omgangsvormen van het bezette Maagdenhuis zouden een ‘prefiguratie’ (NM, 13) zijn van wat een universiteit kan zijn, een ‘doorkijkje’ (NM, 23); vandaar dat ‘pre-’. Het is verleidelijk om er een utopische praktijk in te zien, maar De Bloois ziet er eerder een heterotopische praktijk in (met Foucault), een andere plaats, waar andere academische omgangsvormen mogelijk zijn.

Het is wat lastig balanceren: een voorafspiegeling die geen toekomst weerspiegelt, een pre- zonder pre-, een doorkijkje naar elders, maar niet als nastrevenswaardig alternatief. Maar wat is een experiment waard dat geen navolging verdient? Waarom zou je een heterotopische praktijk ontwerpen als je daar niets uit wil halen om ook elders toe te passen? Waarom zouden we niet juist wel proberen om ze als exemplarisch te zien, zodat we ervan kunnen leren?

Misschien ben ik te nuchter, maar het is moeilijk voor te stellen hoe je een hele universiteit in deze stijl zou kunnen inrichten. Als onderwijsvorm zie ik het wel zitten, een egalitaire debatreeks met gastsprekers, een opendeurenbeleid, een kritische agenda gericht op actuele onderwerpen. Maar een clinical trial of een experiment met een deeltjesversneller wordt wat lastiger (al is daar vast ook wat te winnen met ander communicatievormen). Ik wil daarmee echt niets afdoen aan de waarde van egalitair communiceren of beslissen per consensus. Het is een stijl die veel dichter aansluit bij hoe professionele teams opereren dan bij krampachtig hiërarchisch management, en voor een deel van de universiteit is het zeker inspirerend; maar egalitaire organisatievormen hebben ook zwaktes en als we ze willen inzetten, lijkt het me uiterst nuttig om die op het netvlies te houden.

Het onder controle houden van macht en machtsstrijd tussen facties is zo’n zwak punt. Egalitaire bewegingen brengen naast de euforie van samenhorigheid ook onhandigheid in het omgaan met verdeeldheid met zich mee, met richtingenstrijd, emotie over wie wel en niet echt trouw is aan de vermeende gedeelde waarden. Bij de bezetting liep het tragisch af, met diepe verdeeldheid onder de bezetters over al dan niet doorzetten en een blokkade van een beslissing om het Maagdenhuis te verlaten, onder andere door e-mailwachtwoorden te veranderen (CR, 182-3). Een ander zwak punt van egalitair bestuur is omgaan met kwaadwilligheid. Voor je het weet worden je spullen gestolen (bij mijn maandje slapen in een universiteitsgebouw, lang geleden), of komen dronken daklozen je kampement verstoren (Beursplein). In het Maagdenhuis waren het rechtse koorballen die compromitterende vechtpartijen probeerden uit te lokken, wat gelukkig goed werd opgevangen. Tot slot komt de macht je vroeg of laat weer ontruimen, met traangas en dievenkar, te paard of desnoods in een tank. Dat zijn geen toevalligheden, maar inherente problemen van de actievorm waar je rekening mee moet houden.

Egalitaire bewegingen en egalitaire samenlevingsexperimenten zijn natuurlijk niet nieuw. Zelfs egalitaire bezettingsexperimenten zijn niet nieuw. Het is hier niet de plaats om daarvan een inventaris te maken, maar we kunnen de bezetting met evenveel recht een post-figuratie noemen: een echo van de bezetting van het Beursplein, de Maagdenhuisbezetting van ’69, de krakersvrijstaten uit de jaren ’80, of voor wie het groots wil zien, bezette pleinen als Tahrir, Maidan of de Heilige Vrede, of zelfs nog verder terug in de tijd, met radencommunisme of zelfbestuurde fabrieken. De pretentie van een exemplarisch experiment was ook daarin vaak aanwezig, vaak met nadrukkelijkere utopische pretenties.

Ook zonder blauwdruk, blijft het ‘pre-’ in ‘prefiguratie’ knagen, het ‘doorkijkje’, de try-out van iets dat later nog kan komen. Wat is dat andere, dat latere dan? Beslissen per General Assembly is een publieke demonstratie van de mogelijkheden van egalitair communiceren, een aanklacht tegen annexatie van zeggingskracht door bestuurlijke elites, of van het fundamentele verschil tussen compromis en consensus. Het is een omgangsvorm die ook aan universiteiten wel eens wat vaker zou mogen worden gebruikt, maar een alternatief voor alle besluitvorming moet het niet willen zijn. Misschien biedt de Maagdenhuisbezetting wel geen doorkijkje naar grote, andere samenlevings- of bestuursvormen, maar vooral naar de arrogantie van de macht. En misschien slaat het ‘pre-’ wel vooral gewoon op zichzelf, op de volgende bezetting, op hoe je het een volgende keer anders zou kunnen doen.

De bezetting als actiemiddel

Dat brengt ons bij de derde vraag: wat is de waarde van de academische bezetting als actiemiddel: niet als doel op zich, maar als onderdeel van een bredere politieke beweging die een andere universiteit wil? De bezetting is natuurlijk een oude protestvorm, waaraan universiteitsgebouwen met enige regelmaat ten prooi vallen. Immers, wie heeft gestudeerd zonder ooit wat te bezetten, heeft geen politieke moed; maar wie de waarde van die bezetting achteraf niet tegen het licht durft te houden, al evenmin.

Bezettingen hebben een romantische aantrekkingskracht: de heldhaftige inzet van je eigen lichaam om de macht te blokkeren, het kille systeem te doen wankelen. (In mijn studententijd werd ik dan ook terstond smoorverliefd op de dame die onze bezettingsraad ging voorzitten. Ook dat bleek tijdelijk.) Het is de aantrekkingskracht van Marianne die met ontblote borst de Bastille bestormt, van Che in de jungle, of Mandela in de cel. Ook de tragische afloop van veel bezettingen heeft romantische trekken, maar dan van de schaduwkant, met gearresteerde activisten, verraad, of de duistere passies van richtingenstrijd. Dat is overigens geen veroordeling: in tegenstelling tot kil bestuur vereist politiek passie, moed en enige zelfopoffering, maar men kan zich daarin ook laten meeslepen.

Dus wat zijn voor- en nadelen van de bezetting als actievorm en wat valt daaraan bij te sturen? De opbrengst van het Maagdenhuis was aanzienlijk, met een constante stroom aandacht voor academische en maatschappelijke kritiek. De kracht van de bezetting lijkt me dan ook vooral haar agenderende werking, maar daar zaten ook kosten aan. Een bezetting moet immers worden afgewogen tegen alternatieve actievormen, die weer andere sterktes en zwaktes hebben (Halffman & Radder 2013). Bezettingen zijn bijvoorbeeld arbeidsintensief. Je moet een woonplaats improviseren, eten regelen, permanente aanwezigheid opzetten, doorgaans ook enige beveiliging of een ontvangstbalie inrichten, en over dat alles moeten ook voortdurend beslissingen worden genomen, die ook weer bronnen van conflict kunnen worden.

Een groot risico van bezettingen is daardoor dat ze in zichzelf gekeerd raken, dat bezetters zich ingraven omdat ze in het gebouw druk zijn met zichzelf om dingen uit te zoeken, of omdat ze er gaan wortelen. Daarom was het open karakter van de Maagdenhuisbezetting geniaal: het gebouw werd een forum voor publieke bijeenkomsten. De centrale hal, die zich bijzonder goed leent voor plenaire vergaderingen, was geen besloten actieoverleg, maar een open ruimte. Ook Occupy op het Beursplein had dat open karakter, met burgers, slimme en originele interventies, journalisten, mensen met verstand van zaken, maar tevens occasionele dronkenlappen en pleinschreeuwers.

Al die inspanning, maar ook de Macht die vroeg of laat toch wel komt ontruimen, maken dat bezettingen inherent tijdelijk zijn, ondanks hun eventuele millenaire verlangens. Dat hoeft geen zwakte te zijn. De bezetting van het PC Hoofthuis (heel even het “Post-Colonial House”) van de UvA op 28 september 2018 was na een dag ontruimd, maar bracht het academisch protest onder de aandacht van de landelijke media, meer dan een week lang ludieke straatcolleges van WOinActie. Bezetters kunnen maar beter vooraf rekening houden met die tijdelijkheid en moeten voorzien in een exitstrategie, waarmee je aan het eind met opgeheven hoofd (en niet kapotgestreden) de volgende politieke stap kan zetten.

Het beëindigen van een bezetting is echter zo mogelijk nog moeilijker dan er eentje te beginnen. Een bezetting begint als genoeg mensen het eens zijn, maar eindigt pas als iederéén het eens is om te vertrekken – en dat is moeilijk voor wie beslist via General Assemblies en consensus. Thomas laat dat schrijnend zien in de afloop van de Maagdenhuisbezetting, waarbij polarisering over al dan niet vertrekken tot bitter conflict leidde (CR, 182 e.v.). Ook extern is het contact soms lastig met instituties die niet egalitair communiceren. De Macht zoekt een onderhandelaar, dwingt soms snelle beslissingen af, met deadlines over ontruimingen of andere interventies. Ik begrijp de principiële voorkeur voor een trage consensus, maar soms is snelheid nodig. Bij het PC Hoofthuis leidde dit tot een pr-flop toen burgemeester Halsema op de stoep verscheen en men binnen niet snel genoeg kon beslissen dat haar ontvangen veel slimmer was dan haar weg te sturen. Bezetters moeten niet alleen hun vertrek plannen, maar ook de komst van de Macht, of die nu verschijnt met uitgestoken hand, of met de wapenstok.

Er zijn dus zeker lessen te leren uit het Maagdenhuis: over de voor- en nadelen van de bezetting als actievorm; dat elke bezetting rekening moet houden met haar tijdelijkheid en dus moet voorzien in een exitstrategie; of dat vroeg of laat de macht op de stoep staat. Van het Maagdenhuis kunnen bezetters ook leren dat ingesloten raken vermijdbaar is en dat je de ‘bevrijde ruimte’ kan inzetten voor agendering, debat en experiment. Het zijn ervaringen die erop wijzen dat bezetters veel te plannen hebben voor ze naar de koevoet grijpen: bezint eer gij bezet!

Daarin ligt misschien een paradox van de bezetting als actievorm: bezettingen vereisen politieke passie en daardoor gebeuren ze ook vaak spontaan en geïmproviseerd. Je staat met een groep demonstranten voor de deur van een universiteitsgebouw en plots besef je dat er genoeg animo is voor een extra stap. Iemand zet een voet tussen een deur en voor je het weet slaap je op universitaire grond. Ik weet niet of de politieke passie het altijd toelaat, maar voor wie tijd en aandacht heeft, zijn bezettingen onderdeel van een leerproces en dan vertelt het Maagdenhuis je heel wat over cruciale strategische keuzes die je eigenlijk beter vooraf plant.

Achteraf bekeken

De bezetting heeft heel wat teweeggebracht. Topbestuurders van de UvA moesten vertrekken en de bestuurscultuur van de UvA is merkbaar veranderd. Er is meer openheid en bewustzijn dat arrogante bestuurders een prijs betalen voor het afwimpelen van ontevredenheid onder staf en studenten. Leden van het huidige CvB verschijnen nu zelfs wel eens bij WOinActie-bijeenkomsten en -manifestaties. De General Assembly als bestuursmodel heeft het echter niet gehaald. De openheid van het Maagdenhuis werd vervangen door de beslotenheid van overlegcommissies; consensus weer door compromis; en directe democratie door representatie. Het egalitaire experiment bleek bij nader inzien vooral een voorafspiegeling van het herstel van de oude orde in een mildere vorm. Inmiddels zit de UvA nog steeds in zwaar weer, werden er nieuwe bezuinigingen aangekondigd en is de mobilisatie voor de volgende protestgolf (van WOinActie) er massaal.

Democratisering, precaire contracten, elitevorming en stollende emancipatie, het gebrek aan diversiteit, het schuldenregime, de economisering en doorgeschoten evaluatiecultuur zijn nog steeds ernstige problemen in het hele hoger onderwijs, al zijn er hier en daar wat scherpe randjes van afgeslepen. Inmiddels zijn we beland in een veel bredere beweging, maar met een schijnbaar veel smallere agenda. WOinActie mobiliseert aan bijna alle universiteiten en zelfs het hbo, en vormt een coalitie met vakbonden, studentenbonden en (voor de staking van 15 maart jongstleden) zelfs met middelbaar en lager onderwijs. WOinActie zoekt ook een alliantie met Colleges van Bestuur, maar dat lukt slechts sporadisch. De prijs voor deze brede coalitie is een toespitsing op een smal actiepunt: meer geld, betere financiering. Ook al lijkt dat aan de oppervlakte een beetje plat, bij de WOinActie-demonstraties en in publicaties van betrokken actievoerders komen al de onderliggende heikele punten steeds terug. Het strijdpunt klinkt misschien smal, maar het agendeert voortdurend de bredere academische kritiek (contra Schinkel).

Achteraf bekeken was de laatste Maagdenhuisbezetting niet het begin en niet het einde van de academische protesten. Het bleek eerder een referentiepunt, een orgelpunt, een interessante en wellicht ook inspirerende episode in een strijd die nog lang niet is gestreden. Wie zich wil laten inspireren tot verdere acties, doet er in ieder geval goed aan om haar voorbeeld goed te bestuderen.3

Experimental Procedures for New Ontologies

Review essay of: Bruno Latour (ed.), Reset Modernity (2016). Cambridge: MIT Press, 560 pp.

In 2013, French philosopher Bruno Latour baffled his growing audience with the publication of An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (henceforth AIME), a 500-page tome containing Latour’s attempt at a systematic philosophy with the ambition and scale of Hegel’s Phenomenology, claiming that our modern world is best understood by delineating the fifteen “modes of existence” that make it up (Latour 2013a). Although this 500-page monster caused confusion even amongst his most seasoned readers, for Latour himself it was only the start. Simultaneously, Latour launched an interactive website through which fellow scholars could contribute to his study of those that give themselves the attribute of “modern”. While studying “the moderns”, as Latour would call these people, contributors to the website detracted or added from the “modes of existence” that made up the ontology of the moderns.1

The whole AIME-project (that is, the book, multiple workshops, lectures and online discussions) came to an end with an exhibition in the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe called Reset Modernity. In the past, Latour had already, together with Peter Weibel, director of ZKM, utilised exhibitions for exploring and investigating specific topics in his work, inviting many prominent scholars, curators and artists to reflect with him on these topics. This resulted in two large catalogues that also function as reference work for scholars interested in Latour’s work (Latour and Weibel 2002, 2005). And now his latest exhibition has produced again a sizable tome, simply named Reset Modernity (henceforth RM). Even if this catalogue is a bit shorter than his previous two, the volume is still full to the brim with articles of prominent scholars across many disciplines, such as anthropologist Philipe Descola, art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, philosopher Isabelle Stengers and intercut with essays and artworks by artists such as Armin Linke, Friedrich Casper David and Tomás Saraceno, to name but a few.

In RM Latour asks his readers to reset their sensing devices in order to render sensible to us the things that make us modern. Long-time readers notice that he is continuing his research into modernity as set out in his 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern, in which Latour argued that our conception of modernity came down to a rigid and unbridgeable distinction between subjects and objects, culture and nature. More shockingly, Latour argued that this great watershed between subject and object had never taken place as our practices showed that we constantly relied on entities that defied that categorisation, so-called quasi-objects (Latour 1993, 51–55). Only our thinking had been modern, our practices had never been. AIME was the answer to a question posed to Latour after finishing We Have Never Been Modern, namely “if we never were modern, what are we then?” (Latour 2013b). The somewhat paradoxical answer was that we are modern, albeit not in the sense that philosophers usually understood this condition. The problem for Latour was that since we understand the world through the Modern Constitution that divided subject and object we are not well equipped to understand quasi-objects , while a proliferation of quasi-objects is precisely what makes our society, or rather our collective, as Latour would say, modern (Latour 1993, 13–15; 88–90).2

RM promises procedures through which we can rid ourselves of our ontological preconceptions and truly start to understand ourselves as modern. A task which is, according to Latour, very urgent in the age of large-scale environmental problems, smartly captured in the notion of “the Anthropocene”. But what is precisely the danger if we modern people cannot conceive of ourselves as modern? According to Latour’s opening essay Let’s touch base, the problems revolve around nihilism: a politico-theological aspect of modernity. The introduction sees Latour at his most ferocious, producing lines like “the modernizing frontier seems ready to swallow humans and nonhumans alike, plunging all of them into the midst of a general destruction of the conditions fit for life”, and “transcendence [has] been transformed into the abandonment and condemnation of this world” (11).3 Here, the modernizing frontier and transcendence are used interchangeably. Latour points out religious and economic wars as the source of the “general destruction” and these events are cast as processes attracted by transcendent goals. Both are attracted towards some beyond: “religious wars for the colonization of a nonexistent afterworld; […] economic wars for territories that are equally insubstantial” (11). Latour’s warnings of nihilism recall Nietzsche’s (anti-Christian) crusade against nihilism. Nietzsche wrote against life-denying longings, and the acts of self-flagellation and practices of punishment associated with it (See: Nietzsche 1998). Latour does something similar: in the Anthropocene the viability of the planet is at stake, and the belief in some transcendent beyond is causing the trouble.

But what is Latour’s alternative? He contrasts nihilism with the earthly (which we interpret as a term for the immanence of actants), the secular and the material as better dwellings for thought and practice. Latour’s goal this time around seems to be: offering procedures for discovering our Earth anew, not as a place to realise a transcendent beyond that calls upon us, but as a place in which we need to learn how to survive or prevent the looming environmental catastrophes by moving “neither up nor down, but within and along the world” (20). Ridding ourselves of the old “modernizing frontier” by resetting our modern sensibilities would thus help us to find the Earth again.

Resetting however, Latour is quick to stress, should not be understood as the act of rebooting our electronic devices (e.g. resetting my mobile phone), a simple push on a button. Instead Latour alludes to how technical instruments are reset, by recalibration. For example, recalibrating measuring instruments in such a way that they are able to detect the modern entities and value them appropriately; but also the recalibration of navigation instruments, seeking for new points that can help to orient the moderns. An urgent issue since the older horizons that we used to navigate modernity (e.g. secularization, liberal democracy, civilisation, rationalisation, etc.) are either under pressure all over the world, or have proven to be problematic.

The reset procedures are invitations for the reader to develop new ontologies that escape the Modern Constitution. Their outcome is uncertain: although Latour has his ontologies already mapped out, it is clear that his collaborators are not convinced yet and want to find their own ways; what’s more, whether these procedures render new ontologies at all is questioned by some contributors. This gives the procedures offered an experimental character. Thus for the remainder of this essay, we take this experimental route and see what the possible outcome of following Latour’s procedures can be, reviewing the volume in the process.

Procedures 1 & 2: Relocalizing the Global; Without the World or Within

For those who are familiar with Latour’s output before AIME, procedures 1 & 2 are familiar territory. Just as in Science in Action (Latour 1988a) or The Pasteurization of France (Latour 1988b) Latour asks us to look beyond ready-made knowledge and see the messy practices that purify scientific results bringing the quasi-objects that underpin the workings of modern science into view. The novelty is that Latour does not concentrate on knowledge but on our practices of making pictures of the world (cf. Heidegger 1977a). Following Peter Sloterdijk, Latour considers that the predominant modern way of picturing the world is globular (see: Sloterdijk 2014). Globes are not only a representation of all earth’s land and seas as an interconnected whole; in the modern perception it is also that in which or on which we reside. Slogans as “think globally, act locally” seem to suggest that the image of the globe is essential to understand the impact humans have on the earth in the Anthropocene. Yet, as Latour remarks in his book Facing Gaia: “the danger is always the same: the figure of the Globe authorizes a premature leap to a higher level by confusing the figures of connection with those of totality” (Latour 2017, 130). As Latour explains, the globe is an abstraction but is confused for the totality; the result, all the practices and materials involved into making this abstraction disappear from the totality.

In RM Latour explains this mistake of the image of the globe by discussing Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten (53). What seems at first an educational film about what science can tell us about the largest and smallest possible scales, turns out to be riddled with “globes”; their integration provides a perfect antithesis to what Latour tries to achieve in his first procedure in particular, and RM in general. Effortlessly, the film’s camera travels from the sphere of the galaxy to the sphere of our DNA-structure. But that one camera does not exist. Multiple recording devices were needed to produce the pictures we see. All the pictures are stylized in order to let us grasp the information in them more easily. Others, such as those of a carbon nucleus, could more accurately be described as an artist’s impression. The smooth transition the film gives us would have taken, in reality, complicated travels among laboratories and artist’s studios around the world.

Not only does Latour invite us to imagine the travels between the laboratories but also to take a look inside them. If we would, for example, visit NASA’s research division, we would learn that the famous Blue Marble picture from 1972, which features in the Powers of Ten, is actually made up of large datasets of photos stitched together, removing a lot of cloud formations in the process. Not only are the jumps between the spheres not smooth, closer scrutiny proves that the spheres do not even hold together.

By thinking through such examples Latour helps to rid us of those totalising world pictures, which were according to Martin Heidegger so fundamental to our modern way of thinking. Without the globe, Latour asserts, we are “able to follow connections without jumping […] to the ‘big picture’” (54). Ridding ourselves of the “big pictures”, the second procedure neatly connects by ridding ourselves of another major framework that guides our understanding, the already mentioned subject-object scheme, more specifically, the positioning of object and subject as always face-to-face. Knowledge must be understood to never rely “on such a face-to-face of object and subject and a subject-with-nothing-else-to-do-but-gazing-on-an-object” (93). Latour proposes that instead of imagining the production of knowledge to be this vertical relation, we should “shift direction sideways by ninety degrees” (93): knower and known are now on the same plane (‘within” the world; a plane of immanence).4 Latour”s final word on the matter is that we must move away from the vertical scenography, and should replace our faulty self-understanding with “[registrations of] the experience of dealing with the world” (93).

Giving this procedure more colour than the usual Latourian fare is the addition of essays by critical Latour interlocutors Pablo Jensen, Philippe Descola and Graham Harman, amongst others, who shed new light on what it means to go beyond the subject-object scheme. For example, in his essay How We Became Modern: a View from Afar Descola equally sets out the procedure(s) Latour prescribes, where he understands them as “considering the conditions that made them [the moderns] modern” (122). Remarkably enough, Descola arrives at different results than those of Latour. Noteworthy of Descola’s identification of the moderns is that it helps to fulfil two tasks in the procedure. Firstly, a historical investigation and corroboration of the production of hybrids veiled by the moderns’ cosmological dichotomy; secondly, more importantly, Descola’s anthropological work allows us to see the modern’s cosmology/ontology alongside (rather than above) “premodern” cosmologies, persuading us that throwing out subject and object does not make for an inhospitable world, and encourages one to experiment with nonmodern thought. As such, Descola adds to the procedure and helps us in considering our place on earth together with other collectives.

Procedure 3: Sharing Responsibilities: Farewell to the Sublime

Procedures 1 and 2 brought our own modern collective of quasi-objects in view, in contrast with the exclusive human “society”, and made us aware that there are other collectives on the earth who may not share our “cosmology”. But how is it possible to direct our attention and action with regard to environmental problems without a globe? And with multiple collectives inhabiting the Earth, what is responsible for these problems if not “humanity”? The third procedure asks us to conceive of new ways of how to share responsibilities, while being wary of the temptation of another big Western concept, the sublime.

Traditionally, the moderns considered responsibility as reserved for their individual actions. In extension, responsibility was also something that was felt towards a community, and later on towards society. In the seemingly modern times a new responsibility was added: that for humanity as a whole. In short, the limits of their feeling of responsibility are always formed by the limits of their (collective) subjectivity: from the individual to the community, to a universal idea of humanity. In contrast, one seldom feels responsibility for nature, nor was nature ever a moral agent. But in the Anthropocene, it seems that nature’s catastrophes are at least partly co-produced by humans. Thus one can ask if we are to blame when another hurricane hits the coast.

Our first response may be to morally perfect ourselves and include nature in the moral realm. But then we run into trouble since the Anthropocene not only questions our responsibilities, it also asks “who is this humanity?” Is the whole of humanity responsible for climate change, including residents of Indian slums, and the Amerindians of the Amazon forest? Surely not. For this reason some criticasters of the term Anthropocene have proposed the alternative Capitalocene, identifying Capitalism and capitalist powers as those who are (or should be held) responsible. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s contribution to RM lists all new proposals for new “-cenes”, including their pros and cons (189-99; cf. Moore 2017). Still, with no common human responsibility, how can we account for the fact that the very existence of humanity is potentially threatened by climate change, a fate the moderns share with the Indian Slums, and Amazon Amerindians?

Latour’s answer to these questions (what is humanity in the Anthropocene? and what is its responsibility?) uses an idea developed by the inventor James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis, known as the Gaia-hypothesis. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, reprinted in RM (200-4), Lovelock explains the following about the origins of this hypothesis:

[I]n marches another astronomer […] who announces that a complete analysis had been made of the Martian and Venusian atmospheres, and that they are nearly all carbon-dioxide with just traces of other things. I knew instantly that there was almost certain no life on either planet, and that suddenly made me think, well, what about Earth? Why does it have an atmosphere so different […]? And then, it came to my mind as a flash of enlightenment: we must be regulating the atmosphere. And then I thought, again almost instantly, where do the gases come from? We know oxygen comes from plants, and methane, which it reacts with, comes from bacteria. Those are both living things. Carl Sagan’s first remark was “O Jim, it’s nonsense to think that the Earth can regulate itself. […]” But then he said, “Hold on a minute, there is one thing that has puzzled us astronomers, and that is the “cool sun problem.” At the Earth’s birth, the sun was 30% cooler than it is now, so why aren’t we boiling?” […] I thought, if that’s true, then all the biota have to do is regulate the CO2 and they control the temperature. (203-4).

The Gaia-hypothesis states that life on Earth is not simply the result of the right conditions, but that living beings play an active role in stabilizing these conditions. As such, all the organisms of Earth cooperate in order to regulate the temperatures on Earth. This cooperation, as one ecosystem as it were, is what Lovelock and Margulis called Gaia. When adapting this hypothesis for his own philosophy Latour is wary of its holistic overtones. Gaia, in Latour’s interpretation, is not simply a large self-regulating thermostat-system in which all life on Earth has to participate. Nor is it a super-organism, of which all other organisms are merely a part. Such thinking invokes Gaia as an ancient Goddess, whose divine providence rules over all mortals, such as us humans.

Latour robs Gaia of her divine providence in order not to go back to the Romantic idea of the sublime, a terrifying nature in which man’s existence is insignificant. But he keeps some of her godly features. She announces herself to the people, undertakes action by raising the temperature on Earth, and it’s the people who invoke her when they take action for the well-being of all the Earth. Since not all collectives are called upon by Gaia in the same manner, nor invoke her in the same way, not all peoples share the same responsibility. And indeed the call of Gaia may sound the loudest for those capitalist powers. Mediated by Gaia, the peoples of the Earth no longer have a need for an overreaching humanity to understand their actions as bearing responsibility for all life on the planet. Going through procedure 3 gives us the first contours of the new horizon for us moderns, a non-totalizing entity in which we share our existence with nonhumans.

Procedures 4 & 5: From Lands to Disputed Territories; Innovation not Hype

The unfortunate reality of modern political discourse is that the interests of Gaia are measured against the interest of “the economy”. In AIME, Latour has called the economy a meta-dispatcher, a container in which all social relations are reduced to one particular set of forces: in the economic case, social relations are expressed by monetary values and individual preferences (Latour 2013a, 401–2). The problem of the economic reduction is twofold: first, caring for Gaia most likely involves a reduction of consumption and emission, and thus a restraint on the growth of the economy as such. Secondly, economic values and relations are given excessive attention, while those values which are not easily transformed into monetary value and individual preferences remain out of sight. This puts heavy constraints on what us moderns can value, especially now we obviously share our life-world with nonhumans.

The fourth procedure thus turns attention to how we could improve on the way we do economics and how we can account for what we hold dear. In RM the attempts to undertake such endeavours are somewhat disappointing. Martin Giraudeau, Antoine Hennion, Vincent-Antonin Lépinay, Cormac O’Keeffe and Consuelo Vásques make preliminary sketches of how to improve economics. Their motto seems to be: localise as much as possible (260-271). In other words: economics should engage in real-world experiments wherever it can, and refrain from making law-like claims on the functioning of an overall system. Sometimes they cite the writings of the neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, and one is tempted to think that we’re dealing with a free-market proposal in disguise. But the authors defend themselves, saying they are not the “aggressive Darwinist” Hayek was (266), and they propose circumstances under which market-forces could be commanded to halt. If the economy is not an overreaching system, but a collection of local sites, then there is more space for social democracy to exist outside of economic needs, and truly provide a protection against the excesses of market forces. A social democracy outside of the economy is a tempting vision but does not yet connect to any real-world situation. Moreover, all essays, Latour’s included, in this procedure give no clue whatsoever on what kind of institutions could guarantee the limits of market forces.

Procedure 5 zooms in further on the relation between us moderns and the entities making up their collective. The classic tale we find in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Heidegger, or Carolyn Merchant, is that with the advent of modernity our relationship with nature becomes mediated by technology and becomes one of instrumental rationality, being enframed or undergoing violent domination (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002; Heidegger 1977b; Merchant 1980). These descriptions are neither adequate to describe our relation to technology and nature, nor desirable, but the hype has us in its grip when a seemingly major technological step has been taken (a computer defeating a Go master, for example) which shows we have not yet rid ourselves of thinking in these modern constellations. Latour suggests that we should conceive of our relationship with technological entities not in terms of instrumentality, but in terms of care. Even the most freighting technology, such as, for example, military drones who are able to kill people on the other side of the world, should not be seen as the inevitable new stage of warfare due to technological change, but as problem children. In not caring for these technologies, we would miss how drones being piloted from great distances completely rewrite sovereign law.5

This is what Latour takes from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1831) in his play Gaia: Global Climate Tragi-Comedy (328-36). Here it becomes clear that Frankenstein’s fault is not that he created his creature, but that he abandons it because it isn’t as beautiful as he had hoped. Frankenstein’s author asks her own creature Viktor why he has imitated the vengeful God that drowned the Earth to rid himself of his sinful creations. “No Mary. I didn’t imitate him since I ran away. It’s not creating that is a crime, it’s abandoning one’s Creation” Viktor replies (335).

Procedure 6: Secular at Last

The most puzzling is the sixth procedure. Harking back to his opening statement against nihilism and restating the immanence of being, Latour has to find a different place for religion than the one usually given it in Western philosophy. Moreover, in reference to the works of Eric Voegelin, Latour is keen to stress that, even in a secular age, transcendence has not left politics (Voegelin 1987). Therefore Latour asks: what are we to do to make politics and religion earthly? In asking this question Latour gives a new twist to the notions of secular and secularization. With these terms Latour means disentangling the political and the religious from transcendence (364); from attractors that do not take into account what tethers these practices to “the collective,” downgrading religion and politics to the driving forces behind wars.

Latour’s line of thought seems to be that to make politics or religion earthly, one has to discern what specifically political or religious skills and actions amount to. Once we discern these, we might be “freed from the strange idea that there is an activity whereby a human could master mastery so thoroughly that it no longer depends on any other source of power” (365), that the political or the religious could make an entire future happen. But, as Latour is keen to stress, they cannot: they share this earth with other beings. Denying that is nihilistic.

Picking one essay to demonstrate how to view politics in an earthly fashion, we will read Gerard de Vries’s answer to the question: What are Politicians for? He argues that the political should be a practice in which one bears a responsibility to one’s constituency. Politicians are preoccupied with “the defense of the decisions the assembly will make”; whether the outcome of the political process is “good enough […]” knowing that “[t]here will never be general approval. [The politicians] are preparing for what comes next” (391). By contrast, sometimes the political and the religious, especially in conjunction, amount to perversions of these practices. The game of responsibility (a specifically political skill) that De Vries describes is not wrong in itself, and the positive result of this “procedure” is that one might engage with politics without feeling as if one is subjecting oneself to mere power-games – “A good site to open up the possibility of diplomacy” (365) indeed, because if we are to engage with other collectives in a diplomatic way we need to trade our supposed mastery of the world for a particular kind of weakness.

Procedure 7: In Search of a Diplomatic Middle Ground

As has become clear in the previous procedures, Latour is looking for a reorientation of the project of modernity, but it is essential that this new front of modernisation cannot become the measuring rod by which we judge the non-moderns, as for example happened when Canada’s governments falsely blamed the First-nation hunters for the declining Caribou population, applying the new rules of the Anthropocene to all people equally (Parlee, Sandlos, and Natcher 2018). Moreover, in so far as we are modern, we cannot expect the non-modern to follow the same path of modernisation. Still, given the redistribution of responsibilities in the Anthropocene, all the collectives of the earth are forced to interact and to coordinate their actions. These actions cannot be given shape by a similar horizon of modernity, and thus we should instead have recourse to the act of diplomacy for our coordination with other collectives.

Enter diplomacy. Diplomacy must take place in an encounter between different collectives, between which lies a “middle ground” (405). Rather than a fierce show-down between cultures (Latour mentions the colonization of the Americas), “middle ground” designates the possibility of genuine epistemo-cultural recalibration. The Other then is no longer a mere premodern, or a nonhuman that cannot speak the modern as no longer superior.6 Rather, again annulling the binary, “we are all beginning to be equally amodern”, which means that the affairs of us moderns, too, (including the scientific – think of particular methods or distinctions) “are open to ridicule in the face of the others who, themselves in their turn, don’t know how to address them” (407-8). Discovering of the practices hidden by modern definitions already changes “the very idea of what a science is” (405), but this idea is on the diplomatic middle ground up for more scrutiny: comparing, for example, our value of objectivity with the values within other collectives. In a bilateral exchange there are chances of epistemological and existential transformation: “what you encounter can jeopardize the solidity of the epistemological framework that sent you into the field. […] You are never sure to survive the encounter” (405).

Latour makes a remark specifically meant for philosophers: “diplomatic encounters have a strange capacity to modify the way philosophers define their task” (407). Engaging in diplomacy should prompt us to pay closer attention to what we actually do, because we will have to explain it to others. The task of non-modern thinkers will come to include careful acts of description, as Jamie Allen, Claudia Mareis and Johannes Bruder write: “[t]he “reset” […] cracks our modern imaginaries, all the while attempting to log the enunciations of our archival world, dragging along with it an earthly historical ballast, never naively trying to escape [modernity]” (505), and it certainly seems to us that the prospect of diplomacy, an immanent goal for thought to work towards, and keeping on this earthly path with its historical ballast, would certainly make for interesting philosophy, as the essays in this volume demonstrate.


In an interview with Les Temps Modernes Latour was critically asked about the apparent systematic nature of his AIMEproject: “[Why] counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine?” (Marinda 2015). This question is raised again in the last procedure of RM: is the systematic nature of the AIME project not too closed off in order to be truly diplomatic? Many of the philosophers who contributed to the book are willing to engage with the modes of existence that Latour has proposed, yet few of them accept the systematic ontological classification of these modes, and which is reprinted again at the end of RM (543-6). If even the AIME contributors reject the systematic classification, what then is the upshot of the whole project? Reading through RM provides an answer.

The issues posed by the advent of the Anthropocene ask for a new way of thinking about our relation to the world and a new form of collective action, actions for which our current institutions fall hopelessly short. In lectures given surrounding the Reset Modernity exhibition and thereafter, Latour has sketched a new framework for understanding our current political affairs with regard to what he calls The New Climate Regime.7 Here, Latour presents the Earth as the new horizon that could be used to coordinate political action. But what is this Earth, what does it mean to be a horizon for actions? The resetting procedures of RM help us to conceive what this new horizon can look like.

From procedures 1 and 2 it is clear that Earth cannot be a totalising picture, or a frontier that divides the people into modern and premodern. As with Gaia in procedure 3, Earth shows us the kind of responsibilities we have together with other collectives for the place we inhabit (the Earth itself). Consequently, it does not presuppose a shared humanity (identity for the Earth dweller) just the simple fact that we (who/whatever) are all in this together. Furthermore, the Earth has no transcendence, no meaning in the depths of her cave: we cannot die in the name of the Earth in the hope of gaining a better Earth (procedure 6).

Similarly, the Earth is no utopia guiding our politics, and it is a far cry from the techno-inflated visions of the future that Silicon Valley provides us with: technology is not here to save us, but we have to learn to live with technology (procedure 5). Lastly, the Earth is rich in resources, but ultimately limited. And given that there is not one collective that inhabits the Earth, this means we have to reconsider how much of Earth’s resources we have to use, in order to leave enough for other collectives. What do we value in our modern lifestyles and what do we need to sustain them (procedure 4)? If we gain that knowledge, we can negotiate with the other collectives how to make use of Earth’s resources. This negotiation should be an act of diplomacy (procedure 7), in which the only common ground between the parties is the one beneath their feet, the Earth. The Earth is in a sense a political fiction, a way of imagining politics, perhaps just as the Leviathan pictured on the front piece of Hobbes’ famous book was a fiction. On the other hand, the Earth is very mundane, very concrete, very tangible.

RM perhaps does not reach a complete doctrine of how Earth should feature in politics, nor of how politics oriented towards the Earth should concretely take place. But RM gives us something other which is important, namely a set of terms (Earth, Gaia, Diplomacy, Collectives) that can replace our previously held dear “grand narratives” of the globe, humanity, the free market, etc., which used to navigate our moral and political action, without becoming totalizing. Concluding, RM does not yet yield concrete answers or lasting ontologies, but as the procedures for calibrating our scientific measuring instruments have become more refined over the centuries, so too, we hope, may the procedures that help us to understand our modernity become better over time.


Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand wrote portions of this review whilst on the Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy project, receiving funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 679586).