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.