Ideology Without Ideology

Slavoj Žižek (ed.), The Idea of Communism 2: The New York Conference

Verso, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781844679805

reviewed by Luke Davies

Alain Badiou's contribution to this collection of papers (from a 2011 New York conference entitled, 'Communism: A New Beginning') straight away deals with the difficult subject of communism's shady past. Writing on its relation with terror, he argues for the need of a new 'historical sequence' in which 'the absolute necessity for the communist Idea in opposition to the unbounded barbarism of capitalism' can be realised alongside an acceptance of 'the undeniably terroristic nature of the first effort to embody this Idea in a state,' together with an attempt to comprehend the circumstantiality of this association and to limit its future possibility.

So far so obvious. But what of all the other things that make communism seem like such a ludicrous proposition? To name but a few: its association with an increasingly hard to define working class, its unrealised revolutionary prophecies and its grand narrativising, echoing the very hegemonies it supposedly set itself against, etc.

Etienne Balibar's contribution provides some answers. To begin with, he argues that we have lost the conviction that communists and proletariats can be united as 'two names for the same collective subject'. This then leads him to suggest that communists 'do not form a specific party'. According to Balibar, what is needed is not organised communism, but the 'de-organising' of 'existing organisations', including communism as an institution.  By insisting that 'we reflect upon the diversity of the interpretations', Balibar seems to be advocating a fluid, synthetic communism with no more fixed associations and no more doctrinal absolutism. To accompany this almost Derridean self-collapsing gesture, Balibar references Badiou, and his claim that communists 'disappear in their own invention'. 

And yet at the same time Balibar acknowledges Badiou, this emphasising dispersion runs counter to the unifying logic of Badiou's notion of the Idea. This is paraphrased by Frank Ruda, who begins by explaining that 'after the disappearance of idealism and what might be called the death of God, all of us have become materialists', before describing how the tension between idealism and materialism was then translated into one between democratic materialism and materialist dialectics. The first, crucially, relies upon the imperative: 'live without an idea.’ Slavoj Žižek expounds upon Badiou's conception of democratic materialism's absence of ideas:

[T]oday, the name of the ultimate enemy is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything similar, but ‘democracy’: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the ultimate horizon of change, which prevents the radical change of capitalist relations.

Against this Badiou posits the communist Idea, described in his essay on its relation to terror: 'its true essence, the root of the new political time it constructs, has as its guiding principle not the destruction of an enemy, but the positive resolution of contradictions among the people'. 

There is an obvious and admitted tension here between Badiou's positive resolutions and proposed mobilisation around the Idea, and Balibar's alternative suggestion 'that we reflect upon the diversity of the interpretations.’ Neither Badiou or Žižek seem interested in the consensual approach advocated by Balibar. Žižek ends the collection of essays with a reflection upon the Occupy movement as 'a formal gesture of rejection' rather than as a principled objection, citing instances of its multifariousness and occasional disinterestedness. He argues: 'The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but does not know to what they are answers, and the analysis has to formulate the question. Only through such patient work will a programme emerge.' The questions asked by communism are, then, something to be determined from the outside - its object is 'positive resolution', not the more passive act of reflecting upon different points of view.

Susan Buck-Morrs’ essay on ontology uncovers a similar tension. She develops the formula: 'the ontological is never political'. Here the idea of 'politics' is related to Badiou's conception of materialist dialectics and the impossibilism that Žižek elsewhere refers to as the insistence upon 'feasible' demands that disturb hegemonic ideology but that are considered 'de facto impossible'. Buck-Morss' idea is that belief cannot be political in this sense because the 'post-metaphysical project of discovering ontological truth within lived experience fails politically'. She explains: 'Ontology identifies. Identity was anathema to Adorno, and nowhere more so than in its political implications - the identity between ruler and ruled that fascism affirmed'. Here Buck-Morrs objects to the subjugating practice of determining belief. Against ontology she proposes what she terms 'Ta pragmata' (modern Greek for practical things used in daily existence): a kind of pragmatism distinct from Richard Rorty's statist, contingency-led model in that it is 'a practice of theorising whereby things acquire meaning because of their practical, pragmatic relationship with other things, and these relationships are constantly open, constantly precarious.' These calls for openness and precariousness, together with a warning about the dangers of ontology, seem cautionary in design. 

Whilst there is arguably something practical and pragmatic about materialist dialectics, it is precisely the form of belief (and the accompanying imposition of an identity, i.e. the communist identity) to which both Badiou and Žižek aspire. What else is Badiou's 'metaphysics without metaphysics' or Žižek's notion of the fragile absolute? Both are attempts to reconstruct bases for determination that, whilst accepting anti-foundational principles, seek to develop grounds for conviction in material conditions. 

Badiou's proposed positive resolution of contradictions among the people and Žižek's proposed psychoanalysis-inspired determination of radical motives each consist of an attempt to reconstitute ideology upon a material basis - as Frank Ruda puts it, 'ideology without ideology'. Badiou and Žižek's materialism is maybe not ontological, but their radical materialism seeks to recover the fixity traditionally associated with political belief. The suggestion that we mobilise around the resolution of contradictions, though only a suggestion regarding forms (and one that is fluid and synthetic at that), is nevertheless at odds with the calls for reflectiveness and openness contained within this volume.  
What we have is, I think, a tension comparable to that between Marx and Proudhon, or Chomsky and Foucault: organised resistance versus resistance as de-organisation. Workers of the world (or whatever you are): unite, or untie? Badiou and Žižek's contributions are important because they restore credibility to the former option. This collection makes clear that this has by no means resulted in a consensus. The decisive question is: does that matter?