In this café a young woman is talking. Talking to a person I can’t see. The breathless, bitty chatter of a virtual conversation. The way she sits, strokes her phone, and the way she responds when she’s finally connected to the person at the other end of the line makes me realise her primary reason for coming here is to relax by having conversation in this café by phone. Her call is neither an interruption of something else, nor a surprise, but an intentional public act. Phone talking replaces people talking. Devices moderate connection, instead of the human ear, voice, or heart. We pare down public talk to a private blur.
Public talking still exists, or course. You know the thing.Slavoj Zizek is here - come stroke his aura, watch him perform! But who enjoys such intellectual beauty contests? They solidify the depressive state you’re in. They increase isolation rather than diminish it. Sterile events in sterile rooms. No drinks. Nothing to look at, you spend a whole evening enduring a pet project kept warm in an academic hothouse. Forced to sit still and admire the knowledge-fronds towering above you (the long nouns and longer sentences extending up and beyond the jungle canopy) after a time you wish the universe would finish this meal, swallow you up and burp loudly. Captured like fish in a net, these cognitive contests gather people but there’s no idea what to do next. We huddle around an intellectual commodity, and then disperse.
Yet I’m just as guilty, because I’m drawn to these events too. Drawn to the promise of new ideas, new thinking—and perhaps change. And so I’m walking through the wind and rain into the curvaceous exoskeleton of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Weltfor something called Rethinking Class and Class Politics Today. And the main attraction drawing us in, like bats to a cave, is the radical ultrasound of Italian post-Marxist Antonio Negri.
Rethinking Class and Class Politics Today is one session in a three-day symposium named Dangerous Conjunctures – Resituating Balibar/ Wallerstein’s Race, Nation, Class, the whole thing marking the thirty-year anniversary of Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein’s book Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. I discover this information from the handout provided, a document which I’m learning to decipher with no codebook to hand. I collect a magic headphone machine from the cavernous foyer, for the simultaneous translation of the event into German, Italian and English. I’m fully informed and ready for battle and so head for the auditorium. But there’s an usher at the entrance. A sentry at the intellectual gate.
‘Can I go in?’ I ask.
‘Yes, but there’s nothing happening in there yet,’ he says.
‘Good.’ I walk in.
The hall is almost empty, strangely peaceful, just the quiet hum of projectors in the background. More a church than a cave. Some of the chairs are marked RESERVED. A few minutes pass and then the panel members walk in, in pairs or small groups clutching bags, pens and papers. They greet one another, ask about the sound, timing, and drinking water. I watch the soundmen rig everyone up with radio mics. Cameramen check their angles.
There’s a framed black-and-white photo of a man on the large white table around which the panellists will sit. He’s smiling. It’s a proud picture, the kind of picture you see on a mantelpiece or in a family album. It looks odd sitting there with the unopened bottles of water, computer leads and plugs because it’s the only old object and the only human object. The bright white table toward which we all point is where the INPUTS will take place, the handout informs me—the concept of class lying unconscious, ready to be examined like a patient on an operating table—and after INPUTS there will be DISCUSSIONS.
A bell rings. People stream in just like at the opera. I want opera glasses to look more closely at everyone’s hair. Antonio Negri’s hair is magnificent.
The event starts with some personal experiences of class. Kelly Gillespie, an anthropology lecturer from South Africa, shows us some slides. The first shows a Cecil Rhodes statue outside the University of Capetown. In March 2015, political activist Chumani Maxwele collected shit, real shit from black townships, and threw it at the statue, lighting the fuse for the Rhodes Must Fall movement that spread across the world, with calls for similar statues to be removed.
Kelly tells the story of her grandfather, the man in the framed photograph resting on the table in front of her. How he was a Cornish tin miner who came to South Africa to make a better life for himself. How he took part in a strike in the twenties for better conditions and wages, but how this strike was in support of white miners rather than all miners (black miners were confined to the low-paid, unskilled jobs). How her grandfather was able, over time, to buy property and acquire wealth, and how this acquisition of property—at the same time pushing black families out to the periphery of town—laid the foundations for her own upbringing, her university education, and successful academic career. In her life story, race and class are intimately intertwined.
Antonio Negri and Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar
Antonio Negri speaks next. In the sixties he was a young militant active in a movement which combined political work with real struggles in the factories, struggles which led to new insights outside of classical marxism. Through his experiences he realised that the concept of class didn’t work as it was meant to. The way the mainstream Left parties conceptualised class—through the outdated subject of the universal, male, proletarian factory worker—meant that their concept of classblocked change rather than facilitated it.
The struggles of Italian workers went beyond what Left parties could understand, and far beyond ‘factory-ism’. Negri explains that the intervention of women caused the concept of work itself to become plural. The Wages for Housework Campaign, with women demanding payment for the work involved in reproducing (male) labour power, started not from abstract universals but from the particular conditions of women in the home, and the importance of these conditions to Capital.
Two big struggles opened up at that time. A demand for universal wage equality – 5000 lira for workers [not that much money at the time] – with all workers getting the same wage. Then Turin’s massive Fiat Mirafiori car plant went on strike in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, with 50,000 workers downing tools, a key intensification of the struggle. [The strike was famous for its militant student-worker alliance and the slogan Che cosa vogliamo? Tutto! - What do we want? Everything!]
Unions reacted, as did Capital. The trade unions refused demands for universal wage equality outright. Large factories started to lay workers off, and the distribution of work changed as parts of the production process were moved to different locations. The rising hegemony of a new working class, powered by the mass migration of workers from Italy’s poor south, was attacked and ultimately defeated in a long and bloody struggle. Negri says of his work during these years: ‘It was all research.’
Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar speaks next. Born in Mexico in the 1960s, she grew up with revolutions and civil wars all across the continent, and her generation of militants asked how can we engage in this process?
She speaks of the friction she found between groups. The friction between the way indigenous people—with a lived experience of colonialism—approached politics and the way leftists approached politics. This friction, and the tensions, coalitions and confrontations between indigenous people and Marxists formed a large part of her political development.
She speaks of Bolivarian miners. After the collapse of the state mining company COMIBOL in 1985 and the opening of the mining sector to foreign investment, tens of thousands of miners lose their livelihoods. These miners move to the cities to look for work and she sees the strategies they use to survive in times of economic shock. People fall back on 'fertile, productive' relationships; what she calls ‘communitarian weavings’ more than anything else.
The next part of the event was an attempt to rethink ‘difference’ and class—to overcome the idea of class as a homogenous thing, and reinstate it as a usable thing for political struggle.
Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar spoke first about her problems with the ‘multitude,’ which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have put forward as a conceptual alternative to the universal proletarian subject. She says that when struggles are open and flourishingand the multitude is in action, then everything is fine, the multitude can sustain itself. But in everyday life things are not so simple. Life has to be sustained. And so, can the concept of the multitude really fight against nation, family, and property? Antonio responds with the idea of the commons, saying that the concept of the public needs ‘to open to the commons,’ because the commons is today the terrain where new political capacities can be built.
Kelly Gillespie replies that this is all far too ‘romantic’. The political subjectivities that are produced by neoliberalism are often violent. Neighbours don’t trust each other, for example. In South Africa the idea of a commons is unrealistic. With mass migration to the cities from the Bantustans, there are ghettoes with high levels of unemployment and criminalisation. Here there’s too much mistrust and poverty for any ‘commons’ to emerge.
Break. We’re invited to go outside because activists have installed something outside the building, outside the shell where we sit. Walking outside the entrance to the building I see a torso on the ground in a pool of blood. Just legs blown clean off. Beside the sculpture is a sign asking us to remember the attacks in Afrin, Syria, by the Turkish army.
So we look. We consume. We go back, back in our shell. The moderator mentions the ongoing struggle of the YPG (People's Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in the Kurdish autonomous regions. A woman from the audience shouts out
What about Syria? The Syrian revolution started seven years ago and the West is letting everyone down!
The moderator, Sandro Mezzadra, thanks the audience member for the intervention. We move on. The other moderator, Verónica Gago, says that in view of previous sessions in the symposium, and the increasing violence people are experiencing, we should be talking, and thinking about self-defence.
The floor is open—and the audience blow all the energy out of the room. The questions and comments are for no one. Over-intellectual to the point of absurdity, what people say has little connection to what the panellists have said—we’re subjected a long round of intellectual air-blowing that sweeps high above the auditorium’s chairs, tables and bottles. We endure:
· a long question based around the Buddhist concept of displacement
· a meandering seven-minute mini-lecture ending with the rise of human capital by Étienne Balibar
· a trenchant defence of traditional marxism which no one had even mentioned, let alone attacked
Everything that could be ignored was ignored. We went from personal experiences of class to delicate slices of idea-cuisine. How did we go from an intellectual wake—with at least the potential of some movement, and perhaps dancing—to a funeral?
The question I wanted to ask was this: If the Right is solving the problems thrown up by a generation of neoliberalism—problems the Right frames in terms of national identity, class, and race (the very themes of this event)—then how the hell should the Left respond?
But I didn’t ask this, because the potential space for dialogue-thought-action was soon filled by the ballooning knowledge-displays of an intellectual officer class, who make anybody who isn’t academically-minded feel like one of Edward Galeano’s “nobodies”. I left feeling like an intellectual rag-picker.
What’s dangerous about this? I’m thinking as I walk out into the cold air and see snow flakes being blown around in small circles. Why is it that so many are talking to an interlocutor that others aren’t allowed to see—connections moderated by axioms, concepts and theories rather than the urgent beating of the social, the personal, and the necessary? Theory-talk is just more phone talk; connections of ones and twos; the endless exploration of propositions; the making of abstract sand-castles while a new tide rushes, roars and rises around feet.
This has little to do with changing things but more to do with hiding and obscuring; the eclipse of the real by the intellectual; the triumph of academic faith over a politics of change, and ideas.
Phone talking. Not real talking.
But you’re just anti-theory. I’m not. I simply ask for theoretical borders to be expanded; and for theoretical border police to stand down. For the intellectual miscreants, migrants and refugees to be let in. For more voices to be heard. More stories to be told. And perhaps, a little more friction.
Because the dangerous conjuncture is right there.
Text and images by Paul Walsh March 2018