On July 1st, 2012, the day of Mexico’s recent presidential election, I visited the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, hoping to encounter a painting by Remedios Varo. A surrealist painter fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Varo was among the many notable exiles to make their home in Mexico City during the mid-20th century. I hoped that through one of her Cimmerian dreamscapes I might learn something about the political situation she experienced in the aftermath of the massive Mexican revolutions of 1910 to 1929. It was during the prime of her career following the end of WWII that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), inheritors of the Mexican Revolution, strayed decidedly off-course to embrace a particular brand of oligarchic and authoritarian governance. Their 71 years of uninterrupted rule ended in 2000, but as I arrived at the museum that morning their return to power, in the context of an increasingly bloody “Drug War,” was already presumed.
When Perry Anderson wrote in 1976 that “Western Marxism” could be considered a “product of defeat,” he was referring to the catastrophes and betrayals that framed the period from 1924 to 1968. In retrospect, this seems like foreshadowing. The intervening decades have seen not simply a defeat for the workers’ movement but its total dissolution – the collapse of the institutions that once made it an undeniable social force, and the rollback of the reforms it had won from the state. In our situation it has become difficult to say what “Marxism” really is, what distinguishes it as a theory, and why it matters. But this is by no means a new question. And of all the definitions and redefinitions of Marxism, Louis Althusser’s were perhaps the most controversial. In 1982, just before François Mitterrand’s turn to austerity, Althusser began to draft a “theoretical balance sheet.” He wrote “Definitive” on the manuscript, and never published it.
If this recourse to the side of the thought of Marx and Engels is still available to us, unfortunately the same does not go for the communist parties. Built on the base of the philosophy of the Manifesto and Anti-Dühring, these organizations hold only on bases that are all through and through frauds, and on the power apparatus that builds itself in the struggle and its organization. The parties, resting on the unions of the labor aristocracy, are the living dead, who will subsist as long as their material base lasts (the unions holding power in the works councils, the parties holding power in the municipalities), and as long as they are capable of exploiting the dedication of the class of proletarians and abusing the condition of the sub-proletarians of subcontracting. From now on there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the strokes of genius in the thought of Marx and Engels and the organic conservatism due to the parties and the unions.
In an era when the exploits of Silvio Berlusconi’s “private” life seem to have categorically obliterated any progress towards sexual equality achieved during the Italian feminist movement of the 70s, it is essential to remember what was once accomplished. Although second-wave feminism was already a well-established network of debates in the U.S. by 1970, Italian women influenced by workerist writings of the feminist ilk, most notably Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, set out to initiate battles over issues such as abortion and divorce. Feminist currents both from within and independent of workerist movements then spread with a fierce momentum that would endure through the decade.
Foucault’s thought about power must first be situated within his conjuncture and our own if we want to articulate his conceptual problems and grasp their stakes. These contextual moves will help us unlearn the way his thought was received and reconstructed.
The crises continue to accumulate: the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, the social crisis, crises upon crises. But as we try to create “solutions,” we distressingly find ourselves up against a limit, discovering that the only alternatives we can imagine are merely modifications of the same. We have forgotten how to think the new – or the old. Ivan Illich, priest, philosopher, and social critic, is not a figure that most would expect to read about in a Marxist magazine. But he identified this problem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a complete change in thinking. His suggestion, both as concept and historical fact, was the “vernacular.”
How may we attempt to analyze power in its positive mechanisms? It appears to me that we may find, in a certain number of texts, the fundamental elements for an analysis of this type. We may perhaps find them in Bentham, an English philosopher from the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, who was basically the great theoretician of bourgeois power, and we may of course also find these elements in Marx, essentially in the second volume of Capital. It’s here, I think, that we may find some elements that I will use for the analysis of power in its positive mechanisms.
Women, researchers, feminists, in an institutionalized group with a research topic both precise and isolated from the traditional scientific context, with the palpable need to find new methodologies, new avenues, of reconstructing the subjects in their entire form, the same subjects that in traditional science become chopped, mutilated, seen in quantity and without quality. And this in “science,” to impose a new “scientific” point of view that concerns women and their work, the sexuality of social relations as an “existent.” As a method, bringing scientists together from different disciplines and different “schools” (although here we limit ourselves to the social sciences) is nothing new: interdisciplinary research in the humanities has been fruitful in various fields. But the novelty lies in the fact that it is the woman-subject that is studying the woman-object.
Just as we clearly see that Marx’s economic thinking arises out of a critique of classical political economy, and that in turn was made possible by a prior critique of idealist philosophy, we also have to see the problems of revolutionary politics that Marx is addressing as a critical engagement with the past history of political thought. There are specific category problems, as well as intertwined historical subject matter in an engagement with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engagement with this lineage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and political thinker, clearly, but Hegel’s thought as a culmination of a tradition of legal and political thinking going back to Aristotle. That’s something which has been underscored by others in the Marxist tradition, you could think of Althusser and Colletti, who also had works which were explicitly about the political writers before Marx, who in some way introduce or delineate the problems of politics and history that Marx will subsequently take up in his accounts of the class struggles and civil wars of the times that he was living in.
The sound and image of a drum circle may be one of the most easily-mocked moments associated with the Occupy movements. But the role of music in the movement, and its relation to protests and political action in general, bears closer investigation, beyond the drum circle. The concept of “protest music” can obscure some of music’s most powerful aspects as a social force. For many involved in Occupy, the specific relationship between the music being played and the people who hear it has not been thought through very carefully – and this weakness can reinforce political weaknesses. Indeed, when even Salon.com can call 100 tracks of Occupy-themed music “shapeless and safe,” we might ask ourselves what this protest music is missing.