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REVIEW ESSAY

Nic Veroli

Dadas Last Dada and the Communism to


Come
Review Essay of
Badiou, Alain. 2009. Second Manifeste pour la Philosophie. Paris: ditions Fayard.
Badiou, Alain. 2009. Lhypthese Communiste. Fcamp, France: Nouvelles ditions
Lignes.
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Condrescu, Andrei. 2009. The Posthuman Dada Guide: Lenin and Tzara Play Chess.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Negri, Antonio. 2009. The Porcelain Workshop: For a New Grammar of Politics. New
York: Semiotexte.
Therborn, Gran. 2009. From Marxism to Post-Marxism? London: Verso.
We are faced today with an unprecedented historico-institutional constellation.
Marxism has reached its termination as a political-theoretical sequence and
capitalo-parliamentary democracy has become nearly hegemonic while social
inequality is once again reaching the heights of ignominy, thereby undermining
the democratic legitimacy of the neoliberal state. Even more daunting is the
increasingly collapsed border between the neoliberal state and its totalitarian
doppelganger. On one hand, then, there is a crisis of historical proportions of
whatever can still be called The Left. On the other, there is a meltdown of
whatever might have at one point been called liberal democracy. How can a
democracy be constructed that guarantees social equality so as to make substantive
its promise of political equality? Only a strong answer to this question can be the
basis of a renewed critical political praxis, and perhaps, even, of any political praxis.
That such an answer has not yet been invented cannot be an argument against
the investigation that the question prescribes. Indeed, the ecological crisis, which
seems only to worsen as global inequalities become more widespread, makes the
construction of such an answer the more urgent.

If to think about politics today means to think within the horizon posed by this
question, then Andrei Codrescus The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tazra and Lenin
Play Chess is a monument to failure. Codrescus explicit intention is to defend the
relevance of Dadaism, what he views as the 20th-centurys most radical artistic
avant-garde at the dawn of the posthuman age. What can an artistic movement
invented in the cafs of war-torn Europe in the late teens of the 20th century
teach 21st-century cyborgs, with their cell phones, iPods and virtual bodies? This
is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life (1). It is an interesting,
though paradoxical proposition since Dadaism was defined at its inception by a
rejection of European civilization in the wake of absurd massacres of the First
World War. Dada is thus first and foremost a critical gesture. The first Dadas
lived in cities that contained the means for a thorough critique of the world
(3). The question that seems to be hinted at here is thus: What might a radical
critical aesthetics look like in the early 21st century? What might the history
of Dadaism have to contribute to such an aesthetics? In what way might it be
deemed Dadaist?

Codrescu answers these questions with a resounding yes indeed! As surprising as


that might seem, the current tendency of capitalism to reduce everyone to a robot is
in fact the fault of Lenin. And thus, the only solution is more Dadaist irreverence,
like the kind that Codrescu distributes on a regular basis as a commentator on

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But the book itself turns out to be a simple apology for advertising and an
argument for the further integration of art into the corporate economy. Thus,
to the question of the relationship between the social and the political in the
21st century, Codrescus answer is simply: more of the same. Since artists are
for him entrepreneurs of the imagination (62), just as U.S. capitalists, the only
thing that makes sense is an alliancea merger evenbetween the historical
avant-garde and the corporate executive. Never mind that this corporate structure
is responsible for the fleecing of 90 per cent of the worlds population, or that
it is leaving tens of millions jobless and homeless in its quest for profits or
invents ever-more efficient and affordable means of mass social control (from
student debt to psycho-pharmaceuticals to internet filters and telephone network
databases). Codrescu is blind to all of this, absorbed as he is by the drama of the
Cold War. Just as with U.S. neoconservatives, there is only one political gesture
he understands: that which distinguishes between friend and enemy. But whereas
the neocons have moved on from Communism to Islamo-fascism over the last
few decades, Codrescu has only one dada: Lenin. It thus turns out that the actual
question around which the book is organized is: Who won the game? After the
collapse of Soviet-style communism in 1991, it looked as though Dada had. But
if it had, why do the non-soviet posthumans of late capitalism feel such despair?
Could it be that late-capitalism posthumans have arrived at the Leninist future
without communism? And if they have, is the game still going on, and does Dada
still have work to do? (12)

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National Public Radio. Luckily for him, he is just shocking enough to titillate the
delicate sensibilities of NPRs white middle-class liberal audience, without ever
stepping over the line into what would be offensive. But since when has the avantgarde been inoffensive (i.e., acceptable to the status quo)? Codrescu accomplishes
the amazing interpretative feat of making what was the most virulent aesthetic
critique of so-called civilization in the 20th century into one of its greatest pillars
in the 21st century. The only real question there is about Codrescus book is why
Princeton University Press, a reputable publishing house, which regularly releases
works of impeccable scholarship and remarkable insight, would back it. To this
question, I have no answer.

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There are some thinkers, however, who are trying to confront the pressing questions
of our nascent century seriously and constructively. In recent publications, Gran
Therborn, Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou stake out their own positions in a
dialogue about the reconstruction of radical emancipatory, equalitarian politics.
A former Althusserian Marxist, Therborn today represents the pole of social
democracy on the defensive worldwide. For him to be on The Left means to
be strongly committed to some version of the welfare state accompanied by a
parliamentary political system. This view is the official program of most centreleft parties around the world, such as the NDP in Canada, the Democratic Party
in the U.S. and the Socialist Party in France. The fundamental proposition of such
a position is that so long as the state apparatus is properly managed in order to
insure the more or less equitable redistribution of wealth, justice has been achieved
in the form of economic equality. It is noteworthy that while Therborns discussion
in From Marxism to Postmarxism? is premised on this view, he never articulates
it clearly, wedded as he is to an understanding of social scientific objectivity that
precludes any critical consideration of his own perspective.
This view also remains hegemonic on the left, despite the spectacular collapse, from
the end of the 1980s onward, of the political forces that had sustained the project.
Therborn notes this collapse and gives two basic explanations for it: On one hand
there has been the global reduction of the historical subject of Marxist politics, the
industrial proletariat, which declined from 19 to 17 per cent [between 1965 and
1990], and among the industrial countries from 37 to 26 per cent (18). On the
other hand, and perhaps more importantly, Therborn laments the failure of social
democratic governments to properly manage worldwide inflationary tendencies
and rising unemployment during the 1970s, which provided the opportunity for
the return of classical economic liberalism under the name of neoliberalism (114).
Nowhere does Therborn reflect on this failure seriouslyprobably because of the
positivistic prejudice I noted aboveand one suspects that the sheer admission
of it is difficult for him, as it seems practically tantamount to giving up on the
project of human emancipation. But this is precisely where a critical and explicit
consideration of what it might mean to be on The Left would help get around
that implicit but paralyzing sense of doom.

There are reasons for social democracys historic failure and for its contemporary
failure of nerves, and they cannot be reduced to monetarist causes like inflation.
The political project of social democracy failed for three basic reasons. It failed
first because capital reneged on the historical compromise of the post-1945 world
once it became clear that the Cold War was just play-acting (Wallerstein 1995).
Secondly, it became clear to the technocratic elite during the 1970s that the high
levels of redistribution of wealth necessitated by welfare state policies hindered
capital accumulation and investment levels, which ultimately led to the curbing of
social spending (Harvey 1991, 2007). Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, social
democracy failed because the project itself was contested from below by those
to whom the wealth was being redistributed. For committed intellectuals and
activists like Therborn, the project of social democracy is a prison whose bars are
made of memories. Social democratic politicians may still win elections once in
a while but they no longer can achieve much of what they promise, and in any
case, no longer promise much of anything. Therborns book, while it provides a
broad and generous survey of various quantifiably identifiable Left movements
and theoretical traditions across the world, fails to answer its own question: what
happens after social democracy?

There are two prongs to this project. First, there is the historical effort to
understand what happened to Marxism and how to relate to it now. This question
is particularly tricky because Marxism is, among other things, a very compelling
philosophy of history. Even if one rejects any philosophy of history, breaking with
it means developing an alternative conception of history and of ones relationship
to the past. For Badiou the termination of a political sequence does not necessarily
mean its implicit condemnation since he refuses the Hegelian assumption that
history is a totality that progresses from particularity to absolute universality.
In other words, Badiou agrees with Heidegger and Foucault that there is no
such thing as progress, though he refuses both the ethnic substantialism of the
former and the nominalism of the latter. Instead Badiou argues that universal
truths permeate the historical flux at certain moments in time or in Events. The
political sequence that gave birth to Marxism, began, according to Badiou, with
the French Revolution and exhausted itself in the global upsurge of 1968. For

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Since the publication in 1985 of two short books in French, Alain Badious Peuton penser la politique? (1985) and Flix Guattari and Toni Negris Communists Like
Us (1990), some intellectuals have begun asking themselves how to rethink the
relationship between Marxism and communism. Does the collapse of Marxist
politics mean that communist desires are now invalid? What happens to the moral
commitment to universal equality after the decline of its main theoretico-political
embodiment in the 20th century? For more than twenty years, both Badiou and
Negri in Europe, along with some North American intellectuals, have been trying
to construct theoretical frameworks that can address these questions squarely.1
Today, these efforts are yielding both theoretical and practical fruits.

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Badiou, though the sequence has come to an end, the communist hypothesis
has not. His most recent works, a collection entitled Lhypothse communiste and
a short book, Second Manifeste pour la Philosophie, are an attempt at interpreting
the meaning of the failure (lchec) of the modern political sequence, and part
of his effort to give a metaphysical justification for a politics based on a positive
idea of justice. Both books represent a systematic attempt at resurrecting a living
communist project. But, while the first is an outstanding work of historicophilosophical interpretation, and the second an overview of an impressive
metaphysical construction, there is something deeply absent from them both:
a concrete, material reality that grounds the philosophical speculation. There is
no doubt that Badiou is a compelling analyst of the history of social movements
and revolutions, who is capable of looking at them from the perspective of these
events explicit commitment to communism while remaining deeply critical of
their shortcomings, but this cannot hide a deficit in his understanding of the
present and of emerging political forces.

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The contemporary content of the communist hypothesis remains utterly obscure


for Badiou. Aside, paradoxically, from its abstract Marxist-Leninist formulation
as the withering away of the state, private property and social classes, Badiou
can only say that communism must practise a politics at-a-distance-from-thestate (2009b: 202), what some of us have been calling a politics without the state
(George and Mudede 2002). This shortcoming is, it seems to me, the result of the
metaphysical grounding of politics which Badiou operates in Being and Event
(2005), and more recently in the Second Manifeste pour la Philosophie.This grounding
is entirely retrospective: The Event, in fact, has always already happened, and the
only question is one of fidelity to its truths. The very structure of the thought
seems to preclude a substantive reference to the present. Even more problematic is
the fact that Badious categories are so general that they either seem to undermine
the communist project or to let it slip through. The second problem is exemplified
by Badious treatment of truth bodies in the Second Manifeste. A truth body is
essentially an entity composed of those who adhere to the trace left behind by
an Event, for our purposes those who believe in the idea of communism. It is
different from other bodies, not only because its claims are universal (this is its
truth), but also in that from its parts (i.e., those whose actions compose it) are
subtracted the usual material interests of bodies. Those who are its parts are so
even if it requires them to abandon their biological needs or economic interest
(2009c: 30-31). But if communism is not in the actual material interest of generic
humanity as Marx argued it was, then communism can only be an empty chimera,
even if it is the truth.
Antonio Negris work is, in a way, the negative image of Badious work. Where
Badiou is single-mindedly retrospective, Negri theorizes the consistency of the
present (through notions such as Imperial sovereignty, the postmodern caesura
and biopower) and the historically emergent categories of a new communism

(biopolitics and the common). Where Badiou seems to abandon himself to an


astounding voluntarism, Negri develops an analysis of new forms of communist
subjectivity (constituent power, exodus, multitude and immaterial labor).

From here Negri continues the work of developing the concept of a common.
The notion of common, that which is shared by allfrom air and water to
language and informationis the basis for thinking through the development of
an alternative to both the private property that characterizes capitalist states and
the public property of socialism. Neither privatization nor nationalization, argues
Negri, is a real political or economic solution to any of the problemsecological
or socialfacing the global multitude today. Only the extension of the common,
that is to say the maximal pushing back of the frontiers of both state and market
can deal with these challenges (61-76).
Negris position provides the theoretical and programmatic basis for that famed
third way that is neither capitalism nor socialism (Negri and Scelsi 2008), so
frequently promised over the last twenty years, and which has only resulted in
Clintonism and Blairism so far. That the influence of his thought has already
been acknowledged by some political leaders is one thing (Chavez and Harnecker
2005). But the fact that it can actually power a legislative and activist agenda
worldwide, one that does not require its own party is entirely different and, so far
as I can tell, something genuinely unique in recent leftist theoretical work.

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Negris newest book, The Porcelain Workshop, is subtitled For a New Grammar
of Politics. In it he attempts to link all of these conceptswhich are essentially
the product of the last thirty years of his reflection (and of his collaboration with
Michael Hardt)into one systematic whole. Negri takes up the problem of the
rupture between the classical sequence of revolutionary politics and the present
moment, but he thinks it from the standpoint of three related transitions in the
warp and woof of the present. First, from the perspective of political economy,
he conceives of the development of the welfare state as the reaction of capital
to the insurgency of labour from 1917 to 1968. Second, from the perspective of
the political theory of sovereignty, Negri argues that the political power of the
state is transformed, in this very development, from a transcendent power in the
19th and early 20th centuries to an immanent network that controls societys
activities in depth, delineating the transition from classical liberal sovereignty
to biopolitical sovereignty.2 Thirdly, from a geopolitical perspective, Negri
argues the transition from modernity to postmodernity can be thought under
the syntagma of globalization as the crisis of national sovereignty. This crisis is
manifest in the increasing insignificance of national boundaries in economic and
social processes, and by the irreducibility of differences in the global populations
(i.e., the multitude) that are becoming an object of control by global financial
and political organizations (19-23).

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But while Negris thought is compelling in all the ways that Badious seems
limited, it is precisely where Badiou is at his bestin his thinking about time
and historythat Negri is at his weakest. For instance, there is no substantive
rethinking in Negri of the Hegelian legacy of Marxism or of the theory of a
world-historical subject. That Negri now calls this subject the multitude instead
of proletariat, invoking the ideas of Deleuze and Spinoza (Negri & Scelsi 2008;
Negri 2000, 2004) is not terribly compelling since this multitude still seems to
function just as if it were a Hegelian Collective subject. If it did not, then why
would its strivings so strikingly resemble those of Hegels World Spirit? This
sort of metaphysical fudgingessentially pointing to a subject, but without the
support of a theory of subjectivationis easy to forget when one is in the throws of
political action or involved in the minutiae of strategic analysis, but it comes back
to haunt Negris position with a vengeance when the historical situation changes.
It then becomes clear, as happened after Western state apparatuses whipped up
a storm of fear in their populations in the Fall of 2001, in such a situation the
cavalier attitude toward metaphysics and the theory of the subject of Negri were
no longer adequate to the situation, and that is precisely when Badious project
gained in momentum and popularity.
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What the 20th century teaches us, if anything, is that social equality by itself,
without political equality, leads to dictatorship and the rule of bureaucratic elites,
what went under the name of State Socialism in the Soviet block prior to its
dissolution in the 1980s. But what the twenty years since have made clear is that
political equality without social equality leads just as surely to dictatorship and to
the indefinite extension of the state of exception. While they diverge in significant
ways, the ideas of both Negri and Badiou are complementary and need to be
somehow reconciled in order to produce a philosophico-political framework that
is both morally suasive and politically efficacious. Only on such a basis will we be
poised to answer the question of the 21st century, namely that of the articulation
of social and political equality.
Notes

1. Notably, this review was unable to discuss the work of the American intellectuals who
have been travelling this path, but the main ones should at least be mentioned: Hakim
Bey, Murray Bookchin, John Zerzan. It is interesting to note that whereas the Europeans
identify themselves as communists, the Americans overwhelmingly prefer to talk about
anarchism, even if many of them come out of the same tradition (Marxism) and set of
problems.

2. On the classical liberal state, see Balakrishnan (2000: 87-100) and on the transition to
biopolitical sovereignty, see Foucault (1990: 133-60).
References

Badiou, Alain. 1985. Peut-on penser la politique? Paris: Editions Seuil.

. 2005. Being and Event. Trs. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum.

. 2009b. Lhypthese Communiste. Fcamp, France: Nouvelles Editions Lignes.


. 2009c. Second Manifeste pour la Philosophie. Paris: ditions Fayard.

Balakrishnan, Gopal. 2000. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt. New York:
Verso.
Chavez, Hugo and Martha Harnecker. 2005. Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution.
Trs. Chesa Boudin. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, v.1. New York: Vintage.

George, Diana and Charles Mudede, eds. 2002. Politics without the State. Seattle: Seattle
Research Institute.
Guattari, Flix and Toni Negri. 1990. Communists Like Us. Trans. Michael Ryan. New
York: Semiotext.
Harvey, David. 1991. The Postmodern Condition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

. 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Negri, Antonio and Raf Valvola Scelsi. 2008. Goodbye Mr. Socialism. New York: Seven
Stories Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1995. After Liberalism. New York: New Press.

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