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January 16, 2010


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I agree with you that politics is about antagonism, drawing lines, being for certain things (and people) and against others. But I never understood this with Zizek either: why is it the role of the state
(or of a vanguard party) to call a people into being, or to disolve a people for that matter? Really existing social movements usually form out of a set of circumstances not dictated by "the state." Unless I misunderstand what you (or Zizek) mean by the state?

I have actually been thinking about this exact issue lately in relation to the so called "tea party" movement. Clearly there are corporate interests involved in organizing and intensifying the passion of this group of Americans. But it seems obvious that it is resonating with a relatively poor, disempowered and mostly white group of folks who are looking for a political outlet for their frustrations. Correct me if I am wrong, but it would seem your description of the state needing to destroy and create a "new people" would suggest that the Republicans and their plutocratic masters are largely responsible for creating this quasi-poltical movement. But is that really what is happening? I have thought that there are many on the left (myself included) who agree with the economic populism of these people but can't possibly make common cause because of their xenophobia and racism. Plus there is the small issue of thier desire for a small, libertarian state. It is these divisions that prevent a larger political coalition from forming.

I am asking because I genuinely do not know the answer. Do you think that financial elite and their cohorts are successfully politicizing/ manipulating the tea partiers? It would seem there is no leftist movement of comparable ambition. And from reading your book, it would appear that blogs and the internet will help keep it that way? I hope not.

Thanks again for your provocation.


Just a bit of an anecdote here:
In the early 00s I took part in a large-scale demonstration against the government of Costa Rica when it was revealed that they were intending on privatizing the communications industry (el ICE, as it's called there) and selling it off to companies such as AT&T and Sprint. These protests were led against "el Combo ICE" and were some of the largest in that country's history. Much of the organization behind these marches, from rallying to banners to route-planning was done by socialist and left student and worker organizations.

I'm offering this story because it reveals the discrepancies in thinking about socialism that exist between the US and Latin America, and perhaps this might explain why and help to localize the last 50 years within a serious misunderstanding.

Socialism seems to be interpreted by many in the US as state power over people, but this isn't true in most other regions of the world. It isn't true in other regions of the world because these nations' governments haven't gone through the lengths (or perhaps they merely lack the "finesse") ours has to sway public opinion in support of anti-left and anti-socialist efforts.


i enjoyed this post. but a question, isn't the state usually to blame? it's true that putting it that way dislodges the potential of the people, but isn't it also true that on the right and left the politicians almost always abuse their power? i'm not understanding your comment about "it is easier to blame the state than to blame the people." perhaps you meant this as "the people need to stop playing the blame game and direct their energy towards achieving their political goals"?



thanks for the comments

Alain--good point. I had in mind a little comment that I think Trotsky made to Lenin: 'but this is the only working class we have' or something like that. And, my thought is that, yes, you are right to say that movements can produce new sorts of subjects, I wouldn't deny that. And, I wouldn't deny that capitalism/communicative capitalism produce particular subjects as well.

I think, though, that the state (particularly understood as the ensemble of laws, their enforcement, and their transgression; licensing and the establishing of what is permitted; security and the provision of places and people perpetually insecure in multiple ways; and the array of educational limits and incitements) also produces its subjects. The neoliberal state, with its decrease in welfare provisions and extreme tax cuts has a created subjects who are precarious and fearful, as well as subjects who are entitled, protected, and superior.

The neoliberal state, in other words, produces subjects more likely to be inspired by fear, to be resentful, and to be angry. It produces subjects mistrustful of the state, precisely because they experience the state primarily in its repressive capacity (and also in its capacity to protect the richest). My sense on the education side is that fewer students enter college able to read complex material and able to read critically.

Are the Republican specifically and directly responsible for the Tea Party Movement? I agree with you that this does not ring true as an explanation, although it seems clear that neoliberal policies over the last 30 years bear some responsibility. It seems to me that the Tea Parties are driven by and dependent on Fox News. I think that without Fox, they would deny. I could be wrong, though, maybe they already have enough strength to survive without life support.

On the left: I agree with you--I don't see a left movement with comparable strength and ambition. I see multiple, fragmented, left efforts and causes that seem, for the most part, to have foregone electoral politics, to have abandoned the state to those ruthless enough to seize and use it.

Ryan--that's a really valuable point. I don't know much about Latin America, but I very much admire the living, political, power of socialism as a force of mobilized people present in numerous sites. I admire Chavez and Morales, although I note that some worry that they risk stepping too close to personalized authority.

MS--I don't think the state is usually to blame. I think that states can do enormous, amazing, wonderful things: put people on the moon, supply food, water, housing, education, coordinate air travel, insure public health and sanitation, enable large numbers of people to go about their lives without fear of violence, all sorts of things. My suggestion is that leftists prefer to blame the state, because that protects us from the cold, hard, reality of antagonism within the people. The people are not a whole; they are not all good; they are not going to make everything alright if the state just steps out. The immanent movement and desire of the people is not a smooth flow of wonder and becoming. (This is clear in every post-apocalyptic movie ever made: after states collapse, it's a chaotic war of all against all). Back in Alain's terms: some of the people have Tea Parties, other people sort seeds and try radical gardening. Opposition and division go all the way down.


Jodi thank you for the very insightful response. You are dead on. I agree the neoliberal state produces certain types of subjects, fearful, resentful, mistrustful of collective solutions to collective problems.

Along the same lines, I think it is poignant that Obama's neoliberal solution to the health care crisis is about to go up in flames. It appears this will happen because Teddy Kennedy's old seat will be taken over by a Tea Party sponsored candidate who only has a chance to win because progressives are completely disenchanted with the democrats.


Hi Jodi

I know I have been bombarding you lately - so I do apologize. But if you get a chance you have to check out Glen Greenwald's piece on Cass Sunstein. I have always disliked this guy but I never realized what a creatin (sp?) he is. He wrote a paper in 2008 suggesting that the government "employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-"independent" advocates to "cognitively infiltrate" online groups and websites -- as well as other activist groups -- which advocate views that Sunstein deems "false conspiracy theories" about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens' faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists." If this is not right up your alley, I do not know what is? I have been very busy with life the last year but I may even write about it at Long Sunday simply because it so outrageous. And this is one of Obama's most trusted advisors. WTF?


hi jodi, thanks for answering. reading along i came up w another question and a comment.

first, the question, why do you prefer to use the verb "produce" when refering to the way that society shapes and forms us? i understand it's a marxist term, but don't you think it's a bit mechanical and dry cut? i realize i'm a "product" of my experiences and culture, but, humans, unlike inanimate objects produced on a factory line, are complex, sticky and porous, ever changing, and in spite of global capitalism still have a certain level of free will, subjectivity, individuality, heterogeneity, and antagonism... ? just wondering why you liked the factory-sounding term.

as for my comment. i agree w you that "Opposition and division go all the way down." i think our difference in opinion, though, may be related to who we define as "the left" and this obviously differs considerably by who we know and what we've read. from my experience, the lefts i know don't tend to blame the state, rather they recognize that opposition and heterogeneity/pluralism, "triumphs" and "failures" in any type of social collectivity rather it be a state or a group of friends... of course there are all types of lefts from pluralism-accepting to dictatorial.

perhaps it comes down to making public both the abuse and good doings of power, and how the latter can derive from democratic/grassroots representation and activity? but, the "good doings," the optimistic visions of the state are politically "produced" and hence usually tainted as well from all sides of the political spectrum (the american/hollywood dream, american "freedom", democratic representation...). if i only have 30 seconds to stand on the podium (in a classroom, at the Oscars, in any brief and public communication...), i prefer to denounce a large-scale and poorly-understood injustice (as opposed to a social achievement), and more often than not, the state is the main agency behind the largest injustices, obscuring it with their false optimism. (if i have another 30 seconds, i'd make it messier, showing connections and tangles between the state injustices and us/the people/our everyday lives, along with alternatives and past examples of socialistic achievements, but usually that extra 30 seconds just isn't available.) if you have time, i'd love to hear your opinion. my apologies is this is not so clear, i'm writing jetlagged at 4am.

thanks again for your posting.


i tend towards the idea that the state is a product of capital, as are our assumptions about what it should and shouldn't do. these assumptions are based on how states behave when they are immersed in processes which are much bigger than them, where a number of actors exist who have trump cards over them and their officials, and where the state cannot take certain kinds of illiberal action without threatening their tax receipts and therefore the basis of their continuing existence. when you take a state, which is at best an alienated form of representation, away from the real processes in which gave birth to it, and make the state the master of the economy, it behaves in a very different way, it is cut loose. you are right to dismiss critiques which seek to portray the people as something inherently devoid of antagonism, even as some thing. but there is a bigger problem here, which is that state-mediation of "popular will" is a fundamentally contradictory process, one that is grounded in the economy and not in society, and the portrayal of an unfragmented and unified "people" which exists as a complement to state action is merely an outgrowth of this process. i am not suggesting that the state is merely the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, that is far too simplistic, but surely thinking seriously about socialist authoritarianism means recognising that the key question is how the state functions within and is formed by processes of capital development. states as we know them have never been our coming together, not in the slightest, not for the communist countries and not for ourselves.


Alain--thanks for the heads-up on the Sunstein business. This is news to me. I didn't know he was looking at conspiracy theory (although he's worried about 'information cascades' for years). I'll look at the papers he has on it. And, I'll look forward to what you do with it on Long Sunday!


MS--thanks for the comment. In my 30 seconds I'd blame neoliberalism and the finance sector, that is, the financialization of the US economy and subjection of the state to the market that has taken place over the last 30 years.

"Produce" to me doesn't imply the products of an assembly line. For me, the term has Foucauldian as well as Marxist resonance insofar as Foucault emphasizes that power is productive (rather than simply repressive). I'd also say that objects can be productive, that they have agenic properties, etc So, even objects from an assembly line are complex, sticky, and porous. Maybe the 30 second version would be: production isn't determination.


Matt--I don't think alienation is a problem; I think it is inevitable and constitutive. Popular will, then, isn't something that emerges organically; it is a product of economic conditions and their ideological interpretation (the matrix that conditions the range of meanings events/conditions/settings are able to encompass).

So, if we are talking about contemporary states, and we recognize that contemporary states are embedded in neoliberal capitalism, we also know that they are not completely embedded: they make money, they determine borders, they enforce police powers, so capital is equally if not more dependent on states (more concrete examples: the big banks were singing a different tune a year ago). States can increase taxes, limit salaries, regulate industry, etc. Rather than presuming that corporations always and necessarily have the winning hand--and can trump state policies--better states (or, my idealized socialist state) can call their bluff.


thanks for your reply, jodi. i don't think i expressed myself perfectly. i also may have misinterpreted your use of the word "socialist" by taking it in a more marxist way than was intended - i.e. socialism not as something opposed to neo-liberalism but as something opposed to (or emerging from) capitalism itself, including european-style socialism.

i don't think that corporations always have the winning hand (although right now it looks a lot like it). i think that the relations between states and corporations are characterized by both co-operation and antagonism, and different sides can dominate. but i think that all those things you mention that states do to make capitalism possible make the most sense when you consider the state to be an organic part of capital itself (possibly an oversimplification). the other side of that is that the state itself has a vested interest in the process of capital accumulation, and actually depends on it. i see liberal democracy and our rights as being (or at least having been) dependent on this interdependence.

maybe this is too dialectical for your taste, but does it make sense to continue with a notion of what the state is that can be readily detached from these processes? when you talk about the ussr, you're dealing with a kind of bizarre replication and dislocation of the state, but the way you talk about it above basically buys into the state's own myths about itself - e.g. that it reflects the community, that it is our coming together, when in fact the state was a kind of complement of capital, something which was both a pre-requisite (private property in itself requires a state or proto-state) and a result, in that capital needs to spread and entrench the state wherever it needs to operate.

if you are reconciled to alienation, then fine (it's not inevitable, though, unless you see certain decisions as absolutely sacrosanct) but it's still best to proceed bearing in mind that the life of the state does not reflect our conscious decision, but is instead predicated on what happens outside the realm of choice and communal decision-making. proceeding in this way casts both liberal democracy and socialist authoritarianism in a new light.



I don't think you misread how I use 'socialism'--I think of socialism as opposed to capitalism. I introduced neoliberalism in my response to you because I was thinking that we were talking about the present, rather than about the state in general (which risks assuming an essence, as if all states necessarily proceeded out of capitalism). So, I don't think that 'the state' can be thought of as an organic part of capitalism, but I thought that trying to focus on the present avoids that discussion. So I also don't think that 'the state' depends on 'capital' accumulation, although states can't function without resources (but only in a capitalist system would the resources need to be conceived as capital).

I don't think my statements about the USSR by into 'the state's own myths about itself' (in part because I'm not sure at this point what 'the state' is). Actually, I think Lenin in State and Revolution is good--the state is a weapon/tool/means of class conflict. The big question, then, is which class is in charge. Problems arise with the Stalinist state and the claim of victory in the class struggle, not because there was no class victory (I don't know enough about Soviet economics in that era to say) but because of the supposition of unity.

I agree that capital needs to spread and entrench 'the state' but I think we'd be better off talking about this spread in terms of governmentality and legality (which can better allow for multiple forms, different states, disagreements among states, disagreements between states and corporations, local attempts to deploy state and/capital in ways that complicate easy binaries, etc).

I don't know what you mean about life of the state and our conscious decision. I don't proceed from a liberal conviction in free choice (also, alienation is an aspect of the fact that we are linguistic beings).


i agree that governmentality and legality are important modes of analysis. i also recognise the value of your analysis in the main post (wouldn't have replied otherwise), i just felt that there was something missing in your handling of the concept of the state.

i share your concern not to essentialize the idea of the state. if we are to speak of the state, though, it can't be as though the state is simply a form of communal decision-making, or an outgrowth of community or communal politics (even a corrupted one). the best we can say in this direction is that it is responsive to simulations of community (i certainly don't mean to deny this as a causal factor in how the state operates).

i don't exactly claim that all states emerged out of capitalism. i think if our current understanding of the states we are now confronted with is to be coherent and useful, we have to recognise that this form arose with capitalism and is locked in a mutually interdependent relationship with it. that means, at the very least, that we cannot emphasize the political/communicative aspects of the state to the exclusion of its economic existence, which in a certain sense represents its absolute grounding (but not essence).

i spoke very loosely when i spoke of the state's myths about itself. what i mean is that officials of the state, as well as news organizations and other forms of media output, represent the state as being an essential reflection and consequence of popular decision. to speak of the state as a "coming together" maintains this frame. it pushes to the background the actual genealogy of the state-form.

contrary to this inclination, paying attention to the state's grounding in the economic realm offers you an indispensable answer to the question of why the socialist state has been authoritarian: the community is always in itself a puny opponent to the might of the state. the capitalist experience of the state has frequently disguised this, as the state has had to respect (and even invest in) certain freedoms in order to stimulate the economy and manage life in its favour (and foucault's work demonstrates this). furthermore, the capitalist economy is always predicated on ensuring the stability of private property, so that entrepreneurs and workers alike will have the incentive to invest energy in development, meaning that it must always leave a measure of economic (and therefore political) power in the hands of individuals (or corporations).

even though community in itself is a weak opponent, it is simulated for effect. the experience of the state as being a "coming together" is created, despite the fact that it is not a reality. in communist states we only find a repeat of this same simulation of community, and the same imbalance between state/economy on the one hand and community on the other, except that here the state, by virtue of dominating the economy, is faced only with an atomized mass of people whose only idea of community emerges from the propaganda issued by a planned and centralized state/economy. they have no trump cards over the state, and the state which plans and organizes their labour doesn't need to pay the same kind of faux-respect to them that a capitalist state would need to as a matter of its own survival and growth.



I agree that the state is not simply a form of communal decision-making, that's why I mentioned Lenin. This wouldn't be to say that the state is reacting to a simulation of community but that the state is a vehicle for exercising power in order to produce (also, avoid) kinds of community. So, we could have here community imagined as multiple/overlapping, unitary, anonymous, myriad stand offs, pluralism, etc.

I agree that the economic basis of the state can't be denied. I don't think this has to mean presuming the necessary relation between capitalism and contemporary states (contemporary form of the state). I guess I'd want to say that the even as a vision of the nation state emerged in the 17th and 18th century co-extensively with a rise in commodity production and a supposition of a logic particular to markets, that even as this happened, other versions of states continued to exert a presence (theocracies, empires, lawless regions).

I'm not sure the capitalist economy is predicated on the stability of private property as much as on reliant on the state as an enforcer of some kinds of property for some people (I'm thinking here that property is linked to value, that it doesn't imply land but capital and that valuations of capital alter in lots of ways).

The crux of your last comment, though, is community (right?). And what I wonder is the connection between relations between people in the former USSR and the simulations of community you mention. Zizek talks alot about the sociability of life in the former Yugoslavia. My own experiences in the USSR (summers of 1984 and 1986) were those of quite intense sociability. My sense was not of an atomized mass at all. It's interesting, though, that the idea of an atomized mass as the problem of the 20th century appears in Arendt's account of totalitarianism as well as left and right critiques of mass society from the 50s-early 70s.


jodi, the crux of what i'm getting at is that the contemporary form of the state is something that has a sort of special relationship with capital. in capitalist countries, the state-form is embedded within a web of economic relations, and its political powers are, at the very least, heavily confined by those relations and are certainly secondary to them (unless the political wants to go the whole way and trump the economic once-and-for-all, this will remain the case). in this context, it is a mistake to focus on relations between the state and the community/people/multitude, without considering the economic origins of the contemporary state form and the situation that the state is caught up in, which is especially relevant when considering authoritarianism.

re: the necessary relation between states and capitalism. you are right that other forms of state exist, of course. they don't tend to do very well with a capitalist economic system, but that doesn't mean that they won't have any ground in a capitalist world-system. the contemporary form has obviously existed outside capitalism, too (so long as you agree that ussr etc. was not a form of capitalism), but all i'm saying is that the organic relation between the state and capital is such that when you change it the state itself is something very different. and that this change should be one of the key ways of explaining why the socialist state behaves differently.

the state needs to defend the ownership of land and physical objects to some degree if workers and entrepreneurs are going to remain motivated to keep winning more of them and participating in the economy. at the very least anyone with a legal title over land or a house can get it back, and the state would try to do something in the face of a burglary epidemic (obviously it's facts at the population-level that matter). you are surely right to imply that there are relatively excluded or included groups, here (e.g. police cars constantly patrolling wealthy neighbourhoods). you are also right that the state is also invested to some extent in the maintenance of value, although value is not just an attribute of capital (money-for-profit) but also of the commodity. clearly, a lot of the state's efforts go into preserving the value of the money-commodity (stopping rampant inflation), and keeping the stock market from an absolute crash. again, it does seem to look out for capitalists a lot more, but it's also important to give, say, the middle-class some stability that can play into their incentive to work harder and longer.

i will defer to your greater knowledge re: atomization and sociability. however, i think my point still stands re: the way such sociability might relate to the concentration of hierarchical state power. obviously the soviet state was ready and able to kill and imprison, and used these tactics to instill fear. of course this also created ways for people to be close (not atomized) - sharing their subversive thoughts with each other - but it damaged the potential for popular political action. my point is that we have this imbalance here, too, but that the economic realm explains why it remains only latent. (i am not deluded that this dynamic is absolutely impossible within a capitalist system, though. the fusion of state and capital we are witnessing may make it more likely).

on a slightly different note, and i understand if you are sick of this discussion, but would you say that sociability comes to mean less and less as more and more of our relations are mediated by the commodity and formal ties? e.g. that sociability might feel intense but, when it is separated from communal action and meaningful (i.e. difficult) reciprocity, it becomes something that is less and less politically relevant? how would the soviet intensity you described relate to this?

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