Istanbul, 2020. Photo credit: okanozdemir / Shutterstock.com
This seminar is part of an ongoing series. Read part one of “Sentencing the Present” here.
A sentence is protean: It can describe, question, or cry out. A sentence is critical: In passing judgment, it names wrongs, makes decisions, and declares publicly. In a spirit of both open inquiry and political advocacy, and inspired by the response of readers to our own “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” we are convening what we hope will be an ongoing conversation of critical voices reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future. To start, we asked some of today’s most pressing thinkers to offer a “thesis,” raise a question, or reconsider a word. The texts that follow have come in response to this prompt:
In light of Marx’s 1843 conception of critical thought, how does your perspective contribute to “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age”? In a time of social breakdown and uncertainty, we find that critique comes almost too easily. Hence we also take inspiration from the historian E. P. Thompson, who wrote in his 1959 call for the New Left, “It is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality — and then some more beyond.”
Our contributors answered our call with concepts to think with and visions, however small, to mobilize us.
To make this a truly public seminar, we are interested in our readers’ contributions. If you would like to propose a thesis or suggest a topic for consideration, you can do so through this form. We imagine an expanding series of texts that will form new adjacencies and prompt new insights as time passes — new constellations that shed light on our moment and what’s possible beyond it.
We hope you will join us.
May 15, 2020
Ayça Çubukçu / Stephen Hopgood / Siddhant Issar / Martin Jay / Lissa McCullough / Mohammad Salama
Publics & Practices
I’m not sure I agree with E. P. Thompson that it should be the job of the Left to “foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality.” All too often, aspiration gets the better of reality, and left-wing platforms are brought to their knees by an idealism unmoored from the social and political realities of winning elections and governing. But in the spirit of Thompson’s challenge, I’ll fill the glass half full. It’s unthinkable that we cannot do better than we have done. And in that sense, the coronavirus offers us a chance. So much of what we see as wrong around us — vast inequality, political corruption, racism and other forms of prejudice, lack of accountability, environmental destruction, immiseration — attests to the failures of the New Left of the nineteen-sixties and the third way in the nineteen-nineties. Yet suddenly the immutable is questioned. Getting back to business as usual confronts a swelling sense that we no longer know what normal is. Is institutional racism normal? Are vast disparities in life expectancy (before and during COVID-19) normal? Are stagnant wages normal? Is having no health care normal? Most of all, perhaps, and with the United Kingdom very much in mind, why would we carry on believing the various tribunes of the government when they have flunked Social Contract 101: Give us your taxes and your obedience and we’ll protect you. Who could possibly think that now?
— Stephen Hopgood, Oxford, UK
Value & Revaluing
For critical theory to remain “critical,” extant concepts and frameworks need to be revised, reconfigured, and re-engaged. Dara Strolovitch shows how the notion of “crisis” presupposes the “non-crisis” of quotidian, structural violence against racialized and gendered populations. To avoid Strolovitch’s crisis/non-crisis problematic, we need analytical lenses that focus on the histories and structures undergirding the foundation upon which the pandemic plays out. While neoliberalism, or “disaster capitalism,” is fast becoming the interpretive lens for our moment, critical theory has much to gain by (re-)engaging with frameworks such as “racial capitalism,” “(settler) colonial capitalism,” “capitalist-patriarchy,” and “intersectional Marxism.” These frameworks emphasize the racial, colonial, and patriarchal logics of domination that condition and are conditioned by capitalist accumulation. Our present order differentially conscripts and affects human populations and non-human nature. We need to foreground, and not conceal, the historical, ongoing, uneven, and unrelenting obscenity of the modern world-system for the vast majority.
— Siddhant Issar, St. Louis
Security: Progressive politics has always drawn on a series of aspirational values — justice, freedom, equality, recognition, emancipation, welfare, human rights, and solidarity, to name the most prominent — and struggled to combine them into a unified and mutually reinforcing program. One term often left aside is security, which is derived from the Latin securitas, composed of “se” and “cura” meaning without care or concern. Ever since Hobbes, security has often been invoked by conservative or authoritarian regimes to justify their resolve to protect the populace with any means necessary against civil war, anarchy, crime, and foreign threats. The idea of a “national security state,” first introduced during Truman’s presidency, meant amplifying the power of the military and investigative arms of the government. Although not as inimical to democracy as the “state security” apparatuses of communist countries, America’s national security apparatus also prioritized the survival of the prevailing system over its transformation in a more progressive direction. However, the current crisis has revealed with brutal suddenness that without security none of the other goals that have motivated leftist politics can be achieved. Lacking universal health coverage, security of employment, secure supply chains, the prospect of secure retirement, secure access to reliable information, and secure voting rights, we are all threatened with being reduced to vulnerable members of what has justly been called “the precariat.” There is perhaps no more urgent task for the left today than to reclaim the value of “security” — call it the expansion of “social security” — to insure against many other kinds of risks besides penury in old age. And concomitantly, we must make clear to his victims that Trump, caring only for himself, is the callous source of much of the pandemic of insecurity that is the hallmark of our time of troubles.
— Martin Jay, Berkeley, CA
The global pathology of our time is one in which corporations function as systematic resource-grabbing and killing machines. Investment banks (debt-creators), weapons manufacturers, biotech firms, big agriculture, oil, gas, and mining companies, water bottlers (like Nestlé), for-profit health systems, prisons, and detention centers — the list goes on: mechanisms of immense unbridled power actually decide questions of ultimate value, though they are incapable of making value judgments. They are mechanically programmed to sacrifice every value — life, liberty, happiness, health — in draconian pursuit of short-term financial returns as an absolute good. Extractive profiteering is enforcing the absurdist logic of King Midas in a brutal and mindless planetary endgame. Unless corporations as legal-political entities are overmastered by countervailing legal-political constraints, these life-assaulting forces are on course to obliterate the livable biosphere.
— Lissa McCullough, Los Angeles
All theory is anchored in a social reality, though not all theory acknowledges it. Critical theory works toward liberation from the oppressive demands of power. It is a Marxian inheritance to view religion as one of those lulling discourses of power that shuts down both logical thought and consciousness, two modes that allow us to identify class struggle and overcome social inequalities. Religious people — so some Marxists argue — are more resigned to injustices such as income disparities, class inequalities, gender bias, racial supremacy, and institutional racism as part of their fate or as God’s test of humanity. This resignation abandons fighting back or changing the world. Marx has a point: what could be “practical” or “self-clarifying” in mooring ourselves to a metaphysical anchor, if that is not oxymoronic enough, from which humanity is being tested? The immaterial, a materialist is quick to say, is (politically) immaterial. Yet so far there has not been a functional alternative to religion in the world, nor have the “secular” visions of the present inspired much of a horizon for liberation. A question which seems to invite itself more urgently now that a pandemic is threatening to put “an end to history” is: How well does critical theory fare in theorizing our struggle with a global virus of this magnitude? To what extent does it differ, say, from religion in addressing the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of our plagued world today? Isn’t it also ironically “critical” to remember that principles of freedom, social justice, equality, and solidarity still carry the DNA of those distant “opium” gods?
— Mohammad Salama, San Francisco
The challenge of internationalism: How can we begin to think about what international solidarity requires in the context of the coronavirus pandemic when all around the world, people are advised to practice “social distancing” from each other and encouraged to perceive in strangers and loved ones alike potential sources of disease and ruin? When energy, resources, and care are primarily devoted, albeit differentially, to the health of the national body politic — understood as a limited “population” with discernible borders to be defended? In this context, can the question of international solidarity even begin to resonate? One thing is clear: Although this pandemic has exposed the interconnected vulnerability of “humanity” as a species, the predominant response, governmental and otherwise, has been the attempt to practice care and solidarity nationally. From the perspective of internationalism, another response to this situation could be to underscore how, to the extent that viruses affect the human body — moving from one to the other without respect to nationality — efforts to ensure national immunities are in vain. There can be no American, Turkish, British, or Indian immunity to this virus or the next one, as the claim to quarantine, vaccinate, or forever ban transnational encounters is belied by human and non-human travel alike. In this sense, the health of any human body and the environment in which that body lives are concerns of everyone, such that the lack of decent public health care in one place jeopardizes the wellbeing of the entire species. However, “humanity” is not equally exposed to the social, economic, and political risks pandemics create and exasperate — bodies are cared for or abandoned to die differentially in gendered and racialized ways across class lines. This is one reason why in imagining what international solidarity requires in practice today, we may need to act not only against the grain of the nation, but also think against humanity as a concept that erases from view crucial political divides and unbearable inequalities within and among species.
— Ayça Çubukçu, Istanbul/London
Jonathon Catlin is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Princeton University writing a history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. Follow him on Twitter @planetdenken.
Benjamin P. Davis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Emory University. He will be the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.