Marxism’s ideal can come with a high price tag: gulags, show trials, mass starvation, economic misery…
What happened in the USSR under Stalin cannot simply be bracketed off as unfortunate happenstance and the prospects for Marxism in the lived world of today seem more remote than ever.
In our age of populist nationalism – since the Arab Spring there have been no mass emancipatory movements – a return to Marx can only take place in the theatre of philosophy.
This is the common ground for the three authors of “Reading Marx”. They agree that a return to Marx must imagine how he would answer critics who would bury him in the coffin of irrelevance. Their warning is that capitalism’s collapse is not inevitable. It is, so to speak, the unconscious of “Capital” that needs to be read.
Žiźek’s essay is easily the most interesting although his topic is a little-known field of contemporary philosophy: object-oriented ontology (OOO), as presented by Graham Harman in “Immaterialism” (2016).
OOO’s theory is based around the centrality of the assemblage that, unlike Marx’s totality, posits relational arrangements of different entities. The human subject is just one of the elements of an assemblage, one force in a network of mostly non-human forces.
For Žiźek, there is subversive potential in adopting an inhuman gaze, viewing an assemblage from the outside. The result is a deep self-estrangement that un-anchors our human moorings.
“We see something, we impute subjectivity to it, but we cannot ever be sure that subjectivity is really there – what if it is a machine just performing subjectivity? And here we should go one step further: subjectivity is in a sense its own performance, something that appears to itself while its ‘’material base’ ’is just a neuronal-biological apparatus”.
There is, he argues, a raw level of reality that lies behind subjectivity and bearing it is too intense for us to ever safely experience. The ‘in-itself’ of Kantian philosophy, the core reality that transcends the world of experience, is what an inhuman gaze would reveal.
It would be like seeing a video of the passengers’ last moments on the planes heading for the twin towers in September 2011.
It would be like discovering footage of what took place in Auschwitz.
OOO says a subject is just one object among many but reality can only be viewed from a subjective standpoint. Selfhood is how a human organism appears to itself but is not a substance, not one object among many others.
What is ‘really real’ is what has to be excluded from our symbolically constituted reality. To see something ‘in-itself’ would be to see it outside human coordinates.
Just how Žiźek’s essay translates into imagining Marx answering his critics is not clear but it remains a fascinating read.
The other two essays are relatively conventional pieces of political philosophy. Frank Ruda reads Marx in terms of Plato’s allegory of the cave and Agon Hamza looks at how philosophy can help in an understanding and a criticism of capitalism.
“Reading Marx” by Slavoj Žiźek, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza is published by Polity.