The Common Thread of Pessimism: Razmig Keucheyan on contemporary critical theory

Razmig Keucheyan's The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today has recently appeared in its first Greek edition, published by Angelus Novus. Earlier this month, Keucheyan spoke with Tasos Tsakiroglou of Efimerida ton Syntakton about the book and contemporary critical theory — in the context of climate change, and in relation to recent European electoral contests, including the 2017 French presidential election. 

In the panorama of the different critical theories that you analyze in your new book The Left Hemisphere, and despite their diversity, do you discern a common thread that unites them? and what is it?

Pessimism certainly is a common thread. None of these thinkers believes that overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with another, relatively better, system is an obvious possibility. Some of them believe it is not possible, and think “resistance” to power and “micropolitics” is our only option. This pessimism is a consequence of the tragic experiences of the 20th century, especially Stalinism.

However, this hasn’t prevented these thinkers from formulating radical critiques of the system. And they have done so in very creative ways, by combining past critical traditions, elaborating new concepts, engaging in innovative debates, etc.

Consequently, if I had to point out one common thread that unites contemporary critical thinkers, I would say pessimism combined with great creativity. From a strictly theoretical perspective, we live in a “golden age” of critical theories. But this doesn’t mean that these thinkers have a big influence on real politics.

You present an entire constellation of radical theorists who challenge capitalism during the last thirty years. At the same time what we see is the fragmentation of political and social movements, some of them even hostile towards any political theory. Do you see any perspective to overcome this contradiction? 

In the past decades, the political and intellectual fields have grown more and more separate. A logic of “professionalization” and hence “autonomization” of both these fields has taken place, which doesn’t only affect left-wing movements and theories, it is a much more general tendency. This process has resulted in a growing gap between social movements and critical thinkers, who are mostly academics today, whereas Kautsky, Lenin, Gramsci or Rosa Luxemburg were not, they were political leaders.

However, elements of reconnection between critical thinkers and political movements can be observed today. For instance, Podemos’ leadership has been very much influenced by the ideas of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Whatever one thinks of the resulting political strategy, it has led to interesting debates within the European left. In France, both left-wing candidates to the presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, have been greatly influenced by radical political ecology. Hence, I think new “organic” ties between thinkers and movements are currently in the process of being invented. These ties, however, will be different from the ones that existed at the time of Lenin and Gramsci.

Your book about the contemporary history of critical thought comes at a time when the public discussion, especially in the U.S.A, is dominated by notions like “post-truth”, “fake news” and “alternative facts”. What's your comment?

“Facts” are a modern invention. Before the 17th century, for a proposition to have any authority, it had to be validated by a legitimate institution, generally a religious one — typically the church in the case of Europe. The emergence of (supposedly) independent “facts” is the result of secularization, i.e. the weakening of these authorities, and the construction of a public space where the facts could be discussed.

“Facts”, since then, be they scientific or otherwise, have always been the subject of controversy. There is nothing new in the idea that “truth” is not the only guiding principle in modern politics. What might be new is that some politicians (very few of them really) today do not bother anymore in disguising their lies, or “alternative facts”, to quote Kellyanne Conway’s infamous notion. And the social media have of course given these lies unprecedented leverage.

In this context, the left has no choice but to defend facts. The rise in mortality rates in Greece following austerity policies imposed by the EU is an indisputable fact. The left should at once criticize the mainstream’s claim to always have “facts” on its side, and replace it with more solid ones.   

We live in an epoch that irrationalism, fanaticism, religious intolerance and extremism affect hundreds of millions of people. What's the role of critical thought and of intellectuals today?

The role of critical thought is certainly not to argue that religious belief can be explained “in the last instance” by economic processes, that people believe in God because they are poor and in desperate, and that if capitalism were overthrown, all these irrational beliefs would simply go away. Religious belief is here to stay, albeit in ever-changing forms. The great thinkers of the 19th century, Marx among them, thought progress would do away with religious sentiment. That obviously hasn’t been confirmed.

One role of critical thought in this context is to stress the emancipatory effects religion can sometimes have. This is the basic idea behind “liberation theology” in Latin America, for instance. Many critical thinkers I talk about in the book: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Daniel Bensaïd, Toni Negri, Giorgio Agamben… refer to religious figures or doctrines to elaborate their theories. One of Alain Badiou’s greatest books is entitled Saint Paul. The foundation of universalism. A struggle has to take place inside the religious field in favor of progressive and even revolutionary currents. I am not saying this is going to be easy…   

As you assert, climate change increases social inequalities at the expense of weaker and poor. How can we unite the fight against capitalism with the ecological movements?

An argument I elaborate in my book Nature is a Battlefield is indeed that capitalism leads to inequalities in relationship to the environment. The subaltern classes throughout the world are much more affected by pollutions, natural catastrophes, or biodiversity losses, than the rich. Uniting the fight against capitalism and the ecological movements thus implies to stop talking about climate change as an abstract phenomenon affecting humanity as a whole, and convincing the subaltern classes that on top of other forms of inequalities they suffer, they are victims of environmental inequalities. Only on that condition will the global working class join the struggle against climate change.


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