A Joint and a Compass: Razmig Keucheyan on political theory today

This interview with Razmig Keucheyan was conducted by Mathieu Molard and Tomas Statius and first published in Street Vox

Photo by Pierre Gautheron. via
Street Vox.

Has the Left lost the cultural battle?

Since the 1970s capitalism has undergone a crisis, upheavals, and transformations. These transformations mean globalisation, the proliferation of outsourcing, and what we sometimes call the financialisation of capital. This set of transformations has objectively favoured the Right. What we call the cultural battle is the way in which the Right has proven able to grasp the opportunities offered it by a crisis that it itself caused through its ideas and its public policies. I think that the Right has, temporarily, imposed its own discourse and its categories for understanding the world — even on the Left itself.

What does the map of right-wing thought look like today?

Right-wing thought is extremely composite. There is a neoliberal Right, a conservative Right, a racist Right and a more cosmopolitan Right… you can get a sense of its heterogeneity by taking the two greatest right-wing thinkers of the twentieth century, [the Austrian economist] Friedrich Hayek and [the German philosopher] Carl Schmitt. On the one hand you have a neoliberal who favoured the free market, and on the other hand an authoritarian thinker who got in bed with the Nazis, who was a decisionist and a Catholic. Both are of the Right. Yet we could not imagine thinkers whose ideas less resemble one another.

Right-wing thinkers also have a continuing importance to the functioning of global capitalism. That does not exist on the Left. For that reason, these intellectuals pose themselves questions that left-wing thinkers do not. Proximity to power changes the nature of their thought.

Are there critical thinkers on the Right?

Of course. For example, there is a right-wing anti-capitalist tradition. It has always been very much in the minority, but it has been of some importance. Trump is partly in this lineage. In his discourse we find a criticism of globalised capitalism, which in part explains his success. Similarly, Florian Philippot and many other leaders of the Front National — which is not an anti-capitalist formation — have elaborated a sincere critique of globalisation.

In my next book Hémisphère Droit [i.e. ‘Right Hemisphere’]I would really like to work on this right-wing anti-capitalism. It is an intellectual tradition that we should re-evaluate, especially the work of someone like Alain de Benoist [a “post-fascist” intellectual and inspirer of many of the arguments upheld by the new far Right in Europe]. His thinking is of central importance. He is a thinker who defends inequality. For him, capitalism equalises everything, putting everything on the same plane, which for him is unbearable. For the same reason, he is against Christianity — a religion he considers authoritarian — or sovereigntyism, which places people on an equal footing.  

We have gone from May ’68 to the Manif pour tous [anti-LGBT/pro-"family values" protests of recent years]… Do you think that society is becoming more right-wing?

The Manif pour tous was a successful mobilisation, but it is also a good example of the effect the media have in deforming the world of thought. The media served as an echo chamber for reactionary thought. Of course, this was an important mobilisation, but ever since then the proportion of people who accept equal marriage has not stopped increasing, even among right-wing voters. All the surveys tell us this.

I do not think that reactionary ideas have penetrated all that much. What I am sure of is that the Right is still able to produce ideas that the greater number of people can understand. 

How would you explain the fact that left-wing intellectuals are so difficult to find?

There are no fewer intellectuals of the libertarian, progressive, or even revolutionary Left than there used to be. It is just that since 1968 left-wing intellectuals have each tended to specialise in one domain. They only write in academic journals and have become incapable of expressing themselves before a wider public. I also think that a lot of them have refused to play the mainstream media's game. I for my part am very cautious about requests to go on TV. There is a trap that they try and set for us.

The alternative, in my view, is to build spaces that are linked to traditional media but remain autonomous from it. In the USA there is an online TV channel that operates on this model, called Democracy Now. There is the same thing in Spain with La Tuerka, the programme that [Podemos leader] Pablo Iglesias launched. The advantage, with this, is that we are creating spaces where we are on our own home turf, and can control their format. Of course the idea is not to discuss only among left-wing intellectuals, but also to invite on our adversaries or people who do not think as we do.

How would you explain the fact that left-wing intellectuals have deserted political parties?

There was a great trauma for intellectuals in the twentieth century, and it was linked to the Communist Party. I think that they no longer want to be subordinate to a too-immediately tactical political discourse, as was the case in the era of the French Communist Party. Besides, just as there is a specialisation in the academic field, so too is there a professionalization of the political field. Contrary to Lenin or Gramsci’s generation, the leaders of political parties and unions do not write books any more. Today being a politician is a career, like being an academic.

That situation is now changing a bit. The Podemos leadership is essentially made up of politics professors from Madrid University. Just as someone like [left-wing economist] Frédéric Lordon, who has never really been a militant, is posing himself questions of political strategy.

In your book The Left Hemisphere you say that there is a plethora of left-wing thought, but not really any guideline. Why?

In my view, for a thought to become central it has to be articulated to practices; it has to be incarnated in organisations, so that it can spread across the whole population. The great strength of Marxism, which was the unsurpassable reference point of the twentieth century, was that there were several versions of it. There was a sophisticated version elaborated by and for intellectuals. But also a popularised version that was read by workers, by peasants… Today there are not really any equivalents. For example, as far as I know, peasants do not read the Invisible Committee’s books.

Are radical left-wing ideas making a comeback?

There are evident forms of radicalisation, some of which are linked to the crisis. I see it with my students. Well, they are sociology students, and they are predisposed to leftism, that is for sure! And so it is not so surprising that radicalised people look into certain theories — especially the Invisible Committee’s — for something they can build into general frameworks.

There is a famous line in Lenin saying that "without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." That is a very profound phrase. Theory serves for two things: to join together struggles that are apparently unrelated, and also as a compass in periods of crisis. It is what tells you whether in this precise moment you should be smashing up banks or standing in elections. 

What do you think of Nuit debout?

People made a lot of fun of Nuit debout, saying it was a city-centre, Parisian thing… But in fact it was a mobilisation that I found very interesting. The most striking thing was that this was a movement conscious of its own limits, I think. For months, people were constantly thinking about how to go into the banlieues [working-class suburbs], how to extend the movement… I think that this was the right question. The answer did not come, because that question is very complicated. 

Is the notion of identity today central on the Right?

Since the 1960s-70s, and first of all in the United States, we can see the concept of identity coming back into force on the Right. It is clear enough that globalisation and international migration have provided opportunities for the people who uphold this type of discourse. People cut up the social world one way or another; what matters, though, is how they do it. And some ways are preferable to others.

We should also discuss the question of the European Union. How have these supranational constructs encouraged the return of identitarian constructs? The European Union claims to transcend nations. But people feel like they have been dispossessed — both economically and politically — of any control over their own existence. And they have the impression that from this point of view, perhaps the nation was a mediating structure. Even if, in my view, we ought to have criticised this impression.

Is an identitarian Left being created, since an identitarian Right has been?

I do not think so. The identity question was always present on the Left, and including in the workers’ movement, even if the word was not used. Being a worker was not just a wage level. E.P. Thompson explains that it also means taking on certain values, like solidarity, opposed to the bourgeoisie’s values, like competition. But this question of identity was always combined with the class dimension.

It seems to me that what is happening today is not that a right-wing concept is making headway on the Left, but rather that there is a loss of balance between an identitarian discourse and a class discourse. And this imbalance exists because the class reference point has weakened. So we get the impression that identitarian discourse is omnipresent, which creates a form of moral panic.

What do you think of the use of the term "race" on the Left?

As regards the use of the term "race," we should start by simply recognising that there are sections of the population who are racially discriminated against. In other words, they are the victims of racism. These are populations racialised by the system, by police profiling, by discrimination in employment, in housing… It is equally clear that the concept "race" has no biological foundation, and a large part of the population recognise that.

So given that starting point, how do we define the populations that are systematically the victims of this discrimination? Either we can decide to use the concept "race," knowing that this corresponds to something historically constructed and not to anything biological, or else we can decide to invent a new word. And inventing a new word is complicated. In my view, the important thing is not so much the word as the reality that needs to be fought against. I use the notion of race. I do not think that that is illegitimate, but I can see that there are debates over that.

Globalists against sovereigntyists, people against elite… What do you think of these new divisions?

I continue to think that the division between Left and Right is fundamentally important. This is not just a question of values, ideas or discourse. This distinction is rooted in the functioning of modern societies, because it has to do with the division of material resources. It is a divide that can be blurred for a certain time, and one which can evolve, in terms of how it is expressed. The Parti Socialiste’s compromises with the existing order did not make things any easier for people who identify with the Left. What that means, in the present conjuncture, is that it has become necessary to find other ways of saying that we are against the system. That is what [Argentinian philosopher] Ernesto Laclau and [Belgian philosopher] Chantal Mouffe [the leading theorists of left-wing populism] recognised. They say that there is a frame of reference that no longer functions as it used to, and that we have to replace it with another form of antagonism, like the 99% against the 1%, the people against the caste…

Don’t these new divides have a tendency to encourage confusionism?

Yes, partly. That is why in the long term it is in our interest to return to the Left-Right frame of reference. A lot of thinkers like Alain De Benoist or the authors of Limite [a reactionary "integral-ecologist" journal] are rushing to adopt these new divides.

Is this confusionism something new?

This is not a first. In the 1930s you already had a whole series of currents claiming to be "original," who themselves practised political transgressionism or called for the transgression and transcending of the Left-Right divide. But you really have to be on the Right to say that this divide no longer exists.

Generally, I think that the Left is less inclusive. The Left has to more clearly define the barrier, in order to avoid a deadly threat. Whereas on the Right going back and forth is easier because the system plays more in your favour.

Right-wing thinkers often refer to left-wing theorists. Is this simply a confusionist strategy?

There are two aspects to this. Of course, yes, there is a will to spread confusion. And then there is the fact that over recent decades, on the intellectual plane left-wing ideas have very clearly had the advantage in terms of their sophistication. One of my great surprises when I met Emmanuel Gaillard [a lawyer and theorist of international commercial arbitration] for an interview was that I noted that in his personal library there was a whole set of shelves devoted to the [French radical philosopher and sociologist] Pierre Bourdieu.

Reading this allowed Gaillard to make his own positions intelligible. And we can understand this: for there is no sociologist of the Right who allows the social universe to be made intelligible in such a lucid way. It is clear that there is a form of intellectual superiority of left-wing thought, its categories, its theories. The tragedy is that this comes together with its greater distance from power. You do not get to govern just because you are the most intelligent.

Today ecology is no longer boxed into the Left, but is a value adopted across almost the entire political spectrum. Is this good news?

It is very clear that ecology is becoming something that increasingly crosses other divides. In a certain sense, that is a positive development. But on the other hand, that risks making it so diffuse that there will be no social actor to carry it forward any more. No one will assert these demands in an effective way, and that risks leaving these ideas inoperative.

It is indeed desirable that the ecologist idea does become spreadable. But at the same time, that some pole is constituted to carry that question forward, in combination with social movements. That is why in my book on nature, Nature Is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology, I do much to emphasise environmental inequalities, the way in which the subaltern are subjected to climate change.

In the modern era, all social movements rest on what Jacques Rancière called a "wrong." At the beginning, there is always a social category that feels unjustly treated by another part of the population. It is this original "wrong" that unleashes the social movement. The problem for political ecology is that we have the impression, a priori, that it concerns humanity as a whole. So where is the "wrong," then? By stepping in with this notion of environmental inequalities, we can reconstruct the notion of "wrong." That is also true for feminism and anti-racism, at the base of which there is always some "wrong" that unleashes movements for recognition.

There is a whole ecologist current very much on the Right — integral ecology — which constructed its doctrine based on a text by Pope Francis. What do you think of this current?

This encyclical [Laudato si, a text by the Pope devoted to "human ecology"] is a truly exciting text, and also a problematic one, in the good sense of that term. For example, the Pope foregrounds the question of environmental inequalities: the fact that we suffer the effects of climate change in different ways depending on what social class we belong to. This is a marker of left-wing environmentalism. Right-wing environmentalism has other criteria, especially its obsession with demographics: the ecological effect of the supposed proliferation of the poor, of the populations of the South.

But in this text we also find the idea that we should not touch life itself, and thus we should oppose abortion ["Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion"]. Here there is an attempt to connect two things which are by their very principle incompatible.

Has the political Left fully taken on board the ecological question?

If you take the programmes of the two main left-wing presidential candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, you see that they had their own aggiornamento on the ecological level. They have sort of registered the central importance of ecosocialism. Each does so in his own way, but it is clear that the whole radical political ecology of the 1960s and ‘70s has produced its effects in programmatic terms. There are forms of reconnection between theory and practice.


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