David Harvey: lazy, slow-moving

This handout picture from the Venezuelan


Add David Harvey (in Rebel Cities) to my list (which is short and not really very actively maintained) of old-timey radicals who think the state should remain part of our political vision. Harvey admits (p. 153) there is “immense contemporary skepticism” about the state, but he never reveals that this skepticism is largely a reaction to the totalitarian horrors of China and the Soviet Union (and Cuba). He seems to think (p. 124) that the failures of actually existing socialism were economic (they couldn’t compete against the capitalist economies) rather than political (they brutalized their populations). Having missed that glaring problem (how?!), he is unconcerned about the dangers of a future socialist or communist state entity: “mechanisms can surely be devised to prevent dictatorship or authoritarianism” (p. 152). My God. Really? Unlike the line that runs from Bakunin through Nietzsche through Lefebvre/D&G and on into the Italians, he just seems to be entirely blind to the massive dangers of state rule. And his argument for the state is feeble. He does a brief flyby of Iris Marion Young’s worry that without an overarching entity to prevent it, inequalities could develop among localized autonomous communities. From this important concern he concludes unthinkingly that “the only way to avoid such outcomes [inter-locality inequality] is for some higher authority to both mandate and enforce” redistribution (p. 152, my emphasis). It is the same old lazy argument: we have to have a state because without the state there would be some problems. At least Hobbes had a compelling blackmail (bellum omnium contra omnes). Harvey just gives a shrug and tells us the state “cannot be avoided” (p. 153). But of course it can: we just have to move a bit quicker than Harvey does.

Obviously this is an issue worthy of careful thinking, and we should not fall into an unhelpful anti-state dogmatism that rejects all political efforts that are in any way associated with the state. Obviously we should experiment with state-like structures, form organizations and institutions, try them out, strive to make them as democratic and horizontal as we can. But what we don’t need is Harvey’s lazy acceptance of the state. We must always remember our Bakunin, and always pay very careful attention to what political life was like under Stalin and the CCP (and Castro, and Chavez for that matter).  If we choose to work with the state, we should do so wearing HAZMAT gear.  Even as we form state-like structures, we must never settle down in them. We have to make sure we never lose our itch to flee.

Zizek: Stalinist, Leninist, or…?

In his contribution to the book The Idea of Communism, Zizek again repeats his provocation:

one of the mantras of the postmodern left is that one should finally leave behind the ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm of centralized dictatorial power. Perhaps, the time has come to turn this mantra around and admit that a dose of this ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm is precisely what the left needs today…

Either he really believes this, or he is being a provocateur.  Either way he needs to stop.

But then he goes on to make a fairly interesting point: the disaster that was the Communist Party-State (in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba, etc.) was above all the failure of anti-statist politics, of direct forms of self-organization like factory councils, because those alternative forms weren’t strong enough to force the new state to wither away.  He says the true task before us now is to “make the state work in a non-statal mode.”  The goal of revolutionary violence, he says, is not to take over state power, but to transform it radically into new forms of power that are constituted through popular participation. Okay, here there’s something to consider seriously, a different way to approach the state.  It does not wither away of its own accord; rather it is forced by the power of popular energy and mobilization to transform radically, so radically that it is no longer clear if we could even call it a state anymore.  This is a kind of Leninism, and one can see more than an echo of Lefebvre’s work on the state (which is itself inspired by State and Revolution).  Maybe he’s got a point.  But I would be more sympathetic to this line of argument if he didn’t couple it with his clownish pining for centralized dictatorial power.