Reclaiming Democracy: An Interview with Wendy Brown on Occupy, Sovereignty, and Secularism

Wendy Brown is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California in Berkeley and is the au­thor of, amongst many others, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone Books 2010)

Celikates & Jansen (‘C&J’): Let us start with a gen­eral ques­tion about the cur­rent state of demo­cracy. In your con­tri­bu­tion to the book Democracy in What State you write: ‘Berlusconi and Bush, Derrida and Balibar, Italian com­mun­ists and Hamas — we are all demo­crats now’. There seem to be two pos­sible re­sponses to this dia­gnosis of an ex­alted dis­course of demo­cracy that seems to ac­com­pany, and even to be func­tion­ally in­ter­twined with, the mul­tiple pro­cesses of de-​democratization that you also de­scribe in this art­icle that we wit­ness in our so­ciety: either we could give up the word demo­cracy be­cause, being hi­jacked by its en­emies, it no longer func­tions as a crit­ical and eman­cip­atory al­tern­ative, (it has be­come a ‘neo­lib­eral fantasy’ as Jodi Dean has ar­gued), and to look for other con­cepts, e.g. com­munism. So that’s one pos­sible re­ac­tion. The other re­ac­tion would be to fight for the word and to in­sist on the gap between a rad­ical un­der­standing of demo­cracy and its lib­eral demo­cratic, low-​intensity state-​form mani­fest­a­tions, and to em­phasize how demo­cracy is in­ter­twined with rup­ture, op­pos­i­tion, res­ist­ance. Could you sketch your po­s­i­tion in this debate?

Brown: Well you can prob­ably guess that I am in fa­vour of trying to re­hab­il­itate the term, give it sub­stance, reawaken its po­ten­tial, not only for eman­cip­a­tion and equality but also for a no­tion of pop­ular sov­er­eignty. Whatever pop­ular sov­er­eignty might mean in con­tem­porary na­tional and post-​national politics the link between demo­cracy and pop­ular sov­er­eignty is one we just can’t give up. There are many reasons that I don’t fa­vour the idea of sur­ren­dering the term. One of them is that polit­ical terms are al­ways re-​signifiable and con­test­able, even as they carry sed­i­mented his­tories that make some re-​signification very dif­fi­cult. ‘Communism’ cer­tainly doesn’t come with any less dif­fi­culty in terms of its his­tories, its in­stan­ti­ations, its pos­sible form­a­tions, than demo­cracy does — it just hap­pens to be a dif­ferent set of dif­fi­culties. Could we get com­munism to sig­nify demo­cracy today? That’s a chal­lenge. It might work this way for ser­ious stu­dents of Marx, but apart from that, the Cold War legacy of a dis­cursive op­pos­i­tion between freedom and com­munism is a powerful one. I’m not simply saying that state com­munism es­tab­lished the op­pos­i­tion, I’m saying that Cold War dis­course did and that we will be re­cov­ering from that for a long time. So that’s one reason. But the second reason has to do with the con­tested nature of demo­cracy it­self. I don’t ac­cept that it has been conquered for a neo­lib­eral fantasy, I think that the ques­tion of its meaning is at the centre of left-​right politics today in the Euro-​Atlantic world. I think that the as­pir­a­tion for the prom­ises that it holds out is the reason that the Arab Spring took place under the sign of demo­cracy. It wasn’t so that they could have more neo­lib­er­alism, it was so that they could have a modest say in who gov­erns and how they’re gov­erned. It was to gain a modest pur­chase on what lib­eral demo­cracy has long prom­ised, namely uni­versal rights, rep­res­ent­a­tion, equality be­fore the law, etc. Now if those prom­ises have never been fully real­ized, the very in­terval between the promise and the real­iz­a­tion holds out the pos­sib­ility for demo­cratic work. So when I give a sum­mary of char­ac­ters who all claim to be demo­crats, and ob­vi­ously are not all on the same team, my point is really that it has be­come very easy at this point in his­tory to call demo­cracy any­thing where even min­imal elec­tions com­bined with the free market ap­pear. That’s ob­vi­ously a ter­ribly hollowed-​out and ter­ribly lim­ited meaning, and it has nothing to do with demo­cracy in the most basic ety­mo­lo­gical and philo­lo­gical sense: demos/​cracy, the people rule. Elections and the free market have nothing to do with the people ruling.

But as I said at the be­gin­ning, given that polit­ical terms al­ways are re-​signifiable, that they’re al­ways porous, that they’re al­ways floating, we can’t say that this is a wrong use of demo­cracy, we can only say that it’s a thin, a lim­ited, and an un­e­man­cip­atory one. But I do think the term can be re­claimed polit­ic­ally, be­cause I already think it’s con­tested today. I don’t think there’s been some kind of tri­umphant con­quest of the term. That’s pre­cisely what the Greek elec­tions yes­terday were about, whether demo­cracy was to be equated with neo­lib­er­alism or some­thing else. That’s pre­cisely what the Arab Spring was about, and that’s what cur­rent struggles rep­res­ented by groups like Occupy are about. In each case, there’s an ef­fort to re­claim demo­cracy as some­thing that has to do with more equality than it has been used to sig­nify in re­cent neo­lib­eral dec­ades, and also more con­trol by the people.

C&J: With re­gard to the re­turn of com­munism in leftist dis­course, you pointed to a stra­tegic problem — the fact that this dis­course also comes with its own set of prob­lems, its own as­sump­tions, his­tor­ical bag­gage, etc. Would you also say that it suf­fers from a cer­tain ob­li­vi­ous­ness to some­thing that a Foucauldian might want to in­sist on, namely the so­cial con­di­tions and fram­ings of polit­ical prac­tices? Sometimes the re­turn to com­munism has a some­what de­cision­istic and even heroic un­der­tone to it, which in­sists on the autonomy of the polit­ical act, that is strangely ob­li­vious of these power re­la­tions and how they frame and limit politics. I was won­dering how you would frame this problem with the discourse.

Brown: Foucault had one way of naming this problem, which was to sug­gest that com­munism, Marxism more gen­er­ally, never de­veloped what he called a polit­ical ra­tion­ality of its own and as a result was ter­ribly avail­able to other polit­ical ra­tion­al­ities, any­thing from ab­so­lutism to lib­er­alism. Long be­fore Foucault, others have pointed out that there’s a very thin theory of politics in Marx, not only in his cri­tique, but also in the very brief ima­ginary he gives us of com­munism, one that’s en­tirely fo­cused on the or­gan­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion and the eman­cip­a­tion that the or­gan­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion, owned and con­trolled col­lect­ively, would offer in­di­viduals and the whole. I think you’re right that even today when people speak of com­munism as an al­tern­ative they are eliding the fun­da­mental ques­tion of who con­trols, who rules, who gov­erns, what the ap­par­at­uses are and what the com­pat­ib­ility or in­com­pat­ib­ility is of com­munism with direct demo­cracy. And briefly I would say that in very, very small scale it is per­fectly pos­sible to ima­gine the re­la­tion of com­munism to direct demo­cracy as being a very good one, e.g. in workers’ co­oper­at­ives or other kinds of col­lect­ives — but at the level of the nation-​state, let alone the world? It’s im­possible to ima­gine that. And that’s where we have to do our thinking. It’s un­real­istic, but on the other hand that doesn’t mean we want to say, as some­body like Slavoj Žižek does, that yes of course we must have the vi­olent and the brutal arm of the state at the level of the larger polit­ical eco­nomy, be­cause that’s the only solu­tion. I’m giving a crude ver­sion of his ac­count, but he would be happy with it, I think. I am not sug­gesting that we give up on com­munist ideals, but that we need to do a great deal of work to think about its vi­ab­ility in a glob­al­ized twenty-​first cen­tury and we need to think through the problem of politics.

C&J: In your con­tri­bu­tion to Democracy in What State, you also point to ‘the panoply of so­cial powers and dis­courses con­structing and con­ducting us’ that seem to pose a limit to demo­cratic con­trol; to the fact that ‘we and the so­cial world are re­lent­lessly con­structed by powers beyond our ken and con­trol’, which seems to un­der­mine no­tions of sov­er­eignty, ac­cording to which the ad­dressees of so­cial norms should be their au­thors, and self-​legislation at the heart of the modern idea of demo­cracy, and to make it ne­ces­sary to re­think demo­cracy more in terms of its being em­bedded in forms of gov­ernance and sub­jectiv­a­tion (or cit­izen­iz­a­tion). What would a Foucauldian no­tion of demo­cracy look like that takes such power re­la­tions into ac­count? What are the the­or­et­ical re­sources and the prac­tical pos­sib­il­ities of such a no­tion of democracy?

Brown: I don’t think it is pos­sible to think demo­cracy from a Foucauldian per­spective for sev­eral reasons, and I think it’s telling that Foucault him­self seemed ut­terly un­in­ter­ested in the ques­tion of demo­cracy. I don’t mean he was an anti-​democrat. He be­came in­ter­ested in the ques­tion of counter-​conducts, in­di­vidual ef­forts at crafting the self, to sub­vert, in­ter­rupt or vivi­sect forces gov­erning or con­structing us, but that’s very dif­ferent from at­tending to the ques­tion of demo­cracy. I want to say one other thing here be­fore I then dir­ectly an­swer your ques­tion. I’ve lately been re­reading his lec­tures on neo­lib­er­alism and one thing I’m very struck by is that there is an ab­sent figure in Foucault’s own for­mu­la­tion of mod­ernity, when he of­fers us the pic­ture of homo eco­nomicus and homo jur­i­dicus as the two sides of gov­ernance and the human being in mod­ernity. Foucault just says you’ve got on the one hand the sub­ject of in­terest, homo eco­nomicus and on the other hand homo jur­i­dicus, the de­riv­ative from sov­er­eignty, the creature who’s lim­iting sov­er­eignty. But for Foucault there’s no homo polit­icus, there’s no sub­ject of the demos, there’s no demo­crat, there’s only a creature of rights and a creature of in­terest. It’s an ex­tremely in­di­vidu­ally ori­ented for­mu­la­tion of what the modern order is. There’s the state, there’s the eco­nomy and then there’s the sub­ject ori­ented to the eco­nomy by in­terests and to­ward the state by rights. But isn’t it striking for a French thinker that there’s no demo­cratic sub­ject, no sub­ject ori­ented, as part of the demos, to­ward the ques­tion of sov­er­eignty by or for the people? Here Foucault may have for­gotten to cut off the king’s head in polit­ical theory! There are just no demo­cratic en­er­gies in Foucault.

So one of the reasons one can’t think demo­cracy with Foucault has to do with his own in­ab­ility to think it. The other reason has to do with the ex­tent to which he has given us such a thick the­or­et­ical and em­pir­ical ac­count of the powers con­structing and con­ducting us — there’s no way we can demo­cratize all of those powers. So I think there one has to ac­cept that if demo­cracy has a meaning for the left today, it’s going to have to do with modest con­trol of the powers that govern us overtly, rather than that of power tout court. So it’s going to be a com­bin­a­tion of the lib­eral promise and the old Marxist claim about the ne­ces­sary con­di­tions of demo­cracy. It’s going to be at some level a real­iz­a­tion of the Marxist cri­tique of the lib­eral promise. We have to have some con­trol over what and how things are pro­duced, we have to have some con­trol over the ques­tion of who we are as a people, what we stand for, what we think should be done, what should not be done, what levels of equality should we have, what liber­ties matter, and so forth. It will not be able to reach to those Foucauldian depths of the con­duct of con­duct at every level. The dream of demo­cracy prob­ably has to come to terms with that lim­it­a­tion. If we can, we will be able to stop gen­er­ating for­mu­la­tions of res­ist­ance that have to do with in­di­vidual con­duct and ethics. In other words, I think that the way Foucauldian, Derridean, Levinasian and Deleuzian thinking has de­railed demo­cratic thinking is that it has pushed it off onto a path of thinking about how I con­duct my­self, what is my re­la­tion to the other, what is my ethos or ori­ent­a­tion to­ward those who are dif­ferent from me — and all that’s fine, but it’s not demo­cracy in the sense of power sharing. It’s an ethics, and maybe even a demo­cratic ethics. But an ethics is not going to get us to polit­ical and eco­nomic or­ders that are more demo­cratic than those we have now. The danger of theory that has too much em­phas­ized the ques­tion of the self’s re­la­tion­ship to it­self, or to mi­cro­powers, as useful as it has been for much of our work, is that it has de­railed left demo­cratic thinking into a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ethics.

C&J: In your re­cent book Walled States; Waning Sovereignty, you argue that the walls that are in­creas­ingly being built all over the Euro-​Atlantic world to keep mi­grants out are ir­ra­tional: walls are the sym­bols of sov­er­eignty at the time of its defin­itive waning, while not being ef­fective in re-​establishing sov­er­eignty in prac­tice. If we look at it from a gov­ern­ment­ality per­spective, walls do have a cer­tain prac­tical ef­fectivity in con­nec­tion to other bor­dering prac­tices such as de­ten­tion and de­port­a­tion. In the European Union, for in­stance, there is def­in­itely no Fortress Europe, but there is pop­u­la­tion reg­u­la­tion. There is both em­pir­ical reg­u­la­tion, and also reg­u­la­tion of what we con­sider de­sir­able fu­ture cit­izens and selves: formal cit­izen­ship makes way for the se­lec­tion of per­sons on the basis of eth­ni­city, re­li­gion, poverty, edu­ca­tion. What is your view of those developments?

Brown: There is a dif­fer­ence between border con­trol and walls. What hap­pens at im­mig­ra­tion, at the air­port, is ex­tremely ef­fective in de­term­ining who gets in and who gets out. You don’t get in without a pass­port. But walls are much less ef­fective at this. So the reason I was spe­cific­ally dealing with walls and not border con­trols is to un­der­stand why walls have arisen at a time when those kinds of se­curity and im­mig­ra­tion tech­no­lo­gies, check­points, border con­trols, are so avail­able and ef­fective. My ques­tion was, why pour bil­lions of dol­lars into these par­tic­ular edi­fices that are crude, that are sur­mount­able, that can be tunneled under, that can be cir­cum­vented in many ways?

And yet, my claim is not that walls are ‘merely’ sym­bolic and have no ef­fects. That’s already an im­pov­er­ished un­der­standing of the sym­bolic. Walls in many cases are shoring up an image of nation-​state sov­er­eignty that is weak­ening as sov­er­eignty, that is de­taching from states them­selves. I’m not saying that state sov­er­eignty is fin­ished, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as states, I’m not making the claim that all we have are transna­tional powers now. I also ac­cept the for­mu­la­tion that one of the things we have in nation-​states are new forms of gov­ern­ment­ality pro­du­cing who the ‘we’ is: who’s in, who’s out, who’s needed, who’s not needed, iden­tities that are ra­cial­ized, eth­ni­cized, and ‘re­li­gion­ized,’ some­times in in­co­herent yet con­sequen­tial ways. For ex­ample, in US post-​911 dis­course, there is a con­stant in­ter­change­ab­ility between the dark, the Islamic, the Arab and the Middle Eastern that scrambles who people ac­tu­ally are. So yes, there are these new forms of gov­ern­ment­ality and se­cur­it­iz­a­tion, and there is an in­ter­sec­tion between what hap­pens at the bor­ders and what hap­pens within. There are forms of poli­cing, se­cur­it­izing, cat­egor­izing and identity-​making that sat­urate the in­ternal lives of na­tions en­gaged in them, and that do not just happen at their bor­ders. All this is very important.

But I was writing a dif­ferent book. It was fo­cused on just one ques­tion: country after country today is building walls — con­crete, iron, barbed wire, brick, plexi­glass walls. Literal, ob­durate ob­jects. For the most part, they are not very ef­fective as part of this gov­ern­ment­ality that you have de­scribed. In many cases, they ac­tu­ally make the pro­cess more dif­fi­cult, be­cause they make it more dif­fi­cult to see, to mon­itor, to check, and to clas­sify and cat­egorize what’s on the other side or trying to get in. They are also pro­du­cing more and more crimin­ality at the bor­ders that they limn. They in­tensify or­gan­ized crime to smuggle in people, goods, drugs and weapons. So my ques­tion was this: during a period in which we have a gov­ern­ment­ality of se­cur­it­iz­a­tion that also in­ter­sects with neo­lib­eral reg­u­la­tion of la­bour, why these walls?

The other ques­tion in the book is: what does it mean to say that nation-​state sov­er­eignty is waning? Where are we? What is the post-​Westphalian polit­ical form­a­tion that both refers to and beyond the nation-​state? We have nas­cent and strug­gling post-​national con­stel­la­tions, e.g. the EU. We have im­portant transna­tional in­sti­tu­tions, the IMF, World Bank, World Court, and so forth. But we are still nation-​state centric, even as state sov­er­eignty is being weakened by glob­al­iz­a­tion it­self, by the flow of ideas, re­li­gions, la­bour, cap­ital, polit­ical move­ments, across bor­ders. Neoliberal ra­tion­ality is also weak­ening state sov­er­eignty. Now can this help us un­der­stand why these walls are being built? Walls which are not fun­da­ment­ally abet­ting the gov­ern­ment­ality you de­scribe — they’re hugely ex­pensive and often pro­duce more and worse ver­sions of the problem that they would pur­portedly ad­dress as they in­tensify vi­ol­ence and crime, and make more ex­pensive the im­mig­ra­tion and smug­gling they aim to in­ter­dict. Are these walls re­sur­recting an imago of the na­tion and the sov­er­eignty of the state even as both re­cede ma­ter­i­ally? And does this in turn gen­erate a cer­tain polit­ical ima­ginary with which we (the­or­ists and act­iv­ists) need to reckon today?

C&J: One in­ter­pret­a­tion could be that your un­der­standing of walls would help us ex­plain why phe­nomena such as de­port­a­tion and de­ten­tion are taking place.

Brown: Part of what I’m sug­gesting is that what walls do is help to es­tab­lish the ‘us’ and the ‘them,’ the threat of the out­side to the sup­posed purity and in­teg­rity of the in­side. Certainly this fa­cil­it­ates de­ten­tion, de­porting, and very harsh forms of gov­ern­mental reg­u­la­tion. Yet again I was trying to isolate some­thing about walling that was dif­ferent from the whole panoply of border con­trol on the one hand, and gov­ern­ment­ality and man­aging mul­ti­cul­tur­alism on the other. Maybe it’s less acute here in Europe pre­cisely be­cause most of this is hap­pening in the ab­sence of ac­tual walls. Here you have the imago of ‘fort­ress Europe’, and the ar­gu­ments about ‘fort­ress Europe,’ without the ac­tual fort­ress. Whereas what we’re looking at in the United States is now 650 miles of wall (out of a planned 2,000). The con­crete por­tions are not quite as tall as the sep­ar­a­tion bar­rier in Israel, but they are mam­moth. It costs $21 mil­lion per mile to build and will cost an­other es­tim­ated $7 bil­lion to op­erate and main­tain over the next 20 years. Do you grasp these num­bers? And the Border Protection Agency had to re­pair more than 4,000 breaches in the wall in 2010 alone. The wall is not stop­ping a thing, but it is having a tre­mendous ef­fect on the American polit­ical imaginary.

C&J: What do you think of in­ter­pret­a­tions like those of William Walters, who stresses that there is also some res­istant agency within the walling, for ex­ample by the or­gan­isa­tions that fill water tanks on the U.S.-Mexican border? Counter-​conduct takes place throughout dif­ferent levels of so­ciety, by squat­ters, but also by lower-​level gov­ern­ments, churches, border per­sonnel, NGOs, med­ical per­sonnel, and, not to forget, ir­reg­u­lar­ized mi­grants them­selves. Given what you were saying be­fore re­garding the in­di­vidu­alist per­spective on res­ist­ance, how do you see their con­tri­bu­tion to the form­a­tion of com­plexly layered iden­tities from ‘within’, par­tic­u­larly in con­trast to the highly se­cur­it­ized, re­ac­tionary ones that you high­light in your book?

Brown: Yes, but that said, let me be clear, I think these more in­di­vidual or smaller ef­forts of res­ist­ance matter, both be­cause some­times you’re lit­er­ally saving a life, and also to the ex­tent that they can be part of a broader politics of res­ist­ance. We, like you, are having a big struggle over the ques­tion of who we are and what the place of so-​called ‘new’ im­mig­rants is in the ‘we’. This is a huge struggle, and a com­plic­ated one in the US about be­longing, about health­care, about edu­ca­tion, about the price of la­bour. It touches everything. Okay, so here’s how it plays out in the desert bor­der­lands. There are self-​designated ‘Angels’ who leave bottled water and maps out in the desert where the im­mig­rants cross, trying just to help them stay alive during their crossing that the wall has made more dif­fi­cult. On the other side, there are or­gan­ized groups who go and pick up those bottles of water, or re­place them with foul bottles of water, to ac­tu­ally poison and kill the mi­grants, or pick up the maps that the ‘Angels’ leave and re­place them with maps that lead nowhere, that is, to their death. There’s a very con­crete polit­ical struggle going on there between non-​state agents. To the ex­tent that this struggle is known, to the ex­tent that it’s pub­li­cized, to the ex­tent that it gains a polit­ical face, it’s not nothing. So, on the one hand, there’s a moral side to the story, trying to save a life. On the other hand, there is a polit­ical battle going on between two cit­izen groups, with big sym­bolic things at stake. And to the ex­tent that it gets into the larger polit­ical dis­course, it’s doing a lot of work.

C&J: The bad thing is that we can’t say res­ist­ance is just on the side of the NGOs providing the water.

Brown: No. The ‘Minutemen’ who I talk about are the ones who are gal­loping through the desert and picking up the clean water and re­pla­cing it with foul water, and picking up the maps and re­pla­cing them and so forth. So they are en­gaged in res­ist­ance, right? Even if it’s res­ist­ance to the failure of the state to per­se­cute il­legal entrants.

C&J: We would be in­ter­ested to know more about the struggle over the ‘we,’ and how it’s linked to re­cent protests, res­ist­ance move­ments. One thing that was much de­bated within and around the Occupy Wall Street move­ment, and that you also have been em­phas­izing in your com­ments on it, is that one of the suc­cesses seems to be in showing the pos­sib­ility of a new sense of col­lectivity. Some people think that this is already a huge achieve­ment, be­cause this mode of ‘we’ as a pro­gressive col­lectivity didn’t seem pos­sible. Could you say a bit more about this col­lectivity, and, more con­cretely, about where from today you see the pos­sib­il­ities and lim­it­a­tions of the Occupy move­ment and how it frames this kind of col­lectivity or polit­ical action?

Brown: The Occupy move­ment was ex­citing when it erupted in the US. I’m going to speak from the per­spective of the US, be­cause it is every­where, but the one I know best is there. It was ex­citing for the reasons you just de­scribed, the re-​emergence of the demos. What was telling was that it emerged not as a set of la­bour unions, stu­dents, con­sumers, etc. but as a kind of mass that I want to sug­gest is the ef­fect, in part, of the neo­lib­eral de­struc­tion of solid­ar­ities, the de­struc­tion of unions, the de­struc­tion of sep­arate groups or forces within the demos. (Those de­struc­tions have been very lit­eral at the level of law in the US over the past ten years) So one thing that was in­ter­esting about the emer­gence of the 99% was that it was an emer­gence as a mass of in­di­viduals coming to­gether, not as various kinds of groups making an al­li­ance. This is partly the ef­fect of the neo­lib­eral break­down of the demos into in­di­viduals rather than group solid­ar­ities, and Occupy is the first major left ex­pres­sion of this re­con­fig­ur­a­tion. The second thing I’d note is that Occupy has been suc­cessful, in the US, in chan­ging the con­ver­sa­tion about equality and in­equality. No matter whether Occupy re-​emerges in a massive way and be­comes the fu­ture of left so­cial or­gan­izing or not, it has still suc­ceeded in an ex­traordinary and unanti­cip­ated way in making it pos­sible, in a way that wasn’t the case just two years ago, to cri­ti­cize the deeply in­eg­al­it­arian ef­fects of the neo­lib­eral order. It has also re­in­tro­duced into main­stream lib­eral dis­course the idea of the value of public goods. You can see Obama make the shift. You can see the Regents of the University of California make the shift in the wake of Occupy. They don’t credit it ex­pressly, but you can see the shift in the dis­course. Those are two things — le­git­imate ex­treme in­equality and the de­struc­tion of public goods — that I thought neo­lib­er­alism was just going to pro­duce so suc­cess­fully that we would not be able to re­cover, we wouldn’t be able to get them back into our con­ver­sa­tions. I think there have been tre­mendous ef­fects of Occupy in this regard.

The beauty of Occupy and the dif­fi­culty for Occupy was its at­tach­ment to ho­ri­zont­alism. As we were saying in the be­gin­ning of this in­ter­view, it is one thing to have the com­mit­ment to direct demo­cracy, and ab­so­lute par­ti­cip­a­tion in every de­cision, in a group of twelve, or even fifty. It’s an­other thing to do that across thou­sands and still an­other to do that across mil­lions, and in an on­going way. It’s not pos­sible. So what do we do with that? I think many people in Occupy are asking this ques­tion. It raises a whole other set of is­sues, about the dif­fer­ence between leaders and rulers, the dif­fer­ence between par­ti­cip­a­tion and voice on the one hand and ab­so­lute shared decision-​making on the other. It raises ques­tions that rad­ical demo­cratic theory has asked for a long time, but hasn’t had to an­swer im­me­di­ately. So it’s time to do that work and I think many people in­volved with Occupy want to do that work. I think even the die-​hards got worn out by the ten-​hour gen­eral as­sembly that pro­duced one de­cision about tomorrow’s ac­tion. And you will not get or­dinary people to do that work. So that’s one big issue fa­cing Occupy.

The other thing I want to talk about is the problem of Oedipalization in politics, and what it means to get your target right. What is beau­tiful about Occupy is the focus on the de­struc­tion of public goods, the pro­duc­tion of a debt and de­riv­at­ives eco­nomy that drives most people down while con­sol­id­ating wealth for the few, and the im­port­ance of re­cov­ering decision-​making and demo­cratic rule for the people — those are all won­derful things to af­firm. But the dif­fi­culty is that many times at­tach­ments to tents or skir­mishes with the po­lice de­rail that larger agenda. The po­lice, the state, the one-​on-​one col­li­sions with what was taken to be the face of power, be­came dis­tracting to the point of ab­sorp­tion, which I want to call a cer­tain Oedipalization, and a per­son­i­fic­a­tion of power in the father, the state, the cops, or the chan­cellor of a uni­ver­sity. Once you do that, you’ve lost the big pic­ture and lost the big agenda. So some of the oc­cu­pa­tions I’ve seen or been a part of have run aground here. When the focus be­comes ‘Will we be able to keep our tents here? What are the po­lice going to do next? Why didn’t the mayor or the chan­cellor pro­tect our oc­cu­pa­tion?,’ then you’re just having an or­dinary kind of scrap over prop­erty rights, po­lice power and hier­archy. At that point, the big and splendid agenda of Occupy gets lost. This problem is es­pe­cially acute in stu­dent politics.

C&J: One chal­lenge seems to be in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­a­tion without re­pro­du­cing the prob­lems of formal forms of polit­ical parties, polit­ical or­gan­iz­a­tions, etc; an­other problem is what you’ve de­scribed as Oedipalization, some­times a mil­itant in­fant­ilism that one can’t con­front state power dir­ectly. Yet an­other problem seems to be with the ef­fectivity of largely sym­bolic protest. I can’t help going back to Marcuse’s idea of re­pressive tol­er­ance in terms of how the state re­acts to protests. It’s al­ways a double strategy, it seems. Accept nice forms of protests that are easily con­trol­lable, that might still be rad­ical in some sense, but do not really pose a chal­lenge, even cel­eb­rate them. For in­stance, in Germany, every major politi­cian seemed to be in fa­vour of Occupy. The chan­cellor, Merkel, the op­pos­i­tion, everyone. ‘It’s great that those young people bring up these im­portant ques­tions. Even in this un­orthodox way, that’s really nice. That’s what our demo­cracy is about.’ So on a sym­bolic level, the protest was im­me­di­ately san­it­ized, in­tro­duced into the polit­ical cycle, etc. And of course, this one strategy of an­swering goes hand in hand with the crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of forms of protest that do not as easily lend them­selves to this first kind of re­sponse. This is a problem that all kinds of civil dis­obedi­ence or protests in that tra­di­tion seem to face. You can’t go down the mil­itant road, be­cause that ends up with a fet­ish­ized idea of at­tacking the state on the street, but on the other hand sym­bolic protests also seem to run into real prob­lems con­cerning their effectivity.

Brown: These dangers though don’t cancel the im­port­ance of protests. The Civil Rights Movement, for ex­ample, faced both of those dangers, as did other groups that fol­lowed in the civil rights frame, and still I think we can say there was suc­cess. But of course: those are so­cial re­form move­ments. With Occupy, we’re talking about the fun­da­mental re­struc­turing of the eco­nomy. And here, the double di­lemma that Marcuse out­lined and that you just re­prised so well is very apt. That said, I don’t think there are many al­tern­at­ives. The thing about di­lemmas in politics, and about para­doxes in politics, is that you often just have to nav­igate them. You can’t just say ‘Oh well, there must be some purer form’. Politics is such an im­pure field, and you have to have a stomach for that im­purity, as Weber re­minds us in ‘Politics as a Vocation.’ Politics is fun­da­ment­ally im­pure and para­dox­ical, which is why so many people make the turn to ethics. It feels like it will be cleaner, and you’ll be able to ex­ecute a com­plete and co­herent sen­tence in ethics. You’ll be able to say, ‘this is what my eth­ical con­duct should be, this is what it will be, and this is what it is.’ Politics does not op­erate like that. It fea­tures un­pre­dict­able gaps between in­ten­tions, ac­tions and ef­fects. It fea­tures a me­dium in which ‘prin­ciple’ can back­fire or simply be irrelevant.

I do think you’re right about the re­sponse in most of the Euro-​Atlantic world to Occupy, being ‘This is good, and in fact we’ll even make a space for this as long as it doesn’t take a very mil­itant form.’ Unfortunately, I think this leads some act­iv­ists to think that mil­it­ancy must be the next step. That means vi­ol­ence, or tangling with the po­lice, or oc­cupying a building they will not let us oc­cupy. We’re then ‘in the game’, as Foucault would put it, that the ad­min­is­trators have or­gan­ized, where this is okay and that’s not okay and there­fore you go for what’s not okay. But where is the agenda, where’s the polit­ical point? An ex­ample of this con­tain­ment happened at the University of California. It was very funny. The pres­ident of the uni­ver­sity com­bined with the dean of the law school and someone from public re­la­tions to have a forum called ‘How should we handle the next Occupy?’ And it was all about de­vel­oping ‘best prac­tices,’ for preevent plan­ning, and for ci­vilian watch, and for mon­it­oring; best prac­tices should cer­tain things erupt. It was all about fit­ting this whole thing into a neo­lib­eral gov­ernance lan­guage that every­body was sup­posed to par­ti­cipate in: all the ‘stake­holders’. So the cops, and the stu­dents and the staff and the fac­ulty and the ad­min­is­trators were sup­posed to show up as stake­holders and plan the next Occupy to­gether, to es­tab­lish what would and would not be best prac­tices for par­ti­cipants, po­lice, etc. It was al­most a comedy ver­sion of neo­lib­eral ‘buy-​in’ and con­sensus, ex­cept the Administration was very ser­ious about it.

C&J: How do you con­sider your own role, and that of leftist in­tel­lec­tuals, in thinking about Occupy and other move­ments and changes at the mo­ment? What can the polit­ical the­orist do when on the one hand, we seem to have be­come teachers in a kind of factory-​like edu­ca­tional en­vir­on­ment, and on the other hand, the clas­sical role of the public in­tel­lec­tual is no longer un­prob­lem­at­ic­ally there. On the one hand, the chan­ging media en­vir­on­ment has seemed to dis­lo­cate the clas­sical figure of the public in­tel­lec­tual, on the other hand, it seems to also have been bound up with a set of pretty prob­lem­atic, epi­stem­o­lo­gical, so­cial un­der­stand­ings, quasi-​paternalistic au­thor­it­arian in some re­spects. There are ob­vi­ously many dif­fer­ences between public cul­tures which frame the public in­tel­lec­tual in very dif­ferent ways, and which plays a very dif­ferent his­tor­ical role in the US, in France, in Germany, in the Netherlands, etc. But we were won­dering what you thought about the self-​understanding of crit­ical the­or­ists today.

Brown: I find the fet­ishism of ‘the’ public in­tel­lec­tual par­tic­u­larly an­noying today, so let me in­stead say some­thing about what crit­ical theory can offer, or how it ar­tic­u­lates, with these polit­ical move­ments. On the one hand, I con­tinue to think that the most im­portant way that aca­demics can con­tribute to what I’m going to call roughly a ‘left agenda’ (re­con­ceiving demo­cracy in a more sub­stantive and ser­ious way, ad­dressing the or­gan­iz­a­tion of life by cap­ital, re-​establishing the value of public goods). The most im­portant thing that we can do is be good teachers. By that, I don’t mean teaching those is­sues; I mean teach stu­dents to think well. Whatever we are teaching, whether it’s Plato or Marx, eco­nomic theory or so­cial theory, Nietzsche or Adorno, we need to be teaching them how to read care­fully, think hard, ask deep ques­tions, make good ar­gu­ments. And the reason this is so im­portant is that the most sub­stantive cas­u­al­ties of neo­lib­er­alism today are deep, in­de­pendent thought, the making of cit­izens, and lib­eral arts edu­ca­tion as op­posed to vo­ca­tional and tech­nical training. We fac­ulty still have our classrooms as places to do what we think is valu­able in those classrooms, which for me is not about preaching a polit­ical line, but teaching stu­dents that thinking is fun­da­mental to being human and is in­creas­ingly de­valued ex­cept as a tech­nical prac­tice. This is an old claim, from the Frankfurt School, but it’s on ster­oids now. So I be­lieve our most im­portant work as aca­demics is teaching stu­dents to think deeply and well. Our books come and go.

On the is­sues of the day, the blo­go­sphere and its re­l­at­ives ac­tu­ally have a pretty big im­pact. So when crit­ical the­or­ists do speak in­tel­li­gently about some­thing cur­rent, and that speaking is cap­tured and dis­sem­in­ated through so­cial media, it can be sig­ni­ficant. So maybe we differ a little on the ques­tion of what the media has done to the public in­tel­lec­tual. If the pon­ti­fic­ating public in­tel­lec­tual in Le Monde is on the wane, I do think she or he is on the rise in these other places. Maybe I’m en­cour­aged in this area be­cause in the US we’ve al­ways had a dearth of in­tel­lec­tual life in most of our media until now. When we talk about public in­tel­lec­tuals, we’re talking about a tiny group who read the New Yorker or The Nation, which is about .0001 per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion. By con­trast, the new media has made it pos­sible for ser­ious ana­lysis to cir­cu­late in all kinds of ways. Critical theory should take ad­vantage of this. It af­fords a re­la­tion between politics and the academy not just through books or classroom lec­tures but through epis­odic interventions.

C&J: You have re­cently written crit­ic­ally about sec­u­larism. In France and else­where, we have seen that crit­ical re­flec­tion on sec­u­larism has been taken up — and stim­u­lated and politi­cized — by right-​wing, con­ser­vative and/​or anti-​emancipatory or­gan­iz­a­tions. Apparently one has to be very careful when being crit­ical about sec­u­larism. Perhaps it’s im­portant to stress that there are dif­ferent ver­sions of sec­u­larism and that we need to think crit­ic­ally about these various ver­sions. Or if one cri­ti­cizes sec­u­larism more or less gen­er­ic­ally, it seems im­portant to for­mu­late the as­pects we do want to save, in terms of basic rights, for in­stance. What’s your view on that?

Brown: In a way, we’re back to the demo­cracy ques­tion. Do we hang on to the term, sec­u­larism, and try to give it some new shape, or abandon it? I say we hang onto it. But you’re also posing the problem of right-​wing ap­pro­pri­ations of left-​critiques. There is al­ways a danger that one’s in­ternal cri­tiques of left or lib­eral dis­course will be ap­pro­pri­ated by the right. That’s the peril of doing those kinds of cri­tiques, whether it’s a cri­tique of iden­tity politics or cer­tain as­pects of fem­inism, or Oedipalization in protest politics. Now the con­tem­porary American right, of course, has its own in­de­pendent source of anti-​secularism. They ac­cuse lib­erals and left­ists of ‘secular-​humanist ni­hilism,’ which means we’ve emp­tied out the world of meaning. That said, the right also backed two wars that took place under the sign of ‘they’re fun­da­ment­al­ists, we’re sec­ular,’ ‘we’re tol­erant, they’re in­tol­erant.’ So things are all mixed up here.

Now, to your ques­tion: what is to be saved? I don’t think we can an­swer it gen­er­ic­ally, be­cause I think there are dis­tinct form­a­tions of sec­u­larism, vari­eties of sec­u­larism, so we have to ask it in the con­text of the sec­ular dis­course in each so­ciety that sec­u­larism gov­erns. What I am com­mitted to trying to save in the US con­text is the im­portant dis­tinc­tion between church and state, a dis­tinc­tion that aims to se­cure a religion-​free public realm and per­sonal re­li­gious freedom. It doesn’t do either com­pletely, of course, but one then has to figure out how to ex­tend sec­u­larism beyond its Christian-​Protestant roots, so that it can make good on its prom­ises. One also has to give up the idea that there is some neutral, sec­ular space. So it’s a ques­tion of making these prob­lem­atic con­ceits part of our lived work on secularism.

If we leave the ter­rain of sec­u­larism for a mo­ment, this might be­come clearer. We used to have these de­bates about whether universalism’s ab­surd or use­less, whether there’s al­ways a con­stitutive out­side. Well of course, there’s al­ways a con­stitutive out­side, nothing is truly uni­versal, but that the same time one doesn’t want to give up on the no­tion of uni­versal in­clu­sion of all hu­manity into the Kantian idea of the dig­nity of hu­mans, or the idea that everyone is en­titled to sur­vival as well as thriving beyond sur­vival. But one has to know at the same time that there will al­ways be a con­stitutive out­side, that the uni­versal will never truly be uni­versal. There will al­ways be some hu­mans who are ‘not human enough’ to be in­cluded. Just as with sec­u­larism, it will never achieve the neut­rality it pre­tends to have. We must al­ways be pushing it to­ward a greater neut­rality, knowing that it won’t achieve it, that it will al­ways be op­er­ating from a stand­point, and it will al­ways be a re­li­gious stand­point. Similarly, knowing that sec­u­larism doesn’t simply ad­dress re­li­gion but defines it, we can be­come at­tentive to what it’s de­fining. What is it saying re­li­gion is? What counts as re­li­gion, and what does it cast as good re­li­gion and bad re­li­gion? These be­come things for us to work on, polit­ic­ally, in the cul­ture but also in law. This is how we might save some­thing like sec­u­larism. Instead of saying ‘Don’t at­tack it, it’s all we’ve got to pre­vent the op­posite’ where the op­posite is ima­gined as theo­cracy or fun­da­ment­alism, I think sec­u­larism be­comes strengthened by be­coming more self-​critical and avail­able to re­vi­sion. I think it’s an eman­cip­atory and in­clusive mod­ality for all polit­ical cul­tures, but it un­folds in dif­ferent ways in India, Turkey, Egypt, Germany. And it will also be weapon­ized in dif­ferent ways in each place. So we ‘save’ it pre­cisely by working on its false con­ceits, and at­tempting to re­make sec­ular law and sec­ular de­bates; rather than by burying these con­ceits, or simply de­fending sec­u­larism as better than the alternatives.

Robin Celikates teaches polit­ical and so­cial philo­sophy at the University of Amsterdam. He is the vice-​director of ASCA and a co-​editor of Krisis.

Yolande Jansen is a Researcher at the Amsterdam Center for Globalisation Studies (ACGS) of the University of Amsterdam.

We [the in­ter­viewers] would like to thank Wendy Brown for having this con­ver­sa­tion with us in Giessen, at the con­fer­ence Democracy and Resistance (June 18 – 20, 2012), as well as Julien Kloeg and Nina Hagel for as­sist­ance in tran­scribing the interview.

(CC) Krisis, 2012, Issue 3

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