Being a communist in 2012

Being a communist in 2012 is not a political choice, but rather an existential matter, writes Santiago Zabala.

“The mainstream media portray the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Spanish indignados as ‘communist’ for their anti-capitalist demands – although it is not entirely accurate,” says the author [GALLO/GETTY]

Barcelona, Spain – Being a communist in 2012 is not a political choice, but rather an existential matter. The global levels of political, economic and social inequality we are going to reach this year because of capitalism’s logics of production not only are alarming, but also threaten our existence. Unfortunately, war with Iran is likely to begin, public protest might increase throughout the West because of government austerity programmes, and these very disorders will probably be suppressed with sophisticated high-tech weapons.

These issues are existential; that is, they touch our Being. And as philosophers (sometimes called the “shepherds of Being”), we must fight against Being’s ongoing annihilation. Certain contemporary philosophers ignore this vital matter in favour of technical, artificial or analytic problems not only because of the short-term profit they can obtain from them, but also because they are themselves already annihilated, an annihilation brought about by their obliviousness to existential questions, the question of Being.

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This question is still crucial for philosophers, because it characterises all the other problems, and it determines them. For example, the solution to most technical problems are already available in the prejudices, history and culture that characterise a thinker’s life, but the technical philosopher forgets that his life is the fundamental starting point for his investigations. This is why so few analytic philosophers comment on great sociopolitical events such as 9/11 or the current economic crisis: they believe philosophy has nothing to do with our existence in this world.

However, for readers of Al Jazeera still interested in the existential nature of philosophy, where our own Being is always at stake, communism might become a way to return to philosophy’s original sociopolitical task. After all, it should not be a surprise that distinguished contemporary philosophers who focus on existential matters (such as Alain Badiou, Gianni Vattimo and Slavoj Zizek) have also reconsidered the meaning of communism for this new century.

While some might argue that it is not necessary to turn to communism in order to recognise these existential emergencies, it might turn out to be a useful practical theory given the meaning it has acquired today. As the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida explained, communism, together with Being, is a remnant of the past, the specter of a conquered fear overcome by Western capitalism and the artificial annihilation of philosophy.

It is precisely in its great weakness as a political force that communism can be recuperated as an authentic alternative to capitalism. But the fact that it has virtually disappeared from Western politics, that is, as an electoral programme, does not imply it is not valuable as a social motivation or alternative. The point I wish to make is that being a communist (or a protester) today is not only necessary given the existential threats posed by capitalism, but also actually possible because of the failure of Soviet communism.

Contrary to the opinion of most disillusioned Marxist, it is just this historical defeat that constitutes communism’s greatest possibility to redeem itself not only as a political force, but also as the salvation of human beings in the 21st century. Instead of pursuing once again the contest against capitalism for unfettered development, weak communism can now embrace the cause of economic degrowth, social distribution and dialogic education as an effective alternative to the inequity that global capitalism has submitted us to.

This is probably why Eric Hobsbawm has suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost a

critique of capitalism, critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme. (E. Hobsbawm, “El comunismo continúa vigente como motivación y como utopía,” interview by Aurora Intxausti, El Pais, April 12, 2003)

The weakened communism we are left with in 2012 does not aspire to construct another Soviet Union, but rather proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism. These paradigms have been overcome because Marxism has gone through a profound deconstruction that has contributed to dismantling its rigid, violent and ideological claims in favour of democratic edification. Being weakened from its own scientific pretexts for unfettered development allows communism to finally unite together its supporters. But who and where are the supporters of a weak communism?

“The weakened communism we are left with in 2012 does not aspire to construct another Soviet Union, but rather proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism.”

As I have explained elsewhere with Gianni Vattimo, the remains of communism are constituted of everything that is not framed within “the iron cage of capitalism,” as Max Weber used to say, that is, at its margins. These are the slums, underdeveloped nations and un-useful shareholders who, despite the fact they represent three-quarters of the world’s population, are being annihilated existentially through economic and military oppression.

In response, social movements, especially in South America, have begun to fight back by electing their own representatives (Lula, Morales, and many others) in order to defend the Being of the weak and apply much-needed social reforms. As it turns out, the shapers of these new political alternatives have managed to defend not only their own existential interests, but also our own through the pressure they have recently exerted against a military intervention in Iran or the WB’s economic impositions.

These democratically elected governments show an alternative model that the West could follow in order to escape the ongoing annihilation of human Being. It is interesting to note how the mainstream media portray as “communist” the OWS movement and the Spanish indignados for their anti-capitalist demands – although it is not entirely accurate. In doing so, they are trying not only to mock these protesters’ demands, but also to annihilate their view from the consent of public opinion. Being a communist in 2012 is a way to avoid being annihilated, a way to escape the annihilation of Being in the world.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with Gianni Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. His webpage is