From Iceland — The Commies Are A-Coming

The Commies Are A-Coming

Published May 26, 2009

The Commies Are A-Coming

Iceland’s problems are not the result of inefficiency. Nor are they result of unethical behaviour. They cannot be traced back to the instability of the króna, to Davíð Oddsson’s erratic behaviour, or to Geir Haarde’s mishandling of telephone conversations with Alistair Darling. The Icelandic problems – yes, all of them – are failures that result from the system that governs the world: capitalism.
Bust-and-boom cycles are part and parcel of capitalist development, not some rarely heard of anomaly. This has been well known for almost two centuries, so why is everyone so surprised? This is perhaps because when public opinion turned against Soviet communism in the late 20th century, it accidentally (or intentionally, depending on your viewpoint) also dumped the insightful theories of one of the greatest economists of all times: Karl Marx.

“The Communist Manifesto of the 21st Century”
Marxism in the humanities, however, has been a flourishing discipline for decades and regularly breeds innovative ideas. Iceland will now have the chance to benefit from the teachings of four distinguished Marxists: Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Chantal Mouffe, and Peter Hallward. They will give open lectures in Reykjavík this month and the next, and are likely to have something to say about Iceland’s current debacle. The lecture series is brought to you by Nýhil, a collective of young entrepreneurs, until now most famous for its avant-garde poetry publications and annual international poetry festival.

Antonio Negri is probably the best-known of the four visitors, having acquired martyrdom in the late eighties when he was wrongly convicted by Italian authorities of bearing responsibility for the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro, Italy’s prime minister. Negri was then already a well known figure in Italy’s colourful Left, having founded the Autonomista movement in the early sixties.

In 2000, Negri rose to stardom again with his academic blockbuster Empire, co-written by his younger colleague, Michael Hardt. Empire has been hailed by the alter-globalisation movement, and was called “the Communist Manifesto of the 21st century” by The New York Times. Hardt and Negri have since published the follow-up Multitude, and continue to develop their ideas in close proximity with protest movements on the Left.

Left strategy: defence or offense? Definitely the latter
Chantal Mouffe has since the early nineties been a leading voice in Marxist self-criticism, not least with the publication of her seminal work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Mouffe and her colleague, Ernesto Laclau, have urged the Left to disband a fixation with class in favour of the inclusion of gay and lesbian activists, environmentalists, feminists and other groups that rose to prominence during the years of the ‘New Left’.

Mouffe has since turned her critical attention to the political theories of mainstream liberalism, severely criticising them for their homogenising and moralistic vision of society. Democracy, Mouffe argues, is all about conflict and incongruence, not consensus and ‘shared values’. As a keen political analyst, Mouffe has tried to describe the Left’s strategical opportunities. From being on the offensive during the sixties and seventies, the Left was forced into a defensive position following neo-liberalism’s victory march in the 90s.

Power to the people!
Peter Hallward is the youngest of the radical scholars visiting Iceland, but has already made a name for himself as a highly original and sharp thinker. While translating and introducing contemporary French theory to his British countrymen, Hallward has himself written a celebrated book about modern day French and American neo-colonialism in Haiti, a critique of postcolonial theory and literature, and is currently conducting research on political and popular will.

While these thinkers have much in common, they also have their differences. In her lecture, Chantal Mouffe will contrast her own ideas with those of Negri, and Hallward has also been a vocal critic of some of the philosophical tenets behind Hardt and Negri’s theory. Hallward is in many ways a highly unusual thinker compared with others on the Left. The notion of political and popular will has not been prominent on the agenda of radical movements, while according to Hallward the reworking of notions – perhaps best expressed with the slogan ‘Power to the People!’ – are crucial to the viability of a future radical left.

We are broke on ideas, let’s admit it
Academia has sometimes been a breeding ground for progressive, democratic and egalitarian ideas, but for many decades it has hardly brought us anything other than sheepish economists, charlatan gurus of ‘management’, cultural studies cynics. Marxism, with its idea of the unity of theory and praxis, has always been about joining scientific research and social consciousness.

This winter’s popular uprising has now entered a hiatus, waiting to see how far the current Left-wing government can take us. But truly revolutionary politics are never the product of politicians; it needs the active participation of ordinary people. In order to continue the revolution, Icelandic revolutionaries are going to need more than political perseverance. We are not “only broke on money”. We need revolutionary ideas!

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