On New Political Identities

Below is an interview of Simon Critchley by founder and editor of the UK-based quarterly print magazine STIR, Jonny Gordon-Farleigh. It appears in the Autumn issue of STIR under the title “An Interview with Philosopher Simon Critchley.” 

The most challenging task of recent times has been to find a common name — a new political identity — much like Proletariat was for the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. In response, Simon Critchley’s work has explored political names such as the ‘indigenous’, and more recently ‘Anonymous’ — the name of those with no name — and Occupy’s slogan ‘We are the 99%’. In this interview Critchley argues that we need to create a new hegemony — the shaping of an alliance or common front — and also start a serious investigation into the history of political forms in general. With the remergence of general assemblies, affinity groups and spokecouncils, Critchley claims we should not be scared of the need to produce a formal political theory of these practices.


Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Antonio Gramsci said, “the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned”. In other parts of his writing he separates the intellect and the will — pessimism in the former and optimism in the latter. Is this the only way to get through the impasse of working for new alternatives within our political reality?

SC: Funnily enough, I sent that quotation, those very words to Thomas Hirschhorn, an artist who has been running a Gramsci monument in the Bronx under the auspices of the DIA Art Foundation. He’s built a fantastic, precarious, transient monument with a library and media centre with all sort of Gramsci-related activity. I sent him that quotation and it was put on the wall. The quotation is interesting because the point is not to become disillusioned while living without illusions. Maybe we could add another twist to that line of thought by saying the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned but to accept that politics is the creation of an illusion that we know is an illusion. I think that illusion has a positive function and that it’s not all bad. It is not that we move from illusion to reality, necessarily. Politics is often about the creation of forms of positive illusion, which can stitch together a political movement and political front around a slogan or image. I don’t think we can just disregard illusions but we have to inhabit illusions while knowing they are illusions.

While we’re on the subject of Gramsci, another quotation I like from his work is when he says that the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In many ways this describes our situation ­— the old is dying and the new is struggling, with difficulty, into existence. We are in a critical state between a world that is falling apart and a new world that we’re unsure of what it will look like — it might even look worse than the old world. But the old order in Europe and North America has collapsed and something is struggling for emergence, and all these signs we have — different movements such as Occupy, the Indignados and all the other mass movements that have appeared around in the world in the last few years — are symptoms of this difficult birth (whatever name we’re going to give it).


JGF: The need for a new political identity is one of the driving forces of Infinitely Demanding . Now that communism appears to be politically useless, at least for the moment, the ‘commons’ has emerged as a viable alternative name around which to organise new forms of political action, from Indian peasant’s saving seeds to open source computer hackers. Firstly, what’s in a name? And does political action always require some form of self-identification (communist, indigenous, commoner, etc.)?

SC: I think it does, yes. In Infinitely Demanding I argue that politics is about acts of nomination; it’s about naming a political subject that can come into existence. The example I give in Infinitely Demanding is the indigenous subject or indigeneity as a new form of political identity in the Mexican context. What this reveals is that there has to be something around which an identity takes shape. This could be a slogan that functions to shape an identity, such as Occupy’s ‘We are the 99%’. This is a good example of how an identity was shaped around the 99% against the 1%. So politics is about the activity of naming and the construction of identities around which groups can conform, and this is the activity (to go back to Gramsci who is on both of our minds at the moment) called hegemony. Hegemony is the shaping of an alliance or a common front, a construction of what Ernesto Laclau used to call a ‘chain of equivalences’. Hegemony is the art, and it really is an art and not a science, of the construction of a political front and one of the things that forms a front is a name, an identity.

The question is whether such a name exists at the present time. There are some philosophers like Alain Badiou who think that names are lacking and that we need a new name, like Proletariat was for Marx. I’m not so pessimistic. I think that names like immigrant, say, can become mobilising forms of identity for new political fronts but names do have to be invented and identities have to be formed: and then it is around those that political action can take shape.


JGF: One of the major concerns of your work is the question of motivation. How do you understand the motivational deficit in our recent political history, and does Occupy represent the emergence of a new participatory paradigm?

SC: I would start by clarifying my thoughts here: I think there is a motivational deficit in regards to the citizens’ relationship to the institutions of existing states. We have a demotivated relationship to the party system, institutions like parliament, various institutions of government and all the rest. We did, arguably, in the past feel some affinity to those institutions but now we feel a distance from them and one symptom of this is the decline in party membership in countries like Britain. So political parties are now technocratic elites rather than the consequence of genuine popular movements, which was the case with the Labour Party a long time ago.

The double movement of motivation, though, is if there’s deficit in regard to normal politics, then there has also been a motivational surplus with regards to abnormal forms of politics. What’s happened in the last 15 years is a shift of political energies away from normal, electoral, politics into activities we could link with the alterglobalisation movement, critiques of globalisation and capitalism, anti-war movements, and then into movements like Occupy and the Indignados. There is a transfer of motivation from the usual avenues of politics into new avenues. Again, the meta-question, the key question, is how we take that new motivational energy and shape it politically into a more powerful force? In particular, what relationships those political energies are going to have to the existing state and institutions of the state. Are they, on the one hand, going to seek the elimination and annihilation of those institutions and state, in the guise of a classical anarchism? Or, are they going to aim at some other kind of space within the state, which I call in my earlier work, a creation of interstitial distance within the state that can exert a pressure upon the state and aim for its amelioration.


JGF: Jacques Ranciere’s idea of dissensus is very close to the practice of prefigurative politics — you act as if you’re already free — and by doing so reveal the democratic deficit of the society in which you live. How do you make sure that a subjective politics (personal anarchy) — a self-freeing process — is always part of a movement for widespread social change?

SC: Well you can’t make sure of anything, there are not guarantees — again, politics is an art and it also requires context, luck and skill. It is a question of binding together personal anarchy, subjective politics, with widespread social change. This happened for a brief period with Occupy, and it’s a question of learning from such moments when it happens and putting this experience into effect in the future. With regard to dissensus, I’ve learnt a lot from Jacques Ranciere, although for him politics is the spontaneous emergence of the people, of those people who do not count. They emerge into appearance spontaneously in the form of a manifestation or a demonstration around a particular issue. For me, there has to be more of an ethical background — we can’t just wait for politics to spontaneously occur. We have to inculcate arguments, cultivate habits that will allow such a politics to emerge and, I guess, that’s why I try to do in my work.

The idea of dissensus, of course, has a contradiction. Dissensus is dissensus in regards to the idea of consensus: if normal politics is known as consensus, then a politics of resistance is aiming at dissensus. Dissensus itself is the formation of a commonality, of a new commons. Or to put it in a more Gramscian register, and it seems to be my thing today, hegemony is the cultivation of forms of commonality. He calls this the construction of a collective will. So dissensus is not simply dissensus for its own sake but for the purpose of constructing a collective will, an alternative commonality. I think this is an important point.


JGF: Anonymity has featured heavily in oppositional politics from the Zapatista’s claim that ‘the mask is a mirror’ to the Anarchist Black Blocs who want to remain unidentified by the state to the most recent use of Guy Fawkes masks by participants of the global Occupy movement — and often for very good reasons. How do you understand anonymity philosophically and in terms of its place in a democratic project?

SC: I love the anonymity issue, particularly the Guy Fawkes masks and I really enjoyed V for Vendetta when I first saw it (and have now seen it three times). I really enjoyed watching the images of the institutions of the British Government blowing up. More generally, anonymity has taken on an increasing force in recent years, and rightly. This is an interesting issue, and to go back to the question about naming and identification, one of the names that has appeared is anonymous. The one without a name becomes a name. I completely understand why anonymity has become a political tool and also its urgency: A context of global surveillance — an NSA-governed police state — the most radical position one can occupy is to become anonymous and not part of the structure that can be identified (credit card, bank and email details). So there is a secessionary power to anonymity at this point and I find this very interesting and I think it’s become a very powerful line of political activity.

A final thought I want to try here is to say something a bit more general in terms of what we need to do at this point as intellectuals, with the Gramscian caveat, that every human being is an intellectual. Let’s say I’m the traditional intellectual — the enfranchised academic who might have sympathies with all sorts of groups but I’m part of the problem and not part of the solution — then the solution is, what Gramsci called, the organic intellectual. The organic intellectual emerges from a movement and can speak from that position, and this is essential to the activity of political education.

I want to talk about four concepts in closing. As intellectuals we need a scrupulous, historical investigation into the history of political forms, a genealogy of political forms, an analysis of their mechanisms — legitimation and governance and oppression — and I see this genealogical or historical task as an exposure of the contingent articulation of political forms. The first step in resistance is a history lesson — it’s not a lesson written for us, but one we write ourselves. The second thing we need is a strong formal analysis of the conditions under which an egalitarian and oppositional politics might be constructed. This would include a sketching of alternative political practices and institutions around concepts like association, general assemblies, affinity groups, spokescouncils and the rest. We need a formal political theory of this at some level and we shouldn’t be scared of this. Thirdly, and this is really important, we need a local ethnography of social life that would try to identify how any formal model might become operationalised in a specific context. It’s not just a question of providing a right theory in relation to the right history — we need anthropological detail. This is an account of habits, morals, local conditions, local traditions, what we might call mores. So, any radical egalitarian politics must not be imposed from above but must be generated from below, and to quote Gramsci once again, from the molecular level of social life. Then the fourth element, which is also very important, is when we’re done with the ethnographic research it becomes a case of argumentation, of persuasion. This is what the Ancient Greeks used to call Peitho (after the goddess). So it’s not just about having the right theory in relation to the right context and history, you also have to unleash persuasion in order to put it into effect. There is no philosophical ground to politics and nor should there be. All that we have are the tools we make ourselves and so the task is to sharpen those tools and put them into effect in a more powerful and forceful way.

To buy the Autumn Issue of  STIR, click here.

Also for you:

Simon Critchley

Previous post

PS: What is to be done?

Next post

The American Dream Comes to Life in Denmark