Mouffe's position is that subjects are interpellated by the social, that they have various structural positions within society, and they come to see these positions as related to subject positions that have explanatory power. Classical marxism said that there was one determining structural position (economic class) and that this was also a subject position in itself (proletarian, for example). So the proletariat had "historical tasks" such as the liberation of all humanity through communism. However, the failure of the proletariat to act on these tasks in a straightforward way caused a crisis in marxism, and there were theories that tried to explain why the proletariat didn't do what it was supposed to do. These essentially had to return to the idea that structural positions were separate from subject positions, but marxism clung tight to the idea of there being a "central contradiction" in economic class. The last gasp of this was Althusser's claim that economics determined history "in the last instance" - although even he had to say that "the last instance never comes." Part of this failure involved the inability to explain new social movements in autonomous terms, and much of contemporary marxist theory is the attempt to build in these movements into orthodox terms (for example, the autonomist Italians with the "social factory").
Mouffe's work (also with Laclau) centers on the discursive nature of the political. So there is no necessary relation between a structural position and a subject position. For example, a person might interpret their position as exploited worker as being a result of a tax burden, and take on a conservative position. There is no objectively "correct" discursive position for this worker, though, nor any tasks associated with their position. All that can be imposed is a certain imaginary which sutures the symbolic order. This imaginary is not arbitrary, it comes from a situated historical position. So Mouffe operates within the liberal-democratic framework, which prevails as a hegemonic force in her society, and seeks to deepen it around an imaginary of radical-democratic-pluralism. Radical democracy tries to undo all oppressions caused by subordination to hierarchies, as a deepening of the (empty) universals of "liberty" and "equality" (the dominant ideas of liberal-democratic societies). So socialism is a necessary part of her project because the structural position of the working class carries, in her opinion, an oppressive subordination to capital that needs to be undone. But she stresses this is within a fragile democratic framework, it is simply one position.
What Zizek does to all this, I think (I haven't read much of him yet), is to say that the imaginary of the left is not liberal-democracy, it is class struggle. This is not the pre-poststructuralist idea of class struggle of being a necessary teleological project of objective class tasks. Rather, it is class as suturing the symbolic order, it is class as a framework in an alternative to radical-democracy (although Zizek is still a radical-democrat in a sense). It takes as its starting point the marxist tradition, in a way, and draws from that well as a situated historical position rather than liberal-democracy. So women's struggles are, in a sense, a class struggle. Not in a crass economic reductionist sense, although there is an economic character to it, but rather as a struggle for recognition as a class and to then undo the oppression associated with the class. Many things follow from this, for example Zizek can revert to a certain Hegelianism Marxism with regards to the state: It is contingent, it could disappear with class society. Mouffe can't say the state can disappear because she is fiercely committed to the fragile nature of liberal-democracy, which makes her project essentially reformist. Zizek, on the other hand, can say things like "seize power if you can" because he is not committed to liberal-democratic norms per se, just to the exercising of class power. This also allows him to support violence on a class basis in general, in his "divine violence." This is complicated though because he is more heavily Hegelian than he buys into the Laclau/Mouffe project, which he used to a bit more, and I don't know how deep that break is.
Anyway it gets more complicated than that, in that there is a third element (anarchism) which has its own arguments, but I'll stop for now.
Actually, one area I'd like to understand more is pragmatism, such as Rorty. It is also "postmodern" in the broadest sense of the word, and there are a lot of similarities with postmarxism. Rorty thinks socialism is a sort of dogmatic blip in history and that some sort of liberal-capitalist framework will remain for the foreseeable future, but Laclau has pointed out that this might be part of his appeal to Americanism (a parochialism, that is) rather than something inherent in pragmatism. But it would be interesting if poststructuralism was sort of a long march from Marx to a more pragmatic turn - as in, then you could talk "normal" rather than leaning on theory to make points. Critical theory (like, Frankfurtian stuff) has also taken this broad trajectory towards pragmatism of a certain sense.
so socialism is in a sense pre-modern in that it didn't recognize relative human truths (or at the very least placed an absolute above relativisms) and didn't allow a societal fracturing and atomizationm, or at least tried as much as it could to prevent this. of course, this means that the moment e.g. the ussr pursued liberalization they were utterly doomed, as it was a fracturing of the very narrative and mythology that allowed them to exist in the first place. when the ussr liberalized, when it even allowed the possibility of liberalism, it "killed god," or "killed the truth of socialism" in my eyes; and the same exact fate would have befallen for instance nazi germany if they'd won the war and attempted to liberalize in the ensuing decades
Class is essentially the aspect of your symbolic order that represents your relationship to social structures of power. (I think this is pretty much w/ what you said, but I just want to clarify my own understanding here). Going back to your example (using, btw, the totally blazing hot Quote Selected Text button /pats self on back):
For example, a person might interpret their position as exploited worker as being a result of a tax burden, and take on a conservative position. There is no objectively "correct" discursive position for this worker, though, nor any tasks associated with their position. All that can be imposed is a certain imaginary which sutures the symbolic order.
Now, I agree that there is no objectively "correct" interpretive position here for this person to take on their own position. "Correct" being the tricky word here, as "correct" implies a perspective qualifier, "correct according to" - a vantage point. So, we, meaning I, define a "position", or self-understanding of the Subject, as really being a coordinate of the Symbolic projected onto the Imaginary via teleological perspective. Our minds are a tricky place, and we may have good reasons to lie to ourselves even if we haven't a clue why or how.
On the other hand, there still are be positions that - while not "correct" - have shadows that lie congruent along the Real. However the hell this feller sees himself, and whether he likes it or not, if his relationship to Capital is that his Labour is exploited to form it, his class is still that of "exploited worker." Such it is so even if he is not truly economically exploited, the little labour-artistocratic piggy that he is! In this case, he may not have cognizance of his own relationship to Capital at all, and so it follows that other, non-economic and non-political characteristics would form in superposition in his "class". (again, that I take to mean as relationships to the social structures of power).
Thus back to the "subject" of "choosing" class. I think a liberal-democratic perspective is necessary to explain this phenomena, as it could only happen in a liberal-democratic hegemony. Hell, someone like Althusser would roll over in his grave at the mere thought! (So please - think about it as hard as you can, just so to exhaust that murderous old fucker) Althusser, as a rabid antihumanist, denies the autonomy of the Subject completely, instead seeing it as a derivative confluence between the social order and class. Could a non-autonomous Subject choose to reform its own constituency? What? Talk about the chicken eatin' the egg!
But, it really really really is true that people try to "choose" their own class. Being on the internet, you see it all over the goddamn place; but here's a few diplomatic, non-internet historical examples: consider Harvey Milk and his Castro Street gay culture in the San Franscisco Seventies, The Moral Majority, or your example, Feminism. Or hell, consider how fucking high school kids segregate themselves as Jocks and Preps and Goths and Emos and Hipsters and Geeks and Freaks and whatever, as stupid as that sounds. These classes are Real, in the sense of being projections of how the subject's imaginary order relates itself to the pressures of power that relevant to it. Note how these pseudo-classes form along dimensions that are aesthetic, ideological, or personal in nature - class is not inherently an economic formation.
And so of course, with a Class comes a Class Struggle, and so of course, being tangential to it, Capital exploits them via identity-targeted marketing; "Identity" here, not being personal but rather a category that corresponds to one of these pseudo-classes. Now, the question is: are these new classes here to stay, at least until a new type of class superposition becomes dominant? Or will these hard economic times see the re-emergence of a proletarian class consciousness?
Also you are right that it isn't precisely marxist to think class isn't determining, but Mouffe considers herself a postmarxist, she has thrown out some of marx and is trying to salvage the emancipatory elements of that project. But there is no necessary reason to start with marx, you can come to similar conclusions in other paths to the same sort of ideas I guess. It is just important for her because she leans on Gramsci a lot.
Thanks for your response. I'm not sure subject positions are a "choice" really, it is more that there is no necessary subject position linked directly to a certain structural position. Like subject positions are still determined in large part by discourse, I'm not sure how much autonomy the subject has, if at all. Judith Butler has tried to tackle this question but she seems to change her mind over time. As in, her idea of performativity seems to depend on autonomy from the social to such a degree that drag and things are subversive. But if you take the view that the subject is interpellated by the social then the idea that you could be subversive by having particular subject-positions or acts is ridiculous. Yet she moves between the two in her own work.
Also you are right that it isn't precisely marxist to think class isn't determining, but Mouffe considers herself a postmarxist, she has thrown out some of marx and is trying to salvage the emancipatory elements of that project. But there is no necessary reason to start with marx, you can come to similar conclusions in other paths to the same sort of ideas I guess. It is just important for her because she leans on Gramsci a lot.
i don't buy that the Subject is entirely interpellated by the social order. Is Capital interpellated by Labour? It all seems way too deterministic to me. Maybe its so at the beginning, but that doesn't stop it from taking on a life of its own...
How would this business of pseudo-classes work anyways, if the Subject is not autonomous? Is it an aspect of "becoming-class" to be sewn with the seeds of its own destruction, dooming the human race to endlessly thrash about without ever settling into a place in the world? Maybe the new Marxist project would be to put our faith into the Earthbound kids, so that they can travel back to the beginning of time and destroy class once and for all...
wheres a good place to start with Mouffe, or really, i guess, whats the most relevant text for your reading of her?
I think the best place to start is with this book called "Laclau and Mouffe: The Radical Democratic Imaginary" by Anna Marie Smith. The central Laclau and Mouffe text is "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy." I've also read Mouffe's "The Return of the Political" and hope to work through her other books soon. Another good book I've read is "Post-Marxism: An Intellectual History" by Stuart Sim, which discusses more the intellectual lineage. H&SS is built on ideas from Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, mostly. I haven't discussed Gramsci in this thread but it is how Mouffe thinks that politics is structured.
Associationalism is basically a tendency in political thought that thinks that self-managed, voluntary organizations should manage most of our affairs that don't get resolved directly by the individual or through the state. In Hirst's view, this is best achieved with a sort of social-democratic welfare state that guarantees the rules of the game, in the framework of a market economy, and helps provide basic incomes and necessary services to everyone. But most things wouldn't be delivered by big hierarchical organizations, but rather voluntary organizations. So, for example, most economic power is currently held in gigantic top-down entities. In associational structures, it might mostly be cooperatives, community associations and such. Likewise, political power is decentralized as much as possible. Hirst isn't calling for everything to be organized the same way, just a sort of pluralism that should place value on letting people come and go from organizations as they please, and an emphasis on democracy within those organizations.
I find the associationalist model attractive, although I think it can be pushed towards a more radical conclusion in certain situations. For example, I can easily imagine a situation where people who identify as anarchists essentially develop a system like this, although anarchism is not precisely associationalist.
Things Not to Say on a Date
Over the past day I've been writing long responses to various people about Communism, anarchism, democratic socialism and the like. I really don't know that much about it, but I figured there might be one or two people out there interested in my thinking. And really, again, what's the Internet for other than narcissism? Oh. Well, other than *that*. Anyways, here are my attempts at broad responses to a few questions I was asked.
On Communism not requiring a dictatorship
Words are stretched all over. But let's say that big-C Communism refers to the Russian Social-Democratic Party changing its name to the Communist Party after the seizure of power, to distinguish itself from parties that wanted to achieve power through non-revolutionary means. So Marxism-Leninism, but this extends widely enough that you could include all extra-parliamentary Marxists.
In such a case, Communism requires a dicatorship. It requires a dictatorship of the proletariat. In some places, in the course of the global revolution, this dictatorship can be achieved through the seizure of political power through elections. But the state must then be turned into an instrument of class war against the bourgeoisie. This includes a rejection of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Marx specifically says that it appeared the proletarian revolution would take a democratic form in countries where democratic forms existed to such an extent that could allow them to - such as the US or England. But once there was a demonstration of such democratic power, it would be expected that the bourgeoisie would shut down democracy and then have to be shown as illegitimate and given the boot. ("If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal." - Emma Goldman.)
Personally, I think that is correct to a certain degree. The basic analysis is correct that bourgeois democracy presents dangers to the permanence of socialist revolution. This danger exists only insofar a Communist party is unable to continually convince people not to choose capitalist restoration. Likewise, the alternatives to democracy are incorrect on both sides. On one side it denies the worker comprehensive control over their own conditions and is therefore antithetical to the development of socialism. On the other side, through the lack of real democratic federation with comprehensive and universal control over property within an anarchist (libertarian socialist) system, a person is denied control in favour of the arbitrary and rapidly changing power of the work-unit. So I think you can tear what is called "liberal" democracy down in theory only to build it back up again as the only legitimate system for the construction of socialism.
I haven't thought it fully through, though. Foucault may well be right that this could amount to a "new anarchism" sort of angle if we restrained democracy to the control of objects instead of people. But in my mind that would simply be a strategic retreat of law instead of its abolition.
On Communism limiting economic opportunity
Most of the people in the world, especially earlier in the 20th century, had virtually no freedom as a consumer and even less as a producer (let alone as a political citizen). So the systems that displaced the old ones gave most people relatively more economic freedom on both ends. Just less for the people most concerned with their own privilege / exclusive freedom. And of course it industrialized some of the repression that had existed before. Most people in Communist states believed that with the transition away from Communism they would maintain relatively full employment and social welfare systems with simply the addition of a greater supply capitalist consumer goods and political freedoms. Generally both have not come together. Over time I think they will within a more democratic socialist system, though.
On the question of whether Communism is inherently totalitarian
The achievement of communism is supposed to basically be a situation of maximized individual freedom. That is, a classless situation where each person chooses exactly how to spend their time. Scientific administration of the economy advances to the point where needs are met through relatively spontaneous and limited effort. Commensurate with this would be the abolition of the state apparatus which exists solely to repress the working class. Product fetishism, greed, corruption and other products of capitalist systems would minimize both the drive to supply and the demand for many consumer goods. (Fromm calls this the shift between a mode of having towards a mode of being.) Beyond this, most people would produce because they wanted to produce, and they would derive the greatest happiness from this when they were meeting some obvious need (instead of compelled to do so by economic forces). In Marxist terms this would be the real maximization of freedom on all fronts - end of class war, totally liberated producer, global satisfaction of needs, peace, the end of the state and the final construction of Communist man.
One way to see it is to remove general obligation from hours of the day by first distributing that obligation fairly. Stop the idleness, luxury and profit-mandess of capitalist class and the idleness of workers (or women) now waiting for their turn at the capitalist's whip or otherwise underutilized, and you'll be able to sharply cut down on the average obligated work week. Likewise, workers would (under socialism, the transition stage) receive compensation equal to what they really produced, not minus some profit for the capitalist class (although still less taxes).
Swaths of all that are junk and it depends really on the abolition of scarcity or some incredible shift in how we conceive of an individual's utility. But perhaps under constraints it might be better seen joining hands with a sort of Rawlsian approach. Erich Fromm makes this point by targeting the first goal of communism as breaking the survival bond between worker and capitalist employer - that is, a guaranteed and predictable universal welfare system. Which is why, in part and in addition to my specific criticisms of dictatorship and violence and whatnot, I think that communism is wrong although some advanced form of (democratic) socialism is probably correct. Although, because I think that an advanced form of socialism, worked out over a long enough time (hundreds of years), will probably approach to some degree what is called communism, I still think Marxian analysis is useful. (Even early 20th-century democratic socialists often used communism and socialism interchangeably, and referred positively to the Communist Manifesto.)
For his part, Marx would probably roll his eyes, call me the worst combination of mindless and ahistorical bourgeois and utopian socialism, totally unscientific and conveniently unwilling to use the same violence that the ruling class uses without second thought, singing soothing songs to the victims as I lead them to their slaughter. If, that is, anyone would listen to me, which they wouldn't, so that would be the end of that. After that I would stare blankly at him and then do the chicken dance from Arrested Development. Caw-ca-caw-ca-caw!
On "Market Mechanisms"
I think the real "Neo: Whoa" difference between socialism and liberalism, though, is that such mixture of market and directive incentives can be developed within a system where capital is ultimately held in collective hands, and preferences shake out towards democratic ownership and management of firms underneath that. I think that this grows naturally out of the liberal idea of "the commonwealth" and the seeds are obvious even in Adam Smith and flow through any other thoughtful capitalist writer. Socialism is the natural extension of political democracy into economic democracy.
On the construction and administration of socialism
Well, I think that the key starts with admitting that all allocations of property are collective decisions within any democratic model. And if we want to continue allocating property in a way that maintains high concentrations of wealth and highly uneven levels of consumption, we need to have a pretty damn strong trickle-down argument. Especially when the global imbalance isn't "some rich, some poor" as much as "some individuals commanding the resources of entire nations, hundreds of millions certain to die earlier than if they had access to quality basic health and social services". So I think that we should be shifting our economy towards such basic services within a publically-administered model. Here there would be a consensus between left-liberalism and socialism. That decision alone would transform the character of the world economy.
A concurrent change would be to stop framing every problem as a security problem and begin to dismantle parts of the security-industrial complex. A radical decrease in prison population, a decrease in military operations, a move away from strategic weapons and the like. With that should be a move away from polluting industry and greater consideration for how public decisions related to transportation and other basic infrastructure really define the communities in which we live. This is to say, admit we live in a society that is already, at its core, full of planning. Currently that planning is skewed towards corporate and security power. With the shift in thinking away from that, we can better subsidize the kinds of life most of us find more appealing and assert better control over industries or arrangements that might create problems.
Now, let's say that beyond all that there really is a trend in the corporate world to flatten costs through the creation of a global labour market and the use of advanced information technology. Soon they'll be outsourcing more "white collar" parts of multinational operations, turning more and more managers into workers. They'll have robust new logistical models that continue to cut costs through just-in-time delivery and efficient demand prediction with computers. This will be combined with a growing disconnect between management goals (status, compensation, market share) and shareholder goals (high stock price, high profits) - see Galbraith's "Economics of an Innocent Fraud" for a brief overview of this point. In any case, over time we could see where this would take socialism from breadlines to just-in-time. Over time, cooperative forms of WalMarts could emerge that cut out parts of management and corporate-overhead costs. They could have more flexible and cooperative allocations of work.
This is all to say that the core of the economy - health care, education, transportation, security, some housing, core resource extraction, core energy production, some industry and some distribution/retail could all be held quite efficiently in public hands without great fears of unacceptable inefficiency. There would be struggles in there but this could all be coordinated in a way that is superior to the status quo and could exist in either a sort of work-sharing or market-taxed model. A good share of this would also be non-market oriented public research.
Beyond this core, we would extend towards a more flexible area of tastes. You can't scientifically plan everything in our changing world because people don't have an obvious monoculture of tastes. The poorer a society is, the less of a problem it is, but I would expect a modern socialist system to have a very wide range of demand and potential supply. This could be handled largely through a mixed system of public ownership. First, the core parts of the economy extend out towards the market part due to economies of scale (no need to have public power plants to power the core public system but then not use them to power most of the more market-oriented parts, no need to have extensive parallel transportation systems, etc.). Beyond this, capital held in trust by the state could be managed through a system of subsidiaries that operate on a profit-seeking basis. The goal for this would be to (somewhat) efficiently allocate this capital in a way that is responsive to consumer tastes and raises enough profit to meet like a general interest rate. For example, a run-down on Post-Lange Market Socialism can be found here. In theory, this acts as a system of checks and balances on decisions concerning capital. There will still be failures and inefficiency, but things would probably shake out okay over time. (The capitalist market pretends that these decisions are somehow neutral and asocial by delegating almost absolute authority over them to corporate systems, but this is in part simply a way of shielding them from democratic control and public scrutiny.)
Beyond that publicly-managed, firm-oriented capital there would be a system of sort of humble and secondary markets. Here we are talking more about rights of possession and personal consumption, of limited entrepreneurship and price discovery. Connected closely with this would be those sideline industries that provide things that perhaps the public is unwiling to condone on a profit-basis but are permitted out of individual liberty. This should emerge both out-of-pocket and again through personal loans and the like. Although progressively taxed, some of these people may be able to amass a significant amount of money by finding gaps in the system. That is, generally, until public capital moves in and displaces or otherwise co-opts them.
Over time, parts of the economy would become predictable enough to allow for what some anarchists call "job complexes" - that is, labour demand will be predictable in a way that we know pretty well what needs to be done. Management is then a task like any other, and there is no need for real hierarchy within that particular economic unit. So more workplaces could move towards a flexible system where tasks are divied up between equal workers that decide things much more democratically.
Now, that's how the model might work. But moving from capitalism to socialism might look to some like trying to take an omelette and make it back into an egg. But there are obvious reforms that we can do along the way that express democratic control and ownership, I think, once you start using that as a model.
On anarchist governance
Well, I would still say that - whatever their bluster or eloquence - they wanted a government. They just didn't want to call it that. Bakunin wanted to use weapons to tear down anyone trying to build up a government. But then he wanted a federation of others willing to do the same... To come together to protect and organize collective property... Hmm, that's a government to me.
My concern with anarcho-syndicalism, in its crudest sense, is that its organization depends on the preservation of the division of labour. A factory worker is given more control over their workplace, but they are still a factory worker. They are sort of frozen into that role. The workplace itself may federate with others, but the individual is not given comprehensive and fluid control over all property. It conversely separates out people as clients in a way that further alienates them from production. The only way to “solve” this problem, I would say, is to generalize control over objects into an overarching system of power that is continuous in the face of changing patterns of production and consumption. That is to say, with a government. This sort of makes the democratic control of each worker more perfectly portable.
In turn, collective control over ownership is not easily facilitated by the sorts of “consumer councils” that some have suggested. There needs to be some combination of planning and flexibility for impulse. The only way to rapidly meet impulses is either to deliberately build in waste in expectation that consumption may be higher on some random occasion or to build in incentives that can quickly shift. That is to say, a price system within a market. Here we trade the supposed freedom found in absolute submission to a plan and substitute the dangers and benefits of money.
On the use of violence in the construction of socialism
The current economic system is already backed with force and, in many cases, violence. Personally, though, I have come to believe that the use of violence is almost always inefficient or immoral. I think that we can compel a person to be in a particular location for security and procedural reasons, or otherwise prevent them from resisting democratic decisions (with some degree of humility and discretion), but in the vast majority of cases there is no need for violence (as in causing them harm) there.
The cases where violence may well prevent serious problems are very rare compared to the dangers of the state regularizing the use and threat of use of violence, and are incomparable to the scale of social problems related to inequality or pollution. To be more specific, I think that there is a fallacy of composition associated with violence. In some given case, it may appear that violence is a legitimate response. But once you aggregate those cases you start to see that if there had been some consistent policy tending against or rejecting violence that the overall outcome would be much better. This is especially true given a sort of broken window problem - violence is contagious.
Well, at least I found it fun to type.
After the intial military success of the coalition against the Ba’athist regime led by Saddam Hussein, emphasis was placed on dismantling the remaining social and economic levers of Ba’athist control. This meant a program of purging party members from positions of authority and extensive privatization. Such privatization was framed using liberal arguments about the relative prosperity of free-market economies and the historical dangers of integrating the state with the economy. Certainly the motives of such actions can be questioned independent of possible theoretical rationalizations. The legitimacy of the occupation authority initiating such privatization is also an important matter. The central importance of oil and its separate track of sectoral reform is yet another complicating factor. The theoretical tidiness of privatization quickly gave way to the realities of the occupation and the contested political and security situation. Economic and security crises intensified together. In this situation it seems obvious that there would be popular articulation and representation of a socialist current. However, the institutional paralysis of the occupation and both the legacy and destruction of the Ba’athist party undermined the possibility of a political socialist critique.
In the absence of a coherent nationalist or socialist grouping, institutions began to form around a sort of de facto confessional system that relied on religious differences to inform political possibilities rather than specific policy options. The possibility of a nationalist and interventionist political force almost entirely fell to resistance groups and militias, which had the opposite effect of fragmenting and localizing conflicts and making central state intervention (let alone comprehensive planning) almost impossible. Service delivery became an extension of armed groups in a given locality, and private enterprise operated under a tributary protection system reminiscent of organized crime. It is in this milieu that Riverbend finds herself, in a shaken economy that she says is being run by Iraqi Al Capones. She notes how fundamentalists pay “wages” to unemployed Iraqis and how effectively religious organizations have filled the vacuum created by a lack of overarching political responsibility for service delivery and economic regulation. Her personal and frontline observations give context to the incredible structural changes underway in occupied Iraq. Riverbend appears at first to be all the things that liberal hopes in Iraq are pinned on: Young, female, educated, moderate and global-minded. Yet she takes a critical view of the occupation and the now dominant religious factions. The social history of the struggles faced by post-Hussein Iraq should inform any potential socialist critique of the current and evolving order, especially as it seeks to relate to Iraqis beyond the defeated project of Ba’athism.
Of course, many Ba’athists do not believe their project is defeated. The persistence of a Ba’athist regime in Syria and the underlying logic of Arab socialism and nationalism are reasons why some may believe that Ba’athism, if in different clothing, may one day return to power. Others may have more personal and immediate reasons for supporting the removal of obstacles presented by the “De-Baathification” process and the prospect of various traditional opponents in power. Still others may be converted through nostalgia, new nationalism and the course of events. Yet it seems extremely unlikely that the now powerful Shi’a blocs would allow any Ba’athist legacy party to return to power. All obvious history aside, the undefined pan-Arab aspirations of Ba’athists alone conflict with the powerful influence of the Shi’a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Iraqi counterpart of the Iranian regime. Although Ba’athism has been traditionally associated with the Sunni minority, there is no obvious persistent constituency for Arab socialism among Sunnis. Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and other Islamist resistance groups have certainly grabbed the headlines with their actions, but these groups are hostile towards the prospect of a secular socialist state and have only vague Qutbian views of social justice. The balance of forces are held by disparate religious and Sunni-nationalist groups, none of which readily speak to honest cooperation and integration with Shi’a or Kurdish currents. At this point the problem becomes flipped: What are the prospects for a socialist current evolving out of the Shi’a or Kurdish populations?
The Kurdish case for a socialist state may seem promising on paper. Kurdish nationalism has traditionally been linked to a support for socialism, and Kurds are mostly Sunnis that have no interest in seeing their Arab counterparts without security or a stable economy. That Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish social-democrat, is the sitting President of Iraq would seem to bode well for these relations. The reality is that the Kurds are nationalists first and have been quick to consolidate their autonomy in the north. Kurds also have horrible memories of the campaigns against them launched by the Ba’athist state. They are wary of any strong central government that would seek to regulate the economy, and have been quick to endorse the idea of decentralization into regional super-states - even refusing to fly the Iraqi flag. The political class of Kurds operating within the Iraqi government may contribute to the brokering of deals they believe will strengthen the security and prosperity of their neighbours, but have few objections to siding with the Shi’a majority whenever it strengthens their autonomous position. Beyond this the Kurds have obvious reasons to be wary of any pan-Arab motivations of some legacy Ba’athist party. All of this seems to suggest that the Kurds would be unable to be decisive in any Iraq-wide push towards a progressive nationalist or socialist coalition for change. The majority Shi’a population would seem to be the only place a such coalition could be developed.
In the fallout from the initial coalition invasion, Shi’a exiles formed the core of Iraqi face of the new government. At the same time Shi’a religious militias and factional groups developed both inside and outside of government, such as followers of Muqtada al-Sadr that formed the Mahdi Army. These groups were typically fiercely hostile towards the Ba’athists and held radically different views of the future of Iraqi society. Some exiles, like Ahmed Chalabi, were allies of America and were quite used to selling themselves as vehicles for free-market reforms. Although calls for reconciliation and negotiation were continuous, the primary worry of Shi’a factions became defence against pervasive violence perceived to be associated with rival factions and a Sunni insurgency. The cycle of revenge killings and raids targetting rival neighbourhoods and local hold-outs of a different sect gave the violence a confused and seemingly uncontrollable spin. In this situation, talk of nationalism seemed largely to consist of Shi’a Arabs asking various types of minorities to submit. Economic concerns were funneled into factional battles, such as al-Sadr’s control of the health ministry, or overarching debates about regional finances and the great prize of oil royalties.
This eliptical description of the tensions between religious and ethnic groups both follows from logic and corresponds with the actual events of the post-Hussein era. What is equally important is that it suggests at least part of the future problems anyone sincerely trying to unite Iraq in a secure and prosperous state will face. Certainly the prospect of a united Iraqi nationalist and social-democratic or socialist party that can win the support of the Sunni minority in helping to lead a “renaissance” in the near future seems completely absurd given the discrediting and destruction of the Ba’athists. Yet this returns matters to the question of what effect the myriad of government and resistance factions had in the relevant period. The complexities of the actual history and evaluation of positions becomes obvious at this stage. However, sketching some specific tendencies may prove useful to understanding the evolving post-invasion situation.
The “elephant in the room” is, of course, the American-led occupation. The American provisional authority set in motion both direct orders in favour of privatization and “De-Baathification” and also consolidated the idea of post-Hussein Iraqi politics as a competition between ethnic and religious factions. The long rudderless period after the collapse of the Ba’athist regime included complications with the capabilities of American-friendly exiles to govern and develop legitimacy, widespread unemployment, persistent security problems and inadequate services all contributed to continuing problems. America’s favoured candidate in the elections was Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord. The broader Iraqi National List is a common front for various groups of liberal, republican, nationalist and socialist perspectives. The fact that such divergent perspectives as moderate liberals and Communists can function within a single list speaks to the limited support any given splinter can muster. Instead, it appears that the association of secular and nationalist parties with the American occupation produced a second effect beyond the Ba’athist collapse: The problem of perceived collaborationism. Nationalist sentiment has largely flowed into tacit or active support for resistance elements. This includes terror networks but is perhaps most concentrated in the religious militias. Groups that have been successful have promoted their ability to either wrestle concessions out of contested government resources or to simply displace the government in a given locality. The presence of an occupation force backing a fractured shell of a government with strongly contradictory interests combined with powerful anti-government or even parallel governing structures creates difficult choices for any Iraqi nationalist and socialist force. Any participation in government is a calculated gamble that may quickly dissolve the support of those seeking an oppositional logic. The most consistent and active sections of the opposition quickly became those with “nothing to lose” from launching a violent push to both hurt American interests and perhaps develop an alternative centre of power.
The development of religious parties fused with foreign or local state support into broad security and service delivery systems is not unique to the experience of Iraq. Hizb’allah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are cases worth considering. In both cases the central authority was perceived as corrupt, incapable of delivering on broad social promises and unable to directly confront perceived (Israeli) aggression. In each situation the development of social service networks parallel to armed units provided a comprehensive alternative “state within a state.” With varying degrees of success, both organized in their respective political systems and won a substantial degree of power, contributing to international crises over the legitimacy of their institutions. In Iraq a similar situation can be perceived over the post-invasion timeline as various religious militias took on a wide range of roles in competing localities. SCIRI and allies of al-Sadr dominate different areas of the Shi’a population, with “Sadr City” in Baghdad being the most famous and perhaps important example. These political/security/service networks may provide a clue to where Iraq might head in the event of a withdrawal of coalition forces over the coming years.
The end of the occupation would change at least two important parts of the political dynamic. First, it would likely diminish the notion that the central government was a collaborationist government and that the national project was somehow tainted. Second, it would encourage local militias to focus on service delivery and economic development in a way that encouraged national cooperariton and integration. It seems likely in this situation that Shi’a factions would integrate or even disintegrate in the presence of a strong Shi’a-led central government. If this national government is centered on service delivery and economic reconstruction it affirms the place of secular parties, especially as otherwise religious governments seek technocrats for economic management and the promotion of trade. This process may almost inevitably involve, either by design or necessity, the recruitment of many ex-Ba’athists and Sunnis. The integration and potential success of a more national outlook may drive both (and they are often the same) to fully engage in new social and political institutions. Defining this entire process would be the importance of oil royalties and the importance of Sunni areas to eventually negotiate with a Shi’a dominated central government and oil production facilities. This makes the project of reconciliation seem easier than it may likely turn out to be, and it perhaps diminishes the friction between groups that would persist if religious militias continue to define the post-occupation process. However, this paper has attempted to discuss some of the important tensions that can be perceived in the history of the post-invasion period, as traced through the dominant ideology of both Ba’athist Iraq and the realities of post-invasion Iraq. The liberal model, if seen as an emphasis on security and rights within a free-market economy rather than a focus on problems of national identity or economic intervention and planning, seems unsuited to offer useful policy advice in this situation. The operating logic of the strain of American-backed liberalism in Iraq seems to focus entirely on attacking specific threats to state security in a continuous war. This seems an incredibly costly and ultimately fruitless strategy for popular progress or unity, as the history of events and the reality of fragmentation has shown.
Here the history and possiblities of the fragmentation of post-invasion Iraq return to the personal struggles of individuals. Individuals like Riverbend are agents that may quickly support and defend a sincerely progressive alternative that focuses attention on the everyday demands of reliable supplies of food, shelter, energy and other goods. Riverbend’s writings exude a hope for positive change and a community-minded spirit joined with an eagerness to contribute. Riverbend draws her name from a poem she once wrote, and a fuller sense can be drawn from the quote that she uses as her blog’s subtitle: “I’ll meet you ‘round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend.” The logic of fragmentation in the presence of an occupation and destruction seems almost inevitable in retrospect, especially when considering the repressed tensions of ethnic and religious divides. The success of a free-market liberal state in the medium term seems unlikely and may continue to be challenged from all directions. The best likely outcome seems to be the possibilities presented by the reconstruction of a national purpose based on meeting the real and immediate economic needs of citizens. Neither the economic or military occupation of Iraq seems consistent with this goal, as Riverbend herself identifies repeatedly throughout her writings. The failures and setbacks need not be greeted with bitterness. As the fragment of Riverbend’s poem suggests, the alternative of reconciliation through the common experience of humanity might best be seen as a continuously renewable opportunity.