IV Online magazine : IV362 - December 2004



Theses of resistance

Daniel Bensaïd






As a reaction against a reductionist representation of social conflict to class conflict, now - according to postmodernism and similar theories - is the hour of plurality of spaces and contradictions. In their specific and irreducible singularity, each individual is an original combination of multiple properties. Most of the discourses of post-modernity, like certain tendencies in analytical Marxism, take this anti-dogmatic critique as far as the dissolution of class relations in the murky waters of methodological individualism. Not only class oppositions, but more generally conflictual differences, are diluted then in what Hegel had already called “a diversity without difference”: a constellation of indifferent singularities.


Certainly what passes for a defence of difference often comes down to a permissive liberal tolerance that is the consumerist reverse of commodity homogenization. As opposed to these manoeuvres of difference and individualism without individuality, vindications of identity on the contrary tend to freeze and naturalize differences of race or gender. It is not the notion of difference that is problematic (it allows the construction of structuring oppositions), but its biological naturalization or its identitarian absolutization. Thus, whereas difference is mediation in the construction of the universal, extreme dispersion resigns itself to this construction. When one renounces the universal, says Alain Badiou, what prevails is universal horror.


This dialectic of difference and universality is at the heart of the difficulties that we frequently encounter, as illustrated by the discussions and the lack of understanding about equality or the role of the homosexual movement. Unlike the queer movement that proclaims the abolition of differences in gender to the benefit of nonexclusive sexual practices, up to the point of rejecting all logically reductionist lasting collective affirmation, Jacques Bunker, in his “Adieu aux norms”, outlines a dialectic of affirmed difference to constitute a relationship of force faced with oppression and its desired weakening in a horizon of concrete universality.


Queer discourse proclaims, on the contrary, the immediate elimination of difference. Its rhetoric of desire, in which the logic of social necessity is lost, advances a compulsive desire of consummation. The queer subject, living in the moment a succession of identities without history, is no longer the homosexual militant, but the changing individual, not specifically sexed or defined by race, but the simple broken mirror of his sensations and desires. It is not in the least surprising that this discourse has received a warm welcome from the US cultural industry, since the fluidity vindicated by the queer subject is perfectly adapted to the incessant flow of interchanges and fashions. At the same time, the transgression that represented a challenge to the norms and announced the conquest of new democratic rights is banalized as a constituent playful moment of consumerist subjectivity.


Parallel to this, certain currents oppose the social category of gender with the “more concrete, specific and corporal” category of sex. They claim to transcend the “feminism of gender” in favour of a “sexual pluralism”. It is not surprising that such a movement implies a simultaneous rejection of Marxism and critical feminism. Marxist categories would have provided an effective tool for approaching questions of gender directly related to relations of class and the social division of labour, but to understand “sexual power” and found an economy of desire different from that of necessity, it would be necessary to invent an independent theory (inspired by “Foucaltian” bio-politics).


At the same time, the new commodity tolerance of capital towards the gay market leads to the attenuation of the idea of its organic hostility towards unproductive sexual orientations. This idea of an irreducible antagonism between the moral order of capital and homosexuality allowed one to believe in a spontaneous subversion of the social order by means of the simple affirmation of difference: it was sufficient that homosexuals proclaimed themselves as such to be against it. The critique of homophobic domination can then end in the challenge of self-affirmation and the sterile naturalization of identity. If, on the contrary, the characteristics of hetero and homosexuality are historical and social categories, their conflicting relation with the norm implies a dialectic of difference and its overcoming, demanded by Jacques Bunker.


This problematic, evidently fertile when it deals with relations of gender or linguistic and cultural communication, is not without consequences when it concerns the representation of class conflicts. Ulrich Beck sees in contemporary capitalism the paradox of a “capitalism without class”. Lucien Séve says that, “if there is certainly a class at one pole of the construction, the amazing fact is that there is no class at the other”. The proletariat has seemingly dissolved in the generalized alignment; we are now obliged “to fight a class battle not in the name of a class but that of humanity”.


Either, in the Marxist tradition, this is a banal reminder that the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat constitutes, under capitalism, the concrete mediation of the struggle for the universal emancipation of humanity. Or, we have a theoretical innovation heavy with strategic consequences, for the rest of the book by Lucien Séve: the question of social appropriation is no longer essential in his eyes (it is logical, consequently, that exploitation becomes secondary with respect to universal alienation); social transformation is reduced to “transformations [of “disalienation”], no longer sudden, but permanent and gradual “; the question of the state disappears in that of the conquest of powers (the title, formerly, of a book by Gilles Martinet), “the progressive formation of a hegemony leading sooner or later to power in conditions of majority consent”, without decisive confrontations (from Germany to Portugal via Spain, Chile or Indonesia, this “majority consent” nevertheless has never been verified so far! We find the same tone in Roger Martelli, for whom “the essential is no longer to prepare the transfer of power from one group to another, but to begin to give to each individual the possibility of taking control of the individual and social conditions of their life”. The very legitimate anti-totalitarian theme of individual liberation ends then in solitary pleasure in which social emancipation is diluted.


If there is certainly interaction between the forms of oppression and domination, and not a direct mechanical effect of one particular form (class domination) on the others, it remains to determine with more precision the power of these interactions at a given time and within a determined social relation. Are we merely dealing with a juxtaposition of spaces and contradictions that can give rise to conjunctural and variable coalitions of interests? In which case the only conceivable unification would come from a pure moral voluntarism. Or else, the universal logic of capital and commodity fetishism affects all spheres of social life, to the point of creating the conditions of a relative unification of struggles (without implying, nevertheless, to be so discordant to social times, the reduction of contradictions to a dominant contradiction)?


We do not oppose to post-modern restlessness a fetishized abstract totality, but argue that detotalization (or deconstruction) is indissociable from concrete totalization, that is not an a priori totality but a becoming of totality. This totalization in process happens through the articulation of experience, but the subjective unification of struggles would arise from an arbitrary will (in other words, an ethical voluntarism) if it did not rest on a tendencial unification of which capital, understood here under the perverse form of commodity globalization, is the impersonal agent.