Culture and Politics in Postmodernity – Symposium Notes

by Jason Goldfarb, PhD Student, Duke Graduate Program in Literature


Michael Hardt, “Constitutional Crisis and Periodization from Below”

Beginning with the recent Trump impeachment proceedings, Hardt argued that this was but “one symptom” of a “serious constitutional crisis” undermining the established liberal order.  Not just in the U.S., but also internationally—in figures like Putin, Erdoğan, Duterte, and Bolsonaro—liberalism is lapsing into a more authoritarian form.  This form, and the shift in constitutionality more broadly, can be characterized by three features:

1. Representation

The liberal regime’s claim to representation of its populace has been weakened by voter suppression, the influence of money in politics, and the intervention of foreign political forces (Russiagate and Cambridge Analytica). Electoral systems, though they may have never truly been representative, are being emptied of their representative appearance.

2. Division of Powers

A system which previously maintained a balance between three branches of government (executive, judicial, and legislative) has been taken over by the executive. Governmental proceedings are increasingly dominated by executive orders while congress and the judicial branch cede their powers (war, surveillance, budgetary, and so on) to the presidency.

3. Rule of Law

State officials acting in a governmental capacity are not subject to the same legal norms as ordinary citizens. Police get away with violent aggression, and state officials contradict the laws of their office with little consequence.

The response to this shift, Hart then suggested, has been inadequate and largely defensive. One can often hear calls to “save the republic” and prevent the “worst” from happening, but, as he noted, it is only possible to “take shelter in a burning house for so long.” Defending the liberal constitutional order masks the crisis of the order itself and the larger economic crisis in which it is imbricated (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis). To understand this string of phenomena, then, Hart argued that we must first view it historically. A periodization is required.

Avoiding a more traditional judicial history that focuses on shifts in courts (Warren Court or Lockner Court), Hardt then proposed a dynamic account centered on three constitutional regime types: “Slave holders” (U.S founding to the Civil War), “Reconstruction” (the passing of the 13th-15th amendments to the New Deal), and the “Liberal Order” (New Deal and Civil Rights legislation to the present). These respective periods, Hardt wagered, must not be thought as autonomous political formations, or ones that may be reduced to the economic, but rather as “periodizations from below.” That is, he proposed a type of historical methodology in which social movements cause a corresponding shift in capitalist-power, leading to larger-scale socio-political developments.

With this in mind, Hardt then argued that the postwar liberal order, or “embedded liberalism,” began as a response to anti-colonial and lingering Depression era struggles. The embrace of a mixed economy and relative social welfare was not an autonomous phenomenon, but a counter-revolutionary response to popular uprisings. Liberalism provided limited concessions only as a strategy to stave off more radical revolts.

This band-aid on a bursting pipe, however, could ultimately not hold. As the conservative political thinker Samuel Huntington recognized, the liberal democratic order would be unable to deal with a rising multitude, or the “democratic surge” of the 1960s and 70s minoritarian politics.  The result was a new counter-revolution which employed violent tactics to put down a population that requested “too much” of the state. Reform and conciliation were abandoned in favor of a far more direct and explicit domination: the “unmediated” crushing of labor unions, the suppression of third-world revolts, and the rolling back of the welfare state.

It is in this trajectory, Hardt then argued, that we must conceive of the contemporary crisis of liberal constitutionality. The turn to non-representative politics, an emphasis on the executive branch, and the violation of the rule of law are the liberal-capitalist order’s attempt to contain popular uprisings and the demands that burst forth in the 1970s. The former features must not be viewed as autonomous structures descending from outside of history, but instead as part of the reaction to popular unrest that persists in the present.

Returning to the contemporary moment, then, Hardt concluded by delineating three consequences of his analysis from below.  First, such an analysis rules out nostalgic attempts to return to previous regime types. That is, even if one dreams of defending the liberal constitutional order one should recognize that there is no going back; the social and political conditions that make liberal-reformism (Keynesianism) viable are “broken and cannot be put back together again.” These conditions have been forever disrupted by the multitude and the social upheavals of the postwar era.

Second, when confronting the constitutional crisis today we need to understand it as one level among others, rather than an autonomously existing shift. One should not ascribe ultimate causality to the economic, political, or cultural spheres, but rather see respective shifts as mutually reinforcing; the collapse of any one—the economic form of liberalism or political form of liberalism—eventually causes the failure of the others.

Thirdly, the motor of transformation is resistance and revolt. Revolutionary forces, like Marx’s famous burrowing mole, do not die but turn underground all the while digging and advancing ahead. 1960s and 70s struggles of the multitude, while temporarily suppressed by neoliberalism and the illiberal constitutional order, reappear and continue to spontaneously erupt in the present (from the Square’s Movement, to Black Lives Matter, and the Yellow Vests).

In summation, Hardt claimed that his periodization from below offers not only critique but “composition.” It counters what Fredric Jameson has diagnosed as the “end of temporality,” or the eternal present of the neoliberal order, by presenting a properly historical past and distinctly open future. It offers an antidote to a nostalgic fascination with previous forms (a return to the welfare state) by re-reading them as part of a containment strategy in the long history of social uprisings. To overcome Trump and the illiberal constitutional regime, Hardt’s talk thus instructs, one must not look backward but forward to the potentialities inhering in revolts from below.



Michael Denning, “Impeaching der große Trumpf: Populism, Forms of Exploitation, and ‘diese Religion of everyday life’”

Discussing the relevance of dialectical materialist analysis today, Denning began with a distinction between content and its form. He argued that a sophisticated dialectical analysis, one that Fredric Jameson often provides, must not simply uncover the latent meaning beneath a particular phenomenon, but also ask why this latent meaning has assumed a certain form in the first place. As Marx famously wrote inCapital Volume I: “Political Economy has indeed analyzed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labor is represented by the value of its product and labor time by the magnitude of that value.” For a Marxist analysis, then, the emphasis is not on unveiling the hidden truth behind a cultural manifestation, but in asking why this truth manifests as an “illusory” appearance (e.g. the value form).

With this in mind, Denning then turned his analysis to a key contemporary form of appearance: populism. Looking at Trump, Denning argued that the latent content of populism is globalized post-industrial capitalism—the dominance of finance, investment, and real estate (FIRE)—and sought to think the relation between this content and its corresponding political form. Yet to do a deeper analysis, he argued, the contemporary situation must be compared with an earlier one, the populism of Louis Bonaparte discussed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

In this text, Denning argued, Marx raised two key questions concerning the populist phenomena: first, why is the entire population of France taken in by “con-men” of history? And second, why is there no corresponding Parisian labor revolt? The answer is only available if we think through the level of form—the way in which Bonaparte and the people became a stand-in for various class antagonisms. As a result, Denning surmised, one could not revolt against Bonaparte without appearing to revolt against all of France.  Populism thus served as the necessary appearance in which all political struggles, even struggles over exploitation, had to go through.

Returning to the present moment: although it is tempting to dismiss populism—as Žižek does in his critique of Laclau—the task instead is to think why contemporary struggles are expressed in this populist dimension. Thus, while populism may indeed be ideological, Denning argued, this should not give us permission to dismiss it as unreal or cast it aside. The very ideological nature of populism, its all-pervasive contemporary status, means that it is historically binding and cannot be overcome at the ideational level alone. Every political force, in this moment, has to address and constitute the people.

Venturing a positive position, Denning then concluded by connecting populism to the logic of circulation struggles and a late capitalist debt economy. For Denning, these struggles take the form of appearance of populism because there is no single unifying factor—wage labor exploitation, for instance—through which they can be expressed. Populism, directly put, is a symptom. It names the “antinomy” of contemporary social movements themselves, the fact that in a world of multinational globalized capital, there is no grand form of exploitation that encompasses all the rest.



Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernity as a Philosophical Problem”

Jameson started his talk by reaffirming the claim that “all politics in our time is spatial,” or, put more provocatively, that all politics is about “real estate.” That is, contemporary capitalism is increasingly defined by land grabs on a local and global scale (gentrification and the Israeli occupation) coupled with the displacement of so-called “surplus populations.” Whereas industrial capital was grounded in land enclosures, or the subsumption of non-capitalist enclaves into a market system, late capitalism is characterized by the reverse: homelessness, austerity, the abandonment of factories, refugees, and the making of lumpenproletariats. In a spatially dominant capital, the struggle is less over imposing the homogenous time of capitalist production, but the abolition of space and what Jameson calls the “reduction to number.”

One can see the spatialization of time at the virtual level as well. Stock markets rely on micro transactions taking place  in fractions of a second (foreign exchange trading), while entire countries’ economies may undergo crises due to minute spatial differences. Even at the political level, Jameson argued, ethnic conflicts increasingly become conflicts over space and land (Serbian ethic cleansing, in part, is the desire to possess a Bosnian’s house).

Demonstrating the captiousness of spatialization, Jameson then turned to philosophy. Here, he argued, the reduction of heterogenous time to number is part of a theoretical loss of historicity. It is increasingly difficult to locate authentically alternative historical epochs—in Foucault’s terms, “to conduct a genealogy”—when the past is reduced to a spatialized capitalist eternal present.

This loss is visible at the most abstract level in qualia and theories of phenomenology. Here figures like David Chalmers are forced, as a reaction formation, to defend the qualitative as distinct from the spatial. One should view this, however, not necessarily as a response to materialism and the dominance of neuroscience, but as part of capitalist spatialization, the quantification of difference. The image, Jameson claimed, is not a respite but, in fact, the final form of commodity fetishism and consumer capitalism; universal commodification is the transformation of reality into aesthetic and visual consumption.

All this, then, is not to set up a binary between reified spatialization (bad) and non-alienated temporality (good). Reification, Jameson also insisted, is positive. It turns formless material into a concrete product. This transformation, what Hegel may theorize as the dialectic of being and non-being, is itself a “glorious achievement,” producing something beyond the human. Reification, then, is beyond good and evil; its socio-political status must be determined situationally. The task is thus not to prefer some idealist non-alienated existence, but to see the ways that reification exists as the dominant form in the contemporary moment. One may then read the spatialization of time as the result of reification but also as the failure of “alienated” production itself. When populations lack productive capacity, when they have no control over the material world around them, they lose a sense of the qualitatively distinct future. As the world no longer appears as one’s own—once people’s control of the future is totally deprived by late capitalism—the result is the eternal present.

Turning directly to the question of time, Jameson then argued that it is not possible to live a total “reduction to the present”; the sense of past and future still, of course, persists. To be more precise, the contemporary moment is best defined not as the end of the future, but as the future’s reduction to repetitions of the present, the end of the new. The question is to think how this situation without change simulates change; that is, how time appears to exist in an era in which it is colonized by space.

Getting more speculative, Jameson then suggested that “population,” rather than time, is the opposite of space. History may be said to move by population flows that cause corresponding shifts in the modes of capitalist production. In this small sense, Jameson argued that the infamous political-economist Thomas Malthus was correct. His analysis, in negative form, points to the threat that population poses for contemporary capitalism both as motor and disruptor of history. The pressure of population may be the main counter-pressure to globalized capitalist spatialization.

Jameson concluded by turning to Marxism today and the question of base and superstructure. Asserting that he is still an “orthodox Marxist,” Jameson argued against the Frankfurt school (or western Marxist) temptation to think superstructure without a relation to base. Instead, Jameson insisted, one needs a properly “allegorical” stance in which the primacy of space in postmodernism (the cultural) is linked to the end of temporality in globalized capitalism (the economic). Such a position allows one to locate coincidences, but also antinomies and sites for intervention in a multitude of corresponding logics.



Harry Harootunian, Respondent

Harootunian divided his short response into a brief list of commonalities and a series of questions. The commonalities he observed centered on the theme of “updating” Marx, often around base and superstructure binaries. Many of the talks, Harootunian asserted, considered Marx’s relation to post-1970s pluralism—whether that be as the multitude (Hardt), as populism (Denning), or as population (Jameson)—and how to read this in political-economic terms. For each, there was an imperative to think this recent turn to diversified and minoritarian struggle through a dialectical materialist lens.

With some themes of the talk briefly established, Harootunian then proposed a series of questions to each respective speaker. Turning to Hardt, he asked why, if constitutional crises have always been a staple of American life, did it take Trump to point out what was already there in 18th century in Bonaparte? What’s more, Harootunian suggested that nostalgic liberalism, as part of the contemporary constitutional crisis, should not be thought as an impotent political force, but as a dangerous aversion to any Left politics; liberalism will embrace fascism to save capitalism.

Addressing Michael Denning, Harootunian shifted his focus to populism and struggles over everyday life. He inquired about the status of repetition in Denning’s analysis, or why populism may appear first as tragedy (Napoleon) and then as farce (Trump). Second, he asked about the positionality of multiple forms of exploitation—peasant, slaves, wage workers, and so on. Are these modes of exploitation different in content or form?

To Jameson, Harootunian admitted the spatial dominance of contemporary capital but asked, nonetheless, “what happens to time?” That is, much of Marx’s analysis in the Grundrisse concerns the “economy of time” which regulates all of society; Capitalism seeks to annihilate space with the homogenous time of abstract labor. The question Harootunian then posed is how might we think the space-time relation (or discordance) in the contemporary era without reducing one to the other? How may this translate to terms of base and superstructure?