Friday, September 25, 2009

Self-Promotion or Self-Critique?

Milton Fisk reviews a volume (in which I am a contributor) in "Radical Thought in the Time of Corporate Globalization," in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol. 18 n. 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 148-150.

His overall judgment on Philosophy Against Empire, Radical Philosophy Today, Vol. 4, edited by Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2006):
Editors Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden have put together an excellent volume on a wide range of important social and political problems. A notable exception is the absence of an essay devoted to the impact of corporate globalization on the environment, which reflects the absence of a major focus on the environment within this group of radical philosophers.
On my contribution, Fisk writes:
In “Biopolitics and the State of Exception,” Devin Zane Shaw criticizes the state from the perspective of immigration. Following Giorgio Agamben, Shaw sees migrants as exposing a crisis that affects sovereignty, democracy, and human rights. Sovereignty leads to treating migrants as outcasts, as bare individuals with no democratic or human rights. Due to the nature of sovereignty, failure awaits reformists who accept the sovereign state. Moreover, human rights, being for Shaw only the creatures of sovereignty, lack liberatory potential. The implication is that the plight of migrants can be resolved by doing away with the state.
That's a decent synopsis. Although I must admit that I have since been rethinking whether that implication should be that the state form should be abolished, especially if that means that multinational corporations will take over its functions. If I had to write the piece now, I don't think I would rely as heavily on Foucault and Agamben. I now think he overstates his case because the 'state of exception' appears to be a metaphysical destiny, which has those same fatalist overtones that Heidegger's later work possesses. This would require rereading Agamben, but I am currently busy with philosophy from the 1920s to 1940s (at this moment, Benjamin and Sartre, an odd couple if there ever was one), which is over a century after the stuff I was reading for the primary sources of my dissertation (Schelling's work from 1795-1810).

In retrospect, I think that one of the major problems with Agamben's (and, in a different way, Foucault's) analysis is that while it talks biopolitics quite well, it has trouble linking this with a critique of capitalism. I do, however, still think that politically marginalized populations tell us important things about globalization, which is why I discussed the figure of the immigrant and his or her relationship to sovereign power. What my article stressed is that anybody's encounter with the state as police force depends on the caprice of this force, and that formal rights don't guarantee anything in this encounter.

What I had not worked on so much, as I wrote that essay (from 2003 to 2005), was a theory of ideology. I think a theory of ideology would have allowed me to render less abstract, and less global, statements about things such as the mobilization of human rights in the war on terror. Now I would try and pinpoint the history of human rights as they are mobilized for intervention and when they are not, to show how these interventions correspond to some other interest (like geo-political dominance, economic benefit, etc.). It seems to me that this would lead to a distinction between formal, individual rights and collective economic justice (including environmental justice, since Fisk mentioned that the Radical Philosophy volume did not display interest in this topic) and that the left should advocate the latter.

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