Something Always Escapes!: Beasley-Murray's Posthegemony

Something Always Escapes!: Beasley-Murray's Posthegemony
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  From: Kingsbury  1 Theory & Event Volume 14, Issue 3, 2011 E-ISSN: 1092-311XSomething Always Escapes! :Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony  Donald V. Kingsbury   Jon Beasley-Murray , Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America . University of Minnesota Press:2011. $25.00 (paper) $75.00 (cloth). 376 pages. ISBN 978-0-8166-4715-6Jon Beasley-Murray’s refrain throughout Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America –something always escapes! – is both a political caution and a methodological imperative. Politics, hecontends, has for too long been based on the false dichotomy between consent and coercion. Or better, ithas been based on a false resolution of the false dichotomy of consent and coercion at the heart of themodern social contract theory and contemporary Hegemony theory. While there can be little doubt thatforce and agreement are central to any study of the political, they nonetheless occlude other means bywhich societies reproduce themselves, their hierarchies, their inclusions and their exclusions. As such,modern liberalism and its ostensible critiques – most notably in Posthegemony those posed by Hegemony,Civil Society theory, and ‘radical democracy’ – are equally complicit in the same ultimately conservativepolitical project.Methodologically Posthegemony is as much concerned with criticizing academic fads andfranchises such as cultural studies, civil society, and Hegemony theory as it is with the practical politicalstruggle against the modern state form and capital. The left’s misplaced focus on hegemony both in theoryas well as practice results in a sort of naturalized contractualism that “conceal[s] other modes of politicalcommand or struggle.” 1   Posthegemony thus sets itself the task, of “redescrib[ing] and reconstruct[ing] an image of societythat no longer depends on society’s own self portrayal” in order to best recognize those struggles that offerthe best likelihood of changing the current exclusionary and unjust order. 2 Considering hegemony theory’skey role in shoring up the status quo, Beasley-Murray contends that we must begin our work in theacademy by replacing key concepts such as consent, ideology, and identity with those of affect, habit, andmultitude.The book develops over the course of two parts – ‘Critique’ and ‘Constitution’ – that then lead totwo ‘alternate endings.’ In the conclusion, Beasley-Murray offers a sobering rereading of Antonio Negri’stheory of ‘the multitude’ in which he cautions, “should the multitude come into its own, unfettered byconstituted power, and the state and transcendence disappear […] there would be no objectivity, only thepure subjectivity of the divine presence and power […] it would be perfect, but it would be dead.” 3 Hepaints a strikingly different picture in the Epilogue, however, where the author offers a celebratory readingof the April, 2002 counter-coup that returned Hugo Chávez to the presidency in Venezuela as an exampleof the expansive and liberatory constituent power of the multitude. This move, in which Beasley-Murraybalances optimism with realism, characterizes much of the work. Indeed, one of his most incisive – andpotentially divisive – points of entry for the book comes in the form of an apparent dismissal of the so-called ‘pink tide.’ Twelve years of anti-neoliberal rhetoric and electoral victories for the continental left –beginning with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998 and continuing (a few notableexceptions aside) with Dilma Roussef’s victory this year in Brazil – are for Beasley-Murray “at best asymptom, at worst a reaction” as constituted power attempts to corral the creative constituent power of themultitude. 4 In other words, the regional left’s string of electoral victories is not evidence of a new cycle of revolutionary change reminiscent of that initiated by guerrillas in the Cuban Sierra Maestra in 1959 or inthe Santiago of Allende’s Unidad Popular in 1970. Even if – and this is a rather big if – contemporary leftof center governments have stepped away from the fundamental economic structures of the ‘WashingtonConsensus,’ they have not made similar breaks with corresponding structures of political and social power.  From: Kingsbury  2 On this question, there is little in the way of consensus across the field. Beasley-Murray’s positionmust not be confused with neoliberal critiques of the ‘left turns’ like those of Jorge Castañeda, a secretaryof foreign affairs under former Mexican President Vicente Fox. Castañeda argues that Latin America of thetwenty first century is home to ‘two lefts,’ one of which “is modern, open-minded, reformist, andinternationalist” and another “born of the great tradition of Latin American populism [that] is nationalist,strident, and close-minded.” 5 The former group has for Castañeda more or less accepted that there is noalternative to the global market and is acting ‘responsibly’ to facilitate the flow of trade (examples herewould be former presidents Lula da Silva and Bachelet of Chile, respectively). The latter, like Chávez inVenezuela or Morales in Bolivia are essentially irresponsible dinosaurs for whom, “economic performance,democratic values, programmatic achievements, and good relations with the United States are notimperatives but bothersome constraints.” 6 The gesture here is entirely imperial. Political norms areestablished by the US State Department and the International Monetary Fund. The work of politics by‘responsible’ governments in places like Latin America is to apply orders and manage populationsaccordingly.Beasley-Murray is far from interested in this sort of post-political closure but so too is he skepticalof recent celebratory readings of left turn governments. While thinkers grounded in an anti-imperialistperspective such as George Ciccariello-Maher and Michael Lebowitz have argued, for example, that theBolivarian Revolution in Venezuela be approached through a revised Leninist conceptualization of ‘DualPower,’ the theoretical enterprise taken up in Posthegemony is not satisfied with the lingering statism of (for example) the Chávez regime. 7 While Bolivarian discourse in Venezuela promises a future ‘explosionof communal power,’ this discourse is nonetheless articulated within the confines of the socialcontractualism of the modern nation state. As such, it can never affirm and expand the power and potentialof multitude but can only ever result in the “conversion of constituent into constituted power that constructsthe illusion of mediation.” 8 Beasley-Murray’s Spinozism is thus critical of the ‘left turns’ in Latin America not  for their failure to hew the consensus of the global superpower, but rather to the extent that they fail toescape the familiar dynamics of states, citizens, and representation.In Chapter One, “Argentina, 1972: Cultural Studies and Populism,” Beasley-Murray uses Peronismo – perhaps the strongest case from which to defend Hegemony theory and post-Marxism moregenerally – to critique the work of Ernesto Laclau. Reminding the reader of the often-overlooked debtLaclau owes to Argentine politics for both his political and theoretical development, Beasley-Murraynonetheless maintains that “instead of seeing it as a matter of hegemonic articulation, Peronism’s hold isbetter attributed to the way it organizes intuition, instinct, and affect. Rather than an articulate appeal toideology, Peronism is a prime example of the institutional inculcation of habit.” 9 While to a certain extent Peronismo “constructed and articulated a whole series of new social actors in precisely the radicaldemocratic manner that Laclau and Mouffe envisage[d]” its true power and innovation rests rather with theway in which “Populism constituted the ground of (particularly working-class) Argentine politics. It shapedand incorporated common sense or habitus from which political identities could emerge, and against whichpolitics itself could be assessed.” 10 Rather than an interpretive and political schema in which pre-constituted‘demands’ (Laclau’s zero-point of politics) invest differential meanings into a  point de caption or emptysignifier, Peronism was itself constitutive of these identities themselves. Hegemony theory thus becomessomething of a rationalizing myth and a “last gasp of contractualism that has justified the bounded forms of modern social formations since at least the sixteenth century.” 11 Laclau’s theory, in other words, misses thebiopolitical formation of life itself so central to the contemporary functions of power. His theory is thus asimplification at best, where hegemony takes the place of “other, more complex, means by whichdominance is asserted and reproduced” or at worst, it contributes to the antipolitical politics of the present. 12  In either case, argues Beasley-Murray, a new theory is needed to assess both the texture of actually-existingsocieties and to adjudge the potential for change.The second chapter, “Ayachucho, 1982: Civil Society Theory and Neoliberalism,” tackles anotherbulwark of contemporary academic discourse, this time through Peru’s Sendero Luminoso . Here Beasley-Murray uses the much-maligned guerillas to illustrate civil society’s “profound” conceptual ambivalence.Initiating a critique of Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen, Beasley-Murray contends that civil society is“presented as a moderating, mediating force, but depends upon what [Cohen and Arato] call the‘democratic fundamentalism’ that drives the social movements that constitute civil society itself.” 13 In otherwords, civil society and the rational public sphere championed by Habermasians and adored by NorthernNGOs, is propelled by a fanatic zeal that in turn becomes a source of anxiety for its proponents. Faced withthe choice between the maintenance of idealized liberal forms and what Alain Badiou might describe as the  From: Kingsbury  3 passion for the real, proponents of civil society theory almost always choose the former. Sendero , and theresponses of the neoliberal Fujimori government, illustrate a shift in the idealized relation between stateand civil society under conditions of globalization and a ‘war on terror.’ Beasley-Murray concludes thechapter with a critique of civil society theory’s flattening of fundamentalisms. He asks “could there […] bea fundamentalism driven by vitality, affirmation, and life, rather than the death drive of mutualimmolation?” In response he suggests: “Refusing the constrictions and antidemocratic democracy of civilsociety theory, we might reconsider the immediacy of social movements in their excessive and passionatedemands […] Néstor García Canclini asks how to be radical, without being fundamentalist. We might dobetter to look for a good fundamentalism, a good multitude.” 14 Beasley-Murray’s wager is that rather thandisavowing and attempting to curb the expansive immanence of democracy and the multitude – as do thetheory and practice of civil society – other forms of thinking and doing politics are possible. In order tofind them, he asserts, we must move beyond the precepts of modern contractualism and its “last gasp,”Hegemony theory.Chapter Three begins the work of developing Posthegemony theory in earnest. “Escalón, 1989:Deleuze and Affect” studies the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN, for its initials inSpanish). For Beasley-Murray and others, affect offers a vantage from which to rethink power inpostmodern terms, after the utility of ideology as conceptual tool and mobilizing strategy has beenexhausted. Importantly, however, he uses the example of the FMLN and the “becoming subaltern” of theSalvadoran state’s death squads in order to critique the Deleuzian concept of affective power, arguing that“it falls prey to traps similar to those that befell hegemony theory, in that on its own it cannot distinguishbetween insurgency and order, ultimately between revolution and fascism.” 15 Beasley-Murray emphasizesthe FMLN as a clandestine army, highlighting its unrepresentability, violence, and terror, and hencerescuing it from erstwhile friends in the North who attempted throughout the 1980s to domesticate it withthe language of human rights, democracy, and civil society. Indeed, for the author of  Posthegemony , theFMLN constituted an affective line of flight precisely to the extent that it escaped these rationalizations andpersisted in an unrelenting immanence as “agents of terror: a war machine, not a negotiating team.” 16  However, he cautions that the state also practices this affective and immanent politics (an increasinglygeneralized characteristic in the context of the war on terror). Thus if Posthegemony theory entails athinking attuned to affect as content and the multitude as subject, it also requires a differentiation withinthese categories along the lines of what Paolo Virno has described in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or‘positive’ and ‘negative’ multitudes. 17  The fourth chapter, “Chile 1992: Bourdieu and Habit” looks at the longevity of post-Pinochetneoliberalism and the structuring effects of habit for the maintenance of social authority. Beasley-Murray –here as elsewhere – emphasizes the biopolitical aspects of social reproduction. Habit literally  forms bodiesthrough repeated practices, and the investment of social principles into the quotidian actions of subjects.There is thus an intuitive conservatism to habit, visible as much in common sense as in the architecturaldesign of public and semi-public spaces on either side of the dictatorship. 18 However – and this is oftenmissed in Bourdieu and his followers – habit can also be revolutionary, or “revolutionaries must have theirown habits.” With this focus on immanent and biopolitical practices “we move toward the concept of themultitude, a subjectivity that consolidates itself through habit.” 19  The conclusion and epilogue offer competing takes on the multitude in Latin America. The firstwarns against the messianic ‘end of history’ lurking behind Antonio Negri’s celebrations of the multitude.The second expresses hope in the potential of the multitude through a reading of the April 2002countercoup in Venezuela that returned Hugo Chávez to the presidency. 20 In these closing pages of  Posthegemony Beasley-Murray balances summary with extension, posing the highly ambivalentconsequences of subjective and structural possibility for radical social change.Beasley-Murray’s enterprise in Posthegemony is thus a critique of the forms of politics that definethe contemporary historical moment in the Americas as much as a proposal for approaches to the study of politics and culture in general. Crucially, he identifies populism and Neoliberalism as both the historicalbasis and political result of hegemony and civil society-centered theories. Against the grain of hegemony’scall to construct a ‘national popular’ bloc or ‘counter hegemony,’ through establishing discursive chains of equivalence and differential but shared identities constituted around a central animating (internal) politicalantagonism, Beasley-Murray insists that from now on focus must be centered on the inevitable failure of such attempts. Posthegemony theory works “to uncover what has been obscured in these substitutions andto outline the means by which its suppression has been achieved, enforced, naturalized, and legitimated.” 21  Something always escapes the constraining mechanisms of constituted power; Beasley-Murray seeks to  From: Kingsbury  4 outline the theoretical grounds upon which that line of flight can become more than mere residuum andbecome an affirmation, in his words, of the multitude.While Posthegemony makes a number of important critical contributions that encourage a radicalreappraisal of the last twenty years of Latin American politics and what might be tentatively described asan emerging field of ‘multitude studies,’ the book is not without its limitations. He makes importantcorrections to work in the spirit of Hardt and Negri’s  Empire , but falls prey to some of the same traps as doother popularizers of the multitude. 22 For example, in the book’s fourth chapter Beasley-Murraycharacterizes bare life, affect, and immaterial labor in post-Pinochet Chile through a pat reading of MikeJudge’s 1999 workplace slacker comedy Office Space . Using the frustratingly meaninglessunderemployment of cubicle work in North America to characterize the multitude in a work ostensiblyabout Latin America – where it could be argued that the multitude is characterized by precariouspopulations of favelas, barrios, and comunas populares – is absurd, bordering on offensive, but it is all toocommon among theorizations of the multitude. These theorizations, based in the combination of aninsurmountable Spinozist monism and the Marxian diagnosis of the global real subsumption of labor undercapital, tend to significantly flatten expressions of the multitude. This universalizing gesture risksreproducing the homogenization carried out by concepts such as “the people” and “the nation.” That is,while the multitude does well to break from concepts such as” the people” in its emphasis on the free playof singularities rather than the juridical and ontological flattening of the liberal individual, to suggest thatthe texture of the multitude’s resistance in Latin America and elsewhere can be captured by JenniferAniston dressing down her manager at a chain restaurant is distasteful at best. What is more, these momentsof theoretical flattening – of which this is the most prominent example –weaken Beasley-Murray’sinsistence that we differentiate among multitudes. If any study of the multitude must take into account itspositive and negative formations and effects, as he insists, is there no room for locally-differentiatedmultitudes as well?Quite early on in Posthegemony Beasley-Murray contends “this is a book about political theoryand Latin America, not political theory in Latin America or Latin American critical theory.” 23 Here hemisses a key opportunity, as there are numerous points of potentially quite fruitful engagement with LatinAmerican political thought that might have better served Beasley-Murray’s inquiries. With a fewexceptions, Posthegemony’s key theoretical referents are of European srcin. This would not causeimmediate concern were it not for the omission of theorists such as Enrique Dussel and Aníbal Quijano,whose against-the-grain theorizations respectively of the  pueblo and surplus populations speak directly to Posthegemony ’s stated goal of theorizing from and for that which escapes the project of the modern nationstate. 24 Similarly, the book is all but silent on questions of race, thus missing another key determining factorin the multitude’s affective exodus in Latin America. Beasley-Murray thus runs the risk of merely applying  thought and categories developed in Europe to Latin America, a practice that is arguably as destined toproduce misfires and oversights as the Hegemony theory it seeks to replace.In the end, Posthegemony offers a compelling critique of what has become a key category andcornerstone of many departments in the academy. However, unlike many of the inward-oriented criticaltreatments of, for example, cultural studies, which have emerged since its rise to prominence, Beasley-Murray does not propose that scholarship can take the place of action. However – and the importance of this cannot be overemphasized – nor does Posthegemony pretend to have discovered solutions. Themultitude is that ‘something’ that ‘always escapes’ constituted power. It would be foolish to imagine thatour theorizations of the multitude might fare better.Donald V. Kingsbury Donald V. Kingsbury is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of California,Santa Cruz. His current research interests center on the dynamic relation between constituent andconstituted power in contemporary Latin America. His dissertation, “State and Power after Neoliberalismin Bolivarian Venezuela” examines the formation of individual and collective political identities in thecontext of social struggles. He is particularly interested in the possibilities and limitations of non-liberalpolitical formations, including and beyond those associated with, Marxist  praxis in Venezuela. Don can bereached   From: Kingsbury  5 Footnotes 1.Jon Beasley-Murray, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 62.2.Ibid, xv.3.Ibid, 283.4.Ibid, 285.5.Jorge Castañeda, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” Foreign Affairs May/June (2006): 29.6.Ibid, 38.7.See, for example, George Ciccariello-Maher, “Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution,”  Monthly Review 59/4 (2007): 42–56; and Michael Lebowitz,  El Socialismo no Cae del Cielo: Un Nuevo Comienza  (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores: 2007).8.Beasley-Murray, 59.9.Ibid, 25.10.Ibid, 53.11.Ibid, 63.12.Ibid, 67.13.Ibid, 68.14.Ibid, 121.15.Ibid, 127.16.Ibid, 153.17.See, for example, Paolo Virno,  A Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext (e), 2004). Theargument could be made that Hardt and Negri also make gestures towards this sort of differentiation in theirattempt to give form to the multitude in the latest installment of their trilogy, Commonwealth (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2009), but this would require more space than the present occasion allows.18.Beasley-Murray, 201.19.Ibid, 207.20.Beasley-Murray is not suggesting that the Chávez presidency amounts to a rule by the multitude.Indeed, he suggests that the Bolivarian Revolution’s concentration of institutional and symbolic power onthe figure of Chávez in many ways provided the recipe for his overthrow and the power vacuum thatensued. However, in the exceptional context of this vacuum, space was also opened for the multitude topoint “once more toward a politics beyond the systematic substitutions” (p. 296) of the present.21.Ibid, 63.22.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri,  Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).23.Beasley-Murray, xx.24.On this, see most notably Enrique Dussel, 20 Tesis de Política (México, DF: Siglo XXI Editores,2006); and, classically, Aníbal Quijano,  Imperialismo y Marginalidad en América Latina (Lima: MoscaAzul Editores, 1977).Copyright © 2011 Donald V. Kingsbury and The Johns Hopkins University Press 
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