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Interview conducted 6/29 – 2014

Cæcilie Varslev-Pedersen: How is it to live and work in South Carolina these days?

Todd May: It doesn’t get easier. You see that a lot of the country is moving away politically. We don’t have gay marriage. In fact, they’re passing laws to make it harder to be gay. If gay marriage is going to come, it’s going to come from federal order.1 We are also completely nutso about drugs. People get arrested for bullshit charges related to weed. I mean…it’s not only in the South that this happens. The endorsement of guns is over the top. A student of mine who served in Iraq was saying to me that the endorsement of guns is so naïve. People talk about protecting themselves from the government. But if the government wants to send you under, there’re not going to fire a bullet at you. They’ll freeze your bank account, they’ll turn off your water and electricity, and then they’ll just going to wait for you to come out with your hands up. They’re not even a little bothered by this. So when you ask how are things going in the South, it is in fact moving in the wrong direction.

CVP: That must be very depressing.

TM: Yes, that is very depressing. My daughter and I were talking about gay marriage and weed. She’s saying they’re coming to South Carolina and I bet her: you pick one of those two, either one, and I bet you it isn’t here in twenty years. She was smart to bet on weed. Though she may be wrong about sexuality, because they made a court decision in Utah… But she picks weed on the theory that, if weed became legal and people smoked it, they would be: “ahhh, gay marriage – what the hell!” [He laughs heartily]. But this stuff’s coming from on high. People in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; these people are not going say to themselves “oh yeah, gay folks, they’re really equal”. That’s just not going happen. So if the question is whether it is still hard to be in the South, the answer is yes.

CVP: Those don’t seem like very promising conditions for anarchism. Where do you see anarchism today?

TM: Actually, I think it’s an interesting period for anarchism, because with the demise of the hegemony of Marxist discourse as the alternative discourse, for the last 20 years of so things have in fact really opened up for the possibility of anarchism. What’s happening is a bit strange. I think that there is a lot more anarchist organizing going on that doesn’t call itself anarchist. And I think, at least from what I understand, from what little I’ve seen, that many self-identified anarchists are doing stuff that doesn’t strike me as anarchist at all.

CVP: What are the main principles of anarchism, as you see it? And where are the self-identified anarchists failing?

TM: Well, organizing from the bottom up, presupposing the equality of everyone, recognizing that there isn’t a single struggle, but a multitude of intersecting struggles. I think these would be three central elements of any practice of anarchism. The third one is also about a critique of domination as opposed to a critique of exploitation. In anarchism, the product has to reflect process [i.e. the process of the struggle]. You see this in a lot of current organizing. People know about the idea of consensus decision-making, even though that’s not necessarily anarchist. But in looking at that, they cultivate a sensitivity to others. I think that there is a recognition coming out of a self-identified Marxist perspective – in the wake of the failures of twentieth century revolutionary movements – that we can’t simply think in terms of a revolution at the top. This has found its way into organizing. However, among many self-identified anarchists, it seems as though there is a regression into identity politics. That is to say, you don’t get to speak about the experience of the disabled unless you’re disabled, and gay unless you’re gay. That seems to me to be entirely unhelpful in building a movement. If one could never understand – at least to an important extent – the experience of people who are very unlike oneself, then there would be no point for literature. So the trick is not to say that you can’t understand it; the trick is to find out how you get people to understand it. Not to be totally inside a person’s head, but to sort of see it a bit. I think it is entirely possible for a person who is not in the group to be able to get somebody else who is not in the group to see it. I don’t see why, at the outset, we should say that this is not a possibility. The trick is to become more sensitive rather than denying the possibility of sensitivity at the outset.

CVP: Where do you see these groups, which, according to you, are in fact anarchist, but don’t identify themselves as ones?

TM: I think you see it all over. One place you saw it was with Occupy. Occupy was not a self-identified anarchist group, although they functioned on a lot of anarchist principles. I know there were anarchist organizers there, but there were all kinds of folks there. One of the things you really saw there was a sense of the necessity for presupposing equality. If you develop structures that presuppose equality and then see where or how we could build relationships with that: now you’re building alternatives. I think that Occupy was extremely important. People talk about it as a failure. However, if you change the discourse about income distribution in the US, the way this movement did, I don’t see how you are a failure. They didn’t get equality, but they got people to talk about it.

So Occupy would be one example. I’ve also written on a small co-op in South Carolina, near me. It’s a food co-op. They treat everybody equally, and they work on anarchist principles. Although there isn’t a person within this place that, if you told them that they were anarchist, wouldn’t just run screaming out the door. So it is all over. I think it’s in the air and I think it’s in the air in progressive movements. I mean, I don’t need people to call themselves anarchist. That doesn’t matter. What I need is politics that recognizes the principles that seem to me to be important to anarchism.

CVP: Why do you think anarchism is in the air right now?

TM: That’s a good question, Cille. I don’t know. Certainly the opening was created by the failure of Marxist movements in the twentieth century. But you can’t help thinking it must be more.

CVP: Yes, but there is also a resurgence in critiques of capital right now, isn’t there?

TM: Yes, and that’s important in a period of neoliberalism. The Marxist analysis of the dominance of capitalism is important. It’s not that we do away with that analysis. But what we are talking about now is not only an analysis of capital, but also the creation of alternatives. The creation of alternatives, I think, has to happen on the basis of bottom-up movements. These movements just aren’t there in the history of Marxism. So it’s not that we throw Marx out the door. There’s a lot of important analysis that Marx has given us. However, I think that inasmuch as Marxists want to reduce social reality to what they analyze, that’s a mistake. But nevertheless I think it’s really important. I’m halfway through Thomas Piketty’s book. It’s great. It’s very long, but he writes really well. There’s something of the Marxist inspiration there. I mean, Piketty is not a Marxist, but one of the essential ideas of the book – that inequality is created so that those on the top gain at the expense of those at the bottom – is not an idea that would be foreign to Marx.

CVP: Could you explain how exactly the Marxist tradition has failed? What are its failures? And how does anarchism transcend these failures? 

As I said, it isn’t that the Marxist tradition does not offer insights. It’s failure lies rather in its reductionism. In much of the Marxist tradition, all domination is conceived in terms of exploitation. That leads to two important problems. First, it involves a failure to recognize other forms of domination. Second, it leads toward an elite avant-garde view that the experts in the Archimedean point of exploitation should lead the masses. We know the history of that view from the legacy bequeathed to us by the twentieth century. Anarchism avoids these problems by seeing exploitation as only one form of domination. Thus, it allows for the integrity of various intersecting struggles and refuses to posit an avant-garde party as necessary for struggle. It also carries with it, related to this, the insight that the product of struggle must be reflected in the process. 

CVP: Is the revival of anarchism an American affair? Across the third world, anarchism has less appeal.

TM: I am not sure what to say here. I suspect that it is not entirely an American affair. I know there is interest in anarchism in the UK, Turkey, Israel and Palestine, Italy, Denmark, and elsewhere. But I am not an expert on the various anarchist movements, and so don’t want to commit myself on the extent of its appeal outside the US. 

CVP: You have recently written a book in which you suggest that friendship can be a way of resisting neo-liberalism, and a couple of months ago, in New York, you gave a paper on non-violent forms of resistance. Foucault is famous for stating – quite vaguely – that ‘where there’s power, there’s resistance’. Would it be right to say that this conception of resistance is very central to your thought? And if it is, how is it situated in your poststructuralist anarchism?

TM: Let me say something that I think would help frame all this. There’s a tendency in theoretical work to do critique. To say what’s wrong and to analyze what’s wrong. There’s a tendency for books and articles to say: “here’s another thing that is really bad”. You know, you haven’t thought of this other thing which is also terrible, and this other thing sucks, and here’s another way in which it sucks. In almost all of my work, I have been looking for alternatives. Ok, so there are plenty of people out there telling us how bad things are, and why they are bad – and Foucault was among them. We need that analysis, but we also need to think about what the alternatives are. So the poststructuralist anarchism was really a beginning attempt to frame the alternative. I was saying, look, if we put this in the anarchist frame, then we can begin to see not only what’s wrong, but also how we might move on. Resistance is an idea that is, in Foucault particularly, a placeholder. He very rarely says anything about it. So the question is: in light of what Foucault tells us about what’s wrong, how might we think about alternatives? I think this was also what drove me to Rancière, because his notion of equality was really helpful in framing thoughts about resistance.2 I’m still trying to sort this out, over twenty years after the poststructuralist anarchism book. But I’ve also tried to move a little bit closer to the ground, so my second book about Rancière3 is about ‘movements’. Right, so here are some specific movements, and this is how they do this. The friendship book4 was also an attempt to say: in a neoliberal context, which often seeks to colonize our relationships, how might we think of alternatives? If we look at friendships, we can see themes that resist neoliberalism and therefore might give us a basis for thinking about alternatives. In nothing I write am I interested simply in critique. And I’m not interested in coercing people, but I am interested in offering alternatives, so that people can be offered a vision of where to go.

CVP: Would you say, then, that you’re rather optimistic about resistance today?

TM:No, I’m not terribly optimistic about it. I think it’s a very difficult period, and I think it is difficult in a lot of ways. I think the neoliberal discourse has a deep grip on culture. To give you an example: before the re-election of Obama, I said that if I had a choice simply based on domestic and especially economic policy, not foreign policy, between Obama and Richard Nixon, I’d voted for Nixon. Because Nixon was well to the left of Obama. Politicshas moved so far to the right. The other thing is that our situation has been overshadowed by the environmental crisis, and I think this is very dangerous. I don’t think we’re getting near to beginning to address this. So it’s not that I’m optimistic. It’s just that if we don’t try to think about alternatives, then for sure we’ll never get anywhere. It seems to me that this is at least one step we have to take, whether or not it’s going to work out. I’ll put it this way: we don’t know if it’s going to work out if we take the step, but we know what will happen if we don’t.

CVP: You said in another interview that you didn’t think it was up to the political philosopher to make a political program.

TM: Yes.

CVP: What can they do instead?

TM: Well, I think what they can do is this… I think they can do more than Foucault thought they could do. Foucault said that the job of the philosopher, or the job of the intellectual, is to do analysis, to offer tools to those who struggle. I think there are two other things that can be done. One is that you can offer alternatives or beginning visions of alternatives. That’s not the same thing as telling folks where they should go. It’s to offer visions that people can then look at critically. The friendship book tries to do that, the Rancière book tries to do that. We can do that, but I also think that there are philosophical issues, which can be sorted out in terms of positive programs. So I’ve argued that using the concept “equality” politically as a norm to organize around is much better than using “liberty”. That’s not prescribing to people what they should do, but it is doing normative work. So I think both in the case of positing positive things that people can consider in terms of action and in the case of doing normative work on the positive programs, there’s stuff to be done. None of that requires, say, “the feminist movement needs to go here”.

CVP: One concrete example of forms of resistance that you have studied is non-violent resistance. Your analysis of non-violence implies a critique of what you call ‘the ethics of vulnerability’, a position that you attribute to Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida..

TM: Yeah, Levinas in his ethical works, Derrida ion those works where he follows Levinas’ ethical lead, and maybe a bit of Butler, for instance in Precarious Life.

CVP: How does your view on non-violence differ from the view of these thinkers?

TM: Gandhi said that people mistakenly think that non-violence is the weapon of the weak. But it’s not. When non-violence is done well, although it might require some forms of sacrifice, it can be very powerful. So it isn’t just that you’re calling for recognition for something; you can actually put people in a position where it is almost impossible for them to do anything else. But the ethics of vulnerability gets things backward: for it, the power of non-violence lies in the vulnerability of the person committing it [i.e. violence]. So for instance, at the lunch counter sit-ins in the American civil rights movement, people came and sat down to lunch and clearly they were very vulnerable. People started to throw food and ketchup on them, but what happened was that the people who did this found themselves morally cornered because of how they acted. The people at the lunch counter sit-ins pretty much knew that this was going to happen, so it was not really their vulnerability [which was at stake in the example], it was their ability to put people in a position that was morally impossible for them that mattered. To put the point in another way, it wasthe power of the non-violent actorsin using their vulnerability, rather than the vulnerability itself, that constituted the dynamic of non-violent resistance. So I think that when the proponents of the ethics of vulnerabilitywe’re talking about the person intending to commit violence as responding to “the call of the other” – and about , “responding to the other” as such – , this isn’t really capturing the dynamic of what is going on in non-violence.

CVP: You don’t think that non-violence makes one vulnerable, so you seek to develop a more active account of non-violence, is that correct?

TM: Yeah, yeah, it’s very active. You know people say that in non-violence you put yourself in a position where you are vulnerable because you don’t have a weapon, but people with guns, in war, seem to be fairly vulnerable. It’s not like the gun gives you that much protection. If people say, well, people are going to die in non-violence campaigns, I’m thinking they’d die in any kind of campaigns; the question is whether you have an opportunity with your non-violent campaign of actually being able to making a change. There is a recent book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan called Why Civil Resistance Works. They studied various movements over the past hundred and some years and found that non-violent campaigns are generally far more likely to be effective in many areas than violent ones.

CVP: You’re not a pacifist, you’ve said. So this is not the only way, or even the main way, one should resist?

TM: No, I’m not a pacifist. I think there are situations where non-violence is simply not going to work. And also there are justifications for violence. I think there’re two things at play in such cases. One is that non-violence doesn’t seem to have a reasonable chance of working in some cases. That’s going to depend on the specifics of the situation. The other one is where the harm being done is egregious enough, and if it’s justified to take violence to do something about it, then I think it’s fine to do violence. I have no problem with that. Although I’m not a fan of the Hezbollah, they drove Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon with violence, and it’s not clear to me that anything else would have worked. The Israelis were in a foreign country, they thought they could take it over, and the Hezbollah reasoned that if enough of the Israelis died, they’d think it was not worth it any more, and that’s more or less what happened.

CVP: It seems to me that there is this very political part of your work, and then there is this other part. You’ve written on friendship, on death, on the meaningfulness of life, and on romantic love, and all these “existential topics”. Are these kinds of topics something academic philosophy doesn’t pay enough attention to?

TM: No, I think it’s there. I think they do pay attention to it. I’m just trying to make my own contributions. The theologian Harvey Cox wrote a book called Feast of Fools. Something he said in the first three pages has always stayed with me. He said that there are life celebrators and there are world changers. Life celebrators look at life, and they see what’s beautiful and what’s good, and they try to celebrate that. World changers look at the world, and they see what’s bad, and they try to make it better. What Cox said – and this seems to me exactly right – was that the trick is to find out how to balance those two. So if you’re just a life-celebrator with no world changing in you, then you’re not recognizing all the suffering that’s going on. It’s ignorance. But perhaps more dangerous is the world changer who can’t celebrate life, because they think everything is bad and that they know where to go… These people become the solemn revolutionaries. People like that are frightening because, when they get power, nothing good ever happens. In my work, I try to do existential questions and life celebrating and to write on world changing. I’ve noticed now, and I haven’t before, that I tend to do one after the other. So I tend to do one life celebration, then a world changing.

Selected works by Todd May

  • The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. USA: Penn State U.P., 1994.
  • The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. Chippenham, UK: Edinburgh U.P., 2008. 
  • Death: The Art of Living. New York: Acumen, 2009.
  • Contemporary Political Movements and the thought of Jacques Rancière: Equality in Action. Chippenham and Eastbourne, UK: Edinburgh U.P., 2010.
  • Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. USA: Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield), 2012.

Other books mentioned in interview:

  • Judith Butler: Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.
  • Harvey Cox: Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1969.
  • Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan: Why Civil Resistance Works. The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

1In November 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in South Carolina as an effect of federal court rulings.

2See The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality (2008).

3I.e. Contemporary Political Movements and the thought of Jacques Rancière (2010).

4Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (2012).

This article is published in Naked Punch Issue 18. To buy the issue click here:

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