A Conversation about Possibilities, about Power and Powerlessness; about Labor, about Faithfulness to the Event; about the Realization of the (Post-)Soviet Experience; about Ascesis, the New Barbarism, and the Ecstasy of Consumption; about Bare Life and  Superfluous People; and about How to Be Ahead of Oneself

Dmitry Vilensky: As we begin our conversation about potentialities, we need to make a precise link to our contemporary reality. We need to try and discover what potentialities are arising now, in a period that, in the last issue of this newspaper, we characterized as reactionary. As we found out when we talked with a number of people, both in Russia and elsewhere, most of our interlocutors are in a state of disenchantment; they spoke of their melancholy, of feeling disoriented. That is to say, many people who were full of hope not so long ago (when, as it seemed, a new set of possibilities opened up) now have a greater and greater sense of limits, of the impossibility of realizing their potential. An important personal experience for me was the failure to mobilize for the Petersburg counter summit: the opposition demonstrated its bankruptcy at all levels; the limitations of the movement became quite apparent. Of course everyone loses heart and says to himself, Well, whatever: I’ll mind my own business, worry about my career, make some money, take care of my family. One guy escapes into Buddhism, another into Russian Orthodoxy; some people retreat into everything all at once. Once again we see a boom of esoteric practices. Once again the question arises: if our ability to realize our desires and possibilities is more and more limited, then where are our potentialities formed-potentialities that, I persist in hoping, might be actualized by the course of history?

For me, this is the central problem. To me it’s apparent that the only thing that can have potential is “living labor,” labor power, which Negri sets over against Agamben’s “bare life.” In Negri’s account, this is a vitalist concept: there is the power of labor, living labor, which is capable of innovation, including political innovation. This, then, is a potentiality that might be actualized. The paradox of the Russian conjuncture, I think, has to do with the fact that in Russia, historically, labor has been completely non-productive: it’s either slave labor or something else of the sort. In Russia, labor has no dignity whatsoever; it isn’t respected. This gives rise to a number of questions. Why is it that in Russia labor really is in this non-productive, degraded state? Why is society’s attitude to it negative? To put it crudely, why is it better to goof off than to labor? That is to say, here in Russia labor isn’t something that emancipates; clearly, it only enslaves you. Hence the contempt it’s held in. Judging by the latest sociological research, people see labor as nothing else than a means to earn money.

Again, what did we witness during perestroika? An unbelievable potential that was apparently emancipated by the abolition of administrative barriers. At an early stage in the process, after all, completely acceptable legislation on community enterprises was introduced. Under this legislation, any company could have become community-managed. No one took advantage of this opportunity, however. The experiment didn’t take off at all; this particular potential wasn’t realized.

Alexander Skidan: In Russian, work (rabota), worker (rabochii), and slave (rab) all share the same root. Work is unconsciously associated with slavery; labor (trud), with Soviet-era slogans (like Peace, Labor, May) that have left a bitter taste in our mouths, and with “difficulty” (trudnostiu). This isn’t just folk-etymology: historically, the majority of the Russian population always experienced labor as forced labor. The Soviet period wasn’t an exception. There were, of course, outbursts of genuine worker enthusiasm (the first Five-Year Plan, the industrialization drive, the virgin lands campaign), but the tragedy was that the fruits of this enthusiasm were expropriated by the ruling class, the Party nomenklatura. Hence, the famous lines about the Soviet hammer and sickle: “Reap what you sow, strike the iron while it’s hot / All the same you’ll end up with squat.” This is not to mention the labor camps and the whole Gulag system, where labor was experienced as a curse.

This definitely left its mark. Nowadays, of course, things aren’t quite this way (for a certain elect few), but the deep-level psychohistorical matrix continues to make itself felt, just as other structures, dating back to the age of the Domostroi (a 16th-century Muscovite compendium of household rules) and various princely “duties” and “indulgences,” continue to be felt as well. Officers in our army still employ our soldiers as a free slave-labor force; in prisons, any form of work is considered a means of humiliation. And the army and the prisons provide the two most honest “snapshots” of our society.
I would like, however, to take your film about the summit (Protest Match. Kirov Stadium. July 14-15, 2006) as a starting point. At first glance, nothing but disappointment and sadness arises when you watch the film. Total resignation, a total inability to mobilize and organize. On the other hand, though, I started to think about what lesson we could draw from this experience and I came to the conclusion that not everything is so grim. Because this experience of disenchantment is important. Badiou’s thought about the traditional forms of revolutionary mobilization and organization, such as the party and even the movement, are thus confirmed. They probably have really outlived their usefulness; as he puts it, they have reached their saturation point. That’s why the principal task today is to find the means to create new forms. (For Badiou, of course, this is tied to his critique of multitudes, which he considers a petit-bourgeois movement; I see a lot of justice in this critique.)

Hence the next move: maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the counter summit fell through. It had to fail because from the get-go it was implicated in a logic laid down by the system, by the G8 summit. That is to say, it turns out that protest groups have to mirror this logic, to adapt themselves to the G8 summit’s dates, venues, and agenda. It’s the same thing in the cultural sphere. I think there’s more perspective in seeking out alternative spaces and constructing an alternative logic, in devising one’s own events, than in linking them to what the system has to offer.

My second point was inspired by something Badiou said. In an interview, he talks about remaining faithful to two historical events that also had personal meaning for him: the struggle against the colonial war with Algeria and May ’68. What event should we be faithful to here in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia? This is important: it is the axis around which our identity is constructed. It’s terrifying to ask this question. There are three of us and we might attempt to figure out what this one event is for the three of us, but if there were even five people here I’m afraid we wouldn’t be able to find one thing that binds us all. We could say abstractly that we’re united by October 1917, but the problem is that this isn’t a personal event, something that happened in our lifetimes. The experience of perestroika was so heterogeneous that it’s difficult to appeal to it as a binding force. If perestroika, after all, began with slogans like “socialism with a human face,” “the return to Leninist norms,” and the dismantling of Stalinist bureaucratic army-barracks socialism, then within a year or two everyone had started talking about dismantling socialism altogether. In the late eighties, society was ideologically prepared for a capitalist restoration, although no one talked about this directly then; they talked, rather, about the free market. Where, then, does the general line of our faithfulness run? For me, this is the fundamental question nowadays.

DV: Badiou’s concept of faithfulness here converges with Benjamin’s thought that we must continually look back into the past in order to see the future.

Artem Magun: We need to be specific here. Benjamin and Badiou have utterly different takes on the past. Badiou proposes that we find our support in something necessary and important that happened in the past and move on from there. Benjamin, on the contrary, searches for something that was suppressed in the past, something that didn’t happen, that perished and is reawakening only now. The event that, for Badiou, happens in the past, is taking place right now for Benjamin. That is, they both look back to the past, but from opposite points of view. This is important as we try to understand potentiality: either potential is the impulse generated by a positive past or present event, or it’s something that hasn’t happened yet, that was interrupted in mid-sentence.

The second point that you’ve brought up is that organizational forms are outdated and that we’ll look for alternatives. To a certain degree I agree that people should seek out the experience of collectivity, the experience of fairness, as these grow out of their own daily lives. But what will they find there that’s new? They’ve been searching for two hundred years already, and we know more or less what can be found. You can find, as Robert Owen did, self-managed enterprises-the attempt to construct isolated just worlds in miniature for which Marx and Engels criticized the utopian socialists. Other (late Soviet-era) examples include dissident circles and camping trips. I don’t know-even a discussion around the kitchen table is an alternative form of life. Many folks believe that perestroika (post-Soviet civil society, etc.) was born in these circles.

Well, that’s all fine, but what new forms can we invent? For the problem is that these forms can be completely reactionary and escapist in character. They can deceive us: you’re under the hopeful illusion that you’re living the autonomous life, but in fact what this means is that you’re a political conformist and ordinary consumer. As the possibilities for political action are repressed with ever-greater vigor, the more little circles there’ll be; the Soviet experience of an intimate circle-based social life will return. This is all well and good. The question is, first of all, what’s new in all this? Second, how much of a real alternative does it provide?

AS: It’s clear that during Soviet times all these circles and kitchen cliques emerged precisely because there was a consensus that the existing order was unacceptable. Nowadays, no such consensus exists in society. For the vast majority of people who inhabit the post-Soviet space, capitalism (even under the guise of the free market and human rights) is the optimal system. This is the problem.

AM: I agree. But since our Russian regime isn’t consistent in its implementation of this policy-the left hand introduces a free market while the right hand constructs authoritarianism-the educated class in nearly unanimous in its hatred of it. It hates the regime, but at the same time it either makes its peace with it (or it doesn’t). As a rule, it votes against it. Or it doesn’t vote at all and contents itself with chewing the regime out.
AS: In my view, this is a peculiar kind of hypocrisy. Because it’s easy to sick all your dogs on Putin, to personalize evil, while at the same time you avoid questioning the system. In today’s Russia, this system combines what at first sight seem like opposite poles: on the one hand, the free market, capitalism, the ecstasy of consumption; on the other, bureaucratization and a state monopolization of production. The educated class that you speak of isn’t pleased with this second pole, bureaucratization, while they’re totally satisfied with the first pole, capitalism.

Friends, let’s return, however, to the question of faithfulness. What event is there about which we can say: yes, there was a certain promise, it was crushed, it wasn’t realized, and now we have to seize this event and declare our faithfulness to it? Or is there no such event?
AM: That’s a rhetorical question. It’s clear what the event is: perestroika and its aftermath. According to Badiou, this is what the event looks like. First, in reply to your earlier remarks about the contradictions of perestroika: any event polarizes society. One part of society embraces it, while the other half takes the opposite stance. Second, an event always involves the rise of multiple forces, contradictory tendencies. These suddenly awaken as if out of nowhere and collide with each other. However you look at it, though, something really new and indeterminate emerges.

Our generation perceived perestroika as, on the one hand, a chance, an opening; on the other hand, as the realization and actualization of long-cherished hopes. First, something really new appears, a field of indeterminacies arises, and this is where our generation saw an opening. Second, long-cherished hopes are actualized in a way that leaves the boldest daydreams in the dust! One experiences an affect of pure realization. A sense of passion, omnipotence, and mastery is born, a sense of growing power. At the same time there’s a sense of sadness at the destruction of realized possibilities and the purely extensive, idle growth of power. And whereas Badiou emphasizes that the event (which we take as our support in the past) is a kind of actuality, what Benjamin emphasizes is precisely potentiality, the chance. In his remarks, Dima successfully juggled this: however strange it may seem, where we find an actual event, we also find potentiality. That’s because actuality always surpasses itself. It’s always churning; there are always some moves that weren’t realized.

For what is the event? It opens up infinity, infinite possibilities, infinite power. The paradox is that this power is infinite, but it’s infinite for a day, for a year. Then this infinity goes away, and we say to ourselves, What the heck?! That was infinity: how could it end? We’re familiar with this in our creative work. It seems as if we can move mountains, but then our physical limitations always come to the fore.

According to Badiou, the event closes when you betray it. It continues to the degree that we (and not only we) remember this event and remain faithful to it-not in the sense that we swear our allegiance to it, but in the sense that in our everyday life we constantly refer to the possibilities that the event opened up. In this sense, the event didn’t end. As a mass/public phenomenon it ended because the structures of popular culture and civil society don’t support it, but it hasn’t closed for our generation.

DV: But today, despite the fact of our wonderful faithfulness to faithfulness, an ever-fiercer barbarization of life is taking place. I can no longer interact with students because they don’t understand the project that I’m appealing to, where it is that I take my bearings. So okay, our generation has this experience of the event. But now there’s a new generation of young people who don’t have any experience of the event; or rather, they have the experience of the anti-event.

AM: Well, I wouldn’t generalize about everyone here. But I do agree about barbarization: as Horkheimer and Adorno tell us, this process has been underway in the west for a long time, for the last seventy years at very least. Apparently, here we also have to take into account the fact that this process happens against a backdrop of something else. Yes, we see barbarization and the culture industry, but alongside these things we find liberation, emancipation. These, by the way, have made use of mass culture to some degree, and to some degree they’ve resisted it; in some instances, barbarism was even used quite positively against the system. Here in Russia in the nineties, barbarism was somehow attractive. We had these liberated young clubbers who read sex novels, and this was attractive. But then this barbarism becomes stupid and is left unopposed to anything.
This is the dialectic of enlightenment: we’re simply reproducing what’s already happened in the west. But the west’s stability sets limits to barbarization; it provides various kinds of compensation for it. In Russia, however, a top-down barbarization is being foisted on us.

I would still avoid sounding too pessimistic a note, however. Our time is the time of a realized (okay, half-realized) utopia. For some reason Negri, Virno and Co. forget that we live not only in the dawn of a new organization of labor, but also in a time of utopian consumption. Consumption, which has nearly eclipsed production both in the economic and cultural spheres, is also a utopian phenomenon, after all. It shouldn’t be discarded as barbarism. When any of us goes to the supermarket he finds himself in a utopian space like the Stalin-era Exhibition of National Economic Achievements (in Moscow): magical things constantly present themselves to your gaze. Of course, this is ersatz, this is fetishism. We’re justified when we criticize people for being satisfied with so little. People settle for the lesser, however, because the lesser contains the greater. In this sense, we should seek out potential in actuality, keeping in mind that something is being realized. The consumerist and technological utopias are quite powerful utopias. They are being realized, but this realization happens in a way that’s purposely the direct opposite, as it were, of how we see utopia. It’s like a caricature of our authentic utopian desires.

AS: Yes, but then we have to question the solvency of any revolutionary project as such. Because any revolutionary project, while being strategically directed towards utopian consumption in the future, tactically requires refusal, ascesis, and discipline in the here and now. And it is quite strict about this demand. In the present situation, in which we ourselves are the nihilistic subjects of consumption (the other pole of which is democracy), is it possible to appeal to self-denial and asceticism? Amidst a triumphant consumerist ersatz-utopia, who in their right mind will volunteer to sacrifice his fetishism of the lesser (as you put it) for the sake of some kind of unclear promise? There was the slogan Herbert Marcuse advanced in the sixties-the Great Refusal. It was a failure both on the political and cultural fronts. The mediatized culture industry devoured everything. All that’s remained are the heroes of the Great Refusal: Beckett, Blanchot, and . . . Petersburg mathematician Gregory Perelman.

AM: I agree with what you’re saying. And I agree that it’s unrealistic to demand ascesis nowadays. It’s tantamount to a return to religion, to a kind of subtle masochism. It’s the west that’s talking about ascesis nowadays because the utopian drive has weakened there. The realization of one utopia is complete, and so the formulation of new utopias is underway. That’s why the more intelligent of our western friends (Esa Kirrkopelto, for example) are talking about poverty, about “poor” art. Our losses equal our gains, they say, and this already impairs our freedom. You can’t put the question this way in today’s Russia, however. Our experience is different: the period of utopian consumption has only just dawned here. But we do, of course, have to work with our desire and pleasure.

There are two contemporary approaches to potentiality. The way of ascesis is close to Giorgio Agamben’s approach. He reminds us that potentiality is affirmed via the refusal of action, through its suspension, through an intensive caesura. Capability is in the first instance the capability not to act, potentiality that isn’t translated into action at all. In our age, when mass culture and technology try instantly to reify our least desires, this is a very timely reminder.

The other important contemporary approach to potentiality (power, possibility) issues from the supercharged might of the new productive forces already at work in today’s economy. These forces are at the same time a political force capable of founding a new, self-managed society. This is Antonio Negri’s approach.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben criticizes Negri: he argues that Negri’s beloved “constituent power” of the laboring masses is in fact the very same arbitrary sovereign power that lords over society’s outcasts and exiles. That is to say, Agamben holds that Negri and his followers won’t succeed, by transferring power to refugees and migrants, in putting paid to the structure of exclusion itself, to a structure in which omnipotent rulers tend their powerless herds. In order to discover a genuine non-sovereign constituent power-possibility, says Agamben, we need a disjuncture between possibility and actuality, a structure where they aren’t correlated at all, where neither assumes the other. It isn’t quite clear how this is possible. Agamben himself affirms the necessity of pure potentiality and pure actuality for the utopian task of thinking and acting differently. Moreover, I’m afraid that this isn’t a utopia in the sense of realized desire (as I’ve described it earlier in our conversation), but in the good old sense of a grand task that is postponed until the future.

Back in the day Aristotle claimed the primacy of actuality over possibility: something just has to make possibility into reality! Even though he rejects the simple reversal of this pairing, Agamben is seeking some kind of pure, “powerless” possibility beyond possibility. Following Heidegger, what’s at stake for Agamben is precisely this cultivation of possibilities that excludes their correlation with actuality.

For us today, just as for Aristotle, actuality has priority over possibility. Or rather, what’s more important is an actuality that realizes possibilities that in themselves are uninteresting (the purchase of a dishwasher, etc.)

First, we have to dissect the pleasure that people really do experience in this technological-consumerist system. They experience this pleasure unconsciously, as it were, and are ready to sell out cheaply. We have to raise the stakes. Here, art is indispensable. By the way, when I speak here of “pleasure,” I have in mind not desire, but rather the utopian drive, the force of the miracle-come-true, and the joy of pure being. In general, possibility and actuality are originally one and the same thing. (For example, the Greek word energeia means “actuality,” and since the time of Leibniz we’ve used it precisely in the sense of power, potentiality.) To be more precise: possibility and actuality denote the gap within the unfolding event, which is seen either from the viewpoint of lack or from the viewpoint of excess.

Second, we need to de-reify the utopian force by translating it from the microcosm into the macrocosm. The privatized collectivity of home and supermarket has to be returned to the primordial collectivity that the individual either suppresses in himself or sells off much too cheaply. And we need to invent screens that will turn the individual away from fetishes and towards the world. That is to say, towards relationships. It’s precisely relationships (between people, between people and things) that are the real guarantee of any potentiality. The relationships that form in the course of activity are in fact possibilities: the space they form is the space of possibility.

AS: What, in your opinion, is the connection between the rise of the right wing in Russia and this half-realized consumerist ersatz-utopia? Doesn’t the link have to do with the fact that an enormous number of people are cut off from this utopia, that they’re denied access to it? Isn’t it the case that this utopia is not only ersatz, but also a utopia for a select minority?

AM: Well, yes, the people who are excluded from this utopia are the same people who counter it with a form of ascesis on the level of identity: we Russians are against all this, they say. I think this is a form of resistance to utopia. Or they resist via religion: this is a powerful force. But today I’m still in favor of the forces of wealth. Moreover, the powerful wealth of poverty itself might help us to de-reify the wealth of the “wealthy,” to redirect it towards relationships.

DV: For me what’s really important is the general understanding that people who are deprived of everything-money, power, means of communication, the opportunity to consume-still have one weapon: discipline. The loss of “our” potentialities is connected to the fact that it’s the right wing that offers discipline, a very precise and comprehensible discipline, whereas New Leftists are principally opposed to discipline.

AM: Classical leftists are for discipline, and I’m on their side, by the way. This is a really important point. Here we see yet another watershed with the west. What’s so valuable about Badiou is that he understands you need both anti-authoritarianism and discipline. Where does one find the energy to limit oneself? In the very thing that gets you going. First it gets you going, and then you put the brakes on yourself. Nietzsche talks about this as well: it’s precisely a superfluous power that is capable of establishing laws and rules. Moreover, these will be dynamic, flexible rules. But if it’s poverty, misery, and lack that cause you to limit yourself, then this position is liable to generate a quite Protestant, hypocritical, repressive society.

Aside from ascesis, however, there is the option of potlatch, of expenditure. This can be one form of unlimited consumption: people buy things in the supermarket and then they set it all on fire. We had something like this here in the nineties: conspicuous consumption, the purchase of expensive jeeps, the destruction of these jeeps, and so on. But this was a potlatch for elites, and that always entails violence and the humiliation of everyone else. Maybe this form does have some kind of mass potential. I don’t know.

DV: This is what’s happening in an oblique way. Things are discarded with greater and greater speed because everyone has to have an upgrade. In Russia, though, this applies to a very limited number of people for the time being. It will still be a long time before we suddenly become like the United Arab Emirates. (I wonder whether anyone in the Emirates is reflecting on the notion of potentiality.) That is to say, in Russia we’re dealing with a compulsory ascesis that doesn’t call into question the loveliness of homo consumerens. And it seems to me that unless a serious catastrophe like a major war or some other terrible thing happens, then the potentiality of consumption is only going to be accelerated.

This isn’t a terribly optimistic thought. All those who are still somehow capable of asking questions about potentiality are once again doomed to play the role of the “superfluous” people who are such a familiar feature of Russian history. . .

AM: If only this were so! On the contrary, for the time being the system is quite successfully recruiting everyone into its ranks, sometimes even apparent exceptions to its rule. If the “superfluous people” reappear, this will signify the birth of a revolutionary class! It seems to me, however, that the kind of “superfluity” our Russian system is capable of producing is surplus, excess, and overindulgence rather than the cultivation of the unrealizable that we find in Chekhov’s or Agamben’s heroes.

I repeat: our Russian situation is closer to the classical Aristotelian model than to Heidegger or Agamben. Sated and oversaturated by utopia, actuality (reality) already generates the power of potentiality, however indeterminate it might appear to us. Actuality is thus prior to potentiality. We have to see what’s really happening, what it is that really makes people tick. We have to see the unconscious possibilities that this reality contains within itself. It’s rather Negri who is our ally here: their own power-the power of creation ex nihilo (activated in labor) and the messianic power of the miracle-come-true (activated in consumption)-is kept hidden from people. We would have to map this unrevealed power’s lines of force in those sites where it goes off the scale: in labor and in consumption.

If Agamben seeks possibility on the far side of actuality, then perhaps we need to look for a form of action that breaks loose from its possibility, that gets carried away, that goes way too far, that heads off into the impossible . . . An action that would produce possibilities not behind itself (like a sovereign power) but ahead of itself!