Interview with Simon Critchley


Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

With the publication of his new book The Faith of the Faithless , I spoke to philosopher Simon Critchley about why a counterfactual faith is so important to modern politics, why it offers an “archive of possibilities” for those involved in political transformation, why there is still an obsession with “big men”, and what the the true political terrain is today…

STIR: It has been reasoned that the recent theological revival is because of a “theoretical deficit, not a theological need” (Alberto Toscano). Are there more reasons for this unexpected if not unusual upturn in interest in political theology than the catastrophic failure of the communist projects of the previous century?

Simon Critchley: The interest in political theology comes out of a dissatisfaction with liberalism. The notion of political theology as a category or term actually originates in Bakunin. So, it originates in Italian thought in the mid-nineteenth century and is also first used as an abusive term. And when Carl Schmitt picks it up in the 1920s he gives it a different valence but the object of attack for both Bakunin and Schmitt, on the left and on the right, is the same liberalism.

Periodising that, you have the aftermath of the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union, and the period in the early 90s when there is a lot of optimism about the potential within democracy for emancipatory energies that then quickly exhausts itself. Then, there is a return to the theological concerns at that moment, which isn’t so much a return to communist ideas as an attempt to find something at the level of the deep motivational structure of what it means to be a human self and what selves might be together. If you are interested in that question then the history of religious thought is really a place to look — maybe the place to look.

For me, I’ve never been a particularly secularist thinker and I’ve never had a strong faith in the ideas of secular modernity. I’ve had a huge interest, as long as I’ve been aware of such things, in religious thinkers like Paul, Pascal, Augustine and many others. It seems to me that if you start from some idea that philosophy or theory has to do without religion then you are cutting yourself off from that incredibly useful archive of possibilities. So, I think that philosophy is inconceivable without religion, or shouldn’t be done without religion as it shouldn’t be done only with religion. I am not a theist in that sense. It means using the best and most powerful ideas in that tradition for other ends. Of the people who have gone back to using religious sources to think about politics, then I would say that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul is the most powerful.

The question for me is two-fold. Firstly, it is diagnostic: to understand the nature of political forms is to think of them as different forms of sacralisation. In my view, I have this idea that the history of political forms — fascism, liberal democracy, Stalinism — is different forms of the sacral. There is always some sacred object: the nation, the people, the race, or whatever it might be. So, rather than seeing the history of politics as the movement from the religious to the secular, I see politics as a shift in the meaning of the sacred.

For me, that is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool when you are, say, looking at political forms in a country like the one I am living in (the US), where an incredibly powerful political theology exists in terms of American civil religion which is able to exert a unusual power over citizens and using that to find out how that works. So, there is a diagnostic category that is very important, and then there is a more normative one.

Politics for me, to put it in a crude formula, is “association without representation”. I adapted this from Rousseau. The notion of association for me is not just, but nonetheless still, a religious idea. Religion is linked to the idea of Renegare who asks what is it that binds fast? What is it that binds fast an association? For me, that is a question that the left has been grappling with for the last couple of centuries. So, I don’t think you can just slough off the religious tradition or say it’s just nonsense. That is a philistine gesture that is counter-productive in all sorts of ways.

S: Many of Terry Eagleton’s forays into political theology have been to argue that faith is performative rather propositional. Does this chime with your claims in the book about the nature of faith?

SC: I am very close to Terry’s concerns and maybe as time goes on I will get even closer to them. His trajectory is one where he started off as a radical catholic and then became a Marxist. In a sense, nothing has really changed because the object of critique is the same: liberal democracy and the secular theology that underpins it – human rights, freedom, individuality, and so on.
Faith, for me, is not theistic. It does not require a belief in some metaphysical entity like God. Faith is a subjective proclamation. It is a proclamation in a relationship, in my jargon, with a demand. It places a demand on you so that you can bind yourself as an ethical or political subject. That is the way it works.

Now, if we have a strange situation where there are people, like myself for example, who are faithless but have an experience of faith in relationship to an infinite demand, say, the prohibition of murder or the furthering of equality. Then there are people where that faith is underwritten by some theistic reality in their worldview. My view is that it makes no difference at the subjective level: the belief in God is neither here nor there. It is a useless distraction. It does not matter what you believe but rather how you act. I am interested in all of those religious projects that are concerned with doing, action and practice like Black Christianity in the US, for example.
I agree with Terry that faith is on a performative plane rather than a propositional plane — I believe in X and so on. S: In Jean Luc Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure he turns to James rather than Paul for a militant figure. Instead of the fragility of the will that we find in Paul, Nancy turns his attention to James where he says, “Faith without works is dead”.

SC: It is an idea that keeps popping up. It is what the Janists believed in seventeenth century France and who were a totally persecuted religious minority. They were faith as action in the world.

There is a distinction to make between faith as action and spirituality. There is an ideology of spirituality that has grown-up in various forms around what we can broadly see as new age belief. Where, in a sense, spirituality becomes that turn inward in order to find something blessed or divine about yourself, which you can cultivate in a world that is horrible, chaotic and blowing itself to pieces. For me, faith turns outwards and spirituality turns inwards. I’ve written about this on Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism, where I argue that there is an ideology of Gnosticism when it is accepted that the world is shit, a kind of matrix: a dream factory that is governed by evil corporate powers or whoever it might be (gnostics called them the archons), but that there is a pure divine spark within us.

I think all interesting forms of spirituality are forms of passive, nihilistic withdrawal from a world that seems to be out of control. So, I am opposed to that but also think that we need to understand it because when you are dealing with different forms of spirituality, the most general form is the one that has no belief at all. This is why Buddhism seems so amenable — you don’t have to believe in anything. You can cultivate practices of perfection or vacationing and it allows you to deal with the world that is out of control. I don’t just dismiss that. I think passive nihilism makes sense as a response to world, but I think it is the wrong response and that there is a lot of it about.

S: In The Faith of the Faithless you quote Gramsci as saying: “For socialism to overcome Christianity, it has to become a religion”. What does it mean for a political endeavour or project to become a religion? and why is it important for its success?

SC: It is important for its success because it can be that thing that touches people whose interests are not directly affected by the problems of a movement. It could touch them and motivate them to act in a certain way. By religion, I am thinking about what it means to bring human beings into association, into a common front.

Now, Gramsci as a figure has always interested me, more than Marx and more than many contemporary Marxists who still have their over-weaning belief in the socioeconomic. Not that the socioeconomic isn’t important, that would be ridiculous, but for politics we have to learn common fronts, or what Gramsci called the activity of hegemony, where people with divergent interests and commitments can come together into a common front, a historical bloc as Gramsci called it. If you exclude religion or religious people from that, you’re missing the point. In Gramsci’s day what he is talking about, for the most part, is that the Catholic Church is a retrograde reactionary force, but it’s a left Catholic tradition that can be activated; but more generally, to baiting people into a sort of commonality. It is the formation of some kind of structure that is poetic or religious in that broad sense. It requires an activity of political imagination.

In The Faith of the Faithless what I talk about is in relationship to what I call the supreme fiction, namely that we live in a world where the realm of politics is a realm of fiction. It’s a realm of what Hobbes called the artificial man and the artificial soul. But to expose those fictions as fictions — so the fiction of popular sovereignty, the idea that we the people actually govern things or that we don’t live in a plutocracy or an oligarchy — it doesn’t mean we go from fiction to fact but that there can be this other idea of which I call a supreme fiction, which we knew to be a fiction yet we still believe. That in many ways is a way of formulating what might be a kind of political, poetic, and religious project.

There are two elements: a kind of romanticism, and also a kind of pragmatism. The romanticism is the idea about the supreme fiction; the pragmatism is the idea that movements are formed not by exclusions or by the cultivation of vanguards but by a construction of an association that motivates people to join it. I think that’s one of the things that we can say Occupy did for a period of time — there is the open question of what is happening with that right now.

S: When the facts are against us and the continuation of the unipolar world of capitalism is considered the only credible and plausible political choice does faith become a more urgently needed political resource than knowledge?

SC: We need both but in many ways, yes, it does. To put this in a kind of formula, the Situationists were talking about ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’. There is that sense in which to be on the left — whatever that means — is to exist counterfactually. The force of ideology is such that in the regimes that we exist, the position that there are alternatives, is one that is perpetually laughed at and scorned. One has to make do with the way things are. Capitalism is the way things are. Get used to it.

S: Mark Fisher calls this capitalist realism.

SC: The point is that there is no alternative and that we have to pragmatically accept it and modify our demands. So to that extent, any leftist project, any emancipatory project requires a counterfactual faith: a counterfactual and utopian faith in the plausibility of an alternative way of arranging things. Another thing that I try to pick up on in The Faith of the Faithless is the way in which forms of utopians are still out there and we cannot simply reject utopian tradition as an era or a deformation or as a kind of nonsense position.
So to come to knowledge, it’s not that we don’t need knowledge — that would be ridiculous — but that knowledge is sustained by a form of faith. You could also say that about some forms of scientific knowledge. We have this sort of crazy idea of science as an accumulation of knowledge of things. Science is a form of faith. Science is sustained by faith, and it’s sustained by a form of faith whose enemy is certainty rather than doubt. So to put the idea at its most extreme: we live in regimes where what counts as knowledge is framed and organised a certain way, and the alternatives to that are simply seen as ridiculous. To sustain such an alternative position is to occupy a position of faith.

S: Your debate with Slavoj Zizek has at the very least helped to clarify two different political positions: anarchism and authoritarianism. While both socialism and anarchism pursue the end of the state, how it will be achieved is fiercely disputed. Why is there, as Gabriel Kuhn points out, still such a curious obsession with “big men”: Lenin, Mao, Castro?

SC: It’s a good question. It’s this kind of fantasy of political heroism. It’s a politics of virility. I find this all alarming and disgusting. I think the only interesting thing about the debate between me and Zizek, and why it is a worthwhile debate, is that it focuses that distinction between authoritarianism and anarchism on the left, and it shows how there are still in the left forms of authoritarian Leninist nostalgia for a vanguard or a politics of heroic violence. I find that misguided, naïve, and stupid in the sense in that it reminds me of young men sitting in rooms playing video games and listening to heavy metal and dreaming of some cataclysmic event.

The first thing to say is there is an anarchist tradition. Many people think that a certain Marxist or Leninist communism is all that the left can manage. There is anarchist tradition that goes back to Godwin, to Bakunin, to Kropotkin and also Malatesta, amongst other figures, and then through a whole English tradition of people like Colin Ward and other figures that really interest me. And it’s much lower level; it’s much less heroic and dramatic. It begins, arguably, with the diggers in the early years of the English revolution planting carrots. Taking back land, taking back the commons and growing vegetables is not as romantic as the storming of the winter palace of St Petersburg. I think there’s a kind of nostalgia for a kind of phallic, heroic politics, which I for one want nothing to do with particularly.

Politics is a different activity. As evidence of that, I point to the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement was not an authoritarian, heroic, virile, vanguardist idea of politics. It was a well-organised but loose set of people with sets of various influence. When you went down to Zucotti Park, the thing that was most palpable was how many different groups were there, how many different people. Everybody had their little placard saying whatever they wanted to say — and some of that was really quite wacky — but that’s great! Democracy sort of looks like that. The idea of organised, disciplined revolutionary elite, I think, is a bit laughable. It’s simply a way of alienating. It’s simply a way of the left perpetuating its own romantic failure.

S: Anarchist ideas, or at least those associated with or adopted by anarchist groups, have been central to the political and social movements of the last twenty years: the alterglobalisation movement, and now most recently, the Occupy movement. Anarchism as a tradition has not been domesticated and institutionalized in the ways that Marxist thought has. Is it for this reason that it suits the spontaneity of political practice and is more adaptable to radically different situations than the “principled abstractions” and “programmed political action” that you criticise?

SC: I agree with all of that. I wish I’d written that myself, it’s perfect! Anarchism is about practice, it’s about doing, and if it has a weakness, its weakness is theoretical. It has a suspicion of theory whereas Marxism by contrast begins with a big thinker with a big beard who does a big theory of everything, and it lends itself perfectly to a certain western idea of scholarship. This is why so many academics are Marxists: it’s always been good business. Anarchism has always been suspicious of theory and suspicious of that kind of totalising view. I think things have changed a lot in the last 10 years, and maybe there are plenty of anarchists in academia now, or a few, but there didn’t use to be. It used to be very marginal. Now people like David Graeber are really central and people like him have been arguing this for years.

But there’s also a problem with anarchism’s suspicion of theory. So what you say is right: Its opposition to the principled abstraction of a certain Marxist world view I think is great, and its orientation to practice is the way politics should be done. It can adapt to different situations in different ways, so it has an adaptability that is incredibly important. I sometimes wish there were a little bit more interest in the theoretical underpinnings of anarchism. For example, David Graeber, who I like a lot, helps himself to very classical ideas of freedom and consensus and all the rest, which really requires a bit more pondering.

What I try to do in Infinitely Demanding, and in a new book as well, is try to think about some of those concepts in a different way, and try to think about what I was calling a few years ago a ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility,’ as opposed to a classical libertarian anarchism. I think there’s been a shift in anarchism from the 60s idea of anarchism where it becomes simply a question of liberation, in particular, say, sexual liberation, to a position where anarchism is a response to a role and is taking responsibility for a role. The Occupy movement is a very good example of that. What’s been so fascinating about Occupy is the way in which techniques that have been used and laughed at, scorned, considered to be impractical and crazy — people have seen how this works in practice. In Zucotti Park you have 400 people having a general assembly with no amplification and no obvious means of authoritarian control. It’s fantastic. And people can do that. People acting in concert on the basis of goodwill can do amazing things. So I agree with you.
Also, the attempt to co-opt the Occupy movement for some idea of communism just strikes me as a misunderstanding. It’s a sort of broad, direct, democratic action with a whole complex set of threads and clusters.

The overwhelming effect of the Occupy movement for me is that people know, pretty much, what to do. In the right circumstances they can take possession of it. They can self-govern. The goals of the Occupy movement, and indeed the Arab Spring as well, are really socialist in the sense in which it’s about taking back from those who have financial capital power in the interest of people. And in the Arab spring it’s a question of programs of renationalisation, of reclaiming that which seems to have been taken away. That’s a socialist agenda. The tactics used to obtain it are anarchist and people have now seen how affective they can be. The next spin of this wheel is going to be an interesting thing to think about. What happens next? I’m not exactly sure.

S: While the debate about the possible instrumentalisation of the state continues, the increasing boldness of neoliberal privatization is already withering away the state and delivering it into increasingly fewer hands. While it would be fallacious to claim that there is no such thing as state power and that the nation state is now politically irrelevant – activists are turning their focus towards the financial institutions and corporations that they believe to be responsible for economic and ecological crises. Where do you see as the true political terrain today?

SC: Zygmunt Bauman has this lovely image of people being in an airplane and being comfortable in the airplane, going somewhere, watching a movie or reading a book; and then you’re told that there’s no pilot flying the plane; and then you’re told 10 minutes later that the airport that you’re meant to land at is not only not open but hasn’t even been built because planning permission hasn’t been granted and so on. This is an image of our time. We’re moving along comfortably so we think that no one’s in charge: there’s a separation of politics and power. So I think we begin from the idea that there is this separation of politics and power in the sense in which we still think — and maybe this is our residual romanticism or cowardice — that we still think that politics has power, and the location of the unity of politics and power is the state. So we still want to believe that the government actually does things when everything is pointing in the opposite direction.

It would seem that the way in which the oligarchicisation or whatever we call it — the plutocracy that liberal democracy has become over the last 30-40 years, gradually under Reagan and Thatcher and the rest, released the conviction that politics is at the service of a power and that it has no political accountability. So, all that the state is, and is to be, is to serve the interests of capital, which is not located in any state, it is a trans-state, nomadic form because you can take your factory and take it elsewhere if you threaten to tax them.

So the political terrain is firstly to create a political terrain, to put it in a slogan, would be ‘there’s no politics without location.’ Politics is about location, there has to be a place. Living in New York and the US, the awful thing about the Republican candidacy and the Democratic Party and all the rest is that there is no location. One is just a spectator upon a scene, and where one has views this way and that way, which the best candidate is. What Zucotti Park was all about was location. Here’s a terrain of resistance, a terrain of resistance organised around a series of really quite vague and fascinating infinite demands.

For me, the political task is the construction of a terrain. I think that is the case in many contexts, perhaps clearest in what’s going on in Europe at the moment. Particularly what’s happening in Greece where the government exists only to serve the interests of international financial institutions and the EU. So any possible claim or pretention of Greece to be a democracy has been rendered absolutely invalid, no question about that.

The question is: what’s the objective? Well the objective is to establish a terrain — to make a terrain. I’d go back to another element in anarchism, which is its strong Federalist credentials. Anarchism is an opposition to the state, but not in the name of disorder, but in another notion of order and organisation, which is about forms of local autonomy. What I would like to see — and this is not wildly unrealistic I think — is that if all of the states in the EU disintegrated in the next 10-20 years and people in those territories were able to establish forms of federal autonomous control — that would be something.

If there’s no politics without location, the goal of politics is the ownership and control of where one lives, thinks, works and eats. It’s about the establishment of a terrain. However, we live in a world, in a sense, where there is no terrain. The terrain is denied to us because we have ceded power to representatives who do not represent us. I think the entire existing political system is simply redundant, and the sooner it disappears, the better. I suppose what the last year has shown in the most splendid way, starting with the Arab Spring and the rest, is that once you stop fearing it, or once the many begin to articulate themselves over against the few who govern them, then the game is up.

In Britain, it could happen very easily. It could happen because who cares about political parties in Britain anymore? I used to be a member of the Labour party in the 1980s with people that came in from the extreme left and worked in the Labour party because we had to remove Thatcherism. But at that point the labour party was still a socialist party with a broad appeal, Clause 4, and all the rest. It just seems that these political parties are husks, memories of something that no longer exists. So why not just take the bold step and get rid of them altogether?

S: When people speak of apathy, I think that people are looking in the wrong place: they just look at parliamentarianism and trade unionism. And if you don’t participate in that then you’re apathetic. They’re not seeing the low profile, grassroots, political activity that is present everywhere.

C: That’s apathy with regards to normal government or politics.

S: It’s a divestment from party politics but also a reinvestment into local actions and community-based political activities.

C: And that other form of politics is all about pathos. It’s about, as you were talking about, anger and all the rest. A line I borrowed from Jean Luc Nancy at the end of Infinitely Demanding is ‘anger is the first political emotion’. And, it is. It’s a complex emotion. And Occupy was an articulation of the pathos of anger. But, so was the Tea Party; and so were those people that vote for the Freedom Party in the Netherlands — they’re also angry. So anger is a pathos that gets a subject riled up in order to act, but then it requires a discipline of analysis. Anger isn’t enough — but it’s a start.