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Neo-Anarchism or Neo-Liberalism? Yes, Please! A Response to Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding 1

Robert Sinnerbrink

Abstract: Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding makes a timely contribution to contemporary debates in ethics and political philosophy. For all its originality, however, one can raise critical questions concerning Critchley’s account of the forms of resistance possible within liberal democratic polities. In this article I question the adequacy of Critchley’s ethically based neo-anarchism as a response to neo-liberalism, critically analysing the role of ideology in his account of the motivational deficit afflicting capitalist liberal democracies.

Keywords: Critchley, neo-anarchism, neo-liberalism, subjectivity, ideology, capitalism

Simon Critchley’s remarkable new book, Infinitely Demanding, represents a timely intervention in our contemporary intellectual and political situation, in what is all too quickly described as the “post-9/11” world. 2 This is a paradoxical world of freedom and fundamentalism, of marketing and moralism, spectacle and cyni- cism, terrorism and triviality. It is the world of global (and in some instances increasingly authoritarian) neo-liberalism. How should we respond to this new world order? How should we respond to the much discussed “motivational defi- cit” afflicting liberal democracies? Have Western democracies entered a “post- political” era, where the great ideological divides of the past – between Left and Right, between socialism and capitalism, between Western and non-Western worlds – have been superseded? These are weighty, even crushing questions, as many thinkers on the Left – assuming that we can uncritically retain such ter- minology – can attest. Critchley’s response to such sceptical doubts and political uncertainty is refreshingly clear, precise and constructive: we need a new phil- osophy of commitment, he argues, a new way of thinking ethical subjectivity, so

1. With apologies to Slavoj Žižek and the Marx Brothers.

2. Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (New York/ London: Verso, 2007).

Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 10(2), August 2009, 163–79 © Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2009

Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 10 (2), August 2009, 163–79 © Acumen


that we can ethically re-motivate political practice in liberal democracies in such

a way as to avoid the oppressive trappings of the state, the subtle manipulations

of the market, or the nihilistic temptations of conformism or fundamentalism. As Michel Foucault once quipped about Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which he described as a “book of ethics”, Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding could also be described as an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life”. 3 His arguments are as lucid as they are compelling. They are also, like many works of political philosophy, rooted in the specific experience of a distinctive his- torical and political situation: the latter part of the Bush Jr administration with its ongoing “War on Terror”, and the apparent high-water mark of the cultural neo- conservative turn across many Western liberal democracies. Whether the tumul- tuous events of 2008 – notably the global financial crisis and election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama – substantially alter Critchley’s Zeitdiagnose remains an open question. His most recent critical remarks on Obama’s election, for example, suggest that the essential lines of argument in Infinitely Demanding – his scepticism concerning state-based forms of politics, his diagnosis of the dysfunctional malaise afflicting representative democracies, and commitment to ethically based forms of political activism – remain intact. 4

According to Critchley, chiming with many other political philosophers, con- temporary liberal democracies are suffering from a “motivational deficit”: an expression of widespread political disappointment in democratic institutions

that no longer motivate their citizenry. 5 Indeed, citizens today, Critchley argues, “experience the governmental norms that rule contemporary society as externally binding but not internally compelling”. 6 From a sociopolitical perspective, vari- ous kinds of nihilism now beckon. There is the passive nihilism that withdraws from the difficult problems of the political world in order to cultivate the inner garden of the soul (and of the body): New Age spiritualism, self-help culture, Western Buddhism and so on. Then there is the more disturbing active nihil- ism of Islamist or Jihadist extremism (which Critchley argues we should see as

a type of revolutionary vanguardism) and its Christian fundamentalist obverse. 7

What unites these passive and active forms of nihilism, respectively, is a moral, metaphysical and theological critique of secular liberal democracy. Indeed, this motivational deficit afflicting democracy, Critchley observes, is regarded chiefly

3. Michel Foucault, “Preface”, in G. Deleuze & F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, R. Hurley, M. Seem & H. Lane (trans.) (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xiii.

4. Simon Critchley, “What’s Left After Obama?”, Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters, 12 November 2008, (accessed May 2009).

5. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 6–7.

6. Ibid., 7.

7. Ibid., 7.

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May 2009). 5. Critchley, Infi nitely Demanding , 6–7. 6. Ibid. , 7. 7. Ibid .,



as a moral failing: there is something rotten in the state of democracy, a felt inade- quacy in official democratic culture, a discontent demanding a moral response. Critchley’s wager is that we must acknowledge the extent and pernicious effects of the motivational deficit of democracy, the “massive political disap- pointment” marking our time, while also rejecting both passive and active forms of nihilism. 8 Indeed, both consumer hedonism and fundamentalist violence are nihilistic responses to the motivational deficits afflicting contemporary democra- cies, a combination strikingly thematized, I note in passing, in recent novels by Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis, and Michel Houellebecq. 9 As Critchley insists, however, we should not succumb to the temptations of passive indifference, self-interested hedonism, or revolutionary nihilism. Rather, his wager is that we should construct a motivating ethics capable of empowering individuals and groups; one that motivates them to “face and face down the drift of the present, an ethics that is able to respond to and resist the political situation in which we find ourselves”. 10 Critchley clearly means here “we” denizens of affluent, lib- eral-capitalist democracies, whose situation obviously cannot be compared, for example, to that of oppressed youth in the Gaza Strip, slum-dwellers in Rio or occupied communities in Iraq. The situated character of Critchley’s analysis needs to be borne in mind, however, the better to understand the kinds of justifications for, and limitations of, his ethical anarchism. What kind of ethically based political action would be sufficient to respond to our historical and political situation? Here Critchley weds, in audacious fashion, a Levinasian ethics of infinite responsibility with neo-anarchist forms of political resistance. Political action is grounded in an ethical commitment to respond to and resist the experiences of injustice within the “interstices” of global capitalism. It is worth noting that global capitalism plays the role of assumed background in Critchley’s diagnosis; yet it is not clear to what extent it is to be taken as causally responsible for generating the kinds of disaffection, disappointment and dissen- sus concerning norms and institutions that would motivate the kind of political resistance Critchley advocates. 11 Such resistance would come, rather, from the “ethical experience” that fundamentally shapes “the core structure of moral self- hood”; the experience of ethical demand and obligation that motivates a subject to “pledge itself to some conception of the good”. 12


Ibid., 8.


See Don DeLillo, Mao II (London: Vintage, 1992), Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama (London: Picador, 1998), Michel Houellebecq, Platform, Frank Wynne (trans.) (London: William Heinemann,



Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 8.


As I discuss below, Critchley acknowledges the “dislocatory power” of capitalism (ibid., 99 ff.) but without suggesting that it can necessarily be overcome.


Ibid., 9.

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99 ff.) but without suggesting that it can necessarily be overcome. 12. Ibid. , 9. ©


In any event, such resistance against the state, and indirectly against global

capitalism, finds expression, for Critchley, in non-state-based forms of political action. In this sense, it is an ethical and political anarchism that draws on Levinas as much as the early Marx, for whom the free association of individuals would constitute a “true democracy”, or what Marx would later baptize as “commu- nism”. Far from a utopian demand for the impossible, however, such anarchistic political practice can be found, Critchley argues, in post-Colonial indigenous movements (in Mexico and Australia, for example), but also in the loose coa- litional associations constituting the anti-globalization movement. Unlike its libertarian predecessor, this anarchist resistance would be one of responsibility rather than of liberation. Critchley thus advocates responsible forms of activism,

a “non-violent warfare”: peaceful actions that can be undertaken at a distance

from the state, in what Critchley calls the interstitial spaces between the anarchic self-organizing networks of activists and the restrictive apparatuses of the state.

For all Critchley’s emphasis on ethics, responsibility and commitment, how-

ever, this is no austere political asceticism. It is more a kind of political aes- theticism; a carnivalesque, satirical form of politics that mocks and questions authority through humour, theatricality and spontaneous action. Here one could cite the kinds of colourful and media-savvy forms of activism familiar from anti- globalization protests. Groups such as “Billionaires for Bush”, sporting tuxedos and ball gowns while carrying placards praising Bush’s pro-wealth policies; the Rebel Clown Army, whose comic antics at G8 summits and the like always add

a note of humour and absurdity to the heavy-handed security presence; and

Pink Bloc, a queer activist group that, as the name suggests, stages colourful and humorous protest actions celebrating sexual diversity. 13 This is not to say

that such anarchic politics always avoids dealing with the state, with law or with rights; these can be strategically deployed depending on the forces making up

a situation and the resources that actors have at their disposal (as is clearly the

case with the indigenous rights movements). All the same, it remains an ethical form of anarchism that strives to avoid the extremes of libertarian irresponsibility, vanguardist violence or empty symbolic play. Under conditions of globalized neo- liberalism, it is the subversive, satirical protests of the anti-globalization move- ment, for Critchley, that best exemplify this kind of ethico-political anarchism. To paraphrase Foucault again, Critchley (like Deleuze and Guattari before him) reminds us that we do not have to be sad in order to be militant, and that we need to rout the fascist within us as much as the forces of domination outside us. 14

13. See the following websites for more information on these groups: index.php (Billionaires for Bush); (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA); (Pink Bloc and the “Blocking” movement more generally).

14. Foucault, “Preface”, Anti-Oedipus, xiv.

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“Blocking” movement more generally). 14. Foucault, “Preface”, Anti-Oedipus , xiv. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2009



There is much more one could say about Critchley’s original and welcome con- tribution to contemporary philosophical debate concerning the nexus between ethics, politics and resistance. The fact that this is not primarily a theoretical debate is well worth noting. Critchley is clearly committed to the idea that theory should be able to motivate or orient practice, even comprehend it; but it must do so in such as way as to avoid either the pretensions of the “universal intel- lectual”, pretending to speak on behalf of, or theoretically comprehend, those protesting or resisting the state, or to simply use existing movements as empirical fodder for constructing philosophical arguments. In this respect, he could well be described as engaging in a kind of critical theory, taken in a broad and generous sense that encompasses a diversity of philosophical traditions but also remains committed to engaging with practically engaged subjects and movements. And at a time when academic political philosophy threatens to become an entirely “professional” affair, a battle of technical arguments and analytical refutations rather than of transformative paradigms or practical interventions, this is very much to his credit. In what follows, I would like to highlight three related political themes in my response to Critchley’s fine book, a work replete with many philosophical riches. These are (i) the adequacy of ethico-political neo-anarchism as a response to global capitalism; (ii) the question of ideology in Critchley’s account of ethical subjectivity; and (iii) the role of global capitalism in Critchley’s account of the political disappointment and motivational deficit afflicting liberal democracies.

Neo-anarchism or neo-liberalism?

Let me elaborate the first question in more detail. Critchley argues for an ethically responsible form of political neo-anarchism: a non-violent politics of resistance grounded in an experience of ethical responsibility. Critchley’s neo-anarchism cul- tivates a distance from the state; it is a politics of interstitial resistances to power grounded in an ethical responsibility for the injustice suffered by the Other. Such a politics is not so much concerned with transforming state institutions as with resisting state-based power. It accepts that the liberal democratic state and global capitalism are here to stay, hence it engages in ethico-political forms of resistance that remain at a remove from state power, questioning, challenging, subverting it from an independent distance. This is an ethics and politics that strives to “face and face down the drift of the present” 15 by inventing new politi- cal subjectivities capable of disturbing the political status quo. Critchley’s ethi- cally motivated subjects engage in and invent new practices of civil disobedience

15. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 8.

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and invent new practices of civil disobedience 15. Critchley, Infi nitely Demanding , 8. © Acumen


(like contemporary anti-globalization protesters), “questioning from below any attempt to impose power from above”, articulating the demand for normative dissensus rather than aiming for communicative consensus, constituting “an anarchic multiplicity that calls into question the authority and legitimacy of the state”. 16 In cultivating this kind of neo-anarchist form of subjectivity and ethical resistance, Critchley argues, we may contribute to restoring some much needed “dignity to the dreadfully devalued discourse of democracy”. 17 Now the question of whether this response – an ethico-political anarchism of resistance – is adequate to global neo-liberalism has been forcefully raised by Slavoj Žižek. 18 Žižek argues that Critchley’s position amounts to a resistance to state power that assumes that the liberal-democratic state is here to stay, that attempts to abolish the state have failed miserably, that the motivational deficit afflicting democratic institutions remains irreducible, and hence that “the new politics has to be located at a distance from the state”. 19 Such a politics resists state power by denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms, which by defini- tion cannot respond to the “infinite” ethical demand for justice since the state is ultimately concerned with the pragmatic and strategic goals of ensuring its own reproduction “(its economic growth, public safety, and so on)”. 20 The result is a form of resistance that remains in a curiously symbiotic relationship with power; ethico-political resistance to the neo-liberal democratic state, Žižek claims, func- tions as “a kind of ideal supplement” to Third Way social democracy: “a ‘revolt’ which poses no effective threat, since it endorses in advance the logic of hysteri- cal provocation, bombarding the Power with ‘impossible’ demands, demands

16. Ibid., 13.

17. Ibid., 13.

18. Slavoj Žižek, “Resistance is Surrender,” London Review of Books (15 November 2007), http://www.

(accessed May 2009). For more developed versions of Žižek’s

critique of Critchley see The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 332–4, and In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), 339–50. There has been an extended debate between Critchley and Žižek on this matter. See Critchley’s review of Žižek’s short book Violence, “A Dream of Divine Violence”, Independent (11 January 2008), books/reviews/violence-by-slavoj-Žižek-769535.html?r=RSS (accessed May 2009). See also Žižek’s response to Critchley, T. J. Clark, and David Graeber, in the London Review of Books 30 (2) (24 January 2008) (accessed May 2009), There is also an exchange of letters in Harper’s Magazine: Žižek’s critique of Critchley (February 2008), (by subscription); and Critchley’s response, “Resistance is Utile” (May 2008), (accessed May 2009). For his most recent comments in the debate, see “Critchley’s Violent Thoughts about Slavoj Žižek”, Naked Punch 11 (Autumn 2008)

%3E (accessed June 2009).

19. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 346.

20. Ibid., 3.

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%3E (accessed June 2009). 19. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes , 346. 20. Ibid .,



which are not meant to be met”. 21 It remains parasitic on the state-based power that it resists, finding its ethical self-understanding through the questioning, demanding and resisting character of its ethico-political withdrawal from the state, its invention of new forms of “non-violent warfare” that would challenge hegemonic forms of state power. For these reasons, Žižek remarks, Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding “is an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed”. 22 For all Critchley’s insistence on the ethical basis for engaged subjectivity and anarchist political resistance, there is an important question raised here about the relationship between ethics, politics and violence. As Critchley remarks, it is true that history is usually written by those wielding guns and sticks, and that one can- not hope to defeat them “with mocking satire and feather dusters”. 23 Nonetheless, the history of ultra-Leftist political vanguardism – and here Critchley, contro- versially, yokes together Leninism, Maoism, Situationism, and radical Islamism as political forms of active nihilism 24 – “shows one is lost the moment one picks up guns and sticks”. 25 Indeed, according to Critchley, “one should approach al- Qaeda with the words and actions of bin Laden resonating against those of Lenin, Blanqui, Mao, Baader-Meinhof, and Durruti”. 26 Is it legitimate, however, to yoke together all of these ideologically clashing, politically disparate, situationally spe- cific figures and movements? Žižek, for example, criticizes Critchley’s claim that all such forms of revolutionary vanguardism – assuming these can be equated – are to be equally rejected as forms of active nihilism. Indeed, by blurring the difference between the distinct political logics of “radical egalitarian violence” (what Alain Badiou calls the “eternal Idea” of revolutionary justice) and “anti-modernist ‘fun- damentalist’ violence” (defining radical Islamism), Critchley lapses, Žižek argues, into “the purest ideological formalism”, echoing the identification, both by liber- als and conservatives, of so-called Left and Right forms of totalitarianism. 27 While it is true, as Critchley points out, that Sayyid Qutb, intellectual pro- genitor of radical Jihadist Islamism, appropriated Western revolutionary political theory, in particular Marxist-Leninism, this does not mean that his particular brand of political ideology is necessarily “Western”, or that it can therefore be assimilated to “more classical forms of extreme revolutionary vanguardism”. 28

21. Žižek, The Parallax View, 334.

22. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 339.

23. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 124.

24. Ibid., 5.

25. Ibid., 124.

26. Ibid., 5–6.

27. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 348.

28. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 6. Critchley follows here the interpretation of Jihadist revolution- ary Islam given by the Retort group in Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005).

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in Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005). ©


For the same reason, the fact that al-Qaeda deploys Western media and commu- nications technology (or benefited from American training during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan) does not mean that it is therefore to be understood an essentially “Western” phenomenon. To make this claim – the frequently voiced Leftist critique that Islamist terrorism is a case of the violence of the West itself coming home to roost – is to ignore the specificity of radical Islamism and its own ideological-political strategic agenda. 29 It would be to say that, because they are forms of political vanguardism that can be equated as expressions of active nihilism, there is no essential difference between, say, the Situationist protests in 1968, Aldo Moro’s murder and the Bali bombings. To do so, however, would be to overlook the important differences between the ideological motivations, social experiences and political circumstances behind each of these historically specific instances of political violence. In any event, ethical anarchism, Critchley argues, must therefore choose the pacifist path of non-violent resistance (the Quakers, Ghandi or Martin Luther King), and reject the revolutionary path that inadvertently mirrors the violent sovereign power it opposes (Bakunin, the Black Panthers, or the Red Brigades). Žižek’s criticism here is to argue that the question of violent versus non-violent resistance – “guns and sticks” versus “mocking satire and feather dusters” – surely depends on the situation and the forces one is confronting. From a historical and strategic point of view, it is important to note that terrorism involving suicide bombing, for example, is fundamentally a political response typically enacted by a weaker force facing intractable occupation or overwhelming imperial power. It arises, historically and sociologically, under conditions in which all other political options are experienced as futile or counter-productive. It has specifically secular aims and objectives (forcing a democratic power to withdraw military forces from occupied homelands), though it is also legitimated by powerful religious and ideological discourses; and it is typically deployed to effect a maximal strategic impact from co-ordinated individual or small group actions. 30 More generally, there are surely historical and political situations (Žižek mentions Hitler) where violence can and should be used to confront the state, whereas there are clearly others where “all one can and should do is use ‘mocking satire and feather dust- ers’”. 31 Critchley criticizes Žižek on just this point, however, arguing that his political thought is vitiated by a regressive and nostalgic yearning for outmoded forms of state-based political power, and the exercise of ruthless revolutionary

29. See, for example, Noam Chomsky, September 11 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001).

30. See, for example, Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York:

Random House, 2005). See also Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2002), 54–84; and Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of Al- Qa‘ida (London: Abacus, 2007), 83–114.

31. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 348.

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Qa‘ida (London: Abacus, 2007), 83–114. 31. Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes , 348. © Acumen



action. Like a Slovenian Hamlet, Critchley quips, Žižek dreams of an unname- able violence, an impotent and unrealizable fantasy of political terror. 32 Žižek’s provocation nonetheless raises an interesting question. Critchley’s anar- chic politics of resistance assumes that the global capitalist democracy is here to stay. Given the immutability of global capitalism, all we can really do is ethi- cally resist state-power and thereby help create a neo-liberal democracy with a human face. But here one might ask, following Žižek: does not this neo-anarchist resistance also function as the “inherent transgression” of the neo-liberal order, the safety valve that grants it legitimacy and thus facilitates its orderly function- ing? Žižek cites the “Not in Our Name” anti-Iraq War protests in London and Washington as telling examples of this kind of Leftist moralizing politics of resist- ance. The paradox here, Žižek notes, was that everyone got the moral-political satisfaction they wanted: the protestors expressed their moral rejection of Blair’s commitment to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, while Bush and Blair could both point to the protestors and say, “You see, this is what we’re fighting for, the right to peaceful democratic protest – just the sort of thing we’re liberating the Iraqis to enjoy too!”. The 2008 Chinese Olympic torch protests are another case in point:

such protests are permissible, even laudable, provided they are peaceful and do not actually disturb anything (Canberra); by contrast, protests that do actually disrupt a situation, involving clashes with law-enforcement or between oppos- ing parties, are impermissible or even immoral (Paris). In short, the relationship between ethico-political resistance and the absorptive power of neo-liberalist democracy, I want to suggest, is more dialectical, ambiguous and conflictual than Critchley seems to allow.

Ethical subjectivity, motivational deficit and ideology

The second, related question concerns Critchley’s theory of the ethico-political subject and the question of the source of the motivational deficit afflicting liberal democracies. This part of Critchley’s argument is based on his theory of ethi- cal experience, grounded in the concepts of approval and demand; every moral, ethical or normative claim can be analysed as deriving from an experience of a demand to which one gives (or withholds) approval. 33 This account of ethical experience points to a model of ethical subjectivity, according to which being

a self – or as Critchley puts it, becoming a subject – involves a relationship

between the self and the good: moral selfhood or ethical subjectivity is shaped by

a relationship towards “whatever it determines as its good”. 34 The self or ethical

32. See Critchley, “A Dream of Divine Violence”.

33. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, 14.

34. Ibid., 20.

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Dream of Divine Violence”. 33. Critchley, Infi nitely Demanding , 14. 34. Ibid ., 20. ©


subjectivity is that which approves (or disapproves) of this or that conception of the good, approves (or disapproves) of this or that demand. The ethical subject, in short, is a self that relates itself approvingly, bindingly, “to the demand of its own good”. 35 More strongly, Critchley goes on to claim that it is just such a rela- tionship of approval in response to a demand, of relating oneself to the good, that founds the self; the demand of the good constitutes “the fundamental principle of the subject’s constitution”. 36 We experience this in the case of failure, betrayal, and evil; in acting in a way I know to be evil, I am destroying the self that I am, or that I have chosen to be. 37 The sense of self-division that follows the clash between the ethical self I have chosen to be and my failure to enact that commitment is experienced in the form of guilt. Guilt is the experience of a splitting or self-division in the subject; 38 the experience that reveals, for Critchley, the “fundamentally moral articulation of the self”. 39 Ethical commitment is what binds me to that which defines me as a self. And such ethical experience is only possible because I am capable of becom- ing an ethical subject “disposed towards the approved demand of its good”. 40 To this account of the relationship between ethical demand and approval we must add Critchley’s critique of the Kantian autonomy orthodoxy. Against the prevailing Kantian-liberal tide, Critchley argues that the subject is ethically heteronomous rather than morally autonomous. He or she is motivated by the unfulfillable, infinite demand posed by an Other, rather than by fulfilling a uni- versalizable maxim that would be in harmony with the moral law. The funda- mental question Critchley addresses here is that of distinguishing between the justification of morality and my motivation to act morally: how to bring together universally justifiable moral norms with the practical motivation that is rooted in my sense of moral selfhood? 41 Bringing together the two halves of this dialectic constitutes the problem of morality; the way to reconcile justifying reasons for universalizable norms with exciting reasons motivating us to act ethically. 42 To address this question, Critchley proposes an alternative conception of the subject that comprises three essential aspects. From Badiou, Critchley takes the notion of a delity to the universality of a demand “that opens in a singular situa- tion but exceeds that situation”. 43 From Danish theologian Knud Eiljer Løgstrup he takes the notion of a radical, unfulfillable ethical demand that expresses an

35. Ibid., 20.

36. Ibid., 20.

37. Ibid., 21.

38. Ibid., 21.

39. Ibid., 23.

40. Ibid., 23.

41. Ibid., 25.

42. Ibid., 24. This is a distinction that, as Critchley notes, goes back to Francis Hutcheson.

43. Ibid., 40.

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is a distinction that, as Critchley notes, goes back to Francis Hutcheson. 43. Ibid ., 40.



asymmetrical ethical relation. 44 This asymmetry is then understood, following Levinas, as arising in the experience of the infinite demand of the other’s face, the split between myself as a subject and an exorbitant demand that I can never meet but which defines me as an ethical subject. 45 This fidelity to a universal demand arising out of a specific situation, a demand arising in response to the Face of the Other and expressing a radical asymmetry, defines Critchley’s model of the hetero-affectivity of the ethical subject. Such a conception of the ethical subject is then used to show how ethical experience gives rise to a constituting relationship towards the demand of the Other that has both universal validity and motivating force. Given this complex account of ethical subjectivity, and the strong case made for the internal relation between the structure of moral selfhood and ethical motivation, how do we explain the motivational deficit that burdens liberal democracies? And given the psychoanalytical dimensions of his theory of the subject – the self-division of the subject, the importance of sublimation (through cultural paradigms of tragedy and humour), and the various ways that the motiv- ation of ethical subjectivity can be perverted – Critchley’s theory of ethical sub- jectivity would also seem to require an account of ideology; of the systematic ways in which the structure of moral selfhood can be distorted or damaged by prevailing forms of cultural practice, legitimating discourse, or socioeconomic relations. That this is the case seems indicated by Critchley’s own analysis, later in his book, of the ideological dimensions of what we might call “authoritarian democ- racy”, which functions through the careful manipulation of the politics of fear: the promotion of an unpredictable external enemy without, constant reminders of a ubiquitous threat to security within, coupled with the distorted sublimation that drives narcissistic consumerism. This ideological manipulation of affect, the poli- tics of fear, is strikingly evident in Critchley’s compelling account of the “crypto- Schmittianism” of Bush’s America. 46 Here Critchley deftly analyses the “double fantasy” construction of Bush’s ideological landscape, menaced by a threat that is at once real and phantasmatic: 47 the fantasy of an external enemy threat without (al-Qaeda), and the fantasy of a homeland needing sovereign protection within (even at the expense of democratic civil rights). As Critchley notes, politics “has arguably always been conducted at the level of fantasy, the image and spectacle”; 48 but this has become especially egregious with the unholy alliance between Bush’s militarism and al-Qaeda’s Jihadism, both of which have shown themselves to

44. Ibid., 40.

45. Ibid., 40.

46. Ibid., 133–48.

47. Ibid., 134.

48. Ibid., 134.

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Ibid ., 40. 45. Ibid ., 40. 46. Ibid ., 133–48. 47. Ibid ., 134. 48.


be obsessed with the image, whether the image of the collapsing Twin Towers or the “shock and awe” Baghdad bombing campaign. 49 Critchley even remarks that politics “is more than ever concerned with the spectacle and control of the image, which is what makes the Situationism of Guy Debord more relevant than ever as a diagnostic tool in political analysis”. 50 Why, then, is this recommended

critical analysis of the ideological character of the politics of fear – the hegemonic control of political spectacle and ideological fantasy to generate a manipulable collective fear – lacking in Critchley’s developed account of the demotivation of ethical subjectivity and need for an ethically grounded resistance? The early generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists were also confronted by the problem of a motivational deficit during the 1920s and 1930s (faced with historical and social conditions that might have precipitated revolution, why did “the masses” choose fascism?). Their response was to turn to psychoanalysis and sociology in order to theorize the ideological forces – in particular, the ubiquity of the “culture industry” – that contributed to the destruction of autonomy and the embrace of authoritarianism. As Critchley puts it, in our own time too we are desperately in need of a “political psychology” or “political psychoanalysis”;

a theory of ideology and subjectivity that could explain the motivational deficit

afflicting Western democracies. 51 We should note, however, that such a motivational deficit is hardly evident on the populist Right, which has brilliantly harnessed the anger, disaffection and alienation with liberal democracy – particularly among the marginalized work- ing classes – for its own political ends (usually through anti-progressivist “moral” protests, and divisive scapegoating of stigmatized cultural or racial groups). Why, then, is this more robust conception of the ideological dimensions of contempor- ary subjectivity – an account, in other words, of precisely the motivational deficit with which Critchley’s account of ethico-political resistance begins – lacking in his broader theorization of subjectivity, ethics and politics?

Global capitalism and its discontents

The role of global capitalism in Critchley’s account of ethically based neo- anarchism becomes pertinent here. Is it simply presupposed as the inalterable background to state-based forms of power? Or is it the systemic generator of the kinds of social alienation, anger and disaffection – or political disappointment

– that for Critchley motivate ethico-political resistance? In his chapter, “Anarchic

Metapolitics”, Critchley offers a fascinating analysis of this political disappoint-

49. Ibid., 134.

50. Ibid., 135.

51. Ibid., 136.

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of this political disappoint- 49. Ibid ., 134. 50. Ibid ., 135. 51. Ibid ., 136.



ment, arguing that it is “the response to a situated injustice or wrong that pro- vokes the need for an ethics”. 52 What Critchley calls the passage from an ethics of infinitely demanding commitment to a politics of resistance, however, must explain the role of global capitalism in generating this disappointment or sense of injustice that would motivate ethico-political action. To mark this passage from ethics to politics, Critchley turns to none other than Marx. The truth of Marx’s work, for Critchley, lies in its description of the nature of capitalism, that is to say, the hegemony of the bourgeoisie “and the reduction of socio-economic life to the circulation of commodities through the universal equivalent of money”. 53 What Critchley rejects, however, is the “politi- cal corollary” of Marx’s socioeconomic analysis, namely the reduction of class struggle to one basic antagonism (bourgeois/proletariat), and the emergence of the proletariat as “the revolutionary class” that would serve as the historical agent for “the emancipation of humanity”. 54 While Marx was right about the deracinating effects of capitalism, Critchley claims, this accelerating dislocatory power leads not to class struggle but rather to “the multiplication of social actors” defined by differences of locality, language, ethnicity, sexuality and so on. 55 In other words, the defining character of class antagonism gives way to a multiplicity of social agents engaged in local and specific political struggles over moral values and cultural and social norms, rather than particular material, class or economic interests. Instead of culture being the shadow play of the economy, the economy becomes the shadowy backdrop for cultural-political forms of struggle. Critchley borrows for this analysis Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which he defines as “the formation of collective will and political associations” out of the multiplicity of divergent groupings constituting civil society, groupings that are based in “local and situated forms of commonality”. 56 The challenge, Critchley argues, becomes one of articulating new political subjectivities born of diverse social struggles and competing antagonisms; the problem of political subjectivity, moreover, becomes one of naming a political subject as a focal point for politi- cal organization. 57 Following Laclau, Critchley argues that the logic of political nomination involves the process of identifying a “determinate particularity in society” – be it a stigmatized social grouping or form of cultural or social identity – and then “hegemonically constructing that particularity into a generality that exerts a universal claim”. 58 It involves, in short, the task of identifying that “part

52. Ibid., 88.

53. Ibid., 90.

54. Ibid., 91.

55. Ibid., 91.

56. Ibid., 91.

57. Ibid., 91.

58. Ibid., 91.

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., 90. 54. Ibid ., 91. 55. Ibid ., 91. 56. Ibid ., 91. 57. Ibid


of no part” (as Rancière puts it) – an excluded element capable of expressing a universal claim – that would question the normative structures of the prevailing social and cultural order or challenge, in the name of justice, existing social and political institutions. Here we might ask what role global capitalism plays in the problem of creating new forms of political subjectivity. There is no doubt it has proved remarkably ingenious in finding ways of absorbing and neutralizing resistance, in providing consumer surrogates for dysfunctional autonomy and damaged intersubjectiv- ity, and in extending the market principle to all dimensions of the social totality, thus eroding and undermining the normative fabric of democratic politics. As Critchley quips, “[i]f someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and the distribution rights”. 59 To be sure, Critchley does take capitalism’s capacity to absorb resistance into account in his more concrete analyses of Bush Jr’s neo-conservative America; but the focus remains firmly on the cultural effects of this neutralizing power (rather than its economic dynamics), and on possible ethical resistance towards it. His stated aim, however, is to reactivate “the political dimension of Marxism”:

not to embrace a kind of “discursive politics” (or “disco-Marxism”) that politi- cizes Marxism while leaving capitalism unquestioned, but to retrieve the kind of Marxism that would argue for “the establishment of capital as a social product” and remove the “class-character of private property”. 60 As Critchley notes, citing Gramsci, this is certainly a political task, one that requires a critique of econo- mistic reductionism that does not ignore the economic dimension, incorporating the latter “into a wider ethical-political and ideological strategy”. 61 These are admirable aims and part of a powerful critique of contemporary cap- italism and its deracinating power and plastic capacity to absorb resistance. The question is how this “wider ethical-political and ideological strategy” would be articulated and implemented, without reverting to those forms of political prac- tice and action that Critchley has critically rejected (state-based forms of power, radical political vanguardism, or liberal-democratic reformism). Critchley’s answer, as we have seen, is to point to local, situational, non-state-based forms of ethically motivated activism, such as can be found in anti-globalization and indigenous rights movements. Indeed, the radical political dislocation that capitalism generates – “its ruthless destruction of the bonds of tradition, local belonging, family, and kinship structures that one might have considered natu- ral” – reveal the contingency of social life, while at the same time opening up the

59. Ibid., 98.

60. Ibid., 99.

61. Ibid., 99.

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while at the same time opening up the 59. Ibid ., 98. 60. Ibid ., 99.



possibility of new forms of political rearticulation: what Laclau, after Gramsci, calls hegemony. 62 This analysis, however, assumes that global capitalism is here to stay. There does not seem to be a viable alternative, according to Critchley, to the current economic and social system, or to the political institutions and state-based forms of power that accompany it. On this point, Critchley, like many other political philosophers, recognizes the difficulty of the ideological-political situation that confronts us. For example, in respect of the question of “an oppositional left- ist political strategy in the US context” – in particular, the rise of the religious right or radical right – Critchley asks whether we are currently facing a transient political phenomenon, or “a new regime of truth”; a novel theologico-political form of life that will become increasingly hegemonic. 63 Interestingly, Critchley’s analysis of the prospects of Leftist politics in the US context focuses mainly on the cultural-ideological dimensions of this antagonism (the “moralizing” cultural- political clashes between liberals and conservatives on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and so on). There is little mention of the way these ideological skirmishes are themselves embedded in the broader framework of global capi- talism or increasingly authoritarian-conservative forms of neo-liberalism. Here one might have expected a link to be made between the earlier analyses of “the accelerating dislocatory power of capitalism” and the more ideological analysis of contemporary American cultural politics. A critical analysis of global capital- ism and its distorting effects on subjectivity, however, is lacking in Critchley’s substantive account of the ethics of commitment and politics of resistance. So how adequate is Critchley’s ethical neo-anarchism to the challenges fac- ing global capitalism? It is hard to see how these challenges we face can be met without reference to state-based form of power, or by way of humorous forms of protest or ethically based forms of resistance. The political alternatives Critchley outlines seem to offer a stark choice: military neo-liberalism (Bush’s America and Blair’s New Labour); neo-Leninism (political vanguardisms of all persuasions); or neo-Anarchism (non-violent, non-state-based activism). 64 But do these three options – authoritarian liberal democracy, political vanguardism and ethical neo- anarchism – exhaust what forms of political response might be possible today? It could be argued here that neo-anarchism might represent an expression of, rather than simply resistance towards, liberal democracy, whether taken in authoritarian or socially progressive senses. Put differently, does neo-anarchism risk becoming what Italian political dramatist Dario Fo called the “libera- tory burp” that dispels social indigestion within our liberal democracies? We might even describe it as a carnivalesque inversion that ultimately confirms

62. Ibid., 101.

63. Ibid., 144–5.

64. Ibid., 146–7.

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that ultimately confirms 62. Ibid ., 101. 63. Ibid ., 144–5. 64. Ibid ., 146–7. ©


the prevailing sociopolitical order. As The Maniac in Fo’s Accidental Death of Anarchist remarks, we should always remember that political scandal is “the fer- tilizer of social democracy”:

They [the government] have never tried to hush up these scandals. And

they’re right not to. That way people can let off steam, get angry, shudder

at the thought of it … ‘Who do these politicians think they are?’ ‘Scumbag

generals!’ ‘Murderers!’ And they get more and more angry, and then, burp!

A little liberatory burp to relieve their social indigestion. 65

Fo’s Maniac prompts us to ask whether ethico-political resistance to the excesses of state power and brutality of global capitalism is really enough. Or is it just to plead, whether seriously or satirically, for liberal-capitalist democracy with a more human – indeed ethical – face?

Robert Sinnerbrink is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of Understanding Hegelianism (2007), co-editor of Critique Today (2006), has recently published articles in The International Journal of Žižek Studies, Cosmos and History and Film- Philosophy. He is currently writing a book on the philosophy of film.


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