Zoltán Glück: Of politics and crowds: A conversation with Susan Buck-Morss

This interview with Susan Buck-Morss took place at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center on May 12 2015. Buck-Morss is Distinguished Professor of Political Philosophy at the Graduate Center and has been a towering figure in continental theory since her publication of The Origin of Negative Dialectics in 1977. Her books include Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (2003), Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2000), and The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1991). In this interview with Zoltán Glück for FocaalBlog, Professor Buck-Morss talks about her formative years of political radicalization, the difficulties of teaching the radical tradition, and the political significance of crowds.

ZOLTÁN GLÜCK: I’d like to start by asking you a very general question, which is: how did you become political, or rather, how did you come into your politics?

SUSAN BUCK-MORSS: It’s kind of a nice story. I had just finished my BA and I came to New York City to get a job, and I ended up taking the best-paying job I could find, which wasn’t much. My task was to write advertisement copy for dishwashers. I did that for about six months, and I was miserable. I wrote my college professor and said, “You know something, what I do between 9 and 5 is only to support myself for what I am between 5 and 9. I want to go to graduate school.” So, I went to graduate school, and I read Marx’s 1844 manuscripts and thought, “Oh, that’s my life! You are talking about my life”—working in order to live. There is nothing in that process of production that’s anything but alienating. So I knew what it meant to just wish it were 5 o’clock and to try to live afterward to make life worthwhile. I missed a lot of sleep.


Susan Buck-Morrs, Distinguished Professor of Political Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center (Photo: CUNY)

From the time you go to kindergarten you work; it’s not always pleasant, but at least it’s something that in certain ways is personally fulfilling. Education is meant to be something that is about one’s own individual development. But once you get into the capitalist workforce, that’s not what work is about. People high up in that advertising organization would say things like, “I promised my wife I’d give her a mink coat by the time we were 40.” He did. He had a degree in English literature. But he worked on dishwasher accounts. The goals were so awful. I don’t know why I was naïve enough not to know such things beforehand, but I didn’t. These experiences made me to go to graduate school. When I got there and read Marx’s early writings about capitalist alienation, it totally set my intellectual compass.

Then I went to Germany and everybody was reading Adorno; students were on strike. This was the early ’70s—it was a time when the only reason you studied was to develop a critique of capital and a critique of how society was structured around it. Importantly, you had a community with which to do this. Many people I knew lived in communes, some sort of communal way. So suddenly, my life was full, absolutely full. There was also a lot of solidarity with workers; I remember teaching Capital with another graduate student to a reading group of women factory workers. We didn’t teach them pedagogically so much as read with them. To hear them respond to the chapter on “The Working-Day,” Chapter 10—I mean, it was extraordinary. In this way, it was Marx who was crucial for my radicalization. So that was what the ’70s meant to me.

ZG: Did you go to graduate school thinking that you wanted to do this kind of critical political and intellectual work?

SBM: Well, as I said, I knew I didn’t want to write dishwasher advertisements. But what happened in graduate school is that my critique suddenly opened up and I understood why I didn’t want to write dishwasher advertisements. And I understood that this wasn’t just a problem for a college graduate who had grown up in suburbia; it was a general problem of the structure of capitalism. And that this is what brought people into collaboration with others, into political movements. You know, I almost didn’t accept my job at Cornell because it seemed like that was a cowardly thing to do. At the time, I thought I should be much more active in political organizing. But then, I had fantastic students—when I came to Cornell I was actually hired to teach Marx to undergraduates. I taught Marx to seventy students in my first year. Of course, there were all kinds of important things happening on campus—for example, the women’s movement. Feminism was extremely important. Critical theory was resonating with social movements of all kinds. For the first ten years of teaching at Cornell, that’s what it was about.

ZG: Within that period of your growing politicization, would you like to talk about any particular moments or key events that pushed you in formulating your politics?

SBM: Well, moving to Germany was terribly important. It was important to know that this was not just a local, not just a United States, phenomenon—that people in Germany were protesting against the Vietnam War too. There was solidarity transnationally. One thing that happened during that period that was crucial for me was in 1976. I was in graduate school in the US at Georgetown, and I had a summer job at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), which was a left-wing institute, and still is. IPS was establishing a transnational branch in Amsterdam, the head of which was to be Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States under [Salvador] Allende. He was in Washington, D.C., without a job, so IPS hired him to head their Amsterdam branch; I was supposed to go with him and work there. One awful, rainy day, I couldn’t get through the city—roads and transportation were terrible; everything was blocked up. We found out the reason: his car had been bombed; the bomb was underneath the driver’s seat. When he turned the ignition, it blew off his legs and he died instantly. I had been with him the day before. There was another colleague from the institute in the car, Ronni Moffitt, who was killed. And of course, it was done on the streets of D.C. with total impunity. It could have been prevented—Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, was clearly not trying to protect him. And this man, my new boss, was killed.

I was kind of a hippie at that point. There was a demonstration in Washington, D.C., at his funeral—a huge demonstration. I remember walking next to Izzy (I.F.) Stone, who was a longtime radical. People poured out of the embassies—third world ambassadors, Black ambassadors, Latino ambassadors—all in suits and ties. I couldn’t believe that all of these bourgeois-dressed Washington people were on the streets in solidarity with a man who had been part of the only democratically elected socialist government ever. And that really made an impression on me because I realized I wasn’t just a young person rebelling; I was part of something else, something much larger, that had been going on for a long time. So that was probably one of the most transformative moments for me.

ZG: When thinking about these earlier moments of the ’60s and ’70s that helped radicalize you and bring you into your politics, how do you think they compare our contemporary moment of crisis, resistance, and radicalization?

SBM: You know, in some ways I find it’s the same. There is continuity. I mean, for instance, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the group that first started saying, “The whole world is watching.” At that time, the idea was that your image on TV would be beamed around the world, creating a larger collective. Certainly, social media does something similar, but now rather than just demonstrating so that others see you, social media allows you to organize the demonstration, to produce it, and to a certain extent control it. It allows you to have a leaderless mass that isn’t simply huge numbers of people running around not knowing what’s going on. I don’t think we have seen the last such moments of resistance, by any stretch of the imagination.

ZG: The last of—

SBM: —well, the 2011 moment at least appears to be over. It looks as if perhaps the Arab Spring failed. But these mobilizations will come back. You know, with Black Lives Matter, suddenly people are back on the streets, three years after the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. They are back again and each time the crowd returns, they need less convincing to do so. Unfortunately, real conditions continue to be bad enough that people have to protest again, and again. I used to say that socialism will return, not because of any tradition that has been handed down intellectually but because the actual conditions demand its reinvention. It may be that Marx is not read as much anymore, but even with Marxism, people have to rediscover the texts. Actually, that is one of the most frustrating things about being a politicized philosopher. You cannot teach a radical tradition, you cannot hand it down as tradition, without destroying it by bestowing on it the status of authority. In some ways radicality can’t be pass it down. They have to be rediscovered.

ZG: These kinds of mobilizations that you’re talking about, is this what you mean by the “global crowd”? I know it is a term you’ve been using recently.

SBM: I like the term “global crowd.” Everybody hates the fact that I use it in a positive way. Because, you know, la foule in French, it’s the stupid crowd; it’s Gustav Le Bon’s nightmare. But the situation has changed since Le Bon’s time, and with its new self-organizing capacities via social media, I don’t think the crowd is brainless. The crowd has the force of numbers, now in self-organizing communication. People know that the way to stop something that isn’t tolerable is to get out and put your body on the line. But the crowd is not just the existence of masses in the streets; it can carry over the next day at your job or your home. The resistance can happen anywhere, and its participants can stay networked together.

Self-organizing through social media is something that didn’t exist before. As I’ve just said, demonstrations that produce images, this was one thing. But the global crowd takes it further. It is [Edward] Snowden using the media to subvert surveillance. And maybe these are the unintended consequences of the Abu Ghraib photographs. There is something totally different in the way that images are being circulated today. There is also a problem, however, because often images move context-less into spaces where they are not legible. Oftentimes people think that a universal message is clear through images, but it’s not. So it is a very difficult situation in certain ways. What the crowd realizes is that the only way you can counter the enormous capacity of governments to surveil the people is to surveil the government. And this is precisely what Snowden did; it’s what Black Lives Matter does by taking pictures of the police. Rather than the state being the only ones with the cameras, it’s you who takes pictures of them. Millions of people who are armed with that capacity to surveil what police and governments do—that’s very radical.

ZG: Yes, it hugely changes the optics of politics.

SBM: Totally. And it’s new. So the global crowd to me is a force, a force that self-organizes and that doesn’t need leaders. These are the important elements. One of the problems with the old Left was that the leaders were usually a small bunch of white men. They quite simply and literally led. The others had to find their place behind them. But you can really be effective today as a self-organized anarchist group. You can communicate with and support each other in ways that have a lot of power.

ZG: And would you say that another articulation of the global crowd would be the nationalist crowd or the absolutist one?

SBM: Well, the crowd has been appropriated. We know what that looks like. The crowds that put el-Sisi in power in Egypt were even bigger than those that ousted Mubarak. So there is no guarantee that the crowd has a progressive impact. We would be foolish to think just because there are numbers on the streets that the message is clear and clearly means progress. But I think the people are learning from that experience. I think they are beginning to see other people’s struggles as their own, learning from cases in which appropriation happens. Don’t you think? I mean, doesn’t it feel like that to you?

ZG: I guess I also vacillate between feeling incredibly pessimistic and also constantly surprised.

SBM: Yes, that’s it. Constantly surprised, because suddenly something emerges and it’s as though it’s been there below the surface all the time. It is there.

ZG: Yes, but the form that it is going to take is just so radically unpredictable. And the question of what effects these movements will have in a long term is huge. Another question is whether the ongoing counterrevolution is just going to clamp down and become the infrastructure of the next era, you know? Or whether something else emerging from “just below the surface,” as you say, will take form and offer an alternative. I think that that is what a lot of activists and political people are puzzling through right now.

SBM: Well, maybe this is where we should talk about “revolutionary patience.” You just have to wait. Because the alternative is that there is no resistance, which is even worse. In a way, we have no choice. There simply has to be a commitment to solidarity and resistance. The ability to predict the effectiveness of that resistance is really not the issue. It’s the solidarity and resistance itself that is necessary. You know, as they say in Russian, “может быть хуже”—it could be worse. Realism tells you there is absolutely no guarantee. And yet you cannot do nothing. But it is your generation who has to keep it going.

ZG: Yes, but I also feel what we’re grappling with is not the problem of a single generation: it’s all of us who are, in fact, on this sinking boat together. No?

SBM: Right, but when I say “generation,” what I mean is that the reason it’s important to acknowledge or rediscover a certain tradition is that if the past is not redeemed in the sense that Benjamin talked about it—kept present somehow—then it really is forgotten in a serious way so that people become oblivious to what seemed absolutely clear at earlier moments.

ZG: One last question: what would you say are some of the most important things to you in your work as a public intellectual and as a radical scholar?

SBM: Not writing for academic acclaim. Unfortunately, it won’t get you a job or tenure if you follow my advice, but that’s not where politics happens. So if I write Hegel and Haiti and the first review is from the newspaper News and Letters, the Detroit group that Trotsky’s former secretary Raya Dunayevskaya organized with trade workers both black and white—if the work is useful to their political situation, that’s success. If I write a book called Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left and the first translation is into Hebrew and the second is into Urdu, that’s success. No one else is reading that book in the academy, but the point is that it’s being read in Hebrew- and Urdu-speaking parts of the world. That gives me enormous satisfaction. That it is being read by intellectuals and not the working class, well, that worries me less, because I can only do what I am trained to do. But I feel that’s an audience worth writing for—an audience that receives this work, values it, and gets some sense of coherence out of it for their own situation. It feels right. But if you are writing only with the goal of getting published in a refereed journal, well, that can’t be where politics is best accomplished, not for someone who thinks about being a radical intellectual.

Buck-Morss, Susan, and Zoltán Glück. 2015. “Of politics and crowds: A conversation with Susan Buck-Morss,” FocaalBlog, 16 September, www.focaalblog.com/2015/09/16/zoltan-gluck-of-politics-and-crowds-a-conversation-with-susan-buck-morss.