Blog About Political and Social Philosophy

Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx

On April 22nd, 1993 the conference organized by the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside inaugurated with the plenary address of one of the most famous philosophers of the time – Jacques Derrida, the author of the so called deconstructive analysis. The lecture delivered by him served as a basis for the augmented text that became known as the Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International.

For Derrida, it was an occasion to reflect on two broad topics that preoccupied the world at that time: On the one hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its impact on the Marxist doctrine, and on the other, the so called, the “end of history” thesis propounded by the Western neo-conservatives, since the publication of Francis Fukuyamas famous article (and later, the book). By engaging with both projects, Derrida tries to argue that neither the orthodox form of Marxism, nor its liberal-democratic alternative can serve as blueprints for current politics. Instead, through the critique of both grand-narratives, he tries to arrive at his unique way of viewing the political task of the post-Soviet era.

In this paper, I will try to discuss his project by reviewing his critiques of orthodox Marxism and liberal-democracy. Then, I will proceed with discussing the political agenda that he offers to the world and finally, I will try to put forth the weakest point of his project and discuss how it can be addressed.

In response to the “end of history” thesis, Derrida starts from discussing the topic of inheritance which is closely linked to the idea of disjointed time. The latter concept is opposed to the idea of teleology and teleological development of history. If time is constantly out of joint – if it is not anchored in the seamless time-space continuum that is developing to reach the realization of the “telos”, then the question of inheritance comes to the fore. As Derrida aptly remarks, “infinite does not inherit.” (p.18). If the past legacy were transparent, or unequivocal, we wouldn’t be able to inherit from it. It would proceed naturally and we would be only affected by a cause (material or other kind). The fact that the past legacy is always heterogeneous compels us to take a stance in order to fill the void. It is the “must” that is always assumed given the heterogeneity of the paths that stretch from the past and form the present. And this “must” is of a radically different sort than what we have in either dialectics or other teleological ontologies, including liberal democratic (i.e. Fukuyama’s assertion that the world was heading to the triumph of liberal democracy and that the history reached its end).

The time that is “out of joint” bears crucial implications for the idea of justice. Both in liberal and Marxist philosophies we are more accustomed to the concept of justice that is calculable (for instance, distributive justice of liberal theorists), while here, Derrida speaks about justice which is a gift. It does not hinge on the calculable equality or “symmetrizing and synchronic accountability” (p. 26). Nor it has to do with duty, or even revenge (p. 30). It does what it “must”, but does so without debt or duty. It dispenses to the singular (un-symmetrized) other and doesn’t succumb to totalization. The most outstanding metaphor here is the “undecostructible justice”- “undeconstructible condition of any deconstruction.” (p. 33) At first glance, the idea may seem impenetrable, but upon closer inspection, it does make sense if we analyze it along with the idea of disjointed time. Deconstruction operates in this time that is “out of joint”, but this very disjointedness makes its movement possible. So the condition of it is not deconstructible itself – it is the condition that deconstructs, but remains undeconstructible precisely because it always finds itself in this constant “negative” (more precisely, deconstructive) movement.

The ethical implication of this critique of ontology is that wherever deconstruction is at stake, it compels us to link our political affirmation to the experience of impossible. Only in this manner, we will be able to avoid the risk of totalization. “There must be disjunction” emphatically declares Derrida (p.42) He thinks that Fukuyama misses the point when he tries to totalize the present by conjoining norm and empirical reality. On the one hand, Fukuyama needs empirics to adduce the inevitability of liberal democracy (the collapse of the Soviet Union), but on the other hand, there, where he sees the fundamental shortcomings in the realization of liberal-democracy, he immediately avails himself of the idealistic thinking and posits liberal-democracy as an ideal. It is where Fukuyama errs most dramatically. He unsuccessfully tries to grapple with both irreconcilable discourses and does not want to admit that it is this very irreconcilability, or a gap, if you will, that makes democracy possible. In other words, democracy always is in the future present (pp. 78-81).  In such a manner, democracy is stripped off of any idealistic (in a teleological sense of the word) implications – in Derrida’s words, it is “awaiting without horizon of the wait… hospitality without reserve… messianic opening to what is coming.” (pp. 81-82) And most prominently, it is that has to be left open – the very place of spectrality. (Ibid)

Derrida’s analysis of the Marxian materialist dialectics turns on the same ideas of disjointedness of time and empowering potential of deconstructive thinking, but what’s interesting is that he does not see Marx himself as a strict dialectician. He sees two different strands in Marx’s thinking: Marx as a spectrologist and Marx as an exorcist. It’s the latter that Derrida tries to deconstruct in the light of the critique of ontology. Below, I will embark on discussing both strands in turn.

Marx as a spectrolosist is fascinated with specters and wants to retain the room for them to appear. Those are the specters that don’t lose their body, because to use a popular Hegelian-Marxian metaphor, specter without body is the form without content. This distinction is all the more relevant for the Eighteenth Brumaire- the revolution that had no content. (pp.144.146) Here, Marx distinguishes the spirit from the specter, the latter being always contaminated with the body, the flesh, the content; the former, on the other hand, is a pure abstraction – a simulation of simulacrum. That is the crucial issue of the disagreement between Max Stirner (Marx mockingly calls him Saint Max in the German Ideology) and Marx. Stirner tries to give specter a living life – to spiritualize it. But as soon as the specter becomes a purely abstract entity (a pure formality), it loses its relevance and becomes incapacitated. (pp. 152-154)

But regretfully for Derrida, Marx himself still believes in some sort of purification. He is out to dispel specters, not spirits – that is an overall impression of him. (pp. 154-155). Marx becomes an exorcist himself and for Derrida, this is most clearly perceptible in the writings on political economy. At this very point, Derrida turns to Marx’s most important book – Das Capital and tries to disentangle the famous dichotomies operating within it.

Marx famously distinguished between the use-value and exchange-value, the former being the real quality of the things, while the latter being an abstraction created by the market economy. Commodities are abstractions and for that reason, use-values are inexorably haunted by exchange-values. Exchange process itself is a process of haunting in which humans themselves are engaged by “letting themselves to be haunted.” (p. 198) Exchange process is abstracted from the social relations that underpin them as content underscores form (and vice versa). The social bond becomes phantomized, but this is only a secondary process. The most important moment is that the use-value and social bond themselves are there for being phantomized. In such a way, they are already phantomized, spectralized before they become exchange-values and exchange relations. (pp. 199-200)

Contrary to what Marx as an exorcist believes, the famous Marxian formula C-M-C (Commodity-Money-Commodity) never stops operating. It’s an infinite process and there shouldn’t be any illusion that it will stop one day. (p. 203) The very condition that sets off this movement also generates a condition for a radical break, because, as we already explained,  there is not a break if there is no gap between form and content, use-value and exchange value, social relations and exchange relations, particularism and universalism, facts and norms, etc.

This latter Marx – Marx as an exorcist is with whom Derrida has serious issues. Marx as an exorcist thinks that he is a better expert in dispelling ghosts than Stirner is. (p. 177). Alternatively, Derrida offers us a different type of exorcism – one that will always retain the necessary gap between itself and its flesh; and at the same time it will be always contaminated by the flesh/ the body.

Derrida enlists 10 issues that need to be addressed in the framework of the New International:

  • The concept of unemployment that has undergone a change. We see the emergence of the so called underemployment.
  • Exclusion of homeless citizens from democratic institutions and participation; expulsion of exiles, stateless persons and immigrants.
  • Economic war waged even between the developed countries;
  • Contradictions of the free market. The conflicts between protectionism and free trade.
  • The aggravation of foreign debt, sometimes dictated by the discourse of democratization and human rights.
  • The arms industry and trade. Arms’ trafficking is larger than the drug trafficking in the world.
  • Spread of nuclear weapons that is no longer controllable.
  • Inter-ethnic wars driven by a primitive conceptual phantasm of community or the nation-state.
  • Phantom-states – the mafia and drug cartels that are operating on every continent.
  • International law and its institutions. There are two broad problems in this respect: First, the concepts of the international law remain anchored in one particular culture, and second, international law and institutions are used by a handful of states to their advantage. (pp. 100-104)

Given the explication and criticism of the C-M-C model, it’s very surprising that there is no mention of this dichotomy in the abovementioned ten plagues of the modern world. One may argue that it is because Derrida wants to avoid the risk of totalization at all costs and tries to offer a program that will be minimally susceptible to totalitarianism. That is an understandable concern, but then it becomes entirely unclear why he doesn’t discard the whole contradiction of market economy out of hand. He still addresses them, but persistently avoids mentioning the core dichotomy that occupies the central stage in Das Capital. I believe, that there is a fundamental reason for this, not merely the fact that he fails to mention one of the core issues. The problem is the refutation of totalization and totality itself.

If the admittance of the fact that gap between the reality and the norm (use value and exchange value, particular and universal, etc,) is irreducible doesn’t make us relativists or nihilists, why should the totalizing political projects necessarily succumb to totalitarianism? Is it possible not to lose the horizon of impossible while simultaneously arguing for one definite all-encompassing political project? Is democracy compatible with such risky endeavors? These are the questions that I would pose to Derrida himself, were it not for the finitude of human life.  But also, I believe that these are the questions we should ask ourselves more forcefully. Why do we fear utopias? If it’s because of the past painful experiences, then why haven’t those experiences completely blocked us from engaging into politics and fully subjugated our societies to the impersonal forces of market?

But I think that Derrida taught us an important lesson regardless of his stance on totalization or utopias, and his lesson remains all the more relevant now when there is the need throughout the world to combat the excesses of neoliberal deregulation of the 80s and 90s (and even the 2000s). He argued that liberal-democracy isn’t a final stage of human development and nor was the Soviet Marxism. And what we have to do now is to liberate ourselves from the teleological and foundationalist thinking and look for better alternatives to unregulated markets. But at the same time, we have to ask an unavoidable question that must haunt us for all this time: Twenty years have passed since Derrida delivered his lecture at the University of California, Riverside and we still have no viable program to address the 10 problems that Derrida posed to us – is it because we don’t pose them aggressively enough, with more totalizing forcefulness and all-encompassing utopias in mind? Sooner or later, we should start to overcome this incapacitating fear as well.


Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The state of debt, the work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Contingency, Hegemony, Universality – Part One, Butler’s First Essay

In an unprecedented work of collaboration Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek discussed the contemporary problems facing the Leftist discourse in the world. Although the book was published a decade ago, it is still relevant today as three of them still continue to make their precious contributions to the field. I find this book a good start for unfolding the positions of the major philosophers of our age and hence, for analyzing our current state of affairs.

I will skip the first part of the book where three of them pose questions to each other and I’ll directly move to the main part of the text, discussing the nine essays written by the authors one after another. The introductory notes and the first essay are written by Judith Butler.

Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism

Judith Butler

Butler provides a definition of hegemony from the very start repeating the central claim of the famous book of Laclau and Mouffe. Hegemony, in her understanding, implies the fact “that democratic polities are constituted through exclusions that return to haunt the polities predicated upon their absence.” In her view, this constitutive exclusion defines the very sphere of politics and democracy. The incompletion entailed by the perpetual processes of exclusion is guaranteed in two ways:

1. as the failure of any particular demand to represent the whole population

1. by the split nature of every subject and inability to fully incorporate the outside in the inside

Butler inquires if the notion of Lacanian barred subject is ultimately compatible with the notion of hegemony. Her main concern lies in the alleged ahistoric nature of the Lacanian bar which, in her view, elevates itself to the position of ahistoric determinant forever preventing subject formations from completing. Undoubtedly, Butler agrees with the notion of the necessary incomplete character of every subject, but her criticism is aimed at allegedly ahistoric recourse to the Lacanian Real – a point which will be further expanded and elaborated by three of them throughout the book.

Furthermore, Butler carries her criticism of the Lacanian Real to a new level by implicating it in barring any positive social change. Her argumentation is concerned about the inability of the “structurally” incomplete process to deliver something fundamentally new, thus, constraining itself to pre-given limitations. Later, Butler employs the same argument by comparing pre-given constraining conditions to formal universal language which predetermines the character of human relations without having engaged in the content.

Butler announces her intention to address the aforementioned problems in two ways: 1. to consider the problem of constitutive exclusion by evoking the Hegelian perspective 2. to show how Laclau’s notion of hegemony can be restaged in terms of cultural translation.

Thus, Butlerian philosophy draws on some sort of Hegelian ontology coupled with the modern notions of performativity and cultural translation.

Before proceeding to unfolding her version of Hegelian universality, Butler makes critical remarks on the procedural versions of universality, having in mind, mainly, Habermas and Rawls. She convincingly refutes any version of procedural universalism by pointing at the implicitly rational character of drawing up procedures. In the words of Butler, “The proceduralist view seeks to sidestep this problem (the problem of defining universal human nature  – G.T.) by insisting that it makes no substantive claims about human nature, but its exclusive reliance on rationality to make its claim belies this very assertion.”

At the next stage, Butler tries to directly confront the problem of universality by invoking Hegelian notions. She quotes Hegel Lesser Logic, Part One of his Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1830) where Hegel draws a distinction between abstract and concrete forms of universality in his effort to refute formalism.

Butler thinks that Hegel, unlike Kant, differentiated between internal and external forms of “I”, the former referring to abstractions made from representations and sensations and “from every state as well as from every peculiarity of nature, of talent, of experience, and so on.” This internal form is abstract or abstractly free, but it is also relates to the concrete form of universality. Universality becomes bifurcated: in the first instance it is abstract, in the second it is concrete. By introducing the concrete dimension of the term, Hegel claims that abstract universality in its purest form is solipsistic and denies the fundamental sociability of humans. Thus, he concludes that for freedom to become concrete, thought must “immerse itself in the matter.”

Butler points out the two helpful outcomes  that directly flow out of the Hegelian notion of concrete universality. First of all, formalism can no longer be sustained once it is understood that abstraction requires exclusion of the “concrete” as a necessary precondition. Secondly, it becomes equally vain to claim access to a “concrete” knowledge without having it mediated by abstractions. In Butler’s words, “abstraction is thus contaminated precisely by the concretion from which it seeks to differentiate itself.”

Hegel likens Kantian to someone who tries to learn swimming before entering the water. Moreover, Hegel adds that universality is dependent on recognition which, on its part depends, on custom or Sittlichkeit. By “custom” he means those cultural norms that are implicitly negotiated by the individuals.

Hegel offers an incisive critique of the universalist penchant of the French revolution in his “Absolute Freedom and Terror” section in the Phenomenology of Spirit. In his view, to perform a deed one must become individuated. Universal freedom which is deindividuated cannot fulfill anything but destruction. Butler thinks that death and destruction are meant both literary and in a normative sense: “Deprived of recognition and the power to externalize themselves through deeds, such individuals become nullities whose sole act is to nullify the world that has nullified them.”

After discussing Hegel’s notion of universality, Butler proceeds to accuse Zizek of formalism.  Here, Butler employs the same arguments against Zizek as she does against Laclau. She is accusing Zizek of taking formalist attitude in explaining the social phenomena and thus rendering impossible any substantial change. In this regard, Butler treats Zizek and Laclau on the same level despite the apparent differences between those two. Zizek, unlike Laclau, focuses on the necessary surplus that the power is producing to explain why struggling for power still makes sense. He thinks that we should not avoid this dark side of human nature (which he calls “our Monstrous selves”).   Butler rightly suggests that both approaches to the problem are grounded on the necessary character of  linguistic aporias, but she thinks that this approach remains indifferent to politics.

Moreover, Butler adds to her criticism of Laclau one more point, namely, the allegedly complete character of Laclau’s “particulars”. She  thinks that Laclau fails to address the problem by not putting under question the very status of these particulars (Are they particulars or universals? How can we distinguish between these two?) .

In the end, Butler reiterates her support for the incomplete character of the any subject formation but abstains herself from predicting the form of the final outcome. In her understanding, the notion of cultural translation implies this very missing (non)-logic that Laclau’s  concept of hegemony lacks. In this way, she thinks that she avoids the formalist trap in which Zizek and Laclau are unknowingly caught.