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Interview with Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, authors of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx

Hermeneutic CommunismThe following is an interview with Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, authors of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx. The interview took place in January, 2011.

Question: How does one manage to write a book with another author?

Santiago Zabala: It’s all about collaboration. Over the past several years, we have edited five book series for Italian and American publishers and also written several forewords and book reviews; this is not the first time we actually wrote together. Before one of us writes the first draft, we have a long conversation in order to decide the themes of each section. After this first draft is finished, the other checks it through and makes modifications where necessary.

Gianni Vattimo: Although most of the time Santiago wrote the first draft after our talk, there are occasions where I wrote it; either way, it’s very difficult now to recognize which parts each of us originally wrote not only because of the modifications and edits that came afterward but also because we decided together beforehand what each part was to be about. I’m very happy with the whole book, which managed, among other things, to cover many things I was forced to leave out in my Ecce Comu.

Question: In the preface you say that Hermeneutic Communism is really a development of your last books, Ecce Comu and The Remains of Being. Do readers have to go over these books first?

SZ: No, I don’t think they have to (although we hope that people will read them) since Hermeneutic Communism is a systematic text that stands on its own. We make this comment in the preface just to remind everyone how this text, just like any other book, is an effect or a consequence of previous research. Either way, although we started planning this book before Gianni finished Ecce Comu, I will not deny that that book was essential for Hermeneutic Communism.

GV: I hope Hermeneutic Communism will invite people to read Ecce Comu also. After all, they are very different books. Santiago and I wrote a systematic account of the relation between philosophy and politics today; in Ecce Comu, on the other hand, I explain my own faith in a return to communism and the disastrous condition Italian politics finds itself in today. The first edition of Ecce Comu came out in Cuba but was then updated with other chapters for the Italian edition.

Question: Professor Vattimo, you met both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez recently?

GV: I met Castro in 2006 after receiving an honorary degree from the Academy of Fine Arts of Cuba. It was a beautiful meeting in his office for over three hours on a Sunday afternoon. We talked about a variety of subjects: the Cuban revolution, Khrushchev, the EU parliament, G. W. Bush, the educational system, and so on. After I wrote about this meeting in La Stampa [an Italian newspaper], I was heavily criticized by the Miami Herald and many EU newspapers. Either way, a few years later I also met Chávez, but this was a public formal meeting on his TV show, Aló Presidente. During the past decades I’ve also met with many other politicians throughout the region and, more importantly, visited many of the social initiatives they’ve brought forward. I must admit when I lectured in Venezuelan universities, most of the students would try to persuade me that Chávez is the worst thing that has happened to them. But I realized that these students all represent Venezuela’s elite upper class, the little percentage that has enough money to send their children to universities. Now Chávez has begun to establish universities for everyone and also social programs (such as “Sucre”) that allow the poorest families to send their children to private universities. Recently, I’ve also traveled to the region with the European Union (I’m now serving my second and last term as an EU deputy) because I’m one of the vice presidents of EUROLAT (Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, a transnational body of 150 parliamentarians from Europe and Latin America). Last year at the EU Parliament I was one of the few to point out how we are doing business with Colombia, a country that has the worst human rights records of the region, and Honduras, a country now run by the only undemocratic government in the region after the coup of 2009 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebiVSLxNsBM].

Question: Professor Zabala, do you represent Vattimo’s South American connection?

S. Zabala: I wish! No, actually I’ve only traveled recently through South America. I was raised between Rome, Vienna, and Geneva. I’m actually the incarnation of the EU citizen if there is such a thing. My admiration for contemporary South American politics is strictly philosophical, so to speak: if China’s Communist Party would follow democratic procedures and win actual elections, I would also admire them. Together with Gianni, it is Noam Chomsky who introduced me (through his writing; I’ve never had the honor of meeting Professor Chomsky) to the progressive politics that is taking place in South America now.

Question: Let’s talk about the structure of the book. Among the first things that come to mind looking at the table of contents is the balance among the two parts, four chapters, and twelve sections. Also, although all sections are the same length, chapters 2 and 4 contain many more notes than the other two chapters. Why is this?

GV: The last systematic book I wrote was Il soggetto e la maschera [The Subject and the Mask] (1974). There are various reasons why I stopped taking so much care in explicating my thesis though balanced order and style: perhaps for the same reasons as Derrida, Rorty, and so many other postmetaphysical philosophers, that is, the end of grand narratives, truth, and ideology? I’m glad Santiago persuaded me to follow this structure because it certainly helps the reader, who, in this case, we hope will be not only philosophical but also political.

SV: Those chapters contain many more notes because we needed to justify with documents, articles, and other information some of our theses, for example, how Obama has increased military spending or Chávez has forced the oil industry to finance free health care for the poorest citizens of Venezuela. But if these chapters had to have more notes it’s also because they are the “ontic” sections of the book; that is, while chapters 1 and 3 are philosophical or ontological, chapters 2 and 4 are ontic or political. I’m not saying they could be read independently, but they correspond to each other. While part 1, “Framed Democracy,” is really a deconstruction of the “winners’ history,” that is, of the conservative realist positions of John Searle, Robert Kagan, and Francis Fukuyama, part 2, “Hermeneutic Communism,” outlines (through the work of Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and others) how the “anarchic vein of hermeneutics” points toward a weakened communism.

Question: But aren’t Searle, Kagan, and Fukuyama all defenders of democracy?

SZ: Above all, they are defenders of realism, that is, “the subordination of reason to metaphysical reality,” and Herbert Marcuse declared decades ago that realism would “prepare the way for racist ideology.” This racist ideology is at work today through capitalism’s impositions; inequality, exclusion, famine—economic oppression—have never affected so many human beings. As for Searle, well, he did accept from President G. W. Bush in 2004 the National Humanities Medal for his “efforts to deepen understanding of the human mind, for using his writings to shape modern thought, defend reason and objectivity, and define debate about the nature of artificial intelligence” [http://www.neh.gov/news/archive/20041117.html]. The realism he defends throughout his writings is very dangerous politically because it reduces our possibilities of freedom and change. Searle explained in Freedom and Neurobiology how he considered it a positive factor that G. W. Bush became president in the 2000 election regardless of the “fact” that many American citizens considered he claimed the office illegitimately. The priority of Searle’s, Kagan’s, and Fukuyama’s metaphysical realism is to conserve institutional facts in order to control any alterations. Even though such events as the terrorist attack of 9/11, Obama’s election, and the economic crisis of 2008 are presented to us as alterations, sudden changes, they are actually intensifications of the existing order: 9/11 was a response, unjustifiable of course, to decades of Western military constraints in the Middle East; Obama was always a member of the elite Washington establishment; and the economic crisis was created by the same financial speculations that sustain the capitalist economy. Against this intensification of realism in philosophy and politics we indicate how it is possible to practice politics without truth, how hermeneutics can renew communism, and why South American politics can become a model for our Western democracies’ military, political, and financial logics. I understand this last point might be very difficult for Western intellectuals to recognize, but South American politics might help us improve, too.

Question: Whom is this book for? Is there an ideal reader?

GV: I hope it’s for everyone, although we could distinguish two ideal readers: a Western anti-globalization protester and an analytical philosopher. While the first needs to understand how change is almost impossible through violent revolts within our “framed democracies” (given the force of our establishments), the second should avoid presenting the analytic position as more democratic just because Heidegger (the principal continental philosopher) was a Nazi. If we follow this logic, then we have to also jettison Frege since he was an anti-Semite and Hume since he considered black people inferior to whites. All philosophers make political errors (perhaps we do, too), but such errors are not always part of their philosophical intuitions.

SZ: And don’t forget all those who still think Chávez is a dictator. Section 11 is intended to recall how the Venezuelan president received more democratic support than any EU president. I think this is what induced Oliver Stone to film South of the Border and John Pilger, The War on Democracy. If almost all the world’s media are determined to discredit these South American governments, it is not only because they are communist (although they call themselves socialist), that is, because they put people before profit, but also because they are afraid all citizens will start demanding that their politicians follow the same principles. There are a few journalists, such as Mark Weisbrot, Greg Grandin, Gianni Minà, and Vicenç Navarro who manage to relay what is actually happening over there (in The Guardian, The Nation, and few other liberal newspapers).

GV: Yes, but perhaps it’s more important to emphasize how this is also a book for all those conservative hermeneutic philosophers who still see interpretation only as a variation of phenomenology. We are certain that our good friend the distinguished philosopher Jean Grondin must be appalled by the “progressive hermeneutics” we expose here. But, as many of us believe, hermeneutics is not only Gadamer; there is also Nietzsche, Pareyson, Rorty, and many others. This is the meaning behind the subtitle of the book: From Heidegger to Marx. Today, after metaphysics, we can return to Marx through hermeneutics, that is, a philosophical approach that operates without truth, impositions, and violence, hence a “weakening” of the strong structures of metaphysics, modernity, and ideology. This is why the motto of the book (rephrasing Marx’s famous statement from Theses on Feuerbach) is that “the philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.” Hermeneutic communism’s greatest enemy, as Santiago just mentioned, is liberal realism, which we expose and criticize in chapter 2. Although none of the progressive Latin American leaders call themselves “communists,” much less “hermeneutic communists,” they are constantly applying communist initiatives (which have been much better at defending their economies from crises than the strategies used by any country in the West) and hermeneutic pluralities (such as the recognition of indigenous rights).

Question: Lots of space is given to slums in relation to the weak. Can you explain where these concepts come from and how they relate to each other?

GV: “Weak thought” does not aim at metaphysical systems and global emancipatory programs but rather at weakening these strong structures. This is why hermeneutics is so important for weak thought. As the philosophy of the interpretative character of truth, hermeneutics becomes the resistance to objective philosophical structures and oppressive political actions. While the dominating classes always work to conserve and leave unquestioned the established order of the world (liberal realism), the weak thought of hermeneutics searches for new goals and ambitions within the possibilities of the “thrown” condition of the human being. This is perhaps what will distinguish our book from other works of political philosophy. Contrary to Alan Badiou, Antonio Negri, and other philosophers who believe politics is founded on scientific or rational grounds, we suggest abandoning truth in favor of interpretation, history, and event. The end of truth is the beginning of democracy. While this might seem pure nihilism to many political scientists who believe truth must guide politics, it is important to recall that at the beginning of the twentieth century Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Theodor Adorno warned us about the imposition of scientific objectivism on all disciplines. If Hermeneutic Communism follows these authors’ alarms against scientific dominion it is not because objectivism is untrue but rather because it is unjust, a lethal attack on freedom and democracy. As Walter Benjamin and Heidegger indicated, “the only emergency is the lack of emergency.”

SZ: Both the “slums” and the “weak” are the “discharge of capitalism” or, as I explained in my previous book, the “remains of Being.” They are what does not belong to framed democracies and the rational development of capitalism. These democracies have been building walls, not just the ones on borders (of Mexico, Israel, India, Afghanistan, Spain) but also, as Mike Davis explains, “epistemological walls,” in order to increase indifference toward the weak. This indifference, similar, on a theoretical level, to analytic philosophy’s attitude toward continental philosophy, is simply a symptom of fear, fear of the possibility of emancipation that these discharges imply. I’m certain this is also the main reason that a group of analytical philosophers led by a known supporter of Searle, attempted (without success) to convince Cambridge University to avoid honoring Derrida.

Question: As with any other book dealing with contemporary politics, aren’t you afraid of the changes that might occur in the next months or years?

SZ: Since we wrote the book there have been some significant changes, such as Dilma Rousseff’s becoming the first female president of Brazil, Colombia’s new president (Juan Manuel Santos) calling for better relations with Venezuela, and also Uruguay and Argentina’s recognition of Palestine as a nation along the 1967 borders (meaning they view the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, including occupied East Jerusalem, as parts of Palestine). I’m sure there will be many more changes in the region in coming months and years; either way, our book, as with every other political interpretation of the contemporary world, can grapple only with those events that happened before it was written. After all, I think this is the first thing we say in the book: it was written between the reelection of President G. W. Bush in 2004 and President Obama’s decision to increase the soldiers deployed in Afghanistan in 2010.

GV: The intention of our book, though it explores the status of communism, is also to provoke a reflection on the value of democracy as it is practiced in the West. Many readers might consider this stance exaggerated when we endorse Chávez, Morales, and Castro, but I doubt they will disagree with the drastic criticism of the policies of the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S Treasury, which have all, in one way or another, created and still conserve the economic crisis we are all enmeshed in. Through the work of such distinguished economists as Joseph Stiglitz, Luciano Gallino, and Dean Baker we indicate how the greatest problem of economists in general is that they consider their discipline a scientific one. According to Paul Krugman, it is just this metaphysical belief in the power and rationality of free financial markets that “blinded many if not most economists to the emergence of the biggest financial bubble in history” [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html]. Both Stiglitz and Baker have endorsed the Bank of the South, which was established with the support of most of the countries in Latin America. Also, it is important to remember these governments are much more advanced than Western framed democracies in ecological matters. In 2009 Morales was declared a “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the United Nations General Assembly because of his political initiatives against the destruction of the environment caused by the global hegemonic economic system.

Question: Are you afraid the book will be read simply as a defense of contemporary South American politics or another version of Marxism?

SZ: Those who consider it a defense of Chávez, Morales, and other Latin American politicians demonstrate that they have not read the book since only a quarter of it is dedicated to them. If other nations would take as much care of the weak as these leaders do, we would endorse them, too, but as it turns out, and Michael Moore demonstrated this in Sicko, it’s easier to get health care in Cuba than in the United States. As for being reduced to another version of Marxism? Well, the more versions there are, the better, of course. The recent reevaluations or reassessments of Marx and communism by Derrida, Žižek, and many others are connected not only to the current crisis of capitalism but also to the possibility of a kind of communism different from the one we saw in the last century. As a 2009 London conference indicated, communism has now become the realm for an emancipatory political project [http://www.versobooks.com/books/513-513-the-idea-of-communism]. Nevertheless, our book is very different from Negri’s or Badiou’s texts, and I doubt it will be associated with theirs. While they continue to use metaphysical notions (empire, multitude, revolution), we insist on the postmetaphysical political project of hermeneutics in order to weaken such notions where necessary. Hermeneutics is as much a part of communism as the other way around; each completes the other’s postmetaphysical goals.

GV: That’s right. The goal is change. Unlike in description, for which reality must be imposed, interpretation instead makes a new contribution to reality. Despite the fact that hermeneutics has been restricted to a simple technique of interpretation, and communism has often been applied to all the domains of society, we have inverted the account in order to emphasize the philosophical essence of hermeneutics and restrict communism to its economic function. As we can see, they both share the project of emancipation from metaphysics that is missing in some of our communist colleagues.