Susan Buck-Morss: A Commonist Ethics

By Susan Buck-Morss1
The Committee on Globalization and Social Change
November 2011

Susan Buck-Morss: A Commonist Ethics

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The First Point: Politics is not an ontology. The claim that the political is always ontological needs to be challenged.2 It is not merely that the negative the case – that the political is never ontological3 (as Badiou points out, a simple negation leaves everything in place4). Instead, what is called for is a reversal of the negation: The ontological is never political.

It follows that the move from la politique (everyday politics) to le politique (the very meaning of the political) is a one‐way street. With all due respect to Marcel Gauchet, Chantal Mouffe, Giorgio Agamben, and a whole slew of others, the attempt to discover within empirical political life (la politique) the ontological essence of the political (le politique) leads theory into a dead end from which there is no return to actual, political practice. There is nothing gained by this move from the feminine to the masculine form. The post‐metaphysical project of discovering ontological truth within lived existence fails politically. It fails in the socially disengaged Husserlian‐Heidegerian mode of bracketing the existenziell to discover the essential nature of what “the political” is. And it fails in the socially critical, post‐Foucauldian mode of historicized ontology, disclosing the multiple ways of political being‐in‐the‐world within particular, cultural and temporal configurations.

This is not news. From the mid‐1930s on, it was Adorno’s obsessive concern, in the context of the rise of fascism, to demonstrate the failure of the ontological attempt to ground a philosophy of Being by starting from the given world, or, in Heideggerian language, to move from the ontic, that is, being [seiend] in the sense of that which is empirically given, to the ontological, that which is essentially true of existence (Dasein as the “a priori structure” of “existentiality”5). Adorno argued that any ontology derived (or reduced6) from the ontic, turns the philosophical project into one big tautology.7 He has a point, and the political implications are serious.

Ontology identifies. Identity was anathema to Adorno, and nowhere more so than in its political implications, the identity between ruler and ruled that fascism affirmed. Indeed, even parliamentary rule can be seen to presuppose a striving for identity, whereby consensus becomes an end in itself, regardless of the truth content of that consensus.8 It is not that Heidegger’s philosophy (or any existential ontology) is in‐ itself fascist (that would be an ontological claim). Rather, by resolving the question of Being before subsequent political analyses, the latter have no philosophical traction. They are subsumed under the ontological a prioris that themselves must remain indifferent to their content.9 Existential ontology is mistaken in assuming that, once “the character of being” (Heidegger) is conceptually grasped, it will return us to the material, empirical world and allow us to gather its diversities and multiplicities under philosophy’s own pre‐understandings in ways adequate to the exigencies of collective action, the demands of actual political life. In fact, the ontological is never political. A commonist (or communist) ontology is a contradiction in terms.

But, you may ask, did not Marx himself outline in his early writings a full ontology based on the classical, Aristotelian claim that man is by nature a social animal? Are not the 1844 manuscripts an elaboration of that claim, mediated by a historically specific critique, hence an extended, social ontology of man’s alienation from nature (including his own) and from his fellow man? Yes, but in actual, political life, this ontological “man” does not exist.

Instead, we existing creatures are men and women, black and brown, capitalists and workers, gay and straight, and the meaning of these categories of being is in no way stable. Moreover, these differences matter less that whether we are unemployed, have prison records, or are in danger of being exported. And no matter what we are in these ontic ways, our beings do not fit neatly into our politics as conservatives, anarchists, evangelicals, Teaparty‐supporters, Zionists, Islamists, and (a few) Communists. We are social animals, yes, but we are also anti‐social, and our animal natures are thoroughly mediated by society’s contingent forms. Yes, the early Marx developed a philosophical ontology. Nothing follows from this politically. Philosopher‐king‐styled party leaders are not thereby legitimated, and the whole thorny issue of false consciousness (empirical vs. imputed/ascribed [zugerechnectes] consciousness) cannot force a political resolution. At the same time, philosophical thought has every right—and obligation—to intervene actively into political life. Here is Marx on the subject of intellectual practice, including philosophizing:

But again when I am active scientifically, etc,—when I am engaged in activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then I am social, because I am active as a man [human being10]. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being11

Again, no matter how deeply one thinks one’s way into this ontological generalization, no specific political orientation follows as a consequence. It describes the intellectual work of Heidegger and Schmitt every bit as much as it does that of Marx or of us ourselves.

For Marx, ontological philosophy was only the starting point in a lifelong practice of scientific thinking that developed in response to the historical events surrounding him. Through the trajectory of his work, the entire tradition of Western political philosophy took a left turn away from metaphysics and toward an engagement with the emerging social sciences—economics, anthropology, sociology, psychology—understood not in their positivist, data‐gathering or abstract‐mathematical forms, but as sciences of history—not historicality, historicity, historicism or the like, but concrete, material HISTORY. With this hard‐left turn (which is an orientation that may or may not involve elements from “the linguistic turn,” the “ethical turn,” the “aesthetic turn”), political philosophy morphs into social theory done reflectively, that is, critically. It becomes critical theory.

When Marx said thinking was itself a practice, he meant it in this sense. He did not then ask: what is the ontological meaning of the being of practice. Instead, he tried to find out as much as he could about the socio‐historical practices of actual human beings in his time.

So the question Marx’s early writings leaves us with is this: How do we turn this social ‐ we could say in a descriptive way, socialist – fact of our work, and our consciousness of this work as social beings, into a commonist practice? How are we to conceive of a commonist ethics? Not by the phenomenological reduction to some essence of what it is to be a social being: i.e., a caring being, a being‐to‐death, a being‐ with, etc., as Heidegger proposed, but rather, by an analysis, a becoming‐conscious of the specific society, the specific cares, the specific deaths that are simultaneous with our own, not common in the sense of the same as ours (experiences are very unequal in today’s society), but as happening to others who share, in common, this time and this space – a space as big as the globe and a time as actual as now.

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1 This paper grows out of a presentation for the conference, “Communism: A New Beginning,” convened by Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou at Cooper Union, NYC, October 2011. The author felt increasingly uncomfortable with the word communist. The “u” had to go. Commonist describes more accurately the ethical argument being made. I want to thank my colleagues in the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center, who will recognize here the influence of our discussions.
2 (Bosteels cites Mouffe pp. 40‐41). Mouffe: “…[I]t is the lack of understanding of ‘the political’ in its ontological dimension which is at the origin of our current incapacity to think in a political way” (Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 8. (Also Negri: “Here is where communism is in need of Marx: to install itself in the common, in ontology, And vice versa: without historical ontology there is no communism” (Negri “Est‐il possible d’être communiste sans Marx?” cited by Bosteels p. 49).
3 For a critical discussion of the a leftist ontology, see Carsten Strathausen, ed., A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), particularly the concluding “Afterward” by Bruno Bosteels, reprinted as “The Ontological Turn” in his informative, new book, The Actuality of Communism (London/New York: Verso, 2011).
4 “On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou,” Cabinet 5 (2001/02),
5 For post‐metaphysical ontology, essence cannot be a transcendent category but must remain immanent to existence. As Heidegger writes: “the ‘essence’ [Wesen] of this entity lies in its ‘to be’” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson ‘New York: Harper &Row, 1962), p. 67; German original, p. 42) The being referred to here (being with a small “b”) is the “given” world, the world which “es gift” (which “there is”) and conscious, human being is ontologically understood as “Dasein” (“being‐there”).
6 Cf. Husserl’s method of phenomenological reduction that influenced Adorno as a student.
7 At the level of the ontic, the verb “is” is used descriptively and truth is a matter of accurate perception, hence basically an epistemological problem. But it is quite another thing to suppose, by delving into the structures of the ontic, that they themselves are capable of disclosing a deeper, ontological truth. If such an “ontological difference” is impossible, as Adorno claimed, then the whole procedure is a sham.
8 Adorno criticized the liberal‐parliamentarian notion of compromise, as did Schmitt, but precisely for the opposed reason, that the differences in positions were not different enough. Adorno’s principle of non‐identity ‐‐ his claim that the truth is not the safe middle; rather, les extrèmes se touchent ‐‐ could be interpreted politically as an uncompromising means to this democratic end.
9 “[T]he existential analytic of Dasein [Being with a capital B] comes before any psychology or anthropology, and certainly before any biology” (i.e., before the material bodies of actual human beings! (Being and Time, p. 71, German, p, 45). Or, another example, tools are mere “beings‐at‐hand” and his example is the pen with which he writes. If the ontological precedes the ontic, there is no way that the ontological description can differentiate between the philosopher’s tools‐at‐hand and those of a worker on an assembly line (Being and Time, pp. 95‐ 102; German, pp. 67‐72). Or, on the relationship between philosophy and the social sciences: “We must always bear in mind that the ontological foundations can never be disclosed by subsequent hypotheses derived from empirical material, but that they are always ‘there’ already, even when that empirical material simply gets collected”(Being and Time, p. 75; German, p. 50).
10 “Allein auch wenn ich wissenschaftlich etc. tätig bin, eine Tätigkeit, die ich selten in unmittelbarer Gemeinschaft mit andern ausführen kann, so bin ich gesellschaftlich, weil als Mensch [ital. mine] tätig. Nicht nur das Material meiner Tätigkeit ist mir – wie selbst die Sprache, in der der Denker tätig ist – als gesellschaftliches Produkt gegeben, mein eignes Dasein ist gesellschaftliche Tätigkeit; darum das, was ich aus mir mache, ich aus mir für die Gesellschaft mache und mit dem Bewußtsein meiner als eines gesellschaftlichen Wesens.”
11 Robert C. Tucker, The Marx‐Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), p. 86.