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  • Practical Politics at the Limits of Community: The Cases of Affirmative Action and Welfare
  • Scott Michaelsen and Scott Cutler Shershow

In the wake of a number of studies of the relationship between post-structuralism and the "political," this article demonstrates how a post-structuralist Marxism can be applied to particular instances of politico-economic decision-making. Through an examination of U.S. court cases that address affirmative action and welfare, the authors reveal the limits of both "left" and "right" versions of these policies and show how the entire spectrum of conventional opinion unites around (and remains unable to escape) certain founding assumptions. In particular, the traditional conceptualizations of affirmative action and welfare reach their limit in the figures of mandated white supremacy and enforced economic inequality. The authors also suggest that it is precisely at these limits that another form of politics emerges--one influenced in particular by a broadly Marxian/Derridean trajectory and Jean-Luc Nancy's work on community. This form of politics involves what the authors call "calculation in order to end calculation," by which all conventional notions of giving or sharing must be radically reconfigured at the limit of identity itself. Such a politics would produce an "affirmative action" policy not strictly affirmative of anything, not even "diversity," a policy whose goal would be absolute deracialization; and a "welfare" policy no longer founded in exclusion and the preservation of scarcity, but re-conceived as an expenditure without reserve: an offering or sharing of well-being to an "all" that remains forever open.--sm and scs

As soon as, through the movement of those forces tending toward a break, revolution appears as something possible, with a possibility that is not abstract, but historically and concretely determined, then in those moments revolution has taken place.

—Maurice Blanchot

We are left with a simple command, and an infinite responsibility. Be just with Justice.

—Drucilla Cornell

This essay attempts to confront perhaps the most obvious and yet the most difficult challenge of radical social critique: the question of the practical. Both of its authors have been interested for many years in various modes of deconstruction and post-Marxism, and we have attempted, in our separate ways, to expose the limits not only of the historical discourses of economy and anthropology, but even of some of the cherished concepts of contemporary left-wing thought. But our work on multiculturalism, political economy, and cultural studies has brought us to the limit of our own critiques. At this limit, how does one say “yes” to the affirmative? How can we, in the words of the famous Marxist injunction, “prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness” of our thinking in practice (Marx and Engels 144)?

We thus respond here to two challenges. The first concerns the general perception in many circles that poststructuralist thought is either a form of quietism with no political consequences or a reactionary practice that easily slides into the anti-Semitisms and fascisms of Nazi-era Heidegger and deMan. Much recent work in the tradition of poststructuralist Marxism, including our own, has been attacked on one or the other of these grounds. To some, the work seems merely theoretical and thus utterly impractical. To others, even more seriously, the work seems counterproductive in its relentless critique of seemingly promising possibilities for political thought and action. In other words, poststructuralist and post-Marxist modes of theory are perceived as merely alternating between a scholastic cataloguing of utopian (im)possibilities, and a categorical rejection of all down-to-earth, practical-progressive thought. A great deal has been written in recent years attempting to disprove these views. One might mention, among others, Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (1982), Drucilla Cornell’s Beyond Accommodations (1991; new edition 1999), Geoff Bennington’s Legislations (1996), Richard Beardsworth’s Derrida and the Political (1996), Chantel Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox (2000), and Derrida’s own many recent writings on politics, including, most famously, Specters of Marx (1994), and his response to the critics of that book in Ghostly Demarcations (Sprinker ed. 1999). It must be admitted, however, that little of this work undertakes a deconstructive approach...

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