- Pushing the Limits of Political Theory: Ferguson’s Emma Goldman, and Graeber’s Debt
What is radical political theory? Is it theory or theories developed by someone who is a political radical? Or is it the content, method or structure of a theory that makes it inherently radical or subversive? I must admit I do not find myself satisfied with either of these possibilities. Political radicals can be ideologues and effective ones-but that does not mean they have created a radical political theory as much as a political movement. It is frequently disappointing to read the ideas or speeches of many radical political figures. Political theorists squirm when we encounter sexism, nationalism, or essentialism in our heroines and heroes; these are unforgiveable blemishes as we seek theories that we can hold up as a banner to follow into a new political era. Instead, we tend to embrace theories whose method is radical, or the content seems to be so. These are theories that help us see the world in different ways, meaning it is radical in relation to the theories that came before it. And, it must be admitted, it is so much more satisfying to decode and follow twists of terminology and logic, or epistemology and method in this version of radical political theory. It is an occupational hazard of political theorists to want complex formulations to reveal essential aspects of human power relations. However I have been increasingly impatient with some of these theories, wondering whether a radical theory is necessarily a politically engaged one.
Given these recent musings, it has been a delight to ponder Kathy Ferguson’s Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years in conjunction with one another as they offer clear alternatives to these unsatisfying answers. Of course Goldman and Graeber were and are political figures, Graeber has been hailed as one of the intellectual forerunners of the Occupy Movement, participates in it, and is now writing a book on it. Emma Goldman needs no introduction to establish her activist credentials; what Ferguson supplies here is a full-throated defense of her theoretical contributions.
The two books could not be more different from one another. Ferguson uses careful, deliberate scholarship to bring Goldman into the academic fold. As someone who has struggled with writing political theory about political figures who did not consider themselves theorists, I can attest that she does so in brilliant fashion, applying theoretical lenses while still respecting the heart and spirit of Goldman’s life which was dedicated to action more than thinking. Graeber breaks almost every single rule of the academy, I can imagine specialists everywhere shuddering as he, for instance, breaks down one thousand years of Chinese history in five pages (which are nevertheless well footnoted but still …). The book is breathless, funny, ambitious, sweeping in its generalizations, and also a revelation to read. Their differences in style if not audience is why it is all the more remarkable that both books end up suggesting very similar answers to the question of radical political theory. Thinking out of time, and thinking out of place prove to be two ways of creating radical imagination and possibility, which is necessary for critique and resistance. While neither of these observations are new, both books demonstrate these principles in such grounded, clear and accessible fashion that they seem especially relevant for our shared time and our shared space. For what use is political theory if it is not participating in these clearly tumultuous times?
Kathy Ferguson begins her exploration of Emma Goldman by asking, what exactly does she offer to political theorists? Ferguson culls the complexities of Goldman’s arguments about the nature of work, authority, human nature and gender, but even more importantly, the world that Goldman inhabited and how she responded to it. This is ultimately the point of Ferguson’s book, which is reiterated in the...