Faculty Interview: Banu Bargu, Political Science

Interview by Max Lockie

What is your academic background and how did you come to political theory?

I completed my undergraduate education at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey, where I was born and raised. My degree was in Business. A strange choice for me, indeed, though not much contemplated at the time. According to the university entrance system in Turkey, based on a very competitive nation-wide examination taken by over a million individuals, students had to choose one track, which would correspond, roughly, to science, medicine, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and the like, and then to list the specific university departments they would like to be placed in that track based on their rankings, in turn compiled from the examination scores of the previous year. The “best” choices for a student in the social sciences track were business, economics, and politics, and roughly in that order, because these departments drew the students with the highest scores in the exam. As I happened to score in the top hundred, I was placed in Business. Looking back now, that must have not been completely fortuitous!

During college, I developed a strong interest for politics, both practically and theoretically. This interest was shaped in part by my personal experience growing up in a post- coup d’état state, with all its authoritarian implications, and my politicization process during my high school years, and in part by discovering radical philosophers whose writings opened completely new horizons for me. As soon as I was freed from the burden of getting a college degree, I felt liberated and able to follow my calling. I got a masters degree in political science and international relations at Bogazici University. I was extremely lucky to have been educated there by very prominent scholars. The focus of the department was more in comparative politics, political economy, and specifically in Turkish politics. However, I soon figured out that my passion was really for political theory, for what one could call the “timeless questions” of politics. Pursuing that interest set me off on a journey from Istanbul to Ithaca, where I had the opportunity to indulge myself in political theory. The harsh winters at Cornell certainly did help the effort, as well as being immersed in an incredibly stimulating environment and having outstanding mentors.

You’ve been teaching a very popular Machiavelli course for at least 2 years, should he be understood as a revolutionary thinker? If so, in what ways?

Yes, I have offered a course on Machiavelli twice now, first in 2009 and then in 2011. If the course was popular, I am sure this was because of the popularity and contemporaneity of Machiavelli himself. I had three important objectives in designing this course. My first aim was to introduce students to the whole oeuvre of Machiavelli, not only his well-known works such as the Prince and Discourses, but also his less famous works like the Art of War, Florentine Histories, fictional writings like Castruccio Castracani, plays like Clizia and Mandragola, personal letters, and other writings. Devoting a course to one thinker has the real advantage of completely immersing the participants of the seminar in that thinker’s thought. One really comes to learn and appreciate that thinker in unprecedented ways. My second purpose was to expose students to the vast literature on Machiavelli by focusing on select interpretations, portraying the radically different ways in which his thought has been interpreted, appropriated, and condemned, and, at the same time, using these highly varied approaches to the same thinker as a methodological tool to present different ways of reading. As a result, the course ended up mapping out a large intellectual terrain in which Machiavelli’s thought has been and continues to be contested. Finally, and this was influenced by my own agenda in studying Machiavelli, my goal was to attempt to put forth an interpretation of Machiavelli from the perspective of critical theory.

Despite the burgeoning literature that Machiavelli continues to inspire, the dearth of commentaries from the left appeared to me to be a glaring omission. Hence, the purpose of the course was also to consider in what ways Machiavelli can be appropriated both by the revolutionary tradition and, on a more theoretical register, by the tradition of critical and radical political thought. From this perspective, I do think that Machiavelli is a revolutionary thinker, for many reasons. Machiavelli has revolutionized how we analyze politics, how we view history and the role of human agency and political conflict in history, and even how we understand revolution itself. He has opened up theory to the event, philosophy to political practice, and history to contingency. These are only a few clues to get us started and, as you well know, pursuing these clues will easily take a whole semester of intense discussions!

You taught a course titled “The Idea of Revolution” in the fall of 2010. Did you think about taking an interdisciplinary approach to the syllabus? Did students’ papers reflect considerations of the term that were not strictly political?

Of all the courses I have taught so far, “The Idea of Revolution” has a special place for me. It was the first course I have taught in collaboration and I had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with Professor Eli Zaretsky, whom I greatly admire and appreciate. The course turned out to be a very rewarding experience for me; I learned so much from the material, from Eli, from the students that took the course. And we had lots of fun! One of the most rewarding aspects of the course was precisely its interdisciplinary approach. That Eli and I have different specializations certainly cultivated this approach, but we were also aware that the subject matter itself required an interdisciplinary conversation. We combined readings in political theory, philosophy, and history, as well as anthropology and historical sociology. The syllabus was pretty intense, but I doubt that those who have taken other courses from me were very surprised. More intense were our discussions, especially when — and this was most of the time — Eli and I entered into spirited discussions regarding our different interpretations of the revolutionary tradition. Another aspect that was extremely satisfying for me was the very sophisticated level of student papers that the course generated. Widely ranging in topic and approach, the papers were very rich, interesting, and diverse. Some were political, others were historical, comparative, and even philosophical. In a sense, the papers reflected the nature and subject matter of the course itself.

What type of claim does the discipline of politics have to the term revolution?

It is impossible to do justice to a whole discipline here, but my impression is that especially political theory has a love-hate relationship with revolution. The etymological and conceptual origins of revolution point to the regular movements of celestial bodies. However, the term revolution has been used to denote the transformations of human societies since the ancients and therefore the term has put on very specific political connotations. Especially since the advent of modernity, the study of politics has been intimately linked with the idea of revolution, even if the canon of political theory has concentrated a lot of its efforts upon theorizing the conditions of preventing revolution by securing a sovereign order. It is no coincidence that the main dictum of Hobbes, the philosopher exalted as the founder of modern political science, is Auctoritas non veritas facit legem. This is a statement that serves precisely in the legitimation of a sovereign order that will neutralize internal conflict and create a unified political society while preventing “sedition” and revolutionary transformations, which are deemed to be existentially threatening to the political order and social life. However, we can also view this emphasis on sovereignty, law, unity, and so on, in political theory as a symptom, a symptom that the masses are now participating or demanding a say in the political sphere at unprecedented levels. The study of politics responds to this development, if not by negating this development, then by defining and delineating its conditions, specifying and understanding its reasons, causes, mechanisms of operation, and implications.

As a result you have a proliferation of theories of democracy alongside and intertwined with theories of sovereignty, of theories of refusal with consent, of disobedience with authority. In fact, one can view the history of political thought, especially modern political thought onward, as a struggle between two tendencies that we can roughly label pro- versus anti-revolutionary. The precarious balance between these aspects is tilted one way or the other depending on what is going on in the world, in the specific intellectual and political contexts that become home to new ideas and discourses. However, this is not a one-way street. Not only do the ebbs and flows of the revolutionary wave find expression in political theory but theoretical interventions, radical or conservative, also make an impact on the political imaginary; they impact opinions, views, and ultimately, political practices. So whatever we may say about the claim of politics as a discipline to the term revolution, revolution, both in theory and in practice, also has an important claim upon politics as a discipline.

In your paper “Anarchism and the Politics of Exodus,” you write that Max Stirner argued that “Revolution… is a political or social act of upending and transformation, while insurrection is the exodus of individuals from the status quo without a fixed plan for the future.” According to Stirner’s definition, do you think the recent political events in Tunisia and Egypt represent a revolution or an insurrection, and what is the significance of that distinction for the future of those communities?

It is true that Stirner posits a strict opposition between revolution and insurrection, especially because he is against the substitution of one kind of domination in place of another, and he believes that those who advocate revolution have a predetermined idea of society to which they subordinate themselves while they think that they are liberating themselves. His favored alternative is a form of exodus where individuals simply refuse to consent to the status quo and take leave. Now, in reality, insurrection and revolution are less clearly separate and antagonistic; they are usually imbricated. Most revolutions start out as insurrections, which may grow, transform, and achieve a certain direction that eventuates in a revolutionary transformation. If we take Stirner’s definition as our starting point, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the political events in Tunisia and Egypt began as insurrections. In Tunisia, in particular, we know that the self-immolation of Bouazizi was the triggering action that spurred the people to mobilize and stage a collective act of refusal. The act of refusal became so widespread that the authoritarian regime lost all of its ostensible legitimacy and whatever popular support it claimed, and it quickly crumbled. A similar popular insurrection, symbolized by the people filling up Tahrir Square, was united around the common principle of opposing the government. This popular demand swiftly transformed itself into a revolutionary force that succeeded in bringing down the Egyptian government.

At the same time, in both places, we have been witnessing the interesting difficulties of transforming those popular rejections of the status quo into a unified direction for political reconstitution. The plurality of voices and forces that make different claims to power and outline alternative paths and configurations for the new order constitute a testament to the absence of a united revolutionary agenda and leadership prior to these insurrections. These transformations are not the work of a specific group, party, or political organization; they are really exemplary of the power of popular movements. The task now is to channel that popular energy into a really just, participatory, and egalitarian order that promotes liberty and equality for all. However, because of the absence of a clear direction, there are many unknowns about how far these revolutions will go, how their new constitutional frameworks will turn out, what kind of institutions will be set up, etc. It is a moment of great political uncertainty, but this is not something to be feared. What should be feared is the closure of this moment, either by remnants of the past or new authoritarians of the present. Otherwise, there is no single formula for emancipation; history shows that emancipation will be a long, arduous, and meandering road paved by the ongoing struggles and efforts of people themselves.

These uprisings and others in Africa and the Middle East have been referred to collectively as the Arab Spring. Do you think it’s productive to view these events collectively as one movement, or is it more accurate to view them separately as individual cases?

I am not the greatest fan of the seasonal metaphor. True, spring signifies rebirth and vitality but it also suggests an inevitable and predictable decline; it envisions itself as part of a regular rotation, an “eternal recurrence.” After spring comes summer, but we all know what happens next: fall and winter. The assumptions underlying this conception take us back to the ancient understanding of revolution in the form of the Polybian cycle, as the cyclical transformation from one regime type to another. This approach to revolution is problematic for many reasons, but let me only emphasize its inadequacy to account for contingency. Furthermore, why do we hesitate to call these transformations by their name? I am afraid that the seasonal metaphor also dilutes the importance of these events; namely, that they happened just when most people had given up on the idea of revolution. Rather than allocate social movements to different seasons, I would prefer to call them by their name: North African revolutions.

Regarding your question about whether these events should be viewed separately or collectively, I think that we can confidently speak of a regional phenomenon and a contagion effect, but it is too early to pronounce the boundaries of the region. Every day we learn of new developments in the Middle East — take, for example, the tent protests in Israel and the tug of war between the government and the protesters in Syria — so the revolutionary process is not necessarily over. In addition, some analysts have recently suggested viewing the ongoing mobilizations in southern Europe — particularly Greece, but also Spain and Italy — as part of the same wave, calling it the “Mediterranean Spring.” To my mind, it is too early to make such pronouncements, unless they are in a sense performative proclamations that aim to make a political impact in that direction. At the same time, the issues and conflicts in each country that have been inspiring these mobilizations are different; they have local histories and specific social and economic determinations, all of which should not be overlooked while grouping them together. There are many commonalities between the grievances of the people of North Africa and the Middle East — perhaps even Southern Europe — but there are also serious differences that we must not lose sight of in our analyses.

Do you think perhaps that our term revolution might simply correlate to a natural process inherent in nature? In this case, can we relate the terms revolution and evolution, or are they intrinsically opposed processes?

The difference between revolution and evolution is a mere letter, but the “r” makes a huge difference. This is not to say that revolutionary and evolutionary processes are unrelated. These processes are intertwined, perhaps dialectically, but the tendency to associate political revolution with natural processes of evolution — similar to calling the North African Revolutions the “Arab Spring” — is a move that essentially neutralizes and naturalizes human agency, particularly the political and moral capacity to intervene in history. Darwin has taught us that change in nature is continuous and without a necessary direction or telos. In the Origin of Species, he hammers in the point that all living beings are in a constant struggle for existence in which the fittest survive. In human society, competition still exists, of course, though our biological needs are mediated through social relations, structures, institutions, identities, and collective dynamics. On the one hand, we have developed incredible tools to navigate the world and nourish from our environment, and here I refer not only to technology and our elaborate division of labor, but also to numerous mechanisms of mutual aid and cooperation, sophisticated forms of social organization that enable a collective life and the accumulation of knowledge. On the other hand, and as a result of these tools, we have brought the planet to a point of depletion, endangering the existence of other species and our own future, and created a world of glaring disparities in wealth and wellbeing.

If an important difference of human beings from other living beings — at the risk of essentializing here — is our ability for critical self-reflection, this difference enables us to be architects of our own forms of social organization which we can shape and transform according to our common needs, goals, and desires. What makes humanity special is precisely this hard-won ability to transform existing society into one that is based on and continually fosters a communal ethic geared not toward the survival of the fittest but the survival and flourishing of the weakest. I say that humanity is special not because we have attained such a form of society, far from it, but only because we have the capacity to put this goal as an attainable though difficult ideal ahead of us. We become human to the extent that we develop a planetary awareness for our common life as living things and foster forms of life that enable the thriving of the most disadvantaged members of our species. The most prominent aspiration of revolutionary struggles — and other struggles that seek to transform society not by revolution but through reform — is the attainment of justice and, insofar as they stay true to this lofty goal, they must be strictly differentiated from natural processes of evolution. There is no justice in evolution.

Can we ever think in terms of a final revolution? Might this be the “anarchist turn” referred to in this year’s Reiner Schurmann conference?

Never. I believe neither in a “revolution to end all revolution,” nor in a “war to end all war.” Conflict and contestation are inherent to politics and I think that there will be antagonism as long as we can speak of politics, in fact, as long as we can speak of human history. There will always be different struggles between revolutionary and conservative tendencies. I am not one who believes in a final and harmonious reconciliation of all society, as in certain idyllic and romantic utopian visions. Even though some strands of anarchist thought may be motivated by a harmonious ontology — between humans and nature, as well as between humans and humans — and perhaps do ultimately strive for such a social organization, the real problem for me is rather to oppose all forms of human misery. I think we should be careful not to identify anarchist thought or the “anarchist turn” with the call for a final revolution that will eventuate in the establishment of a social order without antagonism. To my mind, anarchism is far from a call to harmony; rather, it is a call for incessant critique of oppression and inequality, a call for solidarity and fellowship, a desire for ending certain forms of conflict that arise from conditions that are preventable, changeable, and arbitrary, those antagonisms that arise from differentials of economic and political power that result from our history, our past and present collective choices and organization.

What will you be doing with your one year sabbatical?

I plan to spend my sabbatical in Istanbul. I hope to use this time away from teaching to focus on my research. I would like to complete a number of unfinished projects. I have some papers and a new book manuscript in the works, and I have committed to doing several talks across Europe and in Turkey, so I have lots of things to do and never enough time! I don’t quite know how being away from my students and colleagues and the stimulating environment of the New School is going to work out for me yet, but I know for fact that I will miss being here.