Quilting Point: why leftists should defend the Central European University

There is little on the global horizon these days that points toward socialism, but one thing we have more than enough of is regressive anti-capitalism: a mentality more than a political standpoint, which insists on personalizing the impersonal logic of capital, railing not at the society of commodity exchange, but at banksters, parasites, the New World Order…at Jews, now as then…and at George Soros. The investor with left-liberal aspirations has become the veritable “quilting point” turning vague but intense dissatisfactions with the global capitalist order into conspiracy theory and nationalist, nativist hatred in many parts of the world, but nowhere as deliberately as in Soros’s own ancestral region of Eastern Europe, and specifically in his ethnic homeland of Hungary.

The Central European University exemplifies one of the paradoxes of our severely capitalist age: privately funded but a much better place for radical ideas and social thought to thrive than in many of the state universities of a region so dominated by the Right. Nor is the Eastern European region an outlier. Similar problems plague higher education in the United States: with both public and private university endowments parcelled out for hedge-funds, and state universities under siege by reactionary legislatures, the relationship between capital and critical thinking is today murkier than ever.

Intellectual leftists who work at private institutions understand this dynamic, and why it’s not adequate to dismiss them as mere handmaidens of capital even if many private universities worldwide got started in the context of neoliberal “reform” from the 1980’s onward. In our region, CEU is an important academic center that has furnished us with valuable friends and comrades. We should do whatever we can to defend it, however little that may be for those of us who are not Hungarian.

The Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán, who openly advocates “a non-liberal state, an illiberal state” was sooner or later going to confront the thorn in his eye that the university, centerpiece of Soros’s cluster of projects devoted to “the open society,” represents in the heart of Budapest. It is no surprise that Orbán should try to shut it down on his way to constructing the regressive ethno-state he seeks; the problem is not merely the “educational initiatives” that students and faculty have set up for refugees, but the fact that, whatever Soros or his intellectual lodestar Karl Popper may have imagined, once you devote a university to “openness” there is the possibility of it generating ideas that point beyond the intentions of its founders and funders.

Regressive anti-capitalism is anti-capitalist on the level of attitude, but we know from history that it has nothing to do with an attempt to bring about the end of capital or the commodified world that it governs. By exploiting “peripheral” resentment of “the center,” regressive anti-capitalists reframe the antagonism of capital and labor in terms drawn from the imaginary that infuses our lived experience. By overextending one element of the system that genuine socialism opposes, it forms “antis” that drown out awareness of what one is “for”: anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism (as the view that “Zionists” are behind every predation of capital, not just specific aggressions in Palestine), anti-globalization, anti-racism when this is twisted into a defense of reactionaries who happen not to be white, and even anti-capitalism itself, when this means nostalgia for some more wholesome pre-capitalist past, as promised in glowing propaganda by all of Europe’s historical fascist regimes. Its forms today include not only the Alt-Right, but also some leftists’ love-affair with Vladimir Putin and others’ apologia for versions of Political Islam. It issues in an attitude of knee-jerk hostility to “liberalism” and “the West.” And on the most banal and arbitrary level, in a hatred of Soros and the university he helped to found.

Socialism, marxism, and (small-c) communism—to say nothing of the once “actually existing” variety—are not an affair of ressentiment and blind allegiance to whichever “identity” claims to represent the underdog, but rather the collision of critical reason with our always evolving and contradictory capitalist reality, pointing toward a different kind of future. We on the Left must do what (little) we can to keep open the spaces where such thought finds a home, wherever they are, however they are funded, and whomever they offend.

Notes

On the notion of the “quilting point”: Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do. London: Verso, 1991. 16-21.

On “regressive anti-capitalism”: “Was ist regressiver Antikapitalismus?,” Krisis: Kritik der Warengesellschaft. 22.06.2012.