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By Richard Kreitner


The Montréal Review, July 2012


Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International by Jacques Derrida (Routledge, 1994)


Jacques Derrida continued to insist in his later years that, contrary to popular perception, his philosophy had not taken a dramatically political or ethical turn in more recent decades. Political or ethical implications, he argued, were implicit in his earlier works, even if those implications were buried within volumes ostensibly about phenomenology, metaphysics, literature, or other issues. While he is justified in making this claim-it is impossible to read Voice and Phenomenon, for instance, without recognizing its political implications-there are also instances in the later years where Derrida approached problems of politics, ethics, or even religion more directly than he had ever done before. The culmination of this change in emphasis is in Spectres of Marx, published in 1993, in which Derrida writes that political philosophy "structures implicitly all philosophy or all thought on philosophy," (1) including, presumably, his own.

Derrida's later work is largely concerned with the question of the "event," or the happening of what appears to be impossible. This has direct political implications: what does it mean for a political event to happen? Can one work actively to bring about political change? What is the relationship between the event and political action? More generally, what is the connection between deconstruction, as Derrida conceives of it, and radical politics?

Derrida investigates these questions, and many more, in Spectres of Marx, by considering the Marxist inheritance and what it means for contemporary politics. Derrida identifies several characteristics of a New World Order entrenching its power around the world, and relates that hegemony to the privilege of "presence" he identified throughout his career as the primary target that needs to be challenged and deconstructed. He follows this description with a positive prescription for political action. Derrida calls for a "New International"-roughly speaking, a global political movement that is beyond class, party, and country, which would question and thus undermine the global hegemony by reflecting and imitating the intangibility and "spectral" nature of the power it deploys. This new political movement, Derrida writes, would resist what he elsewhere calls the "media-theatricalization" (2) of the event and the "ontologization" (3) to which Marxism so often has fallen prey. By remaining leaderless, disorganized, and fluid, Derrida hoped the New International would represent a new conception of the political and thus, perhaps, be able to escape the traps set by the hegemony (and by the idea of "presence" generally). Recent events have shown that a certain spirit of Derrida is haunting protest movements that swept the world in 2011, just as Derrida wrote that a certain spirit of Marx continued to haunt the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, recent protests in the Arab world, in Europe, and in North America demonstrate many of the characteristics Derrida identified as belonging to the New International. Especially by looking at the structure (or lack thereof) of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, there is much evidence to support the assertion that Derrida, in Spectres of Marx, presciently understood how a protest movement could work in this new era of what he called mondialisation, and, more importantly, how it could fail. Though the participants in this protest movement might not know it yet, Derrida's later forays into political philosophy offer a useful analysis of how radical politics can learn to critically inherit its own past-taking what works, and learning from past mistakes.


Derrida argues that the hegemony that is installing itself around the world comes from a combination of technical-scientific and political changes that are orchestrated to make power more difficult to critique. Power is learning to spectralize itself-or, in other words, it is learning to become more ghostlike and hidden, and less visible. This increasing spectralization has important and widespread consequences for both those who wish to wield power and for those who wish to critique it.

For Derrida, there are three components, or "apparatuses," of this dominant culture, "that which everywhere organizes and commands public manifestation or testimony in the public space." (4) These are the traditional realm of the political (parties, the state, politicians); academia; and the media. Derrida writes that these three forces

are more than ever welded together by the same apparatuses or by ones that are indissociable from them. These apparatuses are doubtless complex, differential, conflictual, and overdetermined. But whatever may be the conflicts, inequalities, or overdeterminations among them, they communicate and cooperate at every moment toward producing the greatest force with which they assure the hegemony or the imperialism in question. (5)

These three areas of culture are creating a world in which their power is at once greater than ever before, and less easy to recognize and thus critique. They are able to do this because technological advances have allowed power to not be concentrated in one area, or one location of presence (the hegemony has apparently been reading its Derrida). Diffused throughout the world, difficult to recognize or even name, "the hegemony or the imperialism in question" is nonetheless securing its own power in every realm of human existence, public and private.

Derrida further argues that the most powerful of these three inter-woven forces, right now, is what we call the media, "in the broadest, most mobile, and considering the acceleration of technical advances, most technologically invasive sense of this term." (6) In Spectres of Marx and elsewhere, Derrida ascribes this great advance in the powers of the media's ability to create and produce events while ostensibly only relaying or, in the weak sense, interpreting them. As Derrida points out, though, interpretation is itself necessarily performative and productive. In "A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event," Derrida argues that the very technical advances that have enabled the media to grow have also enabled its power to grow in mysterious and consequential ways: "[A]s the ability to immediately say and show the event grows, so does the capacity of the technology of saying and showing to intervene, interpret, select, filter, and, consequently, to make the event happen." (7) A key component of criticizing the media hegemony is being aware of this performative-interpretative power and refusing to be complicit with it: "The political vigilance that this calls for on our part obviously consists in organizing a critical examination of all the mechanisms that hold out the appearance of saying the event when they are in fact making it, interpreting and producing it." (8) This kind of transformation or manipulation of the event is, for Derrida, a prime example of the way power is learning to spectralize itself-to become intangible, unrecognizable, and therefore more nefarious.

Because this new political world will be increasingly spectralized, the traditional classe politique is beginning to lose some of its power, Derrida argues. In this new system, politicians are increasingly filtered through the media, just as the event itself is filtered (mediated) through the media. Politicians are thus seen now as "structurally incompetent." (9) As the "medium" through which political events and the entire realm of politics is brought to the attention of the private person, traditional media-deploying its new technological powers-has taken control from the ontologized (meaning, embodied or seemingly present) political forces of yesterday. Derrida writes that this new media power

accuses, produces, and amplifies at the same time this incompetence of traditional politicians: on the one hand, it takes aways [sic] from them the legitimate power they held in the former political space (party, parliament, and so forth), but, on the other hand, it obliges them to become mere silhouettes, if not marionettes, on the stage of televisual rhetoric. They thought were thought to be actors of politics, they now often risk, as everyone knows, being no more than TV actors. (10)

Derrida argues that this increasing media power means that the traditional political tools used in the past, both to support power and to critique it, will no longer be effective. For instance, Derrida believes we are looking at the end of the political party as an important political actor: "What tends perhaps to disappear in the political world that is shaping up, and perhaps in a new age of democracy, is the domination of this form of organization called the party." (11) Here Derrida is not lamenting the possible disappearance of the Republican Party in the United States or the Socialists in France; rather, this realization-that "the axiomatics of the party" are "radically unadapted to the new-tele-techno-media-conditions of public space, of political life, of democracy, and of the new modes of representation (both parliamentary and non-parliamentary) that they call up" (12)-requires that we look again at Marxism to find what, beyond the traditional tool of the workers' party, remains useful for truly critiquing power and undermining our blind faith in pure presence.

For Derrida, the Marxist tradition-or, rather, a certain spirit of Marx-is necessary for analyzing and criticizing this increased spectralization of power and of the political. He identifies Marx as one of the only thinkers in the tradition who have been able to converse with the spectre, to analyze the ambiguities of the event as the happening of the impossible and to interrogate power as it really works. Marx, and perhaps Marx alone, was able to interrogate the realm of the impossible. His thought represents an "injunction crossing with conjuration," (13) at once a historical diagnosis and a political prognosis. Thus, Marx's alternation between description and prophecy is a strength, not a weakness, of his analysis, for that is what the political event is: a complex correspondence across time and across the boundary dividing the possible and the impossible. Derrida writes that the new hegemony-the new Holy Alliance (14)-expanding its power at the end of the 20th century can only be criticized using "a problematics coming from the Marxian tradition." (15) Because Marx provides the tools with which we can analyze the importance the various inter-woven apparatuses of power; because Marx's thought presciently reflected the increasingly international nature of the political, which Derrida considers one of the necessary and fundamental characteristics of both the new hegemonic power and of its critique; and because Marx's ability to converse with spectres allows us to interrogate the event (the possibilization of the impossible), and thus leads to the promise of a new politics and what kind of more just and post-historical future that politics might create-for these reasons, Derrida holds that an understanding of and acquaintance with Marx is necessary for the future, and that indeed there can, in some way, be "no future without Marx." (16)

At the same time, however, Marxism is not enough, and Marxism is not immune to deconstruction. Ultimately, Derrida argues, dogmatic Marxism belongs precisely to what he calls "onto-theological schemas" (17) which are merely the political and religious instantiations of the metaphysics of presence he had been attacking from the beginning of his career. The recent technological and political developments cited above-in the multiplication and vast diffusion of the apparatuses of media and power-render classical Marxism impotent in the era of mondialisation:

A set of transformations of all sorts (in particular, techno-scientifico-economico-media) exceeds both the traditional gives of the Marxist discourse and those of the liberal discourse opposed to it. Even if we have inherited some essential resources for projecting their analysis, we must first recognize that these mutations perturb the onto-theological schemas or the philosophies of technics as such. They disturb political philosophies and the common concepts of democracy, they oblige us to reconsider all relations between State and nation, man and citizen, the private and the public, and so forth. (18)

Just as surely as traditional implements of state like sovereignty, political parties, parliaments, and politicians have been undermined and understood as not necessarily the best forms of political power just because they exist or are present, the traditional Marxist reliance on workers' political parties is undermined and will be insufficient for a future politics: "Marxism remains at once indispensable and structurally insufficient: it is still necessary but provided it be transformed and adapted to new conditions and to a new thinking of the ideological." (19) For Derrida, the reformation of Marxism is intimately related to his own project of deconstructing presence.

Derrida writes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction can be understood as an "attempted radicalization of Marxism" and that the project of deconstruction "would have been impossible and unthinkable in a pre-Marxist space." (20) Deconstruction takes up Marxism and radicalizes it in two ways: first, it attempts to bring political reality closer to the Marxist idea; second, as Derrida writes, deconstruction is "a question of putting into question again, in certain of its essential predicates, the very concept" of the Marxist ideal. Such a radicalization is necessary for engaging with politics and for challenging the hegemony:

There will be no re-politicization, there will be no politics otherwise. Without this strategy, each of the two reasons could lead back to the worst, to worse than the bad, if one can put it that way, namely to a sort of fatalist idealism or abstract and dogmatic eschatology in the face of the world's evil. (21)

Without the radicalized Marxism known as deconstruction, Derrida argues, all that would be left is another ideology among many others-therefore, not future, no politics, and no hope.

However, the idea of the "radical" is always somewhat problematic. For Derrida, whose entire project is devoted to questioning origins, the notion that the goal of politics should be to change things at their root, and to establish a more pure foundation for politics and society, is one we should examine as critically as we examine anything else. As he writes in a footnote to Spectres of Marx, to "radicalize" something

does indicate a movement of going further, of course, and of not stopping. But that is the limit of its pertinence. The point would be to do more or less than "radicalize," or rather something other, for the stakes are precisely those of the root and its presumed unity. The point would be not to progress still further into the depths of radicality, of the fundamental, or the originary.One would try instead to go there where the schema of the fundamental, of the originary, or of the radical, in its ontological unity and in the form in which it continues to govern the Marxist critique, calls for questions, procedures of formalization, genealogical interpretations that are not or not sufficiently put to work in what dominates the discourses that call themselves Marxist. (22)

Similarly, Derrida wrote in a note to "As If It Were Possible, 'Within Such Limits,'" that deconstruction is not a radicalism-or, rather, is even more radical than radicalism:

This figure of radicality, as a figure and as an injunction that cannot be refused-isn't it just what is made to undergo the turbulence of a deconstruction? Deconstruction has never claimed radicalism, or at any rate it has never been a matter of playing the 'most radical' card. But it is still true that an excess in this respect can certainly do no harm (radicalism should indeed be recommended to any philosophy, probably it is philosophy), but it risks not changing its ground, not changing the ground undergoing the seismic turbulence. (23)

Even if Derrida forgets in this passage that he specifically, in Spectres of Marx, called deconstruction "an attempted radicalization of Marxism," (24) his point remains: deconstruction came out of a certain theoretical and historical milieu in postwar France which, looking at the failures of classical Marxism, attempted to understand how the radically different (the event) becomes subsumed into our pre-existing schemas and eventually loses its radicality. Such a process demands of us a political and philosophical vigilance in order to resist repeating the mistakes of the past and to avoid losing an opportunity to criticize and question the increasingly international hegemony staking out its power everywhere.

The "New International" is Derrida's provisional term for the movement that would put into action the ideas worked out by his radicalization of Marxism. It would benefit from those aspects of Marxism worth preserving, while neglecting to fall into the "onto-theological" traps to which both Marxism and its neo-liberal nemeses have fallen prey. In order to meet and criticize the spectralized nature of the new hegemony, the New International would have to refrain from molding itself into the traditional, present-based structures of Marxism. To converse with and interrogate the spectre of power it would have to be a spectre itself-a "counter-conjuration." (25) Thus, the New International, according to Derrida,

is a link of affinity, suffering, and hope, a still discreet, almost secret link, as it was around 1848 [when Marx wrote that the "spectre of communism" was haunting Europe (26)], but more and more visible, we have more than one sign of it. It is an untimely link, without status, without title, and without name, barely public even if it is not clandestine, without contract, 'out of joint,' without coordination, without party, without country, without national community (International before, across, and beyond any national determination), without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class. (27)

By reaching beyond all these boundaries and eluding all distinctions, the New International would create a new conception of politics. Instead of merely opposing institutionalized power with an institutionalized criticism of power, it would entirely escape the metaphysics of presence and the false notions of identity on which our previous concepts and politics have all been based. "Barely deserving the name community," Derrida writes, "the new International belongs only to anonymity." (28) Thus, as the writer Moishe Postone says, Derrida's New International is "a movement beyond presence," (29) which would thus allow the impossible event-politically, the revolution-to happen.


The past year has witnessed a worldwide explosion of anger at economic inequality and entrenched power that, though largely disorganized, leaderless, and fluid, has managed to effect significant political change. From Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Libya, from England and Spain to Italy and Greece, and in cities across the United States and Canada, protestors have formed what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call "an emerging cycle of struggles" (30) that seems in many ways to manifest what Derrida both predicted and called for in his discussion of the New International in Spectres of Marx. For example, as Hardt and Negri write in a Foreign Affairs article, the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan are attempting to escape the traditional realm of politics, where the political parties bicker with one another while sharing the same ontological nature and commitment to the privileging of presence:

As protests have spread from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack-or failure-of political representation. It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this or that party, is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true) but whether the representational political system more generally is inadequate. (31)

Similarly, Hardt and Negri approve of the way the Occupy Wall Street movements have so far managed to remain leaderless, thus eschewing classical ideas of politics: "[T]his emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal participatory structures, without representatives." (32) Indeed, the Statement of Autonomy passed by the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly features many principles that could be considered Derridean in temper, if not in origin.

"Occupy Wall Street is a people's movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand."

"We wish to clarify that Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate or organization.  Our only affiliation is with the people."

"Any organization is welcome to support us with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our principles into your modes of action." (33)

Derrida would undoubtedly have approved.

"Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task," (34) Derrida writes in Spectres of Marx. It is our responsibility as heirs ("whether we like it or know it or not" (35) to critically filter through that inheritance to see what is worth preserving. Derrida's investigations of the increasingly spectralized nature of the New World Order-and what a productive critique of it would look like-are therefore inestimably valuable and relevant in today's world.


Richard Kreitner studied philosophy at McGill University. He is a regular contributor to The Montreal Review and The McGill Tribune.



1. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 92.

2. Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues With Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), xiii.

3. Spectres, 9.

4. Spectres, 52.

5. Ibid., 53.

6. Spectres, 53-54.

7. Jacques Derrida, "A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event," trans. Gila Walker, reprinted in Topics in Contemporary European Philosophy (Montreal: McGill University, 2011), 229.

8. Ibid.

9. Spectres, 80.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 102.

12. Ibid.

13. Spectres, 12.

14. Ibid., 61.

15. Ibid., 63.

16. Spectres, 13.

17. Ibid., 70.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., 58.

20. Spectres, 92.

21. Ibid., 87.

22. Ibid., 184.

23. Jacques Derrida, "As If It Were Possible, 'Within Such Limits,'" Paper Machine , reprinted in Topics in Contemporary European Philosophy (Montreal: McGill University, 2011), 195.

24. Spectres, 92.

25. Spectres, 86.

26. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Bantam Classics, 2004), 13.

27. Spectres, 86.

28. Ibid., 90

29. Moishe Postone, "Deconstruction as Social Critique: Derrida on Marx and the New World Order," in History and Theory, vol. 37, no. 3 (Middletown Connecticut: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 375.

30. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, "The Fight for 'Real Democracy' At the Heart of Occupy Wall Street," Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136399/michael-hardt-and-antonio-negri/the-fight-for-real-democracy-at-the-heart-of-occupy-wall-street (accessed December 12, 2011).

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, "Statement of Autonomy," Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, http://www.nycga.net/resources/statement-of-autonomy/ (accessed December 12, 2011).

34. Spectres, 54.

35. Ibid.


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