Where Zizek Goes Wrong

Nov 20th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

Zizek, don't just write something...


Reading Slavoj Zizek today is, unfortunately, an exercise in repetition. Like many established figures on the left, Zizek recycles his material. Sometimes this self-plagarism can be interesting, watching him redeploy old anecdotes and jokes to make philosophical points can even be enlightening. At other times, however, Zizek would do well to obey his own injunction and think rather than act. His essay for In These Times which was published three days ago is a case in point. While one can understand the pressure to comment on something as significant as the terrorist attacks in Paris, this is an instance when he ought to have overcome or resisted the market pressures that come to bear on celebrity level public intellectuals.

That said, reading his essay critically is useful.

Zizek begins his essay by describing the preoccupations of the left over the last year. He says we started the year with our eyes on “radical emancipatory movements” such as Syriza, but as the months rolled by our attention shifted to the more reformist and humanitarian topic of the Syrian refugees. What has happened now, according to Zizek, is that both these topics have been usurped by the war on terror.

What this first characterization gets wrong can be understood best by looking to Syriza and by questioning whether or not it was ever justifiable to consider Alex Tsipras' party to be a force for “radical emancipation.” In fact, what was obvious from the start was that Syriza was simply not going to emancipate Greece either from the economic crisis or from the system of capitalist production and exploitation that had set up the terms for the crisis. What the left was invested in, what we were preoccupied by, was not a movement for emancipation, but rather a movement aimed at ameliorating the consequence of remaining within the bounds of not only capitalism, but also the Eurozone. What the left saw, quite accurately, was how few options Syriza had, and what we hoped for was not emancipation but better terms for bailouts that were, one way or another, inevitable.

The left preoccupation with Syriza then was, in reality, not very much different from the left's later preoccupation with the refugee crisis with one significant difference, namely the left's identification with Syriza leaders and Greek voters. Syriza was of the “left,” it was a party that shared our collective values but, outside of Greece, calls for better terms were based on humanitarian concern rather than any collective emancipatory ambition. After all, the true aim at that moment was to mitigate the suffering of the Greek people.

Zizek goes on to outline who most benefits from the terrorist attacks in Paris, and he rightly points out that the real winners are the reactionary forces in Europe and the Middle East. Where he goes off the rails is in his recommendations.

He suggests that we bring class struggle back, which is a call that one can't help but cheer. But, as Zizek points out, such easy agreement is exactly a moment of ideology "at its purest."

In a recent lecture given at the Graduate Center of CUNY the cultural critic Frederic Jameson proposed that the American left should look for a new anti-capitalist (as opposed to revolutionary) subject, and while his ultimate proposal, that US leftists should look to the institutions of the American Armed Forces as a vehicle of “dual power” is troubling on its face, the fundamental error in Jameson's thinking is not so apparent. What Jameson has done is dream up a solution for a problem that does not, in fact, exist. Or, to put it another way, Jameson has defined “capitalism” here in strictly political terms. He has, in fact, completely left out what might be thought of as capitalism proper or the realm of economics.

What Jameson imagines is that the US military can be a vehicle for the expression and the enactment of the popular will and that the US military can oppose the political State which is run by hand servants of the rich. Let us grant him this. It is possible to imagine, if exceedingly unlikely, that such a circumstance might come to pass, but what is not recognized is how little such an eventuality would change things.

What Jameson imagines is that the military can step in and direct the operations of society directly, that it can be the force that sets the terms for our daily activities. And while we might be tempted to protest that this is the dream of Fascism, an assertion that is perhaps not very far from the truth, what is more pertinent is that no political power of any sort, whether it be a military dictatorship or a democratic state, could truly manage such a feat.

As Marx pointed out in his critique of Hegel in the German Ideology, “The political state everywhere needs the guarantee of spheres lying outside it.”

Returning to Zizek's essay it's significant that, while he cites Jameson's suggestion, he himself is far less daring than Jameson. While Jameson argued that the military might be a force for the population to exert direct political control over and above the capitalist rulers, Zizek only points to Jameson in order to suggest that we might need to use some discipline and impose rules in order to manage the refugee crisis.

The suggestion is no more radical when Zizek makes it than when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres made it, and while it might very well be a rational and correct proposal, it is merely the kind of proposal a technician or manager would make. That is, restricting the movement of refugees in an egalitarian way (limiting the rich and poor Syrians alike as they seek asylum in order to produce a rational outcome) might be adequate for the handling of the emergency, but this in no way addresses the underlying causes of the Syrian crisis nor the threat from ISIS. His suggestion that Europe impose a minimum set of norms that includes religious freedom is a case of knocking on an open door as these norms are already imposed by law and practice.

Zizek's comments on Eurocentrism and the left's distaste for critiques of Islam are nonsequiturs in this context, and stand or fall on their own merits, but his suggestion for food distribution is perhaps the most ambitious aspect of his essay. Zizek says that we need to invent new forms of large-scale collective action and this is a reassertion of the need for a command economy that will, magically, be able to overcome the demands made on it by capitalist production.

Zizek states that neither the market nor the state can be trusted to handle the problem of food distribution, and rightly suggests that local populations cannot and should not be made to be self-sufficient either. What should manage the problem, what system can we turn to? According to Zizek we need a new, better, more powerful and disciplined version of the State. We need a State that can transcend capitalism without breaking from it.

What Zizek is offering us is an ideological vision of a State without capitalism and a global society without an economy. To put it in Zizekian terms, he and Jameson are promising us a decaffeinated solution, offering us a chocolate laxative.

And so on, and so on...

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3 Comments to “Where Zizek Goes Wrong”

  1. Jake says:

    I attended a similar lecture (if not the same one) by Jameson at university of florida. The way the author puts it is a bit deceiving, since Jameson ‘ s suggestion was made in a tongue and cheek manner. It’s not that the military as it is now would impose anything in a fascist manner, but rather that the military is an example of the type of state institution that we need ‘everyone’ to be a part of. Again, not that we should all have mandatory military service, but rather that the military is essentially kind of like welfare. When you are in the military, you get all sorts of benefits from the government- the government takes care of you (or so we would expect- there are of course issues with veteran aid etc.). And oh the irony! ‘We can’t cut military spending’ but we should definitely cut welfare! – the military: the ultimate government welfare program.

  2. Michael says:

    I certainly agree that Zizek’s essay is well below his own standard. But it’s worth pointing out that his “failure” to think beyond the impossible choice between the capitalist form of the state and a society “without” an economy is absolutely symptomatic. The Left, both academic and popular, has utterly failed to think through the problem of economic organization. Such attempts as have been made—parecon comes to mind—are completely ignored by Marxist academics. The “new Communists” (Badiou, Bosteels, etc.) give no indication that they understand even the most rudimentary economic concepts. Compared to them, Zizek is a veritable pragmatist. And the reality is that his critics point and snicker at his “false solutions” in order to conceal the gaping hole in Leftist economic thinking.

  3. Seanán Kerr says:

    It’s less an issue of philosophy perhaps and more that Zizek writes too much and is his own biggest fan, I mean have you ever tried writing an opinion piece once a week? About what? The choice is between the idiotic news cycle or yourself (and no one’s THAT interesting, not even me and I’d (humbly) put myself in the top 1% of interesting percentile), trapped between a rock and a hard place like. I got stuck after my first one when I opinioned that opinions are pointless and concluded that the reader doesn’t exist. http://thethinair.net/2015/04/you-are-not-spock-an-opinion-by-seanan-kerr/

    As you say the repetition isn’t for the benefit of people familiar, it’s for newbies. Chomsky is similar, if you quote him too much it’s a sign to the more ‘clued in’ you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s no wonder the two had a disagreement, they’re direct rivals for the same attention, the casual leftist, the internet warrior, the one who people will mute in their social media feeds (guilty as charged BTW).

    During the Tiananmen square protests there were regular votes about whether the protest would continue, the issue was with a population of 1 billion, and a high burn out rate. the group was constantly recycling, people voted with their feet to leave, but in leaving their voice was taken away from the group and of course for the leaders they wanted to keep people there, so with every vote the newbies and fanatics outnumbered the fed up and fearful to maintain the protest, and not disband, even though (to a degree) the point had been made. Which isn’t to justify the massacre, which was a horror and disgrace, but even the famous image of the protester stopping the tanks, we see the average non-sociopathic PLA soldier was likely sympathetic to the protesters and took little or no pleasure in what resulted.

    Ditto with figures like Zizek, methinks he knows full well what’s he’s doing, and he wants to maintain his position, when it comes to that, he’s no different from any other academic sell out. He is after all only a man and for all the petty jokes about his personal hygiene he has to cover his arse just like anyone else does.

    The left says the rules are unfair, the right says rules are rules, both are right and both are wrong. The left is best when criticising power but dies on it’s arse when it must present it’s new set of rules (which are constantly and (to some degree) pointlessly debated).

    What decides the issue is the health of the system itself, does it give people utility (which it does, I would much rather seek treatment in a western hospital than a third world one, and people are mass emigrating to here (Europe) for a reason, nobody want to raise a family in a war riddled sandy shitehole ruled by vicious sociopaths). No one can argue the system is working, but sure we all run around like headless chickens preserving what little piece of it we have, until we don’t.

    “The political state everywhere needs the guarantee of spheres lying outside it.” Doesn’t sound to different from Godel’s incompleteness theorem does it? But the problem is you can lay such a criticism of any system, we are where we are, e can talk to each other, even plot if needs be, but violent revolution will be met by violent counter revolution. Robespiere was the incorruptable until he took to ordering executions himself, he died a hideous death, shot in the jaw, his face in his last hours held together with bandages, when the executioner removed it at the guillotine, he screamed in piercing agony.

    “we need to invent new forms of large-scale collective action” Haven’t we always, don’t we always?

    Here’s hoping for a nice revolution!

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