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ZizekThe past as destiny leaves no way out

Though an important critic of capitalism, the philospher Slavoj Zizek fails to become the expression of a revolutionary alternative, says Phil Sharpe.

Slavoj Zizek is nothing if not ambitious. The noted philosopher and critical theorist wants to show that communism is not an antiquated or outdated concept, but is an idea that is perpetually being reinvented in the new of the changes within society.

He is aware that the immediate reaction of people to crisis is that of panic, and political shifts to the right: “Consequently, to put it in old fashioned Marxist terms, the central task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative which will place the blame for the meltdown not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations (overly lax legal regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, and so on),” he writes in his latest book.

Zizek enters the terrain of ideology and outlines the various logical contradictions of the arguments of some defenders of capitalism. This theoretical task is necessary, but it is only complete if it can establish the importance of an alternative. But he suggests that the alternative is implicit in the critique, and without the necessity of prior and elaborated justification. This means he is ultimately a critic of capitalism, indeed an important critic, but he does not become the expression of a revolutionary alternative.

The ultimate logic of his standpoint is to argue that the very limitations of the ideology of capitalism promote an immanent and utopian alternative. But it is one thing to indicate the theoretical limitations of ideology, which Zizek does brilliantly. It is another to contend that these contradictions can represent a practical defect within capitalism and the possibility for its alternative.

Zizek outlines the various flaws in the arguments about the recent boom and slump. The ultimate result is that he becomes immersed in the discussion between the advocates and opponents of state regulation as the necessary response to the crisis. As to how we overcome these limitations and establish support for an alternative is not on Zizek’s agenda.

We are left with the impression that ideology is so omnipotent that the very potential to establish an alternative is problematic. This is why, when Zizek does analyse the alternative, the subject lacks credibility because of the prior role of ideology. The very ideological function of capitalism would seem to discredit any alternative from the start.

So Zizek says: “In keeping with the new spirit of capitalism, an entire ideologico-historical narrative is constructed in which socialism appears as conservative, hierarchical, and administrative. The lesson of ‘68 is then ‘Goodbye Mr Socialism’, and the true revolution that of digital capitalism – itself the logical consequence of, indeed the ‘truth’ of the ‘68 revolt.”
The problem with this type of comment is not its historical accuracy. Indeed, it seems a fair expression of how an important event in the past has been interpreted. But the possibility of contesting such an interpretation is not elaborated. Instead Zizek uncritically outlines how the hippie revolt of the 1960’s became easily assimilated into the spirit of the new post-modern capitalism.

The result is an impression of ideological conformity, and lack of opposition to the prevailing consensus. Zizek cannot envisage the spontaneous development of anything more radical than populism, which is characterised by an inability to know reality and so is unable to develop beyond scapegoat-type politics.

What remains are two limited choices. On the one hand, Zizek criticises the left for supporting fundamentalism as a type of distorted anti-imperialism. On the other hand, uncritical support for liberal democracy is criticised for acceptance of and adaptation to a particular form of capitalism. The crucial issue, Zizek argues, is to develop a distinctive support for liberalism, which overcomes its flaws as the basis of opposition to fundamentalism.

But how do we also go beyond the limitations of liberalism. Zizek’s effective substitute for an answer to this question is to renew his critique of the ideology of liberal capitalism. He argues that the utopian standpoint of the eternal character of the present form of capitalism is an illusion. The problem is that this critique is itself within the very limitations of the ideology that it attempts to oppose. There seems to be no alternative to the illusion that capitalism is eternally dominant. We can criticise such an illusion but not transcend it. We are trapped.

Surely the point is how do we develop support for the Marxist understanding of crisis despite the durability of a bourgeois ideological standpoint? Zizek evades discussion in these terms, and instead he presents us with some facts about the limitations of global capitalism and concludes that we require communism. However, given what he has already argued about the strength of bourgeois ideology, why would we conclude that we should support communism? Zizek is apparently unable to answer these types of questions, and instead relies on vulgar economic determinism, and the related faith that the economic crisis will increase support for communism.

Zizek is emphatic that communism is not an eternal idea constant throughout history. It is a material concept that refers to the social antagonisms that generate its possibility. “One should rather maintain the precise reference to a set of actual social antagonisms which generate the need for communism – Marx’s notion of communism not as an ideal, but as a movement which reacts to such antagonisms, is still fully relevant.”

So why has it not been possible for these material forces  to defeat capitalism? Zizek’s answer is unsatisfactory. He refers to Lenin’s view that it is often necessary to begin again, and that defeat is part of the revolutionary process. But who is responsible for his defeat? Zizek is ambiguous about this question but does not dispute the view held in some quarters that the actual character of the working class is somehow to blame for the failure of revolution.

Zizek acknowledges that we are moving into a period of the most acute contradictions – the ecological catastrophe, the limitations of the domination of private property, new technical developments and the promotion of new forms of apartheid, or social segregation. The last aspect refers to the process of the enclosure of the commons, which results in the transformation of the majority of the planet into proletarians.

He then both affirms and denies the importance of the working class as a revolutionary subject: “For this reason, a new emancipatory politics will stem no longer from a particular social agent, but from an explosive combination of different agents. What unites us is that in contrast to the classic image of the proletariat who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, we are in danger of losing everything: the threat is that we will be reduced to abstract subjects devoid of all substantial content, dispossessed of our symbolic substance, our genetic base heavily manipulated, vegetating in an unliveable environment.”

As he cannot explain how such a subject can be anything other than something that is ultimately manipulated by capital, so his affirmation is formal and abstract, an expression of dogma without any substance. Consequently, Zizek projects on to history the possibility for revolutionary transformation. We are, he says, in a situation of “apocalyptic time” where the “threat of annihilation” is also the chance for a radical emancipatory renewal.

This failure to articulate a credible subject of revolutionary change puts into doubt the potential of the coming catastrophe to bring about revolutionary change. No wonder he suggests that his approach is close to the Christian view that movement towards the end of time is an expression of the promise of the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, he cannot sustain any sound secular reasons for the potential for communism, apart from a rigidly predictive notion that catastrophe will bring about communism.

An acute problem arises in Zizek’s critique of democracy, which he equates with parliamentary democracy which, he argues, cannot represent the popular will. But his answer is not to call for the improvement of democracy, to make it accountable and transparent. Instead he calls for democracy to be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This contrast of dictatorship and democracy can easily become the justification of Stalinism. The standpoint of Zizek is based on a contrast of Jacobin elitism with the limitations of Parliamentary democracy, which is justification of the dictatorship of the party over the class in the name of political purity. But how this advances the cause of communism, as opposed to what is really being developed, which is the dictatorship of Stalinism, is not explained.

Crucially, Zizek does not agree that only the actual improvement of democracy will advance communism and undermine the possibility of Stalinist degeneration. Instead he critically supports a form of uncorrupted Stalinism, which he defines as Jacobinism and Leninism. He glosses over the fact that Leninism was actually based on the advance of Soviet democracy and in doing so falls into the trap of equating it with Stalinism.

The strategic dilemmas of Zizek are intensified by his analysis of the contemporary working class, a class which is divided into ideologically antagonistic fractions: “The proletariat is thus divided into three, each part being played against the others: intellectual labourers full of cultural prejudices against ‘redneck’ workers; workers who display a populist hatred of intellectuals and outcasts; outcasts who are antagonistic to society as such. The old cry ‘Proletarians unite!’ is thus more pertinent than ever: in the new conditions of post-industrial capitalism, the unity of the three fractions of the working class is already their victory.”

The problem with this analysis is not the level of its accuracy, even if it does have a certain one-sidedness. Rather we are given no strategic indication as to how this unity will be realised. Instead the continued fragmentation seems to be the more durable aspect of this relationship.  

All that we can rely upon, it seems, is our own actions by which Zizek seems to mean the role of the left intellectual elite. He contends: “Waiting for someone else to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our own inactivity. But the trap to be avoided here is that of perverse self-instrumentalization: ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for’ does not mean we have to discover how it is we are the agent predestined by fate (historical necessity ) to perform the task – it means quite the opposite, namely there is no big other to rely on.

“In contrast to classical Marxism where ‘history is on our side’ (the proletariat fulfils the task of universal emancipation), in the contemporary constellation, the big Other is against us: left to itself, the inner thrust of our historical development leads to apocalypse; what alone can prevent such calamity is, then pure voluntarism, our free decision to act against historical necessity.”

Zizek is trying to reconcile two different principles for understanding reality. On the one hand the destiny of the world has already been decided in the past, in the form of increasing ecological crisis that is resulting in catastrophe and apocalypse. On the other hand humans can still make choices, and one of these choices is that we can still decide to act to prevent this development of catastrophe by voluntarily struggling for communism. The role of an elite deciding to struggle for communism can transcend the apparent limitations established in the past that have resulted in ecological crisis.

But if we are determined by the past, and the past is our destiny, which we cannot mitigate, how is it possible to avoid what is effectively the fate of humanity? Why would the struggle for communism enable us to transcend the fate that has been established by the past of history. Zizek’s answer is that of vulgar voluntarism. The power of human will can overcome the difficulties of objective conditions.

Zizek wants to avoid Stalinism and suggests its origins were connected to Stalin assuming the role of the philosopher king, and turning himself into the monopoly of truth. This is true, but the main cause of Stalinism was its voluntarism, and disregard for the importance of objective material conditions. This approach is reproduced by Zizek. A regime based on his voluntarist principles would be likely to repeat the terrible crimes and errors of Stalinism.

It is important and necessary to challenge Zizek’s pessimism about the role of the subject and suggest a more imaginative and detailed understanding of how the alienated character of labour can be overcome. The absence of alienation in Zizek’s approach means that he can only understand the role of labour in terms of what it is and not of what it could be. The result is an adaptation to the durability of capitalism, which results in the voluntarist wish that the intellectual substitutes itself for the revolutionary subject. This is the standpoint of a left Hegelian rather than a principled Marxist.

10 February 2010

First As Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek. Verso 2009. £7.99

Your comments

Phil says:

I agree that Zizek has a Stalinist conception of violence, and considers that terror is indispensable for the advance of socialism. This is what makes his work very problematic. I disagree with Charles's view that my approach towards Zizek is insufficiently critical. I believe that I have outlined important criticisms of his work. However, I think that Zizek is an important philosopher, and so our criticisms need to be intellectually developed.


Charles says:

I think there is far too much jargon in this article, unfortunately copying Zizek's own writing. The main thing to realise about Zizek is that he wants to be provocative. I say let him try to dazzle his philosophy students - if he still has them - with all his abstractions, not to mention his love of Hollywood. They won't take us far in our struggle against capitalism. And I don't think Phil Sharpe mentioned Zizek's obsession with violence (see Paul Kellog's article: Slavog Zizek's failed encounter with Leninism, LINKS Feb.8th) which is often less than helpful, although I wouldn't deny that sometimes he exposes, witheringly, the establishment's double standards on violence.

Personally, if I want to read something philosophical as well as relevant to our present crises, I would much sooner struggle to understand (not easy for me) the books of Istvan Meszaros.


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