It may seem like a waste of time to write a piece on a 21st-century Marxist. Many people believe that Marxism is dead and gone and has been since the fall of Communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Indeed many others believed it was dead long before that – at least here in the West. Therefore any Marxists such people acknowledge to still exist are deemed to be the largely ineffectual and harmless members of a cult.
Whatever the case, books by Marx are currently political best-sellers all over the place, including in Marx's country of birth, Germany.
If you believe that Marxism is a cult or religion (or as close to being a religion as it can possibly be without thereby being a literal religion), then of course Marxism is not dead. Essentially, Marxism is not based on truth or accuracy. It is based on various ideas or memes that seem to have a long shelf life and which still fire the spirits of many people in the West. (And not all those people are middle-class students!) These Marxist hopes and dreams are based on theories which don't really require either truth or accuracy in order to inspire and motivate people. They are, then, almost myths ( 'Sorelian myths').
In addition, because it was the case that no revolution was ever forthcoming in Europe and the United States, Leftists/Marxists, on the whole, stopped believing in the imminent possibility of a violent revolution – even though they still agitated for one. Consequently, many Leftists have taken the advice of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (first offered in the early 1930s). He directed Marxists/Leftists/progressives to “take over the institutions” in order to create a new Marxist/Leftist “hegemony”. (The Frankfurt School and many other Marxist theorists offered similar proposals.)
When it comes to Slavoj Žižek himself: he both has his cake and eats it. That is, he still believes in violent revolution as well as in taking over various and many institutions. Currently Žižek is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia; the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (London); a professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School; and an Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University, South Korea.
I said that Marxism is not dead: it's certainly not the case that Žižek is dead. In fact he's been called the “Elvis of cultural theory”. The journal Foreign Policy listed him in its Top 100 Global Thinkers list in 2012. Žižek has also appeared in films and documentaries, including the 2005 film, Žižek! And it's even the case that there's a journal dedicated entirely to his work: the International Journal of Žižek Studies.
The basic thing about Slavoj Žižek is that he's a good old-fashioned Marxist of the purest kind. In fact he more or less says so himself. He has certainly classed himself, many times, as, variously, a "radical leftist”, a "communist in a qualified sense”, and, yes, a “Marxist”. So this isn't a case of some mad 'far-right conspiracist' accusing everyone who dares to disagree with him of being a Marxist. Žižek classes himself in this way.
Yet there's a big difference between Žižek and the old-school Marxist. Žižek is a Marxist who has drunk deep from the wells of postmodernism, post-structuralism and structuralism (as well as from other Continental fashions). He knows his Jean Lyotard, his Jacques Derrida and his Michel Foucault. (He first published Derrida, for example, way back in 1967.) Žižek knows his (non-Marxist) Continental philosophy very well. Why? Primarily because all that knowledge will make it all the easier for him (or so he thinks) to trounce or dispatch the rivals to traditional Marxism. It has also enabled him to make revolutionary Marxism more philosophically fashionable and up to date!
Sure, many hard-core Marxists before Žižek have also got to know their non-Marxist philosophical – though still 'radical' – rivals or enemies. In fact some have committed the sacrilegious act - against Marxism - of borrowing technical details, jargon and other stuff from such sources. Louis Althusser, for example, raided the graves of psychoanalysis (as has Žižek), structuralism, etc.
Despite all that, I would say that your average Trotskyist/progressive or communist in the UK (though perhaps not to in France or Germany) is more or less philosophically illiterate. Most of them (say, members/leaders of the UK's Socialist Workers Party) will see the reading of any non-Marxist philosopher – except to offer a 'critique' of his work - as tantamount to apostasy. (The SWP's boss, Alexander Theodore Callinicos, has written a book called Against Postmodernism.)
Being a typical Marxist means taking typically Marxist positions on most – or all – subjects. This is what Žižek does to a T. I'm not saying that Žižek simply regurgitates Marx word-for-word or that he's even the kind of Marxist you'd have found in, say, the 1950s, let alone in the 1920s. In fact even Lenin and Trotsky adapted Marx and, more recently, the hard-core Stalinist Althusser also did. (As I said, Žižek has drunk deep from the wells of postmodernism, post-structuralism, etc.) For example, one such sacrilegious deviation from Marx, which many commentators have made much of, is the fact that Žižek has offered a 'critique' (yes, one of them again) of Marx's concept of ideology.1
Žižek's pure Marxism is also somewhat disguised by his prose style; not just by his interest in non-Marxist philosophy. However, if you cut out the jargon, the unbearable pretentiousness, the convoluted (i.e., the endless clauses, few full stops, etc.) style, the stream-of-consciousness improvisations, the copious footnotes and the academese, etc., you will find the purist Marxist messages and positions you could ever hope to find. In fact the bottom line is that they seem, in the end, to be largely untouched by the postmodernisms, post-structuralisms, etc. he argues against. As I said, it may simply be that he has largely got to know all – or much – of this non-Marxist stuff simply to offer a Marxist refutation or correction of it.
Indeed just as much Continental philosophy disguises its banality and truisms in pretentious prose, so Žižek hides his commonplace Marxisms with an equally pompous prose. After all, he has engaged with some of the most pretentious post-modernist and post-structuralist writers on the planet. He could hardly come out with the tabloid stuff (the “gutter journalism”) you find in, for example, Socialist Worker - even if his views are very similar, fundamentally, to what Trotskyists, etc. propagate.
So, again, all the jargon, academese and pretentiousness (e.g., the references to Jacques Lacan and “the Real”) seem to have the function of hiding the commonplace, banal and often blatantly false or inaccurate Marxist positions and theories which hide underneath.
Žižek, in other words, keeps to Marxist fundamentals; just as all Marxists must do otherwise they simply wouldn't be Marxists.
Žižek on Total Marxism & Total Capitalism
The following are two of Žižek most basic Marxist positions (which I express in almost Žižekian prose):
i) Capitalism has an essence and it is everywhere. It explains everything because it is the very essence (yes, essence) of everything.
ii) Following from i), there must therefore be a total (violent) revolution.
That's it really.
Take i) above. Žižek allows György Lukács to put his fundamentalist Marxist position when he says that the “young Lukács” believed that
“the class-and-commodity structure of capitalism is not just a phenomenon limited to the particular 'domain' of economy, but the structuring principle that over-determines the social totality, from politics to art and religion.” (96)
It's clear that Žižek - both here and elsewhere - completely endorses that position. That quote fully encapsulates the well-known Marxist notion of the relation between “base” and “superstructure”. In fact this is the very thing that sophisticated Marxists - from Eduard Bernstein onwards - began to play down. Nonetheless, it's rejection – amongst the rejection of other Marxist 'laws' and fundamentals - was also the very thing which pious Marxists realised was sacrilegiously unMarxist and even counterproductive in terms of praxis.
All this involves a dilemma which Marxists must face.
The more sophisticated Marxist positions become the less people understand them and the less they fire-up the people to embrace Total Revolution. In other words, you either have Marxist sophistication and no revolution; or Marxist simplicity/fundamentalism and at least a stronger possibility of revolution. That's why there's often been a disconnection between Marxist political parties/movements and Marxist intellectuals. The Marxist political parties - being political parties - knew all along that the more sophisticated Marxism became the less people would understand it and, as a consequence, the fewer people would therefore be inspired by it. (Hence Marx's own Communist Manifesto.) Many Marxists believe, at least silently, that it doesn't help the revolution one bit to make Marxism too sophisticated. Keep Marxism religious in nature and tone. Keep it simple, absolutist, essentialist, messianic and millenarian otherwise there's simply no point.
Žižek himself (despite his prose style) realised all this and that's why he thoroughly endorses the Lukács position above.
More specifically, Žižek believes that capitalism “overdetermines” everything – literally. It can be found everywhere – literally. In contradiction of what Žižek claims postmodernists, post-structuralists, etc. believe, capitalism is not just about “the particular domain of economy”. It's about everything. Its domain ranges from “politics to art and religion”. It's also about – or “determines” - the family, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Islamic terrorism, the price of bread, science.... everything. (Read The Guardian’s Seumas Milne – he fully agrees with such Marxist totalism.) In Žižek words, capitalism, or the economy, “overdetermines the social totality”.
Žižek also states his essentialist (as well as “universal”) case by saying that capitalist
“production is simultaneously the encompassing universal elements, the structuring principle of the totality.” (314)
Žižek offers us more of his unbelievably totalist accounts of capitalism.2
For example, Žižek explains both his Marxist totalism and why that totalism leads him to reject the post-mod emphasis on “subjectivities”. He writes:
“... today's capitalism is a kind of global machine that enables a multitude of ideologies, from traditional religions to individualistic hedonism, to 'resignify' their logic so that they fit the frame... “ (328)
Again, Žižek's logic of capitalist “logic” is brutally simple. According to him, everything - from a “traditional religion” like Islam, to the “individualistic hedonism” of post-mod philosophers or radical pop stars, to green politics through to UKIP - occurs within the domain of capitalism and is therefore automatically suspect from a Marxist point of view. (Whether or not all this does indeed occur within the “frame” of capitalism - and whether that statement actually means anything - is, of course, another matter.)
Žižek says more or less exactly the same thing just two notes later. He says that capitalism
“has penetrated all pores of social life, down to the most intimate spheres, introducing unheard-off [sic] dynamics which no longer relies on patriarchal and other fixed forms of domination, but generates fluid hybrid identities.” (329)
Here again it actually appears that Žižek is somehow - and in some way - arguing against the existence of “hybrid identities” as well as against the fact that capitalism has introduced “unheard-of dynamics which no longer [rely] on patriarchal and other fixed forms of generation”. In fact he is arguing against these realities. Why? Simply because they all occur within the capitalist “frame”. That's a good enough reason for Žižek to be suspicious of them - and even to be against them! (Again, whether all this does occur within the capitalist “frame” - and whether that statement actually means anything - is up for debate.)
Despite all this openly acknowledged capitalist freedom, Žižek still has hopes that things will change.
He follows the just-quoted passage by saying that “the capitalist system is thus more vulnerable than ever today” (329). “Marx's old formula still holds: capitalism generates its own gravediggers.” With these words, Žižek shows us how pure and pious his Marxism is. He offers us that old chestnut: capitalism “is thus more vulnerable than ever today”. Classic! I just can't comprehend why Marxists seem to lack even the most basic skills of self-analysis and self-criticism. Marxists - as everyone knows (perhaps Marxists do too) - have been saying this every decade for the last, roughly, 160 years. Every year Marxist groups talk about the “capitalist crisis” and even about the “final capitalist crisis”. The talk of capitalist crises can beI recalled from the 1980s and it is replicated today; just as the warnings in the 1980s replicated those of the 1970s and so on back to Marx's own day.
All this crisis-talk is pretty mindless stuff when you think about it. Except, of course, that every new “capitalist crisis” is indeed slightly different to the last one. The content is slightly different; even though the crisis part of the scenario remains the same. In Marx’s day, the “pauperisation of the working class” etc. accounted for the final capitalist crisis. In the 1980s, it was the large levels of unemployment, etc. In the 1990s it was the “contradictions of global capitalism”. In 2000, in Žižek's case, post-mod “subjectivities” may well have taken capitalism over the edge. The “subjectivities” which capitalism enables are actually bringing about a “dissolution of all substantial social links and also lets the genie out of the bottle” (329). These “hybrid entities” (whatever they are) will “set free the centrifugal potentials that the capitalist system will no longer be able fully to contain”.
In other words, Žižek, as a typical Marxist, is grasping at straws. And he does so because he has a deep faith in the collapse of capitalism; just as he has a deep faith in Marxism itself. He is a believer. No matter what the situation will be in, say, 2020 or 2050 (just as was the case for Marxists in the 1980s and 1880s), he will remain a believer. Even if capitalism has achieved social peace, full employment and nirvana; it would still be social peace, full employment and nirvana within the “frame” of capitalism. Besides which, as a Marxist, he would inevitably find problems with capitalist social piece, capitalist full employment and capitalist nirvana; just as when, in the 1950s and early 1960s, capitalism (in the West) created full employment and social peace (at least to some extent), Marxists still had massive problems with it. Marxists will always have a problem with capitalism. If they didn't have a problem with capitalism - no matter what shape capitalism actually takes - they wouldn't be Marxists.
Žižek on the Private and the Political
What has also got the Marxist's goat is the (capitalist?) distinction between the private and the political. This ties in with the views that capitalism “permeates”, to use Žižek's word, every aspect of society. It is still well-known that in the 1960s feminists, and many others, tried to blur the distinction between the private/personal and the political and indeed they came up with the slogan: “The personal is the political.” Of course Marxists are primary concerned with making the economy political and, in tandem with that, convincing us that capitalism permeates the private or the personal.
Žižek explains the “Political/non-Political” (his way of putting it) division in the following way. He talks of “the positing of some domains (economy, private intimacy, art...) as 'apolitical'” (95). However, in a classic Marxist manner, he also asks us:
“[W]hat if the political gesture par excellence, as its purest, is precisely the gesture of separating the Political from the non-Political, of excluding some domains from the Political?” (95)
Of course this rejection of the political/non-political division ties in with the “subjectivities” - the “hybrid identities” - which post-mods celebrate and champion and which Žižek takes them to believe are “non-Political”. (Whether they do or not depends on which “subjectivities” and which post-mods we are talking about.)
And just as Žižek rejects the political/non-political division when supposedly upheld by post-mods, he is, of course, equally against it when upheld by the capitalist Right: who, according to the Marxist tradition, more or less invented the division. Thus Žižek now questions the split between “state and civil society”. (His totalitarian intent deepens yet more.) He claims that “[e]ven the very opposition between the state and civil society is thoroughly ambivalent today” (314).
Žižek on the Non-Marxist Left
Žižek moves back-and-forth between slagging off post-mods – and their various “subjectivities” - for not being True Revolutionaries to doing the same to all the members of the working class – including socialists - who dare reject Marxism. (That irony of ironies: the middle-class Marxist's hatred of the working class.)
Take the members of the working class who “resist” (319). Yes, of course, any kind of resistance is better than nothing to a Marxist. However, it's simply not good enough. The workers' “demands are not intrinsically anti-capitalist” and simply “aim at partial reformist goals that can be satisfied within the capitalist system”. This sounds like the Marxist mantra of 1980s all over again. It fact it sounds like the mantras from the 1920s and 1880s all over again. (Still, Marxism, being a religion, will never die: faith never dies.)
And now for the non-revolutionary Left (rather than non-revolutionary workers).
As a classic Marxist, almost has more disdain for them than he does for “fascists” and post-mods. (He hasn't much time for anarchists either.) So much so that he calls the non-Marxist Left the “'technocratic' Right” (129). What Žižek thinks we have today are “'two Rights'”. And in his neat and tidy distinction,
“the opposition [to the “existing capitalist liberal regime”] is actually between the 'populist' Right (which calls itself 'Right') and the 'technocratic' Right (which calls itself the 'New Left'”.
In other words, we have the classic Marxist idée fixe again: that there is no real “opposition” - or “genuine alternative” - to the status quo other than the Total Opposition - or the Total Alternative - that is Total Revolution.
So Žižek doesn't just accuse post-mods of being, in the old language, 'gradualists' or 'reformists' (or Marxist apostates): he also says the same about the non-revolutionary Left. His position on “today's Left”, as he puts it, is, quite frankly, patronising. He says that
“today's Left succumbs to the ideological blackmail by the Right in accepting its basic premisses ('the era of the welfare state, with its unlimited spending power, is over', etc.).” (123)
Let's forget, for now, the question of whether or not there are such “basic premises” of the Right; and whether “today's Left” has accepted them.
Žižek is claiming that “today's Left” has given up on the welfare state. This is obviously false. However, because Žižek has a ridiculous and impossibilist position on the welfare state, he may well be right (on his own terms). Because it's not enough, for a Marxist like Žižek, to be committed to the welfare state, a true Leftist must demand “its unlimited spending power”. Now I don't want to be pedantic, but it's clear - and Žižek himself must know it's clear - that the state quite obviously cannot have - and never will have - “unlimited spending power”. And it's that what, according to Žižek, “today's Left” has accepted. And that's a bad thing from a Marxist position because Leftists must, as ever, “demand the impossible” (123).
Žižek on Class & Racism
Slavoj Žižek wouldn't be a Marxist if he didn't endlessly talk about class. He does. And it's the fact that post-mods, etc., at least according to Žižek, don’t do so that makes them so problematic.
There are indeed many “social antagonisms” in capitalist society. But, according to Žižek, one social antagonism is the source of all the others. Superficially (say, to post-mods), it seems as if there are a “series of social antagonisms” (320). And in a (superficial) sense, there are. However, there is a “specific antagonism which predominates over the rest” – class antagonism. So Žižek disagrees with people like Ernesto Laclau who believes that “all elements which enter into hegemonic struggle are in principle equal”. In Marxist reality, on the other hand, “there is always one which, while it is part of the chain, secretly overdetermines its very horizon”. Which one? Class antagonism. In that case, which other peripheral antagonisms is Žižek referring to? He is talking about “economic, political, feminist, ecological, ethnic” and other antagonisms. And all are subordinate to the class struggle. In fact all antagonisms are equal but class antagonism is more equal than others.
Sometimes Marxists are not very explicit about the theory that capitalism causes racism and sexism - and indeed, basically, all evil. Stating something as explicitly as that may well undermine the Marxist cause. However, such simplicities and crude reductionisms are vital for the Marxist/revolutionary cause.
There's a kind of vital choice which faces Marxists: crude simplicity and revolution or sophistication and no revolution. Parties like the SWP or Respect, for example, take the first option. Marxist theorists like, say, Ralph Miliband or Louis Althusser, take the latter option. However, when it comes to Marxist fundamentals, both Ralph Miliband, as well as Žižek himself, and the SWP believe largely the same things.
So, again, think about the inane simplicity and reductionism of the following Marxist position:
Capitalism causes racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, Islamic terrorism and all the others ills of society.
Now that statement/theory may be a little hard to stomach even if one is a natural radical or instinctive hater of capitalism. It's just so totalist and essentialist. Besides which, surely even the radical or hater of capitalism will know - in his heart - that this, at the very least, simply can't be the whole truth.
Žižek, as a believer in Marxist crudity (if hidden underneath pretentious prose), is explicit. In a passage castigating the post-mod counter-revolutionaries who, nonetheless, enforce “Political Correctness” (capitalised by Žižek), he says that they, in so doing, “betray the retreat from disturbing the actual (economic, etc.) causes of racism and sexism” (130).
Let me explain this. Take one of these social antagonisms: racism. More specifically, take Jew-hatred. In the classic Marxist spirit, this too is all about capitalism. Or, more specifically, about class antagonism.
In a rather repulsive case of Marxist reductionism, Žižek argues that not only were the National Socialists (Nazis) a necessary consequence of “class struggle” (124); but so too was their Jew-hatred. In other words, Jew-hatred was – and still is - a mere epiphenomenon of the economic - or class – antagonisms of a particular capitalist society.
Firstly, what the the German workers of the 1920s found was “social antagonism”. Then, when they became Nazis, they carried out a “disavowal/displacement of [that] fundamental social antagonism ('class struggle' which divides the social edifice from within)”. Following on from that, the Nazis indulged - unknowingly of course - in a process of a “projection/externalization of the cause of social antagonisms into the figure of the Jew”. In other words, capitalist wrong created Jew-hatred.
This theory is so full of holes it would make a good string vest. For a start, European Jew-hatred predates the rise of German National Socialism by around a 1000 years. In fact it predates the rise of capitalism itself by around 700 years (depending on where you place the the beginnings of modern capitalism). Of course a Marxist, or Žižek, will fixate on those aspects of Jew-hatred which were specific to the capitalist or Nazi era. But then there were aspects of Jew-hatred which were specific to the medieval period or to Russian peasant society in the 19th century. So what? The Marxist thesis is that capitalism itself creates racism - not that it has created a specific kind of racism. Indeed the Marxist Left has its own kind/s of racism and even its very own tradition of Jew-hating: a tradition which dates all the way back to Marx himself - some 70 years before the rise of the Nazis - and which continued through to the Bolsheviks and to Stalin and then all the way to today's boycott-Israel movement.
In addition, not all Nazis, or Jew-haters, within capitalist societies were the victims of “class struggle” or “class antagonisms”. Many were rich and closeted; as Marxists, when arguing a different case, are often keen to tell us. (Though the Marxist 'auxiliary hypothesis' here will no doubt be that the rich Nazis were not really Jew-haters as such – they simply used the hatred of Jews for political and social advantage.) On a more technical point, even if social antagonism and the class war contributed to Nazi racism, why did it lead specifically to the hatred of the Jews? Why not a hatred of all the Austrians (in Germany), or to bricklayers or scientists? I have already answered that. It did so largely because Jew-hatred, as a tradition, predated the rise of the Nazis by over a 1000 years and predated capitalism itself by around 700 years.
Of course Marxists will have trite answers to all my rejoinders. They always do. In fact, as Karl Popper put it, Marxists always offer us endless 'auxiliary hypotheses' to their original arguments, statements or theories. So many auxiliary hypotheses, in fact, that the original theory, argument or statement ends up looking completely different to what it did when first expressed.
All this ties in with another point made in this piece. Marxist theories are quite deliberately simplistic, reductionist and essentialist. If they weren't that way, not many people would understand them and even less would be fired-up to revolt or become revolutionaries. A complicated or sophisticated theory wouldn’t inspire the masses. This means that the Marxist theory of Nazi Jew-hatred, as well as of racism generally, has to be simplistic and reductionist in order to radicalise the minds of the people; or, alternatively, in order to bring about a revolutionary situation.
But what about the Marxist theories which explain racism and seem to do so effectively?
Now Marxists have a tendency to think that Marxist theories (such as the one about Nazi Jew-hatred) are sophisticated almost by definition. They are sophisticated primarily because they show us the 'unseen of the economy' and scrape away 'false consciousness'.
Marxists also think their theories are sophisticated for two more basic reasons. One, they are sophisticated quite simply because they are theories. (That's all it takes.) Two, Marxist theories - so Marxists think (and it's partly true) - are at odds with what the 'middle classes' think (despite the fact that virtually all Marxists are middle class); at odds with what most 'straight' people think; with what the hoodwinked man in the street thinks; with what the people who don't wear Che Guevara t-shirts think; etc. Now if Marxist theories are at odds with what the plebs in the pubs and the middle classes think, then such theories must, by Marxist definition, be sophisticated.
The fact that a theory isn't sophisticated simply because it's a theory - let alone true or accurate because it's a theory - doesn't seem to enter the head of the average Marxist. However, whether or not the Marxist theory is accurate or true, it is still nonetheless interpreting political events and realities; which all the plebs, of course, simply 'take at face value'. Again, Marxist theories offer us the 'unseen' of just about everything. And that fact alone seems to be enough for the majority of Marxists.
It follows, then, that Žižek's perverse, reductionist and blatantly partial theory about the rise of Nazi Jew-hatred is still a good thing when seen from a Marxist perspective. Such a theory is meant to be simple. (Even though Žižek himself doesn't explain it in a clear or simple manner; the theory itself is simple.)
And now - immediately after Žižek's reduction of 1000 years of Jew-hatred to capitalist class war - Žižek goes on to account for the continuing rise of the Nazis and the culpability of capitalism for that rise.
According to Žižek, after the Nazis had reacted to class struggle in their supposedly non-Marxist way (by becoming Jew-haters), they then carried out a pseudo-revolution ( a non-Marxist revolution). The “Nazi revolution” (124/5), according to Žižek, was a fake revolution. And guess why that was. Yes, you guessed correctly: because they didn't get rid of capitalism. In Žižek's words, it was all an “exemplary case of a pseudo-change, of frenetic activity”. All this change, again, was pseudo-change. And here comes that Žižek idée fixe again (which he has so far aimed at post-mods and the non-Marxist Left; and now he's aiming at the Nazis of the 1920s and 1930s): this “Nazi revolution” was a “pseudo-change” quite simply because the Nazis didn't get rid of capitalism. Even though they fundamentally restructured capitalism in Germany, it was still capitalism they restructured. Thus, despite the autobahns, the death and labour camps, the zero unemployment, the improvements in heath care, animal rights legislation, the greening the environment and society generally, etc., all that was pseudo-change because, yes, capitalism was still in place.
Such is the nature of Žižek's Marxist fundamentalism and essentialism. It's as near to being pathologically Manichean and simplistic as any political or religious ideology could possibly be. And that partly explains his unutterably pretentious prose-style.
Žižek on Rightists
Just as Žižek still believes in the “class war”, so too he believes in the war between the Right and the Left. And as is the case with class war, Žižek proves (I use the word very loosely) his point with the help of some more shameless generalisations and reductionisms.
Although Žižek believes in a war between the Left and Right (if only with the Marxist Left, the non-Marxist Left is counter-revolutionary), he doesn't state it in that way. However, it follows from what he does say. The “Leftist” and 'Rightist”, in fact, “occupy different places within the political space” (113). Moreover, the Leftist and the Rightist “perceives the very disposition of the political space differently”. Now here come the generalisations or stereotypes. (Leftists/Marxists believe in stereotypes if the right people are stereotyped.) Firstly,
“a Leftist [sees the 'political space”] as the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism; a Rightist as the organic unity of a Community disturbed only by foreign intruders” (113).
Of course all Leftists do see the “social space” as including certain antagonisms (as do Rightists). However, only the revolutionary and essentialist Leftist (e.g., Žižek) sees those antagonists as “inherently split” (essentially split). There's a split between the platonic classes in a platonic Capitalism. That is, social classes - with their respective essences - are clashing in a Capitalism which, of necessity, creates such antagonisms. And these classes and antagonisms will never change because capitalism never (really) changes (it keeps its platonic form).
As for Žižek's “Rightist”: which kind of Rightist is he talking about?
Žižek uses the platonic capital for Rightists (as I do). He is an Hegelian/quasi-Hegelian who truly does see the Right as yet another Marxist/platonic form. Thus it is easy for an essentialist Marxist like Žižek to claim that all Rightists believe various and many that p's. (In this case, that all Rightists believe that “the organic unity of a Community [is] disturbed only by foreign intruders”.) However, many Rightists believe that the worst threats to any kind of “Community” are often from insiders (such as Žižek). In fact, in the contemporary world, “foreign intruders” only become a threat with the help of such Leftist insiders. These Leftist insiders are often the first-order threat to “Community” (whatever Žižek actually means by “Community” and “foreign intruders”).
Žižek goes on to offer us yet more gross stereotypes of what he takes all Rightists to believe. Apparently, in a truly Hegelian spirit,
“the right-wing intellectual is a knave, a conformist who considers the mere existence of the given order as an argument for it” (325).
Incredible! Now I will need to tell some readers that Žižek is a great fan of Hegel and often mentions him in the writings I've quoted from in this piece. In fact the essay from which the quote above is taken refers to Hegel a few times. 3
So why have I mentioned Hegel in detail here? Simple. Hegel believed that “the mere existence of the given order [was] an argument for it”. Now the vast majority of American and British Rightists - and even those “right-wing intellectual knaves” Žižek refers to - will hardly have ever read Hegel. And many of those who have read stuff by Hegel hate it and have described the philosopher himself as a 'pretentious charlatan'.
Anyway. Despite Žižek's Hegelian way of putting the position of the right-wing “knave”, what I think he means is that because the Rightist is aware that capitalism has survived so long, that gives him a good reason – though not the only reason! - to support its continued existence. However, capitalism's long life - or its “mere existence” - is simply a consequence of its creation of increased democracy, better living standards, etc. Again, what most Rightists most certainly do not believe - because most of them are neither essentialists like Žižek nor mindless defenders of the status quo - is that the mere “existence of the given order” is “an argument for it”. If the West were capitalist and yet also a poverty-stricken and totalitarian hellhole, you can presume that such a mere reality wouldn't necessitate support for it – either from Rightists or from anyone else for that matter. Similarly, did most Cambodians (save Marxists like Žižek ) think the mere existence of the 1976 Khmer Rouge order - or Žižekian "frame" - was an argument for it? I doubt it. So why should right-wingers - or anyone after Hegel - believe that the mere existence of a given order is an argument for it? No doubt some people, of both the Right and the Left, have thought such a thing since Hegel's death. However, my bet is that many of them might well have been Hegelians of some kind or people like Žižek (who's a Hegelian of some kind).
And here we go again. Apparently another species of Rightist, the “neoconservative” this time, “cruelly reject[s] all forms of social solidarity as counterproductive sentimentalism” (325). No he doesn't! What he will reject is “social solidarity” as envisaged or imposed by a centralised Leftist or progressive state. He opposes social solidarity by diktat or, worse, by gunpoint. He will also oppose it when brought about by a Leftist party, or by a Trotskyist 'vanguard' (which may or many not include Žižek himself). In fact, if social solidarity is imposed by the state, or by a vanguard/Party, then it's not social solidarity at all.
Alternatively, there are many examples of social solidarity which aren't controlled by the state or the Party. And Žižek is against (most of) them precisely for that reason. In fact his penchant for imposed kinds of social solidarity is so extreme that he thinks that those offered by a “deconstructionist cultural critic” (whom he mentions in the next sentence), rather than actually “'subvert[ing]' the existing order, actually served as its supplement”. In other words, Žižek - and those Trotskyist/communist parties in tune with him - want to be in control of all forms and expressions of social solidarity. And when they aren't, such forms or expressions simply must - according to Marxist theory - “serve” the “existing order”. (Žižek's position reminds me of Althusser's stance in the 1950s and 1960s in which he even accused working-class Leftist parties of suffering from the “ideology of subservience”: that is, he accused them of not being Althusserian.)
Žižek, rather disingenuously, also argues that the Right claims that those who believe in “utopia” (a word is rarely used by the Left nowadays - utopia is implied, not stated) do so because they believe “in the essential goodness of human nature”. I doubt that many Rightists would claim that because, as it stands, it is pretty meaningless. What Rightists are against is precisely what Žižek states in the real position of the Marxist's (hidden/silent) utopianism. That is, “the essential goodness of human nature” is not, as it it were, a given. Instead it is brought about by “some global mechanism which, [when] applied to the whole of society, will automatically bring about the balanced state of progress and happiness one is longing for”. Put simply, Žižek believes that the Leftist - or progressive - state will bring about utopia and therefore also bring allow the essential goodness of human nature to flower. (This is what Marx believed would follow a proletarian revolution.) Yet that's precisely the Right's problem! It's not really that the essential goodness of human nature is a pipe dream (when seen as collective reality). It's that the Marxist Left believes that the revolution, or the state, can bring it about. So let's just forget what is and what isn't human nature. The dangerous idea is that the Leftist/progressive state (made up of countless nasty types and power-freaks) can fundamentally change human nature in such a positive and monumental way.
Finally, and predictably, Žižek believes that “the market” cannot bring about this positive flowering of human nature. (Here again t Žižek thinks and speaks in platonic and/or Hegelian terms: this time about the Market with the definite article; not about the market and certainly not about markets in the plural.)
Conclusion: Žižek Demands Revolutionary Terror
Marxist have often come clean about their demanding the impossible from the capitalist state. They do so because they know full well that the state cannot grant their impossibilist demands – by definition. Again, Marxists know that they are literally demanding the impossible. That's the whole point!
So why do Marxists like Žižek demand the impossible? They do so to primarily to destabilise the state and also to radicalise people (at least in theory). When Marxists demand that the state change water into wine, or provide free second cars for all, they know that it won't come up with the goods. Therefore the people, or workers - Marxists hope - will get angry at this and storm the barricades.
Similarly Marxists effectively promise a welfare state that will be perfect in every respect. Then they demand the same from the actually-existing state. However, because Marxists are knowingly demanding the impossible, they hope that the people, or workers (at least in theory), will rebel and then bring forth a revolution. And that's precisely why Marxists hate counter-revolutionaries such as non-Marxist socialists and the post-mods Žižek himself castigates. Such wimps don't demand the impossible and therefore they'll never bring about a revolution.
Žižek, in his own words, also believes in the “Big State”. He's categorically against “the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration” (123). He believes in the Big State in precisely the same way Stalin believed in it. There are no apologies from Žižek here. In fact he is explicit about his Big State dreams. He says that True Marxists, such as himself, will never defend themselves “by saying... we are no longer the old Socialists”. Again, as a True Marxist, he will both demand and promise the impossible. Only such cases of modal political logic, as it were, will guarantee (or so he believes) the truly revolutionary situation Žižek yearns for.
Žižek traces this demand for the impossible back to the “1968 motto”: Soyons Réalistes, Demandons L’Impossible (326). ('Let’s be realists, demand the impossible.') That is, the workers must demand the impossible just as the French revolutionaries demanded the impossible, and, later, the Bolsheviks, then the Nazis, then the Khmer Rouge, the Maoist Red Guard and so on. This demanding the impossible comes along with the absolute and total overhaul of society – that extreme possibility which turns Žižek on so much. Like many Continental philosophers before him, Žižek is obsessed by the extreme and by the violent – except, of course, when that extremism and violence is carried out by Nazis and fascists or indeed by “Rightists”. (The Marxist logic here, as ever, is gruesomely simple.)
Is all this an exaggeration on my part? Well Žižek himself talks about the revolutionary “Terror” he so desires (complete with platonic or Hegelian 'T').
It's no coincidence that Žižek refers to “Terror” because he explains why he does so. Just as Žižek isn't happy that the Nazis (mentioned earlier) didn't go all the way, or that the post-mods mentioned throughout this piece haven't done so today, so he's also unhappy that the Jacobins didn't “go to the end” (130). That they didn't smash capitalism as well as faces. In Žižek's words, the French revolutionaries suffered from an “inability to disturb the very fundamentals of economic order (private property, etc.)”. And as with Žižek's theory about Nazi Jew-hatred earlier, that's why the Jacobins became “hysterical”.
Žižek doesn't mind “Terror”. What he does mind is the fact that the Jacobins didn't “disturb” such things as “private property”.
The other point worth mentioning is that on the classic Marxist account of the French Revolution, it wasn't to be expected (according to Marx's 'laws') that the 18th century French revolutionaries would overthrow capitalism or Žižek's "private property". What they did was simply carry out 'the first revolution': the 'revolution of the bourgeoisie'. Thus it was also only the inevitable forerunner to a latter proletarian revolution (which was prophesised by Marx but which never happened).
Now if we jump forward to the 21st century, Žižek believes that a New Terror will also be inevitable because, as he puts it, the revolutionary will pursue his “goal with an inexorable firmness”. (This is the sort of revolutionary hard-man's language Lenin displayed in his The State and Revolution.) In fact, the postmodernist “proliferation of multiple shifting identities” is, Žižek hopes, a prelude to a “new form of Terror”. And as I've said, if you demand the impossible, or if you're “opting for the impossible” (326), then Terror is almost bound to follow. Take Žižek's word for it.
In this Leftist Terror – or in this 'revolutionary situation' - there will be “no a priori norms” such as “human rights” and “democracy”. (Will the Terror continue after the Revolution? Is the Pope a Catholic?) Instead there will be “the ruthless exercise of power [and] the spirit of sacrifice”. Now this is incredibly repulsive adolescent-male stuff. It's the sort of psychotic and exhibitionist love of violence you'd expect from such previous Continental philosophers as Georges Sorel, George Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Michel Foucault. (Think here of Foucault's “erotic infatuation” with Iran's theocratic violence after the 1979 Revolution.)
Žižek is proud of his demands for the impossible. In fact those who reject them, or deny their feasibility, are nothing less that “status quo cynics” (135).
Žižek also comes out with what comes very close to be a non sequitur when he tells us that True Revolutionaries believe that
“everything is possible” and that they therefore want to “change everything” (135).
and therefore that “status quo cynics” must believe (here's the non sequitur) that
“nothing at all is really possible”.
Žižek is committing the same Marxist black-and-whitism that he repeatedly commits. Because he believes that post-mods, non-Marxist Leftists and God knows who else don't believe in Total Revolution, then they must be, in effect, counter-revolutionaries. Not only that. Because they don't accept the only solution, Total Revolution, then they must be the friends of capitalism and also think that there's “no other game in town” (to use Žižek's own words).
Now take those on the Right who don't believe in Žižek's Total Revolution either. Because of that, he concludes that they believe “nothing at all is really possible”. I suppose it's possible that the phrases “everything is possible” and “nothing is possible” aren't meant to be taken literally. The former, I presume, works like such Sorelian myth of the General Strike: simply as a meme to fire up the proletarians. Nonetheless, what sense are we to make of the claim that some people – anyone – believe that “nothing is really possible”? Has Žižek simply concluded that because millions upon millions of people sincerely believe that a Total Revolution will create more harm than good, that they must also believe “nothing is really possible”? Even if you are mindlessly committed to capitalism, it doesn't follow from this that you would also think that nothing is really possible. All sorts of things have been possible within capitalism. And, as Žižek himself has admitted, capitalism has created – or allowed - multiple “subjectivities” or “hybrid identities”; as well as the adult vote, democracy, health care and myriad other things.
But none of that matters to Žižek because defenders of capitalism believe that “nothing is really possible” simply because they would rather stick with capitalism – thank you very much. That, to Žižek, means that they think nothing is really possible.
However, most people who defend capitalism don't do so because they think that 'capitalism is natural' (as Marx and the early Marxists had it), or 'inevitable', or even incapable of alteration. Žižek is the essentialist here: not the average capitalist or pro-capitalist. It's not the case that capitalism is “the only game in town” either. There are lots of other games in town: including Žižek's Total Revolution, Islamism, post-mod hyper-reality, a Green 'hegemony', the Third Way, fascism, the Nihilist Party and so on. It's just that most people - those who, by Marxist definition, suffer from 'false consciousness' - don't want Žižek's Total Revolution. There are many possibilities that literally millions of people accept and even champion in the West. It's just that Žižek's Total Revolution is not one of them.
Apparently I think all this because I'm a “bleeding-heart liberal” (326) Now I thought that the Left hated violence and such macho-talk. I thought they weren't fascists. Yet this sounds like the language of a fascist to me. And indeed it is the language of a fascist – of a philosopher of the Fascist Left. Žižek's overall ideology may be dissimilar in some minor respects to that of a Nazi or fascist. Nonetheless, Žižek's talk of Leftist Terror and violence; his Marxist absolutism, fundamentalism and essentialism; his love of complete change for its own sake, etc., all sound pretty fascistic to me. And, as many people know, revolutionary Nazism and fascism were, at least in large part, off-shoots of revolutionary Marxism. All the Marxist claptrap designed to distance the International Socialists from the National Socialists need not be taken seriously when you think of the behaviour of the Bolsheviks, Stalin, Mao's Red Guards, the Khmer Rouge and today's street-fighting of the SWP (as well as the “anti-fash” generally). And now, to top all that, we have the violent words and fantasies of Slavoj Žižek.
Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau , Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Verso
1 Žižek, so some Marxists say (though it's not entirely true) rejects the Marxist notion of ideology as 'false consciousness' (except, of course, when that ideology is Marxism). Apparently Zizek explains things in terms of people's unconscious motives instead. Presumably that's because the unconscious is the unconscious, it makes no sense to call it 'false'; though I may be wrong.
2 Perhaps Žižek would happily admit to being a totalist quite simply because the “totality” - his own word - that is capitalism demands its own totalist response.
3 Continental philosophers - from Marx to Derrida - were obsessed by Hegel (as well as with Heidegger later). His writings still have a firm hold on many Continental philosophers (as does Heidegger) and even on those American and English theorists who have been inspired by late-20th century philosophical movements such as post-structuralism and structuralism. Žižek himself has debated Hegel with, amongst others, Judith Butler.