Tag Archives: Zizek

Review: In Defense of Lost Causes

This book is typical of Zizek’s style, in other words an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary. The opening proposal is to defend a range of revolutionary thinkers and events which history looks on unfavourably. This ranges from Robespierre to Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazi Germany, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. From this initial premise Zizek spins out across his usual dizzyingly wide frame of reference.

One theme is repetition. History is not pre-determined presenting instead a range of possibilities, some of which are retro-actively identified in the past to justify where we are today. This underpins the discussion in particular of Stalinism. Zizek urges the left to accept that Stalin represents one path out of the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 and the situation Lenin had reached by his death in 1924. But this does not make it the only possible path. It is odd that liberal thinkers who are so keen to criticise Marx for a perceived economic determinism in his approach to history also often see a direct line from Marx to the gulag. Instead, rather than trying to deny Stalin as ‘deviating’ from Marx we should accept it as one path, while seeking to ‘repeat’ Lenin so that we can seek a different outcome to the revolution. A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in his “Communist Hypothesis”.

Written in 2008, and therefore before the financial crisis, Zizek also takes aim at the liberal ‘third way’ with it’s acceptance of capitalism as the background of life, and something which we can only seek to ameliorate. The resulting failure to pursue radical outcomes ends with a gap where a progressive left ought to be, leading to all sorts of distortions from radical Islam to right wing populist demagogues. This is a common Zizek theme which he has discussed before, but which is prescient in the context of when the book was written.

The afterword to the second edition finishes by discussing the uses of violence, drawing a line between violence used in pursuit of revolution and that used to defend the existing order. I’m not sure this is entirely successful, but it certainly delivers what I suspect Zizek was aiming for, which is a provocative challenge to the standard liberal left view of the world.

If it is slightly less successful than some of his other books, that is probably for two reasons. First that having been written ten years ago it feels somewhat dated after the financial crisis. Second it includes several long sections where Zizek responds to criticisms levelled at him by other writers, which I’m sure are important to Zizek but sit oddly with the rest of the book and seem quite abstruse.

The related post I wrote on ‘repeating the past’ is here.

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

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Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Reforming Capitalism

Coming back to reading Slavoj Zizek after a break is always an interesting experience. I picked up “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” in the Verso end of year sale and it is the usual eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary.

In this book he picks up themes developed from an analysis of a range of protest movements in 2010 and 2011 from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. One thing he specifically challenges is the desire sometimes heard in response to these protests to ‘democratise’ capitalism, to bring it under the control of the rational liberal state.

“There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment today… What as a rule goes unquestioned… is the democratic-liberal framework as a means of fighting against these excesses.”

(Zizek 2012, p.86)

A common assumption is that what is missing from the Occupy movement is a political programme. Something that can be fitted into the democratic system and voted for. That somehow the system can be made better if we all just want it to change a little more. That the unfocused nature of the protest is part of the problem.

But we are now at the end of the last attempt to make capitalism ‘nicer’. Under pressure from the collective effort required to defeat fascism and from a seemingly triumphant Soviet communism a number of concessions were made to the working class. Britain saw the creation of the National Health Service and the construction of a welfare state to provide support “from cradle to grave”. These concessions have been under sustained assault since the late 1970s, gradually dismantled in the name of ensuring that the economy remains ‘competitive’.

Perhaps the search for ways to mitigate the worst impacts of capitalism on the “99%” or “ordinary working people” is doomed to failure from the start.

“we should read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State not as the betrayal of a noble idea, but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.”

(Zizek 2012, p.15)

In other words that creating a welfare state and leaving capitalist relations in place is at best a short term solution. Capitalist economics will only tolerate its creation when under pressure, will perceive it as a barrier to profit making throughout, and will move quickly to its destruction when it can.

In fact, the liberal state cannot respond to anti-capitalist protest in a way which addresses the root causes of the problem. Democracy has proved to be “impotent in the face of the destructive consequences of economic life.” (Zizek 2012, p.88). We must look outside the existing system for a solution. Occupy Wall Street’s role according to this view is to open up a space for the existing system to be challenged, and as such it does not need to present a programme. But there remains work to be done to transform the energy of protest into transformative change.

“what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist response to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

(Zizek 2012, p.133)

What this implies then is that the Corbyn project is misguided. We cannot realistically defend past victories or rebuild a mythical golden age of social democratic capitalism. We need to be much more radical than that.

“It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

(Zizek 2012, p.87)

What is at risk is that all Corbyn will achieve is to harness a youthful and energetic protest movement to the next failed attempt to make capitalism nicer.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Review: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

A great short volume with all the standard Zizek style. In other words it is an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary with a vague underpinning theme. If you like Zizek then you’ll enjoy it, if you hate Zizek you’ll probably hate it.

His focus here is the various protest movements which erupted across the world in 2011, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. When I say ‘focus’ though bear in mind that this is Zizek, so what that means in practice is a vague theme that is used as the springboard for a slightly rambling text that takes in The Wire, West Side Story, G K Chesterton, and the social taboos against smoking.

But if you enjoy Zizek’s writing then that is part of the attraction. He begins by outlining the current state of things from a basically Marxist perspective, while acknowledging that ‘immaterial’ labour is currently ‘hegemonic’ in place of the highly organised industrial workforce of Marx’s time. He moves on to make the case for resistance and fundamental change. That the attempt to preserve the remnants of or return to the mid-twentieth century post war consensus is doomed to fail. That democracy can no longer contain or control modern capitalism.

Zizek reasserts the need for a revolutionary break rather than an incremental or democratic approach. This leads him to reviews of the protest movements of 2011 and in particular Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

On Occupy, Zizek makes the case for it’s importance as protest, as the recognition that things are broken and must change. He refutes the common criticism that the movement didn’t express concrete goals. This would be a failure, indicating acceptance of the need to operate within the rules of the status quo when what is needed is in fact a radical rupture.

On the Arab Spring Zizek addresses the desire for the west to see the various movements as an attempt to move to western liberal democracy and not acknowledge the actual desire for change. He attacks the subsequent rise of radical Islam as a failure to allow space for radical change that is not towards western (neo-)liberalism. “We do not need a dialogue between religions (or civilisations) we need solidarity between those who struggle for justice.”

He ends with thoughts on the state of the modern left, chiming strongly with my own view that the lack of an overarching analysis as a driving force is holding back practical action. “What is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

As always with Zizek I suspect some will not enjoy this book. But for me it is both a challenging and thought-provoking read with much to say about the state we’re in and some pointers to where progressives should look to make future change happen.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Brexit and the Failure of the Third Way

I recently picked up a handful of second hand New Left Review journals in a local bookshop, varying in date from 1977 to 2000. They include a number of interesting articles, but following the referendum campaign in the UK and the impact of the populist right “Brexit” campaigners I found this short piece by Slavoj Zizek from 2000 on Jorg Haider especially relevant.

Jorg Haider was an Austrian politician who died in a car accident in 2008 – eight years after Zizek’s article – having lead the far right Freedom Party to significant success in Austrian elections, reaching 27% of the vote and joining the governing coalition in 1999.

Zizek uses Haider as a starting point to critique “third way” politics prevalent in 2000 and exemplified by Jeffrey Isaac in another article in the same edition of New Left Review where he argues that it is no longer possible to reject capitalism. The best that can be hoped for is an accommodation. That “coming to terms with capitalism” is both inevitable and desirable, and that left politics should focus on pragmatic problem solving.

Zizek argues forcefully that this approach in fact represents:

“social democracy purged of its minimal subversive sting, extinguishing even the faintest memory of anti-capitalism and class struggle”.

Zizek theorises that politicians of the centre need a radical right in opposition – something to build a coalition of democratic forces against, something to unite the rest of politics against. It is this that allows them to monopolise government. A strategy that is specifically designed to neuter the radical left, to prevent any attempt to challenge the system in the interests of the masses.

“The result is what one would expect. The populist Right moves to occupy the terrain evacuated by the Left, as the only ‘serious’ political force that still employs an anti-capitalist rhetoric”

Sixteen years after Zizek wrote this article, the Labour vote in Scotland collapsed, the Brexit campaign succeeded in attracting disaffected working class voters across wide swathes of traditionally Labour voting areas, and the Labour Party itself is on the verge of falling apart. All the while with a growing right wing insurgency, culminating in the openly racist referendum campaign.

As Zizek predicted then, the third way has turned out to be a dead end for left wing politics. It has developed a political class which has more in common with each other than with many of the people they are supposed to represent. As Rafael Behr points out in his dissection of the failure of the Remain campaign, Labour and Conservatives worked together in the push to stay in the European Union and felt far more in common with each other than might be expected of those supposedly on opposite sides of a class struggle:

“over the course of the campaign, the most senior remainers found collegiate sympathy in a shared world view. As one put it: “We were the pluralist, liberal, centrist force in British politics.” Pro-Europeanism became a proxy for the fusion of economic and social liberalism that had been a dominant philosophy of the political mainstream for a generation, although its proponents were scattered across partisan boundaries.”

But this world view simply is not shared by a large portion of the electorate that have seen their standards of living held static or decline in the name of maintaining global capitalism. Worse, this political class has driven a narrowing of the “Overton Window” of political discourse which has essentially made only one choice available, no matter who you vote for. As Zizek points out in his article:

“The consensual form of politics in our time is a bi-polar system that offers the appearance of a choice where essentially there is none, since today poles converge on a single economic stance”

It seems clear that the vote for Brexit is a revolt against this political class and the consensus form of politics that has been created. It is a revolt however that raises questions about how it can be expressed when the parties on the left have abandoned the field. The victory of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump suggest that the radical right are successfully exploiting this discontent.

The shift to the right will only be addressed when the modern left finds a way to express this discontent, providing a real alternative to the single economic vision offered by the mainstream political parties. Until then government remains in the grip of an increasingly discredited centre which both pushes dissent to the right and uses it to create the illusion that “there is no alternative“.

This edition of New Left Review is number 2 of the second series from January-March 2000 and was therefore written at the height of the ‘Third Way‘ debate.

Hegel and the dialectics of history

Reading “Absolute Recoil” by Slavoj Zizek has been a challenge. But within all the dense philosophical detail there are some passages which have really chimed with me. I wanted to capture this this particular passage about Hegel and a properly dialectical approach to historical change in full:

“…from the historicist standpoint, every historical figure has its moment of maturity which is then followed by the period of decay. Capitalism, say, was progressive up until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it had to be supported in its struggle against pre-modern forms of life; but with the aggravation of class struggle, capitalism became an obstacle to the further progress of humanity and will have to be overcome in its turn. For a proper dialectician, there is no moment of maturity when a system functions in a non-antagonistic way: paradoxical as it may sound, capitalism was at the same time “progressive” and antagonistic, in decay, and the threat of its decay is the very motor of its “progress” (capitalism has to revolutionize itself constantly to cope with its constitutive “obstacle”). The family and the state are thus not simply the two poles of the social Whole; it is rather that society has to split itself from itself in order to become One – it is this tearing apart of the social Whole, this division itself which “brings society itself into being in the first place by articulating its first great differentiations, that of warrior versus priest.”…

…every social articulation is by definition always “inorganic”, antagonistic. The lesson of this insight is that, whenever we read a description of how an original unity gets corrupted and splits, we should remember that we are dealing with a retroactive ideological fantasy that obfuscates the fact that this original unity never existed, that it is a retroactive projection generated by the process of splitting – there never was a harmonious state whose unity was split into warriors and priests.”

This passage smoothly outlines a point that is often missed. Capitalism was antagonistic from the start. Its very ‘progressiveness’ is driven by its need to overcome its contradictions to survive.