How to Read Žižek on the Refugee Crisis

Žižek’s recent remarks on the refugee crisis have provoked considerable ire in online leftist circles. For some, this article is the final proof that Žižek is a racist and quasi- (or not so quasi-) fascist. Though many people I respect share this view, I believe that it is a terrible misreading.

Ultimately, I would argue that even this article can be read through the lens of my piece How to Read Žižek. In that article, I argue that Žižek’s political interventions always try to highlight a fundamental conflict or deadlock. He does so not by laying out a step by step argument with a clear thesis statement, but by overidentifying with the (inadequate) terms of public debate in order to press beyond them.

That same basic strategy is at work in the refugee article, though he is uncharacteristically direct in antagonizing left-wing and liberal readers. I believe his goal in doing so is to provoke those readers into showing that they refuse to ask concrete questions about how to exercise power, preferring instead to demonstrate their purity through denunciation of others.

I should admit that I start from the assumption that Žižek is not personally racist and does not intend to be carrying water for the right wing. This is not only because I know him personally and have benefited from his generosity on many occasions. Nor is it because taking seriously the view that a leading left intellectual is a closet fascist sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory. More fundamentally, this assumption stems from my view of his intellectual project as a whole. The entire basis of his critique of mainstream liberalism since Tarrying With the Negative has been that it enables right-wing reaction as a way of deflecting attention from the fundamental contradictions of capitalism.

In the post-Soviet world, the mainstream left and the mainstream right are locked in a symbiotic relationship. A key example here is when liberals concede that conservatives “have a point” on immigration, for instance. Žižek agrees that conservatives “have a point” when they scapegoat immigrants, but it’s not the point they think they have—they are reacting to a real disruption in their society, but the root problem isn’t immigrants, it’s the dynamics of capitalism.

The left has given up on the idea of an alternative to capitalism, or even any significant mitigation of its worst excesses. Thus left and liberal parties are complicit in the racist reaction that they both denounce and indulge. If it weren’t for the racism of the right, mainstream liberals would have nothing to run against. Think of the fact that we are supposed to vote for Hillary not because of her positive program (which is to the right of Obama’s already very conservative agenda), but because she (unlike Bernie Sanders, whose agenda is more appealing to most on the left) will defeat the racist horror that is Trump. As that example illustrates, the situation has gotten much worse since the mid-90s, when Tarrying was published.

The basic dynamic here is that ostensibly left-wing parties have put the right wing in the driver’s seat and have no strategy other than to denounce the very right-wing racism that their preferred policies actually stoke. The refugee article aims to unmask a similar dynamic in more radical leftist circles. Among leftist commentators, academics, and online activists as well, there is an abdication of any responsible policy-making that takes actual-existing reality into account. In its place, we find only empty rhetoric aimed at guaranteeing the speaker’s ideological purity.

In these circles, certain obvious empirical facts are treated as somehow unmentionable and intrinsically right-wing, and it is Žižek’s insistence on stating these facts that seems to me to be the real cause of the ire against his recent work. Every time he mentions the existence of intolerance or cultural difference, for instance, it is taken as an endorsement or legitimation rather than a description of facts that must be taken into account. What we on the left do to racism or bigotry is forcefully denounce it—and then walk away. If the left is to ever exercise state power, however, it will be responsible for the bigots among us and will have to find a way to manage them. If the answer is to send them all to the Gulag, I feel like Žižek would be up for that. Short of that, though, you need to figure out a way to work around their obvious moral deficits so that everyone else can live their lives.

To use an example he doesn’t use, what should we do about the Republican governors who are trying to reject the placement of refugees in their state? Obviously we all reject and denounce what they’re doing—but what do we practically do? Is it a good idea to actually settle refugees in those states? Would they be safe? Would they have good relations with their neighbors? In certain communities, no doubt they would—but given the relatively small number of people we’re talking about, perhaps it would be prudent to simply place them in welcoming states. Doing so isn’t an endorsement of the governors’ racism, it’s a practical response to the empirical fact that there are a lot of assholes living in America.

Some remarks that have been especially singled out for denunciation include generalizations about the differences between Western and Islamic culture. I will submit that, broadly speaking, there are important differences that may make it difficult for people of those cultures to live together in close quarters. I hope everyone would be better than that, but people are people. Placing a conservative white family from Indiana in an apartment above a gay bar would not be fun for either party involved. It is not racist to point out that the same observation would hold equally for a conservative Muslim family. Public policy is made on the level of generality, and taking the refugees’ cultural norms as a starting point is the only sensible path. Yes, the rural Hoosiers may turn out to have a gay son, just as the Muslim family may have a liberal-minded daughter who wants to reject the hijab—and Žižek insists that the refugee communities will have to accept that some of their members will take advantage of Western freedoms to rebel against their inherited cultural norms.

It is precisely Žižek’s invocation of these “Western freedoms” that has proven so “problematic” to many. To understand what he is doing here, we need to recall that much of Žižek’s political commentary centers on attempting to reclaim master-signifiers. This is where his strategy of overidentification is clearest. You think we should embrace the European heritage? Žižek agrees—so long as we recognize that the true European heritage is the heritage of egalitarianism and revolution. You think we need to return to Christian values? Žižek agrees—with the proviso that the deepest core of Christianity turns out to be radical atheism.

The same strategy holds for Western values in the present context. Žižek always names the specific Western values in question, and they are values that most on the left agree with: democracy, equality, and secularism. Of course, the meaning of all of these concepts is a site of significant contestation—or at least it should be. Many leftists are eager to invoke ideals of democracy and national sovereignty when the E.U. is dictating economic policy to member governments, but those same ideals are rejected as incipiently fascist when it is a question of determining who should be allowed to enter a given country. Such sheer opportunism represents an abdication of the task of articulating a genuinely leftist conception of the powerful master-signifier known as democracy.

If you think that the master-signifier of “Western” is not worth fighting for, I respect that—but it is very much in play in contemporary debates, and I see no reason for the left to unilaterally disarm in the struggle over a powerful and (to most people in Western countries) broadly positive symbol. Every cultural tradition is multiple and varied, and the Western traditions did in fact lead to the development of imperialism and fascism and Marxism and anarchism. The specific form of secular religious tolerance practiced in most Western countries is a contingent historical development that originated in contingent historical conditions in Europe, and as such they are naturally imperfect. At the same time, the critiques of those practices that want to remove their de facto pro-Christian bias amount to pitting one aspect of the Western cultural heritage against another. Does the corollary of recognizing the value of other cultures have to be the absolute rejection of everything stained by the taint of a Western genealogy?

Where the responses descend into the worst incoherence is on precisely these points of cultural difference. Often we seem to be in the vicinity of an ideological contradiction akin to Žižek’s famous example of the fantasy Mexican immigrant who is simultaneously a lazy benefit-scrounger and a workaholic who is stealing all our jobs. Here the contradiction is that we must respect cultural differences—but without ever specifying what those differences are. Furthermore, it’s insulting to Muslims to claim that they can’t assimilate… to our utterly worthless, oppressive culture.

This incoherence shows that leftists are stuck within the same West vs. the Rest dyad as the conservatives they denounce—it’s just that the left has inverted it. The real struggle, namely that against capitalism, runs diagonally through all of those cultural divides. There is no necessary relationship between the logic of capitalism and the local political and intellectual traditions that gave birth to it, nor are all of those traditions equally complicit with capitalism. Similarly, traditions that arose outside capitalism’s original sphere are not necessarily incompatible with it, much less intrinsically proof against it, as the examples of contemporary China or “Western Buddhism” clearly show. But when Žižek points out the latter, so many people on the left can only hear “non-Western isn’t automatically good” as “non-Western is bad”—and therefore he must be racist.

The fact that the responses to these articles become a referendum on what we think of Žižek—i.e., whether he needs to be denounced—proves his implicit point. For all their faults, Žižek’s articles on this issue are about what could actually be done to accommodate the refugees. He may be right or wrong about any of his suggestions, but they are at least arguable. More to the point, he is talking about the kind of questions that any left-wing governing party would have to consider if it were to actually take power. Now taking power within the existing institutional structure obviously imposes serious limitations, but the only alternative is revolution—though when Žižek talks about how past revolutions have played out, he’s denounced as an apologist for the worst excesses of Stalinism.

Worst of all, of course, is when someone actually concedes my reading of Žižek’s political commentary, and it turns out he’s just another boring liberal centrist. Either Žižek is the most politically multi-talented man alive—a Third Way Democrat trying to impose Nazi Communism—or his provocations are pointing toward a real incoherence in contemporary leftist thought. In my view, the latter alternative remains more plausible.

29 thoughts on “How to Read Žižek on the Refugee Crisis

  1. This is an 11 out of 10. I like everything you write, but it’s possible you have the most sophisticated and compelling understanding of Zizek of any living person, including Zizek.

  2. It’s been a couple of years since i read the primary Zizek texts, but I’m tempted to wonder if there’s a shift somewhere in Zizek’s thinking away from what might be the more radical and rhetorically violent “nihilism” in an early work like Tarrying. But on the other hand, I vaguely remember somewhere an early attempt to re-think Cartesian subjectivity. So is that maybe the nub of the contradiction that informs his philosophical-political project as a whole? What’s missing in the refugee article is that rhetorical violence which is what people might find “boring” and “liberal.”

  3. I think it’s distasteful to even provide explanations like this. People who have any problems with Zizek’s article should be excluded from proper intellectual discussions—we need progressive dogmatism!

  4. There’s a macho aspect to Zizek. He’s a tough guy who is able to look reality straight on without flinching, without being confused or scared. He is willing to boldly act and courageously take on the burden of real freedom, alone, without help from anyone. He isn’t weak or hypocritical like the pathetic liberals he holds in such contempt. He’s willing to get his hands dirty and send his enemies to the Gulag. Is that also part of the over-identification strategy?

    What is Zizek pointing to beyond the inadequacy of the terms of debate? Isn’t his own position inevitably going to be just as inadequate? If his own position is just the negative result of the refutation of all other positions, what good is that? Isn’t that just another version of ideological purity?

  5. Emily, You are definitely right to point out that macho aspect. I think of all the critiques, the most plausible is that he winds up taking a very complicated path back to being a Third Way liberal — which makes the macho posturing all the more ridiculous.

    I’m now planning a separate post, actually, on whether Zizek’s rhetorical strategy in these innovations is at all effective or desirable. Whatever its value, it’s a high-risk strategy and it’s pretty clear that he’s far beyond the point of diminishing returns. It kind of defeats the purpose of making an intervention in the popular press if you need to be aware of a complicated hermeneutical key.

  6. Aside from the insane people you link to, what leftists do you mean? Cause this all feels like a straw man with appeals to a “adult realism” that isn’t really an argument but a shaming device for those who are not named. Sam Kriss’s remarks, for example, don’t strike me as particularly “liberal” in the way you discuss here.

  7. I’m sorry but this is not convincing. Those who are so intent on defending Zizek should remember Lacan’s answer to the students in Paris in 1968, “what you really want is a new master”.
    In the world we live in, liberals upholding western values ARE very much in power (read The Economist, The NYT, Le Monde…), which is precisely why there is such a traditionalist communitarian backlash.
    Zizek’s culturalist turn reeks as much as any other’s. All this bla bla about western culture and islamic culture leads nowhere. If we want to play this stupid game of generalization than here goes – Do you personally feel more affection to Texans, Hungarians or Australians than to to Senegalese, Lebanese or Indonesians? Personally I am not so sure, and of course, the whole question is ignorant.
    There is no attempt at all to consider just who the refugees are (he spoke to some in Slovenia ?!). Just maybe the mostly young and educated Syrian men are not particularly “islamic”. Inf fact, for those who know Syrians, the problem may be that most are very quickly going to be too successfully middle-class “liberal”.
    Zizek’s suggestions on how to deal with the refugees are not particularly arguable, they are uninformed and expressed only as part of a manipulative game of political posturing alongside that of the Merkel’s and Le Pen’s.
    Going beyond the refugees and to set the record straight, NO coltan and the Kivu is not representative of the DRC (Kinshasa is full of brilliant intellectuals – go see for yourself), and the fighting in the CAR is not particularly due to Chinese French rivalry over gas or oil (it is not particularly religious either).

    I have had enough of Zizek on the refugees, islam or Africa, precisely because he is brilliant on so many other issues. Enough of this guru-groupee drivel. Everyone needs feedback when they veer off track.

  8. As a rhetorical strategy, it feels like a major loser. A pundit writing op-eds shouldn’t have to rely upon a devote offering a critical interpretative apparatus a week or two after the fact to clear up the predictable misconceptions.

  9. Fair enough: I missed that in comments. I’d be more inclined to read Zizek if I didn’t need to carry around my Pocket Lacan. The average educated citizen would be nothing but flabbergasted. (This isn’t intended as a criticism of academic writing, but of political intervention.)

  10. A very good and well written piece! well put! so urgently needed… Thank you Adam.

    And a little comment to Mtek_00: If you really DON’T want another master, stop felling “betrayed” by Zizek as if he was a guru/prophet/leader of some sort, and deal with his and Adam’s arguments. Otherwise, you remain a hysteric who’s looking for another master (or prophet), and you shall find one.

  11. APS: After skimming back over Kriss, Zizek’s rebuttal, and Adam’s clarifications, it does seem that Kriss does fall into both traps. I think Kriss’s piece ultimately does “forcefully denounce it[racism, bigotry, etc.]—and then walk away” (or, the equivalent of being delighted by “the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent.”). This does ultimately ignore “the kind of questions that any left-wing governing party would have to consider if it were to actually take power.”

    I think Zizek would agree with this point: “Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.” His response would be that the call to “open borders” and “solidarity” itself doesn’t really clarify. It actually performs the kinds of obfuscations that Adam talks about.

  12. You mention two strategies Zizek is pursuing: “overidentifying with the (inadequate) terms of public debate in order to press beyond them” and encouraging the left to pursue “responsible policy-making that takes actual-existing reality into account.” How do these two fit together when what gets counted as actual-existing reality is determined by the inadequate terms of public debate?

    For example, the idea that intolerance is an unchangeable reality that policy-makers must simply work around is a commonplace of contemporary public debate; how does treating it as an empirical fact to which we must find responsible policy solutions challenge this commonplace?

  13. Having given Voyou’s question some thought: yes, that’s a commonplace in popular discourse, but Zizek is saying that intolerance is unavoidable as long as capitalism persists. I don’t know that we have time to abolish capitalism and still accomodate the refugees in a timely manner.

  14. All of this finally pushed me to read Zizek’s comments. From my angle, the core issue seems to be that, for Zizek, the question of class struggle is essential — and thus questions of race, coloniality, religion are read through that lens. Whereas (I follow the claim that) these last are prior to (and certainly irreducible to) the positionality of class. Hence, for anyone who follows this claim, Zizek’s endeavors to address these extra-class questions are obviously wretched. Which is to say that what’s at stake is the secularism intrinsic to the Marxist inheritance — that Zizek is an index of this much deeper issue. Perhaps his performance of its contradictions make him an especially explicit index of secular Marxism. Like Trump with the Republicans (and, I’d argue, Democrats), he “really says” what all secular Marxists think.

    The question would then hinge on what to do with this explicit exposing by Zizek — one reading would be that his exposure / performance of contradictions of secular Marxism are a means of secular Marxism’s transformation. The other reading (which I would follow) is that he provides a useful cataloguing of what needs to be abolished.

  15. Daniel, sorry for the perhaps naivete of this question: What exactly are you suggesting be abolished?– Secular Marxism, its purported transformation or both both? Would you mind indulging a novice here and clarify?

    Great couple of threads here!

  16. Back to Anthony’s question, and Adam’s response, “Anthony, I’m thinking of social media responses, which are unfortunately difficult to search for once the wave has passed.”

    I must confess here I am guilty as charged. I know that a lot of Zizek’s readers use his work in a myriad of ways, I will concede this. In your post, Adam, there is a lot to unpack, but I guess my response and following critique from a liberationist perspective rest on this, “Are White people the experts at everything? Is their truth to be seen as unquestionably ‘nuanced’ in the name of ‘objectivity?” Or perhaps, are People of Color and other SJW’s on social media capable of recognize the concrete effects of racism, even giving credit to White Supremacist primary sources as Zizek continues to do? I disagree that those who see Zizek’s turn towards fascism are misreading him. The victims of racism have the clearest understanding of what racism looks like. White Supremacy is just not the domain of the Right Wing. Zizek, is right for instance that the left and the right have a symbiotic relationship. This I will grant, but only because, as People of Color have pointed out for well over two centuries because the Enlightenment philosophers and their ascendants were all trapped by the Whiteness that they created. James Cone in Black Theology and Black Power has a critique for White Liberals, White Moderates, and White Fundamentalists. Why? Because of their White racial framework that has benefitted from Settler colonialism, AntiBlackness, and Orientalism. I am just wondering how beneficial it is for White male scholars to continue to push the false narrative that racism is about this or that writer individually being a racist (a white liberal tradition), rather than White Supremacy as a set of practices and institutions that negatively impact the lives of People of Color on a continual basis. Why are we more concerned with Zizek being called (rightfully) a racist, a beneficiary of using White Supremacist scholarship as authoritative rather than actual racism and imperialism? This seems to be my problem with Zizek and Bernie Sanders STANS for example. Bernie’s Xenophobia is just as dangerous as Donald Trump’s. Both of their policies are going to devastate the lives of People of Color. So I think when it comes to pointing fingers at racism on the Right, these shouts ring hallow when it comes to the history of antiBlack, antiAsian, antiFirst Nations’ racism here in the United States and abroad. The world had intolerance before capitalism, just as the world had antiBlackness before Christopher Columbus and the dawn of White Supremacism. Capitalism can be done away with, but White Supremacy would still be here since Zizek, Bernie Sanders (to continue with my example) want to subsume every category, identity under Western European notions of socio-economic status.

  17. Matt, i was suggesting the abolition of secular Marxism, i.e. abolition of the idea that class is logically prior to religion, collegiality, race.

    And i was opposing this suggestion to the idea that Zizek, by displaying the contradictions of secular Marxism, could create the conditions for the transformation of that secular Marxism into something else, something better, etc

    So, in this sense, I was opposing the notion that secular Marxism can transform into something else through the exposure of the contradictions internal to it.

  18. Rod: “Why are we more concerned with Zizek being called (rightfully) a racist, a beneficiary of using White Supremacist scholarship as authoritative rather than actual racism and imperialism?”

    That is not where my priorities lie. In recent years, I have blogged much more about systemic racism than I have about Zizek. I only emphasized my belief that Zizek is not personally a racist because that is the level of the debate I had seen online so far.

  19. I should add that, in my initial comment, my interest was in proposing (what i took to be some central) presuppositions on the part of Zizek — wasn’t claiming that Adam, or anyone providing a reading of Zizek that differed from mine, shared the presuppositions I attributed to Zizek.


    Sad to say, but here Michael Ignatieff, long-ago branded as the consummate liberal hawk, vastly out-perfoms all Zizek’s attempts to provide “realistic” responses to the refugee “crisis” in Europe.
    And this in the end shows the limits of the hegelian-lacanian insistence on the negative.
    Yes one must divide into two, but this does not imply antagonizing everyone.
    At some point affirmation must trump negation, and the main objective must be to rally all possible allies.
    Zizek knows this very well. The only problem with authentic liberals is that they have to drum up the courage to take the last step. The only problem with authentic conservatives is that they have to drum up the courage to take the first step.
    If everyone is an enemy, we will not get anywhere.

  21. I don’t have any linear thoughts to make here. Just a series of fragments.
    Zizek often admits that he is racist. His shtick on native americans points in this way. This is how he insists upon the difference between symptom and fantasy. You don’t get rid of the fantasy you can only form new relationships to it, less symptomatic, “less pathological”ones. his shtick about sex partners whos sex fantasy is shaped by sex robots or osmething. where they let the toys perform the sex acts and the two individuals, where the robots enjoy for them, and the two parners get to interact on a human, non-symptomatic level.
    often he is aiming at the obscene level of enjoyment in our hysteric outbursts. Objet a which appears to be this substantial thing is really a reification of the discord/gap within the symbolic order.

  22. Also, i hope i am not being misguided here, but i am thinking of how zizek is situated in this polemic as being similar to how adorno was situated after the incident with his students occupying his lectures, where he eventually called the cops on them for allegedly becoming too rowdy and dangerous. and then marcuse denouncing adorno and accusing him of being a closeted fascist.
    i actually have no idea where i’m going with this. just that i think adorno’s reputation on the left was severely tainted after that interaction and that he was vulgarized as fascist. and maybe thats whats happening with invoking zizek as advocating nazi communism?
    i dont agree with everything zizek says. for example i think hes a terrible fact checker and it really annoys me. and his biases as a european white male are more than clear. but lets be careful with the inquisition. i guess this is a weak defense of zizek. and i don’t want to defend every aspect of zizek. just asking how far one is willing to go in the denunciation of thought?

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