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.