Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

Žižek has always been at his best when he’s paying attention, when he’s working through detailed analyses of texts or films or events, and at he’s at his worst when he relies on vague generalisations about the state of things. But what reading Against the Double Blackmail really highlighted for me was the way that his discussion of ‘the Left’ in particular tends to push him in the latter direction. Žižek’s Left thinks we should ‘silently tolerate’ the persecution of women and gay people in non-Western cultures for the sake of anti-colonial struggles. It thinks that ‘an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard’. It rejects any discussion of ‘European values’ as colonialist. It thinks that the protection of one’s specific way of life is in itself proto-Fascist or racist. It thinks any critique of Islam is Islamophobic. It equates politicised religion with fanaticism. It dismisses the worries of ‘”ordinary people” who are affected by the presence of refugees’ as racist. It downplays incidents of sexual violence in Rotherham and Cologne. It treats the refugee crisis is primarily a humanitarian rather than a political issue. It lazily awaits the arrival of a new revolutionary agent rather than taking action. It is excited by the idea that a radical catastrophe might ‘awaken the crowds and in doing so give a new impetus to radical emancipation’ (Žižek says that he finds this line of thought ‘obscene’, which is interesting given his recent endorsement of Trump for pretty much exactly this reason).

Žižek’s Left exhibits a strange set of almost directly contradictory characteristics – it won’t critique Islam but thinks Muslims are all fanatics; it wants to be nice to refugees while rejecting systemic change whilst eagerly awaiting the total collapse of the existing order of things. It does at least fairly consistently object to ‘identity politics’, although that characteristic is exemplified by the Left’s critique of Bernie Sanders, who Žižek likes because he’s doesn’t dismiss the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ (by which I think we can infer, white people) as racist, and it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that Bernie Sanders is also part of ‘the Left’. It seems, that is, that Žižek’s description of ‘the Left’ fits his own account of the way that we become libidinally invested in the figure of a hated other, who embodies directly contradictory characteristics. And what this kind of fantasy figure tends to do, on Žižek’s account, is cover over internal contradictions. We create a scapegoat, and so we don’t have to do the difficult work of paying attention to the messy and complicated reality we actually inhabit, fractured by antagonisms and struggles and inconsistencies. It’s hard not to think that this is the role that ‘the Left’ plays for Žižek: he’s so invested in fantasising this obstacle to the advent of communism precisely in order to avoid doing the difficult work of paying attention to what’s actually going on politically, to the messiness and contradictions of hundreds of different kinds of left organising taking place in different contexts; to endlessly put off the hard, grim work of getting involved in tangible struggles and trying to actually build something.

7 thoughts on “Žižek and ‘the Left’

  1. Did Zizek endorse Trump? I’ve seen that claim several places and Googled around and didn’t find anything but an op-ed that was kind of ambiguous.

  2. I can’t agree with your critique as developed above,
    Re: clash of civilisation, Zizek is clear that geopolitical wrangling lies behind ‘clash of civilisations”… a obliteration of borders has actually been put in practice by the EU and is not a ‘fantasy’ of anarchists… Zizek point is not the absence of systematic violence within the interior of the west, but rather there are new enclaves within the west in which systematic violence is carried out hence he alludes to violence against First Nation women, slave labour in Italy etc.. On the particular point of terrorism he is highlighting our hypocrisy in having a hand in the break down of systems of governments in other countries which permit systematic terrorism, yet we obsess over sparodic attacks in the west… And he is on the record of stating that his preference would be to abstain if he was in a position to vote in the American election.

  3. I think it is an uncharitable reading to attribute the target of his critique, the (neo)liberal left, with a Trojan horse in which he smuggles in his own misogyny. Violence against First Nation women is real, slave labour camps in the west are real, the schenegan agreement is real, systematic terrorism outside of the west is real. What l think that you fail to capture in his position is how ‘global capitalism’ functions to connect the bits of his argument. For me, the limits of his critique stems from the vary fact that he makes things dependent upon economic base, and does not afford race/gender its own relative autonomy.

  4. Take for example BLM protests, which he considered ‘divine violence’, he sees no determinate end which motivates them – ‘vague calls for justice’ – it is meaningless violence. This very argument presupposes that he knows what would have sense, i.e. A Symbolic demand in some shape or form. Because he privileges the economic base in his explanations, race is epiphenomena of this base, BLM protests function to obscure global capitalism as the ‘true enemy’, and the inherent dignity of the claim to justice is not recognised in the protests.

  5. But race in America arose as an exploitative concept to justify slavery, the economic base of the south. If you’re trying to “peel back layers” to get at the core of the issue you would have to say economic in the historical sense. You don’t even have to be a Marxist to argue this, see Edmund Morgan “American Slavery, American Freedom.”

    I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to the particularities of his argument, but it seems odd to take issue with this point specifically.

    Agree with the original post though. At the very least his rhetoric is beginning to void (or already has voided) any utility of his theory.

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