Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.
4 thoughts on “Marxism without Marxists”
It’s not just Zizek: Agamben all but systematically avoids the mention of the general strike in all his commentaries on “Critique of Violence.”
Oh interesting! I was at a paper recently that pointed to Agamben’s historical relationship with at least some parts of the autonomist movement, and suggested a link between the autonomist idea of the refusal of work and his discussions of inoperativity. But it sounds like maybe…not so much?
Someone with more knowledge of the Italian scene than me would need to divine the meaning of that particular omission of Agamben’s.
Fantastic work to use Zizek’s own critique of the incompleteness of political ontology and cleverly shines it on Zizek to expose his own limits (‘completeness’) regarding his belief that the Christian European legacy is the only way out of political deadlock for emancipatory radical poltics.
Hooe Zizek reads it😀
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