Saturday, March 14, 2015

Zizek Crushes Liberalism

"Violence,” By Slavoj Zizek, 2008

This is not a pacifist book.  Zizek is the post-modern philosopher who feeds at the banquet table of ethical dialectics via Hegel and Kant and the secret trough of Marx.  He operates in the ‘post-left,’‘post-idealist,’ 'post-modern,' 'post-ideological,' 'post-racial' world – yet since history did not end, those terms are in themselves suspect.  While at times wrapping himself in Lacanian psychology, in this book he produces an analysis that a Marxist could be proud of.  Violence in his meaning here is that done by religion, by identity politics, by liberalism, and ultimately by ‘the system’ - capitalism, that great ‘universalizer.’ 
In other books the contradictory Zizek calls Marxism some ‘old’ and ‘ancient’ idea.  Yet he cannot help but use it.  He starts a discussion of the post-Katrina New Orleans by highlighting the alleged role of poor people ‘looting’ and murdering after the ‘breakdown of law and order.’ He later points out that hardly any of this happened.  The looting that did take place was to get necessities.  The murders were by police or the storm.  He seems to criticize the 2005 Arab outbreaks in the French suburbs against police brutality as ‘blind violence’ yet later says this kind of violence has emancipatory potential.  Zizek usually says a few good things about the alleged positive characteristics of Christianity (as opposed to other religions) but here he takes a stone cold opposition to religion by looking carefully at Islam.  At one point he sounds like a Republican talking about how the lower classes or the ‘losers’ suffer from psychological and financial ‘envy,’ citing Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Then Zizek turns the idea upside down in a later chapter by accusing the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of actually being envious of the revolutionary project itself, envious of those who are not happy with the present.

Zizek is the center of his own quirky philosophy - a personalism that attempts to universalize itself on its good days, and descends into isolated ‘thought’ provocations on its worst.  He dots the book with film references, especially Hitchcock, some of which seem somewhat forced.  One chapter goes on an on about ‘liberal communists’ who turn out to be people like George Soros and Bill Gates – billionaires with charitable capitalist goals.  Thus turning the whole concept of ‘liberal communist’ into a worthless phrase.  Yet this book might be his most consistent. 

While usually keeping mum about his ‘native’ Slovenia, Zizek here talks about Slovenia for a page and a half!  Slovenians are the first in the former workers’ states to reject bourgeois attempts at dividing the working class through religious or ethnic appeals.  They did this by electing a leftish government in 2014 based on votes from many different religious and ethnic communities.  Zizek’s efforts against particularism and identity politics must be in the water in Ljubljana. 

Zizek does this by coming out unequivocally for the Palestinians.  He says the answer to the question, ‘Are you a Jew or a human” is the latter.  He does this by indicating that ‘tolerance’ of Islamic intolerance, as liberals are prone to do, is paternalistic and a form of liberal racism.  Muslims (and others) are not held by Western liberals (even when they call themselves ‘radicals’) to the same universal standards as anyone else – as if they are incapable.  Abu Ghraib demonstrated to Zizek, not a strange departure from American morality, but an exhibit of the actual underside of American culture, an unconscious ‘id’ expression of its habitual unspoken culture.  Not enshrined in law, yet adhered to more rigorously – such as other unwritten rules, like the ‘blue code of silence.’ 

Zizek focuses on the ‘solipsistic speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality.’  Capital throws off systemic, objective violence every day, yet this goes unnoticed by pro-capitalist pacifists.  Only ‘violence’ in the abstract (which can involve the oppressed…) is condemned by them.  In this light he highlights the Brecht quote: “What is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” to illustrate this point.   

In a chapter cleverly titled, “Fear Thy Neighbor As Thyself,’ Zizek describes modern liberal politics as ‘post-political bio-politics’ which dwells on cultural issues alone, as represented by different religions, nationalities, genders or ethnicities – never classes.  Your family, biological group, sex, local and geographical community are all that matter.  These are the roots of a narrow ‘particularism’ which divides humanity.  The ‘neighbor’ is really not everyone. These identity politics actually promote violence between communities or religions or nations.  As Khomeini pointed out when Iran killed some dissidents – they were ‘animals’ not Muslims. Zizek wants to politicize culture instead of accepting the culturalization of politics.

Zizek takes on Muslim fundamentalism by wondering why some have to kill or prohibit expressions of non-belief regarding their religion IF they are secure in their religion.  The answer, obviously, is that they are not, and in fact fear the criticisms are correct.  Even the concept of the ‘veil’ is based on the 'fact' that Muslim men are evidently so helpless and incapable of sexual restraint that they will violate any woman who does not wear one.  He points out that only atheism rises above the particular narrow allegiance to one religion or another, and is the road to the universal.  He calls atheism ‘Europe’s most precious legacy.”  The place where people are no longer ‘Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish” but humans.  As Marxists understand, even the concept and reality of ‘the working class’ will some day become obsolete, just as religion has now become obsolete. 

Zizek calls for confronting Islamic fundamentalist ideas, not running away claiming ‘cultural relativism.’  He identifies this ‘tolerance’ with the racism and conservatism of the Western liberal.  In his clever contradictory way he says: “The failure of all the efforts to unite religions proves that the only way to be religious in general is under the banner of the ‘anonymous religion of atheism.’”  He says that Muslims ‘must be treated as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.’  Regarding Christians, he points out that the Catholic Church’s paedophilia problem is actually inherent in the church itself, and not just related to ‘some’ wayward priests.  It is the unwritten rule within the Church, and I might add, many undemocratic / personalist organizations.  Sexuality is a material force and it will out, and the more repressed, the worse will be the manifestation.

Zizek books always include funny moments where he stands our knowledge on its head.  He has ridiculous takes on the narcissistic culture of self-fulfilment that is hoisted on everyone – to hedonistically ‘enjoy’ everything one consumes.  The ‘enjoy’ of the waiter at the restaurant will haunt you.

Zizek ends the book with a chapter discussing Marxist culture critic Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘divine violence.’  Seemingly it is unavoidable that some theorists (and writers) must use Christian or religious ideas in order to give their thought some kind of ostensible weight. After much torturous reasoning, Zizek comes around to conclude that ‘divine’ violence is really revolutionary / emancipatory violence.  It is the one form of violence he supports.  Its divinity has nothing to do with being sanctioned by some ‘big Other” – like God, a Church, a religion or the government, but issues directly from ‘the people’ themselves.  Why divine?  Only in the sense that ‘the people’ are the only real divinity that exists.  This is the divinity of the French Revolution.

I’ll leave you with a good Zizek quote that reflects the world-wide struggle for emancipation:  “”The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not ‘let us tolerate our differences,’ it is not a pact of civilizations, but a pact of struggles which cut across civilizations, a pact between what in each civilization undermines its identity from within, (and) fights against its oppressive kernel.  What unites us is the same struggle.” 

Mayday Books has a large selection of Zizek and other political philosophers.  Zizek books reviewed below are:  Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?”, “First As Tragedy, Then as Farce” and “Living in the End Times.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 14, 2015

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