The dangerous dreams of Slavoj Žižek

by Jerome Roos on April 18, 2013

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Žižek’s misplaced tribute to Thatcher and his diatribe against direct democracy reveal the dangerous messianic tendencies of his “radical” philosophy.

When George Orwell first sent in his celebrated dispatches from revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, the British socialist magazine The New Statesman infamously refused to publish them for being too critical of the Stalinist crackdown on the Trotskyist and anarchist militias. As editor Kingsley Martin put it in a letter to Orwell, “it is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian regime is liable to be taken as propaganda against socialism.” Still, Orwell, who had been embedded in the Trotskyist POUM and had fought the fascists side-by-side with many courageous anarchist comrades, remained adamant in his rejection of the authoritarian path to socialism. As he later wrote to a friend, recounting his time at the front in the egalitarian and democratically-run militia, “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.” In this respect, the ordeal with The New Statesman only helped to strengthen Orwell’s belief that “as with Christianity, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”

Slavoj Žižek: The Worst Advertisement for Socialism?

Reading Slavoj Žižek’s latest contribution to The New Statesman — a rambling and confused “Leftist tribute” to Margaret Thatcher — one cannot help but recall Orwell’s words. After all, Žižek, the eternal courter of controversy who is claimed to be the most influential philosopher on the Left today, used the occasion not to lambast Lady Thatcher herself but rather to criticize the leaderless anti-capitalist movements that have recently emerged to contest her neoliberal legacy. Instead of picking apart Thatcher’s ideological dogma that “there is no alternative”, Žižek chose to shoot down the only serious alternative to have emerged in response to her dogma in the past twenty years. For Žižek, the Spanish indignados, the Greek anti-austerity protesters and the global Occupy movement remain hopelessly mired in the “myth of direct democracy”, which obstructs a proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of representation. Thatcher, by contrast, fulfilled the much-needed role of “the Master” in a time of crisis, single-mindedly pushing through deeply unpopular decisions in the face of widespread popular opposition. “What we need today,” Žižek polemically concludes, “is a Thatcher of the Left.” Forget all that fancy stuff about consensus-based decision-making; what we really need is a healthy dose of authoritarian leadership.

In his typical academese jargon, Žižek argues that “the ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system.” Rather than transcending the thoroughly discredited system of political representation by moving towards an emphasis on political participation, Žižek seems to argue that we should abolish representation and participation altogether and impose a form of authoritarian leadership by — and I quote — an “elite class” that will “act as a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy: the impossible ideal of the ‘omni-competent citizen’.” What we need, in other words, is a new technocratic elite. According to Žižek, the people “need a good elite” because they do not know what they want. Indeed, “it is through [the Master] that they discover what they ‘really want’.” Only the sovereign decision of a strong leader can create the preconditions for the great Rupture.

Putting the Radical back in Radical Politics

This seems like a strange approach to radical politics indeed. After all, the word radical refers to roots, and radical politics have historically implied an attempt to break with the paternalistic top-down process of political decision-making that characterizes bourgeois democracy. Truly radical politics have therefore always been practiced collectively at the grassroots level without the interference of hierarchical power structures or the imposition of outside leaders. Before Lenin and the Bolsheviks cracked down on them, it was the Menshevik-controlled soviets — the autonomous workers’ councils and popular assemblies — that formed the beating heart of the Russian Revolution. The moment the radical potential of the workers’ councils was repressed by the authoritarian Bolsheviks, the institutional violence of the capitalist state reasserted itself in dramatically multiplied form. In a way, by suppressing this crucial grassroots check on the counter-revolutionary accumulation of political power inside a small bureaucratic elite of party apparatchiks, Lenin effectively paved the way for Stalin to emerge as the ultimate nightmare vision of authoritarian state communism. The rest, as they say, is history.

The revolutionary wave of 2011 broke in dramatic fashion with this 20th century conceptualization of revolution. Refusing to get bogged down in party politics, union-based horse-trading or the formulation of specific demands, the indignados and Occupy movements instead decided to embrace direct action, mutual aid and prefigurative politics; collectively and cooperatively creating an embryonic vision of the new world inside the shell of the old. In this sense, the occupied squares temporarily blossomed into a globally interconnected microcosm of the world to come. As Eduardo Galeano put it during a short visit to Acampada Barcelona, “this upside-down world is shitty, but it’s not the only one that’s possible. There’s another world that awaits us — and the youth are taking it forward.” For the millions of people who passed by Puerta del Sol, Syntagma Square and Zuccotti Park on those days, it was the first time they experienced real democracy and genuine socialism in action. Millions witnessed that, apparently, it is possible to mobilize, organize and coordinate vast masses of people in hundreds of cities and dozens of countries without the intervention of leaders, parties or representatives.

The Bottom of the Pyramid Lasts Longest

Žižek grudgingly accepts this fact, noting that every revolutionary process has its “ecstatic moments of group solidarity when hundreds of thousands together occupy a public space,” as well as its “moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them.” But still, Žižek crucially argues, “such states don’t last.” Ultimately, the only thing that can guarantee the continuation of anti-capitalist struggle is its coagulation into some type of institutional project; a revolutionary party, preferably, led by a charismatic Master figure. Obviously, it is here that we need to contest the factual accuracy of Žižek’s claims most vehemently. After all, history tells us that — with the notable exception of Cuba under the Castros — it is precisely the Leader-based movements that don’t tend to last. Žižek greedily jumps on the example of Hugo Chávez, but fails to observe what is going on in Venezuela right now. Now that the charismatic Leader is dead, his rather bland successor only managed to secure a very narrow victory in the presidential elections. With the US-supported upper-class counter-revolution in full-swing, the very future of the top-down Chávista project is now being called into question. In this context, only the popular base of the Bolivarian power pyramid — the grassroots social movements upon which Chávismo ultimately depended — seems capable of taking the revolutionary process forward.

But Žižek, in an extremely disdainful jibe at these grassroots movements — and the Venezuelan people more generally — makes it sounds as if they are all stupid; as if the Venezuelans did not know what they wanted before Chávez came along and told them exactly what to want. The reality is that Venezuelans knew exactly what they wanted. In fact, a decade before Chávez had even come to power, many thousands of them had already given their lives to defend what they wanted in the tragic Caracazo IMF riots of 1989. In a word, what the Venezuelans wanted was very similar to what the indigenous farmers of Chiapas or the unemployed youths of Athens wanted: dignity. As Chávez himself later put it, the Caracazo marked “the end of a system suffocated by shame, and the start of an era of change that led to a rebirth of popular dignity.” Indeed, it is commonly recognized that the Caracazo and the social movements borne out of it provided a crucial backdrop to Chávez’ failed coup attempt in 1992 and his successful election campaign in 1998. Of course Chávez supported the grassroots social movements: apart from being genuinely committed to fighting poverty, his political power literally depended on it. Chávez subsidized popular assemblies, urged workers to occupy their factories, and eased legal requirements for the creation of cooperatives — but the Venezuelans did not need him to know what they wanted. They had already figured that out long before he came to power.

There Is An Alternative: The Autonomous Roots of Radical Politics

By contrast to the Chávista experiment in Venezuela, which will soon be riven with internal power struggles between competing fractions — one revolving around Chávez’ self-appointed successor, President Maduro, and the other revolving around National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who has the support of the military — the autonomist experiment of the Zapatistas in Mexico might move at snail’s pace but seems to be much more sustainable in the long run. Nearly twenty years after their initial uprising was suppressed by the Mexican state, the Zapatistas continue to run a large chunk of the state of Chiapas under an elaborate system of communal self-governance. And as the mass mobilization of last December demonstrated, the EZLN support bases remain as alive today as ever. The situation is similar in Europe. The mainstream media may not be paying attention to them anymore — and Žižek himself may be too uninterested in genuine forms of anti-capitalist contestation to check up on the many creative ways in which today’s movements have been evolving below the radar — but in Spain the leaderless spirit of the 15-M movement is as alive as ever, with hundreds of demonstrations taking place in Madrid every month, with self-organized activists blocking multiple home evictions per day, with occupations and faculty assemblies taking place in virtually every university, with regular free classes being organized in the streets, and with citizens’ assemblies continuing to thrive in the neighborhoods. The bottomline is that anti-capitalist struggles are bubbling below the surface everywhere, but Žižek, obsessed as ever with the models of the past, simply refuses to see it.

In this sense, the greatest success of the Real Democracy Movement lies not in uprooting Thatcher’s neoliberal legacy per se, but rather in helping to shatter the Thatcherite illusion that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. While Žižek’s great source of inspiration, the French communist Alain Badiou, argues that the movements of 2011 did not unequivocally “re-start” history, for the millions of people who in one way or another experienced the actual occupations, the year 2011 did mark the End of the End of History. Most importantly, however, the Real Democracy Movement helped to reinvigorate autonomous forms of grassroots resistance as the beating heart of anti-capitalist struggles around the world. The leaderless movements that blossomed into action everywhere in 2011 and 2012 helped to shake off the institutional deadweight of state-oriented and leader-dependent activism, opening up a whole new panoply of opportunities for a newly reinvigorated Left. It was precisely the horizontality and spontaneity of the 2011 uprisings that allowed them to spread so rapidly and mobilize such impressive amounts of people; and it is precisely their lack of dependence on centralized leadership that allows them to continue adapting to a changing reality in 2013.

The Messianic Mythology of the Great Obsessional

Of course, Žižek has long drawn the ire of activists involved in anti-capitalist struggles around the world. His overt authoritarianism and his apparent disdain for revolutionary practice mean that few grassroots organizers nowadays take his writings very seriously. Over the course of the past two years, Žižek has taken a number of sideways jabs at the leaderless social movements that emerged in response to the crisis of capitalism, first criticizing the Spanish indignados for expressing “a spirit of revolt without revolution”, then rather paternalistically urging Occupy protesters not to fall in love with themselves, and later telling activists not to act, but just to sit back and think. In an ultimate sign that he had completely misread the events of 2011, his book — The Year of Dreaming Dangerouslyconfusedly interpreted the construction of hundreds of concrete Utopias around the world as little more than a “dangerous dream”. Apparently, while millions of people were organizing real alternatives on the ground, Žižek was somewhere far away dreaming about some cataclysmic future Event.

In this respect it is very interesting to explore the profound sense of religiosity that permeates Žižek’s work. Simon Critchly, for instance, has long noted how deeply Žižek’s ideas are influenced by Christianity. At the end of the day, Žižek’s conception of revolution reflects little more than the traditional Messianic vision of salvation, replete with apocalyptic references to “divine violence” and the Event of Rupture. In the conclusion to The Year of Dreaming DangerouslyŽižek literally compares his idea of communism to Pascal’s deus absconditus, or “‘the hidden god’, discernible only to those who search for him.” In this respect, it is remarkable that Žižek would end up criticizing the really-existing forms of direct democratic self-organization for being mythological in nature, where it is really the religiosity with which he proclaims the Second Coming of State Communism that should be considered mythological. In an excellent critique of his book on violence, Critchly neatly points out this contradiction in Žižek’s philosophy:

On the one hand, the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby. On the other hand, Žižek dreams of a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed, something like Sophocles’ Antigone. But Shakespearean tragedy is a more illuminating guide here than its ancient Greek predecessor. For Žižek is, I think, a Slovenian Hamlet, utterly paralyzed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage. In short, behind its shimmering dialectical inversions, Žižek’s work leaves us in a fearful and fateful deadlock, both a transcendental-philosophical deadlock and a practical-political deadlock: the only thing to do is to do nothing. We should just sit and wait. Don’t act, never commit, and continue to dream of an absolute, cataclysmic revolutionary act of violence. Thus speaks the great obsessional.

 Myths Which Are Believed Tend to Come True

At the end of the day, however, Žižek’s dangerous dreams seem to be little more than the final convulsions of a 20th century ideology that has long since paralyzed itself. As Orwell already put it in his Homage to Catalonia, “In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. Fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this.” Orwell saw this alternative vision of socialism in action in the militias, which, as he puts it, “were a sort of microcosm of a classless society” and a “crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like.” Crucially, Orwell added that, “instead of disillusioning me, it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.” Just like Orwell, millions of people have now experienced the microcosms of real democracy in the squares and parks of over 1,000 cities in 82 countries. These experiences will not be washed away — not by the neoliberal jingoism surrounding Thatcher’s publicly-funded funeral and certainly not by the dangerous messianic dreams of some defunct Slovenian philosopher who apparently sees no contradiction in praising Obama while sleeping underneath a portrait of Stalin.

Whatever the armchair revolutionaries may say, the world now knows that the real impulse of anti-capitalist resistance is coming from the anarchist, autonomist and anti-authoritarian Left. Žižek still seems to believe that it is the “myth of direct democracy”, much more than the authoritarian neoliberalism promoted by Thatcher and her acolytes, that poses the greatest obstacle to humanity’s collective emancipation. So be it. As Orwell once put it, “myths which are believed tend to come true,” and if our widely-believed myth of direct democracy truly ends up obstructing Žižek’s dangerous dreams of Thatcherite communism, this should be a source of celebration for us all. After all, in all honesty, what can we claim to have gained if we overthrow our old Master today only to wake up to a new one tomorrow? One message to Žižek now seems to be in place: dream on Slavoj! The salvation of your Stalinist soul depends on it.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne April 19, 2013 at 10:08

I used to respect Žižek, but no longer.

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Michael Burgess April 26, 2013 at 12:12

What changed your mind?

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Tom Brookes April 19, 2013 at 14:38

Afternoon Jerome,

Interesting article, it covers some of the ground I’ve been going over with other left-leaning friends recently.

To my reading, you do Zizek’s argument a disservice by calling it confused – but I think I understand why – he’s rubbishing (in his irreverent way) something you’re highly involved in. ‘At the end of the day’ (you’re overusing that bit of footballer-speak by using it once, let alone twice – it sullies an otherwise hearty polemic) it’s the equivalent of an atheist telling a devout believer they’re wasting their time.

What do you think he’s been reading recently? I bet you £10 that piece of his was at least partly inspired by re-reading The Prince or some analysis of Machiavelli. His essential argument seems to be that in a time of crisis strong leadership is required – especially amongst the opposition to the status quo. Are you equating a critique of the inefficiencies of current direct democracy with advocating Stalinist authoritarianism? It’s a bit of a false dichotomy if so. Indeed, a ‘Thatcher of the left’ couldn’t be anything like Thatcher, except in conviction and strength of leadership – otherwise such a person would hardly be ‘of the left’ – & I doubt you think a new Tony Blair’s the answer! What do you think of the Freeman-ite arguments about the inherent tyranny of structurelessness? I don’t like her capitulation to hierarchy, but she’s right about dominant characters – at least in our current context.

That bit about a ‘new elite’ is interesting isn’t it – perhaps that’s a rally against overt individualism, a Bookchin-esque critique of the kind of lifestyle anarchist / socialist who enjoys being disagreeable so much it’s impossible to form consensus with – the kind of political debate wherein the participants throw stats and quotes at one another and get nowhere, being as they are ‘omni-competent’ (& by implication omni-incompetent) thanks to taking the first answers Google gives us as sacrosanct. This is to oversimplify, but you know the kind of activist I mean I think, the one who opens most everything with ‘the banks…’ or ‘the corporations…’ The people might all vaguely know individually what they want, but maybe sometimes it takes a Chavez to unite people who might otherwise pull apart – & is piecemeal change pushed by Chavez-like characters through current systems better than nothing? He certainly did a lot to politicise and economically improve the lot of Venezuelans en-masse through state organs. Could more have been done with different political organisation and imperatives? Will more be done with different methods and objectives? Maybe to both, but it happened as it happened.

Just because Occupy and the Indignados are an alternative to Thatcherism / Neoliberalism doesn’t mean that they’re beyond criticism – and Zizek’s right to criticise, if he annoys the first interesting ray of an alternative in decades enough to stop Occupy ossifying into a cynical online Slacktivism then good for everyone! It must be said that as yet, counter-movements have done very little en-masse to really lessen either state power or the pernicious effects of neoliberalism – even in Greece where the effects are among the worst. I’d argue that the world over more people are worried about the price of food, fuel and their mortgage than about the nature of their democracy – which makes part of the challenge to shift political debate from such orthodoxies. Socialism, though, may be too widely discredited to be the vehicle for the shift – to borrow from market terminology, it needs rebranding. Occupy was a good start, but it isn’t good enough. That isn’t to argue that existing pseudo-democratic structures are the vehicle for the change the world needs, but to ask: what next? What are the best ways to get real change? If it’s strong characters leading the way to direct democracy, if it takes a little violence… I wonder if the planet has time to wait for an academically perfect revolution. Maybe that’s Zizek’s concern too, the wily old agent provocateur.

What do you think?

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Jerome Roos April 19, 2013 at 19:12

Hi Tom, many thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comments! A few quick points I’d like to reply to:

I called Zizek’s argument confused because, as usual, he seems to directly contradict many of his own previous statements. Take Chávez as an example: in this article, for the purposes of arguing the need for strong leadership, he refers to Chávez as “a strong and charismatic leader if there ever was one.” But in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, for purposes of arguing that the anti-capitalist movements are losing momentum, he criticizes Chávez for slipping ever deeper into “caudillo-populism.” It is unclear to me what he wants: is his “Leftist tribute” to Thatcher a plea for more caudillo-populists? That certainly doesn’t seem like a very radical solution to me.

Yes, this is certainly a very Machiavellian argument Zizek makes here. I edited out a paragraph on the Machiavellian logic behind his argument, which is actually very Gramscian in nature: revolutionary spontaneity is fine, as long as it is eventually channelled into some form of institutionalized leadership structure; or what Holloway more appropriately refers to as “the destructive boredom of state politics.” I just don’t think Zizek goes nearly far enough here. There is a will to capitulate to a Master and retreat from politics (“so that I can pursue my work in peace”), which seems to imply that he would be fine with a perpetuation of the bourgeois democratic institutions as long as a strong Leftist leader controls them. That’s not revolution; it’s electoral politics. It’s been tried before and it’s failed — and it’s precisely that failure that we are seeking to overcome by experimenting with new forms of collective decision-making.

You ask me if I am “equating a critique of the inefficiencies of current direct democracy with advocating Stalinist authoritarianism?” I am not. I am equating Badiou and Zizek’s call for a revolutionary Master figure with Stalinism. There are plenty of critiques of direct democracy that take a decidedly less authoritarian stance. I can refer to a very interesting review by Sveinung Legard of David Harvey’s recent critique of the Left’s “fetish of horizontalism” (lots of references to Bookchin here as well), which I think is actually much more authoritative than Zizek’s rambling crypto-authoritarian manifesto:

http://new-compass.net/articles/has-harvey-become-libertarian-municipalist

Finally, of course Occupy and the indignados are not beyond critique — a healthy dose of constructive criticism is absolutely crucial to the survival and evolution of the movement. But I don’t think Zizek truly engages in critique here; I think he’s more interested in contradiction and controversy. Although I don’t fully agree with his critique, I think Harvey is in a much better position to critically dispense with the “horizontality fetish” precisely because he starts from the same premise as the movements: we all want to live in a free and non-capitalistic society on the basis of total equality, we just disagree on how to get there. I think Zizek’s article makes it very clear that he does not share that premise. The way he describes it he just wants to live in a reinvigorated social democracy (replete with quasi-authoritarian leadership, radical theatrics and anti-capitalist rhetoric), just so that he doesn’t need to step up and take responsibility for helping to create new forms of communal living with other people. His is, ultimately, the sociopath’s vision of socialism: just overthrow capitalism already and leave me alone — I just want spend more time with my work.

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mh April 20, 2013 at 22:43

Three thoughts: one, what a truly fantastic rebuttal to Zizek’s piece in the New Statesman. Two, I read both pieces and have a feeling the path forward involves something in between what Zizek and you describe, which leads to my third thought: I wonder if the difference here, lies in Zizek starting from the psychoanalytic position of loss… i.e., mourning for the loss of idealizations of democracy… therefore having to encounter those idealizations and what they might obstruct, which he may fear that activists (filled with the hope of what they are doing in the Occupy movement) may not be doing. Left unencountered, those fantasies of direct democracy could threaten democracy itself (by re-institutionalizing those forces that it seeks to subvert). What if, Zizek’s use of the Master is his version of (self)conscious subversion. Creating the Master (I’m not sure the Master has to be a person, rather a performance) is a project that would pull into the realm of consciousness those idealizations and internalizations created through transference. From his point of view, even anarchists or atheists are interpellated by ideology. The difference being, do they know it, and if they do, can they work productively with the loss of their fantasies for democracy, instead of arguably building the same old castles in the air.

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Michael October 20, 2013 at 07:50

This sounds to me like Goldstein in 1984…

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Tom Brookes April 29, 2013 at 11:30

I’ll take a look at Harvey’s piece – he’s always good – but then, that methodical geographer’s mindset and modernising Marxism should go some way to eliminating inconsistency.

But I don’t mind philosophical inconsistency, personally. A philosopher who refuses to change his views or arguments – or indeed fails to both criticise and support someone like Chavez – can hardly be said to be objective or a philosopher; such a person is a dogmatist in philosophical clothing. Even politically, it’s surely ok to say ‘Chavez is better than what came before…’ ‘… but is still a populist blimp & we could do better, maybe off the back of his efforts?’ The fine anarchist tradition of pragmatism’s alright, surely?!

I’d put it to you that if you write a follow up to your most recent austerity article’s conclusion ‘unfortunately, reversing austerity may require more than spreadsheets’ you’ll find yourself having to at least examine ideas like these. I don’t think we need worry about Zizek supporting technocratic elites if he’s arguing from a Machiavellian position – such princes are transitional for Nicoló. I read an interesting thought recently though – we want our airlines flown by elite pilots, our music by elite musicians and our medicine from elite doctors – why only in politics do we have an aversion to elites, as in the most able, doing the work? I’d go so far as to argue those other elites are vaguely hereditary too – insofar as you’re more likely to become a pilot, doctor or politico if one of your parents is the same.

I agree that some new form of day to day politics is required nationally and internationally, Zizek is being a bit lazy in remapping electoral politics leftward – but perhaps he’s right that an ideal outcome of whatever transition would let him get on with his work. Is he asking: When we have our freedom, what do we want to do with it? Getting on with your work unfettered seems a good answer. I’m more interested in moral and technological advancement than political and economic systems, but those foundations still aren’t right, hence the shaky nature of our moral and technological landscape and the continuing need to address those civilisational basics. To put it another way, I’d rather be writing about the good life and organising, I dunno, a geothermal water heating concern than marching against political corruption and economic ruin from a tent city – but I can’t properly do the former until the latter are (finally!) fixed – diverting my energy to problems which in an ideal world former generations might have got right. Culture in a mire.

Have you written anything on jubilee as debt cancellation?

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Rezgar Omer June 5, 2013 at 20:00

I agree with you tom

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Leftway April 19, 2013 at 22:29

This is simply an excelent article!

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Art April 19, 2013 at 23:31

As described here by Jerome, Zizek’s vision seems in accord with the Zeitgeist Movement, which, even if originating in a benevolent vision of shared humanity, depends on an elite overclass of technocrats who will determine the availability and distribution of resources, rather than empowering people to find and work with others with shared values to imagine and enact their lives and relationships for themselves without the need for some leader-ordained “program.” Radical — at-the-roots — true democracy is sink or swim, and many of us would prefer that freedom/responsibility to a life trusting in and following some “leader,” even a benevolent one.

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Solan Gundersen April 20, 2013 at 18:53

Hi Jerome!

I really enjoyed your article. But, at the risk of being pedantic; when were the soviets under Menshevik control? I was under the impression that they were started by a mix of SRs, anarchists, and independent working class militants and were relatively independent of party control until Trotsky took control of the Petrograd soviet. I’ve never heard of Mensheviks controlling them. Is it an oversight or am I misinformed? Could you point me in the direction of the literature that makes these claims?

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Jerome Roos April 21, 2013 at 22:21

Hey Solan!

I think you are right to be confused — my historical reference here was a sloppy short-cut to a basic point which I think is correct but far too poorly argued. I have to admit it’s been 8 years since I handed in my last paper on Soviet history, so my memory is a bit hazy, but here are a few quotes from the Wiki on the Soviets that correct my facts while still illustrating my main point:

“At the beginning of the Revolution of 1917, these soviets were under control of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and even the Mensheviks had a larger share of the elected representatives than the Bolsheviks. But as World War I continued and the Russians met defeat after defeat, and the provisional government proved inadequate at establishing industrial peace, the Bolsheviks began to grow in support. By degrees, the Bolsheviks dominated with a leadership which demanded “all power to the soviets.”[note 1] The Bolsheviks promised the workers a government run by workers’ councils to overthrow the bourgeoisie’s main government body – the Provisional Government. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, giving all power to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks who governed in their name.

Originally, the soviets were a grassroots effort to practice direct democracy. Russian Marxists made them a medium for organizing against the state, and between the February and October Revolutions, the Petrograd Soviet was a powerful force. The slogan “All power to the soviets!” (Vsya vlast sovyetam!; Вся власть советам!) was used by the Bolsheviks to oppose the Provisional Government led by Kerensky.

Based on the Bolshevik’s view of the state, the word soviet extended its meaning to any supreme body that obtained the authority of a group of soviets. In this sense, soviets turned into a hierarchical structure – Communist government bodies at local level and republic level[note 2] were called “soviets”, and at the top of the hierarchy, the Congress of Soviets was the nominal core of the Union government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), officially formed in December 1922. However, the Communist Party officially played the “leading role” in society by that time; the soviets were in practice subordinate to it.”

Also, an anarchist friend of mine just sent me the following message in reference to the same paragraph — might be interesting to share it here:

“Leninists could pick this apart too easily, this story needs to be stronger. First, the Soviets and the Factory Councils were something different. One could actually make a good case, from a workers’ control perspective, that it was the Councils that formed the “beating heart of the Russian Revolution.” And in that regard, it’s very important to realize that it was the Bolsheviks who were most influential there. Most workers supported them. However, the leadership of the Party came to regard them as autonomous centers of power that needed to be centralized. So the break (and the repression of the Councils) was not so much between “The Bolshewiks” and “the workers”, as also internally within the Bolshewiks.”

That same friend also suggests the following essential reading. Thanks again for your comment — I stand corrected!

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Bakunjin April 23, 2013 at 22:08

Nažalost, Žižek ima pravo. Antiautoritarni lijevi pokreti pokazali su se efemernim karnevalima bez čvrste i stalne baze potpuno bezopasnim za postojeće Zapadne kapitalističke režime. Umjesto da budete duboko povrijeđeni i razočarani Žižekom, razmislite o svojim slabostima. Zar je aktivizam zaista krajnji doseg političkog djelovanja? Nastavi li ovako cijelom antiautoritarnom lijevom pokretu prijeti velika opasnost da bude potpuno kooptiran i ostane samo ukras liberalne reprezentativne demokracije.
Grettings from Croatia.

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Michael Burgess April 26, 2013 at 08:15

This is just a series of misunderstandings papered together to hide the inadequacy of the activist position (dont look at me, look over there a State Communist!). Of course the author has no understanding of what Zizek means by violence (ideological violence) and refuses to engage with any of the critiques of his position that Zizek offers. There is not one argument here which outlines the relevant position Zizek adopts and offers a systematic reply.

The closest thing we got was “the people didnt need Chavez to tell them what they wanted”. The hilarious empty moralizing answer (that Zizek says the left always, ineffectually, give) “They Wanted DIGNITY!”. Dignity isnt wanting anything. At best its a kind of generalized desire. What political-economic-social structure is Dignity?
An analogy might be sexual desire: it is all very well being horny, but without women/men/etc. to look at you dont know what you’re horny for. This exactly what Chavez provided, and Zizek claims, needs to be provided to the left: it’s nice that you’re out rubbing yourselves against the placards, trying to get yourselves off, but without a person with a vision to translate your generalize Lust into a Lust FOR, then you’re never going to get past the circlejerk.

Apparently grassroots orgs dont take zizek serious: oh I wonder why? Ineffectual impotent moralizers who protest with generalized emotional messages and no counter-ideological manifesto. They feel the need “to do something”, but are quite reluctant to find out what that might be: in ’68 people marched around, that’ll do today. The left grass roots are way way out of their depth.

The very conditions upon which contemporary capitalism is possible are provided by these “grassroots”: an ineffectual outlet for general dissent. Coming to a hilarious and pointless pantomime point when G. W. Bush says in front of the “Million Marching” how wonderful it is, and how they’d like to bring that to iraq! Did any of those millions need shooting, locking up in secret prisons, violently stamping out by the capitalist machine? Were people flying over to iraq and placing themselves in front of western bullets, were they chaining themselves to the weapons of war? No. They were dry-marking white cardboard, “radically”.

The very descent into normalcy of the arab spring “revolutions”, if anything, proves Zizek correct: even the most violent outburts of this generalised Lust, even the most materially effectual actions have NO significant ideological consequences: the hegemony remains in place. The left once again mistake the material consequences of action (yay, the army were beat back today!) with having “somehow” a magical counter-ideological capacity. And so after all the hoo-ha there is no revolutionary leadership, vision or direction: the staus quo was never violated, there was never a pause to the hegemony: the “revolution” itself was fully internal to it.

And none of this is to speak about the childish naivety of “direct democracy” and its tyrannical capacity which merely hides power structures under the guise of consensus. And which in being “direct” and taking the “Reasonable course of action” as the group * conceives of reasonableness* is inevitably condemned to play out the hegemonic ideological orchestra: the very standard by which the contemporary Left consider reasonableness is provided by the capitalist hegemony. The action they can take is controlled/determined by the social expectations of the society they are embedded in, even if they are smart enough to realise boycotts/marches/violent-outbursts have been more for the guilty left than a challenge to the controlling-right, what “activist” answer done-violence to the ideological status quo?

This is not to say that the left cant (or dont) improve things. This was never under-dispute. It is merely that the self-rationalizing rhetoric of “radicalism” and “revolution” is so laughable compared to their ideological impact (which is conservative!), that to even speak of a revolutionary or radical left immediately signals you out as someone who has yet to reach ideological self-awarness.

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Wise Choice May 8, 2013 at 07:11

I can tell you’re angry, but rather than taking such a supercilious tone, why don’t you start by asking the question “What forms of change are available to those of us on the left?”, rather than offering this complete caricature of popular movements, along with your totalizing (and self-fulfilling) critique of capitalism? The movements that you think you are describing are in fact a much more diverse set of traditions and praxis than you want to give them credit for (so, for that matter, are the economic systems which actually shape our lives, which cannot be neatly subsumed under any systematic critique of capitalism). These movements have been far from ineffective in shifting the terms of debate that even people in the establishment are required to use, as well as the standards by which progress is measured, and they have allowed communities and individuals to do things they’ve never done before, and say things that couldn’t be said before.

“the very standard by which the contemporary Left consider reasonableness is provided by the capitalist hegemony”

Bullshit. They’ve very much shifted the terms of what counts as reasonable, desirable and possible, and they are continuing to do so. Being engaged with these movements on a day-to-day basis, I can assure you that nothing is of greater concern to them. Reason is as much embedded in history as in any reified conceptualization of ideology, and we change the standards of reasonability by fighting for the change we want to see in our societies. Beyond that, people are very engaged in debates about what their words mean in the context of both history and ideology, and what should count as “radical” or “revolutionary” or “reasonable”, what it makes sense to do, etc. Painting such a caricature as you have here is grossly unfair to people who are actually risking their lives, their careers, their relationships, for a better world. Likewise, there were people who went to Iraq to put their bodies in front of weapons, just as they have done in Gaza, and just as they have done in struggles for peace around the world. You do such a disgusting disservice to them by saying they didn’t, or by criticizing the rest who couldn’t. Did you? Apathy, ignorance and confusion I can largely forgive. Your knowing condescension and obvious, rank hypocrisy is a lot harder to stomach.

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Kirillov April 29, 2013 at 11:47

Zizek is nothing more than a self-promoting hack. Why anyone listens to him anymore is beyond me.

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dave May 8, 2013 at 04:30

Amen Kirillov, but he might be promoting more than himself.

As for a critique of Zizek’s position on leaderlessness…, I yield the floor to Toni Negri.

http://philoforchange.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/taking-notes-12-on-the-state-of-movements/

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Observer June 3, 2013 at 00:03

As usual, Zizek’s leftist critics give in to vulgar knee-jerk reaction. I just one question: where has all your ‘direct’ democracy have got you in the past 4 years since financial melt-down and Wall Street going belly up? Not a single piece of legislation, not a single change. Neo-liberalism continues to trample you and Toni Negri’s whining hasn’t got him anywhere. So before criticizing Zizek, look into the mirror. The hands of your side is empty as ever.

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Johan Johansson July 28, 2013 at 18:46

What Can Lenin Tell Us about Freedom Today? Slavoj Žižek
RETHINKING MARXISM Volume 13, Number 2 (Summer 2001)

“Like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is not afraid to pass to the act, to assume all of the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project.” (2)

“It is significant that the work in which Lenin’s unique voice is first clearly heard is What Is To Be Done?—a text which exhibits Lenin’s unconditional will to intervene in the situation, not in the pragmatic sense of “adjusting the theory to realistic claims through necessary compromises” but in the sense of dispelling all opportunistic compromises, of adopting the unequivocal radical position from which it is only possible to intervene in such a way that our intervention changes the coordinates of the situation.” (2)

“What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist “irresponsibility”: advocating grand projects of solidarity, freedom, and so on, yet ducking out when one has to pay the price for it in the guise of concrete and often “cruel” political measures. Like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is not afraid to pass to the act, to assume all of the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project.” (2)

“Here is how Lenin states his position in a 1922 polemic against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of Bolshevik power:

Indeed, the sermons which . . . the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: “The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.” But we say in reply: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard element.” (Lenin 1965, 283)

This Leninist freedom of choice—not “Life or money!” but “Life or critique!”— combined with Lenin’s dismissive attitude toward the “liberal” notion of freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals.” (3)

“And here one should dare to reintroduce the Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom: In an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to break this seductive power of symbolic efficiency. Therein resides the moment of truth in Lenin’s acerbic retort to his Menshevik critics: the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options within a pregiven set of coordinates, but one in which I choose to change this set of coordinates itself.” (7)

“This is what Lenin’s obsessive tirades against “formal” freedom are about, and
herein lies their “rational kernel” worth saving today. When he underlines that there is no “pure” democracy, that we should always ask whom does a freedom serve (i.e., its role in the class struggle), his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of a true radical choice. This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice within the coordinates of existing power relations while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines those very coordinates. In short, Lenin’s point is not to limit freedom of choice, but to maintain the fundamental Choice.” (7)

Trotsky Terrorism and Communism Verso 2007 Foreword by Slavoj Žižek

“Terrorism and Communism presents a Trotsky who knew how to be hard, to exercise terror, and a Trotsky fully ready to accept the task of reconstructing daily life.” (VIII)

“…Terrorism and Communism is Trotsky’s key book, his ‘symptomal’ text which should on no account be politely ignored but, on the contrary, focused on.” (IX)

“This difference is the ultimate distinction between Stalin and Trotsky. In Stalin, ‘Lenin lives for ever’ as an obscene spirit which ‘does not know it is dead’, artificially kept alive as an instrument of power. In Trotsky, the dead Lenin continues to live like Joe Hill- he lives wherever there are people who still struggle for the same Idea.”(XXXII)

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