The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Zizek's foot-in-mouth ailment flares up again

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A courageous assault on hegemonic multiculturalism posted by lenin

A friend on Twitter drew my attention to Slavoj Zizek's apologia for anti-Roma racism in recent talks. It's not the first time. See here, where he explains the dilemmas of multicultralism:

There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn't driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they're anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its 'legitimate concerns', counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the 'little man' while slandering the little man's victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.

The Birkbeck talk concerns the use of violence and as such raised some cheers when Zizek applauded 'student violence'. In fact, much of it is concerned with Zizek's arguments on race and multiculturalism, and specifically with vindicating his stance against anti-racist left-wing critics. He refers, for example, to the controversy surrounding a recent article, which he says earned him hate mail. He complains that after the controversy no one wanted to publish his second article, a defence of the notion of 'leitkultur' against bourgeois liberalism, but insists that his position has nothing to do with right-wing anti-immigrant populism. Rather, the 'leitkultur' he wishes to defend is a common space quite different from that supported by the right-wing. These people, he says, tried to rid Europe of its Jewish population, so have no right to talk about Judeo-Christian civilization. I don't know if he's right to attribute this argument to Habermas, but the critique of the Nazis that says that they are traitors to Judeo-Christian civilization is probably not one that can be appropriated for the Left.

Zizek goes on to refer to the article cited above, which he describes with a series of artful euphemisms, before going on to describe his raciological education at the hands of his au pair. He explains that she was a social worker who had worked with Roma - "incidentally, they slightly prefer to be called gyspsies" - and: "She told me this that, of course, don't idealise them, at a certain level it is of course true, they are living in illegal camps, they are living off stolen cars, they, definitely it is true, she confirmed this for me, steal from the fields, and so on and so on." Armed with the authority of his babysitter, he thus provides the armed would-be murderers with a pretext and then proceeds to try to displace the blame for this state-fuelled pogromism onto, not the capitalist class as such, but metropolitan liberal elites. He tells the tale of a big open village in Ljubljana where rich liberals live, and describes their horrified reaction when it was suggested that the Roma move there. This proves for him that it's "very nice" to be anti-racist and tolerant toward gypsies when you have no contact with them.

"This is the limit of this liberal multiculturalism ... that's the tragedy of multiculturalism, how the whole space is constructed with a clear class dimension. It's always upper middle class or at least middle class who are blaming ordinary redneck guys for being racist, for enjoying their privilege ... The moment I mention this class dimension, I become a proto-fascist right-winger or whatever or whatever. No, I mean, again, the problem when you fight racism, it's the same as the Israeli settlers, don't focus on the poor guys, focus on the real culprits". To explain this reference, Zizek has previously argued against a boycott of Israeli settlements on the grounds that the settlers are poor Eastern European immigrants who are forced into settlements by the Israeli state. He goes on that yes, of course, the liberals are right about the racism of the poor, but "imagine a modest guy in that village, his son comes home beaten often, not too often, but there is this fear, occasional fights with Roma children, things are stolen from the field and so on and so on, there even was a murder in that gypsy settlement and what was offered to these people? Nothing, just culpabilising them."

I don't claim that Zizek is a fascist, or a "proto-fascist", for all that he seems anxious to provoke such reactions by, you know, championing racist mobs and vilifying gypsies. But in the UK, as you may have noticed, we have a "big problem" with gypsy travellers, immigrants, Muslims, etc - or rather, with the racist reaction to them. And the argument from the xenophobes and far right is almost identical to Zizek's: if the liberal elite love the gypsies and Muslims and immigrants so much, let them live with them. Similarly, his anecdotal demagogic style of discussing the issue of Roma is absolutely typical of the far right in Britain. Ironically, however, it is very liberal bourgeoisie that Zizek pretends to abhor that he sounds most like. It is the privileged liberal neo-Powellites, with their condescending chatter about the 'white working class', onto whom they can project their own malicious racist fantasies, and who then claim that anti-racism is a snooty, middle class ideology, that Zizek is channelling. It is their caricature of class, their pseudo-iconoclasm, their banalities, and their insulting rationalisations that he is imitating. In a sense, Zizek, the radical firebrand contrarian, is a bourgeois, conformist, national liberal at heart.


  1. I think you miss the point entirely. What Zizek points out is a failure by the left (a failure you seem too embarressed to admit) to articulate and engage with the genuine concerns of the 'working class' (who you dismiss as a 'racist mob'). This failure drives the working classes to embrace radical right wing and racist discourse. It is very dangerous to dissmiss working class concerns about their local area as racism (although racism may play a part). You therefore fail to seperate the concrete demands of people from a discourse of racism. No wonder people don't support left wing parties and vote BNP! Don't blame Zizek for iciting racism; blame rather the failure of the modern Left and its disdain for the 'working class' it used to seek to represent.

  2. Is the expulsion of the Roma a "genuine concern of the working class" or a divide-and-conquer tactic to pit one group of migratory workers against French workers?

    In the US, should we acknowledge the spontaneous outrage and blame-the-victim response of our co-workers to job losses and outsourcing? Or should we, as communists do in every country in the world today, point out the poisonous role such ruling class fostered resentments and scapegoatings serve?

    Who supports the BNP? That any worker does is a testament to the weakness of the labor movement and a deadly polarization in the rightward shift in bourgeois politics. But are communists supposed to steal the followers of the BNP by mobilizing class resentment? Or solidarity?

    It isn't what your against, it is what you are FOR.

    And thanks for the letter!

    s/ Jay
    Marxist Update

  3. Hmmm I don't think Slavoj Zizek is being nationalist or far-right at all, rather than defending "red-neck racists", I think he is just attacking hypocritical liberal intelligentsia who are really just as racist themselves. This doesn't mean he is supporting anti-Roma racism, he is questioning the whole establishment of "multiculturalism" as a whole, implying that it is actually designed as a kind of racist apartheid with a nice face. Therefore he is smearing the privileged elites who espouse multicultral values in order to keep other cultures away from them. He is rubbishing them and their system of hidden racism, not defending the right to be a bigoted racist and support displacement of people based on their ethnicity.