Friday, March 4, 2011

"It is hard to see where this gets us"

Weekly Worker 855 Thursday March 03 2011

The leadership of 'events'

Andrew Coates unravels Slavoj Žižek's 'communist hypothesis'

For Slavoj Žižek we live in apocalyptic times. The unrest and revolutions sweeping Arab countries are revelations; they disrupt the normal flow of history. Tahrir Square shook Egypt as if through “intervention of a mysterious agency that we can call, in a platonic way, the eternal idea of freedom, justice and dignity”.[1] The fall of the Mubarak state signifies more than regime change. It appealed to a “universal secular call for freedom and justice”. It shows, as Žižek never ceases to repeat, Mao’s truth that “there is great chaos under heaven - the situation is excellent”.[2]

For Žižek’s platonic friend, Alain Badiou, the struggles sweeping the Arab lands are a “model of emancipation”. They are times when people’s lives are caught up without “hiatus” in a “communism of movement”, facing the (capitalised) state.[3] Žižek is hardly less breathless, calling it a “miracle” and “sublime”. If we followed him this would be another sign that “the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point.”[4] It is hard to excel this lyricism - although one might expect backtracking, as the Arab revolutions return to mere politics.

Žižek’s ideas are rooted in readings of Hegel, Marx and the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. His writings are an avalanche. They mix pell-mell discussions of abstract theory, cultural criticism and the latest news. The Slovenian philosopher and ‘cultural critic’ could be considered an intellectual in the French sense. That is, a person who has made a mark in his field, and has gained the right to talk of universal issues. He inspires a journal of Žižek studies, and has multiple platforms in the media. A devoted following listens. Most recently he has talked of the importance of the contemporary leftist “critique of political economy”. This is “the sine qua non of contemporary communist politics.”[5] Perhaps some of the audience will not only be entertained by a defence of communism, but will develop a serious interest in these politics as well.

Historical movement

Žižek refers to “a set of social antagonisms which generate the need for communism ... a movement which reacts to actual social antagonism”.[6] This, Žižek observes, puts him at loggerheads with his (otherwise often complementary) enthusiast for the “communist hypothesis”, Alain Badiou. To the French philosopher the “eternal” Idea of Communism became manifest in the period 1792–1871 and absorbed into an abortive politics of the state from 1917 to 1976 (the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution). Badiou defends a return to the Eternal-Present of Communism and its hero-symbols, from Spartacus to Che Guevara, free from political parties, but capturing the symbols of past revolutionary events “to project a fragment of the political real into the symbolic narrative of a History”.[7] To Žižek communism is not such a transhistorical “political-egalitarian project”. It is founded on antagonisms within the history of “global capitalism” that (may) be “strong enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction”.[8] But does he really, in Marx’s own words, make communism part of “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”?[9]

Marx considered (in a skeletal formulation) the working class to be the flesh and blood of this movement. Wage labourers are shaped by conflicts arising from the private appropriation of their work. To classical Second International Marxism the growth and spatial concentration of the proletariat pushes it to realise its common interests. Through political and industrial action the proletariat assembles as “united individuals”, prepared to seize control over their living conditions. The problem for Žižek is that, following Toni Negri and Michael Hardt (and also Paulo Virno), the “standard notion of exploitation” - the motor which pushes the workers to fight to regain their “alienated” products” - has been replaced by “intellectual labour”.[10] To put it simply, ‘private property’ stands against the mass of the population in the form of exclusion, from control over its system. It appropriates “the shared substance of our social being”, not just the fruits of our labour.[11] As a result ‘class struggle’ over production, the classic fulcrum of labour movement politics, is only a part of much wider conflicts.

The rise of the “general intellect” (knowledge and social cooperation) creates “wealth out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on production”. The exploiters operate indirectly, by “rent appropriated as the privatisation of the general intellect”.[12] There are very sharp social divisions. But they are most visible between those ‘inside’ the set-up, who benefit from such fees, or from the equally ‘out of reach’ flows of international capital, and a much more heterogeneous ‘outside’. They range from those maintaining the machinery created by knowledge-technologies, in production or in services, and often hold only precarious jobs, or are simply parked as unemployed.

It is hard to see where this gets us. Marx observed in his chapters on ‘Machinery’ in the Grundrisse (1857-58) that in technological development “general social knowledge has become a direct force of production” and the processes of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect.[13] There are many debates on this issue. One point is that Marx demonstrates that what is commonly called ‘industrial’ labour was in the 19th century factory already bound up with the ‘general intellect’ through the machine (not to mention the organisation of the labour process). This does not abolish the extraction of surplus value; it alters its rate by increasing the quantity of fixed to relative capital (as in automated production). Whatever else may have changed about the importance of symbolic or linguistic inputs into production (from science to media), this does not affect the basic structure of Marx’s theory.

The precise way in which labour-time is taken from the worker and channelled off into surplus value (rates of exploitation) has always been opaque. Perhaps the ‘transformation problem’ of how Marxists can relate actual prices to value had been solved and then made obsolete by new forms of production. If so, the news has not reached the immaterially produced academic world on tap in the UK.

Where does this lead us? To Negri, Hardt and Virno, communism is the re-appropriation of the ‘general intellect’ by new forces, the ‘multitude’, a plurality or multiplicity beyond (but including) the working class, the excluded and the oppressed. Negri has speculated that capital could in some intermediate stage be compelled to follow its dictates: “There is the need to make capital aware of the weight and importance of the common good, and if it doesn’t want to understand it is necessary to impose it.”[14]

For Žižek this is “utopian”. He begins from a class triad that fragments, and reconfigures, the working class. This is made up of “intellectual labourers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed or living in slums and other interstices of the public space.” These are caught in a process that results in “the gradual disintegration of social life proper”. Into the void have flooded new populist, fundamentalist and “half-illegal initiatic groups”.[15] Liberal democracy holds this, relatively, together, by ‘listening’, protecting minorities and difference. This runs the gamut from 1960s sociological clichés about the ‘lonely crowd’, pop-political science about European xenophobia, dribs and drabs about identity politics, to recycled Mike Davis observations about the world’s mega-cities slums.

What is the upshot? Wracked with mutually loathing identities, what drives the (implicit) unity of this new working class to do ... what? There is clearly nothing solid here, no burgeoning political agency with a common purpose - the common objective is obscured, the shared space, inexistent and the sense of mutual interest elusive. This, apparently objective process (despite Žižek’s own claim to spurn ‘labour metaphysics’ of processes beyond human agency), carries all before it. We are being reduced, willy-nilly, to “substanceless subjectivity”.[16]


Žižek therefore invents a problem of agency of his own. He claims that the “new emancipatory politics will no longer be the act of a particular social agent but the explosive combination of different agents”. We risk being washed away into an “empty Cartesian subject dispossessed of all our symbolic content, with our genetic base manipulated, vegetating in an unliveable environment”.[17] Crises, apparently, are a favourable terrain for challenges to the system. Will any emerge? Will there be an ‘event’, the ‘creation of new possibilities’?

A large chunk of Žižek’s position inclines to a picture of humanity cast adrift in what he once described as the Hegelian dialectical process, “the notion of ‘System’ as the self-deployment of the object itself with no need for any subjective agent to push it forward”.[18] In this endlessly fluctuating order is the conflict between the included and the excluded (to strip down the already bare-bones picture of class) being emptied out ‘behind our backs’? Yet ‘events’ can always just ‘happen’.

Žižek resolves the dilemmas presented by ineluctable commodification by injecting a massive dose of voluntarism over and beyond his ‘political economy’. We can call on the Eternal Present of Communism to re-ignite our will to fight. Here we find Badiou: “The communist idea thus persists: it survives the failures of its realisation as a spectre which returns again and again, in an endless persistence best recapitulated by Beckett’s already quoted words: ‘Try again, fail again. Fail better.” Or, in a different vein, Žižek states that sometimes we need a “leap of faith, faith in lost causes, causes that, from with the space of sceptical wisdom, cannot but appear crazy”.[19]

The dictatorship of the proletariat could be one such wager on History. The lecturer advocates, or rather toys with, radically transforming the state. He does not have strong ideas - indeed any ideas whatsoever - of any party helping in this process, or what its programme should be. Or about what exactly the transformation is going to involve. History proper - the record of deeds, of factional struggles, of conflicting left strategies, of wars, of parties and institutions - is overshadowed by a handful of evergreen ‘events’: the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, the Cultural Revolution. Badiou calls these signs of the “rupture in the normal order of bodies and languages”.[20] Their completely shattering effects are difficult to trace historically. It is hard to find a fundamental break in the writings of at least one actor in these events, Lenin, whose ideas few would claim underwent a total change in 1917.

With indescribable légèreté Žižek does not flinch from violence, and terror - at least in their textual-verbal forms. The deaths of our glorious martyrs turn up as mere props on the stage of the ‘event’. Žižek admires strict “egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism” and “trust in the people”.[21] Authentic terror is, apparently, the work of love. He revels in the claim that the working class cannot become another ruling class because of its fracturing in the new constellation of the ‘general intellect’ created by the dominance of ‘immaterial labour’. This is no doubt a great comfort to anyone worried about the experiences of 20th century Stalinism, and the dictatorial policies of all previous communist governments that have assumed power with this ideology.

Sceptics will surely be reassured to hear that there is no need for a majority of the people to support the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such an ‘event’, an irruption in the normal flow of history, does not have to seek permission from a big Other in the shape of a democratically elected assembly. “With Lenin, as with Lacan, the point is that a revolution ne s’autorise que d’elle même [authorises itself]: one should take responsibility for the revolutionary act not covered by the big Other.”[22] Fears about violence are misguided. They may have to exploit a certain amount of “rage capital”. They take inspiration from Robespierre and the terror during the French Revolution. But “if one means by violence a radical upheaval of the basic social relations then, crazy and tasteless as it any sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they were not violent enough. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”[23]


Žižek is a self-proclaimed atheist. But he also a ‘god-seeker’ in the mould of a minority of early Bolsheviks (like Bogdanov) who sought inspiration from religious faith’s capacity to find a sure footing in eternity. In his efforts to discover how religions create a “common space”, an “egalitarian social order of solidarity”, Žižek has evoked Saint Paul’s Ephesians 6:12. This is a call to fight not against flesh and blood, but against “authorities, against the world rulers (Kosmokratoras) of this darkness, against the spiritual wickedness in the heavens”, a battle against “those in power in general, and against the global order and the ideological manifestation that sustains it”. In this vein Žižek talks of god-become-man: “the love that binds all members of the ‘Holy Ghost’ - that is, of the party or emancipatory collective”.[24]

This takes us to realms beyond rational communist thought, to the great flows of being beyond history. Will Žižek go further in this mystical, millennialist direction? Critics have accused him of randomly lumping together ideas, of repetition, of contradiction and of opaque thoughts. It would be better to say that his ideas are often hidden behind great verbal radicalism and convoluted digressions, as shown by his current religious themes. Very few people who take the time to decipher his writings will find substantial tools to use for mundane politics. The pictures of class divisions (included/excluded), immaterial production (exploitation reduced to rent), privatisation of the ‘commons’, and the dictatorship of the proletariat - not to mention the residue of Badiou’s timeless metaphysics - are, we have argued, botched. Nobody is going to storm heaven - or the state - with copies of these writings in their haversack.

Yet ... and yet ... Žižek is often on the right track. He has recently risen to defend the remnants of European social democracy - observing that “we will have to re-invent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old - education, healthcare, basic social services”.[25] Is this more inconsistency - hard against his ultra-Leninism? Perhaps it is not. Žižek, in a moment of candour, to Bernard Henri-Lévy, admitted he did not expect any “anti-capitalist revolution” to come about in the foreseeable future. Rather he considered the radical left a source of energy to help maintain the institutional achievements of the historic left.[26]

As the watch-word of the present this is easy to grasp. But it has its faults. We - that is, those of us active on that left - require a lot more: we need to rethink our whole strategic approach to achieving power and, above all, to engage in mass politics. That said, Žižek’s social democratic ambitions are not ignoble; they are highly defendable. In the meantime we have Egypt.


  2. The Guardian February 1.
  3. Le Monde February 19.
  4. S Žižek Living in the end times London 2010.
  6. C Douzinas and S Žižek (eds) The idea of communism London 2010, p211.
  7. A Badiou The communist hypothesis London 2010.
  8. S Žižek, ‘How to begin from the beginning’ New Left Review May-June 2009.
  9. K Marx, F Engels The German ideology in Collected Works Vol 5, London 1976, p49.
  10. S Žižek Living in the end times London 2010.
  11. S Žižek, ‘How to begin from the beginning’ New Left Review May-June 2009.
  12. S Žižek, ‘Privatisation of the “general intellect”’:
  14. T Negri Goodbye Mr Socialism London 2008, p180. See also P Virno A grammar of the multitude New York 2004; M Hardt, A Negri Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire London 2004.
  16. S Žižek First as tragedy, then as farce London 2009, p75.
  17. S Žižek, ‘How to begin from the beginning’ New Left Review May-June 2009.
  18. S Žižek The sublime object of ideology London 2008, pxxii.
  19. S Žižek In defence of lost causes London 2008, p2.
  20. A Badiou The communist hypothesis London 2010.
  21. S Žižek First as tragedy, then as farce London 2009.
  23. S Žižek Living in the end times London 2010, p33. See also S Žižek Violence London 2008, p183.
  24. S Žižek Living in the end times London 2010, pxv.
  25. ‘A permanent economic emergency’ New Left Review July-August 2010
  26. Ibid.

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