Readers will I hope forgive the eccentric idea of this post: to use the comments option on Google Documents to create instant rebuttals and political corrections to statements made by the author. My notations appear at the bottom the the piece, and correspond to the bracketed letters I placed in the article itself.
Only Communism can save liberal democracy
ABC Religion and Ethics 3 Oct 2011
Liberalism and fundamentalism[a] form a single whole: liberalism generates its opposite. The paradox is that liberalism[b] itself is not strong enough to save itself against the fundamentalist onslaught.
1989 marked not only the defeat of the Communist State-Socialism, but also the defeat of the Western Social Democracy.[c]
Nowhere is the misery of today's Left more palpable than in its "principled" defence of the Social-Democratic Welfare State: the idea is that, in the absence of a feasible radical Leftist project, all that the Left can do is to bombard the state with demands for the expansion of the Welfare State, knowing well that the State will not be able to deliver.
This necessary disappointment serves as a reminder of the basic impotence of the social-democratic Left [d]and thus push the people towards a new radical revolutionary Left.
Needless to say, such a politics of cynical "pedagogy" is destined to fail, since it fights a lost battle: in the present politico-ideological constellation, the reaction to the inability of the Welfare State to deliver will be Rightist populism. In order to avoid this reaction, the Left will have to propose its own positive project beyond the confines of the Social-Democratic Welfare State.[e]
This is why it is totally erroneous to pin our hopes on strong Nation-States, which can defend the acquisitions of the Welfare State, against trans-national bodies like the European Union, which, so the story goes, serve as the instruments of the global capital to dismantle whatever remained of the Welfare State. From here, it is only a short step to accept the "strategic alliance" with the nationalist Right[f] worried about the dilution of national identity in trans-national Europe.
(One of the crazy consequences of this stance is that some Leftists support the Czech liberal-conservative President Vaclav Klaus, a staunch Euro-sceptic: his ferocious anti-Communism and opposition to the "totalitarian" Welfare State is dismissed as a cunning strategy to render acceptable his anti-Europeanism ...)
So where does the Left stand today? Alain Badiou wonderfully characterized the post-Socialist situation as "this troubled situation, in which we see Evil dancing on the ruins of Evil": there is no question of any nostalgia, the Communist regimes were "evil" [g]- the problem is that what replaced them is also "evil," albeit in a different way.
In what way?
Back in 1991, Badiou gave a more theoretical formulation to the old quip from the times of Really Existing Socialism about the difference between the democratic West and the Communist East.
In the East, the public word of intellectuals is eagerly awaited and has a great resonance, but they are prohibited to speak and write freely; while in the West, they can say and write whatever they want, but their word is ignored by the wide public.
Badiou opposes the West and the East with regard to the different way the (rule of the) Law is located between the two extremes of State and philosophy (thinking).
In the East, philosophy is asserted in its importance, but as a State-philosophy, directly subordinated to the State, so that there is no rule of Law: the reference to philosophy justifies the State as working directly on behalf of the Truth of History, and this higher Truth allows it to dispense with the rule of Law and its formal freedom.
In the West, the State is not legitimized by the higher Truth of History, but by democratic elections guaranteed by the rule of Law, and the consequence is that the State as well as the public are indifferent to philosophy:
"The submission of politics to the theme of Law in parliamentary societies... leads to the impossibility of discerning the philosopher from the sophist... Inversely, in bureaucratic societies it is impossible to distinguish the philosopher from the functionary or the policeman. In the last instance, philosophy is generally nothing other than the word of the tyrant."
In both cases, philosophy is denied its truth and autonomy because:
"the inherent adversaries of the identity of philosophy, the sophist and the tyrant, or even the journalist and the policeman, declare themselves philosophers."
One should add here that Badiou in no way secretly or openly prefers the police party-State to the State of Law: he states that it is fully legitimate to prefer the State of Law to the police party-State; he draws here another key distinction:
"The trap would be to imagine that this preference, which concerns the objective history of the State, is really a subjective political decision."
What he means by "subjective political decision" is the authentic collective engagement along the Communist lines: such an engagement is not "opposed" to parliamentary democracy, it simply moves at a radically different level - that is, in it political engagement is not limited to the singular act of voting, but implies a much more radical continuous "fidelity" to a Cause, a patient collective "work of love."
Today, when the democratic honeymoon is definitely over, this lesson is more actual than ever: what Badiou put in theoretical terms is confirmed by daily experience of the majority of ordinary people: the collapse of Communist regimes in 1989 was no Event in the sense of a historical break, of giving birth to something New in the history of emancipation.
After this supposed break, things just returned to their capitalist normality,[h] so that we have the same passage from the enthusiasm of freedom to the rule of profit and egotism described already by Marx in his analysis of the French Revolution.
Exemplary here is the case of Vaclav Havel: his followers were shocked to learn that this highly ethical fighter for "living in truth" later engaged in shady business deals with suspicious real estate companies dominated by the ex-members of the Communist secret police.
And so, how naive did Timothy Garton Ash appear on his visit to Poland in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism: blind to the vulgar grey reality around him, he tried to convince the Poles that they should feel glorious, as if their land is still the noble land of Solidarity.
The ruling ideology is, of course, well aware of this gap, and its reply is "maturity": one should get rid of utopian hopes which can only end up in totalitarianism and accept the new capitalist reality. The tragedy is that some Leftists subscribe to this judgment.[i]
Alain Badiou described three distinct ways for a revolutionary - or radical emancipatory - movements to fail.
First, there is, of course, a direct defeat: one is simply crushed by the enemy forces.
Second, there is defeat in the victory itself: one wins over the enemy (temporarily, at least) by way of taking over the main power-agenda of the enemy (the goal is simply to seize state power, either in the parliamentary-democratic way or in a direct identification of the Party with the State).
On the top of these two versions, there is a third, perhaps most authentic, but also most terrifying, form of failure: guided by the correct instinct that every attempt to consolidate the revolution into a form of State power represents a betrayal of the revolution, but unable to invent and impose on social reality a truly alternative social order, the revolutionary movement engages in a desperate strategy of protecting its purity by the "ultra-leftist" resort to destructive terror.
Badiou aptly calls this last version the "sacrificial temptation of the void":
"One of the great Maoist slogans from the red years was 'Dare to fight, dare to win'. But we know that, if it is not easy to follow this slogan, if subjectivity is afraid not so much to fight but to win, it is because struggle exposes it to a simple failure (the attack didn't succeed), while victory exposes it to the most fearsome form of failure: the awareness that one won in vain, that victory prepares repetition, restauration. That a revolution is never more than a between-two-States. It is from here that the sacrificial temptation of the void comes. The most fearsome enemy of the politics of emancipation is not the repression by the established order. It is the interiority of nihilism, and the cruelty without limits which can accompany its void."[j]
What Badiou is effectively saying here is the exact opposite of Mao's "Dare to win!" - one should be afraid to win (to take power, to establish a new socio-political reality), because the lesson of the twentieth century is that victory either ends in restoration (return to the logic of State power) or gets caught in the infernal cycle of self-destructive purification.[k]
This is why Badiou proposes to replace purification with subtraction: instead of "winning" (taking over power) one maintains a distance towards state power, one creates spaces subtracted from State. [l]But does this not represent a kind of division of labour between the radical and the pragmatic Left?
Subtracting itself from State politics, the radical Left limits itself to assuming principled positions and bombarding the State with impossible demands[m], while the pragmatic Left makes a pact with the devil in the sense of Peter Mandelson's admission that, when it comes to the economy, we are all Thatcherites.
Is Communism then simply "impossible" in the sense that it cannot be stabilized into a new order? Even Badiou presents the eternal "Idea of Communism" as something which returns again and again, from Spartacus and Thomas Munzer to Rosa Luxemburg and the Maoist Cultural Revolution - in other words, as something that fails again and again.
The term "impossible" should make us stop and think. Today, impossible and possible are distributed in a strange way, both simultaneously exploding into an excess.
On the one hand, in the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology, the impossible is more and more possible (or so we are told): "nothing is impossible." We can enjoy sex in all its perverse variations, entire archives of music, films and TV series are available for download. There is even now the prospect of enhancing our physical and mental abilities, of manipulating our basic properties through interventions into genome, up to the tech-gnostic dream achieving immortality by way of fully transforming our identity into a software which can be downloaded from one to another hardware ...
On the other hand, especially in the domain of socio-economic relations, our era perceives itself as the era of maturity in which, with the collapse of Communist states, humanity has abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams [n]and accepted the constraints of reality (namely, the capitalist socio-economic reality) with all its impossibilities.
And so, today we cannot engage in large collective acts (which necessarily end in totalitarian terror), cling to the old Welfare State (it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis), isolate yourself from the global market, and so on, and so on.
It is crucial clearly to distinguish here between two impossibilities: the impossibility of a social antagonism and the impossibility on which the predominant ideological field focuses. Impossibility is here re-doubled, it serves as a mask of itself: the ideological function of the second impossibility is to obfuscate the real of the first impossibility.
Today, the ruling ideology endeavours to make us accept the "impossibility" of a radical change, of abolishing capitalism, of a democracy not constrained to parliamentary game, in order to render invisible the impossible/real of the antagonism which cuts across capitalist societies.
This real is impossible in the sense that it is the impossible of the existing social order - which, however, in no way implies that this real/impossible cannot be directly dealt with and radically transformed in a "crazy" act which changes the basic "transcendental" coordinates of a social field, an act which changes the very coordinates of what is possible and thus retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility.
This is why Communism concerns the Real: to act as a Communist means to intervene into the real of the basic antagonism which underlies today's global capitalism.
In authentic Marxism, totality is not an ideal, but a critical notion - to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include into a system all its "symptoms," antagonisms, inconsistencies, as its integral parts.
In this sense, liberalism and fundamentalism form a "totality": the opposition of liberalism and fundamentalism is structured so that liberalism itself generates its opposite. So what about the core values of liberalism: freedom, equality, fraternity? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save them against the fundamentalist onslaught.[o]
Fundamentalism is a reaction - a false, mystifying, reaction, of course - against a real flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself - the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left.[p]
In Western and Eastern Europe, there are signs of a long-term re-arrangement of the political space. Until recently, the political space was dominated by two main parties which addressed the entire electoral body: a Right-of-centre party (Christian-Democrat, or liberal-conservative) and a Left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic), with smaller parties addressing a narrow electorate (greens, liberals, etc.).
Now, there is progressively emerging one party which stands for global capitalism as such[q], usually with relative tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities; opposing this party is a stronger and stronger anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by directly racist neo-Fascist groups.
The exemplary case is here Poland: after the disappearance of the ex-Communists, the main parties are the "anti-ideological" centrist liberal party of the Prime Minister Donald Dusk, and the conservative Christian party of Kaczynski brothers.
Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a proof that even this ultimate opposition is not insurmountable: the same party, his Forza Italia, can be both the global-capitalist-party and integrate the populist anti-immigrant tendency.
In the de-politicized sphere of post-ideological administration, the only way to mobilize people is to awaken fear (from immigrants - that is, from the neighbour[r]). To quote Gaspar Tamas, we are thus again slowly approaching the situation in which "there is no one between Tsar and Lenin" - in which the complex situation will be reduced to a simple basic choice: community or collective, Socialism or Communism.
To put it in the well-known terms from 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left.
The task is thus to remain faithful to what Badiou calls the eternal Idea of Communism: the egalitarian spirit alive for thousands of years in revolts and utopian dreams, in radical movements from Spartacus to Thomas Muntzer up to some religions (Buddhism versus Hinduism, Daoism or Legalists versus Confucianism, and so on).
The problem is how to avoid the alternative of radical social explosions which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, or of equality, but displaced to a domain outside social reality (in Buddhism we are all equal in nirvana).
It is here that the originality of the Western thought enters, in its three great historical ruptures: Greek philosophy breaking with the mythic universe; Christianity breaking with the pagan universe; modern democracy breaking with traditional authority.
In all these cases, the egalitarian spirit is transposed into a - limited, but nonetheless actual - new positive order.
In short, the wager of the Western thought is that radical negativity (whose first and immediate expression is egalitarian terror) is not condemned to remain a short ecstatic outburst after which things have to return to normal; on the contrary, radical negativity, this undermining of every traditional hierarchic order, can articulate itself in a new positive order in which it acquires the stability of a new form of life.
This is the meaning of the Holy Spirit in Christianity: faith can not only be expressed in, but exists as the collective of believers. This faith is in itself based on "terror" indicated by Christ's words that he brings sword, not peace, that whoever doesn't hate his father and mother is not his true follower - the content of this terror is the rejection of all traditional hierarchic community ties, with the wager that another collective link is possible based on this terror, an egalitarian link of believers connected by agape as political love.
Another example of such an egalitarian link based on terror is democracy itself. One should follow Claude Lefort's description of democracy here: the democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one who is directly qualified for this post either by tradition, charisma, or his expert and leadership properties.
This is why, before democracy can enter the stage, terror has to do its work, forever dissociating the place of power from any natural or directly qualified pretender: the gap between this place and those who temporarily occupy it should be maintained at any cost.
But we can well imagine a democratic procedure maintaining the same gap on account of the irreducible moment of contingency in every electoral result: far from being its limitation, the fact that the elections do not pretend to select the most qualified person is what protects them from the totalitarian temptation - which is why, as it was clear already to the Ancient Greeks, the most democratic form of selecting who will rule us is by a lot.
That is to say, as Lefort has demonstrated, the achievement of democracy is to turn what is in traditional authoritarian power the moment of its greatest crisis, the moment of transition from one to another master when, for a moment, "the throne is empty," which causes panic, into the very resort of its strength: democratic elections are the moment of passing through the zero-point when the complex network of social links is dissolved into purely quantitative multiplicity of individuals whose votes are mechanically counted.
The moment of terror, of the dissolution of all hierarchic links, is thus re-enacted and transformed into the foundation of a new and stable positive political order. Hegel is thus perhaps wrong in his fear of the direct universal democratic vote (see his nervous rejection of the English Reform Bill in 1831): it is precisely democracy which accomplishes the "magic" trick of converting the negativity (the self-destructive absolute freedom which coincides with the reign of terror) into a stable new political order: in democracy.
Once upon a time, we called this Communism. Why is its re-actualization so difficult to imagine today? Because we live in an era of naturalization: political decisions are as a rule presented as matters of pure economic necessity. For instance, when austerity measures are imposed, we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done.
In May 2010 and again in June 2011, large demonstrations exploded in Greece after the government announced the austerity measures it has to adopt in order to meet the conditions of the European Union for the bailout money to avoid the state's financial collapse.
One often hears that the true message of the Greek crisis is that not only Euro, but the project of the united Europe itself is dead. But before endorsing this general statement, one should add a Leninist twist to it: Europe is dead, OK, but - which Europe?
The answer is: the post-political Europe of accomodation to world market, the Europe which was repeatedly rejected at referendums, the Brussels technocratic-expert Europe. The Europe which presents itself as standing for the cold European reason against Greek passion and corruption, for mathematics against pathetics.
But, utopian as it may appear, the space is still open for another Europe, a re-politicized Europe, a Europe founded on a shared emancipatory project, a Europe that gave birth to ancient Greek democracy, to French and October revolutions.
This is why one should avoid the temptation to react to the ongoing financial crisis with a retreat to fully sovereign nation-states, easy preys of the freely-floating international capital which can play one state against the other.
More than ever, the reply to every crisis should be even more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital. The idea of resisting global capital on behalf of the defense of particular ethnic identities is more suicidal than ever, with the spectre of the North Korean juche [s]idea lurking behind.
Slavoj Zizek is the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, and one of the world's most influential public intellectuals. His most recent books are Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010), and, co-edited with Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (Verso, 2010). He spoke at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on Sunday, 2 October 2011, and will appear as a panelist on ABC's Q & A on Monday, 3 October 2011.
Any discussion of Liberalism has to begin with the capitalist state. In some periods capitalists in their majority in a particular country find it more expediant to agree to a small portion of demands from a rising workers movement, rather than force a showdown whose consequences are not guaranteed to be in their favor. This is Liberalism.
What SZ calls "fundamentalism" I take to mean rightist politics, which is opposed to such a course. In the imperialist countries in the last 40 years, Liberalism has been rejected by the capitalist ruling classes in favor of solidarity not because they are evil men, but because they have no other choice [declining average rate of profit, interimperialist competition, et cetera].
Liberalism and Fundamentalism do not float above state and society, contesting with one another. They are each different tools used by capitalists to ensure their rule.
Why did the imperialist states need their social democrats? To put it bluntly: to t-bone and derail independent working class political action. Since 1989 social democracy has not been sleeping in its sarcophagus, however. It has been busy becoming the left wing of neoliberalism. This particularly unwholesome spectacle is ramified in the U.S. today with the dog-like devotion to bourgeois, imperialist political figures like Barack Obama by social democratic institutions like The Nation magazine. It is demonstrated even more significantly by the fact that social democratic parties are those given the task throughout Europe of imposing austerity and union-busting on workers.
The "impotence" of the social democratic left is only partial, and we cannot make sweeping arguments about the character of its epitaph today. Obama, while not a social democrat by any stretch of the imagination, has acted as a soporific to mass struggles in the United States in the years 2008-2011.
"beyond the confines of the Social Democratic welfare state" there is, for organized social democratic parties, nothing. The long-term ascending line of capitalist accumulation that permitted some concessions in the imperialist countries was broken by at least 1940, as underscored that year by a world recession.
A Right-Left alliance against the erosion of national sovereignty and the imposition of austerity budgets has long been the dream of middle class radicals in the United States. It is what we must term, however, a "nostrum." Such an alliance of petty bourgeois political figures and layers within the United States would only reflect a temporary misunderstanding of their mutual shortcomings. Middle class political forces have no traction within class dominated capitalist society unless they are allied wither with the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In the current period, when the US proletariat is still prostrate after decades of deeply internalized compromise, capitulation, and outright defeat, all middle class forces are still being pulled rightward, despite any tertiary social democratic coloration.
This is an unnecessary and particularly cynical concession to bourgeois ideological offensives of the last twenty years. No book defending Marxism, socialism, communism, Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, or what ever term of art we choose, is required today to wrap itself in apologies and self-criticisms for the errors made by previous generations' communists. To do so plays false with history and our understand of it; to do so also creates a moral equivalency between "two evils" when in fact the 500 year reign of capital cannot even be sanely compared with seventy years of the USSR. Cuba today, for instance, cannot be termed evil by anyone not sharing a mental world with the US national security state.
This is a grotesque simplification. The "return to capitalist normality" is depicted as nothing more than the return to sobriety by a drunken neighbor on New Year's morning. The brutal class reality of the attempted re-imposition of capitalist social relations in the former Eastern European workers states and the USSR was one of the most devastatingly one-sided conflicts in world history. Demographic decline, destruction of living standards and the social wage that are only now been proposed for workers in the imperialist centers, were first tried out as "shock therapy" by the Wall Street sharks who attempted to jump-start capitalism in nations whose populations had overthrown it decades before.
Today virtually every leftist subscribes to this ideology of making-do with neoliberal imperialism. A suborned and routed labor leadership, dwindling in influence in countries like the United States, and generations of once-left intellectuals now prey to the latest multicultural distractions, are in no position to establish or sustain a proletarian class pole within the political atmosphere of "whateverist" bourgeois society.
This is an internalization of the least appealing aspects of Stalinist defeatism among petty bourgeois intellectuals: that victory is always a preliminary to defeat. This stance expresses a completely undialectical understanding of class struggles and the conquest of state power: that the conqueror, the proletariat, is an international class, and that victory in one country is but a link in a much longer chain. Restauration, or recessional, does not enter into it.
Can the left philosophers of the "communist hypothesis" school really be telling the oppressed and toiling masses of humanity to doubt their own yearning for power and autonomy over conditions of life and survival, the material basis for which has only recently become realizable?
Here we have a return not to 1917, but to something out of the Stone Age of modern political philosophy: utopian socialism. Let us be clear: Badiou proposes, according to Zizek's recapitulation, a return to pre-Marxism, to the Owenites and New Lanark? To create zones where no state has a claim to human activity? This is indeed a luxurious and spectatorial approach to the communist hypothesis.
Here we reach the exhaustion of the word Left in accurately describing the political relations of non-proletarian sectors in capitalist society. Left for Zizek and I assume Badiou contains everything from Hobbes to Mao. But Left - to a scientific socialist of the Marxist variety - is simply a designation for a certain portion of the vast petty bourgeois layers within society: petty commodity producers, professionals, shopkeepers, the ruined demographic of the Old Order, who all resist proletarianization, and proletarian politics. Instead, they hold dear the shibboleth that imperialist ruling classes are susceptible to bribes of money or promises of class peace if prosperity can be restored on the backs of the workers.
There is nothing communist or proletarian about such positions. Certainly their so-called "impossible demands" are only the starting points for truly pragmatic dog-eat-dog negotiations.
Until the beginning of the current world recession in 2008, we were treated to nearly two decades of "market utopianism" which covered like the wizard's curtain to true face of austerity and union-busting, of renewed racism and sexism of unimaginably and in fact commodified scale.
Liberalism is not trying to save its soul from fundamentalism, either at home or abroad. Liberalism as anything other than a picnic speech, a guest peroration on the Charlie Rose Show, or a New York Times column, died about 40 years ago. The "core values: of liberalism were, and are, the exploitation of man by man, private property, the wages system, lynch law, and the oppression of women and oppressed nationalities... but cleaned up for the parlor and pleasantries.
Liberalism was undermined because the speculative bubble among capitalists that financed it as a buffer burst. The capitalists realized that in relation to their competitors and the declining average rate of their profits, they had to go on the offensive against the working class; the "cold war" of liberal meliorism had to end. But will a renewed [middle class radical] Left resuscitate Liberalism today? Some who urge us to "push Obama to the left" or "force him to be FDR" might hope so.
But these gallant equations leave out the immense majority of humanity, the working and toiling humanity who carry the ruling and middle classes - right and left - on their collective backs.
The capitalists, short of fascism or victorious socialist revolution, will always have use for at least two ruling class parties, even under some forms of Bonapartist regime.
Capitalists and their rancid media operatives may think they are "galvanizing" their electoral base in this way, but the only real mobilization of people today is in response to the consequences of capitalist rule: foreclosures, evictions, destruction of the social wage, long-term unemployment: all the components of the classical whipsaw of uncertainty that eventually produces social explosions of a spontaneous nature. We have seen these in 2011 in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, most countries in Western Europe, and in the Occupy Wall Street movement in North America. When the rulers push too far, a militant response by the rank and file that reaches out the hand of solidarity is, happily, no longer a thing of the past.
Curious to end an article by calling Juche suicidal. Or is it? Doing one's bit in an offhand manner to discredit a Really Existing Socialism while spewing hosannas to the thought that "space is still open for another Europe....on a shared emancipatory project...." that can somehow supersede as utopian all previous dreams of socialism is the height of cynicism and self-absorption.