Zizek and the Golden Calf
What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
Zizek was never so completely wrong as in his recent post on the problem of analysis posed by the London riots:
“Today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old…”
In fact, London shows there is no determinate negation!
“who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme…”
Unfortunately, this is absolute crap. Heinous! Zizek needs to stop calling for a blueprint for the new society, and see what society is actually doing. Everyone wants to render the riot more profound — Sorry, it ain’t gonna happen. There are no stand-ins in this act. The riot did not lack “a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness…” We already have such a body in the executive of the fascist state — the object is to abolish it, not replace it.
Zizek shows the limitations of his philosophy — it seeks THE answer. There is no THE answer, only 6 billion individuals. The only TRUTH is the dollar — it is morality, ethics, and law. The point is not to replace this TRUTH with another one, but to abolish it once and for all time. The moment Egypt became preoccupied with what should replace the masses in the street, the revolution was doomed. There is no plan for the future of society, only the management of things — dead objects we created that must be treated as such.
Everybody wants a new Golden Calf — and communists are like Aaron trying to satisfy this silly demand.
Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.
Which is to say, the rioters of London made no demands on the existing state. From Zizek, it is clear that because London did not deliver a political demand, analysis of it escapes Marxist critical thought. The limitation must be assigned to Marxist critical thinking: it is incapable of conceiving of any but political and economic demands. When confronted by a movement that makes no demands on the existing state, Marxism must, fall back into outmoded and thoroughly discredited Hegelian notions.
From Zizek we find out this about London:
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
The lack of political and economic demands by the rioters on the existing state, says Zizek, “is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted” Are our existing options limited to political conformity within the existing state and “blind acting out” against it? One has to wonder how Zizek manages to arrive this close to the heart of the matter, without tripping over it. Empirically, opposition to the existing state cannot be articulated in the form of political program, or utopian vision; but only in “blind acting out.” Which is to say: the riot placed no demand on the state except that it go away. To the inherently political Marxism, this can only appear as “enigma”, as “blind acting out.” Marxism, which wants nothing more than to replace the existing state with its own “workers’ state”, cannot absorb this message. To demand the state just go away is nihilism, “(self-)destructive violence”.
It never occurs to Zizek that there is no political demand against a state founded on universal suffrage except its abolition. Just as there is no economic demand against Capitalism except the abolition of wage slavery. The fascist state can accommodate any demand except its own abolition, and this demand appears irrational and can only appear this way; since, politically, it is asking for the abolition of universal suffrage itself. Politically, the demand for the end to government by consent of the governed can only be satisfied by the absolute indifference of the fascist state. The larger context of the riot, therefore, is the indifference of the fascist state to the rioter — who seeks only to abolish this indifference. How Zizek manages to miss this is completely fucking beyond me.
Taking from Badiou, Zizek proposes: capitalism is empty of content of its own, “there is no global ‘capitalist worldview…”
Okay, fine. So what now?
Zizek proposes that all critiques of London that begin in the premises of capitalism are inadequate. The conservative view holds the riot was unjustifiable. Zizek argues by contrast, that the riot was not man reduced to beast but the beast itself. The liberal blamed the failure of social programs to fix society’s ills. Zizek argues this failure does not explain the riot itself; the cynical response of the rioter might be to blame society for an act he himself already knew was inappropriate: “He knows what he is doing, then, but is doing it nonetheless.” If Zizek can acknowledge this consciousness of the inappropriateness of the riot, he can only weakly defend it as an entirely appropriate conscious response to the inappropriateness of existing social relations. He wants to play the worldly disinterested observer of events occurring under his own nose. Indeed, his objective here appears no more than to insert himself as necessary interpreter to us of our own actions.
Having disposed of the riot as the blind acting out of the beast, he can now admonish both Right and Left of their failure to grasp the significance of this beast in their midst. It never occurs to him to state boldly that, from premises of communist society, the riot is nothing more than a blind attempt to abolish property.
Despite his shortcomings thus far in the essay, however, Zizek’s insight into the sudden appearance of the “vigilante units” is surprisingly good:
It is meaningless to ponder which of these two reactions, conservative or liberal, is the worse: as Stalin would have put it, they are both worse, and that includes the warning given by both sides that the real danger of these outbursts resides in the predictable racist reaction of the ‘silent majority’. One of the forms this reaction took was the ‘tribal’ activity of the local (Turkish, Caribbean, Sikh) communities which quickly organised their own vigilante units to protect their property. Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine, if violent, protest against the system; or are they representatives of the working class, fighting the forces of social disintegration? Here too one should reject the demand to take sides. The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own. The cars burned and the shops looted were not in rich neighbourhoods, but in the rioters’ own. The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, at its most radical, the conflict between society and society, between those with everything, and those with nothing, to lose; between those with no stake in their community and those whose stakes are the highest.
Zizek rightly warns us not to take sides in this internecine conflict, but misses the fact that the whole of political relations are only these two conflicting sides writ large. There is, in reality, a massive population of “those with nothing” to lose, facing a negligible residual of “those with everything” to lose. In fact, all conflict within present day society are fought out within the greater population, while the latter is rarely or ever glimpsed. “The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own” because there isn’t anyone else against whom it can be directed. The entire capitalist class has been reduced to a tiny handful of parasites clipping coupons and engaged in speculation, just as Engels predicted. The capitalist class is merely kept alive on life support by the franchise of the vast proletarian majority. For purposes of analysis, it is possible to assume the capitalist class does not exist at all; which clarifies the dilemma facing Marxism:
What is the fascist state?
Once we begin asking this question we can go beyond Bauman, who “characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’” Bauman’s argument only allows Zizek to pass himself as the uniquely disentangled observer decrying, “envy masked as triumphant carnival.” I am sorry, but that view is unacceptable for a communist.
Zizek then links the riot to terrorism and the failed Arab uprisings — the latter having now sunk to a rivalry between the CIA and the Muslim Brotherhood. I am not sure this works, since clearly Egypt and Islam have a different relationship with universal suffrage. Terrorism is an attack on universal suffrage from the outside, while Egypt is only trying to realize a local instance of it. To place the three in the same basket only confuses things, and makes it difficult to understand what is unique about London itself.
I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me this is why Zizek follows this invalid linkage with a demand for a “determinate negation.” The “determinate negation” of Mubarak’s regime is limited government; the “determinate negation” of the insults which led to 9-11 is US exit from Islam’s holy lands. Both of these “determinate negations” is limited in relation to the state.
London, on the other hand, is directed at the existing state itself, at universal suffrage and government by consent of the governed — it is, therefore, neither limited, nor determinate by its very nature.