I have a confession to make: I want to be Slavoj Zizek. Ever since watching the man lay a philosophical smack-down on Francis Fukuyama's thoughts about human nature using little more than a families-at-Christmas anecdote and a Kinder egg (seriously), Zizek's been filed in my mental dictionary as the very definition of intellectual cool. He also ran for the presidency of Slovenia and had his own Channel 4 show – The Pervert's Guide to Cinema – in which he discussed, among other things, Hitchcock, faeces, The Matrix and how ridiculous he sometimes felt when having sex. If academics were rock stars (and some think Zizek's blurring the divide), he'd be a cross between Captain Beefheart and Led Zeppelin.
As the human nature/Kinder egg sample suggests, the man has an uncanny ability to make convincing connections between between spectacularly disparate ideas. Just as you're starting to wonder if this is the point at which he's finally lost it and should be sectioned forthwith, he supplies you with the missing detail of his argument that makes it all make sense. The brilliance of being Zizek in my own personal fantasy, then, was that you could get away with saying just about anything and, with credentials like that backing you up, who'd be there to gainsay you? Worryingly, this seems to have recently occurred to him too. I searched and searched his latest article in the London Review of Books for the relevant missing detail, but I just don't get it.
The whole thing begins with another of those big speculations about what exactly “the left” is meant to be for after the collapse (or transformation) of state socialism, and a big list of the various strategies employed. The concern is that none of these really show a way to run a properly left-wing government – if a nominally left-wing party gets into power, it'll just end up doing what the right-wing party would have done anyway. If you're backing Labour you might as well be backing the Tories.
So far so normal. The question for those who consider themselves to be even further left than New Labour is what to do in the absence of much political representation. As Zizek tells it: “The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control.”
He's not impressed. The whole resistance idea, seems, for Zizek, to be the political equivalent of closing your eyes, putting your hands over your ears and screaming “I can't hear you.” Worse than this, it lets the government feel good about themselves – they may not be doing much about social justice, but at least they've got people to talk about it: “These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society.”
So, to re-cap, so long as anarchists, post-modern leftists and what-have-you are refusing to engage with the state, they're just burying their heads in the sand in a particularly counter-productive way. They achieve nothing, and the state gets to look good while it goes about it dastardly business. What is needed is some engagement, either in the form of the seizure of state power (the Hugo Chavez route) or, if you can't manage that, through realpolitik: “The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands”.
This argument, in all its Guardian-reader-bashing glory, might actually make a certain amount of sense. Burying your head in the sand is certainly a bad idea, and people who want to get things done should probably avoid doing it. The devil of course, is in the small detail of what, for these purposes, actually counts as burying your head in the sand. What sort of activities does Zizek have in mind when he talks about these anarchic agents complicitously doing all that ethical thinking?
And this is where it all goes to shit, because the big example of this resistance-as-surrender, the irresistible case that shows all those alternative types why they should stop living in communes smoking dope and start writing angry-but-beautifully-crafted letters to their MPs is... (wait for it)... the Anti-War protests. Yup. The crazy, pie-in-the-sky, “infinite demand” that all these loopy types made was that Britain and the US not start a war that hadn't been approved by the UN, was going to take an unbelievable toll in terms of human life and national budgets, was unlikely to achieve any of its stated aims (and yes, that was pretty obvious at the time) and that served no credible defensive purpose:
“The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’”
This has me baffled. If requesting that we not go to war without something at least approaching a reason counts as an unreasonable demand, what the hell is a reasonable one? More to the point, it's not like no-one tried things Zizek's way. Right up until the start of the thing, people were pushing some pretty “strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands” along the lines of wanting to see some credible evidence that Iraq was a threat to anyone. Didn't change a damn thing. So, on the evidence of the war, the result of the contest between lunatic anarchists and Zizek's crafty pragmatists is 0-0.
Zizek's other evidence seems to do even less to help his case: “So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it?”
Leaving aside whether the interesting issue of when the Democrats assumed their place on the radical left, the answer would have to be "Well clearly not." But smarter men than me have suggested that part of the solution to their woes might be to stop being so “strategic” and occasionally take a stand on fucking principle (respect to Lessig for the first post linked there, by the way). Ron Paul, on the Republican side, took exactly this attitude and is doing much better than anyone gave him a chance of. If we're lucky, Barack Obama looks like he might do the same. John Kerry's campaign was doubtless amply populated with folk crafting their “strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands”.
Labels: 2008 US presidential primaries, Iraq, Resistance is Surrender, Slavoj Zizek