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Monday, 20 July 2015

Slavoj Žižek Wants Revolution, Not Pluralism

Marxists (or revolutionary socialists) were against Western “capitalist democracies” because they created and then allowed poverty and inequality. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, many Marxists were against capitalist democracies because they created and then allowed affluence (or “materialist consumerism”).

Many contemporary Marxists are against capitalist democracies because they don't allow sexual freedom, rights for ethnic minorities, free speech, etc. Other Marxists are also against capitalist democracies because they do allow these things.

Take the case of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. According to Jennifer Wallace (during an interview with the philosopher), Žižek believes that capitalist democracy “allows sexual freedom, grants rights to ethnic minorities, and upholds free speech” (page 311).

However, a Marxist like Žižek isn't happy with all that because “we actually live within a regime of self-imposed, hidden, and eroticised prohibitions”. Or to use Žižek's own words:

Precisely by dwelling in this postmodern world, effectively your life is much more regulated.”

Žižek continues by saying that “beneath the appearances of free choice, it's a much more severe order because it terrorizes you from within”.

Marxists like Žižek have glided effortlessly from arguing that capitalist democracies impose their “prohibitions” on people; to arguing that such prohibitions are “self-imposed, hidden, and eroticised”. Of course that may still mean that it's capitalist democracies which are – indirectly - doing the imposing of such prohibitions; even if people are now seemingly doing it for themselves. That may be because the subjects of capitalism have “internalised” (Chomsky's term) such prohibitions. That is, many people still suffer from that old malady which all non-Marxists suffer from - “false consciousness”. (One variation on the Marxist notion of false consciousness is Noam Chomsky's “manufacturing of consent”.)

None of this should be a surprise. After all, Žižek's still a revolutionary socialist and anti-capitalist. And all this pseudo-freedom still occurs within capitalist democracies. Thus, almost by definition, Žižek sees dark in the light. That's his job. He's a Marxist.

Peripheral Subjectivities

It's not only the case that “sexual freedom”, “rights [for] ethnic minorities” and “free speech” are simply not enough for Žižek, it also seems to be the case that these peripheral matters end up becoming counter-revolutionary in nature. Indeed Žižek hints at this when he states the following:

In the old days of essentialism.... the left focused too much on simple economic issues and the primacy of the class struggle. Now the days of essentialism are over and instead of the one struggle, you have plurality, gay rights, ecology, ethnic identity, whatever.”

Žižek becomes more explicit when he concludes by saying:

I nonetheless claim that the price paid for this apparent plurality is that something has been excluded. Nobody on the left really thinks about a global alternative to capitalism.” (pg. 314)

Since Žižek himself mentions Marxist “essentialism” (he also uses the phrase “the left focused too much on simple economic issues and the primacy of the class struggle”), that would appear to suggest that Žižek is against such a thing. However, when you actually read his work, it doesn't seem that way at all. Indeed it doesn't even seem that way when you read the full passages in which these claims about essentialism are made.

For example, Žižek repeats his idea of “apparent plurality”. That must mean that such plurality is unreal simply because it occurs within capitalist democracies. But how does that follow? Why can't these things be real and yet still occur within capitalist democracies? Is Žižek such an zealous anti-capitalist that he rules that out by definition?

It's clearly the case that Žižek believes that “plurality” can only be real (not “apparent”) within a “global alternative to capitalism”. In other words, “gays rights, ecology, ethnic identity”, etc. mean almost nothing if they occur within capitalist democracies. They will all remain apparent or unreal. Though how and why are they unreal? It's not enough to say it's because they all occur within capitalist democracies. We need to be given reasons as to why Žižek holds this view.

Žižek explains his position thus:

... today's capitalism, rather, provides the very background and terrain for the emergence of shifting-dispersed-contingent-ironic- and so on, political subjectivities.” (page 108)

You'd think that Marxists would argue that capitalism works against “the emergence of shifting-dispersed-contingent-ironic- and so on, political subjectivities”. Yet Žižek is saying the exact opposite. It seems, then, that capitalist democracies are criticised for not allowing “political subjectivities” and they're also criticised for allowing them! Žižek is admitting that it's capitalist democracies themselves which allow “political subjectivities” to flower and flourish – and he doesn't like that.

Žižek goes into detail as to why capitalist democracies - rather than stopping the expression of “subjectivities” (or “hybrid entities”), have, in fact, enabled them or even brought them about. And Žižek, as I said, isn't happy with this.

Žižek has a problem with capitalism's enabling of Difference and the Other.

Žižek says that capitalism

has created the conditions for the demise of 'essentialist' politics and the proliferation of new multiple political subjectivities. So, again, to make myself clear.... [capitalism] creates the very background against which 'generalised hegemony' can thrive.” (319)

Let me put that in plain English.

Multiple political subjectivities are a problem for Žižek because he doesn't want them: he wants the working class (as a whole) to fight capitalism. Or, at the very least, Žižek wants all the other subjectivities to unite behind the “hegemony” that is the working class. This multiplicity of “hybrid identities” simply muddies the water that is the ancient (Marxist) class war.

Žižek puts his case more explicitly by arguing against the Argentinian “post-Marxist” philosopher Ernesto Laclau. The latter believes that “all elements which enter into hegemonic struggle are in principle equal”. However, according to Žižek, “there is always one which, while it is part of the chain, secretly overdetermines its very horizon”. That “part of the chain” is of course class. This must also mean that “economic, political, feminist, ecological [and] ethnic” struggles (or what Žižek calls “antagonisms”) are all peripheral to the class struggle. Indeed, as a Marxist, Žižek evidently believes that.

You see, what postmodernists, post-structuralists, multiculturalists, etc. don't realise is that all this

playing with multiple, shifting personas... [simply] tends to obfuscate... the constraints of social space in which our experience is trapped” (103).

In other words, all this “playing” occurs within capitalist democracies. It really is that simple. Therefore it's all an example of “playing” because it's all carried out with the domain of capitalism “in which our experience is trapped”.

I don't suppose that Žižek ever out-rightly says that all this playing is utterly pointless because I suspect that such an explicit statement - or absolutist stance - would work against his image as a hip and radical philosopher (even a “dangerous” one). Nonetheless, he comes pretty close to saying that!

No Alternative to a Marxism Revolution

Žižek is showing his 'totalist' credentials in that, like all Marxists, he will never be happy until the whole of society - not just his own academia and other Gramscian “institutions” - belong to Marxists like himself.

Žižek knows as well as anyone else that many – probably most – postmods, post-structuralists, etc. have problems with capitalism (even if they don't essentialise it as Žižek himself does). Their problem, according to Žižek, is that they aren't outright Marxists who believe in (violent) revolution. Similarly, they don't see everything in terms of “class antagonisms” either. However, it doesn't also follow from all this that they see capitalism as being “the only game in town” (as Žižek claims they do).

Again and again Žižek argues against any position (or any “subjectivity”) which works against total Revolution. Despite that, it's of course the case that Žižek must (in a sense) support these “subjectivities” otherwise he'd be classed as a reactionary (or even a fascist) by some non-Marxist radicals. However, Žižek's support for these subjectivities is violently qualified. In fact he's fundamentally against the dilution or dissolution of the class war.

The bottom line, then, is that postmods, poststruts, etc. aren't outright revolutionary Marxists (or old-fashioned Marxist fundamentalists). The apostasy of the postmods, etc. is their “silent suspension of class analysis”. Žižek also believes that “class antagonism is disavowed” (97) in postmod, post-structuralist, etc. analysis and theory. And that's a great sin against Marx and the Revolution.

There's more.

Žižek not only accuses the postmods, etc. of being counter-revolutionaries: he also gets personal. He argues that because postmods, etc. aren't in favour of violent revolution (as he appears to be), then they must of necessity pay “somewhat 'excessive' attention to” such things as “sexism [and] racism” (97). Now that sounds like a terrible thing for such a trendy philosopher to say. It could easily be seen as, God forbid, reactionary. Žižek, of course, has an easy answer to that blasphemous accusation. It's this:

Instead of paying excessive attention to racism, sexism, ethnic identity, ecology, etc. you postmods, post-structuralists and whatnot should look at the true causes of sexism, racism and indeed of all evils – capitalism. You're simply focusing on the symptoms rather than on the true cause.

This is why Marxist (especially Trotskyist) collaborations with feminists, blacks, gays, Muslims, etc. are only ever half-hearted; or, more accurately, opportunistic and cynical. In the black-and-white mind of the Marxist there always lurks the idea that postmods, gays, Muslims, blacks, etc. should be agitating for total Revolution; not putting plasters on the wounds of capitalism. In other words, all this newfangled “human rights, ecology, racism, sexism” (97) nonsense simply gets in the way of real change. And that real change, of course, can only be brought about by Revolution.

The problem, according to Marxists, is that not only have these groups and individuals got it all wrong: they're actually working against Revolution and, ultimately, in support of capitalism.

Žižek's Alternative

Žižek alternative to pluralism (as well as to multiculturalism) is uniformity – Marxist uniformity. Marxists like Žižek have always seen Marxism as a “universal” ideology or belief-system. Or as Žižek himself puts it:

The only way to break out of this deadlock is to propose and fight for a positive universal project shared by all participants.”

That “universal project” is one which includes the “fight for emancipation” and the “struggle against neocolonialism”. That Grand Narrative is Marxism. In other words, what will tie the so-far warring tribes, religions and even classes together - within a multicultural or pluralist society - is a joint commitment not to patriotism or shared civic, social and political values/traditions, but the sharing of Marxist theory, Marxist ideology and Marxist causes.


Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000), Verso
Slavoj Žižek, 'Rotherham child sex abuse: it is our duty to ask difficult questions', published in the Guardian, 1st September, 2014.
Predictions: 30 Great Minds on the Future (1999), edited by Sian Griffiths, 'Slavoj Žižek: Closing the Gap' (interview by Jennifer Wallace).

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