I’ve only just had a chance to watch the video above, of Žižek’s performance at Marxism 2009. Probably the most powerful thought to come out of Žižek’s speech is the notion of victims with their own voices.
Žižek talks about how, at a Hitchcock conference in California, he was denounced by a man there for talking about such trifling things while the war in Yugoslavia raged. The implication was that those not involved could talk about whatever they wanted, but as a Yugoslavian, Žižek had a duty to dwell on his victimhood, on the trauma of his home country. Something in this struck home with me.
Sympathy with those whose countries have suffered civil war and the brutality which Žižek describes is the wrong emotion. Solidarity is the right one. The difference, I think, is that, through our sympathy we develop a tendency to impute noble qualities to the victims of trauma, when they are just people. For the Left, this is repeated in the myth of the ‘noble’ proletariat, the good but stupid pawn of the ruling class.
The answer, which Žižek doesn’t make explicit, is to focus on the material context in which the ideological must exist.
To give an example, Silvio Berlusconi, of late a favourite of Žižek, appears in the speech, this time as the masque worn by capitalism-with-asian-values, the authoritarian capitalism that Žižek contends is being developed. Italian political discourse faces being sidelined in favour of a grotesque pantomime that neuters political opposition by displacing real grievances.
Instead of talking about and understanding the actual material things which cause them hardship in their lives, instead of knowing who their real opponents are, citizens of the Italian democracy become invested in the spectacle at work on stage. Likewise the media, already aligned to act as a conduit from Westminster or the Palazzo Montecitorio, recycling consensus as if was news and adding to the distortion, remains glued to the spectacle.
There is a similar a phenomenon regularly talked about by Marxists. Racism, we often contend, is a displaced class struggle. Without effective means of expressing solidarity with one another, or challenging the ruling class, the ‘real’ mechanisms of power become concealed from the working class. They appear as the ‘normal’ background to life; “it’s how the world works”.
Without appreciating that this normal background is not permanent but changeable, blame for the ill-effects of the system are transferred to elements which appear as if from ‘outside’. Immigrants are the standard example, being literally as well as metaphorically from outside, and therefore the most common victim of this transference.
Real grievances in the Italian case can be blamed on the excesses of Berlusconi’s stupidity, much in the way people in America blamed their problems, come the recession, on the stupidity of George W. Bush. Many Americans couldn’t believe that the country had elected such an obvious bumbling moron as President. It was only when he was ousted, and Obama took his place without a real change in direction that the depth of the problem was revealed.
The result, absent a political alternative, has been apathy on the part of those who swung things for Obama. Arguably, at second glance, the process may still be at work, with the continuing deadlock being ascribed to Republican wingnuts, who, as poll after poll tells us, are wildly out of touch with reality. This forestalls deeper analysis.
Generalised stupidity or ignorance of the ‘real’ issues are thus not the cause of relative quiescence of our class, despite some furious outbreaks of resistance. Quite the opposite. The collapse and continuing weakness of once-powerful social solidarities are the failure of the politically conscious elements of the working class to articulate an effective strategy whereby resistance doesn’t merely explode on to the streets and then fade away.
That’s an extraordinarily broad group – including seven million trades unionists of all trades and disciplines, community workers, politicians and many other groups, not just the band of easily dismissed supposedly ‘middle class’ revolutionaries, professional or otherwise.
Instead of culminating in a march that is defeated when the government pursue their agenda regardless, resistance must be the method for forming links of more general purpose than solving the specific grievances raised. To give an example, the Public and Commercial Services Union has announced that it will ballot its members in response to the government’s decision to slash pension and redundancy entitlements, making laying off workers cheaper.
Many workers in jobcentres will be affected, the very place where some of them might end up as claimants. There is the opportunity here for workers and the unemployed to link up and show their solidarity with one another. The workers will appreciate, more keenly than ever, the threat of unemployment – and it’s suddenly in their broader interest to demand greater security nets for the unemployed.
Regrettably Žižek doesn’t deal in concrete activism, and so his discussion of what it means to be a revolutionary doesn’t provide much solid advice when it comes to day-to-day work, and his claim that the Left should ruthlessly use state power against the ruling class is rather undermined by the gap left as regards how we conquer state power.
I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn tonight of the death of Howard Zinn; my thoughts are with his family and his students.
He was one of those academics who made a lasting impression on me. His prose, in his famous People’s History of the United States, was incisive and his flair for exposing hypocrisy in modern American political rhetoric was unsurpassed.
Bush-era jingoism enraged the socialist academic and, in his interviews, he never failed to cut through the revisionist invocations of American history, of that great country’s ‘freedoms’.
Zinn argued instead for a redemptive politics of activism that could never be uniquely American, that would be shared by peoples and activists all over the world.
It is in this context that his opposition to the Vietnam War, and subsequent US military invasions can be set.
For me, he stands in the first rank of American heroes, like Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Jack London and Upton Sinclair, all of whom he himself looked up to.
Noam Chomsky once paid Zinn tribute in the following terms: “When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.”
My last thought is that Zinn’s actions and words can be a lesson to us to be like him, to never give up fighting for our ideals. “Small actions, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world.”