Home > Dave's Favourites, General Politics, Marxism > Liberalism and the radical Left: properly engaging with Žižek

Liberalism and the radical Left: properly engaging with Žižek

Courtesy of Chris Dillow’s oft-excellent ‘Top Blogging’ selections of material from around the Interwebz, always posted on the right of his own blog, I noticed that Norman Geras has an article up entitled “Liberalism and the radical Left” in which Professor Geras roundly berates Slavoj Žižek for a bunch of different offenses. I often like what Žižek writes: if nothing else the man delivers a new perspective on time-worn dilemmas in an engaging way. I tend to simply ignore the Lacanian baggage that he carries with him – and often he is quite intelligible without it.

On this occasion, however, I think Professor Geras is massively mistaken in some of his attacks – and quite ungentlemanly, it must be said. As I have noticed in the past, this seems to be a regular feature of Žižek’s reviewers: they don’t much like to engage with him on his own terms, preferring instead to read out of context and ridicule without substantive engagement.  Norm focusses on the following paragraph from a Žižek essay (note, the numbering is down to Norm – but it’s handy as his subsequent criticisms are directed by the numbers):

[1] “The difference between liberalism and the radical Left is that, although they refer to the same three elements (liberal center, populist Right, radical Left), they locate them in a radically different topology: for the liberal center, radical Left and Right are the two forms of appearance of the same “totalitarian” excess, while for the Left, the only true alternative is the one between itself and the liberal mainstream, with the populist “radical” Right as nothing but the symptom of… liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat. [2] When we hear today a politician or an ideologist offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantly asking a (purely rhetorical) question “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocking of religion to be punished by death?”, what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer – who would have wanted that? The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. [3] This is why, for a true Leftist, the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. [4] One should accomplish here a Hegelian step back and put in question the very measure from which fundamentalism appears in all its horror. Liberals have long ago lost their right to judge. [5] What Horkheimer had said should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk (critically) about liberal democracy and its noble principles should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”

I want to respond to Norman Geras’ attacks: as Norm has numbered the paragraph in order to better specify which bit he is attacking, I’ll follow the same formula. Anyone wishing to play the game should read Norm’s article first, then read mine.

[1] What Žižek is saying here is neither new nor remarkable. For liberals, radical Left and Right are two forms of the same totalitarian excess. I have to use Žižek’s words because they are so well chosen. How many times do socialists come up against the argument that Fascist tyranny and Soviet tyranny were the same thing? One doesn’t even have to engage with the Trotskyist idea of deformed and degenerated workers’ states to see that, whether or not their methods were similar (and in his In Defence of Lost Causes, Žižek makes a good case that at the semiotic level, the methods weren’t the same) , the two represented different configurations of social forces.

One was born of stalled workers’ struggle, the other was given birth to crush that struggle – and this is true whatever one thinks of the subsequent behaviour of the new Soviet Russian elite. Similarly, for the Left, the major opponent is liberalism. I give liberalism the lower-case ‘l’ as a means to note that this is not the list of policies held by one political party or another, but the ideology which underpins the whole system of capitalism and the basic prejudices of all three major parties of the British parliamentary system: Right, Centre and Left. I don’t see anything startling here – nor any reason for Professor Geras to dismiss it as idiocy.

When Žižek subsequently says that “the populist “radical” Right [is] nothing but the symptom of…liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat”, again, he is saying nothing new. The conception of fascism as the reaction to the global eruption of militant class struggle around the world following WWI is not new. On a smaller level, I was saying something similar myself in my previous article: the populist Right latch on to solutions to symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself (e.g. immigration rather than a free labour market).

Capitalism creates two interests, liberalism only has room for one. Under capitalism, the first interest is that of the worker, who would prefer if cheaper labour could not be used to supplant his own or drive down his wages. The second interest is that of the employer, who has the opposing interest. Liberalism, the defence of the equal rights of the individual, stands with the employer: individuals should be able to move around unrestricted, which is an implicit justification of capitalist practice. To assert otherwise is to constrict the liberty of some.

Thus politicians, caught between pressure from below, which is angry at one of the natural practices of capitalism, and the natural and logical extension of their own liberalism, adopt Right-populist slogans and concepts: the restriction of immigration, British Jobs for British Workers etc. Here it is the rhetoric which is important: the practical effect of such measures  is to produce scapegoats rather than to actually halt immigration; all the draconian immigration laws in the world don’t stop the free flow of labour – as witnessed if we compare the actual practices which caused the Lindsey Oil Refinery Strike versus the number of laws New Labour have passed to tighten up immigration.

Professor Geras contends that by asserting all this, that Žižek elides a bunch of differences between Right-populism and liberalism: I don’t think this is so. I think Žižek simply recognizes the deficiencies of liberalism and the circumstances under which liberalism will be transformed into Right-populism by its inability to reconcile popular disaffection with the results of capitalism and the first principles of liberalism itself. I’m sure all of this is open to challenge – but it’s hardly fitting for Norman Geras to go about calling it ‘political idiocy’.

[2] The next attack launched is that Žižek is trying to eliminate the distinction offered by the notional politician he creates. Said politician asks, “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocking of religion to be punished by death?” Obviously the expected answer is “No”, and the implication is that only liberalism can deliver on that “No”, whilst a whole host of fundamentalisms will happily deliver the organised suppression of women and the censure and execution of free-thinkers.

Agree or disagree with him, Žižek’s point (a more extended version of which can be found in his book Violence) is that actually the distinction is a false one. Liberalism delivers for Western Europe (relatively) empowered women and the right to say what we want – but as a result of our liberal system, our armed forces are off doing the work of totalitarians and fundamentalists in foreign countries. Indeed the same rhetorical cover has been used for such military interventionism since the days of slavery and beyond.

We can want different freedoms etc, but so long as these remain on a liberal basis, they come at the expense of coercing other nations to be just like us. Which sounds fine: a few broken eggs to create a global liberal democratic omelette. But the reality, when the rhetoric is stripped away, is that ‘just like us’ simply means that countries are open to foreign investment, that their State has the same attitude towards opening up public services to private profiteering and so on and so forth. This is what happened in Iraq: it will no doubt happen in Afghanistan.

Bottom line: I don’t think Žižek is minimizing the real differences in quality of living between British people and people living under fundamentalist regimes – and this is what I take from Žižek’s remarks, though I have the advantage of having read quite a portion of other work. What Žižek is attempting to do is show that these freedoms and differences in quality of life aren’t abstract and politicians who counterpose the differences as a means to defend liberalism (muscular or otherwise) ignore the global effects of this ideology, denuded of its innocence.

[3] Again the liberalism-fundamentalism distinction. I agree with Professor Geras that those things he lists – e.g. throwing acid at girls for attending school – are barbaric. But the opposite of ‘barbarism’ is certainly not liberalism. See the above comments on our ‘liberal’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq – and they are not the first. The only thing added to the discussion is that Žižek contends that liberalism generates fundamentalism; if Žižek had said ‘capitalism’ in place of liberalism I think he’d have been more accurate – but even still, all is not lost.

Liberalism is the dominant discourse of capitalism; the doctrine of  rights, which are inalienable to the individual. Export of liberalism is part and parcel of capitalism, breaking down moral economies and traditional ties in favour of market exchange. People can react to this by attacking the symptoms, such as the surface discourse of liberalism rather than the practicalities of capitalism, in defence of ‘traditional’ forms of exploitation. The form that capitalism takes, i.e. liberalism, thus begets if not the fact then the form of its enemy: illiberal fundamentalism.

For this reason, Osama bin Laden and his crew attack homosexuality, fornication, intoxication and gambling (all defended by liberalism based on the right of the individual to do as they will, so long as they harm no other) in the same breath as usury – i.e. modern banking, the necessary prerequisite of a free market. Even the attitude of such people to advanced technology, that other symptom of modernity, is one of suspicion – though no doubt hypocritical, since OBL himself is reportedly surviving due to a dialysis machine.

I shall leave [4] and [5]; the former seeming to me a bit of gobbledegook (what the hell is a Hegelian step back and is that any different from the regular English idiom ‘to step back’, i.e. to gain perspective?) and the latter seeming like an excuse for a pissing contest over how far people like Norman Geras do or do not critically analyse liberal democracy (that is, cast the mote) before they attack religious fundamentalism. They hardly require much explanation – and I think my point is already made in any case.

Namely, when Žižek drops the Lacanian silliness, his points are pretty traditional – and agree with them or disagree with them, they are not as immediately nonsensical as Norman Geras would make out.

  1. paulinlancs
    August 26, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I was actually a little saddended to see this attack by Norman Geras, as he appears to have moved a long way towards a passive acceptance of the dominant discourse of liberalism – and its self-positioning as the diametric opposite to barbarism/fudmentalism – in the last 20 odd years.

    I haven’t got the book to hand at the moment, but I remember a passage in his (it has to be said, slightly ungentemanly at times) critique of Laclau and Mouffe, in which he attacks their acceptance of the overriding virtues of liberalism in more or less exactly the same way you attack Geras himself here; he notes that they have assumed an a priori correctness within liberalism, on to which their ideas for a radical democracy might simply be bolted.

    I don’t understand what happened, as i’ve not read anything he’s written between that book (1985ish) and his current blog (which I no longer look at much). Shame.

  2. August 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Zizek gets a lot of stick. I recall a humourless article written by Johann Hari which trashed our Slovenian comrade on the basis of comments he had made in jest…

    Why, though? It can’t just be that his sense of humour is misunderstood – Zizek is one of the few modern philosophers who gives vocal support to the rights and struggles of working people.

  3. randy
    August 26, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Something you should read …


    Amongst other things, it shows how 700 rapes are turned into 70,000 by people like Harriet Harman in order to pursue their own ambitions.


  4. August 29, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Really engaging article this Dave (although there is a lot to Zizek’s discourse that couldn’t be achieved without appeals to Lacan, its perhaps the confalutedness you don’t like, and if this is the case I tend to agree).

    The funny thing is, Zizek is not meant to be that extraordinary, even well-meaning folks charge him with accusations that he’s a simple postmodernist and he has nothing new to say, when in fact he does many things to the good in academia, namely collate the authentic core of writers and ideas (what we forget about Marx, the real Lenin, Robespierre for today etc) for example with what he does in his book with John Millbank; utilise Hegel in order to show why materialist theology must be saved and so on.

    We might not always agree, but he is rather important. Another example, Alain Badiou was all but forgotten about in te English-speaking world without Zizek. The European Grad School where Zizek is a professor has introduced many important speakers into the English-speaking world, all very necessary work.

    An apt point made about certain critics not playing on a level court with Zizek, or engaging in his language. Charles Crawford, for example, replied with a blog entry herehttp://charlescrawford.biz/blog/bloggers-circle-i-ek-returns that dismissed Zizek on really weak grounds. He was unable to follow the true political core of Zizek’s work, and appealed simply to his structure. Violence, the book that Crawford was discussing, is actually rather simple in its language, and really rather necessary in order to get straight the difference in objective an subjective violence. How useful this is in ordinary politics. But people will always write them off lock, stock and barrel.

    That Hari article is here and actually Charles Crawford comments on it saying;

    “Maybe Mr Zizek should devote some of his undoubted energies to digging up the thousands of bodies of people summarily murdered by Tito’s communists in posty-WW2 Slovenia?

    His incessant nihilistic smirking at the actual horror of communism (as buried in his own back-yard) is the real issue, which this review deals with to fine and decisive effect.”

    To even think that Zizek is an apologist for Tito’s murderous bent is unthinkable in its stupidity. Such as life.

  5. August 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    crumbs, I meant convolutedness at the start, cheers

  6. August 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Edward Thompson had it right when he said to Leszek Kolakowski: we call ourselves communists not out of deference to what the Soviet states are, but to what they might be.

    I think this is the stance that Zizek rightly adopts with regard to the former communist countries. We know what they did, but whereas imperialism and fascism offer nothing else, the real tragedy is that the communist countries did have the potential to be something greater.

    I imagine Crawford must have had near-apoplexy when he read the chapter of Zizek’s In Defence of Lost Causes entitled “How Stalin saved the humanity of man”.

  7. missivesfrommarx
    September 1, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Brilliant post! I have to say that although I share Zizek’s hatred of liberalism, I don’t read him—if I ever again hear anything else about “the Real” I’ll probably shoot myself (or, worse, someone else).

    I enjoyed reading Zizek and co. (i.e., all the people who think everything should be said using the most obscure concepts of Lacan, Derrida, and Deleuze) in grad school, but at some point I realized that almost everything this group said that was worth saying could actually be said more accessibly. It’s like they get a kick out of writing in a confusing way so they can enjoy watching people unravel the mystery. I enjoyed the practice of unraveling at one point(there’s an aesthetic to Derrida’s language that I really loved), but I eventually decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I know there are good arguments for the idea that one can upset the status quo simply by using an alternate way of talking, but that shouldn’t require making a puzzle out of everything one says.

    I read this essay by a Derridean who delved deep into D’s theory of repetition and iteration to argue that rituals don’t have an essence, but are remade and reused for new political purposes all the time. Really? You had to spend 15 pages with Derrida to say that? I could have said it (and thrown in an example to boot!) in a paragraph.

  8. September 1, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Zizek is definitely a more accessible Lacanian – his use of the Marx brothers to explain Freud’s id, ego, superego trinity was particularly amusing and memorable, just one example of how he uses films to help us understand philosophical concepts.

    The use of shock tactics was particularly helpful in keeping me awake through In Defence of Lost Causes, which at several points went completely over my head.

  1. December 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm

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