Monday, August 8, 2011

The Power of Nonsense - Alan Johnson*

"At ease: Slavoj Žižek".
Nota de enredo: El fragmento del ensayo que presentamos aquí fue publicado originalmente en Jacobin.

The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice … if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it! - Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek’s diagnosis of late capitalism is of genuine interest. His prescription is a disgrace.

Žižek is a spirited critic of the maladies of a form of life that has swept the globe since Thatcher and Reagan. He indicts its “excesses of individualism” and promotion of “social disintegration,” its ruinous combination of “(selective) private affluence’ with ‘global (ecological, infrastructural) degradation,” and its hollowing-out of representative democracy. By treating these maladies as indicators of “what is wrong in the very structure” of the system Žižek has put back on the agenda of the Left the question of a global alternative to capitalism, warning that we are living through “the self-annihilation of humanity itself.” And as a cultural critic he can be brilliant in forcing us to adopt strange angles of vision on a vast array of familiar objects and mind-sets, high and low, so that we see them afresh as forms of meaning in the service of this system-in-crisis.

Žižek’s remedy however – his call for Terror and Dictatorship set out in the extract from the paperback edition of Living in the End Times reproduced in this issue of Jacobin – is another matter entirely.

Mark Lilla in his book The Reckless Mind predicted that the “extraordinary displays of intellectual philotyranny” that disfigured the twentieth century left would not simply disappear just because the wall had fallen. So it has proved. Since 2000, Žižek has established his “New Communism” on two foundations. First, a system of concepts – Egalitarian Terror, the Absolute Act, Absolute Negativity, Divine Violence, the Messianic Moment, the Revolutionary Truth-Event, the Future Anterieur, and so on. Second, a human type and an associated sensibility – that ideologized and cruel fanatic, contemptuous of morality and trained to enormity that Žižek calls the “freedom fighter with an inhuman face.” In his passive-aggressive way, Zikek has even admitted what this so-called New Communism amounts to: “[Peter] Sloterdijk even mentions the “re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia,’ where, I guess, I belong.”

Žižek’s philosophy is, to be blunt, a species of linksfaschismus. This is true of its murderous hostility to democracy, its utter disdain for the ‘stupid’ pleasures of bourgeois life, its valorization of will, ruthlessness, terror and dictatorship, and its belief in the salvific nature of self-sacrificial death.

When Žižek says he wants to “repeat Lenin” he is often misunderstood. He means he wants to do the kind of thing Lenin did to Marxism, for good or ill, in 1914-1918: utterly recast it. Žižek is busy utterly recasting Marxism as a kind of linksfaschismus – an anti-capitalist radicalism that has been unmoored from self-emancipation, democracy, and reason and re-attached to Terror, Dictatorship and an eternal, absolute and universal “Truth” capable of being known only by an elite, and understood, he tells us, following Badiou, never as Istina (truth as adequacy to the facts) but always as Pravda – “the absolute Truth also designating the ethically committed ideal Order of the Good.”

Getting Marx Wrong

In “The Jacobin Spirit” Žižek “Marxified” his argument for terror and dictatorship by radically misconstruing what “Marx’s key insight” was. He claimed Marx understood political democracy to be a mere “democratic illusion” because without economic equality political democracy can only be a tool of the ruling class, a part of the state apparatus and therefore our “main enemy.” This gets Marx totally wrong. And getting Marx right is not merely an academic exercise. Looking back, what is at stake are those 100 million Communist corpses memorialized by Vasily Grossman in Forever Flowing, with their “crazed eyes; smashed kidneys; skull[s] pierced by a bullet; rotting infected, gangrenous toes; and scurvy racked corpses in log-cabin, dugout morgues.” Looking forward, what is at stake is the possibility of the Left creating more corpses.
Marx’s key insight did indeed concern the relation between the social question and political democracy, but rather than counterpoise the two as Žižek does, Marx’s revolution in thought was, precisely, to integrate them on the social ground of popular self-emancipation. Žižek denies the very possibility of self-emancipation, so can see only a clash between the social question and political democracy. He seeks to resolve that clash by using terror and dictatorship to impose “Communism.” That is what he means by “The Jacobin Spirit.” To elaborate:

From 1970 to 1990 the revolutionary socialist Hal Draper devoted himself almost exclusively to Marx scholarship. The main result was the four-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, two thousand pages of meticulous textual exegesis and analysis. Draper’s central argument: Marx did not abandon liberty and democracy to become a communist but became a communist in order to make real the promise of liberty and democracy. There was continuity from “his democratic views of 1842 [to] the revolutionary communism of his mature years.” Marx started out a “democratic extremist” unambiguously committed to freedom of expression and organization, the rule of law and democratic institutions, and viscerally opposed to the unaccountable power of the state and its core, the bureaucracy. What then forced a deepening (not an abandonment) of his democratic extremism was his insistence on treating the promise of freedom and democracy not in abstraction, as free-floating discourses, but in their external social relations here down on earth. Žižek’s claim that Marx saw democracy as “the ultimate enemy” inverts Marx’s actual insight – that the full promise of political democracy could only be fulfilled by the extension of democracy into the social and economic. This is how Hal Draper frames Marx’s journey:

Marx was the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent expression of democratic control from below. He was the first figure in the socialist movement who, in a personal sense, came through the bourgeois-democratic movement: through it to its farthest bounds, and then out by its farthest end. In this sense, he was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for a socialist transformation. But it might be asked, wasn’t it the case that, in his course from bourgeois democracy to communism, Marx relinquished his early naive notions about political democracy? Not in Marx’s view.

Contra Žižek, Marx’s “key insight” was that it had become possible for the first time in human history to pose the relation between political democracy and the social question in a radically new way. Rejecting the Jacobin educational dictatorship that Žižek would have us rehabilitate, Marx grasped, as Draper argues, “the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two [i.e. political democracy and the social question]…is resolved.” Global capitalism, he understood, had created not just exploitation but also the material ground on which the relationship of the social question to political freedom might be resolved through a political process of popular self-emancipation.

The core or essential structure of any putative democratic Marxism is this theoretical and practical integration of socialism and democracy. The core of Žižek’s Marxism-as-Linksfaschismus is the theoretical and practical counterposition of socialism and democracy. Whatever the “Jacobin spirit” was for the Jacobins, for Žižek it is shorthand for the rehabilitation of Terror and educational dictatorship.

Continue reading the rest of Johnson's essay at Jacobin.

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