Monday, 10 February 2014

Slavoj Žižek Against Postmodernist Counterrevolutionaries

Slavoj Žižek states that each and every postmodernist, post-structuralist (deconstructionist, etc.) and so on believes that capitalism is “the only game in town” (321). Is Žižek an intellectual cretin? Or, alternatively, is this Marxist absolutism and simplicity - the generalisations, stereotypes, essentialism, etc. - required in order to bring about Total Revolution? That is, are Žižek's gross generalisations about postmods, poststruts, etc. required by the Marxist project itself?

For a start, Žižek is ignoring all those academics and theorists who are indeed Marxists or at least quasi-Marxists. Post-Colonial Studies, Critical Theory, 'subaltern studies', etc. are virtually all Marxist disciplines. Above and beyond that are the legions of Marxist academics who work in the various social sciences, from anthropology, history, sociology to psychology. Clearly Žižek is showing his totalitarian (or 'totalist') credentials in that, like all Marxists, he will never be happy until the whole of society, not just academia and the Gramscian “institutions”, belong to Marxists like himself.

The first thing is Žižek's typically black-and-white stance that because postmods don't accept the Marxist alternative (violent revolution and the complete destruction of capitalism), then they don't really accept any alternative or even any change. Žižek knows as well as anyone else that many – probably most – postmods have problems with capitalism even if they don't platonise or essentialise it as Žižek 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 follow from all that that they see capitalism as being “the only game in town” (as Žižek claims that they do)... Except that it does to a Marxist like Žižek who thinks in such absolutist and black-and-whitist ways. Indeed Marxism demands that you do so because the Revolution requires such absolutism and black-and-whitism.

For one thing, some postmods, poststruts, etc. may have learned, from Antonio Gramsci, that even if 'radicals' have given up on the overnight (violent) revolution, they can still nonetheless “take over the institutions”. Indeed they have taken over the institutions! For example, postmod and poststrut radicals (if sometimes watered-down ones), as well as outright Marxists, have taken over large parts of the following: the universities, the BBC, the law, the rights business and the race industry, the publishing houses, the charities, the interfaith circuit, local and national newspapers, etc.

These postmods, poststruts, etc. may simply be 'gradualists' or 'reformists” in the old style – much to the chagrin of the classical Marxists like Žižek. However, it doesn't follow from that they they aren't critics of capitalism or even that they ignore the economy. Only a Marxist would think in such a simplistic manner. Nonetheless, to a certain degree Žižek is right about the postmods, poststruts, etc: if only when you see things from a Marxist perspective. The postmods, poststruts, etc. haven't brought about Year Zero. The capitalist world hasn't gone up in smoke. The Gulag hasn't been filled with 'fascists', 'Nazis', 'reactionaries', 'the far right', 'Islamophobes', 'bigots', 'xenophobes', etc; and the capitalist haven't been hung by their intestines from the nearest trees. Perhaps the postmods, poststruts, etc., being “bleeding-heart liberals” (as Zizek calls them), don't want all that bloodshed, or the “Terror” (to use Žižek's own word), which the Revolution will inevitably bring about.

Žižek, being some kind of tough guy (even one with a beard and a lisp), wants Terror. Most postmods and poststruts don't.

Capitalism Allows Subjectivities

Žižek explains his position on the postmodern counterrevolution thus:

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

Now that sounds quite incredible. Prima facie and in my naivete, you'd think that even Marxists would argue that capitalism works against “the emergence of shifting-dispersed-contingent-ironic- and so on, political subjectivities”. But Žižek is saying the exact opposite. It seems, then, that capitalism is criticised for not allowing “political subjectivities” and it's also criticised for allowing them! Postmods, poststruts, etc., or at least some of them, have certainly claimed the former. Now Žižek is admitting that it is capitalism itself which allows “political subjectivities” to flower and flourish – and he doesn't appear to like that. (This is like the Nazi criticism of Jews which states that they are all Marxists and that they are all 'neo-cons', or 'Zionists', or 'right-wing capitalists'.)

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

So on the one hand postmods, poststruts, etc. are unhappy with capitalism's “oppression” or censorship of this group or that minority (as Marxists tend to do also when not reading Žižek). And on the other hand Žižek has a problem with capitalism's enabling of, well, 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 such multiple political subjectivities: 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 subjectivities and “hybrid identities” simply muddies the water that is the ancient (Marxist) class war.

You see, what the postmods, 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 postmod “playing” occurs within capitalist states. It really is that simple. Therefore it really is “playing” simply because it's all done with the domain of capitalism “in which our experience is trapped”.

I don't suppose that Žižek ever out-rightly says that all this postmod “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!

Again and again Žižek argues against any position, any stance, and any subjectivity, which works against Total Revolution. Despite that, it is 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 many non-Marxist radicals. (It can be argued that Žižek is a fascist: a red fascist.) However, Žižek's support for these subjectivities is violently qualified. In fact he's fundamentally against the dilution or dissolution of the class war. And that's why, as everyone knows, Marxists simply use minorities - or these various subjectivities - as tools in the Revolution. And if they don't work as tools in the Revolution, then Marxists (specifically Trotskyists) discard them or even worse. Of course, many feminists, gays, blacks, Muslims, etc. know never to trust a party-aligned Marxist (especially if he's a Trotskyist). Still, in this relationship of mutual use, the Marxists still help these various subjectivities - but only to help further their own white, middle-class Revolution. Alternatively, and this really amounts to the same thing, Marxists will enable and patronise minorities - or subjectivities – if and only if such help helps the revolutionary political party to which they belong. (The UK's Socialist Workers Party, or SWP, is a perfect and notorious example of this Marxist mindset.)

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

There's more.

Žižek not only accuses the postmods of being counterrevolutionaries (which they may happily admit to): he also gets personal. He argues that because postmods aren't obsessed with capitalism and violent revolution (as he is), 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 is this:

You postmods, instead of paying excessive attention to racism and sexism, why not look at the true cause of sexism, racism and indeed of all evils – Capitalism. You are focusing on symptoms rather than on the true cause.

This is why the Marxist's (especially if a Trotskyist) collaborations with feminists, blacks, gays, Muslims is only ever half-hearted or, more accurately, opportunistic and cynical. In the black-and-white mind of the Marxist forever 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 a Revolution. And after the Revolution, there will of course be heaven on earth (as 20th century history has shown us).

Again, this is why Marxist parties/movements don't genuinely or sincerely (certainly not altruistically!) unite themselves with ethnic groups, feminists, Muslims, gays, etc: they use them instead. (They usually infiltrate their groups/movements and try to take them over.) The problem, according to Marxist parties, is that not only have these groups and individuals got it all wrong: ultimately, they are actually working against the Revolution and therefore in support of Capitalism. This, then, explains why Marxist parties/groups (especially Trotskyist ones) are so cynical and opportunistic when it comes to their phoney alliances with minority or “oppressed” groups. This also explains, quite simply, why they use them.



Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau [2000], Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Verso

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