Žižek the Authoritarian
In a post last week, I quoted Johann Hari on the myriad problems with Slavoj Žižek. Not surprisingly, fans of Žižek were quick to write to me about why Hari is wrong. The blogger at Interruptions, in fact, pointed me to an interesting piece by Graham Harman that serves as a response to Hari on the seriousness or intellectual weight of Žižek. Harman writes:
I agree with virtually none of Žižek’s politics or ontology, but I don’t see how you can read his books and not find him to be an intensely serious, well-read, and highly cultured person of immense intellectual gifts, one we are lucky to have in our midst. Enjoy him while you have him. We’re not going to have a philosopher this provocatively entertaining for centuries to come. (Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, was probably the last.)
But most of all, the gift that Žižek has given us is the sense that it’s time to take clear, blunt positions on issues, after a two-decade interlude in which prose was always supposed to meander and hedge its bets and regard puns as if they were philosophical arguments. That was the 1980′s and much of the 1990′s, and Žižek was one of those who dealt that style a death-blow.
Let’s begin with some throat-clearing: I’ve read Žižek; I’ve taught whole courses on Marxism in the past and these courses have included works by Lenin; I continue to teach Marx regularly in several courses; I even teach a bit of Lacan in a course. I don’t see anything wrong with exposing people to their ideas, some of which I think ought to be taken quite seriously.
But now let’s get to the heart of the matter, to my critique of Žižek.
The sum total of Harman’s defense of Žižek is that he is a serious thinker and an interesting one. I don’t entirely disagree, though I think he’s more interesting as a philosopher than he is serious. But I see nothing in Harman’s defense that blunts the central criticism of Hari’s piece, namely that the things about which Žižek is serious and interesting are abhorrent. Hari is mistaken in claiming that Žižek is an incoherent or ridiculous figure; he is not. This is what Harman reacts against in his rebuttal of Hari, but it isn’t the part of Hari’s piece that interested me; what interested me was the critique of Žižek’s embracing of neo-Leninism as a political philosophy, seemingly without making a serious effort to connect the dots between what he admires in Leninism and what everyone abhors in Stalinism. On this point, Žižek’s problematic political philosophy, Harman doesn’t defend Žižek; instead, he affirms Hari’s argument.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with reading Lenin, just as there is a lot of value to be had from a close reading of Marx. For example, Marx sets out a challenging critique of Locke on the idea of natural rights that seems devoted solely to individualistic property rights. But one has to ultimately recognize that Marx’s proposals for the future are shadowy at best, and they seem to rest on violence of unknown duration and on a vision of human nature and power that, very charitably, must be described as hopeful. To stand with Marx on the issues of exploitation and alienation is perfectly fine; to stand with him on the question of the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eventual withering away of the state is … altogether different.
I think we can say similarly nice things about some of Lenin’s philosophy too. But Lenin wanted to get his hands dirty in the political arena; he didn’t simply want to write treatises to inspire others. And so admiring Lenin turns out to be problematic for the same reasons that it’s problematic to admire anyone who advocates and then undertakes the sort of destructive radicalism that he does.
So when Žižek styles himself a neo-Leninist or something to that effect, he’s playing around with very dangerous ideas, ideas that cost tens of millions of lives – and not by accident, I would argue, but by design. Unlike some, I don’t see a pure Leninist Bolshevism that stands above and at odds with the Stalinist terror that overtook it. For a detailed discussion of the roots of Stalinism in Leninism, and thus why a pure Leninism is ultimately unpersuasive, I recommend especially Chapters 3 and 4 of François Furet’s excellent book, The Passing of an Illusion. And yet, this idea remains at the very center of Žižek’s project. As David Pickus points out, in a detailed analysis of Žižek’s Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?:
Žižek does have a discernible political stance toward one of the major controversies regarding totalitarianism, namely that the term should not be applied to Lenin’s revolution, even if, later, Stalin was a criminal. Once again, there is little new in Žižek’s understanding of the Soviet Union, just as his charge that “liberal democracy’s” real agenda in talking about totalitarianism is ideological anti-radicalism is frequently made by writers on the left. What deserves attention is Žižek’s version of this position. In a chapter on Stalinism called “When the Party Commits Suicide,” Žižek demonstrates “why even the darkest Stalinism harbours a redemptive dimension.”
It turns out that this dimension exists less in the historical record than in the mind of the beholder …. In the case of Stalin, the “redemptive dimension” of the purges is found in the fact that Žižek wishes for such a redemption …. [F]or Žižek, the tendentious interpretation of a scene in a movie somehow trumps all the evidence that speaks against his wishes. He does not make any other attempt to defend his case. Remaining difficult questions about totalitarianism are simply left unengaged. Žižek retreats from the subject matter to his wishes.
Some people will say that this is just Žižek being Žižek, that he is intentionally ironic and provocative when he writes things like, “The problem with Hitler is that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough,” or titles chapters “How Stalin Saved the Humanity of Man” or “Give the Dictatorship of the Proletariat a Chance!” Fine. Let’s say this is irony or provocation with some serious critical intent at its core. The trouble for that line of argument is two-fold: First, it’s clear that Žižek often fails to make persuasive arguments and resorts instead to attacks, single-serving examples, or personal opinion. Second, my sense is that Žižek isn’t really being entirely ironic when he writes these things; he clearly intends for his reader to take seriously at least some part of these sentiments, and not merely in a critically ironic manner.
In this work, Slavoj Žižek takes on the reigning ideology with a plea that people should reappropriate several lost causes, and looks for the kernel of truth in the totalitarian politics of the past. Examining Heidegger’s seduction by fascism and Foucault’s flirtation with the Iranian Revolution, he suggests that these were the right steps in the wrong direction. Highlighting the revolutionary terror of Robespierre, Mao and the Bolsheviks, Žižek argues that while these struggles ended in historic failure and monstrosity, this is not the entire story. There was, in fact, a redemptive moment that gets lost in the outright liberal-democratic rejection of revolutionary authoritarianism and the valorization of soft, consensual, decentralized politics. Žižek claims that, particularly in the light of the forthcoming ecological crisis, people should reinvent revolutionary terror and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the struggle for universal emancipation. According to him, everyone needs to accept the return to this cause even if they court the risk of a catastrophic disaster.
But all of this stirring and shocking language, for Harman, should be considered laudable because at least Žižek is committed to taking “clear, blunt positions on issues.” What Harman needs to be clearer about in his rebuttal to Hari is that the sort of fearlessness with regard to ideas that Žižek lauds can lead to mass atrocity … and this isn’t necessarily a problem for Žižek.
Žižek wants to poke fun at our squeamishness, to be sure; he wants to shock or provoke. But he also clearly believes that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with authoritarianism … at least so long as it’s revolutionary authoritarianism, as if authoritarianism can be made, somehow, to serve the right and proper ends that Žižek prefers rather than slipping, as it has always done, into barbarism. That’s the only way that someone can say – as Žižek says – that even cozying up to Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism might constitute “right steps in the wrong direction.”
What, one has to ask, would constitute right steps in the right direction for Žižek?
This is another place where Žižek falters. A great many of his conclusions aren’t really conclusions at all; after all, how can they be? In thinking about the future, Žižek is mainly interested in his role as a critic of capitalism and harbinger of what might or ought to come next. But, again, Žižek’s commentary on these things is nothing but commonplaces, especially to anyone even remotely familiar with Marx: Capitalism is relentless in its drive for new markets and in the exploitation that stands at its core; what is natural about human beings cannot be fulfilled within a capitalist system; proponents of capitalism and liberalism fail to recognize that liberalism’s utopian vision cannot be fulfilled so long as capitalism exists; and, of course, we need to think critically about these things and we need to be fearless in choosing sides.
But my concern is that Žižek’s many fans admire him in a sort of thoughtless way; they react to his boldness, to his humor, and to the progressive causes with which he seems to be aligned. But he’s preaching about committing oneself to a future with a radically uncertain vision, one that could very easily slide into totalitarian despotism, and he’s not offering anything that would impel his fans to embrace critical thinking as a way of life. Žižek seems, actually, to want to be obeyed and not to be challenged. He shouts and curses at critics, rather than engaging them; he jumps haphazardly from subject to subject, rather than making reasoned arguments that can themselves be critically assessed.
In this, Žižek is himself an authoritarian. And his personal authoritarianism highlights the problem with his beloved ideas about the purity of Leninism and the nefarious nature of capitalism, namely that they are totalizing theories that ultimately bludgeon anyone who doesn’t immediately – and in the absence of any arguments beyond their obvious profundity and goodness – agree with them.