On Žižek’s Illiberalism
On Friday, I began to respond to Colin Downes’ interesting critique of my own lengthy critical piece on Slavoj Žižek. Having discussed, at length, Downes’ first complaint — that I have misrepresented Žižek’s true feelings on Lenin and, in particular, on whether or not Lenin and Stalin can be separated from one another — I turn in this post to his second complaint, that I have failed to provide a compelling critique of Žižek by demonstrating that he is an authoritarian because illiberalism isn’t necessarily problematic in and of itself.
In Downes’ own words:
[P]erhaps Kohen is right: Zizek is an authoritarian. Within our dominant ideological coordinates, this is all that needs to be said to place him beyond the pale. But Zizek’s commitment to revolutionary terror consists precisely in his desire to challenge the dominance of those coordinates. This is why Kohen’s critique is inadequate. One cannot wave away Zizek’s critique of liberal democracy by pointing out that it does, in fact, entail a certain degree of illiberalism. A successful critique of Zizek’s along these lines would require one to identify and argue against the reasons Zizek adopts this stance – to perhaps say that the structure of liberal democratic capitalism does not, in fact, maintain a state of brutal exploitation and oppression under which the world groans (and which is rapidly hurtling the planet towards environmental disaster). To call him an authoritarian and to invoke the specter of failed revolutions isn’t enough to dismiss a writer who has grappled with questions of the terrible exercise of power and failed revolution at such length.
I’ll begin by saying that it feels incredibly weird to have to defend liberalism against authoritarianism in 2012. But I suppose the fact that we’re going to rehash the debate between Hobbes and Locke today is a testament to the power of the cult of personality that’s grown up around Žižek over the past few years. Of course, Žižek’s authoritarianism isn’t exactly Hobbes’ authoritarianism; despite his infatuation with Lenin (and sometimes Stalin and Mao), Žižek almost certainly wouldn’t care for the idea of an all-powerful Hobbesian sovereign. He might be an authoritarian thinker, as I’ve argued, but this doesn’t mean he wants to establish an authoritarian state.
With that in mind, I’ll steer clear of Hobbes and Locke on the question of how best to organize ourselves politically and instead focus on the ways in which liberalism, more broadly, is preferrable to authoritarianism. I suppose there are two ways to proceed:
- A consequentialist or pragmatic response that considers the monstrous track record of revolutionary authoritarianism against that of liberalism;
- An argument in favor of liberalism against revolutionary authoritarian terror.
With regard to the track record of revolutionary authoritarianism, I think I won’t say a whole lot. One need only look to the Jacobins in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and their Eastern European satellites, Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia to see that principles can lead to tens of millions of deaths in the hands of revolutionary Even Žižek only wants to argue in favor of the redemptive kernel in Leninism and Stalinism, not the totality of the Soviet nightmare. (That is, at least, when he’s being serious, rather than making hilarious jokes about who will and who won’t be sent to the Gulag.)
Is it necessarily the case that revolutionary authoritarianism will lead to a totalitarian state that brutalizes the citizenry? After all, that’s been the case every single time so far. Philosophers like Edmund Burke and Raymond Aron have written — compellingly, I think — that the two are inexorably bound up with one another. But, for the sake of argument, I’ll say, “Perhaps not.” Maybe we’ll have an example of revolutionary terror that does as Žižek wishes and inspires the complete smashing of the state rather than the installation of an all-powerful state appartus. But, in the meantime, I think we can safely say that it’s kind of a big gamble.
Is the history of liberalism much better? There is, to be sure, the exploitation of workers in liberal democracies to consider and, of course, the even greater exploitation of people around the world by citizens of liberal democracies. There’s slavery, warfare, and — of course — potentially cataclysmic environmental destruction. These things, for Žižek, are bound up with liberalism because liberalism is bound up with capitalism. But, of course, the authoritarian revolutions also transformed into totalitarian states that, for all their Marxist rhetoric, were very much connected to exploitation, warfare, and environmental destruction. The difference is simply that, in liberal societies, the people might choose policies that lead in a less exploitative, less militant direction whereas in totalitarian societies, there are no choices.
But here’s where we transition to my second line of argumentation, which I actually prefer (since it’s the more philosophical of the two):
The story of liberalism is a story of the enlargement of freedom over time, as well as of the slow progress of toleration (in which more and more people are treated as politically equal and are accorded respect). This doesn’t always work perfectly; sometimes it doesn’t work well at all. But this is the theory and this, generally, is what we’ve seen borne out over the past four hundred years. It’s slow change, but it’s change all the same.
One of the best examples of this, and very much related to the Žižekian topic at hand, is the evolution of workers’ rights in liberal democratic societies. Check out the ten-point list found at the end of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto and note that more than a few are now absolutely taken for granted in liberal, capitalist democracies today.
Of course, this is anathema to Žižek and to revolutionaries of his stripe, as they seek progress at a faster pace; they bristle under the “two-steps-forward, one-step-back” mentality of liberalism, but they also bristle at the idea of toleration and the notion of human rights. After all, some people — capitalists and counter-revolutionaries — ought not to be tolerated. And human rights, Marx argued, serve only the capitalists, amounting to little more than the single all-powerful right of narrow self-interest:
None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.
Like Marx before him, Žižek’s writing has a distinct utopianism at its heart … and, like Marx, it’s a collectivist utopia, one that has little patience for individual rights. “Where we’re going,” it claims, “you won’t need these rights.”
Now, my example of the expansion of workers’ rights in liberal democracies shouldn’t be taken to mean that these societies care for all their citizens equally or that no one is ever harmed by capitalism. Clearly this isn’t the case; wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a few while a great many work extremely hard but still fail to make ends meet. The utopian assumption from Marx, Lenin, and now Žižek is that the destruction of the liberal, bourgeois state will necessarily lead to a situation that’s unequivocally better. Better for all? Certainly not. But that’s of no real consequence because a) there’s no such thing as individual rights; b) those who might be harmed stood in the way of the revolution; and c) the end result will be so good that any violence can be easily justified.
Except that Žižek’s utopian end result never comes about, whereas the expansion of rights under liberalism has proceeded quite steadily. What’s more, liberalism contains the seed of progress within itself: The citizens can change the way that the tax burden falls; they can improve public schools; they can fight unnecessary government spending; they can regulate individual and corporate greed; they can oppose fear- and war-mongering; and they can insist on making environmental protection a priority. They just have to vote.
Zizek’s theory cannot say the same, precisely because it’s an authoritarian one in nature. Rather than incremental progress, Žižek — echoing some of his favorite illiberal predecessors — calls for violent revolution and the smashing of the liberal capitalist state. It’s progress all in one instant, but it’s illusory because there’s no roadmap.
But my sense is that Zizek’s doesn’t much care whether revolutionary violence yields success or failure; what’s important is the violence itself. In this, he’s quite unlike Marx who was an internal critic of liberalism (arguing not against the ends of greater equality and progress but about the extent to which liberalism as formulated by Locke could ever achieve these ends).
Adam Kirsch pointed this out a few years ago in an engaging piece on Žižek in The New Republic:
“In the revolutionary explosion as an Event,” Žižek explains in In Defense of Lost Causes, “another utopian dimension shines through, the dimension of universal emancipation which, precisely, is the excess betrayed by the market reality which takes over ‘the day after’—as such, this excess is not simply abolished, dismissed as irrelevant, but, as it were, transposed into the virtual realm.” But if utopia is destined to remain virtual—if Robespierre is always followed by Bonaparte, and Lenin by Stalin—why should actual lives be sacrificed to it? Would it not be wiser to seek this “dimension,” this “divinity,” bloodlessly, outside politics, by means of the imagination?
And in his recent writings, as the actual—or, in his Heideggerian terminology, the “ontic”—possibility of revolution recedes, its “ontological” importance has increased. No, the Revolution will not bring the millennium. As a historical science, Marxism is false. Divine violence “strikes from out of nowhere, a means without an end.” And yet “one should nevertheless insist that there is no ‘bad courage.’” The courage displayed in the Revolution is its own justification, it is the image of the utopia it cannot achieve. “The urge of the moment is the true utopia.”
Violence, then, seems to be something that’s good in and of itself. Now, perhaps it’s not actual violence, just violent thinking. Even then, to what end? What is accomplished, beyond telling people things they already know, like that liberalism and capitalism are imperfect?
In the end, my argument turns on both the virtures of liberal political thought and the disaster of revolutionary authoritarian thought. Liberalism, however flawed it remains, contains within it the seeds of progress toward a set of worthy goals. Žižek’s revolutionary authoritarianism, by contrast, is a muddle of utopianism and the impossibility of utopia. But neither the impossibility nor the muddle itself seem all that troublesome. And anyone who is troubled by it either doesn’t understand or hasn’t read enough Žižek; in either case, his authoritarianism permits him and his acolytes to simply shut them up with curses, misdirection, and ad hominem attacks. As Žižek writes in In Defense of Lost Causes, ”In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of ‘inconsistency.’” For what it’s worth, incidentally, this is a lesson he says he learns from Hermann Goering.
While theoretical muddle and impossibility might not be seen as damning for some, I’d say it highlights the problem for revolutionary authoritarianism in both theory and practice. Whatever lofty goals Žižek might have, what happens as a consequence of revolutionary authoritarianism is invariably tens of millions dead and no better conditions for anyone with regard to exploitation, environmental degradation, and the like. And why? Because there’s nothing in the theory itself that would lead us to expect otherwise; it reemphasizes some important problems but fails to provide solutions beyond the celebration of violence for its own sake.
The Žižekian utopia turns out to be a beautiful dream that only he and his acolytes share; for them, this is an unmistakable sign that the rest of us are either under the spell of false consciousness or aren’t being careful enough in reading and listening to him. I’d say, though, it’s an unmistakable sign that we’re taking him just as seriously as his ideas warrant.