The rock-star status currently attached to philosopher Slavoj Žižek indicates a shift in thinking away from post-ideological, post-political frameworks and is symptomatic of a flourishing of critical questioning of the politics of liberal multiculturalism. Everywhere that intelligent debate supposedly occurs – from universities, to the Guardian newspaper, to the blogosphere – Žižek is increasingly all the rage. Žižek’s popularity and notoriety might seem strange given his recent pronouncements of support for communism, Leninism, and his attacks on political correctness. However, the popularity of his ideas can be seen as stemming from the failure of liberal orthodox ideas and theories (postmodernism, identity politics, muticulturalism) to ask the right questions regarding the pressing crises humanity faces in the 21st century. Thus the philosopher’s critiques of social liberalism are essential to the debates around identity politics vs class politics, and guest blogger John Bernstein will examine what we can learn from Žižek over the a number of blog posts on this topic. This will include an examination of Žižek’s call for a reengagement with the concepts of class and an anti-capitalist universalism. [Read more below]
Why Žižek is important
Slavoj Žižek has presented some of the most articulate and theoretically strong critiques of modern social liberalism in existence. Interestingly these critiques have resonated widely, making Žižek very fashionable in leftwing and intellectual circles. This intellectual rock-star status indicates a new openness on the left, where we are allowed to think and question once more. Up until now, liberal political correctness has placed severe limits on debate, and demanded an unquestioning acceptance of its basic premises. Finally we are breaking out of the stale politically correct perimeter that framed liberal and left discourse in the 1990s.
Žižek’s asks the question, have we all become Fukuyamists in the sense of accepting that radical change is impossible and there is no viable alternative to global capitalism? As Fukuyama posited:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government (Fukuyama, 1992).
Despite leftist denunciations of neoliberal and liberal democratic triumphalism, the left essentially accepted the new thesis and retreated into areas of moralistic campaigns and advocacy for tolerant multiculturalism. In a recent Guardian opinion piece, Costa Douzinas articulated this leftist retreat in the face of the collapse of Stalinist regimes, and thus the demise of any (however deformed) actual existing alternative to capitalism:
The end of history was therefore the triumph of historicism: nothing outside or beyond the dominant order could be used to criticise or resist it… The only task left to politics was redistributions of power and wealth at the margins…This was the great utopia at the end of the 20th century…Embarrassingly, despite routine denunciations, it was accepted by people on the liberal left, like me. If the world cannot be changed, the argument went, the left should concentrate on small-scale projects, moral concerns and the protection of vulnerable identities. Multiculturalism could replace radical change, membership of Amnesty that of political organizations (Douzinas, 2010).
Žižek sees dominant social liberalism as acting as an obscurant ideology, masking the real antagonistic nature of capitalist society. However, this postmodern liberal consensus has recently faced a serious challenge. History has returned with a vengeance, in the form of intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the derailing of neoliberal orthodoxy with the global economic crisis. In light of this ‘return of history’, Žižek’s critical questioning allows us the chance to reexamine the nature of ‘liberal-democratic’ capitalism. The starting point, however, is to question the dominant liberal paradigm and to make an epistemological break from post-ideological, post-political frameworks. As Žižek has argued:
the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for outdated ideological positions…However, there is a point on which we cannot concede: today, actual freedom of thought means the freedom to question the predominant, liberal-democratic, "post ideological" consensus-or it means nothing (Žižek, 2001).
Thus, social liberalism has acted to seriously suppress discussion on the pressing social issues of today – such as around questions of inequality, racism, and oppression. Although Žižek doesn’t present himself as a political actor with a ready-set programme for change, he does emphasise the need to reexamine pressing social problems from a radical perspective:
I don't have answers. When people ask me what we should do about ecology, the financial crisis - my god, what do I know? What I can do, as a critical intellectual, is to ask the right questions. Sometimes the way you formulate or perceive a problem can be itself be part of the problem. The classical example is tolerance. Why is it that we today automatically translate or perceive problems of racism or sexism into problems of tolerance (Derbyshire, 2009)?
So, Žižek sees social liberalism as failing to correctly conceptualise problems, such as racism or sexism. He says that by perceiving social oppression as problems of tolerance, and by replacing calls for radical change with an advocacy of muticulturalism, this not only obscures the nature of such oppressions, but in fact acts to allow for their continuation. On multiculturalist tolerance versus social emancipation, Zizek argues:
I’m opposed to this notion [of tolerance]. Of course I’m not for intolerance towards foreigners, for anti-feminism, and so on. What I am against is the perception, which is moralist-automatic, of racism as a problem of tolerance. For Martin Luther King one doesn’t fight racism with tolerance, but with emancipatory political struggle, even armed struggle. So, why are so many problems of today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Racism is a problem. But to perceive racism as a problem of tolerance, it’s not automatic. In this innocent shift of perspective, there is ideology. Why? I claim the reason is the liberal multiculturalist basic ideological operation, the, lets call it, the culturalisation of politics (Žižek, 2007)
This culturalisation of politics amounts to, according to Žižek, a ‘moralistic depoliticization’. This politically correct moralism amounts to a ‘fake gesture of disavowed politics, the assuming of a ‘moral’, depoliticized position in order to make a stronger political case’. Žižek sees this as leading to a situation that where, ‘in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimize oneself as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.’ The cause of this moralistic depolticisation can be seen as resulting from, ‘the retreat of the Marxist historico-political project (Žižek: 2007, p149).’
Important for Žižek is how this post-ideological, post-political framework has had a debilitating effect on the left:
In this situation, disappointed leftists, who are convinced that radical change of the existing liberal-democratic capitalist system is no longer possible, but who are unable to renounce their passionate attachment to global change, invest their excess of political energy in an abstract and excessively moralizing stance Žižek: 2007, p149).
Therefore, the first step to begin an authentic struggle against racism and oppression generally is to question this liberal multiculturalist basic ideological operation, and so to begin again asking the right questions.
The point is not to just change things, but to think
Žižek’s critique of liberal multiculturalist presents a serious challenge to those of us who want to act to change things. He presents a powerful argument that to politically act within the parameters acceptable to the liberal establishment, ‘…inevitably ends in a cul-de-sac of debilitating impossibility: "what can one do against global capital?" (Žižek, 2001).’ Therefore, Žižek’s importance lays in his questioning of the dominant liberal hegemony. His argument is that before we act, we need to begin thinking again:
One is therefore tempted to turn round Marx's eleventh thesis. The first task today is precisely not to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly intervene and change things…Rather, the task is to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates, or, as Brecht put it in his Me Ti, "Thought is something which precedes action and follows experience." If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space; it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates (Žižek, 2001).
The next blog on Slovoj Žižek will examine in more detail his critique of liberal multiculturalism.
Derbyshire, J. (2009). Interview with Slavoj Žižek - full transcript. Newstatesman. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from: http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/10/today-interview-capitalismhttp://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/10/today-interview-capitalism
Derbyshire, J. (2009) “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it” Newstatesman. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from: http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/11/381-382-interview-obama-theory
Douzinas, D. (2010). In the next decade, I hope to become more radical. Retrieved February 1, 2010, from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/jan/01/goodby-noughties-radical-change
Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Avon Books.
Žižek, S. (2001). Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto For the Twenty-First Century? Rethinking Marxism, Volume 13, Number 3/4 2001. Retrieved February 1, 2010, from http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/have-michael-hardt-and-antonio-negri-rewritten-the-communist-manifesto-for-the-twenty-first-century/
Žižek, S. (2007). A lecture by Slavoj Žižek. Retrieved February 1, 2010, from: http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/buniverse/videos/view/?id=141
Zizek, S. (2007). The universal exception. London: Continuum.