Saturday, 19 December 2009

Crisis, resistance and the Left

I've just finished reading Slavoj Zizek's 'First as Tragedy, Then as Farce' (Verso, 2009). I highly recommend it: although there are some academically obscure digressions, it is a largely accessible, very well-written and succinct (at 150 or so pages) book. While Zizek has a habit of jumping around a variety of topics (not always obviously related to each other), there's nonetheless a clear focus to his latest work, namely the systemic crisis of neoliberalism and its repercussions for the Left.

The minor lapses, omissions and unconvincing attempts to graft Lacanian psycoanalysis on to his political critique are more than balanced by Zizek's eloquence, wit and - most importantly - acute insight into important contemporary trends. He has a knack for the well-chosen anecdote or case study to illustrate a political or intellectual point. Crucially, he gets it right about a number of central issues, notably around the economic collapse of September 2008 and its ideological and political ramifications.

Zizek identifies two historic turning points in the last decade and suggests each has a very particular significance. The attacks of 9/11 and the economic crisis almost exactly seven years later signalled, between them, the collapse of neoliberalism's authority. The former finished off Francis Fukuyama's supposed 'End of History', with its naive faith in universal and unchallenged liberal capitalism. The latter phenomenon shattered the same doctrine's credibility in the economic sphere. The first event is the tragedy, the second is its farcical re-run. Zizek writes:

‘It thus seems that Fukuyama’s utopia of the 1990s had to die twice, since the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of global market capitalism; if the 2008 financial meltdown has a historical meaning then, it is as a sign of the end of the economic face of Fukuyama’s dream.’

Fukuyama's liberal utopia had been heralded by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It envisaged the world as a happy 'global liberal community'. Zizek notes: ‘September 11, in contrast, symbolised the end of the Clintonite period, and heralded an era in which new walls were seen emerging everywhere: between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, along the US-Mexico border, but also within nation-states themselves.’ He links these geopolitical divisions and tensions - these 'new walls', both literal and metaphorical - to the awesome and terrible ineqality of the world today. This is crystallised, for Zizek, in the way the super-rich devise ways to literally separate and seclude themselves from the masses and from the realities of the wider world.

Zizek cites the phenomenon of the Chinese newly rich building secluded communities based on an idealised version of the Western town: ‘there is, for example, near Shanghai a “real” replica of a small English town, including a main street with pubs, an Anglican church, a Sainsbury supermarket, etc... Are not these “global citizens” living in secluded areas the true counter-pole to those living in slums and other “white spots” of the public sphere?'

This vast gulf in life experiences between the rich and the overwhelming majority is the truth of neoliberal capitalism. Zizek writes: 'The city that best embodies that division is Sao Paulo in Lula’s Brazil, which boasts 250 heliports in its downtown area... a futuristic megalopolis of the kind pictured in films such as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, with ordinary people swarming through dangerous streets down below, whilst the rich float around on a higher level, up in the air.’

One of the bracing elements in the book is Zizek's challenge to the Left to confront the crisis of capitalism. In the second half he reformulates the relevance of the 'idea of communism' for a new era, for example by stressing the implications of climate change for likely future resistance. He acknowledges the anti-capitalist mobilisations of the last decade, seeing them as prophetic about the current turmoil:

'Recall the demonstrations which, throughout the first decade of the new millennium, regularly accompanied meetings of the IMF and the World Bank: the protestors’ complaints took in not only the usual anti-globalising motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, and so forth), but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash.’

Zizek sees a challenge to the whole system as absolutely necessary. He deftly demolishes arguments that state intervention can be dubbed 'socialist' in any meaningful sense, deconstructing the politics behind recent instances of intervention: 'there is nothing new with regard to strong state intervention in the banking system or in the economy in general... political decisions are weaved into the very texture of international economic relations'. He reminds us that 'market configurations are always regulated by political decisions', so it's no simple question of whether to intervene or not. He correctly concludes: 'The true dilemma is thus not “Should the state intervene?” but “What kind of state intervention is necessary?”

This is where the Left comes in - or certainly should do. It is the Left's responsibility to articulate alternative demands that challenge the logic of the system, and begin to force very different priorities on to the agenda. Yet this has not been the main response to crisis, partly - as Zizek recognises - because other reactions like populist racism, protectionism and despair are bound to be present too, but also due to weaknesses in left-wing thinking. He writes:

‘There is a real possibility that the main victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the Left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone. It was the Left which was effectively caught out. It is as if recent events were staged with a calculated risk in order to demonstrate that, even at a time of shattering crisis, there is no viable alternative to capitalism.’

There is a battle over how to interpret the crisis and over what can and should be done in response. Different stories are told about what caused it, where fault lies, what could be done differently. Without a coherent left-wing response the 'danger is thus that the predominant narrative of the meltdown will be the one which, instead of awakening us from a dream, will enable us to continue dreaming.'

The crisis is, significantly, not just economic but also has political, military, ecological dimensions. It actually intensifies the geopolitical conflicts which came in the wake of US imperialism's reaction to 11 September 2001, so that imperialism is intertwined with economic instability. Zizek astutely observes 'the obvious temptation to reinvigorate the “war on terror” and US interventionism in order to keep the motor of the economy running, or at least to use the crisis to impose further tough measures of “structural adjustment”.’

The resistance, consequently, is not merely (or even primarily) on an economic plane. Zizek's ideas about this could be far more concrete, though he makes some thought-provoking and profound points when theorising about it that are worth following up. What is certain is that the interlocking crises of unstable economies, fragile imperialist power and ecological catastrophe will generate multiple forms of resistance. How that plays out depends upon a range of forces, most importantly the actions of the political Left and of social movements.


  1. I'm basing my comments on past works I've read and interviews with him that I've read or listened to, but there's something oddly reminiscent of Zizek saying he's neither for state intervention nor free market activism, but collective action. This sounds like the Third Way, doesn't it? I know this is a cheeky comment, but there's some truth in it. For example, Zizek is notoriously shy when questioned about his preferred model of collective action, no mention of the Holy Ghost as emancipatory collective/communist party.

    So, though I've a lot of respect for the guy and know he's not a politician but a philosopher, I kind of wish he'd do a little less Lacan. For it's not enough to point out, here and there are problems, etc. Because still capitalist exploitation continues.

  2. Probably the most serious omission in Zizek is a real concrete grasp of agency, i.e. what forces will bring radical emancipatory change. WHO, in other words, will transform society? There are fragments on this, but not entirely convincing and he doesn't get a coherent overview of the question.

    The psychoanalysis is mostly superfluous - when he indulges in his Lacanianism, in this book, it feels like a diversion from what's really important. There are a few places where it's a real weakness, as it means him drawing dubious conclusions, but mostly it is harmless!

    His ideas on the state are a mixed bag, but what's refreshing is his recognition that simply saying "the state should intervene" is totally inadequate, because in fact the state has always intervened - but in what way, and in whose interests? Recently the state has been used to prop up the system, to bail out the banks - but where is similar action to, for example, save 1700 jobs at Corus?

    What's so useful and positive about this book is that it's perhaps the most engaged, most explicitly political and contemporary thing Zizek hs written.

  3. I guess the psychoanalysis allows him to keep the dick jokes, and that makes his public appearances a little easier...