Why the left failed to make a drama out of the crisis

Slavoj Žižek’s latest work explores why the near-collapse of capitalism generated so little response from the left, and asks how we might rescue, or remake, radical politics.

Guy Rundle

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Many on the left are still digesting the paradoxes of the 2008 ‘global financial crisis’ – overwhelmingly the fact that the only group to come off worse from the experience of the temple crashing about the heads of the financial priesthood was the left itself. If the events themselves were close to unbelievable, it was not because they were unexpected, but because they had been forecast incessantly by successive generations of activists.

Yet here it was: the entire financial sector was tumbling like a house of cards and the US Congress could not gird itself to put a stop to the process. Everything that generations of Marxists had written – from Karl himself through Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and beyond – about the weak and tendentious nature of the superstructure was coming true. No one with an interest in keeping the system going had a clue what was happening or what to do. The state’s ability to act like the board of directors of Capitalism, Inc was shattering and the ideological bearings of its supporters were drifting hopelessly. On one unbelievable morning on the FOX News programme FOX and FriendsThe Big Breakfast meets the Spectator’s blogroll – the hosts were talking about whether ‘the people’ should own a share of the banks if they were bailing them out. Right-wing populism had worked itself all the way around to the politics of a Trotskyesque transitional programme.

Then… nothing. To say there was a political vacuum would overstate a sense of presence. The remnant far-left parties that had been waiting for such events for decades seemed not only unable to get people out on the street, but curiously lackadaisical about even trying to. The anti-G20 protests in the City of London lacked both the numbers and brio of the late 1990s anti-capitalist movement, and the whole event was quickly drawn into the sad, but unpoliticisable death of a bystander. Faced with the absence of a left uprising, some warned of an imminent fascist reaction; when that failed to happen, the far-right British National Party’s six per cent of the vote in June’s European elections was enrolled as the fatal spark. In the US, the bizarre ‘tea party’ protests perfected a new genre, right-wing dada. What is required is not an explanation of what is happening, but of what is not, and why.

This is one of the purposes of Slavoj Žižek’s new short work, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Much of it is composed of short pieces seamlessly stitched together from the past nine months or so, including his address to the now famous ‘Idea of Communism’ conference.

In recent years, Žižek has switched his focus from the twin cultural-philosophical studies that made him famous – explaining Lacan and Hegel through the prism of Hitchcock and Friends, and vice versa – and become increasingly interested in restoring the notion of a sense of Being to left politics, lost in the currents of tepid social democracy and ungrounded post-modernism. Primarily that has involved taking up the cause of Alain Badiou, the French philosopher who more than anyone has insisted on the pure idea of communism as the essence of philosophical politics.

In Badiou’s complex ontology, crucial significance is given to the notion of the capital-E Event, the rare historical occurrence that utterly transforms the categories of existence and possibility. Though political work can be done, the Event cannot be produced by diligent effort – in that respect it is the very opposite of Weber’s conception of politics as a ‘slow drilling through hard timber’ – though one can prepare to act within the field of possibilities it throws out. Both Badiou and Žižek thus hope to steer between a frenetic activism that characterises social movements on the one hand, and a passivity on the other that dissipates a lot of energy in the struggle for Correct Thinking.

For Žižek, then, the 2008 crisis becomes a ‘teachable moment’, an occurrence with the apparent form of a classic capitalist crisis whose principal opportunity is not to demonstrate the failings of the neoliberal right, but the inadequacy of the left’s thinking about it. However, this is not a critique of a reformist ‘left’ seeking to reform a system distorted by greed and deregulation, from the perspective of a muscular democratic socialist left – rather it is an argument that both share a series of false assumptions about not only capitalism but the whole nature of ideology.

For Žižek, a government like that of Evo Morales in Bolivia is at the ‘cutting edge of progressive politics’. But its narrative of a Fall, that ‘everything begins with the industrial revolution of 1750 and the departure from Mother Earth’, is as problematic as the tinkerings of Gordon Brown, merely designed to get the system running again with a few minor alterations. Various proposals for alternative ways of doing things, such as the kingdom of Bhutan’s use of a ‘gross happiness index’ to replace gross domestic product (GDP) – derived, like Morales’ approach, from various new left discourses of ‘authenticity’ and ‘human ends’ – are not a true emancipatory alternative. These are pseudo-solutions that take on the worst features of regulated and controlled hypermodern societies while abandoning their dynamism and energy. Here Žižek takes his lead from Negri’s essay ‘Goodbye, Mr Socialism’, in which socialism in its various forms is held to be the true enemy of the sort of transformation that would make something radically new possible.

Žižek is good here, better than any of this whole group of ‘Idea Communist’ writers, on the telling detail: how the administered awfulness of a proposal like the Bhutan happiness index is bodied forth in miniature form in anti-smoking notices in hotel rooms (a £200 fine for smoking because the existence of such an act ‘interferes with your pleasure’), the authentic consumption in Starbucks (‘you’re not just buying a coffee’), the plot of Kung Fu Panda and so on. The system itself has been put back together by ‘socialist’ practices and politicians – General Motors becomes a government enterprise while former Red Scotland editor Gordon Brown stitches together a global financial system rescue plan. But it is also nurtured by critics such as Naomi Klein portraying capitalism as an inherently abnormal departure from an immanent and easily recovered human nature, disclosed by rational thinking about abstract systems.

The rationality of the ‘left’ steps in to reconstruct the system, in part because the right retreats into a series of fantasies not so much populist as incoherent. However, for Žižek their insistence on certain ideal notions of capitalism allows them to disclose truths about the current situation that the ‘left’s desperate desire to regularise and normalise cannot see’.

Thus one response to Obama’s highly conservative and restorative bailout plan was a revival of interest in Ayn Rand, and her pure insistence on the anti-humanist virtue of capitalism: that we would be either ruled by ‘blood, whips and guns or money – make your choice, there is no other’. This brutal assessment was of a piece with the Republican right’s rejection of the bailout, or the kamikaze Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff. For Žižek, these disclose more effectively the character of capitalism, its escheresque totality, than those who try to find the human and inhuman parts of the system.

Genuinely radical approaches are thus necessary – but not all are as acceptable or as radical as they might appear to be. Žižek is particularly critical – though in a more collegial way – of the ‘multitudes’ approach of Negri and Hardt, which sees the expanding networks of global informational capital, cognitive labour and fluid identity as an immanent form of communism, overthrowing not only old fixed relations but rigid repressive subjectivities, too.

Instead this is simply a drawing-in of the new material structures of capital into a new form of mystified domination – expressed most visibly by the mad expansion of petty choice in everyday life. This is not a revived ‘new left’ idea of pseudo-choice, of ’57 channels and nothing on’. You really can get quite different stuff on cable TV, the online global marketplace, etc. But essentially we are flung into a free-fall of incessant choice in which selfhood and meaning – both past identity and a projection into the future – are left unanchored.

Thus reviving the idea and possibility of communism revolves not around the strange mix of grad student-autonomia that Negri and Hardt have pioneered, but on a more universal notion of the Excluded – which is an increasingly large number of the global populace – as the carrier of the universality expressed in philosophy. In the modern period this begins with the transformation of Hegel’s thought by news of the 1803 slave revolution in Haiti, a motif of what comes from outside from the real to overthrow ideology.

First as Tragedy gleefully quotes from the now famous New Republic article by poet-critic Adam Kirsch describing Žižek as ‘the most dangerous philosopher in Europe’ – a reaction to Žižek’s endorsement of Badiou’s insistence of the necessity of revolutionary terror, but also to his reflections on the deeper structures of anti-Semitism, in particular the way in which anti-Semitism is often the decomposed form of a radical urge to change. Žižek is properly scornful of those on the left who, at the same time as arguing that there is a threat to the natural conditions prerequisite to life, (water, biosphere etc) warn against any turn to a potentially catastrophic politics. But the main problem with his re-invoking of communism does not lie with its squalid or criminal expressions in recent decades, but with what purpose its use is serving now.

The question Žižek perhaps does not face is whether invoking the idea of communism for the relatively unspecified transformation he suggests acts as a form of focus, and a renewal of possibility, or a slaking-off of energy by taking on the glamorous role of spectre, the – hushed tones – ‘communist’. It is not ridicule that is the greatest risk, but an easy resort to an historically given role, which not only refuses to connect to current struggles or movements, but on whose ideal content one is equally silent.

If you start worrying about what you are going to call a movement, before you actually get on with building it, are you firing your guns too early? After all, it is potent movements – from Methodism to Big Bang physics to Marxism itself – which have been named by their enemies, a moment of recognition of their real status. Meanwhile it is the most ephemeral and/or dated movements – Theosophy, Christian Science, fissiparous late Trotskyism – that wasted so much energy arguing over names.

Invoking communism as the positive correlate of a brilliant and constantly challenging critical reading of the current world inevitably leads to questions as to what its positive contents might be – indeed one of the routines at the Idea of Communism conference became a sort of peek-a-boo, whereby a member of the audience would get up and ask whether Nepal/Chiapas/Bolivia constituted a new communism-in-embryo, only to have Badiou or Žižek shake their heads slowly, as if to say, ‘you still haven’t got this “idea” thing, have you?’. What positive content there is seems to rely heavily on the Negri/Hardt – and more Hardt than Negri – notions of the common, as neither public nor private. That’s useful in analysing the process of increasingly abstract enclosures – of given genetic material, language, etc – into intellectual property regimes, but it also simply and unreflectively replicates the US humanities post-doctoral world – a realm of open source, cultural flows and radical personal equality sustained by invisible old property: the massive endowments of the Ivy League.

Since the act of self-describing is rhetorical anyway, its only criteria of judgement is whether it gets some sort of effect – or whether it instead rushes to get a dividend from a process of getting people to think otherwise what, at this stage, needs to be more concrete and particular, albeit not fragmented and ungrounded in postmodern fashion.

Žižek invokes farce, and the way in which it has the capacity to be worse than tragedy. But his desire to play the clown prince of the revolution is a risky one. At the ‘Idea of Communism’ conference, he was unable to get a hall of ‘communists’ to conclude by singing the ‘Internationale’, which must rank as a sort of gold standard of organisational ineptitude.

But farce of that type is productive, rupturing. Far worse is to find yourself enrolled in a third genre, that of melodrama – where the grip of drama is so absent that it must all be carried by the images. In that scenario, the hammer and sickle takes its place beside the top hat and waxed moustache, as a sign that the booing (a function played by Kirsch’s elementary misreading of Žižek) needs to begin if we are to hold at bay a little longer the crushing knowledge that, at the moment, very little presents itself to many people as genuinely ‘at stake’ – even as the plaster pillars of the scenery appear to collapse around us.

Guy Rundle is a former editor of Arena (Australia). He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, by Slavoj Žižek, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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