Migrants, racists and the left
‘The old racist slogan of white man’s burden has been turned into white man’s guilt.’
He’s an avowed psychoanalytic philosopher. An unabashed Hegelian Marxist. And, according to some, ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’. He is, of course, Slavoj Zizek. And, whatever else he might be, he remains one of the most probing, independently minded thinkers out there, possessing an intellect as prodigious as his writings are prolific. Ella Whelan decided it was time to put some questions to the great man himself, about the migrant crisis, the Culture Wars, and his latest book, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours.
Ella Whelan: In your new book, you criticise liberal humanitarianism and the over-emotionalised response to the migrant crisis. Why do you think this is a problem?
Slavoj Zizek: What disturbs me is not the emotionalism as such – these are tragic stories. What I want to know is why the migrant crisis is perceived, at least in Europe, as a purely humanitarian problem. People say, ‘hundreds and thousands are coming – will we receive them or not? Does Europe have an open heart?’ I think that this fascination with the misery of the migrants obfuscates other questions, which are, for me, much more important. What is not asked is the absolutely crucial question: what are the causes of the crisis? The practice of economic neocolonialism of Europe, the military interventions in the Middle East, and so on. Change at this level is what we must first address.
My metaphor for the response to the migrant crisis would be a cinematographic one. We have a close-up of refugees landing across the Mediterranean. But we have to move the camera backwards to get a general establishing shot – what exactly is going on there? I am especially suspicious of this immediate readiness to feel guilty, to be responsible: we Europeans screwed it up, everything is the fault of our neocolonialism. This is not what I mean by probing into the background.
This response to the migrant crisis is a problem because it puts refugees in the totally passive position of victims. It’s as if we turned the old racist slogan of white man’s burden into white man’s guilt, as if we are the only active ones. This is, I think, our basic racist view. And when the refugees become too active, they are dismissed as terrorists.
But my greatest problem with all this humanitarianism is that people are not aware of what is really happening in Europe – the massive anti-immigrant populist movement. The leader of the Austrian populist Freedom Party had a serious chance of becoming president. This could have been the first time, in a Western European country, that a pure, anti-immigrant, racist populist became president.
Whelan: There is often a dismissal of those who are in favour of immigration controls as simply being racist. Are we ignoring people’s genuine concerns about this serious political issue?
Zizek: I don’t agree with the usual left-liberal attitude of dismissing all this as just lower-class populism, racism or fascism. Walter Benjamin put it clearly: ‘Behind every fascism there is a failed revolution.’ What is this discontent of the so-called ordinary people in Western Europe? How do we address this? These left-liberals do not want to address it. They just bemoan the fact that Europe is losing its heart. This is my greatest reproach to what I call the left-liberals: the worse the situation gets, the more they feel morally superior. They like to emphasise a sense of horror about Europe becoming fascist. Well, what are they effectively doing to prevent this horror?
I am pleading for a much more complex view, to begin some kind of a restructuring of the economic, military and political view of the entire situation that has caused the migrant crisis. The solution is not just, ‘let’s open our borders, and all will come in’. This, I think, is the first step towards a catastrophe. I am trying to understand the concerns of ordinary people without condoning racism.
Despite all his limitations, I admire US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His success is based on the fact that he always maintained a link with the small farmers of Vermont, all those who usually vote for Bible-belt conservatives. That is an absolutely crucial task today. If we don’t do this, we are lost.
Twenty years ago, I remember being shocked watching the then Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen on television at a national meeting. What he did was ingenious. He brought on stage a Jew, a black guy and an Arab, and he said, ‘look at them, they are no less French than me. They are my friends, they are not my enemies. My enemies’, and of course here he came close to anti-Semitic racism, ‘are the ruthless, cosmopolitan capitalists’. In this anti-immigrant populism, no matter how manipulated, there is a clear anti-capitalist edge. It is just displaced and mystified.
Whelan: Against the Double Blackmail also looks at what you call left-wing taboos – for instance, Islamophobia – and the reluctance to judge certain things that people do and say, especially when it comes to migrants or refugees. Are these taboos holding us back from having an honest discussion about immigration?
Zizek: People argue that if refugees do something wrong, they should not be held responsible. It’s always that we must somehow be responsible. But, if you talk to real immigrants, and I did talk to them in Germany and elsewhere, they want to be treated as responsible individuals.
But every critical remark you make is instantly decried by leftists as Islamophobia. With many leftists, I notice that this doesn’t only involve Islamophobia – some leftists don’t even like to emphasise materialism or secular values. I am absolutely, unambiguously a materialist. I don’t want any part of this return of the sacred, post-secular age. People think that I am part of some Western secular conspiracy against the Third World and the people there. I find this way of thinking extremely dangerous. The emancipatory core of the Western legacy – materialism, secular thought, women’s rights, Cartesian subjectivity, abstract universal subjectivity – these are more precious than ever today.
These are heavy political choices, I know. That’s why some post-colonialists attack me so much. We have global capitalism, we have to ask ourselves how do we move over it. Is it that we accept that we have to move through it in the sense of modernisation, secularisation? And that this is the only consequential Marxist view? Or should we play this game and demand that the European Enlightenment is discredited on account of the horrors that it caused, and argue that, today, the only resistance to global capitalism can come from Third World, indigenous traditions: African traditions, Latin-American traditions, etc.
I do not buy this second version, not only because it is ineffective, but because I think it fits perfectly with where global capitalism is moving today. There is absolutely nothing subversive in this idea that we should preserve or revive some old tradition of communal meetings, the solidarity of the whole community over individual rights. I don’t believe there’s any substantial emancipatory potential in this. China is doing this today. I had a debate recently in Amsterdam with one of the Chinese political thinkers whose line of thought was that, ‘you in the West have a destructive modernity because your modernity is too much in this Cartesian, individual-rights, competitive vein. But we, the Chinese, succeeded in combining modernity with ancient Confucian traditions.’ I don’t buy this.
Whelan: One of the biggest problems we have at the moment is the West’s self-effacing attitude. People say, ‘who are we to criticise? Britain has done terrible things in the past and we are in no position to judge.’ Should Britain’s, or indeed Europe’s, past stop us from exercising our critical and political judgement on other traditions and cultures?
Zizek: Take this example. British colonialism did many horrible things in India, but the worst among them was resuscitating the oppressive Hindu tradition of caste. Before British colonisation, the caste tradition was already disintegrating because of the influence of Islam. But British colonisers understood very quickly that the way to rule Indians was not to make them like us or to bring to them our modernity. No, a much better way to rule them was to resuscitate their own traditional, patriarchal, authoritarian structures. Colonialists did not want to create modernisers. No, intelligent colonialists always prefer to keep the majority in their own traditional frameworks. They never wanted Indians to become like us. Aldous Huxley wrote about his experience in India in the 1920s and detailed how the average English coloniser in India loved traditional Indian culture. He looked at how they described Westerners as vulgar, caring only about technological domination. The ordinary, poor Indian Hindu priest, in contrast, had an incredible spirituality and wisdom that far surpassed Western culture. The same thing is happening with refugees – why would we want them to be like us when we are so awful?
Whelan: You often criticise our obsession with culture. We are now living through the Culture Wars, with racism, sexism and gender politics dominating the political landscape. Why has culture become such an obsession? And, especially with regards to the migrant crisis, has it replaced a much-needed, broader political discussion?
Zizek: I do think racism and sexism are problems today. But I do not like the culturalisation of racism, where the problem becomes one of tolerance. If you read speeches by Martin Luther King, and search for the world tolerance, you’ll find that it is practically absent. He did not perceive racism in terms of tolerance, but in terms of economics and politics. He saw that this was the core of the argument. What I hate today is this automatic association of racism with tolerance – ‘we do not tolerate their way of life, we should understand it more’. This is culturalisation.
For me, the problem with racism in the US is not that we are not open enough towards black people. The problem is that they are systematically marginalised because of their economic situation. The problem is not one of tolerance. We have a real problem with racism, but the way in which we perceive this problem mystifies it.
Another example is harassment. Of course, I am against harassment, but I was quite surprised at how often it is a very double-edged notion. My time in the US taught me that it can also have a very clear class dimension. For many middle-class academics and liberals, harassment means they cannot really stand the presence of vulgar, aggressive, ordinary people. Crying harassment is a way for the upper-middle classes – academics, intellectuals and liberals – to keep their distance from ordinary people.
It’s clear that we talk about culture in order to not talk about the economy. This, for me, is the tragedy of the leftist politics from the 1970s and 1980s. We still have strikes, but basically leftist politics has become cultural politics. Of course, we should not simply return to pure economics. But, on the other hand, as many philosophers and even economists argue, today’s capitalism is becoming more and more what one may conditionally call (it is a tricky term, I know) cultural capitalism.
To use the most stupid everyday example: when you wear stone-washed jeans with cuts in the knee, you are attempting to make a certain statement. We do not buy products simply to satisfy our needs, even if these needs are imaginary. We literally define ourselves through the commodities we buy – we define our identity by buying what we buy. A Russian friend once gave me a great example from way back in the 1990s, when the situation there was much more coercive. Ordinary women, not all of them, but those who consider themselves sexually attractive, would try to wear dresses or make-up that we would have identified with prostitutes. But real prostitutes dressed in grey suits to appear more educated, like businesswomen. So there was this wonderful deviation – you recognise a prostitute when she appears as a businesswoman, but when a prostitute looks like a prostitute, she is definitely not a prostitute.
This cultural dimension of capitalism is getting incredibly important. I think the problem behind it, and this is underestimated by rational, enlightened, anti-passionate social democrats like Habermas, is the sheer libidinal sense of belonging. We want to belong and we define our belonging through what we do. I have a sense of belonging but it is an incredibly material force. The strength of this belonging is precisely the result of a global market economy, because a global market economy disintegrates the traditional bonds which would have once provided a sense of belonging. You need to satisfy this need for belonging – then you need other ways of belonging, which are not really a return to tradition.
So, if we look at all these fundamentalist movements, from Poland to Boko Haram to ISIS, I think they are the paradox: traditional content but in postmodern form. I spoke to some people from Nigeria who told me that Boko Haram appears to be purely fundamentalist traditionalist. But in the way they are organised, they are ultra-modern, flexible, like a revolutionary organisation. So it is an incredible tension between form and content. Even in the US, christian fundamentalism is a fake – it’s not really fundamentalism. It’s a big ego trip. They are already a part of the modern culture of self-promotion.
Whelan: Identity politics, and the war on sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on, doesn’t seem to apply to refugees if they’re homophobic or racist. Is this because Westerners are unwilling to treat migrants on the same intellectual level as themselves?
Zizek: I am a pessimist in this regard. I agree with you about the limit of identity politics. I am especially sceptical of it, and here I follow Gilles Deleuze, who said it is absolutely crucial to maintain a link with universality. The true danger comes with the reasoning that only a lesbian single mother can understand what it means to be a lesbian single mother, or that only a gay man can understand what it means to be gay. I think such a view, such an undermining of universality, is catastrophic. I see no emancipatory potential in relying on, or referring to, your own particular identity as beyond criticism, as an unquestionable identity.
We have two types of identity: multicultural identitarian politics and the identity of migrants. But why is there such a tension between the two? Precisely because they are, at the same time, radically different and uncannily close. They move in the same terrain – the terrain of strict control. For example, in most religious fundamentalisms, sex relations are strictly codified. But, in a way, the same thing is happening with our political correctness – the way we are allowed to approach someone’s sexual identity, and the way we talk about it, is so tightly controlled.
Although they are radically opposed, the politically correct attitude and religious fundamentalism share this characteristic of strict control. On both extremes, we have strict control over how to proceed, what is prohibited, how quickly you approach a barrier. But human interaction does not work this way. All rules can be twisted.
Whelan: In your final chapter, you express a desire to cut through the ideological fog that is stopping people from having an open and honest discussion about the migrant crisis. You argue that we must take a more material approach, politically and economically. Where do we go from here?
Zizek: You mentioned honesty, and, at a certain level, I like hypocrisy – just not bad hypocrisy. What does honesty mean? Let’s say we meet on the street. You are my friend and you see that I am very poorly and have some terrible disease. The honest thing would be to say: ‘You look so bad, you look like you will drop dead.’ No, I am all for hypocrisy and politeness. But how you or me feel is not in itself an argument for anything. I am absolutely sure that there are sincere racists who are truly horrified by people of another race. But this is not an argument. When a racist says, ‘sorry, it is not an ideology, I just cannot stand black people’, the answer must be, ‘my God, your feelings are wrong’. I am pleading for a really critical, rationalist spirit where you don’t trust any of these immediate feelings or identifications.
Here, I am a good Freudian. Freud always made this clear – if you look deep into yourself, at the core of your personality, you will not find some deeper spiritual truth. Instead, you find the fundamental lie – the fantasies and dirty things that define you. The goal of psychoanalysis is not simply to overcome these things but to disturb and restructure them. This is what we should learn from such cultural struggles. Cultural struggles should not simply be: ‘I have my culture, you have yours, and we should understand each other.’ There are horrors at the heart of every culture. Like Walter Benjamin said: ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ The problem is how to confront the very core of how we feel, how we desire. Our own cultural fundamentalists claim that culture is an authentic experience at the innermost core of our being. Such a claim is false. Fake it, pretend it, overcome it, but I don’t think that this appeal to some inner core (even if it is of our own culture) has any value. It certainly doesn’t have any emancipatory value. Our innermost attitudes are something we learn, but they can also be changed. We must never forget that.
Slavoj Zizek is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, and global distinguished professor of German at New York University. He has written many books including: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002); and, most recently, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours (2016).
Listen to the podcast of this interview here:
Picture by: Andy Miah.