The Death of the Left: Slavoj Zizek, Greece and the EU

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(Addendum: I’ve written a new post in which I did some further research and realize that what I took at face value was a misprisioning of Zizek’s intent, so have written of this reversal in my dialogical estimation of his current stance in this new post.)

In his latest review of the EU crisis Slavoj Zizek in a New Statesman article Slavoj Žižek on Greece: the courage of hopelessness  tells us “Greece is not being asked to swallow many bitter pills in exchange for a realistic plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others in the European Union can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed.” They’re not being asked at all. They’re being forced to suffer both this and the destruction of their society and culture under a debt-regime so large that nothing will remain. Zizek’s creampuff courage of the hopeless in the face of this coming train wreck does no more than typify the bankruptcy of his own thought as he provides a dismal and gloomy rhetorical flourish not on Greece but upon the bankruptcy of the Left and especially of his own nihilist philosophy of subtraction.

Has Zizek finally lined up a redemption mythology of suffering, a sort of atheistic melioration theory in reverse, a movement of absolute recoil that aligns the sufferings of Christ with the Death – not of God, but of the Left? He’ll quote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who said in an interview that “thought is the courage of hopelessness” – “an insight,” Zizek tells us, “which is especially pertinent for our historical moment when even the most pessimist diagnostics as a rule finishes with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel”. Is this where the Left is today: seeking proverbs and psalms to assuage its failure to revolt against the stupidity of economic tyranny? Is this what Zizek offers us – a wisdom of hopelessness, the courage to think failure in all its guises, to begin again from failure hoping that this time something better might come along, some “light at the end of the tunnel”? Listen to the faded wisdom of Zizek:

The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

No alternative, no light at the end of the tunnel, just an apocalypse coming our way? The notion that as Dr. Martin Luther King once had of “I have a dream…” vanishing into the desert of the real? Cowardice? That someone could actually think an alternative to the pessimistic hopelessness of Zizekian theory? That Zizek is bankrupt, that he’s capitulated to a vision of the Left as disaster theory, as catastrophism writ large – one that ends only in apocalypse. An apocalypse that we must all have the courage to face? Zizek’s been in a dead-loop in the Void for a while now, having found at the end of the day a theory of Subject and Event that seems to wander in its own inner light between subtractive dialectics of despair and hopelessness. A depressive communism for the nihilist who no longer can hide his apathy with the intellectual bankruptcy of his life’s work?

He’ll tell us the real issue is that the EU doesn’t want to help Greece rather it wants to set it up as an example, a scapegoat – to pay as a scapegoat, suffering to the nth degree so that the other nations will fall in lock step with the austere program of economic enslavement: “At a deeper level, however, one cannot avoid a suspicion that the true goal is not to give Greece a chance but to change it into an economically colonised semi-state kept in permanent poverty and dependency, as a warning to others. But at an even deeper level, there is again a failure – not of Greece, but of Europe itself, of the emancipatory core of European legacy.” The failure of the “emancipatory core of European legacy”? What else is this but the failure of the Left? The truth that the real failure is that the Left itself is bankrupt, that it can offer no rebuttal, no alternative, no answer that can stir the masses to action: that’s the truth of this failure, the masses have all gone to bed in fear or silence – afraid that, they too, might end up in the same bed as Greece.

He’ll reflect on the capitulation of Syriza after the people, the masses of Greece said NO to the EU. This sense that the government betrayed its own people, the “heroic people”, etc. “But does this mean that the long struggle of Syriza was in vain, that the No of the referendum was just a sentimental empty gesture destined to make the capitulation more palpable?” Yes, that’s exactly what it means. What else could it mean? Syriza wanted to save it’s self and could care less about the members of its Left or Right. Saving one’s ass is what politicians do.

Yet, Zizek wants us to believe that Syriza had other plans on its mind: “The Syriza government was not fighting just for a greater debt relief and for more new money within the same overall coordinates, but for the awakening of Europe from its dogmatic slumber.” This to me is just idiocy. Zizek love’s to hark back to his communist Idea, the hope of the hopeless, the lost causes of the past, as if – yes, one of these days people will wake up and see the light at the end of the tunnel and do something about it. No they want. When was the last time that ever happened? And, don’t point to all those various rainbow colored revolutions in the past century or so? What did they produce or procure for their people in the end? Hell, for that matter what did the French Revolution truly acquire in the end: terror, Napolean? War, pain, and suffering? Is this what we should hope for from the Left today?

Oh, but Zizek wants to pull triumph out of tragedy: “Therein resides the authentic greatness of Syriza: insofar as the icon of the popular unrest in Greece were the protests on the Syntagma (Constitution) Square, Syriza engaged in a Herculean labor of enacting the shift from syntagm to paradigm, in the long and patient work of translating the energy of rebellion into concrete measures that would change everyday life of the people. We have to be very precise here: the No of the Greek referendum was not a No to “austerity” in the sense of necessary sacrifices and hard work, but a No to the EU dream of just going on with the business as usual.”

Really? Is this what it was all about, not a No against “austerity” but rather a No to the EU dream of capitalism as neoliberal enslavement? A little disturbance of a banker’s sleep, perhaps? So did they get the message, dear Zizek? And, if they did what was their answer? Looks like more austerity to me… who the hell are you fooling with your glib heroics of the Syriza? What kind of radicalism is this? Is this the new Left? A sort of glib heroics of disturbing of Bankers dreams? I doubt these stone-faced and stoical conservative monarchs of Troika have the kinds of dreams that could be disturbed by Syriza’s heroics, Zizek… is this your ultimate Wisdom and Therapy for the struggling masses? Without a change in the very real structural relations and the institutions of the material foundations of society itself there can be no concrete change of the everyday life of individuals. Zizek is deluding himself if he thinks otherwise. What concrete measures does he think going 400 billion more in debt is going to effect for the Greek people?

Ultimately Zizek will try to return and admonish the Left: “The recurrent story of the contemporary Left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but, then, sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.” So one falls back into lock step with the capitalists, one becomes a good capitalist and works the system for profit and one’s own well-being (wealth). Is this the usual plan of emancipatory politics on the Left today? A sort of realization that they have no plan, no economics, no future to offer? A path that ends back in the enemies camp?

But no, Zizek is not finished. He will again pull out an ace in the hole, another Lacanian pocket cartoon: “The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth run of the Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real.” Is this what they risked? Just a little disturbance in the smooth running EU fabric? Nothing to really help its people? Just a little disturbance of robot bankers and blind government bureaucrats in the EU? How could they be disturbed by such antics? Oh, it gets better:

That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare-state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting environment, etc.); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals (participation, etc.); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society. Both traps are to be avoided here: the false radicalism (“what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, all other fights are secondary”), as well as the false gradualism (“now we fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy, forget your Socialist dreams, this comes later – maybe…”).

You hear that “trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society”? Is that all the Left can do at this point? Has it come to that? Can we do no better than just keep alive an idea of a non-capitalist society. Live in our own failures, dream our nightmares forward? But beware the traps of a “false radicalism” and a “false gradualism” he tells us. So what is a true radicalism dear Zizek? A real Socialist movement to do? What should we do? Political pedagogy? Like any good teacher he’ll give us some recent examples of what didn’t work in places like Egypt. That in the end the goal of democracy was not the right path, not the right principle: “In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough – say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy – democratization also of social and economic life. In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realize a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent to this principle itself – to learn this move from the distortion of a notion, its incomplete realization, to the distortion immanent to this notion is the big step of political pedagogy.”

So now there is a failure in the very principles structuring our emancipations? So are you reneging on what you’ve said in the past that we don’t need intellectuals telling us what principles to use in our struggles? As if – oh, now we need to rethink our democratic emancipatory projects – there seems to be a flaw in the very principle of the noble Idea? Oh, my! And, dear Zizek, what would that flaw be? He’ll tell us it’s that we succumb to the old limits, the old problems inherent in the democratic dilemmas: “At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.” So here we are caught between either falling back into capitalist systematics, or just dispensing with its subterfuge and becoming a fascistic State. Somewhere between the two? A sort of navigation between capitalism and fascism? Is this your deep wisdom, dear Zizek? A sort of wishy-washy middle-of-the-road liberalism? No, he says, we must also admit that,

“The courage of hopelessness is crucial at this point.”

If that’s true then I must admit that whatever the Left is today, if it is what he’s presenting here, then the Left is DEAD, Caput, Finis… Zizek’s become a Lacanian analyst and we are on the couch or deathbed of Leftist thought. All his therapy offers is the “courage of hopelessness” – but, that is neither courage nor hope; rather its a final death gasp of an intellectual who has finally succumbed to his own death tremors and delirium.

If the truth be told it is Slavoj Zizek’s inability to think an alternative to capitalism and its oppressive regime that is the true cowardice. Listen again as he tells us: “The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament.”

Why should we be told to “accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative”? Is this Zizek’s subtle capitulation to the capitalists? Has Zizek betrayed his own early involvement with communism? Is he now in agreement with those liberal progressives who say history has ended and the only alternative today is capitalism itself? Has Zizek himself become after all – all too human, a capitalist?

Deadlock? Inability to think to the end? Didn’t Marx do this long ago? Why do we need to rethink capitalism? Marx started with alienation a religious concept that was slowly turned through many centuries into a secular concept of the objectification of human labour into thing, a thing of property that could be manipulated by capital, sold: a saleability that could be reified into the machinic processes of capitalism itself.

Slowly over time humans have gone from being things (cogs) in the machine, to being alienated from both themselves and the very processes of the machine through automation processes of human interactions on machines that eliminated the human in assembly lines (or, self-reflective processes – second order rationality). Now, in our time when even our creative capacity to think and know (know-how, brain, inventiveness) is being usurped and alienated from us into even more advanced intelligence machines or a society of intelligent machines that will take place of the cognitariat or creative class (i.e., stock-brokers, analysts, bureaucratic systems, etc.) that once believed in its superior powers of invention.

What we’ve seen is the slow abstraction of the human mimetically sealed into machinic processes  through each phase of industrial capitalism. Humans mimicked their own physical and mental processes and objectified these into the machinic processes of production. Capital has slowly been eliminating the human entity who was prone to error, waste, sickness, death, entropy from its own machinic processes, and will do so till all that is left is the machine-society itself without-the-necessity of the human entities to support it. Over time we’ve seen the humanization of machines and a dehumanization of our own social systems: this is capitalism at its core.

Humans are being made obsolete, phased out as waste with no return on investment or ROI. The elite financiers, bankers, and governing powers no longer need our labour except as taxation: we are being slowly phased out of the equation from the Good Life that only those %.01 cosmopolitan globalists hide away in their new evil paradises and smart cities. Ultimately they are creating a world that will no longer need the vast masses of humans, in this new world of theirs intelligent machines or cyborg clones will be automated without the troublesome intentionalism of human belief systems. A world where the slaves do not even know they are slaves. A world of servo-mechanism designed for work and play. A world without laughter or emotion. A dead world.

Marx saw this all long ago. Our only deadlock is not seeing what he saw. There is no deadlock, there is only a lack of vision and imagination on the part of philosophers like Zizek. Zizek has betrayed his own beginnings, Zizek is the failure of his own complicity to not think an alternative to this trap. Zizek is the death of the Left. His courage truly is the courage of a hopeless man who can no longer see what is in front of his own face. A man who has no answers, and is beginning to have no questions, either. A man who has failed himself and us as well.

9 thoughts on “The Death of the Left: Slavoj Zizek, Greece and the EU

  1. Embrace hopelessness? A pyrrhic ‘victory’ at best… Even in chess, Lasker said that a bad plan is better than no plan. Zizek needs to put his thinking cap back on and do better.

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  2. Zizek’s politics (he was involved in Slovenian one) has always been compromise and betrayal of everything radical in his philosophy. Syriza debacle fits this pattern.

    Someone compared Zizek to failed Hamlet, who wants to avenge death of his father (Lenin) but is afraid to take the sword in his hands. So he spends his days daydreaming of divine violence and perfect communist cadre, whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

    But Zizek’s self-diagnosis (and diagnosis of Syriza) is even more damning. Bartleby the scrivener, meekly resisting with ‘I’d prefer not to’ until he dies of starvation.

    Oh, Bartleby. Oh, humanity 🙂

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  3. Ah yes, the Nordic model, proof that neoliberalism and social democracy can walk hand in hand without trampling the smallfolk. But reality is rotten in the state of Denmark (and Sweden and etc).

    Nordic countries are ossified, stratified societies with shocking inequality of wealth and power. Have been this way for a while, but the fat grease of tax-funded welfare state has concealed ugly bones beneath. But in these lean times, social democratic parties are doing their best to starve the welfare state in vain hope of making these skeletons dance to the tune of global financial capital.

    The fact that Economist endorses the Nordic model should serve as a warning, I think…

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  4. Reblogged this on catastrophic edge and commented:
    In Hickman’s reading Zizek sounds like a lot like an anarchist , except for his sadness. An anarchist would (and did) say the same thing, prior to the events unfolding, and in the aftermath be rubbing her hands together barely able to restrain herself from saying “told you so”…before finally handing you a copy of pamphlet or link to a blog about how you shouldn’t mourn, you should organize. All sides have their magical mantras and incantations to stave off the dark.

    For what limited value my nonopinion is worth, I think Zizek is right and that “the left” (whatever that actually is) should get a bit more at home with hopelessness and depressive realism. The last thing we need is any philosophers, Zizek or otherwise, imagining where we should go next or what the alternative would look like.

    In fact there is no end of people imagining concrete utopias in outline at the moment, and every single one of them stinks to high hell of the desperation of lunatics who have decided that having jumped off the bridge, actually they’d really like to live.

    I’ve been stammering about the inadequacy of the left to anyone who’ll listen for a while, and I include the anarchists too, because none of them are capable of realizing that the “problematization” approach of postmodernism and the “solution-focussed” approach of our whatever contemporaneity are equally delusional.

    Relatedly, if at the beside of the subject, a forthcoming book on mysticism and accelerationism promises to arrive in the next few months. Why mysticism? Because at the rebirth of rationalism and its inhumanist vector burst forward the much more inhuman and much more terrifying prospects of an accelerative irrationalism. Mysticism, madness, the irrationalism of actually existing bodies…hopeless?

    What happens when the nihilist stops trying to struggle with her nihilism and owns it? What happens when, having “set her affairs on nothing”, she rediscovers what is actually there?

    As Paul Bogard details in his seductive book about the dark of a sky uncontaminated by the destructive luminosity of the a nocturnal urbanism of glare, there are still parts of the world where an unspoiled darkness swallows the earth. In these places without artificial light and without the ambient pollutants of near-by cityscapes the black remains unspoiled. After two hours in such places the fear fragile little stars twinkling pathetically up there begin to blossom and to explode into clusters of greens and reds and blues and yellows. The darkness becomes as vibrant as that captured by Van Gogh’s swirling supernovas.

    If you stand in the darkness for long enough without flight or flame, the eyes adjust and one begins to feel at home.

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