It says nothing to me about my life
I dislike commenting on Žižek as a rule because I feel that, no matter what I say, I’m bound to get in trouble with someone that I respect. When I praise him, some comrades think I’m nuts for liking this Lacano-Maoist whack-a-doo. When I trash him, it proves to different comrades that I’m just another dreadfully boring Trotskyite stick-in-the-mud. I suppose if I were a liberal, I would, like Obama, take the fact that I’m pissing everyone off as evidence that I’m doing the right thing. I can certainly see the comfort in that. But as Luther would have said, had he lived in the 21st century: “Here I blog; I can do no other.”
Žižek’s essay on the London riots has made a bit of a splash on the left, and it drew an unusually cranky reply from Marxmail’s Louis Proyect. Now those who are familiar with Proyect’s writings–which I like and recommend–will realize that an unusually cranky reply from Proyect is, like, preternaturally cranky. As in, like, declaring the latter half of the article sufficiently “flatulent” not to merit a reply. Hmm. It probably would have helped if Proyect realized that Žižek’s title was a joking reference to a Smiths song, not a programmatic statement. Or very possibly that would have made things worse. In any event, I actually thought the part Proyect passed over was the really interesting point.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think the riots are at all difficult to explain, nor do I think that the rioter’s targets and tactics are especially novel in the history of urban riots. The Economist even published a brilliant article showing how the “this time it’s different than any other time” arguments mirror, more or less perfectly, the same arguments from…every other time. I have no idea why people think they’re saying something important when they point out, as Žižek does, that the riots are in “clear contrast” with the earlier student demonstrations, even though both employed violence. This is a kind of phony correlation, suggesting that the use of violence somehow implies something greater than itself. It’s rather like announcing that there’s a “clear contrast” between sushi and burritos, even though they both employ rice.
Actually, it’s when Žižek turns to a critical examination of the nonviolent “movements of the squares” that he makes the really killer point:
Today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old one after the uprising, when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment is over? In this context, the manifesto of the Spanishindignados, issued after their demonstrations in May, is revealing. The first thing that meets the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone…. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.
This is a pretty well-worn argument for Žižek, but it’s also correct, and it’s always right to repeat a correct idea. That a reaction against neoliberal politics would express itself first as a rejection of “politics” per se was probably inevitable, especially given the convergence of liberalism and social-democracy. However, the valorization of this phenomenon by radical intellectuals like John Holloway and Laurie Penny has been neither inevitable nor helpful.
It’s very excellent to be as disruptive and non-compliant as possible when your government tries to impose austerity. But in a crisis of the magnitude that we face today, the natural challenge, “What would you do instead?” immediately raises programmatic questions. If you’re a Greek worker and you say, “We workers shouldn’t have to pay for the bankers’ crisis,” then are you calling for default? If so, how do you exit the eurozone? Where do you find finance when the so-called “civilized world” freezes your credit? Do you nationalize the banks? If so, what is your industrial plan? And so on.
By no means am I arguing against the slogan, “We won’t pay for their crisis.” I’m totally for it, but being for it seriously means thinking through the implications, which means having a program. (Not necessarily in the formal sense, but in the sense of a political framework through which one evaluates and proposes particular concrete policies.) The posture of permanent resistance without programmatic content–“occupy everything, demand nothing”–although superficially anathematic to the “old left,” is really just a reinscription of the laziest habits it developed during the long postwar boom. In effect it is saying: hey ruling class, you guys are the rulers, stop being such jerks and fix this.
If the left is going to win, it has to convince people that it is prepared to deal with the consequences of winning.