Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Capturing the Moral High Ground and Other Cyclopian 'Master' Fallacies

- Slavoj Zizek, "There is no conflict between the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle against Israeli occupation"
Today, the charge of antisemitism is addressed at anyone who critiques Israeli policy

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, if you are attacked for the same text by both sides in a political conflict, this is one of the few reliable signs that you are on the right path. In the last decades, I have been attacked by a number of very different political actors (often on account of the same text!) for antisemitism, up to advocating a new Holocaust, and for perfidious Zionist propaganda (see the last issue of the antiemetic Occidental Observer). So I think I’ve earned the right to comment on the recent accusations against the Labour Party regarding its alleged tolerance of antisemitism.

I, of course, indisputably reject antisemitism in all its forms, including the idea that one can sometimes ”understand” it, as in: “considering what Israel is doing on the West Bank, one shouldn’t be surprised if this gives birth to antisemitic reactions”. More precisely, I reject the two symmetrical versions of this last argument: “we should understand occasional Palestinian antisemitism since they suffer a lot” as well as “we should understand aggressive Zionism in view of the Holocaust.” One should, of course, also reject the compromise version: “both sides have a point, so let’s find a middle way…”.

Along the same lines, we should supplement the standard Israeli point that the (permissible) critique of Israeli policy can serve as a cover for the (unacceptable) antisemitism with its no less pertinent reversal: the accusation of antisemitism is often invoked to discredit a totally justified critique of Israeli politics. Where, exactly, does legitimate critique of Israeli policy become antisemitism? More and more, mere sympathy for the Palestinian resistance is condemned as antisemitic. Take the two-state solution: while decades ago it was the standard international position, it is more and more proclaimed a threat to Israel's existence and thus antisemitic.

Things get really ominous when Zionism itself evokes the traditional antisemitic cliché of roots. Alain Finkielkraut wrote in 2015 in a letter to Le Monde: “The Jews, they have today chosen the path of rooting.” It is easy to discern in this claim an echo of Heidegger who said, in a Der Spiegel interview, that all essential and great things can only emerge from our having a homeland, from being rooted in a tradition. The irony is that we are dealing here with a weird attempt to mobilise antisemitic clichés in order to legitimize Zionism: antisemitism reproaches the Jews for being rootless; Zionism tries to correct this failure by belatedly providing Jews with roots. No wonder many conservative antisemites ferociously support the expansion of the State of Israel.

However, the trouble with Jews today is that they are now trying to get roots in a place which was for thousands of years inhabited by other people. That’s why I find obscene a recent claim by Ayelet Shaked, the former Israeli justice minister: “The Jewish People have the legal and moral right to live in their ancient homeland.” What about the rights of Palestinians?

For me, the only way out of this conundrum is the ethical one: there is ultimately no conflict between the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle against what the State of Israel is now doing on the West Bank. The two struggles are part of one and the same struggle for emancipation. Let’s mention a concrete case. Some weeks ago, Zarah Sultana, a Labour candidate, apologised for a Facebook post in which she backed the Palestinian right to “violent resistance”: “I do not support violence and I should not have articulated my anger in the manner I did, for which I apologize.” I fully support her apology, we should not play with violence, but I nonetheless feel obliged to add that what Israel is now doing on West Bank is also a form of violence. No doubts that Israel sincerely wants peace on the West Bank; occupiers by definition want peace in their occupied land, since it means no resistance. So if Jews are in any way threatened in the UK, I unconditionally and unequivocally condemn it and support all legal measures to combat it–but am I permitted to add that Palestinians in the West Bank are much more under threat than Jews in the UK?

Without mentioning Corbyn by name, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis recently wrote in an article for the Times that “a new poison–sanctioned from the top–has taken root in the Labour Party.” He conceded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote,” though went on to add: “When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.” I find this presentation of a political choice as a purely moral one ethically disgusting–it reminds me of how, decades ago, the Catholic Church in Italy did not explicitly order citizens to vote for Christian Democracy, but just said that they should vote for a party which is Christian and democratic.

Today, the charge of antisemitism is more and more addressed at anyone who deviates from the acceptable left-liberal establishment towards a more radical left–can one imagine a more repellent and cynical manipulation of the Holocaust? When protests against the Israel Defense Forces' activities in the West Bank are denounced as an expression of antisemitism, and (implicitly, at least) put in the same line as Holocaust deniers–that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations–it is not enough to insist on the difference between antisemitism and the critique of particular measures of the State of Israel. One should go a step further and claim that it is the State of Israel that, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, ruthlessly using them as an instrument to legitimise present political measures.

As Mirvis wrote, the soul of our nation is indeed at stake here–but also, the soul of the Jewish nation. Will Jews follow Finkielkraut and “take roots”, using their sacred history as an ideological excuse, or will they remember that ultimately we are all strangers in a strange land? Will Jews allow Israel to turn into another fundamentalist nation-state, or remain faithful to the legacy that made them a key factor in the rise of modern civil society? (Remember that there is no Enlightenment without the Jews.) For me, to fully support Israeli politics in the West Bank is a betrayal not just of some abstract global ethics, but of the most precious part of Jewish ethical tradition itself.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Society and Its' Discontents

Slavoj Zizek, "Will the global Left allow right-wing nationalists to take control of society's discontent?"
Three decades after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, there's now unease about liberal capitalism. It's benefitting the global Right more than leftists.

Today, it’s commonplace to emphasize the “miraculous” nature of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, this month. Back then, it was like a dream come true, something unimaginable even a couple of months earlier. Soon after, the Communist regimes collapsed like a house of cards.

Who, before then, in Poland could have imagined free elections with Lech Walesa as president? However, one should add that an even greater “miracle” happened only a couple of years later: the return of the ex-Communists to power through free democratic elections. Walesa was soon totally marginalized and much less popular than General Wojciech Jaruzelski who, a decade and a half earlier, crushed Solidarity with the military coup d’etat.

At this point, one usually mentions “capitalist realism”: East Europeans simply didn’t possess a realistic image of capitalism. They were full of immature utopian expectations. The morning after the enthusiasm of the drunken days of victory, people had to sober up and undergo a painful process of learning the rules of the new reality, i.e., the price one has to pay for political and economic freedom. It was, effectively, as if the European Left had to die twice: first as the “totalitarian” Communist Left, then as the moderate democratic Left which, since the 1990's, has been gradually losing ground.

However, things are a little bit more complex. When people protested against the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, what the large majority had in mind was not capitalism. They wanted social security, solidarity, and justice. They wanted the freedom to live their own lives outside state control and to come together and talk as they pleased. They wanted a life of simple honesty and sincerity, liberated from primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.

In short, the vague ideals that inspired the protesters were to a large extent taken from the socialist ideology itself. And, as we learned from Freud, what is repressed often returns in a distorted form – in our case, what was repressed from the dissident imaginary returned in the guise of rightist populism.

No wonder how, after a long time of preaching openness and globalization, developed countries are now into building new walls, because the new formula is free movement of commodities instead of free movement of people.

In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Jurgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate Left Fukuyamaist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, etc., we should not challenge its basic premises.

This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future – as he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just what he called “rectifying” or “catch-up” revolutions: their aim was to enable central and eastern European societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed. In other words, to return to European “normality.”

However, the likes of the Yellow Vests, and other similar protests, are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody the weird reversal that characterizes today’s global situation. The old antagonism between “ordinary people” and the financial-capitalist elites is back with a vengeance, with “ordinary people” exploding in protest against elites accused of being blind to their suffering and demands.

Yet, what is new is that the populist Right proved to be much more adept in channeling these explosions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the Yellow Vests: “Tout ce qui bouge n'est pas rouge” – “all that moves (creates unrest) is not red.”

Today’s populist Right participates in the long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist. Some revolts today (Catalonia, Hong Kong) can even be considered a case of what is sometimes called the revolts of the rich – remember that Catalonia is, together with Basque country, the richest part of Spain and that Hong Kong is per capita much wealthier than China. There is no solidarity with the exploited and poor of China in Hong Kong, no demand for freedoms for all in China, just the demand to retain one’s privileged position.

Here, then, is the paradox we have to confront: the populist disappointment at liberal democracy is the proof that 1989 and 1990 was not just a catch-up revolution. Instead, it was about something more than achieving liberal-capitalist 'normality'. Freud spoke about Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ( the discontent/unease in culture); today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the ongoing new wave of protests bears witness of a kind of Unbehagen in liberal capitalism, and the key question is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it? Therein resides the big conundrum facing the Left.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Paradox of Capital?

- Slavoj Zizek, "Capitalism can no longer afford freedom" (Friday 25 May 2012)
In his recent re-reading of Marx's Capital, Fredric Jameson identifies the inherent contradiction of the world market: that it is the very success of capitalism (higher productivity, and so forth) which produces unemployment (renders more and more workers useless), and thus that what should be a blessing (less hard labour required) becomes a curse.

As Jameson puts it, the world market is thus "a space in which everyone has once been a productive laborer, and in which labor has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system." That is to say, in the ongoing process of capitalist globalization, the category of the unemployed acquires a new dimension beyond the classic notion of the "reserve army of labor," and should now include
"those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, 'dropped out of history', who have been deliberately excluded from the modernizing projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases."
We should thus include among the unemployed those so-called "failed states" (like Congo and Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disasters, those trapped in pseudo-archaic "ethnic hatreds," objects of philanthropy or (often the same people) of the "war on terror."

The category of the unemployed should thus be expanded to encompass a wide range of the global population, from the temporary unemployed, through the no-longer employable and permanently unemployed, up to people living in slums and other types of ghettos (that is, all those often dismissed by Marx himself as "lumpen-proletarians") and, finally, all those areas, populations or states excluded from the global capitalist process, like blank spaces in ancient maps.

Does not this extension of the circle of the "unemployed" point to the fact that what once lay in the inert background of History becomes a potential agent of emancipatory struggle? Just recall Marx's dismissive characterization of the French peasants in his Eighteenth Brumaire:
"the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes ... Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented."
In the great twentieth-century revolutionary mobilizations of peasants (from China to Bolivia), these "sacks of potatoes" excluded from the historical process began actively to represent themselves.

But Jameson then makes the crucial observation that this new category of the "unemployed" is itself a form of capitalist exploitation - the exploited are not only workers producing surplus-value appropriated by capital, they also include those structurally prevented from getting caught up in the capitalist vortex of exploited wage labour, including entire geographical zones and even nation states.

This demands, then, that we rethink the concept of exploitation. Today, the exploited are not only those who produce or "create," but also (and even more so) those who are condemned not to "create." Everything hinges here on the fact that the capitalist mechanism not only needs workers, but also generates a "reserve army" of those who cannot find work: the latter are not simply outside the circulation of capital, they are actively produced as not-working by this circulation.

The importance of this shift of accent onto exploitation becomes clear when we oppose it to domination, the favourite motif of different versions of the postmodern "micro-politics of power." To put it simply, the influential theories of Michel Foucault and Giorio Agamben are insufficient: all their detailed elaborations of the regulatory power mechanisms of domination, along with their conceptions of bare life, homo sacer, and so on, they all must be grounded in (or mediated by) the centrality of exploitation. As Jameson rightly insists, without this reference to the economic, the fight against domination remains:
"an essentially moral or ethical one, which leads to punctual revolts and acts of resistance rather than to the transformation of the mode of production as such."
In other words, the outcome of the emphasis on domination is a democratic program, while the outcome of the emphasis on exploitation is a communist program. There lies the limit of describing the horrors of the Third World in terms of the effects of domination: the goal becomes democracy and freedom.

What this notion of domination fails to register is that only in capitalism is exploitation "naturalized," inscribed into the functioning of the economy. Domination is not the result of extra-economic pressure and violence, and this is why, in capitalism, we have personal freedom and equality: there is no need for direct social domination, because domination is already inscribed in the structure of the production process.

This is also why the category of surplus-value is crucial: Marx always emphasized that the exchange between worker and capitalist is "just" in the sense that workers (as a rule) get paid the full value of their labour-power as a commodity. There is no direct "exploitation" here - that is, it is not that workers "are not paid the full value of the commodity they are selling to the capitalists." So while in a market economy I remain de facto dependent, this dependency is nonetheless "civilized," realized in the form of a "free" market exchange between me and other persons instead of in the form of direct servitude or even physical coercion.

It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous "hymn to money" from her Atlas Shrugged:
"Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice - there is no other."
Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, "relations between people assume the guise of relations among things"? In the market economy, relations between people can appear as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality: domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such.

The liberal answer to domination is recognition - recognition, according to Jameson, thus "becomes a stake in a multicultural settlement by which the various groups peaceably and electorally divide up the spoils." The subjects of recognition are not classes (it is meaningless to demand the recognition of the proletariat as a collective subject - if anything, fascism does this, demanding the mutual recognition of classes). Subjects of recognition are those defined by race, gender and so on - the politics of recognition remains within the framework of bourgeois civil society, it is not yet class politics.

The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a "new world" (just think of Mandela in South Africa or Lula in Brazil) - but, then, sooner or later, they confront the key dilemma: whether to dare to mess with the capitalist mechanism, or to just "play the game"? If one disturbs the mechanism, one will be very swiftly "punished" by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

So although it is true that anti-capitalism cannot be the direct goal of political action - in politics, one opposes concrete political agents and their actions, not an anonymous "system" - we should apply here the Lacanian distinction between goal and aim: anti-capitalism, if not the immediate goal of emancipator politics, should be its ultimate aim, the horizon of all its activity.

Is this not the lesson of Marx's notion of the "critique of political economy"? Although the sphere of the economy appears "apolitical," it is the secret point of reference and structuring principle of political struggles.

Returning to Rand, what is problematic is her underlying premise: that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation, with any alternative dismissed as utopian. However, as I've already said, we should nonetheless recognize the moment of truth in Rand's otherwise ridiculously ideological claim: the great lesson of state socialism was indeed that an immediate abolition of private property and market-regulated exchange, in the absence of concrete forms of social regulation of the process of production, necessarily resuscitates direct relations of servitude and domination.

Fredric Jameson himself falls short with regard to this point. By focusing on how capitalist exploitation is compatible with democracy, how legal freedom can be the very form of exploitation, he ignores the sad lesson of the twentieth-century experience of the left: if we merely abolish the market (including market exploitation) without replacing it with an adequate form of communist organization of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation.

What further complicates the situation is that the rise of blank spaces in global capitalism is in itself also a proof that capitalism can no longer afford a universal civil order of freedom and democracy, that it increasingly requires exclusion and domination.

The case of Tien An Mien crackdown in China is exemplary here: what was quashed by the brutal military intervention was not the prospect of a quick entry into the liberal-democratic capitalist order, but the genuinely utopian possibility of a more democratic and more just society. The explosion of brutal capitalism after 1990 thus went hand in hand with the reassertion of non-democratic Party rule. Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England: it was in the bourgeoisie's own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. Maybe something similar is happening today in China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.

This, of course, raises the immediate question of what to do after the Occupy movement, when the protests which started on the periphery (the Middle East and Greece), reached the centre (the United States and the UK) and then gained strength and multiplied around the world?

What should be resisted at this stage is precisely a quick translation of the energy of protest into a set of "concrete" practical demands. The protests did create a vacuum - a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, since it is pregnant, an opening for the truly New.

What we should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy's turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be coopted and reappropriated and recycled - everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our "terror" - ominous and threatening as it should be.

Evoking Herman Melville's emblematic figure of Bartleby, the protesters of Occupy Wall Street were not saying only that they would prefer not to participate in the dance of capital and its circulation, they would also "prefer not to" cast a critical vote (for "our" candidates) or engage in any form of "constructive dialogue." This is the gesture of subtraction at its purest, the reduction of all qualitative differences to a purely formal minimal difference which opens up the space for the New.

The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn't know the question. It is only through the patient work of analysis that the right questions emerge.

There is old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that his mail will be intercepted and read by censors, he tells his friends:
"Let's establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false."
After a month, his friends receive the first letter, written in blue ink:
"Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls eager to have affairs - the only thing unavailable is red ink."
Does this not grasp our situation? In the West, we have all the freedoms we could want - the only thing missing is the "red ink." In other words, we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our un-freedom.

Perhaps this, then, is the role of intellectuals: not to listen to the demands of the protesters and provide clear answers - the protesters themselves are the answers - but rather to pose the right questions. In other words, to give the protesters red ink.

Generation from Opposites