And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mind Yur U-Knits!

If you praise the rose, this means you blame the darkness,
In addition, if you recollect the glitter of ancient swords, you blame the peace,
And when you mention jasmine often and you laugh: then you attack the regime
- Mahmud Darwish, "The Rhymed Orations of the Dictator"

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Still Dreaming?

Still Trying to get More?
Canaan was the name of the fourth son of Ham, the youngest son of Noah, the father of all humanity (Genesis 9:18). This Canaan would give his name to the much coveted country of Canaan and the people who live there. The original Canaanites (an ethically diverse group of people) were displaced by Israel (Deuteronomy 7:1, but see our article on the Exodus for additional considerations).

Canaan became the recipient of a curious curse that made him the perpetual servant of his two uncles Japheth and Shem. After having survived the flood and their 230 days stay in the Ark (40 days of rain, 150 days of floating, 40 days of drying) Noah planted a vineyard (a common symbol of general human culture), made wine and got drunk, and lay naked in his tent. Then not Canaan but Ham, the father of Canaan, saw Noah naked and quipped about it to Shem and Japheth. The two older brothers walked into their father's tent backwards and covered Noah without looking at him.

When Noah awoke he learned what Ham had done but then lashed out at Canaan, Ham's fourth son. He decreed that Japheth should become large but live in the tents of Shem, but Canaan should be the servant of all of them. Why Noah became so upset with Canaan instead of Ham is not told.
The root-verb כנע (kana') is generally thought to mean to be humbled, subdued, or brought into subjection, but more fundamentally, this verb describes the process of synchronicity; bringing elements from a wild, feral state into a state of common order and mutual benefit (like, say, a trade agreement). State formation depends on synchronicity, but, more fundamentally, so does language formation.

Synchronicity may demand the abandonment of one's naturally free state, which some thinkers interpret as a wholesale loss of freedom. But in fact, the secondary freedom gained (say: the ability to converse) from this initial loss (giving up growling and howling and having to agree on words) is far greater. This same principle may even explain why a universe which operates by means of the second law of thermodynamics (pursue maximum entropy) is able to produce DNA and cells to run it (greater than maximum entropy).

The strength of a group is proportional to its level of synchronicity, and the principles of laughter and harmonic music may have originated as demonstrations of strength (namely group-synchronicity) rather than entertainment (see the name Isaac).

About half of the thirty six occurrences of this verb in the Bible occurs in the reports of military campaigns (Nehemiah 9:24). A large portion of the other occurrences deal with a king's submission to God (1 Kings 21:29).
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes two striking usages of this verb, namely in Leviticus 26:41 and 2 Chronicles 7:14, where humility is marked as a key condition for God's blessing.

This root yields one derivative, the feminine noun כנעה (kin'a), meaning bundle or pack, which demonstrates that the verb does not simply denotes subdual but rather a bringing tightly together (Jeremiah 10:17 only).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Profiles in Courage

from Wikipedia
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (Russian: Валенти́на Влади́мировна Терешко́ва; IPA: [vɐlʲɪnʲˈtʲinə vlɐˈdʲimʲɪrəvnə tʲɪrʲɪʂˈkovə]; born 6 March 1937) is a Russian former cosmonaut. She was the first woman to have flown in space, having been selected from more than four hundred applicants and five finalists to pilot Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963. In order to join the Cosmonaut Corps, Tereshkova was honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force and thus she also became the first civilian to fly in space.

Before her recruitment as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova was a textile-factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. After the dissolution of the first group of female cosmonauts in 1969, she became a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, holding various political offices. She remained politically active following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is still regarded as a hero in post-Soviet Russia.

In 2013 she offered to go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arose. At the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics, she was a carrier of the Olympic flag.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"For anything undertaken in response to the will of the collectivity (in this instance the Party), no matter how distasteful, no matter how unattractive from the standpoint of individual morality, there could be no guilt, no questioning, no remorse." - George Kennan

To George Kennan

13 February 1951

New College, Oxford

Dear George,

I have ill rewarded your wonderful letter by leaving it so long unanswered. I received it towards the end of term here when I was genuinely worn out by teaching and examining, and scarcely capable of taking anything in, but even then it moved me profoundly. I took it off with me to Italy and read it and re-read it, and kept putting off the day on which I would write an answer worthy of it, but no such day ever came. I began many letters but each seemed trivial, and what the Russians call suetlivo ["in a fussy or bustling manner"]--full of hurrying sentences, scattered and moving in all directions at once, inappropriate either to the theme or to your words about it; but I cannot bear (if only because of the feelings which your letter excited in me) to say nothing merely because I am not sure how much I have to say. So you must forgive me if what I write is chaotic, not merely in form but in substance, and does little justice to your thesis. I shall simply go on and hope for the best, and beg you to pardon me if I am wasting your time.

I must begin by saying that you have put in words something which I believe not only to be the centre of the subject but something which, perhaps because of a certain reluctance to face the fundamental moral issue on which everything turns, I failed to say; but once forced to face it, I realise both that it is craven to sail round it as I have done, and moreover that it is, in fact, what I myself believe, and deeply believe, to be true; and more than this: that upon one's attitude to this issue, which you have put very plainly, and very, if I may say so, poignantly, depends one's entire moral outlook, i.e. everything one believes.

Let me try and say what I think it is; you say (and I am not quoting) that every man possesses a point of weakness, an Achilles' heel, and by exploiting this a man may be made a hero or a martyr or a rag. Again, if I understand you correctly, you think that Western civilisation has rested upon the principle that, whatever else was permitted or forbidden, the one heinous act which would destroy the world was to do precisely this--the deliberate act of tampering with human beings so as to make them behave in a way which, if they knew what they were doing, or what its consequences were likely to be, would make them recoil with horror and disgust. The whole of the Kantian morality (and I don't know about Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims and high-minded atheists believe it) lies in this; the mysterious phrase about men being "ends in themselves," to which much lip-service has been paid, with not much attempt to explain it, seems to lie in this: that every human being is assumed to possess the capacity to choose what to do, and what to be, however narrow the limits within which his choice may lie, however hemmed in by circumstances beyond his control; that all human love and respect rests upon the attribution of conscious motives in this sense; that all the categories, the concepts, in terms of which we think about and act towards one another--goodness, badness, integrity and lack of it, the attribution of dignity or honour to others which we must not insult or exploit, the entire cluster of ideas such as honesty, purity of motive, courage, sense of truth, sensibility, compassion, justice; and, on the other side, brutality, falseness, wickedness, ruthlessness, lack of scruple, corruption, lack of feelings, emptiness--all these notions in terms of which we think of others and ourselves, in terms of which conduct is assessed, purposes adopted--all this becomes meaningless unless we think of human beings as capable of pursuing ends for their own sakes by deliberate acts of choice--which alone makes nobility noble and sacrifices sacrifices.

The whole of that morality, which is most prominent in the nineteenth century, in particular in the romantic period, but implicit in both Christian and Jewish writings, and far less present in the pagan world, rests on the view that it is a marvellous thing in itself when a man pits himself against the world, and sacrifices himself to an ideal without reckoning the consequences, even when we consider his ideal false and its consequences disastrous. We admire purity of motive as such, and think it a wonderful thing--or at any rate deeply impressive, perhaps to be fought but never despised--when somebody throws away material advantage, reputation etc. for the sake of bearing witness to something which he believes to be true, however mistaken and fanatical we may think him to be. I do not say that we worship passionate self-abandonment or automatically prefer a desperate fanaticism to moderation and enlightened self-interest. Of course not; yet nevertheless we do think such conduct deeply moving, even when misdirected. We admire it always more than calculation; we at least understand the kind of aesthetic splendour which all defiance has for some people--Carlyle, Nietzsche, Leontiev [Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev, nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and critic] and Fascists generally. We think that only those human beings are a credit to their kind who do not let themselves be pushed too far by the forces of nature or history, either passively or by glorying in their own impotence; and we idealise only those who have purposes for which they accept responsibility, on which they stake something, and at times everything; living consciously and bravely for whatever they think good, i.e. worth living and, in the last resort, dying for.

All this may seem an enormous platitude, but, if it is true, this is, of course, what ultimately refutes utilitarianism and what makes Hegel and Marx such monstrous traitors to our civilisation. When, in the famous passage, Ivan Karamazov rejects the worlds upon worlds of happiness which may be bought at the price of the torture to death of one innocent child, what can utilitarians, even the most civilised and humane, say to him? After all, it is in a sense unreasonable to throw away so much human bliss purchased at so small a price as one--only one--innocent victim, done to death however horribly--what after all is one soul against the happiness of so many? Nevertheless, when Ivan says he would rather return the ticket, no reader of Dostoevsky thinks this cold-hearted or mad or irresponsible; and although a long course of Bentham or Hegel might turn one into a supporter of the Grand Inquisitor, qualms remain.

Ivan Karamazov cannot be totally exorcised; he speaks for us all, and this I take to be your point, and the foundation of your optimism. What I take you to say, and what I should have said myself if I had had the wit or the depth, is that the one thing which no utilitarian paradise, no promise of eternal harmony in the future within some vast organic whole will make us accept is the use of human beings as mere means--the doctoring of them until they are made to do what they do, not for the sake of the purposes which are their purposes, fulfilment of hopes which however foolish or desperate are at least their own, but for reasons which only we, the manipulators, who freely twist them for our purposes, can understand. What horrifies one about Soviet or Nazi practice is not merely the suffering and the cruelty, since although that is bad enough, it is something which history has produced too often, and to ignore its apparent inevitability is perhaps real Utopianism--no; what turns one inside out, and is indescribable, is the spectacle of one set of persons who so tamper and "get at" others that the others do their will without knowing what they are doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed as human beings at all.

When armies were slaughtered by other armies in the course of history, we might be appalled by the carnage and turn pacifist; but our horror acquires a new dimension when we read about children, or for that matter grown-up men and women, whom the Nazis loaded into trains bound for gas chambers, telling them that they were going to emigrate to some happier place. Why does this deception, which may in fact have diminished the anguish of the victims, arouse a really unutterable kind of horror in us? The spectacle, I mean, of the victims marching off in happy ignorance of their doom amid the smiling faces of their tormentors? Surely because we cannot bear the thought of human beings denied their last rights--of knowing the truth, of acting with at least the freedom of the condemned, of being able to face their destruction with fear or courage, according to their temperaments, but at least as human beings, armed with the power of choice. It is the denial to human beings of the possibility of choice, the getting them into one's power, the twisting them this way and that in accordance with one's whim, the destruction of their personality by creating unequal moral terms between the gaoler and the victim, whereby the gaoler knows what he is doing, and why, and plays upon the victim, i.e. treats him as a mere object and not as a subject whose motives, views, intentions have any intrinsic weight whatever--by destroying the very possibility of his having views, notions of a relevant kind--that is what cannot be borne at all.

What else horrifies us about unscrupulousness if not this? Why is the thought of someone twisting someone else round his little finger, even in innocent contexts, so beastly (for instance in Dostoevsky's Dyadyushkin son [Uncle's Dream, a novella published in 1859], which the Moscow Arts Theatre used to act so well and so cruelly)? After all, the victim may prefer to have no responsibility; the slave be happier in his slavery. Certainly we do not detest this kind of destruction of liberty merely because it denies liberty of action; there is a far greater horror in depriving men of the very capacity for freedom--that is the real sin against the Holy Ghost. Everything else is bearable so long as the possibility of goodness--of a state of affairs in which men freely choose, disinterestedly seek ends for their own sake--is still open, however much suffering they may have gone through. Their souls are destroyed only when this is no longer possible. It is when the desire for choice is broken that what men do thereby loses all moral value, and actions lose all significance (in terms of good and evil) in their own eyes; that is what is meant by destroying people's self-respect, by turning them, in your words, into rags. This is the ultimate horror because in such a situation there are no worthwhile motives left: nothing is worth doing or avoiding, the reasons for existing are gone. We admire Don Quixote, if we do, because he has a pure-hearted desire to do what is good, and he is pathetic because he is mad and his attempts are ludicrous.

For Hegel and for Marx (and possibly for Bentham, although he would have been horrified by the juxtaposition) Don Quixote is not merely absurd but immoral. Morality consists in doing what is good. Goodness is that which will satisfy one's nature. Only that will satisfy one's nature which is part of the historical stream along which one is carried willy-nilly, i.e. that which "the future" in any case holds in store. In some ultimate sense, failure is proof of a misunderstanding of history, of having chosen what is doomed to destruction, in preference to that which is destined to succeed. But to choose the former is "irrational," and since morality is rational choice, to seek that which will not come off is immoral. This doctrine that the moral and the good is the successful, and that failure is not only unfortunate but wicked, is at the heart of all that is most horrifying both in utilitarianism and in "historicism" of the Hegelian, Marxist type. For if only that were best which made one happiest in the long run, or that which accorded with some mysterious plan of history, there really would be no reason to "return the ticket." Provided that there was a reasonable probability that the new Soviet man might either be happier, even in some very long run, than his predecessors, or that history would be bound sooner or later to produce someone like him whether we liked it or not, to protest against him would be mere silly romanticism, "subjective," "idealistic," ultimately irresponsible. At most we would argue that the Russians were factually wrong and the Soviet method not the best for producing this desirable or inevitable type of man. But of course what we violently reject is not these questions of fact, but the very idea that there are any circumstances in which one has a right to get at, and shape, the characters and souls of other men for purposes which these men, if they realised what we were doing, might reject.

We distinguish to this extent between factual and value judgement--that we deny the right to tamper with human beings to an unlimited extent, whatever the truth about the laws of history; we might go further and deny the notion that "history" in some mysterious way "confers" upon us "rights" to do this or that; that some men or bodies of men can morally claim a right to our obedience because they, in some sense, carry out the behests of "history," are its chosen instrument, its medicine or scourge or in some important sense "Welthistorisch"--great, irresistible, riding the waves of the future, beyond our petty, subjective, not rationally bolsterable ideas of right and wrong. Many a German and I daresay many a Russian or Mongol or Chinese today feels that it is more adult to recognise the sheer immensity of the great events that shake the world, and play a part in history worthy of men by abandoning themselves to them, than by praising or damning and indulging in bourgeois moralisings: the notion that history must be applauded as such is the horrible German way out of the burden of moral choice.

If pushed to the extreme, this doctrine would, of course, do away with all education, since when we send children to school or influence them in other ways without obtaining their approval for what we are doing, are we not "tampering" with them, "moulding" them like pieces of clay with no purpose of their own? Our answer has to be that certainly all "moulding" is evil, and that if human beings at birth had the power of choice and the means of understanding the world, it would be criminal; since they have not, we temporarily enslave them, for fear that, otherwise, they will suffer worse misfortunes from nature and from men, and this "temporary enslavement" is a necessary evil until such time as they are able to choose for themselves--the "enslavement" having as its purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgement and choice; still, evil it remains, even if necessary.

Communists and Fascists maintain that this kind of "education" is needed not only for children but for entire nations for long periods, the slow withering away of the State corresponding to immaturity in the lives of individuals. The analogy is specious because peoples, nations are not individuals and still less children; moreover in promising maturity their practice belies their professions; that is to say, they are lying, and for the most part know that they are. From a necessary evil in the case of the education of helpless children, this kind of practice becomes an evil on a much larger scale, and quite gratuitous, based either on utilitarianism, which misrepresents our moral values, or again on metaphors which misdescribe both what we call good and bad, and the nature of the world, the facts themselves. For we, i.e. those who join with us, are more concerned with making people free than making them happy; we would rather that they chose badly than not at all; because we believe that unless they choose they cannot be either happy or unhappy in any sense in which these conditions are worth having; the very notion of "worth having" presupposes the choice of ends, a system of free preferences; and an undermining of them is what strikes us with such cold terror, worse than the most unjust sufferings, which nevertheless leave the possibility of knowing them for what they are--of free judgement, which makes it possible to condemn them--still open.

You say that men who in this way undermine the lives of other men will end by undermining themselves, and the whole evil system is therefore doomed to collapse. In the long run I am sure you are right, because open-eyed cynicism, the exploitation of others by men who avoid being exploited themselves, is an attitude difficult for human beings to keep up for very long. It needs too much discipline and appalling strain in an atmosphere of such mutual hatred and distrust as cannot last because there is not enough moral intensity or general fanaticism to keep it going. But still the run can be very long before it is over, and I do not believe that the corrosive force from inside will work away at the rate which perhaps you, more hopefully, anticipate. I feel that we must avoid being inverted Marxists. Marx and Hegel observed the economic corrosion in their lifetime, and so the revolution seemed to be always round the corner. They died without seeing it, and perhaps it would have taken centuries if Lenin had not given history a sharp jolt. Without the jolt, are moral forces alone sufficient to bury the Soviet grave-diggers? I doubt it. But that in the end the worm would eat them I doubt no more than you; but whereas you say that is an isolated evil, a monstrous scourge sent to try us, not connected with what goes on elsewhere, I cannot help seeing it as an extreme and distorted but only too typical form of some general attitude of mind from which our own countries are not exempt.

For saying this, E.H. Carr has attacked me with some violence, in a leading article in The Times Literary Supplement last June. This makes me believe I must be even more right than I thought, since his writings are among the more obvious symptoms of what I tried to analyse, and he rightly interprets my articles as an attack on all he stands for. All this comes out particularly in his last oeuvre--on the Russian Revolution--in which the opposition and the victims are not allowed to testify--feeble flotsam adequately taken care of by history, which has swept them away as, being against the current, they, eo ipso, deserve. Only the victors deserve to be heard; the rest--Pascal, Pierre Bezukhov, all Chekhov's people, all the critics and casualties of Deutschtum or White Man's Burdens, or the American Century, or the Common Man on the March--these are historical dust, lishnye lyudi ["superfluous men," in Turgenev's and Dostoevsky's term], those who have missed the bus of history, poor little rats inferior to Ibsenite rebels who are all potential Catilines and dictators. Surely there never was a time when more homage was paid to bullies as such: and the weaker the victim the louder (and sincerer) his paeans--vide E.H. Carr, Koestler, Burnham, Laski, passim? But I must not waste your time any further.

Once more I should like to say how deeply moved I was by your formulation of what it is that excites in us the unparalleled horror which we feel when we read of what goes on in Soviet territories, and to convey my admiration and unbounded moral respect for the insight and scruple with which you set it forth. These qualities seem to me unique at present; more than this I cannot say.

Yours ever,
- Isaiah Berlin

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Overthrowing Democracies

If we know that the procedures and institutions of constitutional democracies* privilege the wealthy and exclude the poor, if we know that efforts toward inclusion remain tied to national boundaries, thereby disenfranchising yet again those impacted by certain national decisions and policies, and if we know that the expansion and intensification of networked communications that was supposed to enhance democratic participation serves primarily to integrate and consolidate communicative capitalism, why do we present our political hopes as aspirations to democracy, rather than something else? Why in the face of democracy’s obvious inability to represent justice in the social field that has emerged in the incompatibility between the globalized economy and welfare states to displace the political, do critical left political and cultural theorists continue to emphasize a set of arrangements that can be filled in, substantialized, by fundamentalisms, nationalisms, populisms, and conservatisms diametrically opposed to progressive visions of social and economic equality? The answer is that democracy is the form our attachment to Capital takes. Faithful to democracy, we eschew the demanding task of politicizing the economy and envisioning a different political order.
Jodi Dean, "Zizek Against Democracy"

*Adopting Hegel’s insight that the Universal “can realize itself only in impure, deformed, corrupted forms,” he emphasizes the impossibility of grasping the Universal as an intact purity.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

RMS Queen Mary

RMS Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line (known as Cunard-White Star Line when the vessel entered service). Built by John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland, Queen Mary along with her running mate, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, were built as part of Cunard's planned two-ship weekly express service between Southampton, Cherbourg, and New York City. The two ships were a British response to the superliners built by German and French companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard Line from May 1936 until October 1946 when she was replaced in that role by Queen Elizabeth.
from Wikipedia

Friday, November 20, 2015

In the Wake of Paris Attacks the Left Must Embrace Its Radical Western Roots

from In These Times
In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza and Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the “humanitarian” topic of the refugees. Class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday, November 13, even this topic (which still refers to large socio-economic issues) is now eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with forces of terror.

It is easy to imagine what will follow: paranoiac search for ISIS agents among the refugees. (Media already gleefully reported that two of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece as refugees.) The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners, behind the platitudes in the style of je suis Paris, will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just to engage in shows of anti-terrorist solidarity but to insist on the simple cui bono (for whose benefit?) question.

There should be no “deeper understanding” of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of “their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions”); they should be characterized as what they are: the Islamo-Fascist counterpart of the European anti-immigrant racists—the two are the two sides of the same coin. Let’s bring class struggle back—and the only way to do it is to insist on global solidarity of the exploited.

The deadlock that global capitalism finds itself in is more and more palpable. How to break out of it? Fredric Jameson recently proposed global militarization of society as a mode of emancipation: Democratically motivated grassroots movements are seemingly doomed to failure, so perhaps it’s best to break global capitalism’s vicious cycle through “militarization,” which means suspending the power of self-regulating economies. Perhaps the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe provides an opportunity to test this option.

It is at least clear that what is needed to stop the chaos is large-scale coordination and organization, which includes but is not limited to: reception centers near to the crisis (Turkey, Lebanon, the Libyan coast), transportation of those granted entrance to European way stations, and their redistribution to potential settlements. The military is the only agent that can do such a big task in an organized way. To claim that such a role for the military smells of a state of emergency is redundant. When you have tens of thousands of people passing through densely populated areas without organization you have an emergency state—and it is in a state of emergency that parts of Europe are right now. Therefore, it is madness to think that such a process can be left to unwind freely. If nothing else, refugees need provisions and medical care.

Taking control of the refugee crisis will mean breaking leftist taboos.

For instance, the right to “free movement” should be limited, if for no other reason than the fact that it doesn’t exist among the refugees, whose freedom of movement is already dependent on their class. Thus, the criteria of acceptance and settlement have to be formulated in a clear and explicit way—whom and how many to accept, where to relocate them, etc. The art here is to find the middle road between following the desires of the refugees (taking into account their wish to move to countries where they already have relatives, etc.) and the capacities of different countries.

Another taboo we must address concerns norms and rules. It is a fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights. Tolerance as a solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) obviously doesn’t work: fundamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms. Western liberals, likewise, find it impossible to bear many practices of Muslim culture.

In short, things explode when members of a religious community consider the very way of life of another community as blasphemous or injurious, whether or not it constitutes a direct attack on their religion. This is the case when Muslim extremists attack gays and lesbians in the Netherlands and Germany, and it is the case when traditional French citizens view a woman covered by a burka as an attack on their French identity, which is exactly why they find it impossible to remain silent when they encounter a covered woman in their midst.

To curb this propensity, one has to do two things. First, formulate a minimum set of norms obligatory for everyone that includes religious freedom, protection of individual freedom against group pressure, the rights of women, etc.—without fear that such norms will appear “Eurocentric.” Second, within these limits, unconditionally insist on the tolerance of different ways of life. And if norms and communication don’t work, then the force of law should be applied in all its forms.

Another taboo that must be overcome involves the equation of any reference to the European emancipatory legacy to cultural imperialism and racism. In spite of the (partial) responsibility of Europe for the situation from which refugees are fleeing, the time has come to drop leftist mantras critiquing Eurocentrism.

The lessons of the post-9/11 world are that the Francis Fukuyama dream of global liberal democracy is at an end and that, at the level of the world economy, corporate capitalism has triumphed worldwide. In fact, the Third World nations that embrace this world order are those now growing at a spectacular rate. The mask of cultural diversity is sustained by the actual universalism of global capital; even better if global capitalism’s political supplement relies on so-called “Asian values.”

Global capitalism has no problem in accommodating itself to a plurality of local religions, cultures and traditions. So the irony of anti-Eurocentrism is that, on behalf of anti-colonialism, one criticizes the West at the very historical moment when global capitalism no longer needs Western cultural values in order to smoothly function. In short, one tends to reject Western cultural values at the very time when, critically reinterpreted, many of those values (egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc.) can serve as a weapon against capitalist globalization. Did we already forget that the entire idea of Communist emancipation as envisaged by Marx is a thoroughly “Eurocentric” one?

The next taboo worth leaving behind is that any critique of the Islamic right is an example of “Islamophobia.” Enough of this pathological fear of many Western liberal leftists who worry about being deemed guilty of Islamophobia. For example, Salman Rushdie was denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) responsible for the fatwa condemning him to death. The result of such a stance is what one can expect in such cases: The more Western liberal leftists wallow in their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam.

This constellation perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: The more you obey what the pseudo-moral agency that the sadistic and primitive superego demands of you, the more guilty you are of moral masochism and identification with the aggressor. Thus, it is as if the more you tolerate Islamic fundamentalism, the stronger its pressure on you will be.

And one can be sure that the same holds for the influx of immigrants: The more Western Europe will be open to them, the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.

The political economy of the refugees: Global capitalism and military intervention

As a long-term strategy, we should focus on what one cannot but call the “political economy of refugees,” which means focusing on the ultimate causes underlying the dynamics of global capitalism and military interventions. The ongoing disorder should be treated as the true face of the New World Order. Consider the food crisis now plaguing the “developing” world. None other than Bill Clinton made it clear in his comments, at a 2008 UN gathering marking World Food Day, that the food crisis in many Third World countries cannot be put on the usual suspects like corruption, inefficiency and state interventionism—the crisis is directly dependent on the globalization of agriculture. The gist of Clinton’s speech was that today’s global food crisis shows how “we all blew it, including me when I was president,” by treating food crops as commodities instead of as a vital right of the world’s poor.

Clinton was very clear in putting blame not on individual states or governments but on U.S. and EU long-term global policies carried out for decades by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international economic institutions. Such policies pressured African and Asian countries into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs. This allowed the best land to be used for export crops, which effectively compromised the countries’ self-sufficiency. The integration of local agriculture into global economy was the result of such “structural adjustments,” and the effect was devastating: Farmers were thrown out of their land and pushed into slums fitted for sweat-shop labor, while countries had to rely more and more on imported food. In this way, they are kept in postcolonial dependence and became more and more vulnerable to market fluctuations. For instance, grain prices skyrocketed last year in countries like Haiti and Ethiopia, both of which export crops for biofuel and consequently starve their populations.

In order to approach these problems properly, one will have to invent new forms of large-scale collective action; neither the standard state intervention nor the much-praised local self-organization can do the job. If the problem will not be solved, one should seriously consider that we are approaching a new era of apartheid in which secluded, resource-abundant parts of the world will be separated from the starved-and-permanently-at-war parts. What should people in Haiti and other places with food shortages do? Do they not have the full right to violently rebel? Or, to become refugees? Despite all the critiques of economic neo-colonialism, we are still not fully aware of the devastating effects of the global market on many local economies.

As for the open (and not-so-open) military interventions, the results have been told often enough: failed states. No refugees without ISIS and no ISIS without the U.S. occupation of Iraq, etc. In a gloomy prophecy made before his death, Col. Muammar Gaddafi said: “Now listen you, people of NATO. You’re bombing a wall, which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of al Qaeda terrorists. This wall was Libya. You’re breaking it. You’re idiots, and you will burn in Hell for thousands of migrants from Africa.” Was he not stating the obvious?

The Russian story, which basically elaborates Gaddafi, has its element of truth, in spite of the obvious taste of pasta putinesca. Boris Dolgov of the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation told TASS:

That the refugee crisis is an outcome of US-European policies is clear to the naked eye. … The destruction of Iraq, the destruction of Libya and attempts to topple Bashar Assad in Syria with the hands of Islamic radicals—that’s what EU and US policies are all about, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees are a result of that policy.

Similarly, Irina Zvyagelskaya, of the oriental studies department at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told TASS:

The civil war in Syria and tensions in Iraq and Libya keep fueling the flow of migrants, but that is not the only cause. I agree with those who see the current events as a trend towards another mass resettlement of peoples, which leave the weaker countries with ineffective economies. There are systemic problems that cause people to abandon their homes and take to the road. And the liberal European legislation allows many of them to not only stay in Europe, but also to live there on social benefits without seeking employment.

And Yevgeny Grishkovets, the Russian author, playwright and stage director, writing in in his blog agrees:

These people are exhausted, angry and humiliated. They have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance. They will never agree to abide by European laws. … They will never feel grateful to the people whose countries they have managed to get into with such problems, because the very same states first turned their own home countries into a bloodbath. … Angela Merkel vows modern German society and Europe are prepared for problems. … That’s a lie and nonsense!

However, while there is some general truth in all this, one should not jump from this generality to the empirical fact of refugees flowing into Europe and simply accept full responsibility. The responsibility is shared. First, Turkey is playing a well-planned political game (officially fighting ISIS but effectively bombing the Kurds who are really fighting ISIS). Then we have the class division in the Arab world itself (the ultra-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Emirates accepting almost no refugees). And what about Iraq with its tens of billions of oil reserves? How, out of all this mess, does there emerge a flow of refugees?

What we do know is that a complex economy of refugee transportation is making millions upon millions of dollars profit. Who is financing it? Streamlining it? Where are the European intelligence services? Are they exploring this dark netherworld? The fact that refugees are in a desperate situation in no way excludes the fact that their flow into Europe is part of a well-planned project.

Sure, Norway exists

Let me address my so-called leftist critics who find my breaking of the above-mentioned taboos in articles published in the London Review of Books and In These Times problematic. Nick Riemer, writing in Jacobin, condemns the “reactionary nonsense” I am “promoting”:

It should be obvious to Zizek that the West can’t intervene militarily in a way that avoids the “neocolonial traps of the recent past.” Refugees, for their part, aren’t wayfarers on someone else’s soil, present only under sufferance and, as such, the objects of “hospitality.” Regardless of the customs they bring with them, they should enjoy the same rights as the members of the diverse communities that make up Europe—a pluralism entirely ignored in Zizek’s astonishing reference to a unique “Western European way of life.”

The claim that underlies this view is much stronger than Alain Badiou's qui est ici est d'ici (those who are here are from here)—it is more something like qui veut venir ici est d'ici (those who want to come here are from here). But even if we accept it, it is Riemer who entirely ignores the point of my remark: of course “they should enjoy the same rights as the members of the diverse communities that make up Europe,” but which exactly are these “same rights” refugees should enjoy?

While Europe is now fighting for full gay and woman's rights (the right to abortion, the rights of same-sex married couples, etc.), should these rights also be extended to gays and women among the refugees even if they are in conflicts with “the customs they bring with them” (as they often obviously are)? And this aspect should in no way be dismissed as marginal: from Boko Haram to Robert Mugabe to Vladimir Putin, the anti-colonialist critique of the West more and more appears as the rejection of the Western “sexual” confusion, and as the demand for returning to the traditional sexual hierarchy.

I am, of course, well aware how the immediate export of Western feminism and individual human rights can serve as a tool of ideological and economic neocolonialism (we all remember how some American feminists supported the U.S. intervention in Iraq as a way to liberate women there, while the result is exactly the opposite). But I absolutely reject to draw from this the conclusion that the Western Left should make here a “strategic compromise,” and silently tolerate “customs” of humiliating women and gays on behalf of the “greater” anti-imperialist struggle.

Along with Jürgen Habermas and Peter Singer, Reimer then accuses me of endorsing “an elitist vision of politics—the enlightened political class versus a racist and ignorant population.” When I read this, I again could not believe my eyes! As if I hadn’t written pages and pages on criticizing precisely European liberal political elite! As for “racist and ignorant population,” we stumble here upon another Leftist taboo: Yes, unfortunately, large parts of the working class in Euroope is racist and anti-immigrant, a fact which should in no way be dismissed as as the result of the manipulation of an essentially “progressive” working class.

Riemer's final critique is: “Zizek’s fantasy that refugees pose a threat to the ‘Western’ ‘way of life’ that may be remedied by better kinds of military and economic ‘intervention’ abroad is the clearest illustration of how the categories in which analysis is conducted can open the door to reaction.” As for the danger of military interventions, I am well aware of it, and I also consider a justified intervention almost impossible. But when I speak of the necessity of radical economic change, I of course do not aim at some kind of “economic intervention” in parallel with military intervention, but of a thorough radical transformation of global capitalism that should begin in the developed West itself. Every authentic leftist knows that this is the only true solution—without it, the developed West will continue to devastate Third World countries, and with fanfare mercifully take care of their poor.

Along similar lines, Sam Kriss’ critique is especially interesting in that he also accuses me of not being a true Lacanian:

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Zizek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also—isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a [the unatainable object of desire] ? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding “freedom of movement for all.” Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented—but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Zizek can only articulate the European “way of life” in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe. … “The Non-Existence of Norway” isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on “radical economic change,” this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Zizek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

“Migrants are more European than Europe itself” is an old leftist thesis that I too have often used, but one has to be specific about what it means. In my critic’s reading, it means migrants actualize the principle—“freedom of movement for all”—more seriously than Europe. But, again, one has to be precise here. There is “freedom of movement” in the sense of freedom to travel, and the more radical “freedom of movement” in the sense of the freedom to settle in whatever country I want. But the axiom that sustains the refugees in Calais is not just the freedom to travel, but something more like, “Everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move into has to provide for them.” The EU guarantees (sort of, more or less) this right for its members and to demand the globalization of this right equals the demand to expand the EU to the entire world.

The actualization of this freedom presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution. Why? New forms of apartheid are emerging. In our global world, commodities circulate freely but not people. Discourse around porous walls and the threat of inundating foreigners are an inherent index of what is false about capitalist globalization. It is as if the refugees want to extend the free, global circulation of commodities to people as well, but this is presently impossible due to the limitations imposed by global capitalism.

From the Marxist standpoint, “freedom of movement” relates to the need of capital for a “free” labor force—millions torn out of their communal life to be employed in sweatshops. The universe of capital relates to individual freedom of movement in an inherently contradictory way: Capitalism needs “free” individuals as cheap labor forces, but it simultaneously needs to control their movement since it cannot afford the same freedoms and rights for all people.

Is demanding radical freedom of movement, precisely because it does not exist within the existing order, a good starting point for the struggle? My critic admits the impossibility of the refugee’s demand, yet he affirms it on account of its very impossibility—all the while accusing me of a non-Lacanian, vulgar pragmatism. The part about objet a as impossible, etc., is simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense. The “Norway” I refer to is not objet a but a fantasy. Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.

Germany likes to emphasize the need to integrate the refugees culturally and socially. However—and here is another taboo to be broken—how many of the refugees really want to be integrated? What if the obstacle to integration is not simply Western racism? (Incidentally, fidelity to one’s objet a in no way guarantees authenticity of desire—even a brief perusal of Mein Kampf makes it clear that Jews were Hitler’s objet a, and he certainly remained faithful to the project of their annihilation.) This is what is wrong with the claim “if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves”—yes, but it will not be the fantasmic “Norway” refugees are dreaming about.

Ritualized violence and fundamentalism

Along these lines, in his attack on me, Sebastian Schuller raises the question: “Is Zizek now going over to PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident]?”

Schuller's blog post even attributes a statement to me that, of course, I never made: “I no longer know any classes, only Europeans.” What we must do is move beyond the cliché of refugees as proletarians with “nothing to lose but their chains” invading bourgeois Europe: There are class divisions in Europe as well as in the Middle East, and the key question is how these different class dynamics interact.

This brings us to the reproach that, while I call for a critique of the dark underside of the Islamic right, I remain silent about the dark underside of the European world: “And what about Crosses in the school? What about the church tax? What about the diverse Christian sects with absurd moral ideas? What about the Christians who announce that gays will be barbecued in hell?” This is a weird reproach—the parallel between Christian and Muslim fundamentalism is a topic over-analyzed in our media (as well as in my books).

Be that as it may, let’s recall what happened in Rotherham, England: At least 1,400 children were subjected to brutal sexual exploitation between 1997 and 2013; children as young as 11 were raped by multiple perpetrators, abducted, trafficked to other cities, beaten and intimidated; “doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone, as the official report put it.” There had been three previous inquiries into these goings on that led to nothing. One inquiry team noted a fear among council staff that they’d be labelled “racist” if they pursued the matter. Why? The perpetrators were almost exclusively members of Pakistani gangs and their victims—referred by the perpetrators as “white trash”—were white schoolgirls.

Reactions were predictable. Mostly through generalization, many on the Left resorted to all possible strategies in order to blur facts. Exhibiting political correctness at its worst, in two Guardian articles the perpetrators were vaguely designated as “Asians.” Claims were made. This wasn’t about ethnicity and religion but rather about domination of man over women. Who are we with our church pedophilia and Jimmy Saville to adopt a high moral ground against a victimized minority? Can one imagine a more effective way to open up the field to UKIP and other anti-immigrant populists who exploit the worries of ordinary people?

What is not acknowledge is that such anti-racism is in effect a form of covert racism since it condescendingly treats Pakistanis as morally inferior beings who should not be held to normal human standards.

In order to break out of this deadlock, one should begin with the very parallel between the Rotherham events and pedophilia within the Catholic Church. In both cases, we are dealing with organized—ritualized even—collective activity. In the case of Rotherham, another parallel may be even more pertinent. One of the terrifying effects of the non-contemporaneity of different levels of social life is the rise of systematic violence against women. Violence that is specific to a certain social context is not random violence but systematic—it follows a pattern and transmits a clear message. While we were right to be terrified at the gang rapes in India, as Arundhati Roy pointed out, the cause of the unanimous moral reaction was that the rapists were poor and from lower strata. Nonetheless, the world-wide echo of violence against women is suspicious, so, perhaps, it would be worthwhile to widen our perception and include other similar phenomena.

The serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez at the border are not just private pathologies, but a ritualized activity, part of the subculture of local gangs and directed at single young women working in new assembling factories. These murders are clear cases of macho reaction to the new class of independent working women: The social dislocation due to fast industrialization and modernization provokes a brutal reaction in males who experience this development as a threat. And the crucial feature in all these cases is that the criminally violent act is not a spontaneous outburst of raw brutal energy which breaks the chains of civilized customs, but something learned, externally imposed, ritualized and part of the collective symbolic substance of a community. What is repressed for the “innocent” public gaze is not the cruel brutality of the act, but precisely its “cultural,” ritualistic character as symbolic custom.

The same perverted social-ritual logic is at work when Catholic Church representatives insist that these intercontinental cases of pedophilia, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal, problem, and then display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation. Church reps are, in a way, right. The pedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that merely concerns the persons who accidentally (read: privately) happened to choose the profession of a priest. It is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as an institution, and is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution. It does not concern the “private” unconscious of individuals, but the “unconscious” of the institution itself. It is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a “straight” (not pedophiliac) priest who, after years of service, gets involved in pedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional unconscious designates the disavowed underside that, precisely as disavowed, sustains the public institution. (In the U.S. military, this underside consists of the obscene sexualized hazing rituals that help sustain the group solidarity.) In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up the embarrassing pedophilic scandals: In defending itself, the Church defends its innermost obscene secret. Identifying oneself with this secret side is key for the very identity of a Christian priest: If a priest seriously (not just rhetorically) denounces these scandals he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community. He is no longer “one of us.” Similarly, when a US southerner in the 1920s denounced the KKK to the police he excluded himself from his community by betraying its fundamental solidarity.

We should approach the Rotherham events in exactly the same way since we are dealing with the “political unconscious” of Pakistani Muslim youth. The kind of violence at work is not chaotic violence but ritualized violence with precise ideological contours. A youth group, which experiences itself as marginalized and subordinated, took revenge at low-class girls of the predominant group. It is fully legitimate to raise the question of whether there are features in their religion and culture which open up the space for brutality against women without blaming Islam as such (which is in itself no more misogynistic than Christianity). In many Islamic countries and communities one can observe consonance between violence against women, the subordination of women and their exclusion from public life.

Among many fundamentalist groups and movements strict imposition of hierarchical sexual difference is at the very top of their agenda. But we should simply apply the same criteria on both (Christian and Islamic fundamentalist) sides, without fear of admitting that our liberal-secular critique of fundamentalism is also stained by falsity.

Critique of religious fundamentalism in Europe and the United States is an old topic with endless variation. The very pervasiveness of the self-satisfactory way that the liberal intelligentsia make fun of fundamentalists covers up the true problem, which is its hidden class dimension. The counterpart of this “making-fun-of” is the pathetic solidarity with the refugees and the no less false and pathetic self-humiliation of our self-admonition. The real task is to build bridges between “our” and “their” working classes. Without this unity (which includes the critique and self-critique of both sides) class struggle proper regresses into a clash of civilizations. That’s why yet another taboo should be left behind.

The worries and cares of so-called ordinary people affected by the refugees are oft dismissed as an expression of racist prejudices if not outright neo-Fascism. Should we really allow PEGIDA & company to be the only way open to them?

Interestingly, the same motif underlies the “radical” leftist critique of Bernie Sanders: What bothers his critics is precisely his close contact with small farmers and other working people in Vermont, who usually give their electoral support to Republican conservatives. Sanders is ready to listen to their worries and cares, not dismiss them as racist white trash.

Where does the threat come from?

Listening to ordinary people’s worries, of course, in no way implies that one should accept the basic premise of their stance—the idea that threats to their way of life comes from outside, from foreigners, from “the other.” The task is rather to teach them to recognize their own responsibility for their future. To explain this point, let’s take an example from another part of the world.

Udi Aloni’s new film Junction 48 (upcoming in 2016) deals with the difficult predicament of young “Israeli Palestinians” (Palestinians descended from the families that remained in Israel after 1949), whose everyday life involves a continuous struggle at two fronts—against Israeli state oppression as well as fundamentalist pressures from within their own community. The main role is played by Tamer Nafar, a well-known Israeli-Palestinian rapper, who, in his music, mocks the tradition of the “honor killing” of Palestinian girls by their Palestinian families. A strange thing happened to Nafar during a recent visit to the United States. At UCLA after Nafar performed his song protesting “honor killings,” some anti-Zionist students reproached him for promoting the Zionist view of Palestinians as barbaric primitives. They added that, if there are any honor killings, Israel is responsible for them since the Israeli occupation keeps Palestinians in primitive, debilitating conditions. Here is Nafar’s dignified reply: “When you criticize me you criticize my own community in English to impress your radical professors. I sing in Arabic to protect the women in my own hood.”

An important aspect of Nafar’s position is that he is not just protecting Palestinian girls from family terror he is allowing them to fight for themselves—to take the risk. At the end of Aloni’s film, after the girl decides to perform at a concert against her family’s wishes, and the film ends in a dark premonition of honor killing.

In Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm X there is a wonderful detail: After Malcolm X gives a talk at a college, a white student girl approaches him and asks him what she can do to help the black struggle. He answers: “Nothing.” The point of this answer is not that whites should just do nothing. Instead, they should first accept that black liberation should be the work of the blacks themselves, not something bestowed on them as a gift by the good white liberals. Only on the basis of this acceptance can they do something to help blacks. Therein resides Nafar’s point: Palestinians do not need the patronizing help of Western liberals, and they need even less the silence about “honor killing” as part of the Western Left’s “respect” for Palestinian way of life. The imposition of Western values as universal human rights and the respect for different cultures, independent of the horrors sometimes apart of these cultures, are two sides of the same ideological mystification.

In order to really undermine homeland xenophobia against foreign threats, one should reject its very presupposition, namely that every ethnic group has its own proper “Nativia.” On Sept. 7, 2015, Sarah Palin gave an interview to Fox News with Fox and Friends host Steve Doocey:

“I love immigrants. But like Donald Trump, I just think we have too darn many in this country. Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans—they’re changing up the cultural mix in the United States away from what it used to be in the days of our Founding Fathers. I think we should go to some of these groups and just ask politely: “Would you mind going home? Would you mind giving us our country back?”

“Sarah you know I love you,“ Doocey interjected, “And I think that’s a great idea with regards to Mexicans. But where are the Native Americans supposed to go? They don’t really have a place to go back to do they?”

Sarah replied: “Well I think they should go back to Nativia or wherever they came from. The liberal media treats Native Americans like they’re gods. As if they just have some sort of automatic right to be in this country. But I say if they can’t learn to get off those horses and start speaking American, then they should be sent home too.”

Unfortunately, we immediately learned that this story—too good to be true—was a hoax brilliantly performed by Daily Currant. However, as they say, “Even if it’s not true, it is well conceived.” In its ridiculous nature, it brought out the hidden fantasy that sustains the anti-immigrant vision: In today’s chaotic global world there is a “Nativia“ to which people who bother us properly belong. This vision was realized in apartheid South Africa in the form of Bantustans—territories set aside for black inhabitants. South African whites created the Bantustans with the idea of making them independent, thereby ensuring that black South Africans would loose their citizenship rights in the remaining white-controlled areas of South Africa. Although Bantustans were defined as the “original homes“ of the black peoples of South Africa, different black groups were allocated to their homelands in a brutally arbitrary way. Bantustans amounted to 13 percent of the country’s land carefully selected not to contain any important mineral reserves—the resource-rich remainder of the country would then be in the hands of the white population. The Black Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 formally designated all black South Africans as citizens of the homelands, even if they lived in “white South Africa,” and cancelled their South African citizenship. From the standpoint of apartheid, this solution was ideal: Whites possessed most of the land while blacks were proclaimed foreigners in their own country and treated as guest workers who could, at any point, be deported back to their “homeland.” What cannot but strike the eye is the artificial nature of this entire process. Black groups were suddenly told that an unattractive and infertile piece of land was their “true home.” And today, even if a Palestinian state were to emerge on the West Bank, would it not be precisely such a Bantustan, whose formal ”independence” would serve the purpose of liberating the Israeli government from any responsibility for the welfare of the people living there.

But we should also add to this insight that the multiculturalist or anti-colonialist’s defense of different “ways of life” is also false. Such defenses cover up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life by justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expressions of a particular way of life that we have no right to measure with foreign, i.e. Western values. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s talk at the UN general assembly is a typical anti-colonialist defense used as a justification for brutal homophobia:

Respecting and upholding human rights is the obligation of all states, and is enshrined in the United Nations charter. Nowhere does the charter arrogate the right to some to sit in judgment over others, in carrying out this universal obligation. In that regard, we reject the politicization of this important issue and the application of double standards to victimize those who dare think and act independently of the self-anointed prefects of our time. We equally reject attempts to prescribe “new rights” that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays! Cooperation and respect for each other will advance the cause of human rights worldwide. Confrontation, vilification, and double-standards will not.

What can Mugabe’s emphatic claim “We are not gays!” mean with regard to the fact that, for certain, there are many gays also in Zimbabwe? It means, of course, that gays are reduced to an oppressed minority whose acts are often directly criminalized. But one can understand the underlying logic: The gay movement is perceived as the cultural impact of globalization and yet another way globalization undermines traditional social and cultural forms such that the struggle against gays appears as an aspect of the anti-colonial struggle.

Does the same not hold for, say, Boko Haram? For certain Muslims the liberation of women appears as the most visible feature of the destructive cultural impact of capitalist modernization. Therefore, Boko Haram, which can be roughly and descriptively translated as “Western education [of women specifically] is forbidden,” can perceive itself as a way of fighting the destructive impact of modernization when it imposes hierarchic regulation between the two sexes.

The enigma is thus: Why do Muslim extremists, who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination, and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target what is (for us, at least) the best part of the Western legacy—our egalitarianism and personal freedoms? The obvious answer could be that their target is well-chosen: What makes the liberal West so unbearable is that they not only practice exploitation and violent domination, but that, to add insult to injury, they present this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite—of freedom, equality and democracy.

Mugabe’s regressive defense of particular ways of life finds its mirror-image in what Viktor Orban, the rightwing Prime Minister of Hungary, is doing. On Sept. 3, 2015, he justified closing off the border with Serbia as an act of defending Christian Europe against invading Muslims. This was the same Orban who, back in July 2012, said that in Central Europe a new economic system must be built: “And let us hope that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival. … Cooperation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.”

The irony of these lines was not lost on some old Hungarian dissidents: When the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the 1956 anti-Communist uprising the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was: “We are defending Europe here.” (Against the Asiatic Communists, of course.) Now, after Communism collapsed, the Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy Western multi-cultural consumerist liberal democracy for which today’s Western Europe stands, and calls for a new more organic communitarian order to replace the “turbulent” liberal democracy of the last two decades. Orban already expressed his sympathies towards cases of “capitalism with Asian values” like Putin’s Russia, so if the European pressure on Orban continues we can easily imagine him sending the message to the East: “We are defending Asia here!“ (And, to add an ironic twist, are, from the West European racist perspective, today’s Hungarians not descendants of the early medieval Huns—Attila is even today a popular Hungarian name.)

Is there a contradiction between these two Orbans: Orban the friend of Putin who resents the liberal-democratic West and Orban the defender of Christian Europe? There is not. The two faces of Orban provide the proof (if needed) that the principal threat to Europe is not Muslim immigration but its anti-immigrant, populist defenders.

So what if Europe should accept the paradox that its democratic openness is based on exclusion. In other words, there is “no freedom for the enemies of freedom,” as Robespierre put it long ago? In principle, this is, of course, true, but it is here that one has to be very specific. In a way, Norway’s mass murderer Andres Breivik was right in his choice of target: He didn’t attack the foreigners but those within his own community who were too tolerant towards intruding foreigners. The problem is not foreigners—it is our own (European) identity.

Although the ongoing crisis of the European Union appears as a crisis of economy and finances, it is in its fundamental dimension an ideological-political crisis. The failure of referendums concerning the EU constitution a couple of years ago gave a clear signal that voters perceived the European Union as a “technocratic” economic union, lacking any vision which could mobilize people. Till the recent wave of protests from Greece to Spain, the only ideology able to mobilize people has been the anti-immigrant defense of Europe.

There is an idea circulating in the underground of the disappointed radical Left that is a softer reiteration of the predilection for terrorism in the aftermath of the 1968 movement: the crazy idea that only a radical catastrophe (preferably an ecological one) can awaken masses and thus give a new impetus to radical emancipation. The latest version of this idea relates to the refugees: only an influx of a really large number of refugees (and their disappointment since, obviously, Europe will not be able to satisfy their expectations) can revitalize the European radical Left.

I find this line of thought obscene: notwithstanding the fact that such a development would for sure give an immense boost to anti-immigrant brutality, the truly crazy aspect of this idea is the project to fill in the gap of the missing radical proletarians by importing them from abroad, so that we will get the revolution by means of an imported revolutionary agent.

This, of course, in no way entails that we should content ourselves with liberal reformism. Many leftist liberals (like Habermas) who bemoan the ongoing decline of the EU seem to idealize its past: The “democratic” EU the loss of which they bemoan never existed. Recent EU policies, such as those imposing austerity on Greece, are just a desperate attempt to make Europe fit for new global capitalism. The usual Left-liberal critique of the EU—it’s basically OK, except for a “democratic deficit”— betrays the same naivety as the critics of ex-Communist countries who basically supported them, except for the complaint about the lack of democracy: In both cases, the “democratic deficit” is and was a necessary part of the global structure.

But here, I am even more of a skeptical pessimist. When I was recently answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest daily, about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, but with a rightist-populist twist: When Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands into Germany, which was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals suspension of—in effect imposing a gigantic change in a country’s status quo without democratic consultation of its population? (Their answer would have been, of course, that refugees should also be given the right to vote—but this is clearly not enough, since this is a measure that can only happen after refugees are already integrated into the political system of a country.) A similar problem arises with the calls for transparency of the EU decisions: what I fear is that, since in many countries the majority of the public was against the Greek debt reduction, rendering EU negotiations public would make representatives of these countries advocate even tougher measures against Greece.

We encounter here the old problem: What happens to democracy when the majority is inclined to vote for racist and sexist laws? I am not afraid to conclude: Emancipatory politics should not be bound a priori by formal-democratic procedures of legitimization. No, people quite often do NOT know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing. There is no simple shortcut here.

We definitely live in interesting times.
ANd a critique of the above.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Rock

Rock, Rock
O! My Rock of Gibraltar
You are my heavenly altar
The doves sing, the white clouds dance
And the white waves at sea wave romance

And for the love of chess
Let me humbly confess
The way you move those chess pieces
Can mend anyones hearts broken pieces

Rock, Rock
O! My Rock of Gibraltar
With nature beautiful beyound wonder
The monkeys & birds are at home
They play about and joyously roam

And when I look at you it is clear
You are a breathe of fresh Gibraltar air
You touch my pawns, rook, bishop, queen, king and knight
My heart racing, I think this must be Gilbraltar love Alright!
- Sylvia Chidi, "My Rock of Gibraltar"
This, of course, brings us back to Schelling: the gap between the ethereal image and the raw fact of the - inert, dense - Real is precisely the gap between Existence (ethereal form) and its impenetrable Ground, on account of which, as Schelling puts it, the ultimate base of reality is the Horrible. Crucial for any materialist ontology is this gap between the bodily depth of the Real and the pseudodepth of Meaning produced by the Surface. It is also easy to see the connection with Freud, who defined reality as that which functions as an obstacle to desire: "ugliness" ultimately stands for existence itself, for the resistance of reality, which never simply lends itself effortlessly to our molding. Reality is ugly, it "shouldn't be there" and hinder our desire. However, the situation is here more complicated, since the obstacle to desire is at the same time the site of unbearable, filthy, excessive pleasure - of jouissance. What shouldn't be there is ultimately jouissance itself: the inert stuff is the materialization of jouissance. In short, the point not to be missed is that, in the opposition between desire and the hard reality (bringing pain, unpleasure, preventing us from achieving the balance of pleasure), jouissance is on the side of 'hard reality'. Jouissance as "real" is that which resists (symbolic integration); it is dense and impenetrable. In this precise sense, jouissance is 'beyond the pleasure principle'. Jouissance emerges when the very reality that is the source of unpleasure, of pain, is experienced as a source of traumatic-excessive pleasure. Or to put it another way: desire is in itself "pure", it endeavors to avoid any "pathological" fixation. The "purity" of desire is guaranteed by its residing in the very gap between any positive object of desire and desire itself. The fundamental experience of desire is ce n'est pas ca, this is not that. In clear contrast to it, jouissance (or libido, or drive) is by definition "dirty" and/or ugly, it is always "too close": desire is absence, while libido-drive is presence.

All this is absolutely crucial for the functioning of ideology in the case of our "everyday" sexism or racism: their ultimate problem is precisely how to "contain" the threatening inside from "spilling out" and overwhelming us. Are women's Periods not the exemplary case of such an ugly inside spilling out? Is the presence of African-Americans no felt so threatening precisely insofar as it is experienced as too massive, too close? Suffice it to recall the racist caricatural cliche of black heads and faces: with eyes bulging out, mouth too-large, as if the outside surface is barely able to contain the inside threatening to break through. (In this sense, the racist fantasmatic duality of blacks and whites coincides with the formless stuff and shadowy-spectral-impotent form without stuff.) Is the concern with how to dispose of shit (according to Lacan, is one of the crucial features differentiating human beings from animals) also not a case of how to get rid of the inside that emerges? The ultimate problem of intersubjectivity is precisely the extent to which we are ready to accept the other, our (sexual) partner, in the real of his or her existence - do we still love him when she or he defacates, makes unpleasant sounds? (See the extent to which James Joyce was ready to accept his wife Nora in the "ugly" jouissance of her existence.) The problem, of course, is that, in a sense, life itself is ""ugly": if we want to get rid of the ugliness, we are forced to adopt the attitude of a Cathar, for whom terrestrial life is a hell and the God who created this world is Satan himself, the Master of the World. So, in order to survive, do we need a minimum of the real - in a contained, gentrified condition.

The Lacanian proof of the Other's existence is the jouissance of the Other (in contrast to Christianity, for example, where this proof is Love). In order to render this notion palpable, suffice it to imagine an intersubjective encounter: when I do encounter the Other "beyond the wall of language," in the real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail - a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial expression, a tic - that signals the intensity of real jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic, there is something at least minimally obscene about it, I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gap separating me from it. This, then, is what "intersubjectivity" is actually about, not the Habermasian "ideal speech situation" of a multitude of academics smoking pipes at a round table arguing about some point by means of undistorted communication: without the element of real jouissance, the Other remains ultimately a fiction, a purely symbolic subject of strategic reasoning exemplified in "rational choice theory." For that reason, one is even tempted to replace the term multiculturalism with multiracism: multiculturalism suspends the traumatic kernel of the Other, reducing it to an aseptic folklorist entity. What we are dealing here is - in Lacanese - the distance between S and a, between the symbolic features and the unfathonable surplus, the "indivisible remainder' of the real; at a somewhat different level, Walter Benn Michaels made the same point in claiming that
the accounts of cultural identity that do any cultural work require a racial component. For insofar as our culture remains nothing more than what we do and believe, it is impotently descriptive... It is only if we think that our culture is not whatever beliefs and practices we actually happen to have but is instead the beliefs and practices that should properly go with the sort of people we happen to be that the fact of something belonging to our culture can count as a reason for doing it. But to think this is to appeal to something that must be beyond culture and that cannot be derived from culture precisely because our sense of which culture is properly ours must be derived from it. This has been the function of race...Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race, but... culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought. It is only the appeal to race that makes culture an object of affect and that gives notions like losing our culture, preserving it, stealing someone else's culture, restoring people's culture to them, and so on, their pathos... Race transforms people who learn todo what we do into the thieves of our culture and people who teach us to do what they do into the destroyers of our culture; it makes assimilation into a kind of betrayal and the refusal to assimilate into a form of heroism.
The historicist/culturalist account of ethnic identity, isofar as it functions as performatively binding for the group accounted for and not merely as a distranced ethnological description, this has to involve "something more," some transcendental "kernel of the real." (The postmodern multiculturalist only displaces this pathos onto the allegedly more "authentic" Other: hearing "The Star Spangled Banner" gives no thrill, yet what does give a thrill is listening to some ritual of Native Americans, of African-Americans. What we are dealing with here is clearly the inverted form of racism.) Without this kernel, we remain caught in the vicious cycle of symbolic performativity that in an "idealistic" way, retroactively grounds itself. It is Lacan who - in a Hegelian way - enables us to resolve this deadlock: the kernel of the real is the retroactive product, the "fallout," of the very process of symbolization. The "Real" is the unfathonable remainder of the ethnic substance whose predicates are different cultural features that constitutes our identity; in this precise sense, race relates to culture like real to symbolic. The "Real" is the unfathonable X at stake in our cultural struggles; it is that on account of which, when somebody learns too much of our culture, he or she "steals" it from us; it is that on account of which, when somebody shifts allegiance to another culture, he or she "betrays" us; and so on. Such experiences prove that there must be some X that is "expressed" in the cultural set of values, attitudes, rituals that materialize our way of life. What is stolen, betrayed... is always objet petit a, the little piece of the Real.

Jacques Ranciere gave a poignant expression to the "bad surprise" that awaits today's postmodern ideologues of the "end of politics." It is as if we are witnessing the ultimate confirmation of Freud's thesis, from Civilization and Its Discontents: after every assertion of Eros, Thanatos reasserts itself with a vengeance. At the very moment when, according to the official ideology, we are finally leaving behind the "immature" political passions (the regime of the "political": class struggle and other "outdated" divisive antagonisms) for the postideological pragmatic universe of rational administration and negotiated consensus, for the universe, free of utopian impulses, in which the dispassionate administration of social affairs goes hand in hand with the aestheticized hedonism (the pluralism "ways of life") - at this very moment, the foreclosed political is celebrating a triumphant comeback in the most archaic form of pure, undistilled racist hatred of the Other that renders the rational, tolerant attitude utterly impotent. In this precise sense, "postmodern" racism is the symptom of multiculturalist late capitalism, bringing to light the inherent contradiction of the liberal-democratic ideological project. Liberal "tolerance" condones the folklorist Other deprived of its substance (like the multitude of "ethnic cuisines" in a contemporary magalopolis): however, any "real" Other is instantly denounced for its "fundamentalism," since the kernel of Otherness resides in the regulation of its jouissance; that is, the "real Other" is by definition "patriarchal," "violent," never the Other of ethereal wisdom and charming customs. One is tempted to reactualize here the old Marcusean notion of "repressive tolerance," reconceiving it as the tolerance of the Other in its aseptic, benign form, which forecloses the dimension of the Real of the Other's jouissance.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Abyss of Freedom"

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why Create Art?

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.
- Herman Melville, "Art" (1891)

Thursday, November 12, 2015


from The Believer
Slavoj Žižek is as paradoxical as his world-renowned work, as much a serious intellectual as a comedian. Were it not for his vivid examples drawn from popular culture, the tangential though insightful ideas in his many books would be lost on the world and limited to a select few. He is an expert in Lacan, Stalin, Hitchcock, and Christianity, and coming from Slovenia has a fresh, surprising response to Western consumer products. He is a favorite speaker in Ivy League academia and in the contemporary art world, though he attacks them both.

He is the Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Ljubljana, as well as the author of a dozen books of criticism including Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, On Belief, The Ticklish Subject, The Plague of Fantasies, The Sublime Object of Ideology, and The Puppet and the Dwarf. His most recent book, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, is an analysis of the strange logic that was used to justify the attack on Iraq.

My interview was typical of a conversation with Žižek: a conflicting competition to stop his rapid speech and jump in with my own ideas versus the fascination of listening to how his mind unfolds. I am still not sure which side won.

I will just say that Žižek, though tough to describe on paper, can be perhaps best encapsulated by what he once told me of going to the movies in a Chicago multiplex. “It included half mainstream Hollywood theaters and half art theaters. It is beautiful; when my friends drop me off, I can play the intellectual and say that I am going to see the new independent film, and then when they are not looking, I will run to see the blockbuster.”
—Dianna Dilworth


THE BELIEVER: You have raised many eyebrows with your controversial rethinking of today’s accepted positions in philosophy. For example, you have said that Stalinism is worse than Nazism, despite the grand spectacle of the Holocaust. Can you describe your interest in Stalin here and why you think that his regime is a greater problem philosophically than Nazism?

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: It was typical in philosophy after World War II to evoke Nazism and the Holocaust as the most radical evil. You cannot comprehend it with any rational strategy. The idea is also that the experience of the Holocaust is something which undermines the entire traditional philosophy, which was basically the divine regulation, the idea that even if things appear thwarted, failed, and so on, ultimately, in some kind of rational totality, all of these tragedies are relativized as part of a harmonious project. It can be a divine plan; it can also be the development of humanity or whatever. The idea is that the Holocaust cannot be rationalized philosophically here.

Of course, I think that the Holocaust was horrific (my god, it is gross to even have to say that), but for me, Stalinism was even a greater philosophical problem than Nazism. For example, there is a basic difference between Stalinist and Nazi victim status, from a simple phenomenological approach. Under Nazism, if you were a Jew, you were simply killed, no questions asked, you had nothing to prove. You are guilty for who you are, you are a Jew, you are killed, that’s it. Under Stalinism, of course, most [victims] were on trial for false accusations; most of them were not traitors. Nonetheless, there is one interesting feature: that they were tortured or through some kind of blackmail forced to confess to being traitors.

BLVR: So your line of questioning is of the functioning of the system?

SŽ: Yes. Why this strange need to make them confess? And why the total absence of this in Fascism? In Fascism, if you were a Jew, you were simply killed. Nobody had the idea of arresting Jews and torturing them to confess the Jewish plot. Because in Fascism, you are guilty for your whole being. The very fact that you had to confess makes Stalinism paradoxical and perverse. The idea is that, in a strange way, it admits that you are still a free human being, you had a choice. You are guilty, you have to confess. This does not make Stalinism cause any less suffering; nonetheless, this pure quarrel of radical objectivization, “You are a Jew, you are guilty for who you are,” was absent in Stalinism. In a totally perverted, thwarted, and twisted way, some margin of human freedom was acknowledged under Stalin. So the result is that in Stalinism, everybody was potentially a victim in a totally contingent way.

BLVR: So your interest is not to forget Nazism, but to reexamine Stalinism.

SŽ: To put it in simplistic terms, Fascism is relatively easy to explain. It is a reactionary phenomenon. Nazism was some bad guys having some bad ideas and unfortunately succeeding in realizing them. In Stalinism the tragedy is that its origin is some kind of radical emancipatory project. In the origins you had a kind of workers’ uprising; the true enigma is how this project of emancipation went so wrong. This is a much greater enigma. The most representative orientation of Marxism in the twentieth century—critical theory of the Frankfurt school—obsessed over Fascism, anti-Semitism, and so on, and simply ignored the topic of Stalinism. Sure, there are a couple of small books, but there is no systematic theory of what Stalinism is. So for me, the key phenomenon to be accounted for in the twentieth century is Stalinism. Because again, Fascism is simple, conservative reaction going wrong. The true enigma is why Stalinism or communism went wrong.

BLVR: Any conclusions?

It is very difficult; I am still working on it. My conclusions are not some kind of conservative or liberal vision according to which Stalinism should be pointed out as kind of a logical demonstration of any project of our so-called post-political era: the idea that the time for projects is over, all we can do is accept capitalist world-market economy, globalism, and so on. Today, whenever somebody tries to risk something politically, you immediately get, “Oh, didn’t you learn the lesson from history, this will end up in Holocaust.” This is the eternal topic of modern liberal-conservative skeptics, that the lesson of the twentieth century is that every radical attempt at social change ends up in mass murder. Their idea is a return to pragmatism, “Let’s strictly distinguish politics from ethics, politics should be limited, pragmatic, only ethics can be absolute.” What I aim at in my rethinking of all of these problems is precisely not to draw this conclusion.


So you obviously strongly disagree with this liberal reading of the ideology behind World War II. This leads me to think about how in your work you are known to criticize liberalism, as it is manifested in political correctness, pragmatism, American academia, etc. So would this be your criticism of this way of thinking?

First of all, I don’t have any big problems with liberalism. Originally, liberalism was quite a noble project if one looks at how it emerged. Today it is a quite fashionable criticism, with feminists, anti-Eurocentric thinkers, etc., to dismiss liberalism in principle for preaching the equality of all people, but in reality privileging the white males of certain property, addressing automatic limitations. The next usual accusation is that liberalism is ultimately founded in what the American moral-majority religious Right likes to call secular humanism: the idea is that there is no Supreme Being or mystery in the universe. Their criticism is that this idea—that the ultimate prospect of humankind is to take over as master of his own destiny—is man’s arrogance, criticizing that it always misfires and so on.

First, I don’t think it is as simple as that, for two reasons. It is a historic fact that at the beginning, the idea of human rights and all of those liberal notions, effectively in a coded way implied the exclusion of certain people. Nonetheless, in this tension between appearance and reality (appearance: everyone has human rights; reality: many, through an implicit set of sub-rules, are excluded), a certain tension is set in motion where you cannot simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression. Appearance acquired a social emancipatory power of its own. For example, of course at the beginning, women were excluded, but then very early on, women said, “Sorry, why not also us?” Then blacks said, “Why not us?” And workers, and so on. My point being that all of these groups that criticize liberalism emerged out of these early bourgeois liberal traditions. It set certain rules—this tradition of universality of human rights and so on—and in this way it opened up the space. So that is the first thing to say for liberalism.

BLVR: So even though liberalism was started by a limited few, built inside of it is the ability for all others to use it to their benefit?

SŽ: Yes. The second thing to say for liberalism is that originally it was not an arrogant attitude, but it was quite a modest, honest attitude of confronting the problem of religious tolerance after the Thirty Years’ War. In the seventeenth century, all of Europe was in a shock, and then out of this traumatic experience, the liberal vision came. The idea was that each of us has some existential or religious beliefs, but even if these are our fundamental commitments, we will not be killing each other for them. To create a coexistent social structure, a space where these inherently different commitments can be practiced. Again, I don’t see anything inherently bad in this project.

BLVR: Neither do I. But last year I attended a lecture you gave in which you vehemently attacked liberalism. Can you help clarify this for me?

SŽ: The problem that I find today, with liberalism, not economic liberalism, but radical human-rights liberalism, is the philosophical approach. The saddest thing to happen in the last thirty years is the loss of the belief that we had in communism, and even in the social-democratic welfare states of the West, the accepted fact that the fate of humanity is not simply an anonymous fate. This belief that some blind fate does not control us, that it is possible, through human collective action, to steer development, is gone. I think what happened in recent years is that this logic of blind fate returned. Global capitalism is simply accepted as a fact that you cannot do anything about. The only question is, Will you accommodate yourself to it, or will you be dismissed and excluded? A certain type of question, and it needn’t be put in the old-fashioned Marxist way as class struggle, but the general anticapitalist question, basically has disappeared.

BLVR: Generally speaking, yes. But I disagree, as would I think a number of others, that everyone accepts global capitalism. What about the antiglobalism movements that have been taking place all over the world in the last decade? Seattle, Genoa, etc. What do you think of these groups?

SŽ: Now with the antiglobalism movement, they are still, in a limited way, reemerging. But the idea is that the fundamental conflicting areas are no longer those of vertical up-vs.-down social struggle, but more horizontal differences between me and you, between different social groups: the problem of tolerance; the problem of tolerance of other races, religious minorities, and so on. So then the basic problem becomes that of tolerating differences. I am not saying this is bad, of course we should fight for this, but I don’t think that this horizon—within which the ultimate ethical value is then that of tolerating difference—is the fundamental place for question. My problem with liberalism is in principle. This move of the new Left, or new radicals, towards a problem of identity politics (minority politics, gay rights, etc.) lacks a certain more radical insight into the basically antagonistic character of society. This radical questioning has simply disappeared.

For example, take my friend Judith Butler. Of course from time to time, she pays lip service to some kind of anticapitalism, but it’s totally abstract, what it’s basically saying is just how lesbians and other oppressed sexual minorities should perceive their situation not as the assertion of some kind of substantial sexual identity, but as constructing an identity which is contingent, which means that also the so-called straight normal sexuality is contingent, and everybody is constructed in a contingent way, and so on, and in this way, nobody should be excluded. There is no big line between normality identity and multiple roles. The problem I see here is that there is nothing inherently anticapitalist in this logic. But even worse is that what this kind of politically correct struggling for tolerance and so on advocates is basically not only not in conflict with the modern tendencies of global capitalism, but it fits perfectly. What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences. I mean even naïve positivist psychologists propose to describe today’s subjectivity in terms like multiple subject, fixed-identity subject, a subject who constantly reinvents itself, and so on. So my big problem with this is the painting of the enemy as some kind of self-identified stable substantial patriarch to which these multiple identities and constant reinventing should be opposed. I think that this is a false problem; I am not impressed by this problem. I think that this is a certain logic, totally within the framework of today’s capitalism, where again, capitalism, in order to reproduce itself, to function in today’s condition of consumption society, the crazy dynamics of the market, no longer needs or can function with the traditional fixed patriarchal subject. It needs a subject constantly reinventing himself.


BLVR: OK, so you think that these antiglobalist movements aren’t asking the right questions and this can be really dangerous. I can see what you’re saying. This reminds me of the example that you gave in On Belief about the health-food market. How purchasing organic food, though seemingly good in intention, can really be a bad thing because of how it is appropriated. Can you explain what you meant by that?

SŽ: More and more crucial today are specialized markets, and in this sense, I think that it’s even more interesting to see how trends which were originally meant to be subversive or critical can be perfectly reappropriated and sold for consumption. Ecological food, organic food, green products, and so on—this is one of the key niche markets today. Let’s take a typical guy who buys organic food: he doesn’t really buy it in order to be healthy; he buys it to regain a kind of solidarity as the one who really cares about nature. He buys a certain ideological stance. It’s the same way as if you have stonewashed jeans, you don’t really buy it for the jeans, but you buy it to project a certain image of your social identity. So again, you are not buying a product, you are buying a certain social status, ideology, and so on.

BLVR: Does this also include your model of “Western Buddhism” as new-age philosophy being a product that can be purchased in capitalism (true Buddhism not being able to exist outside of the East)?

SŽ: Yes, you know why? Because this basic Buddhist insight that there is no permanent self, permanent subject, just events and so on, in an ironic way perfectly mirrors this idea that products are not essential, essential is this freedom of how you consume products and the idea that the market should no longer focus on the product. It is no longer: this car has this quality blah blah blah. No, it’s what you will do with the car. They are trying as directly as possible to sell you experiences, i.e. what you are able to do with the car, not the car as a product itself. An extreme example of this is this existing economic marketing concept, which basically evaluates the value of you as a potential consumer of your own life. Like how much are you worth, in the sense of all you will spend to buy back your own life as a certain quality life. You will spend so much in doctors, so much in beauty, so much in transcendental meditation, so much for music, and so on. What you are buying is a certain image and practice of your life. So what is your market potential, as a buyer of your own life in this sense?

BLVR: OK, so ironically, when Westerners buy into a Buddhist mentality, then they set themselves up to be perfect consumers in contemporary capitalism. It is kind of sad and funny at the same time. While looking for spirituality or God, they become ideal consumers to marketing executives. Sounds like science fiction.


BLVR: Do you believe in God?

SŽ: No, I am a complete atheist.

BLVR: Your book The Puppet and the Dwarf deals with St. Paul. In fact, it celebrates St. Paul’s Christianity in contrast to other forms of spirituality, i.e. gnosticism, new-age spiritualities, etc. So why would an atheist defend Christianity?

SŽ: Today, spirituality is fashionable. Either some pagan spirituality of tolerance, feminine principle, holistic approach against phallocentric Western imperialist logic or, within the Western tradition, we have a certain kind of rehabilitation of Judaism, respect for otherness, and so on. Or you are allowed to do Christianity, but you must do a couple of things which are permitted. One is to be for these repressed traditions, the early Gnostic gospels or some mystical sects where a different nonhegemonic/patriarchal line was discernible. Or you return to the original Christ, which is against St. Paul. The idea is that St. Paul was really bad, he changed Christianity into this patriarchal state, but Jesus, himself, was something different.

What I like is to see the emancipatory potential in institutionalized Christianity. Of course, I don’t mean state religion, but I mean the moment of St. Paul. I find a couple of things in it. The idea of the Gospel, or good news, was a totally different logic of emancipation, of justice, of freedom. For example, within a pagan attitude, injustice means a disturbance of the natural order. In ancient Hinduism, or even with Plato, justice was defined in what today we would call almost fascistic terms, each in his or her place in a just order. Man is the benevolent father of the family, women do their job taking care of the family, worker does his work and so on. Each at his post; then injustice means this hubris when one of the elements wants to be born, i.e. instead of in a paternal way, taking care of his population, the king just thinks about his power and how to exploit it. And then in a violent way, balance should be reestablished, or to put it in more abstract cosmological terms, you have cosmic principles like yin and yang. Again, it is the imbalance that needs to establish organic unities. Connected with this is the idea of justice as paying the price as the preexisting established order is balanced.

But the message that the Gospel sends is precisely the radical abandonment of this idea of some kind of natural balance; the idea of Gospels and the part of sins is that freedom is zero. We begin from the zero point, which is at least originally the point of radical equality. Look at what St. Paul is writing and the metaphors he used. It is messianic, the end of time, differences are suspended. It’s a totally different world whose formal structure is that of radical revolution. Even in ancient Greece, you don’t find that—this idea that the world can be turned on its head, that we are not irreducibly bound by the chains of our past. The past can be erased; we can start from the zero point and establish radical justice, so this logic is basically the logic of emancipation. Which is again why I find any flirting with so-called new-age spiritualities extremely dangerous. It is good to know the other side of the story, at least, when you speak about Buddhism and all of these spiritualities. I am sorry, but Nazis did it all. For Hitler, the Bhagavad Gita was a sacred book; he carried it in his pocket all the time. In Nazi Germany there were three institutes for Tibetan studies and five for the study of different sects of Buddhism.

That is a really interesting point. I’m not religious at all, but when it comes to religions, I’ve always really distrusted new-age spiritualities.

I agree. So let’s at least be clear of where in the West this fascination with Eastern spirituality originated. Of course when I advocate Christian legacy, I make it very clear that this legacy today is not alive in the Catholic or any Christian Church. Here I am kind of a vulgar Stalinist; churches should either be destroyed or turned into cultural homes or museums for religious horrors [laughs]. No no no, it’s not that, but nonetheless, a certain logic of radical emancipation exploded there. And all original emancipatory movements stopped there. This should be admitted. So the point is not to return to the Church, to rehabilitate Christianity, but to keep this certain revolutionary logic alive. I mean this is the good news that the Gospel means: you can do it, take the risk.


BLVR: So then is your problem with the rest of Christianity the ideology of institutionalized religion?

SŽ: This is not ideology. Ideology for me is a very specific term. Ideology, in a classical Marxist way, has nothing to do with what we usually take as an ideological project. The project of radically changing social orders, this is not, per se, ideology. The most conformist, modest empirical attitude can be ideology. Ideology is a certain unique experience of the universe and your place in it, to put it in standard terms, which serves the production of the existing power relations and blah blah blah. I claim that the minimum necessary structuring ingredient of every ideology is to distance itself from another ideology, to denounce its other as ideology. Every ideology does this. Which is why, the worst ideology today is post-ideology, where they claim we are entering a new pragmatic era, negotiations, plural interests, no longer time for big ideological projects.

So even post-ideology is ideological?

For me, ideology is defined only by how the coordinates of your meaningful experience of the world, and your place within society, relate to the basic tensions and antagonisms of social orders. Which is why for me no attitude is a priori ideological. You can be an extreme materialist, thinking that economic development ultimately determines everything; then you are truly ideological. You can be a fanatical millennialist religious mystic, and you are, in a certain way, not outside of ideology. Your position can be that of perfectly describing the data and nonetheless your point is ideological.

For example, I would like to use the wonderful model of Lacan. Let’s say that you are married and you are pathologically jealous, thinking that your wife is sleeping around with other men. And let’s say that you are totally right, she is cheating. Lacan says that your jealousy is still pathological. Even if everything is true it is pathological, because what makes it pathological is not the fact that is it true or not true, but why you invest so much in it—what needs does it fulfill? It’s the same with the Jews and the Nazis. It is not a question that they attributed false properties to the Jews; the point is why did the Nazis need the figure of the Jew as part of their ideological project? It is clear why: their project was to have capitalism without individualism, without tensions, capitalism which would magically maintain what they thought previous eras shared, a sense of organic community and so on, so in order to have this, you must locate the source of evil not in capitalism as such, but in some foreign intruder, that through its profiteering just introduces imbalance and disturbs the natural cooperation between productive capital and labor.

BLVR: So there is no escaping ideology? We are always participating in it?

SŽ: I would say that this just brings about a certain tendency that was here all the time. Like if I go to a more general phenomenon like reality TV, the lesson of it is much more ambiguous, because the charm of it is a certain hidden reflexivity. It is not that we are voyeurs looking at what people are really doing. The point is that we know that they know that they are being filmed. The true reality TV would be to plant cameras and really shoot people unaware of their being watched.

That exists already.

I wonder if they would be able to go beyond that level, because it’s basically the same as snuff movies. I claim that the way we identify with fictional movies, with murders, is not that we identify it, no: the awareness that it’s not true is part of our identification. Even when we cry and so on. Because, imagine watching a detective story, and someone is shot. If you were to learn that he was really shot, it would ruin your identification with the story. There was this Polish movie from the mid-sixties, a historical spectacle about a pharaoh that has a scene where they sacrifice a horse. And the way that it is shot, they throw lances at the horse, and you can see bleeding. It’s obvious that they are really killing the horse. And it was a dramatic point, people in Poland protested, people in the West didn’t want to see the movie. So you see how much more refined identification in the movie is.

BLVR: We have a strong identification with fiction.

SŽ: My point is this: the problem is that of acting. I think that there is only one radical conclusion here, with reality soaps, that we are seeing people acting themselves. And the conclusion that I would draw is that it is not so much that it is fake, but that in everyday lives, we act already, in the sense that we have a certain ideal image of ourselves and we act that persona.


BLVR: What do you think of the fact that California has an actor for governor?

SŽ: What I would like to avoid here is precisely this cheap conservative cultural criticism that this shows the decadence of our times. As if at some point politicians were substantially better—I don’t believe that. The fact that Bush is president is worse for me, because he is not even a good actor, and probably not much more intelligent. You never know what will happen. Schwarzenegger has advisors around him and they may give him good advice. I never quite agreed with the simple dismissal that there is no substance; when was there substance in politicians? The duty of a politician for me is to be a representative: a politician is not an expert, experts are experts, hired for their expertise and so on. A politician is more of…

BLVR: An actor that mediates?

SŽ: Yes, there is a dimension of identification of a master figure and so on. And for all that, it doesn’t matter if an actor does it. The problem for me is not that Schwarzenegger is governor, but the extent to which even politicians who are not actors are functioning like actors. But even this I am tempted not to simply dismiss as a bad phenomenon. Here I agree with Habermas, who made a very intelligent remark. It’s not so much that times are worse today, but that imperceptibly our standards are higher. For example, we don’t have feminism today because women are exploited only today, but they became much more sensitive to it today. The paradox is the following one, if you look, for example, at the typical genesis of a revolution: the terror never became so bad that the people exploded. No, it was always a kind of spiritual revolution, which raised the standards. And then usually those in power began to lose their nerves and accept these new standards silently. Out of this loss of legitimization, it exploded.

For example, recently I read a wonderful text by Bernard Williams that deals with David Mamet’s Oleanna, the harassment play, that made a nice point. If you look closely, Mamet is a little more refined than people usually think. The point is not that the young student is complaining about harassment, but that what she is complaining about is that she came to him as a student, she wanted guidance from him and so on. And basically, he was too liberal, not giving her any authentic guidance as an authority, and precisely because he renounced his authority, his power which remained as a professor appeared as irrational power. So paradoxically, it is precisely when the professor renounces his standard authority and behaves like we are all the same that, between the lines, he keeps his power (he can grade you and so on). At the moment when he pretends to be tolerant, you experience his power in all of its irrationality.

That’s like your example of the employee and the boss. You said that when the boss claims to be buddies with the employee, he is actually exploiting the employee more, in that he is covering up all of his power, though in actuality, it still exists.

SŽ: Yes, these are the problems for me. The fact that something appears as irrational unjustified power, it’s not simply that it’s horrible authority. It is precisely when authority declines and you have the first steps towards a more equal tolerant attitude. So again, my lesson here is kind of a pessimistic one, but not pessimistic in the sense that nothing can be done. Pessimistic in the sense that maybe the first step towards really opening up the space to change something is to admit the extent to which there is no easy way out, nothing can be simply changed. Often, the worst way to become prisoner of a system is to have a dream that things may turn better, there is always the possibility of change. Because it is precisely this secret dream that keeps you enslaved to the system. At this level, I quite liked a modest movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The guy who doesn’t accept that he is in prison and dreams to get out, when he is let out, he hangs himself. And the guys who accept that they are really there, they are the ones who can really break out. So there are alternatives and in alternatives, a certain sense of false opening, in that it’s not necessarily so bad, maybe luck is around the corner, we can change things; those are the ideal ideological tools to keep you enslaved. The system functions through the idea that it can be changed at any point. So maybe the first step is to see that it can’t be changed, that it’s pretty closed.


BLVR: I would like to go back to the problem of people acting as personas of themselves. This sounds very Lacanian, in the sense that we do not experience the world directly, but by interpretation. The real is itself, mediated (in this case through acting as a persona). Could you describe for me your basic insight into Lacan’s work and what you think is his idea of philosophy?

SŽ: Lacan was a French psychoanalytic theorist, who despised philosophy officially. For Lacan, the discourse of philosophy is of a complete worldview which fills in all of the gaps and cracks. And Lacan’s idea is that precisely what we learn in psychoanalysis is how cracks and inconsistencies are constitutive of our lives. So officially he was against philosophy, but the paradox is that Lacan was constantly in dialogue with philosophy. In his work, there are even more references to Plato and Hegel than to Freud himself.

BLVR: So even though Lacan didn’t want to define the world concretely, he was a kind of philosopher himself?

SŽ: Obviously, Lacan was playing philosophy against itself. The idea being very simply that in our experience of the reality of the world, we always stumble upon some fundamental crack, incompleteness. What appears as an obstacle, the fact that we cannot ever really know things, is for Lacan itself a positive condition of meaning. There is a kernel of philosophy here, what philosophers call ontological difference; this is this experience of a rupture as a fundamental constituent of our lives. So to cut a long story short, for Lacan (and I try to further develop this idea, based on his insight), to properly grasp what Freud was aiming at with the death drive (the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy), is to read it against the background of negativity, a gap as fundamental to human subjectivity, so in other words to philosophize psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in this way is no longer just a psychiatric science which develops a theory of how we can cure certain diseases; it’s kind of a mental and philosophical theory of the utmost radical dimensions of human beings.

So Lacan was reading Freud’s death drive, the desire to self-destruct, as a good thing, philosophically speaking. Incompleteness and cracks, themselves being the place where difference is created.

SŽ: Exactly.

BLVR: You wrote some Lacanian-style quotations for last fall’s Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. How did that come about?

SŽ: Oh yes, I was helping someone who helped me once. It was easy, he sent me a series of provocative images, and I just wrote silly Lacanian statements about them. My critics have attacked me, saying how can you conscientiously accept money from such a company? I said, with less guilt than accepting money from the American university system.