Saturday, October 16, 2010


Zizek in Counterpunch: necessary reading.

"It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country—does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker–management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by ‘extending’ democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing ‘democratic’ banks under people’s control. Radical changes in this domain lie outside the sphere of legal rights. Such democratic procedures can, of course, have a positive role to play. But they remain part of the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie, whose purpose is to guarantee the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. In this precise sense, Badiou was right in his claim that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire or exploitation, but democracy. It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations.

Closely linked to the necessary de-fetishization of ‘democratic institutions’ is the de-fetishization of their negative counter-part: violence. For example, Badiou recently proposed exercising ‘defensive violence’ by means of building free domains at a distance from state power, subtracted from its reign (like the early Solidarnosc in Poland), and only resisting by force state attempts to crush and re-appropriate these ‘liberated zones’. The problem with this formula is that it relies on a deeply problematic distinction between the ‘normal’ functioning of the state apparatus and the ‘excessive’ exercise of state violence. But the ABC of Marxist notions of class struggle is the thesis that ‘peaceful’ social life is itself an expression of the (temporary) victory of one class—the ruling one. From the standpoint of the subordinated and oppressed, the very existence of the state, as an apparatus of class domination, is a fact of violence. Similarly, Robespierre argued that regicide is not justified by proving the King had committed any specific crime: the very existence of the King is a crime, an offence against the freedom of the people. In this strict sense, the use of force by the oppressed against the ruling class and its state is always ultimately ‘defensive’. If we do not concede this point, we volens nolens ‘normalize’ the state and accept its violence as merely a matter of contingent excesses. The standard liberal motto—that it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence, but it is never legitimate—is not sufficient. From the radical-emancipatory perspective, one should turn it around: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate—since their very status is the result of violence—but never necessary: it is always a matter of strategic consideration whether to use force against the enemy or not.
Ours is thus the very opposite of the classical early 20th-century situation, in which the left knew what had to be done (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat), but had to wait patiently for the proper moment of execution. Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous. We will be forced to live ‘as if we were free’. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old—education, healthcare, basic social services. In short, our situation is like what Stalin said about the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves. Or as Gramsci said, characterizing the epoch that began with the First World War, ‘the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters’."


Laurel said...

Zizek has fascinating ideas, is "brilliant," etc. But in the documentary about him, there is footage of him interacting with his son. Zizek is incredibly emotionally inhumane and alienating toward him. While some might speculate that Zizek was acting for the cameras, this is even worse from my point of view. It makes me nervous that we on the left hang on the words a person who proudly treats his own child like an amusing object. I wonder if Zizek in all his brilliance is putting something sinister past us.

Laurel said...

p.s. The whole article is so spot on, seemingly, that it brought tears to my eyes. It seemed like he was specifically addressing F. and me at some points. Thanks!