Zizek On The Dilemmas Of Capitalism
By Thomas Riggins
16 November, 2007
Zizek begins his new article in the London Review of Books (11-15-07)
with the words, “One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades
is that capitalism is indestructible.” He thus joins a crowd of
commentators who confuse historically temporary configurations of power
with permanent, almost metaphysically substantive economic relations
Nevertheless, the name of
his article, “Resistance Is Surrender,” is an indication
that he does not agree, as we shall see from his musings, with the new
ideas on how to invigorate the Left based on this assumption-- yet his
recommendations turn out to be a species of that pauper's broth both
Marx and Engels said was served up by their erstwhile critics
But, first things first.
Zizek lists eight ways in which the “Left” reacts to “the
hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal
democracy.” His “Left” is very broad and seems to
include everyone from the “US Democrats” to “Hugo
Of the eight responses to
capitalist hegemony one is political and the other seven are either
redundant or abstract responses of European and American intellectuals
or third world utopians. The working class is barely mentioned. Here
are the eight responses:
1. Classical Social Democracy,
the Third Way, the “fight for reform” within the the rules
of the capitalist system. This is just an acceptance of the TINA doctrine
[There Is No Alternative].
2. Capitalism is “here
to stay” but can fought “from its ‘interstices.’”
Whatever this means, it is still a form of TINA.
3. Resistance is futile.
The Left has to wait “for an outburst of ‘divine violence”--
“a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God
can save us.’” Heidegger!? If this is supposed to mean we
should sit around until capitalism falls apart due to its internal contradictions,
this is just a version of the old mechanical view that since socialism
is inevitable we don’t have to do anything but wait for it to
happen. This is functionally a TINA position in practice.
4. This view is really a
repeat of the previous view (3): we defend what we have already got
in the way of reform “till the revolutionary spirit of the global
working class is renewed.” We do this by making unrealistic demands
that can’t be granted and retire “into cultural studies”
to “pursue the work of criticism.” This is intellectual
social activism? This is definitely a TINA view.
5. The Left concludes that
capitalism is the result of technology AKA “instrumental reason.”
Well, what can be done about technology. We are not about to abolish
it. TINA again.
6. We build alternative practices
to those of the state-- a new world-- until the the state is undermined
until, some time in the future, it just collapses. This sounds pretty
utopian. Zizek cites the Zapatistas as an example. Zizek doesn’t
seem to think this a viable alternative. It at least has the advantage
of not being a species of TINA.
7. This position Zizek calls
"the 'postmodern' route." He calls it a multisided struggle
against capitalism based on "discursive rearticulation." I'm
not quite sure what this is, but since most "postmodern" discourse
is meaningless intellectual abstraction is doesn't look very promising
Perhaps Zizek will rearticulate what it means in another article.
8. Another "postmodern"
move is based on the work of Hardt and Negri. Well, their book "Empire"
was pretty unimpressive so I don't think their attempts, according to
Zizek, to bring about "the 'determinate negation' of capitalism"
through "today's rise of 'cognitive work'" leading to "absolute
democracy" has much promise (or meaning for that matter.)
Zizek tells us that the defeat
of the Left has brought about these eight positions not to avoid a "true"
Left outlook, but to supply one. Except for number 6 they all appear
as Euro-American schemes isolated from the working class and union movements
(not including number 1 as social democracy has strong connections with
the labor movement.)
What the postmodernist Left
is trying to do, according to Zizek, is to offer a better way of becoming
Left than., for example, what the Chinese Communists are doing (developing
capitalism). That, by the way, is all he has to say about the complex
situation going on in China. Or what European Social Democrats are doing.
New Labour, for instance, in the UK under Blair (and now Brown) is really
the perfection of Thatcherism. The reckless imperial alignment with
the neocon Bush administration and its aggressive wars of conquest give
some support to
In response to those who
represent the old left, as well as the waffling Social Democrats, the
new postmodern critics say "the task today ... is to resist state
power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside
of its control."
A prime example of this way
of thinking is to be found in the book INFINITELY DEMANDING by Simon
Critchley and which Zizek pans (hence the title of his article.) This
is what Critchley thinks the Left should do in a nutshell (according
to Zizek). Since the liberal capitalist state is here to stay, the Left
should stay far from it and its institutions. The Left, in its never
ending search for truth justice (and the Leninist way) should make demands
from the state which it knows the state can never grant. Zizek and Critchley
are not so open about this as a Marxist would like.
In our terms, I would say,
since we can't get rid of monopoly capitalism and imperialism we should
refuse to participate in any state agencies, we attack the state from
the outside with impossible demands (universal guaranteed employment,
fair housing, a non-interventionist foreign policy, etc.). Since the
monopoly capitalist state exists to maximize the profits of its ruling
capitalist class it can't really grant any of the demands of the Left
(i.e., the real Marxist Left). This makes the state look bad and educates
the working people, environmentalists, civil rights people, etc., as
to the limitations of the state. It forces the
state to make some slight cosmetic changes, but that's the best we can
hope for. If this sounds to you suspiciously similar to what Lenin called
economism, or perhaps like making maximal demands in hope of minimal
reforms, I don't think you would be wrong on either count.
Zizek will concentrate his
fire on the following passage from Critchley"s book: "Of course,
history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks
and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather
dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently
shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic
political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic
violent sovereignty it opposes."
Zizek rejects this. He asks
if the US Democrats should "stop competing for state power"
leaving it for the Republicans. But the Democrats and Republicans are
so rapped up in each other, they are both ruling class parties after
all, that it seems that the Democrats hardly qualify as a viable Left
alternative. Better is his question about the Third Way social democratic
If capitalism can't be abolished,"Why
not," he asks, "accept the basic premise of the Third Way?"
That is, why not abandon the notion of abolishing the capitalist state
and work as social democrats to reform it? Zizek thinks that Critchley's
idea of standing outside the state and exposing it actually aids it
by forming a "symbiotic relationship" between the protesters
and the the state. He thinks the big anti-war demonstrations exemplify
this. The protesters "saved their beautiful souls" [a snide
reference to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit] and Bush says this is
an example of democracy, just what we want for the people of Iraq and
Afghanistan to be able to do (but perhaps not at present those of Pakistan.)
Zizek seems impressed with
Hugo Chavez's Boliverian Revolution. Surely we would not tell someone
like Chavez to renounce state power and retreat to the side lines. Zizek
could also have mentioned Evo Morales in Bolivia, or the still living
example of the Cuban Revolution. So, on this issue of so-called "post
modern" Left philosophy, at least anything similar to his explication
of Critchley's thought, I find myself in agreement with him.
Zizek concludes that standing
outside the state and making infinite and impossible demands is no threat
at all to capitalism. The capitalists merely reply that, "Unfortunately,
we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible."
But this is also the response of the Third Way and the US Democrats.
So, when Zizek concludes
that, "The thing to do is ... to bombard those in power with strategically
well-selected, precise, finite demands," which cannot be ignored
by an appeal to the "real world", I can only wonder what types
of demands he has in mind.
I am certainly for engagement.
Right now the French transport workers are out on strike, as are the
Broadway stagehands here in the US. The Marxist Left still advocates
working class unity and a struggle to build up alliances with other
progressive forces to support strikes and also to struggle in the realm
of politics to directly influence the state and its policies. It would
be a great achievement if the left forces in the USA could amalgamate
on the Venezuelan model. I fear Third Way social democracy is no real
alternative to monopoly capitalism.
Thomas Riggins is
the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at Thomas Riggins' Blog
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