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Slavoj Zizek On The Dilemmas Of Capitalism

By Thomas Riggins

16 November, 2007

Slavoj 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 of necessity.

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 Chavez.”

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
this view.

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 alternative.

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 or at Thomas Riggins' Blog


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