Sunday, August 30, 2009

Incipient (voyeuristic) liberalism

Zizek is generally at least stimulating. He manages to pose problems. Indeed, he has the courage at least to pose the obvious questions and face the obvious objections. As he says in a recent piece (May-June, 2009) in the New Left Review, "if liberal-democratic capitalism is, if not the best, then the least bad form of society, why should we not simply resign ourselves to it in a mature way, even accept it wholeheartedly? Why insist on the communist hypothesis, against all odds?" Indeed. In this short essay, “How to Begin from the Beginning”—which is at least half a retelling of Lenin’s ‘last struggle’ with Stalin and bureaucracy—Zizek does briefly suggest the basis on which he thinks that revolutionary politics should now be set. He says, “All truly emancipatory politics is generated by the short-circuit between the universality of the public use of reason and the universality of the ‘part of no part’. This was already the communist dream of the young Marx—to bring together the universality of philosophy with the universality of the proletariat.”

In the current configuration, there are four principle immanent antagonisms that seem like sources of potential catastrophe “the looming threat of ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of private property for so-called intellectual property; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments, especially in biogenetics; and last, but not least, new forms of social apartheid—new walls and slums.” Zizek doesn’t say this, but I imagine that these four broad categories can be arrived at by a simple content analysis of popular culture. Those things that scare us the most are understood to be somehow related to these immanent antagonisms. Fictions reveal them to us in utopias and distopias, apocalypses and period pieces.

Only the fourth of these four areas of potential catastrophe has the potential for universality, for Rancière’s ‘part of no part.’ In other words, the other forms of antagonism can all be managed in various ways by the many mechanisms developed by liberal democracy—rather than true democracy—and its culture for this very purpose. Zizek says,

“The predominant liberal notion of democracy also deals with those excluded, but in a radically different mode: it focuses on their inclusion, as minority voices. All positions should be heard, all interests taken into account, the human rights of everyone guaranteed, all ways of life, cultures and practices respected, and so on. The obsession of this democracy is the protection of all kinds of minorities: cultural, religious, sexual, etc. The formula of democracy here consists of patient negotiation and compromise. What gets lost in this is the position of universality embodied in the excluded. The new emancipatory politics will no longer be the act of a particular social agent, but an explosive combination of different agents. What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletarians who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, we are in danger of losing everything. The threat is that we will be reduced to an abstract, empty Cartesian subject dispossessed of all our symbolic content, with our genetic base manipulated, vegetating in an unliveable environment. This triple threat makes us all proletarians, reduced to ‘substanceless subjectivity’, as Marx put it in the Grundrisse. The figure of the ‘part of no part’ confronts us with the truth of our own position; and the ethico-political challenge is to recognize ourselves in this figure. In a way, we are all excluded, from nature as well as from our symbolic substance. Today, we are all potentially homo sacer, and the only way to avoid actually becoming so is to act preventively.”

Such are the last lines of the essay. I know that Zizek’s intention was radical, but it seems to me that, in essence, what he has just said is that it is only the ghettoized, only those most radically excluded by modernity, who are able to hold up to us a mirror of our own possible futures if we do not successfully moderate rampant capitalism through the judicious use of liberal, humanist reformism. The favelas, in this passage, are not a call to revolution, but a reminder that we do indeed have physical, psychological, and intellectual comforts worth defending. The ‘preventative action’ he invokes at the end does not sound like a revolution, it sounds more like a justification for another bailout. “In a way, we are all excluded...” surely this sounds just like the kind of “In a way, we are all different...” mindlessness against which Zizek supposedly stands? I see no relation whatsoever between Lenin’s dilemmas in the first part of the essay, and the (albeit very brief) analysis of the present situation in the last part. Perhaps Lacano-Leninism has in fact finally run out of ideas.

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