How the Left learnt to stop worrying and love Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Zizek is accepted as left-wing, even a kind of Marxism, because most Marxists long ago abandoned the rational and material values of the social democratic Second International.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: For a deeper understanding of Israel and the region

…no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights’, ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice … if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, [Left-Fascism] so be it! – Slavoj Žižek

There is a dearth of feeling on the Left about Slavoj Žižek’s left-fascist views. In fact there are Žižek T-Shirts (‘We have 5 Žižek T-shirts to be won in our competition’ gushed Compass), an International Journal of Žižek Studies, and even Žižek the Movie.

But why is he loved on the Left, given all this fascistic-sounding talk of ‘terror’, ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘sacrifice’?  There are two kinds of reasons: style and substance.

First, the Žižekian style is a la mode, chiming nicely with those parts of our intellectual culture, growing ever larger it seems, that are adolescent, violence-obsessed, and prefer surfing to reasoning.

Žižek’s adolescent desire to outrage is ever-present, whether eulogising the mass murderer Stalin as the ‘steely Fourth Teacher’ in The Parallax View, or appearing on TV standing next to Stalin’s portrait, quipping, ‘People still have the idea that this guy did some big crimes…’

And there is his adolescent habit of  presenting simplistic inversions as profundities (politeness is really brutality, tact is brutal insensitivity, common-sense is nothing but internalised ideology, the open society is no more than liberal-sceptical cynicism, and so on).

Then there is Žižek’s intense – but always vicarious – fascination with violence. Violence-talk is usually close to the surface of his writing, catering to what Ernst Jünger once called the ‘peculiarly cruel way of seeing’ of us moderns; our obsession with violent imagery. Žižek does debonair nihilism very well.

The Žižekian style also invites the bored reader to ‘surf’ from one shallow display to the next – a kind of intellectual channel-hopping.

To take one example, in Did Somebody say Totalitarianism? he makes a show of discussing our relationship to totalitarianism (or ‘totalitarianism’ as he always names-only-to-erase the phenomenon).

But what follows is not a genuine discussion at all.

Instead, we go Surfing With Žižek! Click. From Freud, Kant, and Graham Greene, to Hegel, the cult of Furtwangler, and Adorno. Click. From Leonard Bernstein, Agamben, and Edith Wharton, to Shostakovitch’s 8th String Quartet, an old ‘racist joke’ about Gypsies, and Lacan. Click. From the popularity of the film Brief Encounter in the gay community, to the relationship of anamorphosis and sublimation… and, well, dizzy yet?

And all this within a mere eight pages!

But it is the Žižekian substance that matters most. He embodies a Left utterly transformed since the golden age of social democracy in the 19th century when the hope was to realize the promise of the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, by political and social action led by a cultured and self-controlling popular movement.

In place of all that Žižek offers contempt for liberal democracy as an anti-human fraud, and an obstacle to ‘revolution’, ‘Truth’, ‘heroism’ and ‘virtue’; loathing for the miserable mediocrity and the ‘stupid pleasures’ of the unheroic modern ‘bourgeois’ individual, a figure deemed so obscene that any enormity must be risked – as an ethical obligation, no less – to transcend him; a commitment to dictatorship and ‘divine violence’, and disciplined organisation as the necessary tools to abolish liberal democracy and impose Communism; and  a depiction of violent excess and even self-sacrificial death as salvific.

The Žižekian moment on parts of the left is due to two kinds of crisis.

First, economic. Ernst Cassirer thought that totalitarian ideologies arise when modern societies experience a crisis but the traditional means of problem-solving appear inadequate (his point of reference was, of course, the Weimar Republic). Into the void steps  wish-fulfillment and merely rhetorical ‘solutions.’

Second, intellectual. Zizek is accepted as left-wing, even a kind of Marxism, because most Marxists long ago abandoned the rational and material values of the social democratic Second International.

Moscow and Peking educated several generations of left-wingers to look with contempt on all those renegade fuddy-duddy reformists in Berlin and Paris. In this vein Žižek tells his audiences they are all ‘liberal scoundrels’ and that he intends to follow Bertold Brecht’s advice and put them ‘in front of a wall’ and ‘with a good bullet from a good gun …bury you.’).

In Žižek’s phrase – ‘linksfaschismus? So be it!’

And that sound you can hear? A skeleton spinning in a grave in Highgate cemetery.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

27 Responses to “How the Left learnt to stop worrying and love Slavoj Žižek”

  1. Hermes

    Getting things out of their context. Either an idiot or somebody with a mask of an idiot could have written this.

  2. Mick

    The Left ‘learn’ to love a maniac with flair…

    …As they did Lenin, Stalin, Chavez, Castro, Mao (and dare I say it, the Mandelas) and a whole host of other nob-ends.

    Even right down to the Left’s own EDL, the Militant Tendency.

  3. Majora

    Yeah, the left. The ENTIRE left. You stupid prick.

  4. Mick

    Ah, the insults begin! Welcome to funky peace-‘n’-love town.

    And to think leftists can go critical enough when you say you liked Mrs. Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bush presidents.

  5. Gabriel Brahm

    I would simply reply that the parts of Zizek you criticize in your latest, crisply written, column are not the parts I “love” about him — other than the “surfing,” which I confess I both enjoy and get tired of. Rather, I love the insightful, illuminating, trenchant, incisive “ideology critique” — rooted in Lacan, Althusser, and the Frankfurt School. By contrast, I regard the playful scandalizing gestures toward “revolution,” which you target, as provocative responses to the mind-numbing “death of politics” and frightening decay of public space in our time — reminders in other words of a precipitous decline of the political imagination and, at the same time, an admittedly somewhat desperate/manic attempt to spark it back up. Moreover, I think a fuller reading of the “scandalous” bits in context would support my contention that these should be read “with a grain of salt” — while the sophisticated, creative analysis and spirited refusal of “post-political” resignation are what should be taken seriously. Or, more concisely: “Psycho-Marxian Cultural Criticism for the 21st Century, Yes! Stalinism, No!”

  6. Mick

    Psycho-Marxian…. With those maniacs, I couldn’t put it better myself.

    The Frankfurt School was the birthplace of modern political correctness, the ‘essentially destructive criticism of the main elements of Western culture, including Christianity, capitalism, authority, the family, patriarchy, hierarchy, morality, tradition, sexual restraint, loyalty, patriotism, nationalism, heredity, ethnocentrism, convention and conservatism.’

    Left wingers should know this isn’t ‘edgy’, ‘trendy’ or merely something good because it upsets the ‘squares, bigots and racists’. It’s the total destruction of Western society, baby with the bathwater, to install a system whereby only the ‘approved’ stuff is allowed.

    Hypocritical too. It’s fine amongst Leftists to wear a Zizek or Guevara t-shirt. Yet it’s somehow wrong to them to wear a shirt with their counterpart violent revolutionary demagogue, Musslolini.

  7. Newsbot9

    Yes, which is why you’re all for your destruction.

    And right, of course you want to use equivalence attacks to claim for your Fascist heroes, to deny much of what they did. As usual, you’ve not understood the article, you’re simply lashing out.

  8. Newsbot9

    Of course you dare call anyone who works for peace manics. Violent thugs like are usually trying to excuse your crimes with equivalence attacks. I was quite right about who you supported in SA, it seems.

  9. Gabriel Brahm

    Thanks, Mick, for naming all the things I’m against! To wit: “Christianity, capitalism, authority, the family, patriarchy, hierarchy, morality, tradition, sexual restraint…nationalism, heredity, ethnocentrism…” NB: Johnson’s article was/is addressed to a “Left” of some sort…I had thought.

  10. Newsbot9

    Keep demanding that the people you want as victims don’t defend themselves.

  11. Newsbot9

    Never stops the trolls, does it?

  12. Mick

    And yes, Johnson’s article was indeed addressed to ‘the left’. But it would be rather selfish if myself, or people from the public, couldn’t also partake of the sweet sweet goodness of the loony left.

  13. Mick

    …Which Newsbot is the master of.

    You’re whining like a bitch Newsbot. Told you before.

  14. Newsbot9

    Keep on blaming me for your whining.

  15. Newsbot9

    That’s right, you keep on interjecting random crap about how everyone not like you is mentally ill into every discussion, to troll.

  16. Mick

    I know you do Newsbot. (Two can play your game.)

    Though you should never feed the real trolls, let us enjoy an archive pick of the LOONY LEFT AT THE JOBCENTRE:

    And now, more of Newsbot’s cobblers……

  17. Newsbot9

    That’s right, keep claiming this is a right wing site. And why are you eating then?

    And right, someone was wrong about an advert which should have been placed. Keep assuming that this is immediately some conspiracy, when it’s someone making a mistake.

    Nope, in your world it’s another conspiracy, and supposedly gives you licence to try and cancel workers rights.

    And of course you hate workers, like shoe repairers.

  18. Mick

    ‘Cancel workers rights’. He may be round the bend but I love his turn of phrases.

    And I wouldn’t say chewing the facts with Newsbot is big game hunting on my part. Mouse-catching, maybe. His backing a decision to block an job advert because it rejects incompetent oafs! Dear me!

    But then, this is a left wing page for left wing people. There’s no common sense for me here.

  19. Newsbot9

    Bend? Oh…you’re so far right you crossed the streams and went THERE. I see.

    And of course you can’t chew and spit out the remains of the facts you hate, they’re too big a bite for you in the first place. You have to view it as some kind of hunt, when you’re simply squawking.

    And you keep claiming that only you far right can have common sense…but thanks for admitting trolling.

  20. Mick

    See, Newsbot’s splendid at blaming everyone else for his own silliness. (Never mind the anarchists, he should stand for Monty Python.)

    But it’s still good to take in a gambol down Madcap Gardens when the fancy takes.

    Newsbot, the crazy floor is yours…

  21. Newsbot9

    Nope, that’s your room floor. You’re trying to push your issues onto others again. Keep confessing!

  22. Newsbot10

    Breivik was a victim who defended himself

  23. Newsbot9

    Ah yes, you’re back spammer. Keep justifying mass murder.

  24. JohnB

    Some people believe the Da Vinci Code, others like Mick attribute everything they don’t like about life to a conspiracy in 1930s Frankfurt. Best not to argue – it only encourages them.

  25. Mick

    Gabriel mentioned the Frankfurt School, John. (Can I call you John? Good.)

    And I love that least sentence. After mixing left wing theorum with ‘life’, it’s interesting you don’t want me tested with it.

  26. Mick

    ‘Last sentence’, that should be. But well…. could be ‘least’ too I s’pose.

  27. luis

    What a sad hit piece.

Leave a Reply