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.

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