Now that awful Democratic Party stooges like Neera Tanden show up in my twitter timeline again, it’s a sign that its truly the start of the 2020 presidential election season. There’s no better time than the present to talk about general left political strategy. One thing I’ve been thinking of a lot lately is Zizek’s position in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election—I wrote about this already and, like Zizek himself, have no issue with completely plagiarizing what I’ve written before (at least for exposition):
…Leftists recoil at his name. Academics think he’s made himself into a factory of lazy, watered-down philosophy for bite-sized consumption. Activists think he’s betrayed the left on political correctness and made overtures to fascism. Though still well-known enough to pen frequent op-eds, he no longer commands the influence on the left he once did. His appearances in The Guardian and In These Times seem to have stopped since last year, and now Zizek contributes more regularly to RT. He has, reluctantly, found a new audience — one that shares his taste for shocking provocation and esoteric philosophical arguments against the scolding mantras of political correctness. Zizek has become a neoreactionary philosopher.
Ironically, many worldwide political developments since the Occupy movement have actually vindicated Zizek. Europe’s refugee crisis laid bare the raw tensions between the liberal ideas of open borders, anti-xenophobia, and tolerance on one hand and the Western European assumption of a secular social-democratic welfare state on the other. Zizek caused a stir by arguing that the dream of many refugees — of being permitted free access to a utopian life anywhere they choose — was unrealistic, and that it could be the task of national militaries to organize a humane solution for the refugee issue in general. With the heretical opposition to unconditional openness, and his tendency to test the limits of political correctness, Zizek’s heterodox takes on Freudo-Marxism ceased to impress many on the left.
After the shock victory of the Brexit referendum, the crisis in neoliberalism and its implications for nationalism and identity politics became impossible to ignore. As the 2016 U.S. presidential election neared, Zizek made a much-publicized “anti-endorsement” of Trump on Russia Today, claiming that Clinton would be a worse president whose victory would perpetuate a wretched status quo and the paralysis of the left. Following his understanding of dialectical materialism, a Trump administration, though horrible, would amount to a negation of the hegemonic liberal ideology and present an opportunity for radical change — a line of thinking that brings him closer to the reactionary accelerationists drawn to the creative potential of crisis and danger than to the relative conservatism of a Clinton supporter like Noam Chomsky. With Trump’s subsequent electoral upset and the apparent collapse of center-left parties across the western world, it seemed that Zizek could stake a claim to picking up the pieces…
I don’t necessarily stand by the rest of the article (especially not the connection to accelerationism), and the contention that he’s neoreactionary is obviously polemical and attention-grabbing—but it said what was on people’s minds, at least from reading headlines. The “Reactionary Zizek” was, indeed, a meme. And at the time, I was more interested in talking about the meme, without actually working through the full meaning of his position.
One thing that’s missed is the idea that Zizek’s points, in the end, were correct, from the Left perspective. This is to say, the essential points are valuable—necessary!—even if the old man presented them clumsily at times. This is not to say that every policy prescription of his is correct, but rather that the issues he identified as issues need to be worked through. And whether the polite, proper leftists like it or not for their THEORETICAL politics, there is no way around dealing with them for a PRACTICAL politics.
Zizek always was speaking to the Left. The Left was able to tolerate his objections to their general consensus positions, particularly regarding nationalism and political correctness, by considering him a sort of jester. He was a quirky celebrity with a funny accent and lots of things to say about classic movies. But once these objections to left-liberal consensus positions came to pass and were affirmed in a way that they could no longer ignore whatsoever (by nationwide popular democratic votes for candidates and positions that absolutely rejected this, across the western world), Zizek had to be jettisoned—CANCELLED. There is, of course, a certain Hegelian significance to this cancellation. Is Zizek himself not the “vanishing mediator” here in the conflict between the theoretical abstraction of the neoliberal late capitalist world order and its empirical negation in the political upheaval that has thrown everything into question? If anything, shouldn’t this cancellation be nothing other than a sign of the TRUTH of the position?
So what are the essential points Zizek was right about? I suggest a few:
- The need for a Left Populism. A populism necessarily sets some kind of positioning of “US” versus “THEM”, but a Left Populism, instead of identifying the “Them” as the immigrants/foreigners/minorities/Muslims, should identify the “Them” as the capitalist class. In other words, this is a populism that, rather than just attacking symptoms of social problems (i.e. the Latin American immigrants that come and steal American jobs) attacks the underlying causes of those problems (the way that the capitalist class has set up a system that necessitates these global flows of capital). The centrist, liberal position holds (against the populists), that there is no need to declare a fundamental antagonism against the capitalist class, that they are in fact the allies against the intolerant bumpkin Trump voters, and they adjust their messaging accordingly. Unlike a “Trump,” the centrist holds, we must “all come together.” This position holds that there is no fundamental class tension in society—in fact, the tension comes from some kind of alien outside, such as Russian intervention. This position is conservative, uncompelling, uninspiring, and obviously false.
- Antagonisms in the issue of borders and migration. There exists an antagonism between the free flows of labor/capital and the coherence of national borders and the well-being of the working classes of the nation. The scale of the issues makes it very difficult for individual people to adequately conceptualize one way or another, especially in a country with a spatial orientation inherited from a settler-frontier ideological disposition like the United States (in other words, the country is so big that such flows of labor and capital are so difficult to conceptualize—and people believe whichever simplifications they want to believe). There is, however, still an unavoidable antagonism between a left-theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a left-theoretical commitment to working class solidarity under global neoliberalism: the left needs to come to terms with the practical-left commitment to a working class displaced and alienated by widespread de-industrialization. The Western Left needs the Western working class to take political power. It cannot afford to write off their concerns as “Eurocentric” even as it maintains a firm theoretical and practical opposition to racism.
- Political correctness, particularly in sexual politics and multiculturalism, is a fundamental site of tension. This is a huge issue because PC-culture operates at the level of the ENJOYMENT of the individual. The consequence of PC-culture is that the enjoyment of the signs that people relate to just in using language becomes regulated by political imperatives that, while often (but not always) well-intentioned, take the form of petty, cruel, vengeful moral injunctions. For example, in sexual politics, this takes the form of a paradoxical injunction to ENJOY the free wonderful sex that all us liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan westerners are supposed to enjoy, coupled with a darker injunction to ENJOY that manifests itself in the paranoia about sex relating to offense, consent, trauma, call-out culture and so on. Of course, this is not limited to sexual politics by any means, and also includes a regulation of the enjoyment of nationalism/multiculturalism: “Enjoy your nation as yourself!”
- Fascism will fill the conceptual void left by neoliberal late capitalism. Inasmuch as the Left is unable to come to terms with these antagonisms, the conceptual void left over will be filled by fascism, which will attempt to fill it in a perverted, inadequate, unscientific (in the broadest conception of science) way. Fascism does not solve the underlying issues and is, rather, the fullest extent of the symptom—it does not try to work through these contradictions, but rather react against them as a consequence of their repression.
Are these issues not the defining issues of our time? Shouldn’t this be the takeaway of the Left from 2016?
There are no easy answers to these issues. But we must work through them in a way that many leftists refuse to admit. And it certainly does not require a complete capitulation to the racism, misogyny, homophobia (and so on) of the fascists and their sympathizers on the right. And in doing this we must stay faithful to a revolutionary communist orientation, rather than complacency with a now-conservative, neoliberal status quo.