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Zizek is wrong: Previous socialism was not just failure
Intro note from Mike Ely:
Given that we have often engaged with Zizek's ideas here on Kasama, I think it is valuable to share this criticism of one of his biggest problems: His blanket dismissal of previous socialism as purely negative, as a failure. I won't list everything I think here... but I have a quote positive view of the revolutionary attempts of the twentieth century (what they achieved, what they teach, what we can build on) -- in ways that clashes intensely with the dismissal from Zizek (and even at times from Badiou). We Maoists have always made a distinction between "defeat" and "failure." And in the wave-like motion of history, we don't assume that setbacks and reversals negate the advances.
The twentieth century included events that make us celebrate and that make us grieve. There were serious and protracted attempts to develop socialist societies -- and to find a road toward communism. Hundreds of millions of people threw their lot in with the red flag... they dreamed communist dreams, they sacrificed, and they deployed their best understandings.
Just because the advance wasn't linear, just because that wave of world revolution receded -- that doesn't make it a failure. After all, whatever comes now is built on that experience (on the positive and negative). And the world today was transformed in profound ways by that wave of revolution and its repeated assaults on capitalism and oppression.
The following piece by Karlo Mikhail first appeared on Karlo's blog. I don't agree with its (too familiar) logic that quickly relegates Zizek into being "an apologist of the ruling order."
I'm also skeptical of the way Karlo assumes that Lenin's theory of imperialism applies today -- when clearly the increasing integration and penentration of capitalism is giving rise to new dynamics (and when the "highest stage" of capitalism that Lenin analyzed has gone through major new developments and leaps over the last century, and especially the last 25 years.)
Zizek is a provocateur, an instigator, a blizzard of ideas and sparks. His field is not revolutionary strategy or political economy (but rather philosophy)... and we can't judge him simply on his more explicitly political statements. But.... But... it is worth raising and understanding the dangers of any sweepingly pessimist summation of our communist past, and a dangers of a parallel skepticism toward the possibility of future positive radical turns within modern society.
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SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: A “RADICAL” APOLOGIST FOR IMPERIALISM
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a reputation for lashing out against the “postmodern” and “social democratic” Left, rightly pointing out that this hodgepodge are advocates of capitalism with a human face and not of genuine revolutionary change. A closer look at the political positions taken by Žižek, however, would show that he is no different from the quarters that have been at the receiving end of his attacks.
I have keenly followed the zigzags of Žižek’s school of thought in the past five years and even defended him on some occasions. His infusion of Lacanian psychoanalysis into the concept of ideology, his defense of revolutionary violence against the objective violence of the ruling system, his humorous diatribes, and his appropriation of popular culture references to enhance his arguments seemed refreshing for a time.
However, it would seem that Žižek’s trajectory only seeks to lead the emergent social movements away from the path of a clear and organized struggle to smash the present system and replace it with a new and liberating one. Žižek’s regressive views are particularly crystallized in an interview by Haseeb Ahmed and Chris Cutrone at thePlatypus Review entitled “The Occupy Movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism Today: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek.”
FROM KAUTSKY TO ŽIŽEK
“There is no longer the metropolis screwing the Third World countries,” declares Žižek. Eschewing the theory of uneven development and the fundamental contradiction between the imperialist powers and the oppressed nation, he posits that the globalization of capital has erased the divide between industrial capitalist powers and their client-states.
Global capitalism has, in this view, transformed the entire world into “colonies” of an all-powerful international capital that is not beholden to any nation. “American capital cannot be considered that of the U.S.,” Žižek boldly proclaims. “Capitalism is really universal today,” he adds. It has become, as Hardt and Negri describes it, a “Global Empire.”
In this regard, Žižek is no different from present-day anarchists and postmodern leftists such as Hardt and Negri who rail against what they perceive as an amorphous and increasingly anonymous multinational or transnational capitalism lorded over by octopus corporations that have transcended the nation as their base.
Žižek, in short, simply rehashes the ideas of Karl Kautsky and his disciples in the social democratic Second International. For them, the investment of surplus capital in the Third World by the industrial powers would provide the basis for the peaceful transition of the whole world to capitalism. In this theory of “ultraimperialism,” the peripheries would gradually acquire the capacity for industrial production in exchange for their raw resources and cheap labor.
While there is no question about the global scope of the world capitalist system, what is questionable about Žižek’s foray into political economy is the analysis of the relationship between the different parts of this system, of how the prosperity and abundance in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan rests on the superexploitation of the rest of the world through a chain of sweatshops, agricultural plantations, call centers, logging and mining concessions, and export processing zones.
In this setup, we have the imperialist nations on the one side and their direct colonies and semi-colonies on the other. The advanced industrial powers maintain their political, economic, and cultural hold on these subordinate states for the plunder of raw products, natural resources, and cheap labor as well as captive markets for the disposing of their manufactured goods and surplus capital.
The so-called “outsourcing” that he bandies about loosely has its limits and does not lead to the industrial development of Third World countries. Even now we are already seeing how U.S. Barrack Obama threatened to withdraw the business process outsourcing centers outside the U.S. when he spoke in his January 2012 State of the Nation Address.
Even the newly industrialized countries like South Korea and Taiwan did not progress out of the benevolence of the imperialist powers or the whim of an anonymous global capitalist system that simply saw the profitability of investment in these regions.
The development of these countries was based on the implementation of genuine agrarian reform and the liberation of millions of poor peasants which became the basis for further industrial development. These minor exceptions were allowed by the geopolitical considerations of countering the “red menace of North Korea and Mao’s China.
APOLOGIA FOR IMPERIALISM
Žižek has a reputation for bandying about the name of Lenin in his avowed aim of resuscitating the late revolutionary’s legacy in works such as Repeating Lenin, A Plea for Leninist Tolerance, Revolution at the Gates, etc. What comes as a surprise is Žižek’s complete disregard for the same Lenin who wrote Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Production and capital is now more concentrated than ever in the hands of monopolies based in the imperialist nations. The financial oligarchy sitting on the merger of industrial and financial capital has grown in leaps and bounds, especially with the financialization of the global economy. The export of capital has become more extensive than ever, with the most powerful imperialist nations having divided the whole world for themselves.
The fundamental features of the world capitalist system as described by Lenin remain all the more true today. And to Žižek’s distorted political economy, Lenin would have said: “is ‘ultraimperialism’ possible, or is it ultra-nonsense?” It is precisely this nonsense that leads Žižek to take some of the most reactionary positions.
Žižek has on various occasions taken the role of the apologist of imperialism like in his support for the U.S.-led imperialist war of aggression in the Balkans in the 90s in the guise of humanitarian missions.
He even alludes to supporting the U.S. puppet regime in occupied Iraq in the pretext of supporting the so-called Iraqi “Left”. Because of his eschewing of the theory of imperialism, he absurdly forwards the idea that the U.S. occupation is needed because the Iraqi people cannot liberate themselves on their own.
But is it not that the events in Egypt and Tunisia effectively contradict his assertions? The same could have happened in Iraq on its own if not for the U.S. intervention:
The racist Western left’s view was that the only way you can mobilize the stupid Arabs was through anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism, or nationalism. But here we had secular democratic protest that was not anti-Semitic, not Islamic fundamentalist, or even nationalist.
He even idolizes Nelson Mandela for pushing neoliberal policies in favor of foreign monopoly capitalist interests and in betrayal of the South African masses. “Mandela was not a traitor,” declares Žižek, saying that the alternative would have been a disastrous repetition of what he calls “a Zimbabwe fiasco.”
So any effort, for Žižek, to independently chart out one’s national development outside the auspices of the world capitalist system inevitably ends in certain failure. Isn’t this line any different from his criticism of the fear that all revolutions lead to the establishment of even more oppressive and exploitative conditions?
Žižek testifies: “isn’t the tragedy of 20th century Stalinism that precisely they tried to suspend, not money, but the market, and what was the result? The re-assertion of brutal direct domination.”
Echoing the standard reactionary narrative against Russia under Stalin and China under Mao, he comes up with the one-sided notion that these experiments in socialist revolution and construction were “total failures.”
“This is the lesson of the 20th century,” Žižek pronounces. “The lessons are only negative: We learn what not to do. This is very important. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see positive lessons. I am an honest pessimist.”
The fact that the Chinese revolution as led by Mao liberated millions of poor Chinese peasants and workers from the shackles of imperialist domination and feudal subjugation is overlooked. The victorious advance of a poor war-torn country relying solely on its own people and resources in order to develop step by step its agriculture and industry and raise the standard of living of its people is disregarded.
In fact, Mao’s socialist regime that Žižek maliciously accuse as a “total failure” presided over the emancipation of women and minorities from gender and national oppression, the elimination of exploitation by the old comprador-landlord classes, and the provision of the material needs of the people, including food, healthcare, water, shelter, and education.
The Great Leap Forward, which Žižek paints in the vilest colors as a mega-tragedy causing the death of millions due to famine and starvation, actually endeavored to collective agriculture, close the gap between urban and rural areas, and lay down the foundation for the satisfaction of human needs and industrial development for the people.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution meanwhile brought further development to the masses by bringing millions of youth to the countryside to provide education and health care and help in the management of agri-industrial production in the grassroots. This in turn helped remoulded these youth to make them more dedicated servants of the people.
The conscious struggle against the capitalist-roaders in the state bureaucracy and the party hierarchy empowered millions of Chinese masses, a process that was unfortunately reversed with the death of Mao and the capitalist restoration.
Stalin did commit errors in the form of a tendency towards an overgrown bureaucracy, the premature announcement of the withering away of classes and class struggle, and excesses in the struggle against enemies of the people. But the Žižekian “only negative” verdict ignores real gains in the construction of socialism, the gigantic leaps in the soviet economy, the social welfare system, and the heroic defense against fascism in the Second World War.
All these were achieved in spite of the imperialist encirclement and intervention, the various schemes by the former ruling classes and the bourgeois elements inside the Soviet party to regain power, and the real limits posed by the vestiges of the old czarist society from whose womb the new Soviet state emerged.
It comes as no surprise that Žižek, who aligns himself with Trotsky and other rightwing figures and renegades who he considers “brutal realist,” eschews all forms of resistance to the present order:
Not only state socialism and the social-democratic welfare state, but also, I would add, the deepest hope of the utopian left, “horizontal organization,” local communities, direct democracy, self-organization—all this, I don’t think it works.
For all the lip service on how doing nothing will lead to even greater global catastrophes, all he coughs up is another version of the reactionary Fukuyama conclusion that there is no alternative to capitalism.
In a time when the whole world is up in arms against the oppressive and exploitative system and social movements are advancing towards ever greater heights, we are all, as Mao puts it, faced with three alternatives: “To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them?”
It has become increasingly clear where Žižek stands on this question. Far from representing a truly revolutionary alternative, he only exposes himself as an apologist of the ruling order hidden behind a radical façade.
Armando Liwanag, “Hinggil sa Monopolyo-Kapitalistang ‘Globalisasyon’”
Armando Liwanag, “Stand for Socialism against Modern Revisionism”
Haseeb Ahmed and Chris Cutrone, “The Occupy Movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism Today: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek”
Julieta De Lima-Sison, “Si Jose Ma. Sison tungkol sa Moda ng Produksyon”
Mao Zedong, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”
Pao-yu Ching, “China: Socialist Development and Capitalist Restoration”