Monday, October 31, 2011

A strange interview with philosopher Slavoj Žižek

I've had occasion a couple of times recently to post on Slavoj Žižek, a Marxist and critical theorist, in connection with Occupy Wall Street. OWS may be a big boost to the Slavoj Žižek, because he's getting a level of public attention that he probably never has before. This Aljazeera English interview is an example. I'm getting the impression that Žižek may be better at diagnosing fundamental social problems than he is about grasping real existing political movements.

Žižek saw in the London riots of this summer some like feral violence. He discusses it a bit at the start of this interview. He wrote about it more extensively in Shoplifters of the World Unite London Review of Books 08/19/2011.

Talk to Al Jazeera - Slavoj Zizek YouTube date 10/29/2011:

Žižek says beginning around 2:00 that he considers Communism to be a bigger "ethical catastrophe" than fascism, in which he presumably includes Nazi Germany. (In poli sci and history, there's substantive disagreement whether German National Socialism/Nazism represents a variant of fascism or was its own distinct form of far-right dictatorship.) Here's his reasoning:

Let's face it, 20th century Communism was, precisely because it started with such hopes and ended in a nightmare, was maybe the greatest catastrophe, ethical catastrophe, I'm almost tempted to say, in the history of humanity. More than fascism.

You know why? Because, let's be very simple. In fascism, we have bad guys who said, our program is to do this and this bad things, no?, And - what a surprise - they took power, they did bad things, no?. In Communism, you have authentic tragedy. Which is why you have dissidents, you have always inner struggles. So, but nonetheless, it is over.
Now, one could argue that this comes from the perspective of a person who grew up and formed his perspective in a then-Communist country (Yugoslavia) and is trying to argue that the official ideologies of those countries contained important elements that were true, but not realized in "real existing socialism", as those regimes were known to refer to themselves.

Still, Nazi Germany was oriented toward war from the time Hitler took power until V-E Day. It plunged Europe into the most destructive, deadliest war in all history. The Communist governments did not do that. Nor did any Communist governments undertake the physical extermination of an entire ethnic group as we saw with Nazi Germany and the Jews, in Rwanda, and arguably with the dying Ottoman Empire and the Armenians.

Nazi ideology was explicitly bad in the sense that Žižek argues. But I wouldn't endorse his view that somehow a betrayal of the stated ideals of noble ideals of some sort is ethically more catastrophic than the fact of Nazi Germany having launched the deadliest war in all of history, of which the Holocaust was very much a part. It may suit Žižek's stance of being part of a grand historical tragedy from the side of the East European Communist regimes. But as an ethical argument, it just doesn't wash.

Beginning around 3:40, he approvingly quotes (gulp!), Ayn Rand. No, I'm not kidding. And it gets even more problematic from there. For me, this whole interview was like nails on a blackboard. At the end, he even seems to think that the American Tea Party movement is a progressive workers' movement. (?!)

Žižek is a respected philosopher in the field of critical theory, an area on which I've posted many times. For reasons I discuss more below, critical theory is generally focused on diagnosing large problems, which is one reason it played an important role in sociology, notably with the 1940s studies on authoritarianism of which The Authoritarian Personality is the most famous. It has not focused so much on describing the shape of a fundamental alternative to capitalism and the "modernity" associated with it. Most of them have understood themselves as socialists. But the defining experience for critical theory - which originally meant the people associated with the Social Social Research, aka the Frankfurt School in the 1930s - was European fascism, especially the experience of Nazi Germany. That left them with a partisan appreciation of civil liberties and the fundamentals of representative democracy, which expressed itself in a radical-democratic outlook that didn't approve the forms of government in the Communist world but also didn't reject Marxist perspectives wholesale. It would be fair to say as a generalization that they built on the radical-democratic element in historical Marxism, which made them not partisans of the Communist movements but also highly critical of the post-First World War course of Social Democracy.

Žižek in this interview discusses violence in the sense of the Sorelian utopian general strike. For history buffs or philosophy geeks who happen to be familiar with that concept, it makes some sense. But for the average news consumers, even very well-informed ones, are likely to be left scratching their heads over the way he puts it.

Critical theory continues the analysis of the problems and opportunities of modernity that emerged from the classical German philosophy of the late 18th and early 19th century, of which Kant and Hegel are the most significant. Broadly speaking, critical theory draws from that tradition as well as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Freudian psychoanalysis, Husserl's phenomenology, and existentialism. Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse actually defined the term "critical theory" to describe their general approach, though the term was also used earlier to refer to Kantian thought.

Žižek in this interview shows the pitfalls of this viewpoint when processing contemporary political events. He brings up some interesting empirical observations that alerted me to some things to look for, e.g., describing a mass demonstration in Istanbul for gay rights that, he says, did not attract any attempts at violence by onlookers. But he seems almost sensationalist at times in trying to make people think with provocative statements. But in terms of giving us a sense of social and political dynamics, it's pretty deficient.

The catchiest phrase I noticed in the interview comes just after 2:50: "The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over."

He makes it specifically in reference to China. But there is a conflict between capitalism and democracy in that capitalist economies, left to their preferred course, will tend to concentrate wealth and power in a small number of people, as we see now in the 1% society that OWS is highlighting. Democracy gives the public the power to offset, mitigate and potentially end the disproportionate power of the 1% over the rest of society. Capitalism will always produce types like the Koch brother billionaires who want to buy out the political system and have it serve solely the perceived self-interests of the 1%. A healthy democracy has to be able to counteract that disproportionate economic power.

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