Saturday, October 29, 2011

What does a famous actual Marxist think of the OWS protests?

A couple of weeks ago, I was quoting some pearl-clutching editorial at even-the-liberal New Republic that was shocked! shocked! I tell you, shocked! that Marxist academic and former Yugoslav democratic dissident Slavoj Žižek had made spoken to the Occupy Wall Street crowd in New York and suggested they try to "imagine the end of capitalism". The New Republic editorialist was horrified.

Žižek did a commentary on the European version of Occupy Wall Street, the indignados of Greece and Spain, Shoplifters of the World Unite London Review of Books 08/19/2011. The immediate topic was this past summer's London riots, which is different the organized protests of the indignados/OWS. But he does discuss the latter. To be fair, his take was more specifically on the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain, and this was before the OWS protests as such had started. Here is his comment, which leans toward academicese:

But one should also avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause: it’s too easy to admire the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. Today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old one after the uprising, when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment is over? In this context, the manifesto of the Spanish indignados, issued after their demonstrations in May, is revealing. The first thing that meets the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: ‘Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.’ They make their protest on behalf of the ‘inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life.’ Rejecting violence, they call for an ‘ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.’ Who will be the agents of this revolution? The indignados dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power, yet the manifesto nevertheless consists of a series of demands addressed at – whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them, that they themselves have to be the change they want to see. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.
In other words, they don't have a clear message! Exactly one of the criticisms that FOX News, Republicans and CNN airhead Erin Burnett made of OWS!

I'm not familiar enough with Žižek to have an idea of which of the million varieties of Marxism most influence him. But that part of his commentary reminds me of a definition I once heard of Trotskyists: they're the people who support revolution everywhere except where there's one going on.

Now, I wouldn't quarrel in this case with the literal meaning of Žižek's judgment, "They express a spirit of revolt without revolution". And the fact that he did show up to speak to OWS presumably indicates he thinks the movement is significant.

But it also illustrates how an elaborate revolutionary ideology can serve an above-the-fray attitude that discourages rather than invites engagement. Gee, they don't have a full-blown political party with long position papers on how they will solve all problems immediately upon taking power! How can a self-respecting, a very self-respecting, important Marxist intellectual take them seriously?

I admit my reaction to that essay is colored by having read this account of a conference where Professor Žižek appeared: Michael Sayeau, The Fifth International: n+1 covers the London Conference, "On the Idea of Communism" n+1 04/22/2009. But here is how he concludes his London Review essay:

The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime). But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness. [my emphasis]
It's true that the Spanish indignados and the larger indignado movement that OWS represents aren't the same as a set of Leninist parties ready to seize power and expropriate the expropriators. But apart from the non-insignificant matters of the desirability and the feasibility of such a seizure of power, in this context it becomes a doctrinaire way of dismissing a protest movement that has changed the political dialogue in the Western democracies, at a moment in time when the mass political parties of left and right  proved incapable of defending the interests of the working majority against the plutocrats.

If OWS and the democratic movement generally can block destructive actions by parties left and right, such as cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits in the United States, that will be a substantial progressive achievement.

It is obvious that to have a government that can represent the majority interest effectively against the Money Power, as the Jacksonians called it, the majority would have to have a political party or party coalition working effectively on their behalf.

But that doesn't mean there's no role for protest movements outside the political party structures proper. As dogmatic as today's Republican Party is, wealthy factions like that of the Koch brothers do represent a kind of inside-outside strategy; if they decide that the Party establishment is insufficiently subservient to their interests, they have various organizations, think tanks, donation channels, etc., that can bring pressure on recalcitrant members. (Even in the most rigid authoritarian party, a Marxist intellectual like Žižek would presumably be the first to recognize that there would still be contradictions among the supporting factions.)

What the United States and the European democracies need right now is a progressive movement that is substantially independent of the left parties but which can bring effective pressure to bear on them in the form of lobbying, mass mobilizations like OWS, and primary challenges to Blue Dogs such as the challenges Blue America promotes.

Žižek's August comments are a reminder that even people with a worldview that emphasizes the inevitability of social and political changes can be taken by surprise by the ones that actually occur. Some are more disappointed than others when that occurs. Some are actually glad to see it!

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