Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Žižek-ing Nelson Mandela

I recently posted about the challenge of sorting out what the critical theory philosopher Slavoj Žižek may actually be talking about.

There I quoted a 2002 review of one of Žižek's books by Peter Bürger who raised the question about that book that often occurs to me when reading Žižek: "Does the author want to make himself interesting by holding a distinctive position, or does he mean what he says?"

Žižek did a provocative op-ed about Nelson Mandela, which a Brazilian friend of mine posted about on Facebook. It appeared in several places: If Nelson Mandela really had won, he wouldn't be seen as a universal hero The Guardian 12/09/2013; with the same title and date at Common Dreams; Mandela’s Socialist Failure New York Times 12/06/2013.

I'm not sure how well Ayn Rand, who Žižek quotes in his article, is known outside the US. Those who aren't acquainted with her work haven't missed much. She was an extreme reactionary emigrant from Russia who wrote bad novels (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead) that promoted her philosophy of Objectivism, which in most of the world would be described as far-right liberalism. That doesn't work in the US, of course, where "liberal" means center-left.

On a political scale, she would be to the right of Ludwig von Mises. But her dogmas are very influential among today's US Republican Party. She ran what was basically a personal cult, whose most famous adherent was Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, whose free-market dogmas contributed enormously to the crash of 2008.

So when Žižek cites Ayn Rand approvingly, I have to ask Bürger's question: is this guy serious or is he just trying to be annoying? And, no, despite what Žižek says, Marx's theory of commodities and markets did not say anything like what the cynical quote he uses from Ayn Rand says. And surely Žižek knows this. But he then turns around and uses the Rand quote to claim that he's more Communist than the Communists. It's clever, especially if you know about Rand's rabid anti-Communism. But weird.

Most everyone seems to agree that Mandela and the ANC did not push forward the kind of radical social reform their program envisioned before taking power. And Žižek makes some thought-provoking points around that. I haven't followed South African politics closely enough to evaluate that in much closer detail. I have seen a plausible argument that Mandela's decision as President to honor the foreign debt accumulated by the apartheid regime and the neoliberal rules of "globalization" on free movement of capital were key mistakes. Because they allowed capital flight and severely restricted his government's ability to make important reforms. Argentina's experience since 2000 suggests there were meaningful alternatives - though I'm guessing that Žižek would condemn Argentina's kirchnerismo also for falling short of "radical emancipatory politics."

Žižek's more interesting points tend to get swallowed by his attempts to be provocative. Is there any actual evidence that Mandela "at the end of his life" was "a bitter, old man"? Žižek assumes so, apparently just because he likes the way it sounds. I was also struck by his comment: "In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence, and crime." I don't know how fair a generalization that is. But given the way he puts it, it's also very easy for defenders of the old apartheid regime to quote it verbatim, prefaced by, "Even the notorious Marxist Slavoj Žižek says ..."

My friend was more generous to Žižek. She was intrigued by the way he talks about the function of heroism as a stabilizing force in the existing order, and the importance of addressing economic inequality as well as formal democratic equality and civil rights.

Žižek does have a good point, though he doesn't make it that clearly, that the trend over the last twenty years or so in numerous places has been for left-of-center parties to promote formal equality while allowing the "free market" to magnify economic equality. Removing discrimination against women, racial minorities, gays and lesbians is a good thing in itself. Because it's the right thing to do. And it allows a greater diversity of voices to be heard in society and the democratic process. It's great that a woman like Dilma Rousseff can be President of Brazil and that an African-American like Barack Obama President of the United States.

But obviously, having Obama as President isn't nearly enough to do away with the hold of the military-industrial complex on American policy. And his policies have largely been in the neoliberal mold: trade agreements that expand the power of corporations over government policies, blocking health and safety regulations, minimizing the reach of reforms on the financial industry, promoting austerity economics, using the NSA to spy on foreign corporations (in the name of National Security, of course). Even his famous health insurance program, which should actually do a lot of good, is based on guaranteeing access to private health insurance.

Angela Merkel is the first female Chancellor of Germany, and she just selected the country's first female Defense Minister. But her economic policies are condemning Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain to economic depression for the indefinite future. And will probably destroy the euro and maybe the EU itself in the process.

Beatriz Talegón, who is currently the head of the Socialist International's youth organization, has a book out this year, No nos avergoncéis that has some very good criticisms on how disastrous the European center-left's adoption of neoliberal economics has been. With special reference to Spain's social-democratic party the PSOE and former PSOE Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, whose government had an impressive record on women's rights, same-sex marriage, secularization and the Iraq War, yet more-or-less meekly accepted Merkel's destructive austerity policies.

But inequality when it becomes severe enough will overwhelm democracy and formal equality. In the US, several of our leading Keynesian economists have been sounding the alarm about the severe economic inequality and its destructive effects. Paul Krugman has a recent column on that: Why Inequality Matters New York Times 12/15/2013.

I think buried in Žižek's sophisticated word games is a point something like that. He just makes it difficult to find! And part of his approach is to make consciously utopian criticisms of the existing order. But I sometimes wonder if he doesn't wind up making meaningful democratic and social change sound like impossible tasks.

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