Monday, April 28, 2008

Ignorance Is Strength Dept.

Oddly enough, when I read Slavoj Žižek's critique of my book Infinitely Demanding ["Resistance Is Surrender," Readings, February], a copy of Lenin's State and Revolution was sitting on my desk at home. One of the striking features of Lenin's text is that for all the venom he spews at liberals, social democrats, and the bourgeoisie, it is nothing compared to what he reserves for his true enemy, the anarchists.

As Carl Schmitt reminds us—and we should not forget that this fascist jurist was a great admirer of Lenin's—there are two main traditions of the non-parliamentary, non-liberal left: authoritarianism and anarchism. If Žižek attacks me with characteristically Leninist violence for belonging to the latter, it is equally clear which faction he supports. Žižek begins his essay by listing various alternatives on the left for dealing with the behemoth of global capitalism. This list initially seems plausible—indeed some of it appears to have been lifted unacknowledged from the conclusion to my book—until one realizes what it is that Žižek is defending; namely, the dictatorship of a military state.

In State and Revolution, Lenin cleverly defends the state against anarchist critiques in favor of its replacement with a form of federalism. He appears to agree with anarchists in saying that we should destroy the bourgeois state, then subsequently asserts that a centralized workers' state should be implemented in its stead. The first notion is faithful to Marx and Engels's idea of the communist withering of the state, but Lenin diverges from their line of thinking when he argues that this can only be achieved through, a transitional state (somewhat laughably called "fuller democracy" by Lenin in one passage and "truly complete democracy" in another). Lenin sees an authoritarian interlude as necessary in order to realize the possibilities of communism, but as history has shown, this "interlude" was a rather long and bloody one.

For authoritarians such as Lenin and Žižek, the dichotomy in politics is state power or no power, but I refuse to concede that these are the only options. Genuine politics is about the movement between these poles, and it takes place through the creation of what I call "interstitial distance" within the state. These interstices are neither given nor existent but created through political articulation. That is, politics is itself the invention of interstitial distance. I discuss various examples of this phenomenon, such as civil-society groups and indigenous-rights movements in Mexico and Australia, in Infinitely Demanding. I would now also mention Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is directly answerable to certain social movements in his country. I am even sympathetic to the alternative-globalization and antiwar movements so despised by Žižek for their alleged complicity with established power, because, despite their flaws, they remain crucial to the creative articulation of a new language of civil disobedience. In the coming decades, as we experience massive and unstoppable population transfers from the impoverished south to the rich north, we will require this language to address the question of immigrant-rights reform in North America and Europe.

For Žižek, all of this is irrelevant; these forms of resistance are simply surrender. He betrays a nostalgia, which is macho and finally manneristic, for dictatorship, political violence, and ruthlessness. Once again, he is true to Lenin here, as when the latter calls for the bourgeoisie to be "definitively crushed" by the violent armed forces of the proletariat. Listen to Žižek's extraordinary defense of Chávez's methods, which must be "fully endorsed":

Far from resisting state power, [Chávez] grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarizing the barrios and organizing the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital's "resistance" to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidized supermarkets), he has moved to consolidate the twenty-four parties that support him into a single party.

Here we observe the basic obsessive fantasy of Žižek's position: do nothing, sit still, prefer not to, like Melville's Bartleby, and silently dream of a ruthless violence, a consolidation of state power into one man's hands, an act of brutal physical force of which you are the object or the subject or both at once. Perhaps I should remind Žižek, who considers himself a Lacanian, of what Lacan said to the Leninist students who heckled him at Vincennes in December 1969: "What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one."

There is a serious debate to be had with Žižek about the question of violence, the necessity of the state, and the evolution of radical politics, given the seeming permanence of capitalism. Perhaps when Žižek gets beyond windy rhetorical posturing and his misapprehension of my position as "post-modern leftism" (I defy anyone to find a word in favor of postmodernism in anything I have written), we can begin to have that debate. I am not holding my breath.

Simon Critchley
The New School for Social Research
New York City

Letter to the editor, Harper's magazine, May issue.


Mark S said...

This part struck me as relevant to his position against yours:

We can see now why Lacan's motto il n'y a pas de grand Autre /there is no big Other/" brings us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely this "perspective of the Last Judgment," the idea that somewhere - even if as a thoroughly virtual point of reference, even if we concede that we cannot ever occupy its place and pass the actual judgment - there must be a standard which allows us to take measure of our acts and pronounce their "true meaning," their true ethical status. Even Jacques Derrida's notion of "deconstruction as justice" seems to rely on a utopian hope which sustains the specter of "infinite justice," forever postponed, always to come, but nonetheless here as the ultimate horizon of our activity.

The harshness of the Lacanian ethics is that it demands us to thoroughly relinquish this reference - and its further wager is that, not only does this abdication not deliver us to an ethical insecurity or relativism, or even sap the very fundaments of ethical activity, but that renouncing the guarantee of some big Other is the very condition of a truly autonomous ethics.

Also, regarding the issue of violence and state power, I think Zizek's view is summarized well
when discussing Maoist terror ("Is, however, such a 'terrible accomplishment' not the elementary gesture of every true revolutionary?")

John said...

Hi Mark--

I'm afraid this is just a copy of Critchley's letter to Harper's magazine in response to Zizek's review of Critchley's book. I don't think Mr. Critchley ever passes by our modest piece of virtual real estate.

If he does, perhaps he'll offer a response.