As the days unfolded, in between running around doing stuff, mostly flap, this enumeration (just typing) also, on the ‘riots/rebellion/uprising/tv:
Shopping Žižek – a commentary on a commentary (an addendum to ✪ 11 more notes 12&3 on #LondonRiots etc)
So now, in the cold light of reflective day, (the naked flesh on the end of every fork)… at least I can gather this together as one page – dunno how it hangs – it has to be edited…:
August 8, 2011
1. Punitive and class biased courts and police which condemn and kill the public while bonus-fat-cat bankers, expense-account scheming piggy-pollies and eavesdropping shop-your-mother-for-a-story journalists get away with it.
2. Massive jumpity-jump in hyper-profits and wealth of the super-rich while we get cuts to services, community support and local facilities, which means DIY street entertainment as last resort.
3. Economic factors paramount, racism the default position to defend white supremacist social structure of privilege. BBC report at 10.
4. Police looking at major cuts after years of corrupt payola-granola, selling the drugs they confiscate, taking bribes and kickbacks, farming out actual work to subcontracted half-beats and leaning on the completely bogus yellow union Police Federation to present them as human. Fail.
5. Have you noticed that at every demo the MET has offered up a sacrificial vehicle left as bait in the path of the march – stupidity or provocation?
6. Senior management responsible for horrendous blunders of course promoted. Chief Terror Dick etc., others suspended on full pay later reinstated. We need a new ‘Independent Complaints ABOUT the Police Commission,’ not a ‘POLICE complaints commission’ stacked out with coppers on secondment.
7. WE Need a juridical review, no more, the abolishment of the courts, replace with people’s tribunals, recallable delegates. Meetings to set up this Mondays.
8. End incarcerations, detention, bogus unequal persecutions, secret trials, detentions, control orders, exploding prison numbers, explode the prisons minister. Also, put bars on the windows of the banks and keep the criminal suits in there. Charge entrance fees for viewing rights, with peanuts available to throw at them to watch ‘em feed. Cuties.
9. Useless political non-opposition (are they on holiday?). Need a new type of Communist Party. Abolish the others sects/wafers – enough with faffing over whatever happened in the Krondstadt (and yes, I do know, but so what).
10. Sick of media denouncing people for shopping for trainers, its perverse not comic to focus on this without critique, and totally misses the serious point about commodity culture behind it all. Be organized people, be safe, cover up, don’t burn down homes, do walk tall.
11. ‘Everything under heaven is in chaos. The situation is promising.’ – we should try to get the quote right Z – 天下大亂，形勢大好 gives us ‘big good’, there is a difference between excellent and promising, so the future tense probably matters and promising is better.
August 10, 2011
The first 11 notes were here.
12. It is too easy to complain that the ‘rioting’ youth are merely obsessed with trainers and plasma TV. To say this misses the point, but it is more difficult for journalists to parse the process by which circulation, valorization, exchange, value extraction, surplus labour, alienation, and the fetishism that disguises social relations as relations between things operates. The ‘reporter-campaigner’ press is no longer on the job.
13. The insurrectionary youth seem to understand better than most what these goods are – theirs. They grasp the fetish character of commodities and the theft of property as time. In a radical way, the youth grasp, and break, the distinction between use value and exchange value. Fat cat neoliberals have thrived off expropriation, but now as the roosting pigeon heads homeward, with them having mortgaged the future to short-term gain, they seem perversely ignorant of causes. The sorry spectacle has them flapping about trying to fix the leaks where they see their interests and profits must be defended, as ever with a bolstered repressive apparatus, and having ransomed everyone else for their sorry survival.
14. In this context, jokes about ‘aggressive forms of late night shopping’ (ex cop on TV) are hypocritical ventriloquy of ruling class ideas, in that nearly every ‘older’ person I’ve heard talking about this first wishes the youth had a ‘cause’ (like they do!) but then wants to know where to buy one of these cheap hot plasmas, though without having to go to Tottenham for the pick up. Distorted and alienated interests are interests nonetheless – they are not the interests of Capital. Cut through this phantasmal comedy and it’s illusions of civic responsibility, morality and myths of political representation – contemporary Capital is nothing less than theft and plunder and should be hounded into the annals of history.
15. Lack of role models! The role models aren’t Kate Middleton and knowing what she wore, nor Beckham and his grooming products – the parade of privilege and property has them only as a window-dressing facade. The weapons trade, the mining industry, the micro-processing and conductor sweatshops, the off-shore processing zones, the anti-union, tax-free, labour intensive low-wage hell camps… These are the role models, also critiqued by the broken windows – the targets are tangential, but the sentiment is shared. Some are making the connections, and they are not just crusty old Marxists.
16. The youth hate the cops with good cause. Deaths in custody is a trigger, but stop and search, surly attitudes, bus dragnets, corruption, payola and more are not endearing plod to anyone. Defending prime property while letting lesser capital burn is an outrage, but expected given where we are just now in the volatile process of cyclical accumulation. The valorisation/conversion of expropriated surplus value through circulation within a stag-flationary recession that favours write-offs and fire-sales (primark, tkmaxx, budget airlines, and now many so-called ma-and-pa shops) means petit bourgeois traders suffer while big capital strives to recoup what minimal profit can be scarpered away before the fire sale season ends. The super rich survive, only slightly singed by scandals (dear Rupert), to then pounce to buy up the scorched earth as a bloody trophy upon which a new phase of accumulation is inaugurated. Class and location maps onto race and privilege to differentiate the cartography of valorised capital under this restructuring, so-called ‘crisis’ we are all in together. Some zones of manufacture and circulation entail very small margins with very large numbers – ahh, plastic goods – and if this mode of production, and a sharp end understanding of it, isn’t political, then what is?
17. The technique is refined in war. Invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and gleeful opportunism after the Arab spring (Cameron visits an arms fair) follows the model of army and camp followers. The cowboy corporations rush to provide security services, building contracts, democracy-capacity-building workshops…
18. We do not necessarily need commodity chain analysis or a critique of colonial history to understand that here and there, local and global are co-constituted in an embrace of death. Seems like only the politicians have a vested interest in saying this is not political – and they criminalise all youth, and all revolutionary zeal, with the same golden Bullingdon toilet brush (I am still reeling at Boris Johnson’s image of Britain as ‘a broken washing machine with black fluid leaking out the back’ – even disavowing this version he reveals his gutter mind).
19. The looting is not political because the youth pick up on a general discontent, it is not political because police tactics are repressive and biased and will be extended on the back of this, it is not political because parenting and family values have been lost back in some nostalgic fantasy of the good war, it is not political because the cuts to services mean there’s nothing else for the youth to do. It is political because all of the above make it an insurrection. Our very own intefadapart one.
20. It is not a blind passages a l’acte, comrade Žižek. In his book on violence, Žižek says (after the deaths of Bouna Toure and Zyed Benna on October 27, 2005 and the thousands of cars set alight): ‘the fact that there was no programme behind the burning Paris suburbs is thus itself a fact to be interpreted’ (Žižek 2008:64). That this might be described as a ‘blind acting out’ seems itself ironic and myopic, even when SZ is correct to mock the sociological ‘search for deeper meaning or messages hidden in these outbursts’ (Žižek 2008:65), especially if these searches are undertaken from the comfort of the television viewing room. Žižek himself spends two further pages explaining that the youth wanted to be recognized as French, and yet locates this events in a particular and peculiar way. I expand the parameters of the quotation already used earlier:
“The Paris riots need to be situated in a series they form with another type of violence that the liberal majority perceives as a threat to our way of life: direct terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. In both instances, violence and counter-violence are caught up in a deadly vicious cycle, each generating the very forces it tries to combat. In both cases we are dealing with blind passages a l’acte, where violence is an implicit admission of impotence. The difference is that, in contrast to the Paris outbursts which were a zero-level protest, a violent outburst which wanted nothing, terrorist attacks are carried out on behalf of that absolute meaning provided by religion” (Žižek 2008:69).
We cannot be sure Žižek has understood Paris here, nor should we be detained by his assertion that religion is the absolute designation of terrorism, but the ascription of ‘nothing’ as the meaning of the Paris riots certainly suggests some problems with commentary.
21 Media reportage as the official line, paving the way for more cops, more repression, less commentary, less critique – we have long known the idea of the independent campaigning journalist reporter has been swallowed up by embedded, churnalistic, press release and sub-tabloid eaves-dropper automatons. Recycled heavy rotation police reports and edits (let me see more of Mayor Johnson being hounded out of Clapham by rightly angry shopkeepers). That this 24 hr news cycle stresses recycle of items is just yet another cut in the stagflationary moment.
22. The ‘Lumpen R Us’. Well, not quite, but it does not hurt to have an aspiration. In his early text ‘A Report from Hunan’ Mao praises the ‘Movement of the Riff Raff’ (Mao Selected Works Vol 1 p29). The ‘riff raff’ are the ‘utterly destitute’ lumpen peasantry who we find in China as:
“completely dispossessed … People who have neither land nor money, are without any means of livelihood, and are forced to leave home and become mercenaries or hired labourers or wandering beggars” (Mao Vol. I P 32)
Mao then provides a detailed report on the achievements of these peasants as revolutionaries able to transform an uprising into Red self governance. Mao’s ‘Report from Hunan’ is a great example of engaged reportage and it provides a more balanced evaluation of lumpen elements. His amusingly titled section ‘“Its Terrible” or “Its Fine”’ is equally judicious. Mao is praising the ways the peasants had banded together to dominate the landed gentry in Hunan, how their organisation established the basic conditions for a defence of the gains, and the template for the pattern of protracted guerrilla war. His unconditional approval for the ‘Movement of the Riff Raff’ is unstinting in its praise for the violent suppression of counter-revolutionaries. He does not ever want to say they ‘go too far’ when they defend the revolution (Selected Works Vol. I).
Thus – build the revolution…
11 more points soon
The first 11 notes were here.
The best 11 you should know by heart – the point is to change it.
August 17, 2011
23. Abandoning rule by law the unrepresentative Government flaunts due process and encourages excessive penalties so as to ‘send a message’ to the youth, since its school holidays for two more weeks, and because they love the repressive apparatus as a Plan B when the bourgeois civil compact of polite society fails. Then while the Police tool up – Robocop, Robotruck, Robo-Judge (the Hanging Judges) – the upstart Vice PM steps in decisively to meet with the victims, let them have their say, encourage reactionary opinion, and distract from economic ruin to which his party leads capital (thanks, good job). This Con-Dem strategy bolstered by a lily-livered compassion they do not ever mean (funds for victims would do it!) and of course no hint of actually talking to, or listening to, the youth.
24. Broadcast media scramble to manage the hegemonic context but they cannot pierce the patina of distrust. Slick suits and lies from ‘scoop’ churnos. For the next uprising, for the one underway, for the new times, the elaboration, exultation and exhilaration of mobile communications is key. Yup. Already the youth know the street is a grid of attentions, announcements, information, runes – ride the electronic grapevine, multiply eyes and ears, many flies on the wall, stop the snitching and pass the parcel. It not news to see this glossed as running wild in the Matrix, fight them till we can’t, People’s CNN, You see he feels like Ivan, how you gonna come?
25. Intellectual response. Pah! Ian McEwan must not be permitted to write a novel about this, with some daft and ponderous middle-class sub-plot. The movie version must not be directed by Soderbergh/Boyle/Linklater/Bresson. Maybe Johnny Marbles can do it. If there must be films, ‘Ghosts of the Civil Dead’ (Hillcoat 1988) and ‘La Haine’ (Kassowitz 1995) are the antecedents. But prisoner support needs more than video nights. Prejudicial trial appeals, if recourse to law and lawyers must be, but a successful defense takes co-ordination and public campaigns.
26. Our media, their media. Proliferate and diversify. ‘We’ have flow, they just eaves-drop and lie at Inquiries. A pie in the eye to that. Make our own Inquiries – the people’s forum does not need a room for a mock trial, the hypocrisy can be shown and detailed everywhere, with amplification and hard focus. This is the first war of media autonomy and the juggernaut broadcasters cannot move fast. Scatter media confounds them, signifying nothing. Rumour, misinformation, disinformation, code – movements beyond legislation and control.
27. Pick your targets, don’t burn people’s houses, creative and symbolic violence can be just as powerful. Part way through La Haine the three friends of the main story are in the centre of Paris and linger awhile on a hill top with a splendid view of the iconic Eiffel Tower, built for the Great Exposition of 1900. In the film there are knowing references to intertextuality, for example in the scene where youths of the banlieues chase away reporters from the news press and also where ‘Hubert changes a billboard ad from “the world belongs to you” to “the world belongs to us”’ The scene that presents a critical inter-cinematic reference is instructive and occurs when, as Gerald Haughton’s review pointed out, ‘one of the three tries to “switch off” the Eiffel Tower by clicking his fingers – like [Leos] Carax’s Mauvais Sang  and [Eric] Rochant’s World Without Pity  – but here it steadfastly remains alight’. Alice Chapman notes the tower is ‘the only landmark we see’ in the entire film, and when the attempt is made to turn it off, another of the youths wisecracks that ‘only works in the movies’. Of course, just seconds after they leave, the tower does power down for the night. Cinema however shows the structure is just as susceptible to attack as other towers are – it has been destroyed many times: in the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds (dir Byron Haskin); it was (accidentally) blown up at the end of The Great Race (dir. Blake Edwards 1965); and melted by Martians (again) in Mars Attacks! (dir. Tim Burton 1996), and subjected to many other calamities, equivalent, if perhaps more flamboyant, than the tragedy that befell the double set of towers in New York (equally cinematic).
28. Does it worry you that some people, scholarly commentators even, me, can describe events like Paris 2005, London 2011, or New York September 11 or London 7/7 as obliging ‘us’ to ‘rethink the terms of social theory’ (Seidler 2007:xiii). With all due respect to the lives lost on those days, it seems obscene that these particular occurrences are the ones to make ‘us’ think. All over the world, and not only in the suburbs of Paris or London, another ‘we’ is subject to a relentless violence, visited by terror, danger, pursuit and threat every day. Social theory needed a rethink long before all this.
29. In 1972 Eldrige Cleaver wrote:
“The real revolutionary element of our era is the Lumpen, understood in its broader sense. What is lacking is a Lumpen consciousness, consciousness of the basic condition of oppression being the Lumpen condition and not the proletarian condition. In order for the revolutionary movement to progress, the Lumpen must become conscious of themselves as the vast majority, and the false proletarian, working class consciousness must be negated.” (Cleaver 1972)
30. In 2005 Immanuel Wallerstein on Paris:
‘It amazes me that people are surprised when the underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism and the lack of short-term, or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away’ (in The Guardian, 3 Dec 2005)
31. In 2006, Slavoj Žižek wrote:
‘We are thus witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in dire need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although this population is composed of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them as informal wage-workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security cover … (Žižek 2006:268).
It may be possible to disagree with Cleaver, Wallerstein or Žižek on several points here, but when Žižek suggests Marx was contemptuous of the lumpenproletariat, this list of complaints reminds me of the standard enumerations of standard academic class coding – a lament that they need to be organized, by academics! Rather than academics organizing themselves (lol).
32. Let us be careful, then, to read how Marx’s 1852 description of the Lumpen as a complaint about the way certain upstarts put themselves forward as a leadership. His tone, in describing the organization, or not, of the lumpen proletariat or the peasantry is critical of those who would appoint themselves leaders and describe them in these terms. The quotes are long, but we have to open them up beyond the usual known phrases – ‘they cannot represent themselves’ – and look for how Marx examines organizing and who is organizing. In part of his rampaging analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx provides a list of those Louis Boneparte gathered together in the Society of 10 December in order to wrest control of the Empire from competing forces:
“On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither” (Marx 1852/2002:63).
This is the most famous description – which is not yet a description of the lumpen, but of those Boneparte recruited to stand in for them. Marx continues further on:
“The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homonymous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them” (Marx 1852/2002:101)
Marx’s most misunderstood statement perhaps is the one that refers, to those who will support Napoleon III. ‘They cannot represent themselves’, he writes. Of course this is the peasants, the ‘potatoes in a sack’, but this representation of representation must be read in the context of talking about the various social groupings that were the players in a drama, on a stage, where Louis Boneparte (the Nephew upstart) was to strut his stuff. Marx clinches the argument when he says:
“Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants’ belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them … But let us not misunderstand. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire. It represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice; not his future but his past” (Marx 1852/2002:10?).
33. So don’t get sucked in by boss media, there are other stories available. Don’t go calling people peasants (rabble, Racaille, thugs, criminals) when the Society of 10 December you seem to want is a ragbag of bribed and déclassé apologists, pundits and fuck-ups barely able to grasp a picture let alone the big picture. (People coming to get you soon I suspect – your career celeb days are over). Don’t go thinking you have to organize the unorganized, the revolutionaries are not unorganized, they are doing it themselves, they need to do it themselves, and need you to join with them, not parade around with a picture of Trotsky (not the worst you could do, but pointless) or to give oxygen to the clowns that would rule. TheEigtheenth Brumaire of Cameron and Clegg is being written and their strategy is in ruins. Gross and brutal repression in these days incites a hatred of capital that can only be good, step back from the vehicle now, or it burns like Paris 2005. Decommission Robocop. Decomission the commission. Decommission the Kangaroo courts. Stop. Cease. Desist.
Shopping Žižek – a commentary on a commentary (an addendum to ✪ 11 more notes 12&3 on #LondonRiots etc)
August 19, 2011
Slavoj Žižek’s commentary on the #LondonRiots indented, with my intemperate interjections interspersed in smaller italics (not indented). i – i – i – i. What I have done is copied the entire text from his LRB article (available free) and entered that here, in original order, nothing excised, so I could then add my own commentary, in italics, between the lines, So to speak. If you want to read the unadulterated version go direct to theLRB link here. Why do this sort of interruption – especially of someone from whom we learn a lot? Maybe I thought the joke title was only a little bit funny…
Shoplifters of the World Unite
Slavoj Žižek on the meaning of the riots
You are invited to read this free essay from the London Review of Books. Subscribe now to access every article from every fortnightly issue of the London Review of Books, including the entire archive of over 12,500 essays and reviews.
Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon.
So this is a familiar and yet slightly weird start. SZ has this bit about the much beloved Hegel, but he well knows the Marx routine from the Eighteenth Brumaire, which glosses the repetition of events and adds ‘but Hegel forgot to say that they happen the second time as farce’. SZ used this quip as a book title: ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ in 2009, and explained the gloss on Marx as an IQ test for those who might think a discussion of a return to communism after a century of totalitarianism was bad comedy – of course anyone who reacted like that should be forcibly dealt with, and he suggests confiscating the book from them. It turns out the book was a thoughtful commentary upon Sept 11 2011 and the 2008 financial crash… along the way providing some choice critiques of Hardt and Negri, democracy, liberals and so on, teaching us that: ‘we live in apocalyptic times … each of the three proceses of proletarianization refer to an apocalyptic end point: ecological breakdown, the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines, total digital control over our lives … at all these levels, thinGs are approaching a zero-point: “the end of times is near”‘ (p92-93)
We are told again and again that we are living through a debt crisis, and that we all have to share the burden and tighten our belts. All, that is, except the (very) rich. The idea of taxing them more is taboo: if we did, the argument runs, the rich would have no incentive to invest, fewer jobs would be created and we would all suffer. The only way to save ourselves from hard times is for the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. What should the poor do? What can they do?
Yes, nice words, nice questions. In an earlier commentary, on the French youth uprising in 2005, SZ mocked the ‘‘search for deeper meaning or messages hidden in these outbursts’ as an ‘hermeneutic temptation’ that ‘needs to be resisted’(Žižek 2008:65). Well and good. Do not offer us the meaning of the riots then – something like Mao’s advice to the Vietcong when they asked for assistance, Mao said ‘tighten your belts’. Ho Chi Minh replied ‘please send us belts’. Some advice misses the mark, but of course we are on the way to Paris…
Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.
This rabble comment – intentional cheap provocation – is pretty unwelcome alongside the reference to Paris, which is surely there to remind us that after the death of Bouna Toure and Zyed Benna, Sarkozy had called the rioters a rabble – or racaille. And why is it so hard to grasp the uprising in ‘Marxist terms’ – as if these were some fixed codec, always the same, never to be worked out anew in each contingency. Here we have people – well, so-called ‘rabble’ – breaking the bond between exchange value and commodity and its hard to see a Marxist angle? I find that pretty strange. Best look more closely for what is really going on. Let us how we don’t get some smuggled in parable about perception and the jedi mind-trick parallax wheelbarrow syndrome… oh no, its roll out number 346 of the barrow gag:
There is an old [old and worn – ed] story about a worker suspected of stealing [spurious accusation against the worker here] : every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves [the worker makes the wheelbarrows, the theft is by the factory owner who employs guards to ensure that the worker offers labour for free]. The guards were missing the obvious truth [truth, or ‘hermeneutic temptation at play here], just as the commentators on the riots have done [yes, we can agree perhaps that the commentators are the guards… stupid guards] . We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology[votextual shift of analytical level – I like it] : the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. [here comes the zero-degree point again] This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing.[nothing?] In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.
At one level, anything becomes enigmatic if you squint at it long enough. But I have been looking at this Zero degree point a long time and SZ has said some enigmatic things that keep on repeating. We should ask how the riots are a ‘violent action demanding nothing’? We can go back a bit to and earlier ‘event’ horizon and hear SZ say something that is now becoming very familiar. In his book ‘Welcome to the Desert of the real’, again citing Hegel, he had discussed New York on Sept 11 2011, suggesting ‘‘the ultimate aim of the attacks was not some hidden or obvious ideological agenda but – precisely in the Hegelian sense of the term – to (re)introduce the dimension of absolute negativity into our daily lives’ (Žižek 2002:142). Basically, the attackers had no message, and no list of demands: “The spectacular explosion of the WTC towers was not simply a symbolic act (in the sense of an act whose aim is to ‘deliver a message’): it was primarily an explosion of lethal jouissance, a perverse act of making oneself the instrument of the big Other’s jouissance” (Žižek 2002:141). Later, in the book ‘Violence’, SZ calls terrorist attacks and suicide bombings a ‘counter violence’ that is a ‘blind passage a l’acte’ and an ‘implicit admission of impotence’ (Žižek 2008:69). We might pass over the curiosity that Žižek chooses the infirmities of blindness and impotence to characterise the terrorist suicide bomber, as if the twin towers indicated a doubled scene of masturbation (too much and you lose your sight) and castration (impotence, symbolic castration of the towers, mummy daddy, invocation of old psychoanalytic staples). But the task of a critical commentary is not just to stop and stare at the primal scene of nothing.
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
No organization? And ‘the rioters have no programme’? ‘Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself”. This blind acting out, deployed to the WTC in New York or to London, and similar to SZ’s view of the slums, where people are ’in dire need of minimal forms of self-organization’ Parallax View (Žižek 2006:268), is deeply problematic – why would we not diagnose this as a distortion of a kind of vanguardism, as an ego-driven projection on the part of the commentator who wants to critique the commentators, in a sub negative dialectic?
Alain Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence. Perhaps this is one of the main dangers of capitalism: although by virtue of being global it encompasses the whole world, it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East: there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper. The global dimension of capitalism represents truth without meaning.
Badiou? He too thinks there is no message: Badiou writing of September 11, 2001, starts his essay on ‘Philosophy and the War on Terror’ by saying ‘It was an enormous murder, lengthily premeditated, and yet silent. No one claimed responsibility’ (‘Polemics’ 2006:15). The fundamental lesson is not to see any of this as programmatic, until I tell you too. The main contradiction is here – no to the mute terrorists, rabble, rioters, commentators, yes to wordless world ‘events’ as interpreted by the blind jouissance of those who would still, despite all this, draw fundamental ‘lessons’ from globalization. Indeed, lessons, but not truth without meaning – rather, an analysis of contemporary capital that cuts.
The first conclusion to be drawn from the riots, therefore, is that both conservative and liberal reactions to the unrest are inadequate. [Yes, agreed]. The conservative reaction was predictable: there is no justification for such vandalism; one should use all necessary means to restore order; to prevent further explosions of this kind we need not more tolerance and social help but more discipline, hard work and a sense of responsibility. What’s wrong with this account is not only that it ignores the desperate social situation pushing young people towards violent outbursts but, perhaps more important, that it ignores the way these outbursts echo the hidden premises of conservative ideology itself. [yes,and with reactionary ultra-punitive ‘fightback retribution when the ideological goes wrong].When, in the 1990s, the Conservatives launched their ‘back to basics’ campaign, its obscene complement was revealed by Norman Tebbitt: ‘Man is not just a social but also a territorial animal; it must be part of our agenda to satisfy those basic instincts of tribalism and territoriality.’ This is what ‘back to basics’ [is this a cimena reference to the Christina Aguilera video?] was really about: the unleashing of the barbarian [Conan!] who lurked beneath our apparently civilised, bourgeois society, through the satisfying of the barbarian’s ‘basic instincts’ [more film refs!] . In the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse introduced the concept of ‘repressive desublimation’ to explain the ‘sexual revolution’: human drives could be desublimated, allowed free rein, and still be subject to capitalist control – viz, the porn industry [see, its was always heading to video]. On British streets during the unrest, what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped-down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology [and some sort of ‘Wild in the Streets’ scary Zombie movie]
What SZ surely means is not what ‘we’ saw, but what the press and the commentators and the conservatives saw. What we saw was a lot different. From looting and violence to laughter and excitement, from community solidarity and euphoria to reactionary not in my back yard nimbyism. Maybe SZ means ‘what we were made to see’ when he refers to the stripped-down beast here. Surely he is not saying this was the ontological status of the streets at the time. This so-called beast was laughing, chanting, organized…
Meanwhile leftist liberals, no less predictably, stuck to their mantra about social programmes and integration initiatives, the neglect of which has deprived second and third-generation immigrants of their economic and social prospects: violent outbursts are the only means they have to articulate their dissatisfaction. Instead of indulging ourselves in revenge fantasies, we should make the effort to understand the deeper causes of the outbursts. Can we even imagine what it means to be a young man in a poor, racially mixed area, a priori suspected and harassed by the police, not only unemployed but often unemployable, with no hope of a future? The implication is that the conditions these people find themselves in make it inevitable that they will take to the streets. The problem with this account, though, is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots. To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.
Who is this ‘we’ you talking about white man? David Starkey and the stench of bourgeois race supremacy lines up alongside this kind of comment – what we can imagine about them others, them beasts, them out on the streets. Time to take a walk outside SZ. Am I too ‘cynical’ [its coming] in thinking that the madness of actually hearing from the youth is possible, necessary even. A grime track listing anyone? For starters. Who ‘we’?
We live in cynical times, and it’s easy to imagine a protester who, caught looting and burning a store and pressed for his reasons, would answer in the language used by social workers and sociologists, citing diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood. He knows what he is doing, then, but is doing it nonetheless.
Imagine a protester.. you may say I am a dreamer, but I’m not the only one who thinks it might be possible to do more than offer an easy mind game that does ventriloquy for social work – the catch here is the last clause of the above paragraph – the fetishists dilemma – knowing what’s going on and doing it nevertheless.
It is meaningless to ponder which of these two reactions, conservative or liberal, is the worse: as Stalin would have put it, they are both worse, and that includes the warning given by both sides that the real danger of these outbursts resides in the predictable racist reaction of the ‘silent majority’. One of the forms this reaction took was the ‘tribal’ activity of the local (Turkish, Caribbean, Sikh) communities which quickly organised their own vigilante units to protect their property. Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine, if violent, protest against the system; or are they representatives of the working class, fighting the forces of social disintegration? Here too one should reject the demand to take sides. The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own. The cars burned and the shops looted were not in rich neighbourhoods, but in the rioters’ own. The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, at its most radical, the conflict between society and society, between those with everything, and those with nothing, to lose; between those with no stake in their community and those whose stakes are the highest.
They are ‘both worse’ is Lenin, not Stalin – ‘both are worse’ from ‘What is to Be Done’ part 1, where Lenin is talking about two competing resolutions of the Jewish Workers Union in 1901. Surely a good Leninist should not mischievously be laying traps like this – checking to see if we are paying attention, misattributing classic quotes from the Vlad to Jo. SZ had already attributed this to Stalin in ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ so I suspect its a moment of digital apocalypse cut and paste. The demand to deliver text in a rush. And I am doing it here – cut and say, paste and pay. But this is in the LRB, for which we are encouraged to subscribe.
Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’ The riots are a demonstration of the material force of ideology – so much, perhaps, for the ‘post-ideological society’. From a revolutionary point of view, the problem with the riots is not the violence as such, but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.
Perhaps the problem with the commentaries are that they are not riotous enough, not triumphant, not able to see a revolution in carnival, in a moment, in assertion, even if not the ‘true self’ of the ideology carrying (where did you get that lovely outfit) demonstration of ‘irony’ is lagging behind.
The riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. In both instances, violence and counter-violence are caught up in a vicious circle, each generating the forces it tries to combat. In both cases, we are dealing with blind passages à l’acte, in which violence is an implicit admission of impotence. The difference is that, in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris, terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning provided by religion.
This is a cut and past of the exact words from SZ’s book ’Violence’ that I discuss as note 20 in the second of 11 Notes (here). I could cut and paste to here, but then, nah. I repeat often enough as well. Its also not a crime, nor blind act, and certainly not religion.
But weren’t the Arab uprisings a collective act of resistance that avoided the false alternative of self-destructive violence and religious fundamentalism? Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists. The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor, who were largely absent from the spring protests, onto the streets. There is likely to be a new explosion, and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists?
This, though it might seem so to some, is not off message. The link to Egypt is not over cooked, the implications are important, there is something to learn. The pity might be that we do not also get a commentary on Libya, where another part of this struggle is being played out, not between Islamists and army in cahoots, but NATO imperialism and an opposition, a cruel twist on the colonial project, very useful for those keen to not, especially not, allow any links between the spirit of Tahrir Square, and Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, … Athens… Madrid… Malaysia… Do you remember how very very keen the British police were to not permit a Trafalgar Square occupation? However rife with contradictory forces these events were, they have meaning, and meanings struggled over, and changing, on the streets and in the commentariat, but also, perhaps, too early to tell.
The predominant reaction of Western public opinion to the pact between Islamists and the army will no doubt be a triumphant display of cynical wisdom: we will be told that, as the case of (non-Arab) Iran made clear, popular upheavals in Arab countries always end in militant Islamism. Mubarak will appear as having been a much lesser evil – better to stick with the devil you know than to play around with emancipation. Against such cynicism, one should remain unconditionally faithful to the radical-emancipatory core of the Egypt uprising.
Yes. Zindabad! But also the radical emancipatory core of the London uprisings. Even if this is still to come (yes, reference to Derrida intended – we are not abandoning reading theory, of course we are not – we will read it in the afternoons, between the square and the shops, in the breaks between the meetings.
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. [special pleading]. 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? [change of tone?]. 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.’ [How is this apolitical? THe ‘square’ is doomed when it become a paragde ground for the trooping of uniform ideas. The square is a debate, and struggle, a contest of interpretations. SZ has a role here]. 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 calls this? A Manifesto? There are many – were there not many different calls? What is the emancipatory core here?] Who will be the agents of this revolution?[Indeed]. 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: theindignados 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.
Yes, this gets towards the core problem of the square. The need for a vanguard party. But what sort of party? A party of the celebrity academics interested in parading the ‘idea’ of communism? Or a communist party made in the square (the square, you hippy dip, is a metaphor, gettit?]. I’ll be for the political party, though perhaps I won’t join, and I’ll not want to join the sectarian slagging match of fraction and faction, or rather, waferism – ever smaller slices of who has got the quotes on the Krondstadt (or on what Lenin said when) just so. But still, a party of the new type, I’ll support. Also of the old type. Get out your Mao. Read it in the square, fellow travellers.
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.
I’m sorry. Are there not also contradictions in Greece? Is there not also a racist, rightist, nationalist element in Syntagma Square? This ending is weird, not because of the call for a Party and the denunciation of ‘putting pressure’ on other parties – yes, yes, of course, of course – but that this scene of self-organising is more promising than Spain or Egypt or London. Why? Is it because there are no Islamists as there are in Cairo? (I am sure there are some). Is it because there are no overly inclusive manifestos as in Spain? Ha. Is it because the Greeks are not shopping as in London? bargain! No, I think there are deeper reasons as to why the commentators are concerned with their distance from meaning. I have learnt a lot from reading these laments, but I think the special pleading to be allowed to say – the ego investment in having a sponsored paywall ad say – is to be studied as well. This too is a question of the kind of organization and kind of leadership there must be in the party to come. Yes, take a ticket and wait your turn. I took mine, in italics. Thanks.