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
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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.