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Slavoj Žižek: what is an authentic political event?

Julian Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event. But what do we mean by that, and how does it influence our actions?

In December 2013 I visited Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy located just behind the Harrods store in London. It was a rather depressing experience, in spite of the kindness of the embassy personnel. The embassy is a six-room apartment with no garden attached, so that Assange cannot even take a daily walk in fresh air. He also cannot step out of the apartment into the house's main corridor – policemen are waiting for him there. A dozen or so of them are all the time around the house and in some of the surrounding buildings, one even beneath a tiny backyard toilet window, in case Assange will try to escape through that hole in the wall. The apartment is bugged from above and below, its internet link is suspiciously slow... so how come the British state decided to employ around 50 people full time to guard Assange and control him under the legal pretence that he refuses to go to Sweden and be questioned about a minor sexual misconduct (there are no charges against him!)? One is tempted to become a Thatcherite and ask: where is austerity politics here? If a nobody like myself were to be wanted by the Swedish police for a similar interrogation, would the UK also employ 50 people to guard me? The serious question is here: where does such a ridiculously excessive desire for revenge stem from? What did Assange, his colleagues, and whistle-blowing sources do to deserve this?

Jacques Lacan proposed as the axiom of the ethics of psychoanalysis: “Do not compromise your desire.”  Is this axiom also not an accurate designation of the whistleblowers’ acts? In spite of all the risks their activity involves, they are not ready to compromise on it – on what? This brings us to the notion of event: Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event – this is what one can easily understand the violent reaction of the authorities. Assange and colleagues are often accused of being traitors, but they are something much worse (in the eyes of the authorities) – to quote Alenka Zupančič:

Even if Snowden were to sell his informations discreetly to another intelligence service, this act would still count as part of the ‘patriotic games’, and if needed he would have been liquidated as a ‘traitor’. However, in Snowden's case, we are dealing with something entirely different. We are dealing with a gesture which questions the very logic, the very status quo, which for quite some time serves as the only foundation of all ‘Western’ (non)politics. With a gesture which as it were risks everything, with no consideration of profit and without its own stakes: it takes the risk because it is based on the conclusion that what is going on is simply wrong. Snowden didn't propose any alternative. Snowden, or, rather, the logic of his gesture, like, say, before him, the gesture of Bradley Manning – is the alternative.

This breakthrough of Wikileaks is nicely encapsulated by Assange's ironic self-designation as a “spy for the people”: “spying for the people” is not a direct negation of spying (which would rather be acting as a double agent, selling our secrets to the enemy) but its self-negation, ie, it undermines the very universal principle of spying, the principle of secrecy, since its goal is to make secrets public. It thus functions in a way similar to how the Marxian “dictatorship of the proletariat” was supposed to function (but rarely ever did, of course): as an imminent self-negation of the very principle of dictatorship. To those who continue to paint the scarecrow of Communism, we should answer: what Wikileaks is doing is the practice of Communism. Wikileaks simply enacts the commons of informations.

In the struggle of ideas, the rise of bourgeois modernity was exemplified by the French Encyclopedia, a gigantic venture of presenting in a systematic way to broad public all available knowledge – the addressee of this knowledge was not the state but the public as such. It may seem that Wikipedia already is today’s encyclopedia, but something is missing from it: the knowledge which is ignored by and repressed from the public space, repressed because it concerns precisely the way state mechanisms and agencies control and regulate us all. The goal of Wikileaks should be to make this knowledge available to all of us with a simple click. Assange effectively is today’s d’Alembert, the organiser of this new encyclopedia, the true people’s encyclopedia for the twenty-first century. It is crucial that this new encyclopedia acquires an independent international base, so that the humiliating game of playing one big state against another (like Snowden having to look for protection in Russia) will be constrained to a minimum. Our axiom should be that Snowden and Pussy Riot are part of the same struggle – which struggle?

Our informational commons recently emerged as one of the key domains of the class struggle in two of its aspects, economical in the narrow sense and socio-political. On the one hand, new digital media confront us with the impasse of “intellectual property”. The World Wide Web seems to be in its nature Communist, tending towards free flow of data – CDs and DVDs are gradually disappearing, millions are simply downloading music and videos, mostly for free. This is why the business establishment is engaged in a desperate struggle to impose the form of private property on this flow. On the other hand, digital media (especially with the almost universal access to the web and cell phones) opened up new ways for the millions of ordinary people to establish a network and coordinate their collective activities, while also offering state agencies and private companies unheard-of possibilities of tracking down our public and private acts. It is into this struggle that Wikileaks intervened in such an explosive way.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T S Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what Wikileaks did: its activity is based on the insight that the only way to keep our democracy alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main institutional corpse of state apparatuses and mechanisms. In doing this, Wikileaks did something unheard of, redefining the coordinates of what counts as possible or admissible in the public space. I wrote a book on the notion of “event” precisely to create the space for the proper understanding of phenomena like Wikileaks, when a political act does not only violate the predominant rules but creates its own new rules and imposes new ethical standards. What we hitherto took as self-evident – the right of the state to monitor and control us – is now seen as deeply problematic; what we hitherto perceived as something criminal, an act of betrayal – disclosing  state secrets – now appears as a heroic ethical act.    

From this brief description, we can already see how an event is located within a narrative field. Our historical experience is formed as a narrative, ie, we always locate real occurrences within a narrative which makes them part of a meaningful storyline. Problems arise when an unexpected shattering turn of events – an outbreak of war, a deep economic crisis – can no longer be included into a consistent narrative. At that point, it all depends on how this catastrophic turn will be symbolised, on what ideological interpretation or story will impose itself and determine the general perception of the crisis. When the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for ideological competition – for example, in Germany in the late 1920s, Hitler won in the competition for the narrative which will explain to Germans the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar republic and the way out of it (his plot was the Jewish plot); in France in 1940 it was Marshal Petain’s narrative which won in explaining the reasons for the French defeat. And the same goes for the ongoing financial and economic crisis: which narrative will prevail? Will it be the neoliberal one, blaming the strong state, the conservative one, bemoaning the loss of traditional values, or the radical Leftist one, advocating radical emancipatory politics? The event is the successful imposition of a new narrative which makes a historical situation readable again to those caught in it.

The important lesson of this example of Fascism is that there are also what one could call negative events. Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, democratic rights, the duty of a society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all its members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply inacceptable and ridiculous – there is no need even to argue against, say, racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously, etc. But then, step by step, these achievements are undone, one can openly propagate racism, advocate torture, etc. Did Hitler not do something like this? Was his message to the German people not “Yes, we can…” – kill the Jews, squash democracy, act in a racist way, attack other nations? And are we not witnessing signs of a similar process today? In the middle of 2013, two public protests were announced in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with high unemployment rate and a deep sense of despair among the population: trade unions tried to organise a rally in support of workers’ rights, while right wing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with Serb minority. The first initiative brought to a big square in Zagreb a couple of hundred people, the second one succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands, the same as with a fundamentalist movement against gay marriages. Croatia is far from being an exception in this regard: from Balkan to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India, a new Dark Age is coming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding, and the Enlightenment values receding. These passions were lurking in dark all the time, but what is new now is the outright shamelessness of their display.

This ongoing process of undermining the very fundamentals of our emancipatory achievements takes place at different levels. The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as an obvious nonsense: why, if not by causing pain and fear of death, does boarding make hardened terror suspects talk? As to the replacement of the word “torture” by “enhanced interrogation technique,” one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the Politically Correct logic: in exactly the same way that “disabled” becomes “physically challenged,” “torture” becomes “enhanced interrogation technique” (and, why not, “rape” could become “enhanced seduction technique”). One should insist on this parallel between torture and rape: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here: I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it – and the same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argumentation. So what about the “realist” argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least talking publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalise it, ie, to lower our ethical standards.

And it is crucial to see this ethical regression as the obverse of the explosive development of global capitalism – they are the two sides of the same coin. So where do we stand today? Maybe, we don’t even stand but just lean forward in a very specific way. Close to the children’s museum in Seoul, there is a weird statue which, to the non-initiated, cannot but appear as staging a scene of extreme obscenity: it looks as if a group of young boys leaning forward behind each other are sticking their heads into the rectum of the boy in front, while the first boy is standing in front of the queue and has the head of the first boy who is leaning pushed into his crotch. When we inquire, we are informed that the statue is simply the staging of malttukbakgi, a fun game that both Korean girls and boys play till high school. There are two teams; team A has one person stand up against the wall and the rest of the team have all their heads up in someone else’s butt/crotch area to form what looks like a large horse. Team B then jumps up onto the human horse one by one, each jumping with as much force as possible; if anyone from any team falls to the floor, that team loses.

Is this statue not a perfect metaphor for us, common people, for our predicament in today’s global capitalism? Our view is constrained to what we can see with our head stuck into the ass of a guy just in front of us, and our idea of who is our Master is the guy in front whose penis and/or balls the first guy in the row appears to be licking – but the real Master, invisible to us, is the one freely jumping on our back, the autonomous movement of the Capital.

How, then, are we to proceed in such a messy situation? There is a wonderful common Scottish verb tartle which designates the awkward moment when a speaker temporarily forgets someone's name (usually the name of his/her partner in a conversation) and the verb is used to avoid that occasional embarrassment, as in: “Sorry, I tartled there for a moment!” Were we all not tartling in the last decades, forgetting the name “Communism” to designate the ultimate horizon of our emancipatory struggles? The time has come to fully remember this word – its full public rehabilitation would have been in itself an authentic political event.

Event by Slavoj Žižek, the second in Penguin’s Philosophy in Transit series by leading philosophers, is out now in paperback, priced £8.99

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge