Slavoj Žižek: A modest rejoinder

“Although I am far from a well-meaning liberal, I simply cannot recognise myself in the lunatic-destructive figure described by Cohen.”

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Josh Cohen’s review of my last two books misrepresents my position so thoroughly that I think a short clarification is required. I prefer to disregard his resumé of my reading of Hegel which begins with a total nonsense: “Where, in the standard reading of Hegel, one element comes into conflict with another external to it, in Žižek’s reading, conflict is internal or ‘immanent’ to the first element.” It is precisely in the standard reading of Hegel that conflict is internal to the first element, while in my reading, the “first element” is a retroactive illusion, it “becomes first” in the course of the dialectical process. There is no place here to dwell on the central topic of my reading of Hegel which is absent from Cohen’s resumé (how to move beyond transcendental approach without falling back into pre-critical realism), or on how Cohen totally misses the point of my deployment of the antagonism internal to the void itself. More interesting for most of the readers is Cohen’s total misrepresentation of my political stance. He attributes to me a grim vision in which today’s late capitalism appears as the worst of all possible worlds, worse than Nazism or Stalinism:

The grim prospect of ’non-eventful survival in a hedonist-utilitarian universe’ licenses Žižek to prefer even the most catastrophic political experiment to our current set-up. As he writes: ‘Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.’”

In view of later developments, Cohen would undoubtedly attribute to me the claim: “Better the worst of Isis than the best of liberal democracy…” Yes, I did write the statement he quotes a couple of times, but I always strongly qualified it, like here: “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy. Of course, the moment one compares the positive content of the two, the Welfare State capitalist democracy is incomparably better.” So the least one can say is that, since I admit that a liberal-capitalist state is “incomparably better” to live in than Stalinism, I must mean something quite different from the simple claim that Stalinism is better than a liberal welfare state. (Incidentally, it should be obvious that I allude here to the well-known Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy as the worst of all political systems, with the proviso that compared to it, all others are worse…) Another example: yes, I wrote: “The change will be most radical if we do nothing.” But here is the context:

We are now approaching a certain zero-point – ecologically, economically, socially… -, things will change, the change will be most radical if we do nothing, but there is no eschatological turn ahead pointing towards the act of global Salvation.”

What is clear from this passage is that if we do nothing, we will slowly slide towards the ecological-economic-social catastrophe – it’s a call to us to do something. Do what? Here my stance is simply open: there are situations where it is better to do nothing (since our engagement just strengthens the system) – sometimes I refer to this as the Bartleby-politics; there are situations where we have to engage in a strong global act (like the struggle to defeat Fascism); and there are situations where one should engage in modest local struggles. The last point is especially important since it belies Cohen’s claim that, in Trouble in Paradise, “Žižek insists that liberal capitalism is the worst of all possible worlds because it closes up all the gaps through which its inconsistencies could be made visible.” Really? Here is a passage from Trouble in Paradise:

The alternative of pragmatic dealing with particular problems and waiting for a radical transformation is a false one, it ignores the fact that global capitalism is necessarily inconsistent: market freedom goes hand in hand with the US support of its own farmers, preaching democracy goes hand in hand with supporting Saudi Arabia. This inconsistency, this need to break one’s own rules, opens up a space for political interventions: since inconsistency is necessary, since the global capitalist system has to violate its own rules (free market competition, democracy), to insist on consistency, i.e., on the principles of the system itself, at a strategically selected points at which the system cannot afford to follow its principles, leads to changing the entire system. In other words, the art of politics resides in insisting on a particular demand which, while thoroughly ‘realist’, disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology and implies a much more radical change, i.e., which, while definitely feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible. Obama’s project of universal healthcare was such a case: although it was a modest realist proposal, it obviously disturbed the core of American ideology. In today’s Turkey, a simple demand for actual multicultural tolerance (which goes by itself in most of Western Europe) has an explosive potential. In Greece, the simple call for a more efficient and non-corrupted state apparatus, if meant seriously, implies a total overhaul of the state. This is why there is no analytic value in blaming directly neoliberalism for our particular woes: today’s world order is a concrete totality within which specific situations ask for specific acts. A measure (say, a defense of human rights) which is in general a liberal platitude, can lead to explosive developments in a specific context.”

This is the reason why I now fully support the struggle of the Syriza government in Greece. If one looks closely at their proposals, one cannot help noticing that what they advocate are measures which, 40 years ago, were part of the standard moderate Social-Democratic agenda – it is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a radical Left to advocate these same measures.

There is much more to say, but I hope these brief remarks make it clear why, although I am far from a well-meaning liberal, I simply cannot recognise myself in the lunatic-destructive figure described by Cohen.