Friday, December 18, 2009

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Zizek

In the good old days of Really Existing Socialism, a joke popular among dissidents was used to illustrate the futility of their protests. In the fifteenth century, when Russia was occupied by Mongols, a peasant and his wife were walking along a dusty country road; a Mongol warrior on a horse stopped at their side and told the peasant he would now proceed to rape his wife; he then added: "But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you must hold my testicles while I rape your wife, so that they will not get dirty!" Once the Mongol had done the deed and ridden away, the peasant started laughing and jumping with joy. His surprised wife asked: "how can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?" The farmer answered: "But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!" This sad joke reveals the predicament of the dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to the party nomenklatura, but all they were doing was slightly soiling the nomenklatura's testicles, while the ruling elite carried on raping the people...

Is today's critical Left not in a similar position? (Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list "deconstruction", or the "protection of individual freedoms.") In a famous confrontation at the university of Salamanca in 1936, Miguel de Unamuno quipped at the Francoists: "Vencereis, pero no convencereis" ("you will win, but you will not convince")- is this all that today's Left can say to triumphant global capitalism? Is the Left predestined to continue to play the role of those who, on the contrary, convince but still lose (and are especially convincing in retroactively explaining the reasons for their own failure)? Our task is to discover how to go a step further. In our societies, critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power, whereas the real point is to castrate them...

But how can we do this? We should learn from the failures of twentieth century Leftist politics. The task is not to conduct the castration in a direct climatic confrontation, but to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices. Back in the 1960s, Lacan named the irregular short-lived periodical of his school Scilicet- the message was not the word's predominant meaning today ( "namely", "To wit", "that is to say"), but literally "it is permitted to know. (To know what?- what the Freudian school of Paris thinks about the unconscious...) Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to act again in full fidelity to the communist Idea. Liberal permissiveness is of the order of videlicet- it is permitted to see, but the very fascination with obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see...

Even in the case of "clearly" fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to trust the bourgeois media. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamic group who enforce their rule with the use of terror. However, when in the spring of 2009 they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, the New York Times reported that they had engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless peasants:

In Swat, accounts from those who fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power. To do so, the militants organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops...The Taliban's ability to exploit class divisions adds a new dimension to the insurgency and is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal.

Mahboob Mahmood, a Pakistani-American lawyer and former classmate of President Obama's, said, "The people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for revolution." Sunni militancy is taking advantage of deep class divisions that have long festered in Pakistan. "The militants, for their part, are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling", he said. "They are also promising Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution."

Thomas Altizer spelled out the implications and consequences of this new (to our Western ears) data:

Now it is finally being revealed that the Taliban is a genuine liberating force assaulting an ancient feudal rule in Pakistan and freeing the vast peasant majority from that rule...Hopefully we will now hear genuine criticism of the Obama administration which is far more dangerous than the Bush administration both because it is being given such a free hand and because it is a far stronger administration.

The ideological bias in the New York Times article is discernible in how it speaks of the Taliban's "ability to exploit class divisions", as if the Taliban's "true" agenda lies elsewhere- in religious fundamentalism- and they are merely "taking advantage" of the plight of the poor landless farmers. To this one should simply add two things. First, this distinction between the "true" agenda and the instrumental manipulation is an externally imposed one: as if the poor landless farmers themselves do not experience their plight in "fundamentalist religious" terms! Second, if by "taking advantage" of the farmers' plight the Taliban are "raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan", which remains largely feudal", what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US from similarly "taking advantage" of the situation and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad truth behind the fact that this question is not raised in the New York Times report is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are themselves the "natural ally" of liberal democracy..

What phenomena such as the rise of the Taliban demonstrate is that Walter Benjamin's old thesis that "every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution" not only still holds true today, but is perhaps even more pertinent than ever. Liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right "extremisms": Hitler's terror and death camps initiated by Bolshevik terror and the Gulags; the Leninist form of the party is kept alive in al-Qaeda- yes, but what does all this mean? It can also be read as an indication of how fascism literally replaces (takes the place of) Leftist revolution: its rise is the Left's failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for so called "Islamo-Fascism"? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries?

"First As Tragedy, Then As Farce" by Slavoj Zizek; Verso, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Zizek quotes Thomas Altizer from a personal conversation. He is the notorious "God is Dead" guy from the mid-sixties, still alive and at NYU Stony Brook. For some background:

    "Apocalypticism and Modern Thinking":