Žižek dreaming, or Žižek, the dialectical trickster

“…one should learn the art of recognizing, from an engaged subjective position, elements which are here, in our space, but whose time is the emancipated future …”

Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

Reflecting on the year 2011, a year that Žižek describes as involving the “revival of radical emancipatory politics all around theworld”, the year following, 2012, brings evidence of “how fragile and inconsistent that awakening was, as the signs of exhaustion begin to show.” (127)  His diagnosis, at least of Occupy Wall Street, of what he calls the indignados of spain and the protests in Syntagma square of Athens is simple and unambiguous: they “express an authentic rage that remains unable to transform itself into even a minimal positive program for socio-political change.  They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.” (78)  Euphoric, ecstatic, carnivalesque: such words and others like them capture the passion that is experienced by many involved in the movements.  “But carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has or is to be changed.” (77)  For Žižek, this “requires difficult and patient work” (77), something that can only be carried out by “a strong body able to reach quick decisions and realize them with whatever force maybe necessary”; something that Lenin was acutely aware of. (82) It is evident, for Žižek, that not only did such a body fail to materialise, the movements ideologically also completely failed to define themselves in any adequate manner.

His reading of the Democracia Real Ya manifesto of 15M is peremptory.  The apolitical self-identification of its authors, its modest demands (e.g. the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development, and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life) and its call for a non-violent, “ethical revolution” could even be embraced by an “honest fascist”. (79)  The situation in greece, apparently more promising, could however in the end only give rise to a call for “a civil society movement whose aim would be to exert pressure on the existing political parties”, something entirely “inadequate to the task of reorganising the entirety of social life.” (82)

Žižek however is nothing if not sensitive to the tortured paths of radical politics.  The dialectic is always close at hand.  These movements were undeniably a beginning, the beginning of a formal gesture of rejection of capitalism; a gesture essential to any contestation of the structures of domination and exploitation.  The “taboo has been broken, we do not live in the best of all possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about the alternatives.” (77)

Urgent though the need is for a program and an organisation, those same needs though should “be kept at a distance”.  The protests have opened up a space, a space that requires time to be filled in positively. (82)  The repeated refrain of “What do you want?” is a trap that forces a movement to articulate the protest according to hegemonic criteria of political realism and efficiency.  But the “art of politics is also to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly “realistic”, disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology, that is, which, while in principle feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible”. (84)

If capitalism is the problem, any opposition to it must go beyond anaemic calls for greater or true democracy, which would allow for a more enlightened regulation of the economy.  The two domains however are not distinct, and what must be questioned, along with the capitalist economy, is the very “democratic institutional framework of the (bourgeois) state of law itself.” (86)  We suffer from a “democratic illusion”, “the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change”, something which thereby “blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.” (87)  The call then for a real democracy now can only therefore be at best empty, or at worse reactionary, if it is not accompanied by a radical critique of democracy itself, by a reinvention of democracy.

“Is there a name for this reinvented democracy beyond the multi-part representational system?  There is indeed: the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (88)

The dialectic is a wild creature, susceptible not only to rapid changes in direction and speed, but also capable of unpredictable metamorphoses.  Only the most adept can ride it with lucidity.  And Žižek is more skilled than most.  But why then the blindness to the implications of his own question: “who knows what to do today?”  More profoundly still, Žižek’s analyses of events of protest as eruptions of a future in our present that break the continuum between past and present (what Deleuze called an event, something that cannot be historicised because it is a fracturing of history) points to other possibilities.  It renders any programmatic presumption and projection into the future highly problematic.  This is not to reduce everything to a decision.  But it is to situate radical anti-capitalist politics in a permanent, precarious balance; politics as dancing.

But what then is one to make of Žižek’s dictatorship of the proletariat?  Does it not collapse either into an expression of the forces of history or into nihilistic decision?  If, as Žižek states, the times of “revealed Communism” are over, that “we can no longer pretend (or act as if) the Communist truth is simply here for everyone to see, accessible to neutral rational historical analysis” (131), what possible institutional form could the dictatorship assume that would not recreate all of the violence of sovereignty, Soviet or otherwise?  If democracy is to be reinvented, as Žižek contends, then the precarious, moving balance of the dialectic of politics needs to be located in other future presents.

It is surprising to read Žižek write that “the situation in Greece looks more promising than it does in Spain, probably due to the recent tradition of progressive self-organization (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime).  Such a tradition did not die in spain, as the autonomous workers’ movements of the country of the 1960s and 70s testify to.  Nationalist leftist organizations were active as well throughout this period, along with forms of local neighbourhood mutual aid.  All of these movements/organisations would shape post-Franco left-wing politics, for better or worse; including even the current 15M.  Indeed, one can legitimately argue that the success of 15M has been entirely due to the weaknesses of the authoritarian left in spain and the equally long tradition of anarchist and local forms of anti-capitalism.

15M is not a homogeneous political movement.  Nor does it exhaust or represent all of the expressions of protest that mark spain’s present.   To then reduce it to a selectively quoted manifesto of one organization, ignoring its internal tensions and the movement’s history, verges on the incredible.

Even limiting oneself to the document that Žižek confines himself to, but quoted differently, calls for a more sensitive reading of what was at stake (See manifesto).  What to make of: “The priorities of any advanced society must be equality, progress, solidarity, freedom of culture, sustainability and development, welfare and people’s happiness”; “Democracy belongs to the people (demos = people, krátos = government) which means that government is made of every one of us”; “Lust for power and its accumulation in only a few; create inequality, tension and injustice, which leads to violence, which we reject. The obsolete and unnatural economic model fuels the social machinery in a growing spiral that consumes itself by enriching a few and sends into poverty the rest”; “The will and purpose of the current system is the accumulation of money, not regarding efficiency and the welfare of society. Wasting resources, destroying the planet, creating unemployment and unhappy consumers”; “Citizens are the gears of a machine designed to enrich a minority which does not regard our needs. We are anonymous, but without us none of this would exist, because we move the world”?   Can this language be politically criticised?  Yes, of course.  But to then state that it could also give animus to a fascist is to fall to the level of caricature and more importantly to ignore the brief but rich history of the movement since its appearance, as well as its ongoing sensitivity to movements and organisations with longer histories and more clearly defined traditions of political activism.

What has emerged in the wake of 15M, in spain, along with the parallel proliferation of protests, is an extraordinarily creative and wide spread effort to generate spaces of autonomy embracing ever larger domains of human life of ever more numerous communities.  It is one of the most sustained and promising efforts at radically reinventing democracy in recent memory.  This is not to be blindly apologetic.  It is rather to see in 15M the struggle to read and act upon the signs of a communist future.


(All references are to Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, London: Verso, 2012.)

This entry was posted in Commentary, Review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.