Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

Toward the beginning of his latest work, Living in the End Times, Žižek briefly reprises Michéa’s final argument in The Realm of Lesser Evil.  While Žižek recognizes the book’s inarguable merit in elucidating the indivisible unity of political and economic liberalism, he regrettably buys into Michéa’s overly simplistic conclusion about liberalism’s shifting historical self-representation.  He thus retraces the path it ostensibly took from imagining itself as “the least worst society possible” to its eventual claim to be “the best of all possible worlds.”[208]  Thankfully, Žižek’s own statements on the matter of liberal thought in history, scattered throughout his various texts and proclamations, at times reveal far greater acuity and insight than those of either Losurdo or Michéa.  Despite his frequent criticisms of liberal multiculturalism’s hyperbolic tolerance and endless, self-flagellating gestures at “political correctness,” Žižek acknowledges the revolutionary contributions of early bourgeois liberalism:

[Historically], liberalism was quite a noble project if one looks at how it emerged.  Today it is a quite fashionable criticism with feminists, anti-Eurocentric thinkers, etc., to dismiss liberalism in principle for preaching the equality of all people, but in reality privileging the white males of certain property, addressing automatic limitations.  The next usual accusation is that liberalism is ultimately founded in what the American moral-majority religious Right likes to call secular humanism: the idea is that there is no Supreme Being or mystery in the universe.  Their criticism is that this idea — that the ultimate prospect of humankind is to take over as master of his own destiny — is man’s arrogance, criticizing that it always misfires and so on…

I don’t think it is as simple as that…It is an historic fact that at the beginning, the idea of human rights and all of those liberal notions, effectively in a coded way implied the exclusion of certain people.  Nonetheless, in this tension between appearance and reality (appearance: everyone has human rights; reality: many, through an implicit set of sub-rules, are excluded), a certain tension is set in motion where you cannot simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression.  Appearance acquired a social emancipatory power of its own…[A]t the beginning, women were excluded, but then very early on, women said, “Sorry, why not also us?” Then blacks said, “Why not us?” And workers, and so on.  My point being that all of these groups that criticize liberalism emerged out of these early bourgeois liberal traditions.  It set certain rules — this tradition of universality of human rights and so on — and in this way it opened up the space.[209]

Here Žižek almost seems to perfectly embody what Losurdo calls “vulgar historicism,” in the derisory meaning sketched briefly above.  Alberto Toscano has neatly encapsulated this phrase of Losurdo’s as “the facile historicist thesis according to which liberalism simply and gradually grew in extension ([first] to the propertied middle classes, then to the lower classes, then to women, then to people of color…) while retaining an intact original inspiration.”[210]  But Žižek is correct to point out that the universalizing overtones in language of bourgeois right, whatever the scope of its intended sphere of application, became the grounds on which certain demands liberty and equality could subsequently be placed.  Whatever excuses the radical bourgeois philosophers may have made for limiting the freedom and equality they proclaimed, even Losurdo must agree that “[t]he theorists and agents of the liberal revolutions…were moved by a powerful, convinced pathos of liberty.”[211]  Žižek’s crucial insight is that the postcolonial and postmodern critiques of liberalism, under which Losurdo’s own “counter-history” can also be subsumed, are all leveled from the standpoint of liberalism itself — and a tepid, eviscerated liberalism at that.  They are thus never able to transcend the built-in contradictions that liberal notions of freedom and equality (what Žižek, employing Rancière’s neologism, terms égaliberté) encounter in bourgeois society.  “The ‘radical’ postcolonial critique of liberalism,” Žižek writes, “thus remains at the standard Marxist level of denouncing false universality, of showing how a position that presents itself as neutral-universal effectively privileges a certain (heterosexual, male, Christian) culture.  More precisely, such a stance is contained within the standard postmodern, anti-essentialist position.”[212]

Against this superficial stance, Žižek correctly locates the unfreedom and inequality of bourgeois society in the alienated subjectivity represented by the commodity-form, in its peculiar position as estranged agency, equivalence, and universality (liberté, égalité,and fraternité, respectively).  Losurdo, though neither a postmodernist nor a postcolonial theorist, repeats their same basic error in overlooking “the emergence of the very form of universality.”  Žižek is thus right to ask: “How and in what specific historical conditions does abstract universality itself become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights?” By interpreting this universality as purely the outcome of white European chauvinism, one sacrifices the historically specific character of modern bourgeois subjectivity.  The importance of this point is nearly impossible to overestimate; indeed, the entire Marxist critique of capitalist society pivots around it.  Or, as Žižek aptly puts it, “[t]his is the point of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism: in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals themselves, in their daily lives, relate to themselves, as well as to the objects they encounter, as to…embodiments of abstract-universal notions.”[213]  Liberal-bourgeois human right, with its lofty pretensions to universality, could thus be extended more or less unproblematically to the rest of society after it first appeared.  Such extensions did not come without a fight, to be sure.  The “struggles for recognition” Losurdo describes were often hotly contested, but the antagonisms associated with such struggles did not prove to be insoluble.  Of course, these forms of discrimination — i.e., structural racism, sexism, and heteronormativity — have hardly disappeared.  The point is that liberalism is more than capable of accommodating difference.  Far from merely “tolerating” diversity, neoliberal capitalism positively thrives on it.  Various marginalized identities appear as only so many niche markets and target audiences.  “[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism,” reminds Moishe Postone.  “[B]ut [it] can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”[214]

Truth be told, liberal society has for some time now managed to outlive the moment it first passed into fundamental self-contradiction.  In the interim, it has incorporated quite a few groups that had formerly been denied rights under liberalism’s “exclusion clauses.”  At what point, then, did this contradiction reveal itself? “For Marx,” Žižek continues in another text, “the sobering ‘day after’ which follows the revolutionary intoxication marks the original limitation of the ‘bourgeois’ revolutionary project, the falsity of its promise of universal freedom: the ‘truth’ is that universal human rights are the rights of commerce and private property.”[215]  One point that remains underdeveloped in Žižek’s account, however, is the duration that was required to arrive at this “day after.”  For this feeling of disillusionment was not revealed all at once.  The liberal faith in bourgeois freedom did not die out in the aftermath of the Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, Waterloo, or even the Restoration.  The light from what Hegel referred to as “[the] sunburst which, in one flash, illuminate[d] the features of the new world” lingered for some time over the skies of Europe, until the black plumes funneling from the smokestacks of industrial society plunged it back into night.[216] And yet, even within the darkness of this night, a still more glorious dawn seemed destined to emerge.  The decisive moment at which this latent contradiction within civil society first manifested itself can be pinpointed with a degree of accuracy uncommon in the interpretation of historical periods — down to the specific date and place.  Such a date was June 22nd, 1848; and while similar conflicts would break out across Europe around this time, the place was the streets of Paris.

This can be bracketed for the time being, however.  One final essay by Žižek on the topic of liberalism should be mentioned before moving on.  His pointed declaration that “Only Communism can Save Liberal Democracy,” published some months back, serves as a sobering reflection on the post-1989 fate of both liberal and leftist politics, as well as the new challenge of right-wing fundamentalism.  Žižek thus underscores two primary forms of barbarism that have (re)emerged in the absence of a viable Left since this time: 1.) various fundamentalist ideologies sprouting up in some of the most exploited sections of the global economic system, and 2.) the recrudescence of regimes of austerity in the more developed countries of the West, as their welfare states swiftly unravel.  To combat this twofold crisis of liberalism, he maintains, an alliance is needed: “In order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left.”[217]  Here, the way Žižek phrases it is rather naïve, but his basic point is correct.

Beginning with the former of these two, he argues that religious fundamentalism is a necessary byproduct of the unchallenged hegemony of political and economic liberalism.  Fundamentalism, as Žižek sees it, is the mirror image of liberalism.  “Fundamentalism is a reaction — a false, mystifying reaction, of course — against a real flaw of liberalism,” he writes, “and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism.  Left to [its own devices], liberalism will slowly undermine itself — the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left.”[218]  Though it may be implied by the tenor of his statement, Žižek forgets to mention that the threat to liberalism posed by fundamentalism — a threat arising from the Right — appears only after meaningful opposition from the Left has disappeared.  On this point, Alberto Toscano has written a nice line vis-à-vis Islamic fundamentalism, noting: “The emergence of Islamism as a political subject does not necessarily represent an express reaction to emancipatory politics, but may rather constitute a capitalization on its absence, on the temporary incapacity of progressives to actually produce a present.”[219]  Another, related consequence should also be apparent from all this. This is that, despite liberalism’s persistence, one cannot speak of an emancipatory politics today — first of all because the Left is dead andsecond of all because liberalism has long since ceased to be revolutionary.  Even Losurdo, who tends to sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists in their various struggles against American imperialism,[220] is concerned by the fact that the most sustained militant movement against liberalism has arisen out of such a reactionary source.  The reason for his concern here owes to his belief that the stimulus for liberal reforms has nearly always come from forces operating outside the ambit of liberalism,[221] and his fear that the latter tends to move in the political direction of these oppositional movements when making concessions.  Losurdo’s evidence for this claim is fairly solid: the emancipation of the slaves in the South was a concession to abolitionist currents, while the welfare state was a concession to socialist currents.  Now that the leading force in the global struggle against liberalism is fundamentalism, however, the thought that the former might edge toward the latter is a frightening prospect indeed.

Religious fundamentalism, as an external challenge along the periphery of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, shaped the political landscape of the early 2000s.  The dismantling of the welfare state, as an internal crisis in the core of the most “advanced” bastions of liberalism, has shaped the political landscape since 2008.  Each can be seen as a legacy of the 1970s: radical Islam having come out of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and deregulationist neoliberalism out of the Oil Crisis of 1973.  But neither really of these posed an existential threat to liberalism until 1989, with the collapse of “actually-existing socialism” abroad and the final death of the Left at home.[222]  Other commentators, such as Postone, have similarly remarked upon the pattern of “the weakening of national states as economically sovereign entities, the undermining of welfare states in the capitalist West, the collapse of bureaucratic party states in the Communist East, and the apparently triumphant reemergence of unchecked market capitalism.”[223]  Žižek’s analysis of the interdependency of these phenomena goes further here than Postone’s, however.  Beyond simply noting that they took shape alongside one another, Žižek claims that it was the disappearance of the USSR from the world stage that opened up the floodgates for neoliberal hegemony and expansion.  “1989,” observes Žižek, “marked not only the defeat of the Communist State-Socialism, but also the defeat of the Western Social Democracy.”  The downfall of the Soviet Union in the East, he contends, simultaneously spelled doom for the welfare state in the West.  Žižek diagnoses the second of these defeats, the defeat of the Western (European) Social-Democratic welfare state, as symptomatic of the first, the defeat of Eastern (Soviet) Communism.  He describes this state of affairs in unreservedly grim terms:

Nowhere is the misery of today’s Left more palpable than in its “principled” defense of the Social-Democratic Welfare State: the idea is that, in the absence of a feasible radical Leftist project, all that the Left can do is to bombard the state with demands for the expansion of the Welfare State, knowing well that the State will not be able to deliver…This necessary disappointment [will then presumably serve] as a reminder of the basic impotence of the social-democratic Left, and thus push the people towards a new radical revolutionary Left.

As Žižek points out, this line of reasoning is cynical.  The breakdown of the welfare state by no means guarantees a shift to the Left; it could just as easily deliver the “people” unto “Rightist populism.”  While his analysis here is correct, Žižek’s proposed alternative — i.e., that “the Left will have to propose its own positive project beyond the confines of the Social-Democratic Welfare State” — is not much better.[224]  To be sure, the passing of the welfare state (a thoroughly conservative project from the start) ought not be lamented too much.  Without any real hope for achieving revolution, the fight for reforms has also lost any meaning it once had.  Losurdo, hitting a rare pessimistic note, makes this same point.  “In the West…,” he explains, “the disappearance of the challenge posed by a strong international Communist movement and the ‘socialist camp’ has led to a general process of involution.  This [has resulted in] the deconstruction of the welfare state.”[225]

Continue to Part IV: 1848

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