Slavoj Žižek on the refugee crisis: A critique

Earlier today someone commented on an old post I wrote after a bit of sleuthing, which determined that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek did not attribute a quote by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Lately Žižek has been the subject of some controversy, voicing bizarre and often offensive opinions on the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. This is worth taking more seriously than the wild accusations of deranged tankie Twitteristas like Molly Klein.

Over the last fifteen years, Žižek has been a towering figure on the Left. He has played more the role of celebrity intellectual than low-profile scholar, loudmouthed and provocative rather than quiet and reserved. No one can deny the commercial success Žižek has achieved. Recycling the same jokes and stitching together bits of old text into new Frankensteins, the sales of his books have doubtless made up for dozens of lackluster releases by lesser authors on the Verso roster (likely written off as a loss). For this reason alone Žižek will not be rebuked too harshly by his peers and publishers, bristle though they may at his contrarianism of late.

Žižek should not be written off simply on account of these recent indiscretions. Mostly because his polemics against Derridean poststructuralism in the 1990s, particularly For They Know Not What They Do, are worth salvaging. His critique of facile multiculturalism, his defense of Marxist negativity and universality against the affirmative and particularistic claims of postcolonial professors, came at an important juncture following the end of the Cold War. They remain valuable today. I even find him to be an insightful reader of Hegel at times, though I disagree with the structuralism he inherits from Althusser and Lacan.

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Also because this is part of a larger pattern of outrageous remarks on Žižek’s part, calculated to elicit a specific response or just generally get under people’s skin. In his 2008 book In Defense of Lost Causes, building on a shorter treatise on Violence earlier that same year, Žižek glorified violence as inherently emancipatory (almost as an end-in-itself). Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazi party in 1933 was thus “the right step, albeit in the wrong direction” according to Žižek. Similarly, Foucault’s cheerleading for Khomeini in 1979 was the best thing he ever did. By no means are these statements less wrongheaded than what he’s said in the last year.

Maybe such claims are less contentious because they have to do with phenomena further removed in time and space. The refugee situation in Europe has a deadly immediacy to it, so the uproar is only to be expected. Esben Bøgh Sørensen wrote an excellent piece several months ago, however, rebutting Žižek’s disgraceful remarks about the flow of populations displaced by political and economic strife. It is reproduced with slight grammatical and stylistic edits below. Republishing this article made is all the more timely given that Žižek has since had occasion to reiterate these sentiments, and is reportedly compiling them into a book.

A couple quick comments, though, before proceeding. Sørensen’s article is far better than, for example, this tedious diatribe featured on the World Socialist Website. Peter Schwarz faults Žižek for making what should be an uncontroversial observation: “The fact that someone is at the bottom, does not make them automatically a voice of morality and justice.” I am not sure how anyone could believe that Marxism is simply about rooting for the underdog, or that it is the secular successor to the Christian doctrine that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Žižek’s call for the Left to “embrace its radical Western roots” has at least two possible meanings. On the one hand, it could be read as saying that the Left should embrace only those roots which are radical in the Western tradition. On the other hand, it could be read as saying that Western roots are radical by virtue of being Western. Sørensen gets to the heart of the matter when he points out the ambivalence of the European legacy. Capitalism and anticapitalism were both born in Europe — anti-imperialism no less than imperialism — and so on down the line.

Those roots which are truly radical have already ceased to be peculiarly Western as soon as they prove themselves such in practice. Even if they originated in the West, they assume a global significance. Regardless of their origin, these roots are thus the common lot and rightful inheritance of all humanity. Better yet, they provide the blueprint of some future humanity.

Portraits of philopsher Slavoj ZizekRefugees_1987

Fortress Europe’s staunch defender on the left

Esben Bøgh Sørensen
Roar Magazine: Borders
November 29, 2015

In a recent article Žižek replied to the critique of a previous text he wrote on the so-called “refugee crisis.” The exchange between Žižek and his critics essentially revolved around whether the left should support the refugees and migrants’ demands for open borders and the right to live where they choose, or not.

Žižek claimed that the refugees’ dream, represented by “Norway,” doesn’t exist, whereas one critic contended it is our duty to create it. Particularly problematic is his use of phrases like “our way of life,” “Western values,” and figures like “the typical left-liberal.” The most important thing that is missing in Žižek’s text is an analysis of the potential of refugee and migrant struggles.

In his response to the criticism, Žižek begins by complaining about the shift from what he calls “radical emancipatory movements” like Syriza and Podemos to “the ‘humanitarian’ topic of the refugees.” This, we are informed, is not a good thing because the refugee and migrant struggles are actually nothing but “the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance” replacing the more genuine “class struggle.”

Why this is the case remains unclear. Rather, we are told that

[t]he more Western Europe will be open to [immigrants], the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.

There are several problems in this statement, especially the idea of a “we” of “Western Europe” contrasted against an image of a “way of life” somehow shared by all refugees and migrants. Before turning to that problem, however, it is useful to examine one of Žižek’s favorite tropes: the “typical left-liberal,” which sits at the heart of his critique.

Žižek’s “typical left-liberal” — a figure reiterated and criticized through much of his writing — is someone who holds tolerant, multicultural views, but whose antiracism is actually a form of subtle racism. In the piece in question the “left-liberal” humanist is a person who is afraid of criticizing Islam and who, according to Žižek, unjustly accuses those who do so of being Islamophobic.

But who is this “left-liberal” Žižek has spent so much time criticizing? On closer inspection, this figure does not actually represent any position on the left. Currently there is not a problem of too much tolerance on the left. This is a straw man. If anything, the left faces the problem of nationalism (or national imaginary) together with an inability to adequately critique Western values. Žižek’s text demonstrates these problems.

His critique therefore completely misses the heart of the discussion: how to thoughtfully criticize fundamentalist religious views as well as “the West” and “Western values.” He does neither of these. Instead, Žižek places this misrepresented figure of the “left-liberal” on the one side, while countering in with an even more problematic and essentially racist stereotyped figure of the refugee/migrant:

Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it. They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.

Now, compare this to a recent statement made by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing Front National in France:

Without a policy restricting immigration it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to fight against communalism and the rise of ways of life at odds with…values of the French Republic.

Žižek’s rhetoric is remarkably similar to that of the European far-right. Representatives of Front National, the Danish Peoples Party or UKIP couldn’t have been more precise on the fundamental views of nationalism within Europe today. Žižek completely capitulates to this nationalism, showing the dangers of utilizing the language of your enemy.

Essentially, Žižek accepts the dominant idea — one shared by institutional Europe and the extreme right — that refugees and migrants pose a problem, threat, or some kind of crisis for “us” and “our egalitarianism and personal freedoms.” In doing so he reiterates a common nationalist argument, which can be found both in an institutional form promoted by national governments and in a radical right form: they and their way of life are incompatible with “us” and “our way of life.”

The problem here is not the degree of tolerance or exclusion as Žižek suggests, but rather the opposition itself, which is intrinsically false. In his critique of the (mis)figure of the humanist “left-liberal,” Žižek falls back on the illusion of a totalizing European or Western “we.” A “we” that is superior to the “way of life” of refugees and migrants, because “our” values are universal.

Naturally, this poses a problem, or rather a “refugee crisis” that “we” need to solve. Instead of criticizing this “we,” Žižek reproduces the mainstream media’s image of refugees as a kind of impersonal stream of humans posing nothing but a problem or even a crisis. This, Žižek says, calls for “militarization.” Perhaps fortunately, he doesn’t elaborate on this topic any further.

In the text, all refugees and migrants are defined by the same way of life. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, refugees and migrants come from very different geographical areas and very different cultures. The homogeneity suggested by Žižek clearly draws on an old orientalist trope, where different (heterogeneous) cultures are categorized within the one culture with opposite and conflicting values to Europe and the West. Gone are not only different cultures, traditions etc., but also variations within these, as well as the myriad forms of secular, liberal, and socialist traditions that have also existed in parts of the vast geographical area that Žižek simply subsumes under a single way of life, sure to create a “crisis” when coming to Europe.

The purported European “we” that must solve the “crisis” created by the refugees is of course problematic. But even more problematic is Žižek’s proposed solution to this situation. His proposed starting point of action is not, for example, a movement that brings together both migrants and different sections of the European proletariat, like precarious workers, students, the unemployed, etc. Žižek’s point of departure is instead the European nation-states and their political elites.

Rather than fighting together for freedom of movement for all, Žižek thinks the national and supranational elites should curb this right. Rather than fighting for open borders and against the nation-states and their political elites, he supports a centralized distribution of refugees by the nation-states. Rather than analyzing the current conjuncture and the possibilities for contesting the institutions of European political and economic elites, Žižek falls back on the same institutional solutions and becomes the “left defender” of Fortress Europe.

Moreover, instead of situating the struggles of refugees and migrants within an analysis of capitalism, Žižek refers abstractly to the problems caused by “the integration of local agriculture into global economy.” Žižek’s lack of attention to political economy is not new. Here it is particularly problematic, however, because his remarks are not coupled with an analysis of the current social struggles throughout Europe and beyond. As a result, he develops a strange opposition between abstract “class struggle” and the struggles of refugees and migrants.

There is no serious attempt to analyze the potentialities of these struggles, or how their articulation in relation to other social struggles might challenge the extreme right. Studiously avoiding such questions, Žižek instead suggests that the “left must embrace its radical Western roots.” He uncritically adopts the view that “Western values” are in fact “universal values.” But what are “western values” if not deeply bourgeois? Is the European cultural heritage not marked by mass killings, wars of extermination, colonialism, imperialism, etc.? These legacies exist not only in the past but also in the present. The War on Terror, still ongoing, has cost some 1.3 million civilian lives.

It is not refugees and migrants who have created any crisis. Instead, it is Europe, the West, and global capital with its self-claimed universal values that pose a fundamental threat to humanity in general. What are western values if not “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham,” as Marx once said?

Žižek criticizes the left for wanting to “fill in the gap of the missing radical proletarians by importing them from abroad, so that we will get the revolution by means of an imported revolutionary agent.” Like the figure of the “left-liberal,” this notion seems to be pulled out of thin air.

It would be far more interesting if Žižek actually participated in the discussion on how to connect migrant and refugee struggles with other kinds of struggles. Instead we get a critique of these unsubstantiated figures of positions on the left. Who is Žižek actually criticizing?

In the last couple of months, we have witnessed how migrant and refugee struggles in Calais, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, Germany, and even Denmark have sparked a new antiracist movement that could potentially challenge the growing extreme right. This is a movement that overcomes the national “we” and contains networks of solidarity between different sectors of migrants, refugees, and the European population.

How these struggles can be combined with other kinds of struggles is of crucial importance. Yet Žižek manages to reduce this potentiality to “the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance.” Žižek’s last two texts are completely useless for creating an anti-capitalist and anti-national movement across Europe capable of challenging the radical right and European elites; indeed, they have been harmful for such a project.

17 thoughts on “Slavoj Žižek on the refugee crisis: A critique

  1. Hats off to Sørensen’s article. I second that.

    But tell me one place where I have not been as ‘serious’ as you suggest. It even spurred you on to write a blog piece on it.

  2. I fail to see how Žižek’s texts promote the idea that Western values are universal values. Žižek seems more concerned with cultural differences and expectations of Western welfare states, that the West can not corroborate and fulfill. If anything this seems a skeptical position towards Western politics – rather than a nationalistic appraisal. Likewise the quotes used to illustrate Žižek supposed Nationalist rhetoric seem wholly disjointed.
    On top of that, merely referencing Žižek’s usage of the ‘typical left-liberal’ does nothing to dispel it. It goes way further than the Islamophobia example: the ‘typical left-liberals’ assumes Strangers need to be coddled and protected by the Western privileged. This, in turn, becomes racist on the notion that these Strangers NEED help to achieve emancipation.

    Also, Sørensen fails to reference a more emancipatory approach to the ‘Refugee Crisis’ that Zižek mentions here:

  3. At what point is it permissible to move from “Žižek’s rhetoric is remarkably similar to that of the European far-right” to the tankies’ “Žižek is a fascist”? What would he have to do or say, in your opinion, to warrant that shift?

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  5. I believe the real issue for Zizek is multiculturalism and his arguments are more grounded on Lacan than anything else. You definitely are overseeing that. As within many of your sentences, you run too fast when saying “Žižek glorified violence as inherently emancipatory (almost as an end-in-itself).” You definitely should read those books again (if you actually read them). BTW, you might read Benjamin’s Critique of Violence first, and reupload Benjamins works!

    On the other hand, all that stuff about Molly Klein is just nuts. It does not deserve such attention. It is just idiotic bullshit.

    Don’t forget Benjamin’s works! Thanks.

    • Wow I’m impressed, I always tried to read Lacan and then all those formulas got the best of me… thank God there’s Zizek that makes it all easily digestible and insert all those pop references. Chomsky is right about Lacan been an utter posturing fraud, but he went too far with Zizek. Also Benjamin I have read and interests me, but not the text you say. Good to see he is critical of violence because as Zizek says the left was frankly a catastrophe in the 20th century and he is right we should not gloss over it.

  6. Shoddy stuff comrade. “the left is too racist, there is no left liberal problem” HA. This article only shows how right zizek is about you left liberals. You’re completely disconnected from reality of struggles. La-la land of migrant antinationalism is cancer. Off to gulag with you now.

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