Shoplifters of the world unite - Slavoj Žižek

Shoplifters of the world unite - Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek on the meaning of the recent riots in England's cities.

Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon.

We are told again and again that we are living through a debt crisis, and that we all have to share the burden and tighten our belts. All, that is, except the (very) rich. The idea of taxing them more is taboo: if we did, the argument runs, the rich would have no incentive to invest, fewer jobs would be created and we would all suffer. The only way to save ourselves from hard times is for the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. What should the poor do? What can they do?

Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.

There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were missing the obvious truth, just as the commentators on the riots have done. We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology: the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.

The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?

Alain Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence. Perhaps this is one of the main dangers of capitalism: although by virtue of being global it encompasses the whole world, it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East: there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper. The global dimension of capitalism represents truth without meaning.

The first conclusion to be drawn from the riots, therefore, is that both conservative and liberal reactions to the unrest are inadequate. The conservative reaction was predictable: there is no justification for such vandalism; one should use all necessary means to restore order; to prevent further explosions of this kind we need not more tolerance and social help but more discipline, hard work and a sense of responsibility. What’s wrong with this account is not only that it ignores the desperate social situation pushing young people towards violent outbursts but, perhaps more important, that it ignores the way these outbursts echo the hidden premises of conservative ideology itself. When, in the 1990s, the Conservatives launched their ‘back to basics’ campaign, its obscene complement was revealed by Norman Tebbitt: ‘Man is not just a social but also a territorial animal; it must be part of our agenda to satisfy those basic instincts of tribalism and territoriality.’ This is what ‘back to basics’ was really about: the unleashing of the barbarian who lurked beneath our apparently civilised, bourgeois society, through the satisfying of the barbarian’s ‘basic instincts’. In the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse introduced the concept of ‘repressive desublimation’ to explain the ‘sexual revolution’: human drives could be desublimated, allowed free rein, and still be subject to capitalist control – viz, the porn industry. On British streets during the unrest, what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped-down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.

Meanwhile leftist liberals, no less predictably, stuck to their mantra about social programmes and integration initiatives, the neglect of which has deprived second and third-generation immigrants of their economic and social prospects: violent outbursts are the only means they have to articulate their dissatisfaction. Instead of indulging ourselves in revenge fantasies, we should make the effort to understand the deeper causes of the outbursts. Can we even imagine what it means to be a young man in a poor, racially mixed area, a priori suspected and harassed by the police, not only unemployed but often unemployable, with no hope of a future? The implication is that the conditions these people find themselves in make it inevitable that they will take to the streets. The problem with this account, though, is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots. To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.

We live in cynical times, and it’s easy to imagine a protester who, caught looting and burning a store and pressed for his reasons, would answer in the language used by social workers and sociologists, citing diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood. He knows what he is doing, then, but is doing it nonetheless.

It is meaningless to ponder which of these two reactions, conservative or liberal, is the worse: as Stalin would have put it, they are both worse, and that includes the warning given by both sides that the real danger of these outbursts resides in the predictable racist reaction of the ‘silent majority’. One of the forms this reaction took was the ‘tribal’ activity of the local (Turkish, Caribbean, Sikh) communities which quickly organised their own vigilante units to protect their property. Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine, if violent, protest against the system; or are they representatives of the working class, fighting the forces of social disintegration? Here too one should reject the demand to take sides. The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own. The cars burned and the shops looted were not in rich neighbourhoods, but in the rioters’ own. The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, at its most radical, the conflict between society and society, between those with everything, and those with nothing, to lose; between those with no stake in their community and those whose stakes are the highest.

Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’ The riots are a demonstration of the material force of ideology – so much, perhaps, for the ‘post-ideological society’. From a revolutionary point of view, the problem with the riots is not the violence as such, but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.

The riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. In both instances, violence and counter-violence are caught up in a vicious circle, each generating the forces it tries to combat. In both cases, we are dealing with blind passages à l’acte, in which violence is an implicit admission of impotence. The difference is that, in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris, terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning provided by religion.

But weren’t the Arab uprisings a collective act of resistance that avoided the false alternative of self-destructive violence and religious fundamentalism? Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists. The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor, who were largely absent from the spring protests, onto the streets. There is likely to be a new explosion, and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists?

The predominant reaction of Western public opinion to the pact between Islamists and the army will no doubt be a triumphant display of cynical wisdom: we will be told that, as the case of (non-Arab) Iran made clear, popular upheavals in Arab countries always end in militant Islamism. Mubarak will appear as having been a much lesser evil – better to stick with the devil you know than to play around with emancipation. Against such cynicism, one should remain unconditionally faithful to the radical-emancipatory core of the Egypt uprising.

But one should also avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause: it’s too easy to admire the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. Today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old one after the uprising, when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment is over? In this context, the manifesto of the Spanish indignados, issued after their demonstrations in May, is revealing. The first thing that meets the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: ‘Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.’ They make their protest on behalf of the ‘inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life.’ Rejecting violence, they call for an ‘ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.’ Who will be the agents of this revolution? The indignados dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power, yet the manifesto nevertheless consists of a series of demands addressed at – whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them, that they themselves have to be the change they want to see. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime). But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.

Republished from LRB

Comments

piter
Aug 21 2011 12:06

talking about repetition....as usual Zizek is repeating his stalinist credo of the need of a party willing to take and exercise state power... this has nothing to do with emancipation.

no1
Aug 21 2011 13:04

yeah that last sentence is pretty revolting!

Quote:
To [impose a reorganisation of social life], one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.
MarxTrek
Aug 21 2011 21:23

I find it hard to believe that everything which was said in this article can be boiled down to Zizek's last sentence and remembering that he referred to Stalin in the text above. If anything Zizek is just pointing out the material conditions at hand, the objective and subjective situation, our relationship to and within capitalism, and asking the only question we should be interested in...What does the riots mean for us as workers engaged in the struggle against work/capitalism. Why is someone automatically a Leninist or Stalinist when the begin to look for the material force within capitalism/society which could transform our current condition, workers at work, and why is someone automatically a Leninist or Stalinist when bursts of rage and the fetishism for riots occur and instead of just glorifying these events looks or wishes for the subjective conditions to turn in our favor and the working class organize formally or informally beyond mere revolt/insurrection/riot and begin to build revolution or negate ourselves?

There is nothing taboo about asking the same old clever questions asked by Marx and Lenin who have always seemed to have a more serious outlook on workers creating their own revolutions than say the idealists?

Seriously, lets ask ourselves what these riots mean or came from, or if that is too linear, then what? Is it enough for the riots to be just that riots, do we led it stay within the realm of glorified nihilistic expression since that is the profound and avante gard assertion to make?

The reasons why Zizek or whoever are so attached to Lenin and Stalin at times, for being profound and provoking mostly in regards to Stalin for Zizek, are the questions asked, the stubbornness of Lenin(ism) to not bend or compromise regarding class analysis and the dialectical materialist understanding of human society and that the working class is the only social force powerful enough to destroy capitalism. Now, I am not saying that Lenin's political and leadership is saintly, far from it, I despise him the leader, but Lenin the Marxist is profound. I will quote Chairman Mao here to make a similar point, "Communism is not love. Communism is a weapon to crush the enemy." Does understanding the validity of this quote make me a Maoist? I think not.

piter
Aug 22 2011 08:19
Quote:
If anything Zizek is just pointing out the material conditions at hand, the objective and subjective situation, our relationship to and within capitalism, and asking the only question we should be interested in...What does the riots mean for us as workers engaged in the struggle against work/capitalism. Why is someone automatically a Leninist or Stalinist when the begin to look for the material force within capitalism/society which could transform our current condition, workers at work, and why is someone automatically a Leninist or Stalinist when bursts of rage and the fetishism for riots occur and instead of just glorifying these events looks or wishes for the subjective conditions to turn in our favor and the working class organize formally or informally beyond mere revolt/insurrection/riot and begin to build revolution or negate ourselves?

There is nothing taboo about asking the same old clever questions asked by Marx and Lenin who have always seemed to have a more serious outlook on workers creating their own revolutions than say the idealists?

it is profoundly idealist to think that an emancipatory movement need the "harshness" of a party dictatorship as Zizek does, it is reducing the conditions of a social change to the question of leadership... a materialist understanding of the conditions of a social revolution lead us to reject such a conception of revolution as a bourgeois one, because changing the material conditions of the power of capital implies challenging hierarchy including hierarchy in the revolutionnary movement (not authority as a concept but hierarchy as social relations reproducing capital and class relations). the real question of leardership for a revolutionnary critique is the question of the destruction of all authoritarian relations.

one must criticize the limits and contradictions of the riots, but you can't overcome it with a leninist agenda, the revolutionnary activity of workers has nothing to do with the political tricks of a clique of leftist politicians. the absence of representatives and leadership was a strongness of the rioters in the challenging of the bourgeoisie's rules, not a weakness.

but thank you for making us laugh with "chairman Mao" jokes...

MarxTrek
Aug 22 2011 10:17

I think the point was missed. Leadership, hierarchy, and Leninism are being used to simplify what can be taken from the article. I will say it again, maybe this time with more anarchistic undertones.

The riots themselves are an expression of alienation and frustration coming from a youth denied any serious part in English social life, they have become expendable, and all the racism, segregation, and economic injustices in English society has only compounded the issue. Also the riots are just as reactionary as they are militant expression due to certain actions taken by rioters, yet I think the "militant expression" itself is more important and interesting than demonizing these rioters.

So then we have a situation where large groups of the working class are rising up in revolt and engaging symbols of capitalism, taking back from the system, stealing what is denied, and fighting the police state with fire and rocks. This working class violence and defense of their human dignity that just happened in England is amazing and shows that the West like the Midle East is alive with resistance to neoliberal polices, class war, not just abroad but at home as well. More importantly, this recant string of militant eruptions/interuptions across Europe is an expression and action from from the working class outside of the old proper channels of working class leadership.

But then the question is what about going beyond mere militant expressions and moments of reactionary behavior? Can't we do more? Can't we as a class both here and there go beyond just riots and looting? (See here is the part where Leninists in their purest and most orthodox form would suggest that you read their paper and join their group/party, and maybe Zizek is supporting the same notion, but maybe not. I usually gather from him that he likes to provoke people with his statements and references of Lenin and Stalin, and asks people why is it that we on the "left"(anarchists and the whole far left lot) pick and choose our past. Maybe Zizek is suggesting that past struggles and the working class's historical struggles are just that part of a very large continium of struggle and no matter how bad anarchists, in their purest form, want to deny that as a class for itself has made some grave mistakes in the past but nontheless the working class does struggle. And the same goes for the riots, sure there are some mistakes and there are some awesome instances within the riots as well but as a class resisting capitalists control and being a worker there is more to it and we need to explore those instances of more so that we go beyond moments of expression.)

As for idealism and hierarchy, well, I will leave that one alone today.

Arbeiten
Aug 22 2011 11:47

I thought this piece was particularly bad but i haven't the time to write specifically why at the moment...

piter
Aug 22 2011 13:55
Quote:
Maybe Zizek is suggesting that past struggles and the working class's historical struggles are just that part of a very large continium of struggle and no matter how bad anarchists, in their purest form, want to deny that as a class for itself has made some grave mistakes in the past but nontheless the working class does struggle

yes leninism is part of the history of our class, but that don't makes it better...we must be critical towards the past of our struggles and learn from the mistakes, and when Zizek is advocating a kind of leninism of a new kind and "central authority to regulate", "a new party or a direct attempt to take state power" and "a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness", he is not overcoming some mistakes of the past (well not mistakes but expressions of the inclusion of the class in capitalist relations, and its tendency to reproduce itself as a class of capital) but merely repeating it...

MarxTrek
Aug 22 2011 13:58

I am not an authority when it comes to Zizek by any means but I think the point is still being missed.

This statement, "yes leninism is part of the history of our class, but that don't makes it better..." is not the question at hand or an answer.

piter
Aug 22 2011 16:12
Quote:
but I think the point is still being missed

I haven't done an extensive critique of the text by Zizek, yes, but honestly I don't think the text is worth it...

what do you think is so interesting in Zizek text? if I missed the point maybe you can enlighten me about it?

Quote:
This statement, "yes leninism is part of the history of our class, but that don't makes it better..." is not the question at hand or an answer.

well, yes...nor is it an excuse to Zizek advocating the repetition of leninist failures...

MarxTrek
Aug 22 2011 20:35

Again, Zizek doesn't seem to be advocating a new Bolshevik Party, the Communist Party, the democratically centralized Leninist model that closeted Stalinist advocate for; You know, the Party, with a big "P", that leads to a Taylorist production system producing deranged useless surplus-value and pointless goods consumed through social welfare programs and where politics and the social realm are tightly dominated by secret police and political corruption. Yes, we all know that Leninism(Stalinism) leads to nothing remotely close to us, the workers negating ourselves as such.

The point is whether we need a Party. What I got out of Zizek's article and arguments like Zizek's is that liberal and conservative assessments, apologist rhetoric, or demonization of revolt are not enough and that the left seem to leave out our subjective qualities and only concentrate on the objective conditions which did not cause the riots but were merely a catalyst. The participants in the riots caused the riots and for whatever reasons, as active subjects in making history rioted. Now as radicals, Marxists, Anarchists, or what have you what is the significant of these riots? It is not the riot itself, so much, that excited us but rather that a large collection of people became active subjects and chose to confront and act out. That action was being taken which violently showed the dialectic is alive, there are cracks in the framework, and that the West is not at peace is what is exciting. But instead of just ending there and just glorifying the riot itself we need to look beyond.

This is not about setting up the Party with a big "P". As Marx has been paraphrased before, if you want to see the dictatorship of the proletariat then look to the Paris Commune (Even scruffy old Bakunin liked the Paris Commune). There is a such thing as the informal material party the workers themselves which build up a social force powerful enough to negate our own identity and condition as workers. that is the "party", a social force, that Zizek seems to be driving at or he has some crazy Stalinist, Party with a big "P", ideas I have yet come across.

a social political force coming from the streets, for use the workers, and organized and harnessed by us is the party, the party as a material thing not an ideological or mechanically created Political group that says, Hey workers listen to us, do what we say, and read our directives. Maybe that is what Zizek is talking about, maybe that is the discussion not the old boring Anarchists vs. Communist Party...? If we are serious about over throwing capitalism and killing ourselves as a social identity to start anew do we not need to act out rather than just lash out? And with that said I am not questioning the need for lashing out.

888
Aug 22 2011 21:49

Well Zizek doesn't have very much interesting to add then...

Red Marriott
Aug 22 2011 23:52
Marx Trek wrote:
a social political force coming from the streets, for use the workers, and organized and harnessed by us is the party, the party as a material thing not an ideological or mechanically created Political group that says, Hey workers listen to us, do what we say, and read our directives. Maybe that is what Zizek is talking about

I don't think so...

Zizek wrote:
"I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. ..." - October 2009 http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/11/381-382-interview-obama-theory

Add that to his support for Chavez, Morales etc.

We are all over...
Aug 23 2011 23:31

the place. (Can I have some more characters in my username please Bob)

Whatever your view of the old Lacanian consonant cluster, his point about "determinate negation" is surely the point being made in his text. We have seen and been many "spirits of revolt without revolution", but without a popular mandate and an actual social force beyond a mediated story of contained dissent, we gave up our reclamations and they appeared even to us for a while as nothing. We cannot wait for our anarchist analysis to come true. We cannot afford to let our theoretical difference get in the way of our actual formulation of an opposition to the neoliberal plunder. There's a space for debate, if we make it, there's time for struggle if we make it,ie survive. We need a transitional structure that is simultaneously national and federal, that has actionable social force. Self organisation has to make the leap to social organisation at some point. Without this guarded move, ie guarded against statism whilst moving toward socialised self-organisation, the current resistance will dissipate and the neoliberal global market state will suck in the power generated, and the plunder will continue.

!No Pasaran!

EGADS
Aug 7 2012 16:36

I think Zizek usually makes good points...but this piece ain't one of them. That, and he's a hypocrite, considering how he's supported similar incedents, riots and whatnot(but he wouldn;t be the only one...)