In First As Tragedy, Then As Farce [amazon], Zizek claims that “the only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was an unpredictable surprise which hit the markets out of the blue” (p 9). He cites the following evidence that people could and, indeed, did know it was coming.
Recall the demonstrations which, through the first decade of the new millennium, regularly accompanied meetings of the IMF and the World Bank: the protester’s complaints tool in not only the usual anti-globalizing motifs (the growing exploitation of Third World countries, and so forth), but also how the banks were creating the illusion of growth by playing with fictional money, and how this would all have to end in a crash. It was not only economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the dangers ahead and made it clear that those who promised continuous growth did not really understand what was going on under their noses. In Washington in 2004, so many people demonstrated about the danger of a financial collapse that the police had to mobilize 8,000 additional local policemen and bring in a further 6,000 from Maryland and Virginia. What ensued was tear-gassing, clubbing and mass arrests – so many that police had to use buses for transport. The message was loud and clear, and the police were used literally to stifle the truth.
The first examples are tendentious, as allegedly successful predictions of market movements tend to be. (Many predicted a crash. They always do. How many predicted the one that actually arrived, and when it would?) But I’m more curious what the last bit is about. What protest was this? The Million Worker March is all I can come up with. But that didn’t involve any far-sighted demands that financial collapse be forestalled. “Organizers have issued 22 demands, a broad array of grievances that go far beyond workers’ rights. Organizers call for universal health care, a national living wage, guaranteed pensions for all working people and an end to the outsourcing of jobs overseas. They also are demanding a repeal of the Patriot Act, increased funding for public education, free mass transit in every city, a reduction of the military budget and cancellation of what they consider pro-corporation pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.” Nothing about the dangers of mortgage-backed securities. Also, so far as I can recall – and Google seems to back me – the Million Worker March was relatively small and peaceful. So is that even what Zizek is talking about?
Also, Zizek has odd ideas about how the bank bailouts were supposed to work. He takes the argument for bailing out Wall Street to have been “standard trickle-down”: “although we want the poor to become richer, it is counter productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element in society. The only kind of intervention needed is that which helps the rich get richer; the profits will then automatically, by themselves, diffuse amongst the poor” (13-4). Did anyone actually make this argument for the bailouts? Odder, Zizek accepts the argument himself: “It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defense of the rich. The problem is that, insofar as we remain in a capitalist order, there is a truth within it: namely that kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers” (15). One could defend this by pointing out that the latter point, on its own, is sadly correct. But Zizek takes the further step of taking this as evidence/illustration of how ‘standard trickle-down’ arguments are, in general, descriptively valid (however ethically deplorable) under capitalism: “If you want people to have money to build homes, don’t give it to them directly, but to those who will in turn lend them the cash. According to the logic, this is the only way to create genuine prosperity; otherwise it will just be a case of the state distributing funds to the needy at the expense of real wealth-creators” (14). Zizek seems unaware that liberal-left economists who conceded the need for bailouts – with gritted teeth – do not, in general, take themselves as committed to “standard trickle-down” arguments about how markets do, and must, function. I am sure our own John Quiggin, for example, will be happy to testify that his grudging support for the bailouts did not rest on trust in trickle-down.
You may think that I am nit-picking Zizek to no good purpose! And you may be right! (Yes, I’m looking at YOU.) But in the event that you are wrong, the reason will be something like this: I’m writing an article on (wait for it!) Zizek on liberalism, and one point I want to make is that when Zizek critiques liberalism, which he does a lot, he almost always uses ‘liberal’ to mean, narrowly, economic neoliberalism. Forces of economic globalization. The Washington Consensus. Liberalism is: Sarkozy trying to make France more Anglo-ish. It’s never: John Rawls. I think it’s fair to say that Zizek is hereby basically strawman-ing liberal democracy, and liberalism qua political philosophy, by identifying both with the Washington Consensus. This is not only philosophically unsatisfactory but rhetorically odd, because Zizek ends up sounding weirdly like a Fox News commentator, talking trickle-down as if it were an Iron Law of Prosperity, under any conceivable, market-based system.
There is one major exception to Zizek’s liberalism = neoliberalism tendency: namely, he not infrequently uses ‘liberalism’ to refer to academic-style, ironist-relativistic multi-culti, feel-good pc leftism. Then he sounds sort of like P.J. O’Rourke yelling in your ear at a Laibach concert. From Tarrying with the Negative [amazon].
Yet what is deeply suspicious about this attitude, about the attitude of an antinationalist, liberal Eastern European intellectual, is the already-mentioned obvious fascination exerted on him by nationalism: liberal intellectuals refuse it, mock it, laugh at it, yet at the same time stare at it with powerless fascination. The intellectual pleasure procured by denouncing nationalism is uncannily close to the satisfaction of successfully explaining one’s own impotence and failure (which always was a trademark of a certain kind of Marxism). On another level, Western liberal intellectuals are often caught in a similar trap: the affirmation of their own autochthonous tradition is for them a red-neck horror, a site of populist protofascism (for example, in the U.S.A., the ‘backwardness’ of the Polish, Italian, etc. communities, the alleged brood of “authoritarian personalities” and similar liberal scarecrows), whereas such intellectuals are at once ready to hail the autochthonous ethnical communities of the other (African Americans, Puerto Ricans …) Enjoyment is good, on the condition that it not be too close to us, on condition that it remain the other’s enjoyment. (212)
OK, P.J. O’Rourke wouldn’t use the phrase ‘autochthonous ethnical communities’. But he – and any number of shorter-in-the-tooth conservative snarkmongers – would play the tired trick of conflating ‘liberalism’ with a kind of half-intellectualized, pc, white self-loathing. Here again, I don’t see Zizek making himself of much intellectual use. (Also, a lot of it seems distinctly tin-eared, even by the tinny standards of right-wing snark: liberals hate the Polish for not being Puerto Rican enough? That’s the sort of thing that always opens up a fresh front in the War On Christmas. ‘You know you’re a liberal when you hyphenate ‘red-neck’’ sounds like a rejected Jeff Foxworthy joke.)
To review: Zizek does this liberal = neoliberal thing. Which is no good. And he doesn’t even have much to say about economics. And Zizek does this liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals thing. Which is no good.
Does Zizek ever critique liberalism as political philosophy – that is, not as Washington Consensus economic policy or knee-jerk pc passive-aggressive white self-loathing? Does he have anything to say about any of the ideas and issues discussed in this article? I think the answer is: basically, no.
He critiques tolerance, as a positive political virtue. That seems like a promising angle for engaging liberalism. But he doesn’t go on to offer remotely plausible accounts of why liberals favor tolerance.
Contemporary liberalism forms a complex network of ideologies, institutional and non-institutional practices; however, underlying this multiplicity is a basic opposition on which the entire liberal vision relies, the opposition between those who are ruled by culture, totally determined by the life-world into which they were born, and those who merely “enjoy” their culture, who are elevated above it, free to choose their culture.
I don’t see that any liberals actually buy this dubious dichotomy, nor why they even might, let alone should. And Zizek doesn’t say. So that’s a non-starter.
The only place I’ve found where Zizek makes what seems to me a reasonably serious, reasonably sustained critique of liberalism – as political philosophy – and, simultaneously a critique of liberal democracy – as social-political form – is, again, in Tarrying With The Negative. Liberals abhor nationalism, but nationalism is born from liberalism. It is regarded as this awful recrudescence of pre-modern impulses, but really it is modernity incarnate. The idea is that ‘formal’ democracy makes an empty hole that is, as it were, filled by dangerous fundamentalism.
The structural homology between Kantian formalism and formal democracy is a classical topos: in both cases, the starting point, the founding gesture, consists of an act of radical emptying, evacuation. With Kant, what is evacuated and left empty is the locus of the Supreme Good: every positive object destined to occupy this place is by definition “pathological,” marked by empirical contingency, which is why the moral Law must be reduced to the pure Form bestowing on our acts the character of universality. Likewise, the elementary operation of democracy is the evacuation of the locus of Power: every pretender to this place is by definition a “pathological” usurper; “nobody can rule innocently,” to quote Saint-Just. And the crucial point is that “nationalism” as a specifically modern, post-Kantian phenomenon designates the moment when the Nation, the national Thing, usurps, fills out, the empty place of the Thing opened up by Kant’s “formalism,” by his reduction of every “pathological” content. The Kantian term for this filling-out of the void, of course, is the fanaticism of Schwärmerei: does not “nationalism” epitomize fanaticism in politics?
In this precise sense, it is the very “formalism” of Kant which, by way of its distinction between negative and indefinite judgment, opens up the space for the “undead” and similar incarnations of some monstrous radical Evil. It was already the “pre-critical” Kant who used the dreams of a ghost-seer to explain the metaphysical dream; today, one should refer to the dream of the “undead” monsters to explain nationalism. (221)
So therefore liberal democracy can never become suitably ‘universal’, because it always needs an Other, the ‘undeveloped, the Excluded. This argument is pretty important to Zizek, I think, and he is in effect developing it in his more recent books: not just First As Tragedy, but also In Defense of Lost Causes. Communism is supposed to be better than liberalism because it can be universalized, and liberal democracy can’t.
Now I think this Zombie Nationalism argument makes considerably more sense than Zizek’s bad attempts to write Zombie Economics. (He should leave that to the economists.) And he gets bonus style points for getting Swedenborg in the mix, even just a little. But as a silver bullet for killing the werewolf of liberalism, this just ain’t gonna do it, not all on its lonesome. Liberals don’t need to be as formal Kantian as all that (hell, I’m not sure even Kant is as Kantian as that. Not when he went to the bathroom, or even when he just went to dinner, I suspect.) And even if liberals were as Kantian as all that – which they aren’t – we are still skipping several steps to get all the way to a sufficient explanation of the social-psychology of modern nationalism from Kantian formalism. (And a few of those steps look impossible to me, but you’re mileage may vary.)
Am I missing anything? Is there anywhere else in Zizek’s prodigous corpus where he attempts a sustained critique of liberalism as a political philosophy? Some point at which he actually addresses, say, Rawls, as opposed to just kicking Fukayama in the shins for thinking history had ended, or complaining about Rortyan ironism? There probably is. Probably in the middle of some discussion of Wagner and Hitchcock movies.