bat020 = Anindya Bhattacharyya, writer/activist based in London. philosophy, revolutionary socialism, mathematics, technology, dance music. | @bat020 | | obvious gmail address

Zizek on Bush’s reëlection

[originally published on]

Slavoj Zizek’s response to George W Bush’s reëlection – The Liberal Waterloo – has been published by In These Times, the Chicago-based radical magazine. It’s a typically spiky piece centred on the following thesis:

Hegel wrote apropos Napoleon that he had to lose two times: Only after Waterloo did it become clear to him that his defeat was not a military accident but the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: He had to win two times in order for liberals to perceive that we are all entering a new era.

As ever with Zizek, the article fires off darts in all directions, some of them hitting their targets, others not. A couple of critical comments follow.

Slippery secularism

With regards to Left Behind, a series of Christian fundamentalist novels that have shifted 60 million units in the US, Zizek writes:

This ridiculous plot unfolds until the final battle when all non-Christians – Jews, Muslims, et al – are consumed in a cataclysmic fire. Imagine the outcry in the Western liberal media if a similar story written from the Muslim standpoint had become a bestseller in the Arab countries!

Well, quite. This casts a revealing light on the current liberal fetishisation of “secularism” – understood as a kind of formal neutrality towards religions. The falsity of this abstraction stems from the fact that religions are not, in fact, “all the same” and the pretence that they are hides some ugly double standards.

In particular, one religion – Islam – typically plays the role of ideological scapegoat: in contemporary “secular” discourse, Islam acts as a stand-in for religion in general. So liberals attack Islam for, say, its treatment of women – when it’s pointed out that other religions are no better in this regard, the liberal retreats, claiming that his/her critique of Islam was in fact an instance of a more general critique of religion. But then why single out Islam in the first place?

The other side of this false secularism is the way it lets fundamentalist Christianity off the hook. Pro-war liberals who attack Respect for its “unholy alliance” between socialist and Muslim activists never once pause to consider their own unholy alliance between their “progressive Enlightenment values” and Bush’s homegrown crusading army.

The irony here is that “fundamentalism”, now seen as an exclusively Islamic trait, in fact makes no sense outside the context of Christian theology. And “secularism” is similarly culturally specific – it arose out of Europe’s religious wars and is fundamentally a demand for religious freedom (including, crucially, the freedom not to believe), rather than being about “neutrality” or “separation of church and state” (a separation which, incidentally, in practice occurs nowhere).

From Kerry to Kautsky

After a brief and rather muddled overview of the “new world order”, Zizek writes:

Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush’s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division.

Errm, nope. This crosses the fine line between affirmation and panglossian wibble. And the position leads to patently absurd consequences: if progessives should be glad of a Bush victory, they should have voted for him and advocated voting for him.

The fact is that whatever Kerry’s failings, a defeat for Bush would have been a defeat for his war on terror and a defeat for his imperial project in the Middle East. People would have been dancing in the streets the whole world over.

Moreover, the supposed downside of a Kerry victory that Zizek outlines is strangely unconvincing:

If Kerry had won, it would have forced liberals to face the consequences of the Iraq war, allowing the Bush camp to blame Democrats for the results of their own catastrophic decisions.

Well, sure, but so what? The liberals in question deserve to face the consequences and take the blame, since they were thoroughly complicit in launching the Iraq war in the first place.

The only effective opposition to the war came from radical mass movements located outside “official” political space. All the “anti-war” bourgeoisie (Chirac, Blix etc) had to offer were incoherent legalistic quibbles, whose abject failure testified to a profound lack of political will on their part.

Turning Zizek’s statement around, it is a Kerry victory that would have “drawn the contours of the confrontations to come in a much starker way”, by revealing the complicity between the two wings of the Business Party. The fact that Zizek does not recognise this signals an unfortunate residual attachment to liberalism on his part.

Zizek is playing the contrarian here. And that’s forgivable, given the pukeworthy wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth currently emanating from traumatised Kerrycrats (Canada’s immigration web page saw a six-fold hitcount leap on Wednesday!).

Nevertheless, in his haste to distance himself from liberal idiocy, he overlooks the truly dialectical solution to this electoral conundrum: a vibrant Nader campaign would have mobilised the progressive vote in a way Kerry could never have managed. Instead the US left shamefully lost its nerve, and Nader was squeezed to near-oblivion.

Despite these and other more Kautskyite lapses (eg supporting a “strengthened EU” against the US), Zizek ends on an upbeat note:

No reason to despair, then. The prospects may be dark today, but remember one of the great Bushisms: “The future will be better tomorrow.”

Amen to that. On this note, it’s worth underlining the parallels with 1972 – Nixon won a second term by a landslide (every state bar one endorsed him), yet within two years, his presidency was in tatters and US troops were forced out of Vietnam. Time to pick up the pieces and get back on the streets.


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This entry was posted on 6 November 2004 by in Marxism and tagged .