bat020 = Anindya Bhattacharyya, writer/activist based in London. philosophy, revolutionary socialism, mathematics, technology, dance music. bat020.tumblr.com | @bat020 | facebook.com/bat020 | obvious gmail address
[originally published on Lenin’s Tomb]
A few critical words on Slavoj Zizek’s paper at the Politics of Truth conference held in London at the end of last month. You can listen to Zizek’s intervention (and indeed the whole conference) online, or alternatively read K‑Punk’s excellent summary and exposition of the paper in question, “Against the Populist Temptation”. (Infinite Thought also carries an extraordinarily comprehensive report on the other papers presented at the conference, and mine host has already analysed Alberto Toscano’s paper on fanaticism).
Now I suspected at the time that there was something skew-whiff in Zizek’s analysis of populism, and the more I think about it the more firmly I’m convinced that my initial suspicions were correct.
The problem, as ever with Zizek, is not that he “goes too far” (this is the standard liberal “critique” of Zizek – yes he makes valuable points but he overstates them and we should take on board what he has to say but in a suitably domesticated manner that can be safely integrated it into university discourse…), but rather that he does not go far enough – his analysis stops short at a crucial juncture, and consequently fails to traverse the political fantasy whose symptoms he so deftly analyses.
Let’s see how this plays out concretely in Zizek’s paper. Its core comprised a detailed critique of Ernesto Laclau’s recent defence of populism. Now Zizek makes various points here which are, to deploy that most catty of Bolshevik put-downs, formally correct – yes populism is inherently reformist, yes it is shot through with dubious ressentiment directed against a mythical Corrupting Intruder, yes this manifests itself as a series of hysterical demands addressed at the ruling elite, yes it risks obfuscating and liquidating class struggle by replacing proletarian subjectivity with a nebulous and ultimately phantasmic notion of the “people”. (Incidentally, the master of this particular maneouvre is Mao Zedong, whose 1957 tract “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” opens with a rigorous definition of “the people” (as opposed to “the enemy”…) – precisely in order to justify an accomodation with the Chinese bourgeoisie.)
So what is the problem here? Well, as Zizek briefly mentions in passing but crucially does not return to, Laclau’s defence of populism is itself conceived as a riposte to the liberal elite demonisation of popular movements as inherently proto-fascist. And the argument between Laclau and Zizek is politically overshadowed and overdetermined by this particular liberal trope.
But having critiqued Laclau, Zizek does not go on to answer the liberal ideologeme that kicked off the argument in the first place. And this silence unwittingly – or perhaps not so unwittingly – cannot be read as anything other than tacit agreement with the liberals – yes, populism is proto-fascist, or at least proto-reactionary, or perhaps proto-reformist… but quibbles aside basically a Bad Thing… populism is a temptation to be avoided.
Why does Zizek capitulate, albeit silently and reluctantly, at this point? My diagnosis, for what it’s worth, is that behind Zizek’s bravado there’s a distinct political timidity at work here. For he knows perfectly well what the response to bourgeois fretting about the “proto-fascism” allegedly inherent in populism is: No, populism is not proto-fascist, it is proto-communist, and furthermore, the bourgeoisie knows this all too well, and that is why they seek to warn us against populism with their moralistic nostrums and cautionary tales. (Examples are legion: the absurd attempt by the running dogs of imperialism to paint Respect as a “fascist” organisation, the German liberal elite’s recent vile slurs against Oskar Lafontaine, the Chavez-as-sinister-totalitarian trope deployed by the neocons apropos Venezuela, the blatantly colonial representation of Muslim populist currents in the Middle East as “Islamofascist” barbarism).
So: as crazy as it may sound, we have to side unflinchingly with populist movements and affirm their communist potential in the face of all this desperate mud-flinging by bien pensant neo-liberal ideologues. Only from this position, embedded in the movement, is it possible to make some political sense of Zizek’s criticisms of Laclau-style populism. This is where the real task for political thought today lies: to transform reformist hysterical populism into a revolutionary proletarian subjectivity, a volonté générale (or generique, as Alain Badiou pertinently suggested). And it is only from within those movements that the potentials for such a transformation can be located, grasped and enacted.
Of course there is a great deal to be said on this question, so I’ll end with a few general pointers and a more detailed analysis of the question of demands. Pointers first – Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder” is crucial here, as is Trotsky’s analysis of the united front (versus the popular front), as touched on by Peter Hallward in his conference intervention. And more abstractly, I’d say Badiou’s all too brief remarks on the necessity of discerning the “constructible part of the generic will” are also very much in this vein. (This, by the way, was the politically important point in Badiou’s speech, rather than his avowedly poetic call for a “new fiction” – which was way too close to Heidegger’s infamous “Only a God can save us” for my liking.)
Regarding demands, hysteria etc – let’s recapitulate the problem, as summarised by K‑Punk:
Populism always frames its project in terms of a series of demands addressed to the ruling elite. Antagonism is defused into a craving for recognition… [And] it’s clear that the (entirely complementary) obverse of the demand for recognition is the demand that this or that politician resign, which is why endlessly “renewed calls” for resignation are constant background noise on the post-political scene.
The first thing here is to flag up a problem with where this sort of analysis can lead (and I’m not suggesting that K‑Punk necessarily travels down this route). If populist movements are of necessity trapped into a hysterical subject position, endlessly regaling the Master with impossible demands, then… well is this analysis not itself hysterical, in that it demands “Stop making hysterical demands!” to the popular masses, while simultaneously discounting the possibility of those popular masses doing anything otherwise?
Second: if we admit the possibility of a non-hysterical demand by the popular masses – a slogan, let us say – what would it look like? Here I’d suggest that the answer lies in the direct converse to the famous (and eminently hysterical) situationist graffito “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”. Rather than formulate realistic but impossible demands, our “demands” must be unrealistic but nevertheless possible. And moreover they should be addressed diagonally, ie to both the ruling elite and the popular movement simultaneously, or more precisely, they should formally pose a demand addressed to the elite, but actuallyraise a slogan that engages and resonates with the movement – mobilising it and thereby subjectivating it from within.
A neat example of this was provided by an Independent front page last week. It was dominated by a table whose columns listed four “options” for the future of British troops in Iraq: what the option was, its pros and cons, who was calling for it and what its likelihood was. The leftmost column was “troops out now”, called for by the Stop the War Coalition – and likelihood of this happening was, in the Independent’s eyes – nil.
But while calling for troops out now is certainly “unrealistic” within the framework of bourgeois politics, it is nevertheless clearly possible – nothing in principle prevents it from happening. And it is the very raising of this demand from the radical left that has exacerbated divisions in the elite about what to do re Iraq. The demand forces its own possibility and reconfigures the frame of what is considered “realistic”. One only need recall that prior to Stop the War demanding troops out now, the question of withdrawal from Iraq was never openly discussed in the bourgeois media – why, to even entertain the possibility would be Giving In To Terrorism… now we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of Simon Jenkins calling for rapid withdrawal, with a string of MI6 “experts” in tow!
But more important than this slogan’s effects on the ruling elite, its exacerbation of a “crack in the big Other”, is the mass political subjectivity that emerges through this crack. “Troops out now!” acts as a rallying point for anyone repulsed by the lies and prevarication that have characterised Blair’s imperialist theatrics. But it simultaneously consolidates the anti-war movement, forcing all those involved to discern where our power lies, what our strengths are, and how we can rely on those strengths and powers instead of those of any putative Master figure.
One final example, this one taken from Bolshevik lore. It was June 1917 and Kerensky had formed a provisional government that included the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – but also representatives of the capitalist parties such as the Cadets. The Bolsheviks refused to join such a government. But what was their demand/slogan to be? Their choice was “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” – and Trotsky later explained the rationale behind this choice:
The enormous role of the Bolshevik slogan “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” is well known, in 1917, at the time of the coalition between the conciliators and the bourgeois liberals. The masses still trusted the socialist conciliators but the most trustful masses always have an instinctive distrust for the bourgeoisie, for the exploiters and for the capitalists. On this was built the Bolshevik tactic during that specific period. We didn’t say “Down with the socialist ministers!”, we didn’t even advance the slogan “Down with the provisional government!” as a fighting slogan of the moment, but instead we hammered on one and the same point: “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” This slogan played an enormous role, because it gave the masses the opportunity to learn from their own experience that the capitalist ministers were closer and dearer to the conciliators than the working masses.
The precision of this slogan is astonishing. It cuts like a chisel at a fracture that only an understanding of class struggle allows one to discern. It acts simultaneously as a populist demand and a mobilising slogan. It separates those who are willing to fight from those who are not, to use one of Trotsky’s characterisations of the united front. And it is a model for what our response should be to the obscure face-off between popular movements and liberal political elites that increasingly characterises this conjuncture.