Time, or Why Slavoj ŽiŽek Doesn’t Succeed in Burying Anarchism

Slavoj Žižek gave a lecture last night at the Duke University Franklin Center.  In that lecture, he brought up one of the themes that he’s been fixated on lately: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the upsurgence of something he sees as completely new, “authoritarian capitalism,” a capitalism that no longer veils itself with liberal slogans but embraces authoritarian cynicism.  Now, this is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for and one that I have used whenever someone tells me that my father is a funny or interesting man (don’t worry, this isn’t a family piece).  For Žižek, it is very disturbing that we are now seeing, in Europe, the growth of blatant disregard for decorum and a shameless triumphalism of power.  This is something new, he argues (although I’m somewhat suspicious of its novelty), and it is something that threatens to undermine not only liberalism, but the leftist project.

Metonymically, we can read this as why Žižek sees the struggle as one over state power.  We need to take control over the state because this is where the spectacle takes place.  Berlusconi’s command of the public sphere stems from his control over state media (Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit”).  We cannot, Žižek is arguing, simply operate at a localist and diffuse level in the hopes that we will change the world “from below,” precisely because the state retains control over so many aspects of life and because, in its blatant disregard for public norms, it has no problem dividing and conquering (but a Žižekian power struggle is different from a Gramscian one).

Žižek’s experience with Eastern European Communism both benefits and obscures his argument.  The advantage is that Žižek sees very clearly how power operates at the state level and is not put over by the myths that power likes to perpetuate.  Hence, a thought experiment that he set up last night was particularly interesting: suppose, he tells us, Žižek is Stalin, and we are at a Party Congress, and anarchist Michael Hardt stands up to denounce the famine in Ukraine.  Now, we all know, Žižek tells us, that tomorrow, Michael will be gone and the talk of the town will be, “Who was the last person with Hardt?”  But, Žižek goes on, suppose that Fred Jameson stands up to denounce Michael in the same party congress, and he says, “You cannot denounce Comrade Stalin in such a way!”  Žižek argues that Fred would disappear even quicker than Michael.  Worse than breaking the rules is stating them explicitly.

This kind of comment comes out of the Eastern European experience, and it is a very valuable insight.  However, this kind of comment also illustrates Žižek’s weakness: everything is about the leader.  Žižek doesn’t talk about international politics, backroom negotiations, the WTO and the IMF, food prices, etc.  He talks about Berlusconi and Chavez and Stalin and Obama and Sarkozy.  This is the only reason why Žižek can simultaneously denounce the organics movement and Berlusconian hubris.  He sees everything at the level of the individual and the individual psyche.  Even mass movements operate at the level of the individual.

Yet secrecy and institutional exploitation not only continue to thrive, they do so over the heads of the Berlusconis of the world.  Berlusconi has outed himself and given a strong impetus to the feminist movement in Italy.  He will eventually be overthrown and his downfall will be hard.  But what are we to make of the leaked private memo sent by Larry Summers when he was at the world bank?

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.

This is the way that private industry and finance operate: over our heads and faster than we can respond.  Companies like Monsanto have an army of actuaries, lawyers, engineers, public relations experts, and advertisers who manage the public image, stay ahead of state law, and, in general, muddy the waters.  In the face of such an onslaught, the only thing the state can do is nationalize, in which case the state leader is risking assassination.  And even nationalization is fraught with many of the same problems of institutional obscurantism.

This brings me to the crux: time.  The authoritarian leader may (apparently) suspend time in favor of an omnipresent now, but neoliberalism takes the opposite course: “Move faster and with more skill than states can keep up with, and we will effectively be above the law.”  While Europe may be oscillating between Sarkozy-style dismantling of the welfare state and Berlusconi style authoritarianism, Latin America is trying to cement a leftist national bloc (through BANCOSUR, for example) in the face of oligarchic pressure that operates in secret and quickly (Honduras being the most recent example; for those of you who believe that Honduras was simply an emergency effort to retain constitutionality, you need to beef up your reading; I’d start with upsidedownworld.org).

Anarchism, although by no means perfect, starts from the assumption that conflict is uneven and takes place in multiple temporalities.  For example, there is the difference between the rapid destabilization of development and the temporal horizon of families in the Appalachians whose water is being poisoned by coal mining.  Here, the conflict may radiate outward to the state level, but it begins with the local mandate: stop poisoning my water.  At work here is localized interest in conflict with capital, and the temporal plane in which it takes place is not at all the permanent now of authoritarianism, but rather a biologically-determined time frame relating to the lifespan of disease, the renewal time of lakes and streams, the duration of a clean-up project, etc.

We can wax rhetorically about how the large problems of capital require large solutions, and in some instances I am wholly in agreement.  But the problem remains that the “large” problems of capital are aggregates of diffuse and localized problems.  States, especially authoritarian ones, are good at mass-mobilization.  But the very nature of mass mobilization is that it often completely overlooks the important struggles altogether.


Filed under Uncategorized

12 responses to “Time, or Why Slavoj ŽiŽek Doesn’t Succeed in Burying Anarchism

  1. This is slightly off topic, but was Zizek arguing that authoritarian capitalism was completely new in Europe, or completely new, full stop? Your summary suggested the latter, which is inaccurate and blindly Euro-centric. East Asian authoritarian capitalism has been around for a long time. Fukuyama wrote two decades ago:

    “The most significant challenge being posed to the liberal universalism of the American and French revolutions today is not coming from the communist world, whose economic failures are evident for everyone to see, but from those societies in Asia which combine liberal economies with a kind of paternalistic authoritarianism.”

    Furthermore, calling both Italy and, say, Singapore “authoritarian” in the same sentence seems to stretch the word to a point of unhelpful elasticity.

  2. thatsomb

    OK, after a quick Google search I discovered that Zizek thinks “the virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe.” He also mentions that Chinese leaders have consciously looked to Singapore as a model.


  3. I think this is an incredibly insightful piece. Two points in particular, I think: Zizek’s focus on the leader (and it’s very original and interesting, the connection you make with his Eastern European experience) and the point about the temporality of the conflicts engendered by capitalism – are acute and convincing.
    I wonder whether some of your criticisms, though, are not assimilable within a ‘Zizekian’ frame: conflicts radiating from the local level to the state level, after all, fit very precisely his reworking of Hegel and the idea of universality. And is Zizek’s message really ‘take over state power!’ or ‘don’t refuse to engage with these questions at the level of state power’? It’s a real, not rhetorical, question: like many Zizek readers I wonder what his (apparent) injunctions to act/not act really mean.
    Further, when you write that ‘the “large” problems of capital are aggregates of diffuse and localized problems’, I accept it entirely, but can’t help recalling Zizek’s point in ‘The Metastases of Enjoyment’ that ‘For each individual act that pertains to the capitalist system, a set of external causes can be found which thoroughly explain the act’s occurrence…..(but) how does the capitalist system qua living totality reproduce itself through this network of indifferent, external circumstances – indifferent in the precise sense that their connection with the capitalist system is contingent and not comprised in the notion of capitalism’? The problem, it seems to me, is that your point and Zizek’s seem like mirror reverses of each other, circling around the same question without cancelling each other out – one point only reinforces the other (if capitalism is made up of contingent moments and acts, it’s all the more necessary to confront it as a totality/if capital works as a totality structuring our experience, it’s all the more necessary to confront it in its most local, contingent manifestations and begin from there). It’s obviously necessary to confront capital both ‘locally’ and ‘globally’ – I don’t think there’d be any disagreement here between you and Zizek, but does the question of where you start from analytically actually determine the path of confrontation? Is there a political deadlock manifest here somewhere, one that I’d fully admit Zizek doesn’t resolve?
    And if Zizek’s point about the growing likelihood of the emergence of ‘authoritarian capitalism’ as a normative model holds true (and of all his political predictions, I’d wager this holds truest), then are we simply confronting the speeded-up temporality of neoliberalism that you so acutely describe, or rather a marriage of that to the suspended ‘now’ of authoritarianism? Moreover, a truism: these conflicts unfold in space as well as in time, and while the temporality of conflict may be uneven, it may well be at the level of space (national, continental, global) that the strategies of neoliberalism actually come to represent a totality, and how to confront that? Another way of saying this: your brief and illuminating point about ‘local mandates’ develops something that Naomi Klein, Hardt and Negri, and many others have already pointed to – the necessity of small, localized, intense conflicts that ‘encircle’ rather than ‘overthrow’ the power or state and capital – and the point’s well taken. But when confronted with strategies knitted together across countries and continents (as the horrifying Larry Summers memo itself demonstrates) – strategies enforced locally but plotted globally and therefore capable of shifting from zones of greatest to zones of least resistance – what can movements do?
    I’d go along with you in your critique of Zizek’s obsession with the leader – I don’t believe such authoritarian capitalism needs the figure of the leader like Stalinism did. Indeed, if you look at the triumphalist neoliberalism ravaging, say, India today, you find a totalizing process of land acquisitions, ‘accumulation through dispossession’, jobless growth, zero social security for most people, and heightened disparities that coincide with the suspension of democratic liberties in large parts of the country but NOT with the elevation of a particular Master or leader. (I actually think India, which Zizek doesn’t seem to know anything of, will come to provide the best exemplification of his paradox ‘democracy without democracy’).
    I’ve a lot more to say but I’ve gone on long enough – sorry for rambling and congratulations on a great piece.

    • Tim

      Scribbles, you referenced The Shock Doctrine (by Naomi Klein) twice in your responses, and I have to say, I’ve read excerpts and reviews that suggest it is one of the most overrated books in recent years. Obviously I should reserve judgment until I read the book in its entirety, but that is an extremely difficult task after reading this devastating review by Jonathan Chait.


      As a liberal who has never really identified with palliated academic Marxism, it is frustrating to see many on the left praising Klein’s vision. It is the old siren song, a totalizing and hallucinatory economicism. I’m sorry, but the keys to understanding the Iraq War are not Milton Friedman and Halliburton.

      Wow, the last two paragraphs of Chait’s review are quite poignant: “What makes Klein’s thesis so odd, and so awful, is that in fact there is an unlimited supply of raw material, an abundant basis in reality, for the sorts of arguments that she wants to make.”

  4. I will second ‘scribbles.’ This is a thought-provoking piece. I’m starting to wonder if it might be helpful to separate East Asian authoritarian capitalism from the newer kind emerging elsewhere. The former is bound up with – and seemingly contingent upon – local customs and practices. The latter, not so much. Needs more investigation…

    • Aren’t they all bound up with local customs and practices – or rather, don’t those practices get recast (retroactively, as Zizek might say) as the necessary conditions for this authoritarian capitalism? For instance, the GDR’s ethics of ‘social solidarity’ has now been largely absorbed by militant right-wing racist groups in Germany; and the Tories in Britain, when they come to power next year, will almost certainly appeal to the same ‘British values’ that the BNP do, to establish an ideological base for their project (for which Blair cleared the ground).
      What’s frightening is that this new, emerging authoritarianism in the heartlands of liberal democracy, taking the shape of a complete hollowing out of any real difference between centre-left and centre-right (supplemented mostly by the failure of the ‘real’ left and the success of the right in capitalizing on this) may well become the most plausible way of managing capitalism. And if this model is generalized, there’ll be the emergence of something new – not fascism precisely, something we don’t really have a name for as yet. The right-wing parties’ alliance in the EU is a portent of the future I think.

    • “The former is bound up with – and seemingly contingent upon – local customs and practices. The latter, not so much.”

      In other words, “The East has culture, the West has the universal.” I’ve heard that one before.

      • Tim

        “In other words, ‘The East has culture, the West has the universal.’ I’ve heard that one before.”

        Touche. I was being careless. I didn’t mean to imply that, but I can see why you pounced. Allow me to rephrase and expand.

        Fukuyama was way ahead of Zizek on this, and he argued (two decades ago) that it is not surprising that overt authoritarianism is widespread in East Asia, given its Confucian traditions and a pervasive consensus about the “desirability of group harmony.”

        More important, though, figures like Lee Kuan Yew (former Prime Minster of Singapore) explicitly made the argument that “paternalistic authoritarianism is more compatible with consistently high rates of economic growth than liberal democracy.” Zizek argues in the LRB that this kind of ideology (counter-intuitive and “new” to your average Westerner) is “slowly but surely spreading around the globe.” If that is true, then Yew’s ideology has necessarily become detached from its origin in Confucian and group-oriented values. It is not “bound up with and contingent upon” these values.

        Now, I falsely implied that authoritarian capitalism, once freed of East Asian moorings, is not “bound up with” any culture at all. Obviously that’s not true. Putin’s rise certainly had something to do with Russian culture. Berlusconi ditto.

        All this, though, is beside the point of your post. Even though you didn’t explicitly say it, you were disagreeing with Zizek about the novelty of authoritarian capitalism. You argued that the institutions of international capitalism are de facto authoritarian. As your chief piece of evidence was a two-decade-old memo from Larry Summers at the World Bank, you evidently think things have been like this for a long time.

      • I think that’s a fair response, and your summary of my view at the end is well put. The Lee Kuan Yew comment is particularly interesting, as is the point scribbles made about the BNP in Britain. I certainly haven’t been immune to an uneasy sense of dread over the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe, but that dread also needs to be checked by the realization, as you attribute to me Tim, that de facto (capitalist) authoritarianism has been the norm for most of the world’s population outside of the G20 for much of the last fifty years. La Violencia in South America was precisely such a period of capitalist authoritarianism fraught with civil war, and the name of Milton Friedman is as much a part of capitalist authoritarianism in “less developed countries” (to use Summers’ shorthand) as it is free market “democracy” in the U.S. and Europe. I don’t think we should opt for the sanguine view of political scientists who articulate pat formulas about how things will flip in eight years’ time, but we should also be wary of calling the patterns outside of a fuller context.

      • The question of the newness of authoritarian capitalism is a tricky one. I think it’s absolutely true that ‘the institutions of international capitalism are de facto authoritarian’. And as you write, Abushri, much of the world outside the G20 has experienced the Friedmanite marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism in horrific ways at various points over the last few decades. Tim’s point about the specific cultural origins of authoritarian capitalism and how it’s become detached from these moorings is also interesting, and I think a classic example of how specific, locally grounded practices achieve universality.

        I agree about the dangers of exaggerating the newness of this on the basis of its new potency within G20 countries. But I do think there are, perhaps, two important shifts which Zizek partially identifies. First, when he anticipates that this is a state of affairs that’s gradually becoming normative – he may be right or wrong, but if he’s right then that’s a grim scenario. Because a change in what’s thinkable may appear merely cosmetic (power is exercised in despotic ways regardless of formal legal regimes and constraints, etc.) but nevertheless portends a sinister shift, where the horizons of despotic control (anti-terror laws, surveillance mechanisms, the acceptability of torture a la Alan Dershowitz, etc) get extended and accepted, and the boundaries of freedom and unfreedom, to use the obvious terms, are altered both in political arrangements and lived experience. So it’s not just the experience of authoritarian capitalism that’s at issue here: what’s at issue, rather, is that earlier disavowals of this are displaced by its growing normativity.

        Second, and perhaps a buttress to the above: the novelty of the institutional mechanisms through which such a normative regime is established. Friedmanite neoliberalism was wedded to horrific despotic regimes in Latin America, Indonesia and elsewhere, as Naomi Klein, for instance, has described so well, but perhaps the change we’re discussing is happening at another level. Here the formal apparatuses of democracy are hollowed out from within rather than simply displaced by overt authoritarianism. The collapse of political opposition and/or the growing absence of any substantive difference between centre-left and centre-right in several countries associated with formal liberal democracy (the UK, Italy, Russia, Germany are the obvious examples; India I think is in some ways the starkest – but perhaps I fetishize my own experience there!) WITHIN a context where formally democratic structures persist is perhaps the big shift here. That capitalism and authoritarianism can coexist happily is evident enough: it’s the paradoxical happy coexistence of democracy and authoritarianism, and the spread of states of exception within ‘democratic’ states, that might be new, in scale and spread if not in form.

  5. @scribbles: Thank you very much for your thoughtful feedback.

    I think that Žižek does anticipate many of my points. Indeed, last night he gave another lecture here, this time on Hegel, and he argued that Hegel’s true insight was not the “necessity of contingency,” i.e., that contingent events prove to be necessary because they took place, but rather, the contingency of necessity, i.e., that the necessary historical movements are actually quite contingent and came into existence by suppressing a host of other historical events (almost deconstructionist, no?). This implies that the small aggregate events that go to make up the historical “movement” could have been different and could have differently determined the totality.

    At the same time, and it’s difficult here to incorporate a general impression into a system, Žižek does in fact stress the world leaders (and thus the bounded nation state) when he talks about the new authoritarian capitalism and elides the international (or “transnational,” if that’s the concept you prefer) dimensions. Thus, authoritarian capitalism within China is more important than China’s blatant neoliberalism in South Asia and Africa (I asked him about this, and he was ambivalent: maybe China will help African countries to obtain a strong image in the West; to me, it bears more resemblance to the neoliberal model of the U.S.: offer loans for development, and when development fails, gain control of raw resources). This seems similar to the mistake made by European historiographers and philosophers who tried to explain Hitler without including colonialism in their calculations. They ignored that the model used by Hitler was simply the colonial model applied to Europe. In this case, the mistake is to see nation states – and non-G20 nation states in particular – as operating with any major autonomy within the system.

    This apparently runs counter to the defense of localism that I presented above. But the problem is, I see the rule of capital right now as one of diffusion not consolidation. I realize that the wealth gap has vastly increased in the last fifty years and that the wealthiest 1% owns a far vaster share of the wealth than before, but they own this wealth through a process of – and here, your point about space is well taken – spatial diffusion (capitalizing on uneven geography). The totality that a nation state might provide is deliberately eschewed. This is the network problem: kill the Nazi party, and you kill Nazism. Kill Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch and you do not kill the right wing media machine. At his lecture, Žižek said that you beat fundamentalism by changing the elements in liberal tolerance that create terrorism (they are, for him, part of the same package). There are also certain idealist computer programmers who believe that you could find a link to the entire system and take it down in a single blow. But this link doesn’t exist. It’s not that we just aren’t looking hard enough, it’s that the system has been designed in such a way as to deliberately exclude this linkage (although, arguably, oil is at the heart of the beast).

    None of what I have said excludes engagement at the level of state power. Is it inherently corrupting? That seems both naive and beside the point. Naive, not because the answer is no, but because the answer is yes, and we have to decide what to do, nevertheless. Beside the point because the game has, in some sense, already been laid out for us, and we have to operate from that assumption.

  6. naturesson

    I recently read a blog in which a Finnish academic socialist writes that it should be possible to disassociate the figure of Lenin from the historical person called Lenin, to separate the name from the person and the consequences he effected on the world, and in this way to rehabilitate Lenin and use him for a new critical politics of anti-capitalism. Is it not symptomatic of the state of leftist discourse that it so stubbornly continues to put representation before the real, and to engage with the ghosts of dead dictators more than anything living?

    I have tried in vain to challenge leftists of this persuasion to discuss the violence of technological civilization as such, as opposed to capitalism in particular, but they say that it distracts from the real issue, which in their view is still class struggle. It is as though the whole world can go to hell as far as they’re concerned, as long as they have control over radical discourse and can force it into the confines of their cherished dialectic. I cannot help but be reminded of this ideological tendency when I listen to professional socialists like Slavoj Žižek.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s