The Liberal Stalinist
He likes to portray himself as an outsider, a performer, the peripatetic circus man; the clown. He is always buzzing about! A gadfly revelling in the cries and angry rebuffs, the yelps of irritation, his iconoclastic wit provokes amongst the overly serious and slow of mind. He loves to upset people, although we all know it is only harmless fun and academic games. A Bruce Forsyth of the conference circuit who is careful always to remind us with a well-timed wink that his risqué jokes and theoretical provocations will not upset the children.
I’ve not read a single one of his books, though he has written many. I’ve read a few articles, and they are enough: too thin to be worth recalling. It is the reason, I suspect, he’s so in demand: light entertainment for the thinking classes and some serious comedy for the rest, who’ll find it easy enough amongst the glossy pages of the Sunday supplements. The headmaster and the civil servant allowed for once to giggle (“those academics, hey?”) and to congratulate themselves on their own cleverness; not worrying overly much about the passages they do not understand; it is, after all, what you would expect when an amateur meets a professional on the latter’s familiar terrain. “He has a brain that’s for sure”, they might say, pleased to have understood just a bit of what they have read. “Though I haven’t lost it either; could still find my way around Hegel if only the wife would let me…”
I’ve written about Zizek before; and I’ve got another piece in draft, that I may finish one day. Three pieces about a minor thinker, with little originality, and who will vanish like newspaper print on the day the fashions end… I cannot justify myself, dear reader. I’d like to say, to make this piece worth reading, to give it at least some value, that he represents a wider phenomenon, and is therefore important as a symbol of our contemporary predicament. That we can understand our culture through a study of this one man is the reason I yearn to give you. This is not altogether untrue. He is the intellectual supermodel who creates fake controversy so that the products she advertises sell in their millions – in his case all that expensive internet space around his Guardian articles. Every age has them, to a greater or lesser degree. A close look at Zizek potentially an insight into our own peculiarly mediated world, which needs well-educated people who are yet also strangely ignorant; their knowledge of subjects, even (especially?) amongst university graduates, often extraordinarily thin; the commentariat the source for most of their opinions.1 But that is not the reason I have written this piece. A guilty pleasure, a spasm of emotion; the craving for ice cream… Yes, I am afraid, my friends, that’s the sum of it.
The London riots have tickled his fancy, and he has decided to write about them. Typically, he stands in the middle of the road shouting abuse at those on either side. Conservatives and liberals have got it wrong, it seems; which is probable, they often do – we tend not to read the newspapers, the home for most politicos, for original thought. Then he quotes Stalin (of course), a thrill shuddering down the page, and proceeds to tell us what the real problems are…
The London riots have tickled his fancy, and he has decided to write about them. Typically, he stands in the middle of the road shouting abuse at those on either side. Conservatives and liberals have got it wrong, it seems; which is probable, they often do – we tend not to read the newspapers, the home for most politicos, for original thought. Then he quotes Stalin (of course), a thrill shuddering down the page, and proceeds to tell us what the real problems are…
The first paragraph begins with a good story. A man suspected of stealing walks out of the factory each night with an empty wheelbarrow.2 It takes a while for the authorities to realise it is the wheelbarrow that he is stealing. He then tells us what all the other commentators have missed: the riots have no meaning at all! They are simply an outburst, “a blind acting out”, that have no purpose beyond the reflexive gestures themselves. They are politically insignificant and thus a symbol of our non-ideological age.3 He then sets up a simple dichotomy:
What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
All this is rather odd for a supposedly stellar thinker, who questions all presuppositions. For according to the conventional wisdom this is a non-ideological age: living in the end of history, as some have argued, we are all just problem solvers now.4 Inevitably this common sense view turns out to be incorrect – will humans ever throw off their religious mentalities? -, for when considered a little more closely our time seems one of fundamentalisms, where evangelicals on all sides are aggressively “hot”: Western neo-liberals; Wahhabists and Shiite clerics; Christians and ultra-Darwinists…5 This is a religious age, and we have the wars to prove it.
Of course, this is not the world of Marx and Lenin, of the class war and the Bolshevik vanguard.6 It is not the world of Zizek’s youth, in Yugoslavia. All those ideas and causes that were so exciting in the first half of the 20th century, and which made a brief comeback in the sixties, had run their course by the time he was a young man.7 Clapped out then they have disappeared now, like the Trabant his parents may once have owned. This world, fading away in the seventies, except for the billboard posters and television adverts that proclaimed its eternal vitality, has gone. And so, therefore, in the typical logic of the confused and egocentric mind, has all ideology. For if my religion has been junked then all must follow it onto the scrap heap! Zizek, like many intellectuals, has not quite grown up; nostalgic for a childhood that never really existed.
The theoretical junk shop that was Eastern Europe may give us a clue to his mode of thought. Zizek’s youth was spent during a period when the ideological propaganda was obviously phoney, and completely out of sync with the declining realities.8 He is also an intellectual for whom ideas are more important than things.9 Someone, therefore, who is more likely to be affected by the propaganda than the ordinary person who is only too aware of the material shortcomings of an increasingly dysfunctional society.10 What an odd place to be!11 To live inside an ideological reality which you know is fake; and yet which you still partly believe in.12 If you are of a particular cast of mind this realisation, that you are living inside a collapsing ideology, can be intoxicating. There is the revelation: I can do anything with thought!13 Because it is not real there are no restrictions imposed by experience and simple facts. You can think anything! You can even make up your own fictions and call them truth; arguing that you are no different from the party hacks in the official journals. And you’re right! Indeed, what you do is better – because it is the truth. You’ve hardly started and already you’ve encountered a paradox. How liberating! and yet how deadly: cut off from the realities of experienced life will render most of such thought sterile and illusionary. For in those times where there is a disconnect between ideology and daily experience the tendency will be for intellectuals to retreat into ideas; and so trap themselves inside the minds of other thinkers.14 Derrida and Deleuze the enlightened architects who make the sophisticated playpens where the intelligent children can have their fun; the windows covered up with Freudian case histories, the floor strewn with D.W. Winnicott’s lecture notes…
One of the games intellectuals like to play is to reduce the complexities of the world to simple opposites (them or us) to which specific values (good or bad) are given. And we, dear reader, are then expected to make our choice, which they believe is so full of fate and dread.15 Like unbelievers on the verge of baptism we must decide between heaven and hell; in this case between playing by the rules (thus losing our identity) or by committing violence (which destroys us). Of course, there are people who will happily choose either alternative, seeing no problem in our reverend’s simple formulation. To a large extent their share his faith in our lack of individual liberty: “it was determined, wasn’t it?” - by God, by the genes, by the class struggle; or even by the Big Bang long ago.16 Like him, they will be of a religious cast of mind. They have faith in our un-freedom.
If only life was so simple. We could pension off thinking.17
Although modern capitalism is extremely powerful and globally persuasive it doesn’t follow there are no alternatives, and that the only response is reflexive violence. Even within capitalism itself there are different and competing models – American, European, the gangster capitalism of post-Soviet Russia, and the developmental states of East Asia. In Britain there has been two kinds of capitalism in my lifetime: social democracy and today’s neo-liberalism; or what some call “privatized-Keynesian”.18 It is arguable that these differences are just as important, if not more so, than the conflict between Russian Communism (a form of primitive state capitalism for under-developed countries; thus its appeal to the Third World) and the West after 1917.19 The twentieth century is therefore not the history of a battle between socialism and capitalism, ending in the former’s defeat in 1989. The historical interactions were more nuanced than this: socialism stopped being a revolutionary movement in the 1920s, when it became incorporated into the national economy; a transition which was almost complete by 1945.20 The fall of the USSR due to a bureaucratic system that was incapable to adapting to the rapid changes in the world economy that took place from the 1960s; the huge social, political and cultural upheavals that destabilized the West destroying a state that could not successfully incorporate them into its governing structures.
Such views are not easy for Zizek, who is trapped within his simple binary oppositions;21 though always he is pretending to escape from them. You must either submit totally to the system or smash it all up is his operating principle. It is this dilemma that millions of people are resisting, and in thousands of different ways; and who are not prepared to accept the lazy choice between the banksters and the extremists with their politics of terror. They would not recognise such an obviously cartoon world, which, and this is surely clear, does not allow for their existence. Zizek, too busy reading Lacan and Lenin, hasn’t the time to leave the campus to walk among the city streets and talk to the La Monte Young enthusiasts, Quaker activists, or the volunteers at the Rudolf Steiner schools.22 Reformers and non-conformists, in a word, society’s eccentrics, are not allowed into this academic’s all too tidy study.
In the internet version Mark Duggan gets an early mention. He nowhere appears in the print version. This makes the arguments in the paper copy easier for Zizek to sustain.
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.23
Capitalism has taken over the world and transformed it into a… void? Yet when I go Germany or France they seem obviously different from England; although there is still much I recognise: everyone eats and drinks, and laughs over funny jokes. While young people kiss and old people grumble about the sharpness of the autumn wind. Clearly the culture is still structuring the economy24 and capitalism has yet to remove the internal organs of human beings; while physical spaces have not been replaced by virtual worlds; although maybe one day… is Badiou a prophet of the future?
It is a simple error, and typical of an intellectual like Zizek who turns real things into words, which, bookman that he is, then becomes the meaning of our present reality. As if most of us navigated around town using Hayek and Milton Friedman, rather than using our own eyes and legs. As if we spent all our time talking about ideas, rather than doing things. Such a view also suggests a predictable blind spot – the aging intellectual’s ignorance about new technology. For one of the curious aspects of websites such as Facebook, at least for the unwary (Alain Badiou?), is their physicality: they tend to record what people have either actually done or what they intend to do in the near future. That is, even the most “worldless” social space requires a community of real friends behind it; unlike this article, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which can exist independently of the entire population of Great Britain. They need no one in order to exist.
Scholars have often lived like monks: think of the early scientific revolution in the 17th century with its vast networks of correspondence – yesterday’s European wide web – that connected thinkers like Locke and Leibniz who never met.25 This suggests that Zizek is mistaking his own virtual existence for a society who has never heard of him; and who are too busy doing things to care. He thus forgets about the campaigns against the arms industry, the Palestinian Solidarity movements, the English Defence League, the Tamils holding up the traffic on Parliament Square, or the Neo Fascists in most of the countries on the continent. Alone in his study, with the curtains drawn, and his angle poise lamp leaning over his shoulder, he doesn’t notice these groups marching under his windows; too engrossed in creating a paradox in Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; the second paragraph on page 160 of the Pelican edition, if you look hard enough.
Only Big Ideas count. And luckily Hegel and Lacan, his favourites, are the equivalent of bling on the intellectual celebrity circuit. Thus he can be profound and popular at the same time. If we were crude we wouldn’t hesitate in finding the right words for this state of affairs: “you lucky bastard!”
Unlike Zizek, most of us work in offices. These are places full of politics. We are also aware when local hospitals close, and neighbourhood schools are condemned as failing. We protested on the streets before Blair went into Iraq. Burt Bacharach wrote a protest song against George Bush… Yet few of us are communists, and not many now belong to the mainstream political parties. This is what Zizek means when he talks about “worldlessness”. The old ideologies, that created the avenues and boulevards through which the “proletariat”, “the expropriating classes” and “the producers of surplus value” could march triumphantly, have all been bulldozed down; to be replaced by smaller and yet more tangible concerns – libraries, the minutiae of international law,26 and meals on wheels. Although he seems to have overlooked the political Right,27 who have built a huge metropolis, with its skyscrapers and office blocks made out of “individual enterprise”, “the market” and “free trade”. Ideology still exists, but now it is the Right that employs all the hegemonic concepts.28
In the internet version the tensions in the essay are greater, for the writer has to overcome one imposing obstacle of fact: the protest began as a rational and political response to the killing of a young man. Only later, for reasons that are not clear, but which seem linked to police intransigence, the protest became violent, later spreading to other parts of the country; but mostly London. That is, the trigger for the riots contradicts the entire piece – it was a demonstration against injustice. Strange Zizek doesn’t notice this; though one suspects he has – he is no fool. He knows that in the game of ideas, nothing really matters; certainly not facts. In this regard intellectuals often behave like newspaper columnists, where truth is less important than comment and opinion; which generates controversy and guarantees response, and thus popularity; and high score ratings.29 It is one of the reasons why post-modernism became so popular in the academy. It is very close in spirit to a media they need to believe mirrors the mundane world, so as to confirm the reality of their own illusory theories. For if the manufactured world of the television studio is genuine then their crazy ideas really are the truth!30
Notice how we have returned to the communist apparatchiks obsessively dusting the shelves of their institutional libraries; hiding the soiled tissues and the dried out pens behind the collected works of Friedrich Engels and Eduard Bernstein, whose spines they buff up rigorously.31 Although these books look immaculate, and are endlessly quoted, they are never read; the reason the rubbish can be safely hidden behind them. The greats turned into myths, which hide the ugliness of the ruling elite from the ideological managers whose task is to critically support them; and which they do, overwhelmingly.32
Zizek fits very easily into this make-believe universe.33
After informing us of the real nature of the riots, a non-ideological reflex, he patronises the mainstream explanations, which he dismisses. He is not entirely wrong. As I have previously written, I do not think that the rioting had any general meaning – in this I agree with him. The riot created its own momentum, and the majority who participated either took advantage of the situation or were transformed into rioters by the riot itself. Zizek, however, wants to go much further than this. He wants to argue that such reflexive behaviour is a symbol of a wider social phenomenon: our lack of an ideological purpose.34 The riots thus offer proof for his theories. Like so much of this kind of thinking, which requires jumping across immense empirical ravines, it involves a very large non sequitur. For you cannot go so easily from the particular to the general; from a single riot to a cultural malaise. There are many gaps you must fill in first. It is one of the reasons why history, with its concern about particulars, is so troublesome for the theorist – like a clever child in the classroom it is always jumping up with some inconvenient question -, forcing us to work much harder to reach our conclusions.
These teenagers and young adults represent, in my view, nothing beyond themselves.35 Riots are relatively rare occurrences, and tend to be triggered by some specific event, often involving the legal system and the police.36 Their ferocity and extent will depend on a number of factors: the resonance of the original injustice together with wider social and economic forces, which, especially in times of recession, can swell the ranks of the disaffected, who are always a minority and are quite different from the political class in the local communities whose tendency is to organise activities rather than destroy things.37 Thus I would be surprised if those campaigning to save Kensal Rise Library were to later smash up Kilburn High Road.38
To understand a riot we need to look at the specific causes of its origin, which are usually different from those factors that increase its momentum, sucking in more people and unleashing its violence. The latter will tend to arise from within the riot itself. That is, there are two quite different sets of causal factors. In addition, we should treat these events, at least initially, as unique phenomena; and be puzzled by them. Walking in Hackney during the aftermath of the riot my main reaction was one of uncertainty. What actually is going on? I thought. Zizek does not have these doubts. And when he comes to analyse the riot he does the reverse to what I have suggested. Indeed he has no interest in what happened in London at all; and is not prepared think about the facts on the ground, which suggest that after the initial outbreak in Tottenham, which did have a political cause (and therefore a political value, thus contradicting his main thesis), the rest was semi-planned or spontaneous action arising out of the event itself. But Zizek is not concerned with these details. He wants these meaningless acts to have meaning! He wants to turn them into a symbol (that old scholastic impulse), and use it to reveal the truth about our society. This is his mistake. It is the old story of our modern press, where after young boys murder a child the papers spend the next month talking about the state of the nation. As if the 1990s were worse than the 1960s because a baby was killed by two children. Mary Bell, meanwhile, is sidelined, and quietly forgotten.
Once the riots have been left behind Zizek can set his talents free.
When, in the 1990s, the Conservatives launched their ‘back to basics’ campaign, its obscene complement was revealed by Norman Tebbit: ‘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.
This is clever and has some truth, but not in way perhaps Zizek would accept. Apart from the few exceptions there were no beasts on the streets of Hackney, only the monsters created by the journalists and TV presenters who described them as such. As some have commented, myself included, the riots were relatively civilised – my experience was very different from the images portrayed by the helicopter cameras. Or maybe this is what he means by an ideological “beast”: a moderate version of the original, a kind of Liberal Democrat of the jungle. However, I do not think this is quite what Zizek intends. Rather, he is arguing that this excursion into smash and grab39 is the extreme expression of capitalism’s consumer desire, from out of which it arises. Businesses need us to be “wild things” so that we impetuously buy their products; and the inevitable result is what we witnessed on Mare Street and Walworth Road.40 A brilliant series by Adam Curtis on advertising makes this very point. But as always Zizek needs to go further: capitalism turns us into “capitalist beasts”. We don’t do shopping, we are shoppers, consuming things is our contemporary essence; an untamed desire for more and more stuff turning the High Street into a savannah full of desperate hunting packs.41 Bingo! The riots have thus revealed our underlying animal nature, now modified by product placement and the hard sell.42
But then how is this different from the rioting in pre-capitalist societies, our own included? Isn’t such behaviour universal when order breaks down; and thus bears little relation to the prevailing ideology, believed here to be determinate? More importantly, it misses something essential in the modern psyche, brilliantly brought out in a recent review by Jenny Diski:
…Souhami breaks with the police procedural narrative… to cite the Stanford experiment of 1972 in which small children were left alone in a room for 15 minutes with a marshmallow: if they didn’t eat it they would get two later on. Follow-ups 14 years on suggested that the 30 per cent who held out had ‘better coping skills, were more socially competent, self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable and academically successful’…
Dagmar’s murderer would have eaten the marshmallow immediately. Souhami presents Sinclair, boy and man, as constitutionally unable to resist immediate gratification. ‘If he saw something he wanted he took it. He didn’t see the wrong in it, only the gratification if it worked. It was his tactic for survival and a behaviour pattern that became entrenched. He was impulsive, aggressive and anxious and his life quickly became chaotic.’… There is no suggestion that his many siblings suffered from the same problems, so although the size and poverty of the family he was born into are acknowledged as being implicated in his greed, they aren’t presented as an excuse, or as a solution to the mystery of why an individual fails to develop an average degree of self-control. It seems reasonable to suppose that the irresistible urgency of passing desires is at the root of much lifelong recidivism then and now. (He saw, he wanted)
The essence of a civilised life is self-restraint. This is what brings us the ultimate rewards. Anyone who works in an office knows this to be true. Of course, this self-control is in tension with the needs of industry, which requires no restraint on our spending desires. However, even the largest corporations don’t encourage us to bunk off work and shop when the inspiration takes us. How then would they manufacture Slavoj Zizek t-shirts?43
One of the interesting aspects of contemporary life, and perhaps what makes it peculiarly modern, is the idea that civilisation must not only accommodate animal desires - to be civilised we have to recognise, even express, the beast inside us - but at bottom it is little more than these. It is our natural instincts, those attributes we share with other organisms, and not the uniqueness of Homo sapiens, that is the essence of our humanity. Fundamentally we are nothing more than animals.44 This would have been an anathema to an older aristocratic culture, or at least those parts of it concerned with its image and ideology, which tended to stress the uniquely human, concentrating on our minds and our willingness to follow moral precepts.45 When people attack religion this is really their target.46
Zizek’s rather crude formulation misses these nuances. It is the failure of the polemicist, who tends to lack subtlety; thus a discussion about changing cultural attitudes to sex ends up (inevitably?) with porn. Extremes are easy to see. They also get other people angry. However, what they don’t do is describe the majoritarian culture and the mechanisms that underpin it, surely what we must understand if sense is to be made of the society; and which often requires detailed work, and a feeling for actual experience.
Controversialists tend also to be literal-minded.
For of course he is misreading the Major government and the statements of the egregious Norman Tebbit. The whole Back to Basics thing was a confused attempt to deal with the effects of policies that were destroying communities, or at least the livelihoods, of natural Tory voters – the small shopkeepers and the little businessmen were being replaced by franchises and large chains; the charity shops filling up the market towns as Tesco and Sainsbury invaded its suburbs –, but which tended to get mixed up with the hated sexual revolution of the 1960s; blamed for this group’s decline.47 It was an attempt to appeal to an older gentility, of the 1950s and beyond, when the little man, the petite bourgeois, was a secure and respected presence in these small urban communities. It was nostalgia, aimed particularly at the elderly party membership, that was destined to fail as big business and financial capital had taken over the Conservative Party by then; while the easing of sexual mores could not be so easily contained; especially with a more independent press, one of the prices the Tories paid for their power, keen to expose every sexual peccadillo; especially when politicians seemed ready to threaten their commercial freedom. In an interesting way it was an attempt to impose an ideology, which was defeated by the very thing that Zizek believes it tried justify: desire – power, greed, sex, consumerism - in all its forms. He, in the sloppy way of controversialists, has been too quick to confine “tribalism” and “territoriality” within a single meaning, hoping we wouldn’t notice the wonderful plazas and colourful temples they have produced in the localities where they have flourished.48 Should I stop admiring George Eliot and Rosamund Lehmann because they appeal to English “tribalism”? Should I become indifferent to Norwich in order to lose my “basic” sense of “territoriality”; that is my aesthetic and emotional responses to its streets and little side alleys, to the market place and the cathedral close? One of the greatest mistakes of the West, and particularly its progressives, has been its tendency to dismiss the tribal cultures of the rest of the world as primitive and barbarian; thus ignoring the civility and social organisation that exists at their core.49 On this (Western) view such societies serve one purpose only – to be transformed.50
Barbarian impulses exist in all cultures, no matter how restrained its general behaviour. Thus the dainty headmistress who while pouring Lady Grey into china cups, blue gentians on a pink background, talks to her visitors about removing the Poles and Romanians from our farms and restaurants. Removing them. One of the interesting aspects about modern life is the civility of our cruelty – we can anaesthetize it by using technical terms, and by getting other people to do the job for us. Dennis Potter once exposed this mindset by having the Devil in his Brimstone and Treacle glory over the inhuman details of the repatriation of British subjects. Needless to say the respectable father begins to doubt his ideas when confronted with the horrible consequences of his beliefs. This is such an important insight! People are far more humane than their words.51 It is one of the reasons why an institution should not be run by intellectuals, most of whom seem incapable of understanding this simple truth; believing instead that in a conflict between ideas and people it is the latter who must give in.52
Is Zizek unaware of this? I expect not. However, he prefers to muck about with words and phrases; for with no obvious influence in the real world he can play the controversialist, knowing there will be no consequences to his provocations.53 And thus in a strange way he comes to resemble Tebbit himself, who also liked to épater le bourgeois, although in his case the target was the liberal intelligentsia – Zizek if he had lived in Britain then.54
After Badiou: Marcuse. The instrumental use of sex in modern capitalism is interesting. Adam Curtis, as I have previously mentioned, did a brilliant series on it.55 However, porn played no part in this documentary; Curtis correctly identifying its miniscule role in the functioning of the society; not like the control and stimulation of our emotions through television adverts and the sensory onslaught of the local high street, which enormously affects our responses to the urban environment.56 Marcuse was too much of his time, too influenced by Freud, who saw sex everywhere, to have a real understanding of its impact on the culture. He was also a “totalizing” thinker who wanted all social data to submit to capitalist oppression.57 The enormous size of the system, the overwhelming force of its hegemonic power, reducing constructive human initiative to zilch. He was a kind of modern day Martin Luther, although of course his political values were different.58 In such worldviews we must, either cheerfully or reluctantly, give ourselves up to God’s will.
Once again we have returned to the core of Zizek’s thought: it has no room for individual freedom.
His attack on the liberals is more focussed, perhaps because it is easier: they only look at the “objective conditions”, and do not look at the reasons why this particular riot started at this specific time. Here he is correct, and I agree with him absolutely.
Of course to be true is often to be boring…
The reason was that the truth was just average
On the iniquity scale, and nobody wanted to get involved.
(John Ashberry, Girls on the Run)
The average doesn’t sell lots of books or interest many interviewers.59 So rather than just criticise both these political views, which are really little more than large generalizations with little content, he attacks them aggressively: “they are both worse”, as Stalin would have said. Stalin! You’re at a party, and the people ignore you, and when given the chance to talk the guests find you dull and predictably conventional. What do you do? Shout fire! No. This is too extreme. Instead, with fingertips pulling the dress a fraction from her waist - bared at the back it is made of black velvet with a trim of fine lace squeezed tight up against the chin; large off-white buttons on a route march over her fine figure from her neck to her calves - you dribble a little champagne down the hostess’ knickers and legs, collecting it in a plastic glass around her ankles. You smile. She smiles. And you ask her to drink the “nectar” you have poured into the “chalice” you have named for the occasion… Stalin! Here is the clown pushed into the circus tent to brighten up a tired line of paragraphs.
It is a shame, for what he writes is sensible: don’t let calls of racism stop you finding out more about the riots. Although with Zizek nothing is so simple. He inverts the real nature of the rioting to create some imagined future where there will be a white backlash arising out the political class’ self interest and lack of curiosity in their host nation. Nevertheless, his remarks are well judged: don’t get trapped in class war clichés of the poor against the rich. If anything, and again he is surely right, this was one kind of poor against another; those with nothing against those who have acquired at least some small thing – such as the café owner or hairdresser in Hoxton Street. He goes too far, of course, for even here he is making patterns that probably do not exist: the targets are too random and diverse to suggest such social targeting: there were many riots, each with their own prejudices; and only some would have a resentment against a local business, usually for a very special reason.60
Running out of sensible ideas he quotes Zygmunt Bauman:
[He] 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.
There are very few things in life that do not contain at least some truth. It could be said simpler, there could be less jargon, but the analysis seems to be generally true: for many, though not all, the riots were a form of shopping. Of course, Zizek can’t leave it at. He wouldn’t be the international celebrity he is if he did. So, desperate to give a metaphysical meaning to proceedings, all Stalinists are priests at heart, he argues that this “extreme shopping” is a kind of social protest. It is possible. For some this may have been the case; stealing a pack of condoms a self-conscious finger at the CCTV cameras. But as eye-witness reports have shown many, when they weren’t in organised gangs, simply followed the pressure of events; picking up stuff because the weight of the situation was too strong to resist.61 Riots, let us not forget, creates rioters. Zizek is not satisfied with such banality. On the contrary, he needs the event to have a meaning, which he can extrapolate to the rest of the society. It’s what we would expect from an intellectual who is more concerned with general “laws” than particular cases. And once he has achieved this, it is an excellent performance, a Houdini escaping from his own chains, he finds that the riots were ideological after all – irony has saved the day. For in a society where shopping is the new religion parodying it becomes a rebellious gesture. How smart this man is! Though one begins to wonder how many intellectuals were amongst the rioting crowd… Zizek assuming a self-awareness amongst the kids that must have been largely non-existent.
Non-ideology is really just another kind of ideology, it seems. Clearly the conventional wisdom is wrong.
One laughs at (and secretly admires) his ingenuity. For here is a person trapped within the liberal world, and from which he is trying so desperately hard to escape;62 clambering down the Guardian’s office building using the rope he made from the pages of Hegel’s Outlines of the Philosophy of Right. Unfortunately… the braided paper is not strong enough… it breaks… and… we see him fall…
How can violence not be self-assertive? Can you really assert yourself only through the pages of Tel Quel and Lingua Franca? Setting fire to a carpet shop is surely saying something, although the action doesn’t contain any full stops and semi-colons. It is here that Zizek gives himself away: protest only means something if it is from “a revolutionary point of view”; that is, from an ideology he himself dictates into the rioters’ megaphone.63 Frustration, anger, a punch in the face, is not an act of assertive will unless it also demands the overthrow of the ruling elite. Only the saved, in modern parlance the self-conscious vanguard, can commit revolutionary violence, is his considered position. Any other sort is not acceptable. It is useless. And therefore without value. How tame.64 And how capitalist! Even Bentham may have agreed with our New Age Stalinist, on this point at least.
Zizek is playing with words. Like a clever PR consultant he has changed their meaning, so that “bad” becomes “good”, and “mad” is “truly astonishing”. Those that are bored with the world may find this interesting. And in truth, I was amused as I read it between mouthfuls of muesli.
It is also another example of the despair of the Left intelligentsia with the once lauded proletariat - now they can’t even trust them with a riot.65 Although, and very clearly, such a caveat reveals the central assumption behind this article: only intellectuals have the right to define what is and what is not acceptable action. Stalin again!
But let us return to the performance.
Once Houdini has escaped from his ropes and chains he can shout and dance, and congratulate himself on his own brilliance. He can also write about revolution and violence and carnival; all the clichés of the contemporary academic Left. However, Zizek is cleverer than his more moderate cohorts; we wouldn’t read him if he wasn’t. Thus his conclusion: the rioters are really envious and desperate consumers; although the radical intellectuals have dressed them up in the jackets of Lenin and the berets of Che Guevara. And thus he removes the heaters from the hot air balloons of his Left wing audience, who, he implies, want to float away inside a fanciful ideology.66 How he laughs as they tumble…
Who reads Zizek? Do the Right pay him much attention? For them, I guess, he doesn’t seem worth bothering about. But for the Left he offers something, coming out, as he does, of the supposedly progressive world of post-modern academia, where literary critics quote Gramsci and Deleuze, and believe their (often arcane) work delegitimizes the ruling establishment.67 Is this the milieu where his audience resides? An essentially academic intelligentsia who get their frissons from small ironies? And who enjoy the excitement of their own prejudices being attacked, although very lightly, and with endless qualifying clauses – always the writer must tiptoe around the margins of their underlying assumptions. “And anyway, he cannot really mean what he says; he is too clever for that” - the dinner table conversation wafts in between my sentences as I type this paragraph. Is this his audience? I believe it is. Who knows, they might even be reading these words…
And thus we have the writings of Zizek, who, if I may be allowed a little conceit, plays the role of Vincent Price for the Left liberal intelligentsia when they want to see modern capitalism as a horror show.
After extracting the maximum of meaning from the riots he throws them into the trashcan:
[They] 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.
There is something to this idea (albeit one has to be careful of saying that state violence is impotent – it seriously underestimates both the power and the success of the West’s military interventions; thus George W. Bush was able to remove the Taliban from office, while Cameron & Co did kill Gaddafi);68 although we will have to go much deeper than Zizek to make sense of it.
According to Dave Hill the police refer to their riot gear as NATOs. That is, they see themselves as an armed and occupying force. This suggests that policing and armed intervention are beginning to merge; as law and order becomes security against some general threat to the state and the nation: terrorism, criminal gangs, drug dealers, even petty criminals, now viewed as the establishment’s “enemies”.69 It is the inevitable outcome of a process that has been happening for thirty years, where the poor have been turned into an “underclass”, and the resistance to American and British imperialism is deemed “terror”.70 The population and the political class are beginning to separate; so that much of the country is starting to become a foreign land to our rulers; and which suggests that we are returning to a time before the nation state where the Crown and the court were to a large extent removed from the people they ruled.71
This is perhaps a little too contingent for Zizek, too much of Tuesday morning in Jane’s Deli in Cromwell Street and Thursday afternoon at Jack’s Music Emporium on Tudor Drive, to squeeze into some tight metaphysical theory. To investigate these problems requires considering too many facts, and involves far too much reality, for a theorist to easily manipulate.72
His views are revealing in another way: by reducing terrorism to a religious meaning doesn’t Zizek sound just a little like Samuel Huntington and his “clash of civilisations”?73 Once again he reveals his mainstream bias, although disguised amongst fancy rhetoric. If we look carefully, following him down Oxford Street as he heads for John Lewis, we can see the M&S shirt under his Maoist jacket and Art Nouveau scarf. So conventional! Even his rebellions are predictable. A typical teenager.
Do I really need to write that Islamic terrorism has many purposes and causes: from the expulsion of Russians out of Kabul to revenge for Britain’s invasion of Iraq;74 and whose motivations can be various - from practical politics to ignorance, absolute cruelty, and cynicism?75 It can also, and here Zizek is correct, be purely ideological; but we need to establish these quite specific cases not assume them from the get-go.76
There is a certain kind of intellectual that is a cynic and fatalist. Often they have a strong religious streak, although it is weakened through disillusionment and lack of faith. They so desperately want life to have a purpose! But when they look for it, it is not there. Too rational to be an unselfconscious believer, they are too full of religion to be a rational sceptic. Here is a dilemma, which they cannot easily resolve. They have a tendency to piss over everybody else’s enthusiasms:
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.
Unless you deal in absolutes such a view is simple-minded nonsense. Sensible and well-informed commentators77 have always recognised the limitations of the Arab Spring – it has removed the dictators but kept the regimes in place. Nevertheless, they have seen its importance, and its potential, both for now and in the future. The reverberations of 1848 lasted more than a few days; decades later people where drawing inspiration from it. However, if you think a revolution ends when the president resigns, allowing the good guys and sweet girls to take charge, then it has to be a failure, almost by definition, just like just every other revolution in history, where not a single one has yet managed to create a utopia; and most have produced a reactionary backlash. It is a game Zizek is playing. He knows it, of course.
There is an interesting article in the NYRB by Yasmine El Rashidi, which supports his contention about the army and the Islamists. It appears that both have a vested interest in re-configuring the regime so that it includes the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby sidelining the liberals.78 Was it ever thus? The French? The Russian? The Iranian revolution? Do we say that because the good angels didn’t take charge these events didn’t have momentous effects?79 At the very least the Arab Spring shows how febrile these countries are, and how unpopular are the ruling elites – from Iran across to Morocco. Last year’s uprisings, unprecedented in their scale in recent memory, suggest that the regimes may find it harder to govern over the coming years; although this could go both ways, of course: it could lead to more repression or more liberalisation; we will have to see.80
Moreover, to assume that because a regime is Islamist, and ruled by the army, that it will be reactionary is to think too simply; lazily resting on comfortable liberal assumptions. Think of Turkey today and compare with just over a decade ago, when the army ran the country. Think of Erdogan himself.81 Moreover, as numerous writers have made clear, there are various types of Islam, from the very liberal to the opaquely intolerant.82 How these forces actually play out in the coming decades will depend on factors outside this intellectual’s narrow theories. Life is more interesting than metaphysics.
But Zizek is not interested in the world, only in his own opinions about it. Produced in our best universities his thinking has imbibed their atmosphere; the academy a place where ideas are meant to rule. And where Critical Theory has become a sort of totalitarian dictator who summons reality to his command. Stalin once again.
[i] For John Peel this was the essence of his public school education: a smattering of knowledge across a wide range of topics. It was also the reason why he didn’t like it: he felt he didn’t know very much when it was all finished. Such an education isn’t that dissimilar from our experience of newspapers. Are we educated only to read the press?
[ii] This piece is based on the print version. The internet has been revised. It has a different title, and has three extra paragraphs at the beginning. There are also other minor changes.
[iii] Obviously aware that he is succumbing to the conventional wisdom he qualifies it just a little, so highlighting his acuteness: “if the commonplace… holds at all.”
For a more far realistic assessment, which argues for the ideological extremism of our political class, see Ross McKibbin’s blog post In Defence of British Universities.
[v] Hot religions are aggressively evangelical (compare 21st century Wahhabism with 16th century Protestantism), while cold religions, such as 20th century Anglicanism and European liberal democracy in the post war period, tend towards an easy toleration.
An excellent account of the conflict between these two types can be found in William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives; In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. The regional cults in the sub-continent are under threat from a number of ideological forces - the national variant of Hinduism, Deobandism, Communism, Globalization – and contemporary capitalist development which, by dissolving the hereditary bonds to custom (today a son will as likely work in computers as become a singer of epic bards or a maker of idols), destroys the basis of the local religion. The book, at least to me (I think Dalrymple would disagree), seems like an elegy for a past that could disappear, and quite quickly.
His account is reminiscent of the Bardic society of Wales in the 15th century; wiped out over the following three hundred years by the gradual assimilation of the hegemonic culture of the English ruling elite. The similarity between the Welsh bards and the singers and poets Dalrymple describes is striking. At base they are a fusion of art, ritual and religion, which is intimately connected to the local social structure, for which it provides knowledge, entertainment and emotional release. The Welsh bards also gave their services to the powerful; establishing hereditary links (they were genealogists) between contemporary leaders and the great Welsh princes like Llewellyn, and by giving geo-political advice; usually through prophecy. (See Glanmor Williams, Renewal and Reformation, Wales 1415-1642).
[vi] Though he would love to bring it back:
“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.” (My emphasis)
[vii] Or not so brief…
The impact in some third world countries was immense. For a good example see Jonathan Steele’s The Ghosts of Afghanistan. Here the effects lasted from at least the late Sixties to the late Eighties, and were responsible for the civil war that ultimately devastated the country; and which still continues; now in its fifth decade.
This revolutionary socialism was part of a wider movement of modernisation that affected all parts of the Afghan elite: the established monarchy, the Marxists and the Islamicists. All wanted to modernise what they regarded as an archaic social structure. It was essentially an urban culture trying to impose itself on the rural majority, who rejected it. The extremism of the Marxists (which was too much for the Politburo – see Roderic Braithwaite’s Afgantsy) broke the delicate balance between the cities and the countryside, and catapulted the country into civil war and ultimate devastation.
The radical Marxist and Islamic ideologies were of a simple and very blinkered kind, the preserve of the intelligent but half educated, and which was imposed onto a population the ideologues neither understood nor cared about. It was a kind of internal colonialism, and is just what we would expect from a vanguard party.
Of course, this is precisely why ideologies are so dangerous: they offer a powerful and simple formula to the energetic and hasty, who lack a subtle understanding of knowledge and abstraction, and are unaware of their ambiguities and contingent nature. Marxism and the Deobandism of the Taliban are religions for busy women and men, who need some theoretical instrument to bind themselves together as a group. They are a substitute for custom - the clan and tribe and traditional religiosity, often based on rituals and local saints and shrines - that for centuries have socially glued the populations of thousands of small rural communities to each other. Such ideologies have the advantage that they are supra-personal, appealing to a national or international audience who can easily respond to their (relatively simple) abstractions – they have a uniformity and relatively low common denominator of belief -, which can attract just about anyone who shares the same ideas, believed to offer the solution to very concrete social problems. This is particularly useful for revolutionaries who, not being intellectuals (the majority), are influenced by charismatic personalities and purposive action; a mindset confirmed by Fawaz A. Gerges whose research shows that most jihadis join the movement out of instinct not ideas. (The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global)
An ideology is also a justification to suppress one’s opponents. One uses it to impose one’s ideas onto the society. It is a reason for going to war – against communism, Islam, and the superstitions of the uneducated. For social reformers ideology isn’t so much a way of finding out about the world as a means of proving one is right. Ideologues, I find, tend to know all the answers. Another reason why they are so dangerous – a position is either absolutely right or certainly wrong; the latter a precarious place to be if the intellectual you disagree with sits in the presidential palace.
Ideology is a weapon of action for those who are separated from their traditional communities - by education, by location, or by flight -; such as the disaggregated urban population of Kabul (particularly the upper class intelligentsia and the rural migrants in the poor suburbs) and the refugees in Pakistan. Living in an alienated environment their daughters and sons look for a new force, some powerful idea, to replace the interwoven network of associations that had previously existed in their villages and mountain fastnesses. They find such a substitute in the precise certainties of The Good Book – whether Das Kapital or The Koran –, which conveniently replaces the flexible ambiguities of custom and practice; those understandings that are largely unarticulated and learned through experience, and where the role of village elders, the repositories of the community’s knowledge, are vital. In contrast the words in The Good Book appear simple and clear, especially to the clever but callow mind.
“Saleemullah turned out to be a young, intelligent and well-educated man, who received me warmly. He was articulate in debate; but there was no masking the puritanical severity of some of his views.
For Saleemullah, the theology of the dispute between the Sufis and the orthodox was quite simple. ‘We don’t like tomb worship,’ he said. ‘The Quran is quite clear about this, and the scholars from the other side choose to ignore what it says. We must not pray to dead men and ask things from them, even the saints. In Islam we believe there is no power but God.” (William Dalrymple, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. My emphasis)
Maybe poorly educated is an incorrect designation. Rather, it is a particular kind of mentality that believes the words on the page are absolute; that they are simple facts not contested meanings. So that the words in The Koran or Das Kapital are like the words in a dictionary whose meaning are fixed by the definitions it contains (my Silly Billy has a typical example). And it seems that this is precisely the kind of mentality that modern education, whether in Kabul University in the 1960s or the madrasas of Pakistan in the 1990s, encourages – at least to those who are susceptible to its influence. It is a modern phenomenon, and seems linked to literacy and the education of the youth: how intoxicating to find new worlds on the page and to realise you know more than your father, whose knowledge you no longer respect. (This clash of generations is brilliantly brought out in Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924)
Helen Armstrong in The Battle for God makes a similar point: she argues that the literalism of fundamentalism is a modern disease. Thus those so “clear” words that suggest such “simple” actions to Saleemullah, who wants them to replace the often unarticulated and vague (though at the same time compulsive) codes that govern daily life in traditional communities; and which are still dominant in western society too...
Most of what we do (outside of those work related tasks that require precision) is done in a rough and ready way, and is carried out in a reflexive and habitual manner. It is rarely consciously articulated; most of our interaction with other people relying on gestures, facial expressions and simple communicative phrases. When I was young I found this confusing; for there was so much I didn’t understand, or more correctly – there was so much I was not sure about. Nearly everything had to be interpreted, which produced uncertainty: “what does Jackie’s smile mean? That she likes me? She does! But then how much…?” For a particular type of mind this is unbearable (and the puritanical nature of many of these idealogies suggests a link to febrile emotions and blossoming sexuality). These adolescents need certainty now! Such a mindset is highly prevalent among young people who have yet to learn the social signs, and intellectuals who live in a self-created environment of abstraction that appears to offer the simple certainties of ideas in contrast to the ambiguities of lived life.
Of course, not all intellectuals (and not all adolescents) are addicted to this need. They must be of a particular cast of mind which, like Zizek’s, are attracted to ideologies offering the solution to the problem of the world. They tend to be disciples rather than creative thinkers, the latter often puzzled by what they find around them. In this sense, and in this sense alone, these thinkers are often closer to the ordinary man than the ideologues who praise him. Neither believe life can be reduced to a simple idea (the one because it doesn’t concern him, the other because she recognises their complex nature). For a telling contrast it is useful to compare Zizek with Noam Chomsky, the latter always sceptical of modern religions, whether of the Left or Right; and who spends his professional life questioning reality rather than arguing it away (see the footnote vi in my Professional Amateurs; a piece about modern academics’ blindness to the corporeality of David Hume’s thought).
Of course there are huge differences between “primitive” communities and industrial societies; differences which decisively affect the common humanity underlying all cultures (Alan Macfarlane argues the central purpose of anthropology is to find out what is natural and what is cultural in the human species). In modern life there is an increasingly successful attempt to introduce the fixed certainties of the machine and the bureaucracy - the rule, the template, category - into daily living. In business, efficiency means doing the same thing in the same way until the next technological improvement reduces an individual’s freedom in their task; from the previous one foot to the future 11.5 centimetres. Standardisation, which in industry has been to a large extent achieved, is now rapidly encroaching on other aspects of life – from clerical jobs to leisure activities – as the technology becomes faster and more sophisticated; so that what were once the exaggerated fears of intellectuals eighty years ago are now present realities. (See an excellent discussion of F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny by Stefan Collini in The TLS, 21/11/2012.)
In academia, that increasingly illusionary bastion of free thought, “Critical Theory” is a stunning example of the bureaucratic mind. The uniqueness of each work of art reduced to a standardised formula, created by a Marx, a Freud and a Derrida; with Foucault and Lacan waiting to be promoted to the senior administrative level (for more discussion see The Triumph of Literary Politics of Over Honest Criticism).
What is particularly acute (and tragic) about Afghanistan is that these trends, so apparent in the West, and which seem to be increasing in speed and efficacy, and which are part of a historical process that is at least four hundred, if not a thousand, years old (its origins in the law courts of the Universal Church – see R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages), have been violently imposed on a country that is not ready for them. A culture which has gradually evolved in minute steps, and whose speed of change is now accelerating, is being forced onto a people who, quite naturally, find it alienating, and who therefore resist it, creating the civil war to which there seems no end. Unless the West recognises that it has to compromise with traditional societies, however unpleasant it finds their practices, its only solution is to obliterate them; and this does indeed seem to be what America is currently doing in Afghanistan.
“…they refurbished the old base. Then to make it more secure without so many foot patrols, they used armoured bulldozers to flatten walls and compounds on either side of Pharmacy Road without seeking permission from local people. One of the buildings they demolished was a mosque across the road from the base…“(Jonathan Steele)
Of course, this is a technical solution to a technical problem – to prevent soldiers being killed. It also strangely and suggestively resembles the Taliban, who also have little respect for the local communities: “the burning of the whole village is not what Russians did” (an elder to Jonathan Steele).
Rather than negotiate a solution to the problem of snipers and roadside bombers, and which involves some risk, the safest solution is to completely destroy a part of the village. To resolve a very human problem, how to get the community to stop supporting the Taliban, the simplest and most efficient answer is found: a machine will remove the necessary buildings so that it doesn’t matter what the population does. It is an example of the West’s impersonalism, which generates its inhumanity. And is nicely captured the responses to this incident:
“’Short term there is a sacrifice of convenience to an extreme degree, and that’s not something that’s lost on us. But I think what people understand is that in order to increase security on that route and in order to prevent the enemy from putting IEDs there, these types of drastic steps are necessary’” (Captain Matt Peterson)
The response from the local population? “’Can democracy be brought by cannon? Is that what the meaning of democracy is in the world? We don’t want this democracy. We don’t want this law of the infidel, we want the rule of Islam.” (Both quotes from Ghosts of Afghanistan.)
This scene at the village is also a terrible metaphor for our technocratic mentality, which looks to reduce risks at all costs – for us.
(It is useful to compare these American actions with the more successful Soviet officers, who were able to reach compromises and make deals with local elders (and some of these were extraordinary; such as the mujahideen leader who asked a local Russian commander for details of a mujahideen raid so they could kill the raiders in revenge for the death of a relative), thus protecting their bases from regular attack. Rodric Braithwaite makes the telling point that many Soviets were close to the Afghans in background and outlook, and felt sympathy for them. Of course, I expect the Americans and the Brits, Jonathan Steele says as much in his book, are making similar deals. However, the general trend, at least according to Braithwaite, is that the Soviets were more adept at it than NATO; although this is not to ignore or underplay the devastation of the Soviet invasion; Colin Thubron noting the carpet-bombing in his Shadow of the Silk Road. Moreover, the destruction of historical monuments for utilitarian military ends is not a recent phenomenon, thus the British destruction of the Musalla at Herat, so as to improve their line of fire during the Panjdeh incident in 1885. (Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana. Thubron confirms Byron’s belief that the British not the Afghanis were responsible for this action.))
Later in Steele’s book an Afghan government official is quoted as saying they want human relations in their country not institutions; a reference to the UN’s call to reduce corruption, much of which arises from the patronage system of the kin groups who run their regions. It again suggests the deep cultural divisions between the two societies, and the West’s reluctance to recognise the validity of a competing social model. Clinton was very explicit about this: in a speech he said that “we don’t want global inter-dependence, we want integration” (Steven Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10th, 2001). Globalization is actually a neo-liberal imperial ideology, one of the reasons many are prepared to resist it.
It is also enlightening to compare the Russian response to the Mujahideen, particularly the sympathetic account in Afgantsy, with Steven Coll’s description of the Reaganite establishment in Ghost Wars. The latter didn’t care about the Afghan population at all. There are many examples on Coll’s book, but perhaps the most egregious is their refusal to make peace after the Russian withdrawal. All they wanted to do was “kill Soviets” and remove communists. The whole decade long episode reduced to a simple Cold War abstraction of good guys against bad guys.
The Afghan wars also suggest something else about the nature of the modern West: the desire to replace the diversity of community action with the conformism of a liberal individuality that requires we be more or less the same – differences are allowed providing they do not threaten the core consensus, determined by the corporate establishment. It is a highly productive way of living, but subtly, and sometimes uncomfortably, restricting; as we are expected to submit ourselves to the regulations, practices and culture of the institutions who employ, feed, and entertain us. Like the Soviets before us we are bringing progress to Afghanistan. But like them, do we really know what progress is, and to where it is leading?
Having finished this footnote I realise there might be some misunderstanding about my position. I am not suggesting that a primitive community is better than a modern civilisation (I am not a Leavisite). I have no desire to make a cultural valuation. Rather it is the transition between the two that interests me. Any society undergoes change, some miniscule and over a very long time, others extraordinarily sudden, and within a few years. The latter can be devastating – the social equivalent of that US army bulldozer. It is thus surely not a coincidence that the Marxist leader of Khalq, Hafizullah Amin, was an admirer of Stalin: both wanted to quickly force, to effectively bully and brutalise, an essentially medieval country into the 20th century. If we are humane, we would prefer the social transformation to be as painless as possible; the exact opposite to what has happened in Afghanistan. In this regard, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is enormously important, for this question is at the core of this classic book: how can a society moderate the hardship of societal change and breakdown. His answer? We must slow it down.
[viii] Although establishment intellectuals would have found it harder to see such obvious discrepancies. This is beautifully caught in Afgantsy, where young Russian idealists were sent out to reform Afghanistan with an ideology that was collapsing in their home country:
“Yes, everyone was equally poor, but there was no terrible poverty, and there was a giant industry, canals, hydroelectric stations. Were it not for our sclerotic leadership, people like Brezhnev, everything would work out differently. That’s what I thought, that’s what many people my age thought. When we arrived in Afghanistan, even before we had had time to look around, we began to do what we had prepared ourselves to do for the whole of our lives… a power had arisen in this land which wanted to drag the people from out of their superstition, to give children the chance to go to school, peasants the possibility to plough their fields with tractors instead of oxen, women the opportunity to see the world directly, instead of through the eye slits of the chador…” (Vladimir Snegirev)
What is clear from Braithwaite’s account is that although the country was breaking down, the establishment was unable to think outside the Marxist assumptions that structured the Soviet culture, thus preventing foundational change to the way the society was run. However, such theoretical limitations didn’t preclude flexible and sophisticated analysis of contemporary events; thus most of the Politburo knew that the invasion was an error; the reason they delayed making the fateful decision.
It is not that ideology blinds us to reality. Rather, it limits our theoretical options, which in turn places restrictions both on policy and structural and strategic change. Thus the realisation by many in Afghanistan that the ideas and theories prevalent in the Soviet Union were of little use in a country that had a completely different economic and social structure, producing a rural culture impervious to “development” and “progress”. However, they were unable to convince their superiors in Moscow to change their strategies. Of course, by the time it reaches the central bureaucracies there are many levels of officialdom that have a vested interest in maintaining the prevailing ideological nostrums. They also have the power and influence to do so.
Steven Coll’s description of the expansion of the CIA and related Washington bureaucracies to supply the mujahideen suggests a similar process in America. A startling story about the marginalisation of a middle ranking CIA officer in the Islamabad embassy shows how far vested interests high in the bureaucracy will go to resist analysis which severely contradicts policy and questions fundamental assumptions. (See Ghost Wars for details of the campaign to discredit and sack Edmund McWilliams.)
[x] For an interesting account about Romania see Patrick McGuinness’ review of Burying the Typewriter (TLS, 09/11/2012) Here decline set in the 1980s.
[xii] Zizek’s interest (obsession?) in Lacan is suggestive in this regard.
[xiii] See John Gray’s insight into J.G. Ballard, where he quotes Joseph Conrad’s exhortation to submit to the destruction of one’s cultural fictions:
“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air like inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns… No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up… In the destructive element immerse” (New Statesman 5-11/10/2012)
[xvi] The latter, I believe, is Stephen Hawking’s position.
[xvii] According to Steve Connor Zizek has a name for serious thinkers: “fuzzy-minded moron”. The review is interesting because it confirms his obsession with binary thinking. He is a natural ideologue. (TLS 26/10/2012)
[xviii] Rather than the state it is private credit that stimulates demand in the economy. The results are similar, the economy is kept afloat through regular injections of financial ballast and state intervention, although the mechanisms for achieving it, and the distribution of wealth, are quite different. See Andrew Gamble’s The Spectre at the Feast.
[xix] See my Much Too Nice, which argues that one of the mistakes of the Left has been its obtuseness to the significant differences between different styles of capitalism.
For a fascinating example of how these changes affect the politics and economy in sub-Sahara Africa see my discussion of Alex de Waal superb essay in Remove the Tribes and Be Individuals! Chalmers Johnson in his classic MITI and the Japanese Miracle describes the revolutionary changes that the Japanese establishment made to state capitalism after the Second World War. Such a study is far more revealing than an ideological shouting match about capitalism and socialism, which often overlooks a rather obvious fact: the similarities between the Soviet Union and the United States often outweighed their differences. To take one obvious example: the forced industrialisation of the 1920s and 30s used Taylorist production techniques and American engineers. (In what is an old book now Richard Crossman made this very point, highlighting the similarities between capitalism, communism and fascism in his Government and the Governed).
[xxi] Steve Connor’s review of Zizek latest magnum opus confirms this (clearly obsessive) intellectual tic (TLS 26/10/2012).
It is a characteristic he shares with William Casey, former head of the CIA. See Steven Coll’s description of him in Ghost Wars.
Reading this book I am unclear as to the author’s view on Casey and the other Reaganites. The tone is relatively neutral, but suggests he is generally sympathetic – thus he rarely condemns their actions. In my opinion, most of them appear as pathological and criminally ill-informed; full of paranoid fantasies about the Communist Conspiracy. They come across as quite nasty people, with little humanity. This is no doubt related to their ideological fanaticism and bureaucratic methods – they didn’t have to encounter individual victims, who they simply erased from their consciousness.
Coll himself seems to suffer from the same predicament as his protagonists: lack of interest in America’s opponents. Very little time is spent actually trying to find out the reasons why the jihadis or the Soviet Union act as they do. This is stunningly brought out at the end of the book when Coll suggests some policy advice for American planners, which includes the argument that there should be more secular education in the Middle East. Islam is the problem, it seems. This is extraordinary ignorance! Think of the non-religious technical education of the 9-11 hijackers. Or even more telling is the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood: both its founder, Hasan al-Banna, and its main ideologist, Sayyid Qutb, were educated in a Cairo secular school, possibly an influence on their later views. (Gilles Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam. Later in the book he notes that in the 1970s many of the radical Islamists were former Marxists.)
[xxii] In this sense he is part of the liberal elite and shares its ideology. For an analysis of Noam Chomsky’s confrontation with this establishment see my Ouch! Interestingly, in a review of Paul Hallward’s Damning the Flood, Zizek quotes Chomsky from that book:
“It is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated".
Zizek’s interpretation of this statement?
“He thereby pointed at the "passivising" core of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the direct political self-organisation and self-empowerment of the people.”
Zizek has creatively misinterpreted Chomsky; whose thought is far more nuanced than this. While believing in popular action he doesn’t argue that parliamentary democracy is empty of content, the implication here; only that the powerful use it in their own interests to disenfranchise the people they supposedly represent. In this particular case democracy was suppressed when there seemed a real threat of power being transferred to Aristide and his movement. Parliamentary democracy reinstated only when the business class felt safe to hold an election they believed they could not lose. Chomsky’s argument is not only very different from Zizek’s summation it actually negates it.
For an ideologist there can be no such subtlety; it is us and them, all or nothing, utopia or apocalypse. There can be a parliament of big business or popular democracy on the streets; rule-bound bureaucracy or spontaneous action on the public squares...
For such a mind the free-thinking civil servant is an anomaly that does not exist. A celebrated thinker who depends on such simple dichotomies, and who can make such an oversight, tells us something of the paucity of this kind of thought.
[xxiii] For a demolition job on Alain Badiou see Roger Scruton in the TLS 29/08/2012.
Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet, emphasises the academic (although he curiously calls it “amateur”) nature of the original internet, and which is the reason, surely, for its anarchic structure. The current trend is for the corporations to both capture and contain the internet; reducing its freedom by replacing the current openness by a more limited but secure access to a range of dedicated services and appliances they themselves supply – Apple now the market leader in this strategy.
Although Zittrain’s book is too ideological (he is another academic that likes simple binary conflicts, in his case between generative and fixed appliances), and either ignores or misreads the development history of the internet (its origins in military research), while also underplaying the inventiveness of artists in the pre-computer world, it is useful for highlighting just how much of the web is designed around academic nostrums and practices. It suggests something about the nature of contemporary freedom: the old fashioned university, even when funded by the Pentagon, was an intellectually freer place than a modern culture dominated by the corporation, which wants to restrict knowledge by private monopoly. The internet a symbol not so much of a new order (although it is that) as the epitaph for an old one.
[xxvi] In a talk in the Netherlands Norman Finkelstein said that many Leftists of the 1970s had shifted their concerns by the 1990s; with many moving into the international law sector; seen as the most useful means of bringing justice – by trying to enforce the details of international legislation. Here, ideology has been replaced by an instrumental functionalism that is nevertheless guided by a sense of social justice.
[xxvii] He has also overlooked Islam. This is brilliantly caught in Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Central Asia; written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book, full of visits to ruined cities which ends on a burial mound of “some Scythian or Turkic chief”, charts the demise of Communism and its replacement by confusion, and by religion and nationalism. One ideology has gone, and tradition is reasserting itself, though filtered through the remnants of Communism (Thubron is adept at showing what people regard as ancient myths are actually Soviet indoctrination), Turkic nationalism, and the new religious fundamentalisms. However, there is a clear distinction between the local Islam, fused with custom and older religious practices, and its foreign variants, which are scriptural and intolerant. Most of its population wary or openly hostile to what is regarded as the alien evangelicalism of Wahhabism and Deobandism, which are an essentially modernising religions, and not that dissimilar from a communism they wish to repudiate.
For confirmation of these views see Steven Coll’s The War of Ghosts, where he writes that Maulana Abu Ala Maududi set up the Jamaat-e-Islami on Leninist lines, and Jonathan Steele’s The Ghosts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are described as a “Vanguardist brotherhood”. Ahmed Rashid’s description of Radical Islam could in most respects also be applied to the Western Leftist groups of the sixties and seventies:
“They rejected nationalism, ethnicity, tribal segmentation and feudal class structures in favour of a new Muslim internationalism…. To achieve this, parties like the Pakistani Jamaat and Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami set up highly centralized modern parties organized along communist lines with a cell system, extreme secrecy, political indoctrination and military training.
“The greatest weakness of the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] model of political Islam is its dependence on a single charismatic leader… The obsession of radical Islam is not the creation of institutions, but the character and purity of its leader, his virtues and qualifications and whether his personality can emulate the personality of the Prophet Mohammed…” (Taliban. Compare with the personality cults around figures like Lenin and Trotsky in the Marxist fringes of British politics in the 1970s; although Rashid’s last paragraph suggests the influence of the Middle East’s traditional culture on this 20th century religion).
The Taliban are particularly modern in wishing to reject modern society wholesale (think of all those hippies who went East, including to Afghanistan, during the sixties and seventies; and whose mindset is captured in a classic film of the period: Performance, where the earthly paradise, or so the movie’s bohemians believe, is to be found in Persia). Their one difference with the New Left is their hostility to the traditional customs and practices of Afghan society, which they believe are un-Islamic. Here we see the influence of the older communist model.
[xxviii] A good account can be found in Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew; where he shows how much the New Right models itself on the New Left on the 1960s. Lenin is a big influence in these circles.
The Communist Party seems to have been the model for all radical parties in the 20th century, irrespective of politics or religion. This influence is perhaps worth a book in itself.
For a good analysis of cultural hegemony see Corey Robin’s Achieving Disunity in the LRB; where he argues that when an ideology approaches a monopoly of the thinking classes it influences all sides of the ideological debate. Surely the situation with the New Right today.
[xxxi] In today’s West Adam Smith fulfils this function. His ideas often diametrically opposed to the constructions ideologues and politicians put on them. See Noam Chomsky for an illuminating discussion on the misreading of Smith’s “invisible hand”. Amartya Sen reaches similar conclusions in his The Argumentative Indian.
[xxxii] Edward S. Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is a good place to start for the reasoning and evidence behind this assertion. The latter’s Necessary Illusions gives a number of case studies that conclusively prove the ideological nature of particularly the American corporate media.
The role of a mainstream intellectual is to buttress the prevailing establishment culture, which is both a simple and natural exercise, involving the mostly unconscious assimilation of its foundational assumptions, acquired by simply being part of the cultural milieu – thus a mainstream newspaper will create mainstream journalists. It is actually harder to resist its influence; the reason there are so few radical critics in the corporate press. For a case study about a specific academic see my Looking in the Mirror Part II.
[xxxiii] See the interviews in The Guardian and The Telegraph. In a more serious journal like the TLS the verdict is more critical, noting the errors, the curious reasoning, and the lack of intellectual depth; although at the same time acknowledging that his exposition is comprehensible; the reason for his success.
“Although he can prove perplexing and exasperating to the reader, it is not usually because of any particular obscurity in his manner of explication. It may sometimes be a bit mysterious why he thinks what he does, or why he thinks that the things he thinks might join up in the way he supposes they do, but the elements of that thought are usually plain enough and frequently reiterated.” (Steve Connor, TLS 26/10/2012)
[xxxiv] Compare with the mainstream commentators who also wanted the riots to express a wider meaning. For a criticism of this view see my Poor Hackney. Zizek is cleverer than most, thus he recognises that meanings must be internal to the event; so that when he looks at the London riots he finds none, and acknowledges it. But then in typical showman style he magics a unicorn onto an empty stage: the non-existence of meaning is meaning! They symbolise something after all! This is his special quality.
[xxxv] They are thus very different from the Occupy Movement. See my argument with Michael Albert on this distinction; and also David Runciman in the LRB, who makes the good point that it is a mistake to conflate the mindset of the occupying activists with the majority in the wider society – these are very different people. While this latter piece is usefully sceptical it goes too far; Runciman seeming to argue against the book he is reviewing rather than thinking for himself.
What is clear from this article is that the activists have a clear sense of the injustice of the present system, though without a worked our programme or coherent ideology, and which has at least communicated itself to the political class. How much that has filtered down to the rest of the society is difficult to establish. When I talked to some “ordinary” people they had no idea what Occupy was about (and I don’t think this is unusual). However, when I talked about inequality, the financialisation of the economy, the 2007 crash, and the squeeze on the public sector, and linked it to the concerns of Occupy, they very quickly saw the connection. They share the same worries, but do not articulate in such general terms. Their opinions tending to be more particular and personal, concerned with their own jobs, heath and old age pensions.
Dealing with this mental narrowness may be the hardest task for activists and progressive thinkers. As a minimum they must create a language that encompasses general trends with the specific, and often selfish, concerns of non-engaged people with minimal intellectual or political interests.
[xxxvii] Suggestive is the TLS’s review of Harriet Sergeant’s book on teenage gangs, Among the Hoods. Many of their members suffered mashed up childhoods, and consequently exist on the margins of society; disregarding most of its rules. My guess is it is these kinds of teenagers and young adults that were responsible for much of the looting (although as eye-witness testimony shows a wide range of people were involved; many prompted by the occasion. See my Poor Hackney).
[xxxviii] Of course, an uprising that develops into a widespread revolt, which seeks to overthrow the ruling elite, is a different matter again. For a brilliant history of an uprising that became a national liberation movement read R.R. Davies’ The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr.
The 15th and 16th centuries are a fruitful source for looking at riots and rebellions, which were usually reactive responses to crown impositions; that ranged from increased taxation to religious transformation. They were effectively defensive, a reflexive gesture to maintain present income and employment and safeguard existing customs which were perceived to be under threat.
Rebellions, which may arise from similar causes, but whose purpose is to overthrow the king, tended to be led by disaffected members of the aristocracy who sought power for themselves. When the Reformation occurred an ideological element entered into these dynastic squabbles, which made them more effective and thus increased their force and capacity; perhaps best seen in 16th century France, when whole regions where bound together not only by kin and semi-feudal ties but by religion too. Here England was lucky. Its major dynastic disputes occurred in the century before the religious wars, and were thus, except for a few years in the middle of the century, reasonably contained and short-lived (see J.R. Lander’s Government and Community, which exposes some myths about the Wars of the Roses). The revolt of Owain Glyndwr is an exception because it did have an ideology: Welsh nationalism.
If my reading is correct, it suggests that rebellion and revolution are essentially actions of the elite; where sometimes, like in the English Civil War or the French Revolution, the establishment loses complete control, bringing down the whole system with them; and thus creating an opportunity for the anarchic population to act.
What is interesting about the 15th and 16th centuries is that for all the rebellions and attempted coups the aristocracy was never weakened quite enough for the radical populace to replace them; even during the mid 15th century when the British Crown was at its weakest and civil war and banditry were at their height. The peasants and artisans lacking the necessary organisation and ideology – they were too scattered and too local, too suffused with customary loyalties – to take power and rule for themselves. This could only happen later, when the Crown became more centralised, and the institutions of state more dominant, thus removing all those bulwarks of aristocratic control – the Northern Barons, the Marcher Lords, the court and independent Earls – which had previously protected the establishment from its subjects. (See G.R. Elton in Reformation Europe who effectively argues that the Marxist idea of a rising bourgeoisie ignores the main development of the period: the increasing power and reach of a centralising state).
Before the creation of the nation state these aristocratic groups had their own discrete power; and a single uprising by sections of the populace could not hope to remove them all. And to have been successful such an uprising would have required a unifying ideology that could bind a disparate nation together – precisely what happened in the Reformation, which sustained civil wars by creating common friends and enemies outside traditional kinship and “bastard feudal” obligations.
(Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium would appear to undermine this thesis; his book is about how common men and women were bound again by a revolutionary religion. However, the movements he describes, often galvanised by itinerant radicals, were apocalyptic – they didn’t want to usurp authority so much as to escape from it. Of course, as he explicitly recognises, significant elements of this tradition form part of modern radical movements; especially prevalent with the Radical Right at the end of the 19th century; who believed in capturing the state, usually by some coup or conspiracy. His Warrant for Genocide is concerned with this modern, particularly Fascist, phenomenon. Interestingly, this kind of apocalyptic ideology is replicated in many of the radical jihadi groups – thus under the influence of Qutb one branch of Egyptian Islamists sort to infiltrate the army and stage a coup d’état, and thus instigate a religious reformation from above.)
(For the national character of particularly Luther’s influence see Owen Chadwick’s Reformation. For “bastard feudalism see G.R. Elton’s England Under the Tudors. For Egypt see Gilles Kepel’s The Roots of Radical Islam. For an extreme example of a revolutionary religion in the modern period whose sole task was a military coup d’état see Fawaz A. Gerges’ discussion of the nationalist jihadis, and particularly Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Tanzim al-Jihad, in his The Far Enemy.)
And one could go further, and speculate even more… England was lucky because it was reasonably centralised before the Reformation, and was thus unified enough to stop an internal religious war; unlike France, which was still assimilating its territories during the 16th century. Of course there were a number of rebellions throughout the Tudor dynasty, but they were contained relatively easily (See D.M. Loades, Politics and the Nation: England 1450-1660, for a particularly good overview of the period.) A centralised state, and then a massive injection of capital in the landed market through the dissolution of the monasteries, the basis for England’s later commercial success.
[xl] Aldous Huxley once made the telling point that the worse thing imaginable for a businessman is a person who sits in a room and thinks; for he requires nothing in order to do this activity. It is a wonderful comment on modern life: capitalism, in order to survive, requires us to forgo the very thing that makes us uniquely human – disinterested thought.
[xli] An enlightening discussion can be found in Michael Ignatieff’s comparison of the pre-capitalist and capitalist models of Rousseau and Adam Smith in his insightful The Needs of Strangers. Rousseau, he argues, clearly understood the dangers of unleashing capitalist desires – they are infinite and inherently destructive of community life.
[xliii] The design? An enormous face bent over a large tome, The Philosophy of History (of course), with bags under the eyes like panniers stretched down to the illegible pages. There is a barricade of books between his desk and the window, and a skyscraper of paper behind his chair; leaning at an acute angle it is going to fall and brain him at any minute. The caption: Revolutionary Situation!
There are very many caveats to this simple generalisation. Ibn Khaldun blamed the loss of a cohesive spirit (he called it asabiyah) for a civilisation’s collapse. Believed to be both over-refined and too sensual in its pleasures the city was therefore too communally weak and individualistic to adequately resist the raiding tribes who shared a common solidarity. (Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History)
Khaldun’s theory, of an ideologically cohesive tribe in the desert that suddenly acquires the strength and momentum to destroy and purify an ailing urban civilisation, although mostly applied to North Africa (see the essays in Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society) is a useful theoretical model for understanding Afghanistan, since at the least the early 1970s; where there has been a clear cultural division between particularly Kabul and the rural areas. One could easily imagine the Taliban drawing close parallels with the Prophet Mohammed’s life, the prototype for Khaldun’s analysis, as they appeared to re-enact it.
Fawaz Gerges also uses the term asabiyah to describe the psychological bonds that united the individual jihadi sects. Although clearly modern, ideology has replaced kinship as the bond of solidarity, these groups are reminiscent of the early Khaldun model – small tribes coming out of the desert to cleanse a corrupt civilisation. Their central concern, until bin Laden persuaded Zawahiri to target America, the lack of piety of both the leaders and the population of the Muslim countries. That is, they were seeking a reformation of their own societies from above – by political action or military coup. They are contemporary John Calvins with guns (Gerges notes that the Jihadis generally, and bin Laden in particular, by imposing their interpretation on the Koran and the Sunna, and thus interposing themselves between God and man, were actually creating a church; and so turning Islam into a form of Christianity).
William Dalrymple’s account of the fading Mughal world of India would suggest a huge qualification to my argument, as this was a society that revelled in sensuality. However, these desires were accommodated within a highly stratified social world, buttressed by a plethora of rituals, and whose foundation was a strong religiosity. Sex, for example, did not undermine religion, but could be easily assimilated to it. Dalrymple brings this out particularly starkly with his description of the Shia festival of Maula Ali, where religious intoxication and sexual excess was often fused during the celebrations.
Reading The White Mughals one gets a sense of a syncretic culture which allowed the different aspects of the individual personality to happily coexist (religion and violence - the Muharram festival in Hyderabad -, sex and high art, intelligence and cupidity etc). Moreover, what we regard as “base” or “animal” was not necessarily seen as such in the court of Nawab Mir Nizam Ali Khan. Desire, for example, could also be raised up to the level of the human through the use of perfumes and other sensual aides so as to make an art of the sexual act.
And thus the Nizam’s court could accept James Achilles Kirkpatrick because he had made himself into a finely crafted courtier. The refined and intelligent aristocrat, formed by the full wealth of human culture, was surely the apogee of this society; and this co-existed with a full sensual life.
Dalrymple’s rich book charts the moment when the British were beginning to dominate India, and to denigrate the sensual side of the indigenous culture (although hypocritically partaking of it – see the comments on the governor general of the East India Company, Richard Wellesley). This change in attitude part of a wider transformation in values that was tending towards a moral Puritanism which reached its apogee in the 1840s (see Harold Perkin’s The Origins of Modern English Society:1780-1880, and also George Eliot’s Adam Bede for a case study that notes its later spiritual degradation); and to which the later twentieth century seems to have reacted (in the extreme).
[xlvi] In an interesting talk on language and cognition Noam Chomsky notes that the idea of a language faculty, something is both uniquely human and intellectually obvious, is denied by a majority of academics in the specialised fields pertaining to the brain sciences. A dogma exists that says language is simply a by-product of other cognitive systems. It is a suggestive comment, which implies, at least this is my reading, that one of the foundation myths of modernity is that man can be reduced to an animal, a synecdoche for nature.
[xlvii] For an excellent analysis of the cultural roots of Thatcher’s counter-revolution see Andrew Gamble’s The Free Economy and the Strong State. His argument is that initially the economics were less important than the visceral hate of the liberal social reforms of the 1960s; Monetarism a seemingly scientifically neutral theory that could justify the anti-liberal prejudices of the politicians and ideologues. Later, and especially after the collapse in the Keynesian consensus in the mid Seventies, it was the economy that tended to dominate the discourse; so that by the time of Blair and Cameron the social changes of the Sixties had been accepted and more or less assimilated into the wider society. This has resulted in both a more centralised and authoritarian state and a more permissive morality. The complete reverse of what Thatcher and her advisors had originally intended; although this needs one qualification: the state is weak in the economy; a core goal of the New Right. (See Gamble’s Spectre at the Feast for analysis.)
In America this prejudice against the sixties has been used, at least consciously since Richard Nixon, as a cultural war to attack the liberals whilst masking the corporate establishment’s re-structuring of society in favour of the rich. (See Thomas Frank’s What Happened to America?)
[xlviii] Dalrymple’s Nine Lives brings this out superbly.
[xlix] This is wonderfully captured in the opening pages of Roderic Braithwaite’s Afgantsy, where he recounts the local uprising against Herat, which was a defence of the local culture against the modernising communist regime.
[l] Clinton is quoted in Ghost Wars as saying that he doesn’t want global inter-dependence but global integration, which in practice means integrating the world into American capitalism. This can only be achieved if other societies adapt themselves to the American economic and political pattern, which will inevitably transform social relationships, which to a large degree depend on the rituals of work. For a bizarre description of some of these effects in an earlier imperialism see Robert Byron’s accounts of Iran in the 1930s, when the Shah was obsessed with modernising the country under British influence. (The Road to Oxiana)
Interestingly, the Jihadist movement shares a similar view of the Muslim community. Although unlike the liberal intelligentsia in the West their’s is (at least initially) a defensive ideology designed to purify their own societies of its accumulated traditions, which include both local and western elements. (See the books by Fawaz A. Gerges and Gilles Kepel, which confirm Ernest Gellner’s insights on the modernising tendency of Muslim fundamentalism – it returns to the past in order to reinvigorate itself in the present.)
There are so many strands in modern Islam that one has to be careful of conflating them into a single entity. However, there does seem a major attempt at reformation, which is played out across a number of movements: from the violent jihadis to the Muslim Brotherhood to the establishment clerics – thus Saudi Arabia’s evangelism in the Middle East. Gilles Kepel notes, in his The Roots of Radical Islam, that in Egypt most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s support comes from the middle classes, which is again highly suggestive of a reformation linked to societal change during a time of ideological transition: in 16th century Europe when the Catholic monopoly ended, and in the 20th century Middle East when Islam’s monopoly was seriously threatened by secular nationalism. The dominating figure of Nasser a catalyst for the whole jihadi movement, whose origins are in Egypt.
[li] This highlights the danger of language-based theories of social action, which aim to have real world effects: for example, the penalties against hate speech.
(For some of the curious aspects of language use see my The Gipsy’s Baby.)
[lii] The early history of Protestantism is instructive. See in particular Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 on the moral coercion of individual churches, and G.R. Elton on the intolerance of Calvin’s Geneva in his Reformation Europe.
Both Jonathan Steele and Rodric Braithwaite capture something of the frustrations of the Marxist leaders with the recalcitrant population of rural Afghanistan, who so bizarrely reject such good and simple ideas as freedom and democracy; and who are so medieval in their attachment to the chador – interestingly a test case of progress for both the Americans and Soviets.
For an extraordinary example of an intellectual creating a totalitarian situation see the Felix Guattari quote in my Dropout Boogie.
[liii] Unlike in Holland, where the intellectual provocateur, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered by a man who didn’t understand the rules – he didn’t realise that words are not meant to be taken seriously. In an extraordinary book Ian Buruma captures the moment when the Dutch intelligentsia begins to realise that a community exists in the Netherlands that doesn’t accept that their provocations are merely intellectual games, but who, on the contrary, believe that words have very definite meanings and are linked, glued even, to real life actions and behaviours. (Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance)
[liv] Although this may be one reason for Zizek’s rhetorical strategies: he can thus protect his essential liberalism (the value system that underpins his radical views) from such simple-minded attacks.
[lvi] Nicely captured in Christopher Meyer’s political memoir DC Confidential. When ambassador in Germany he didn’t like the quiet Sundays, where the shops were closed and the local population went out and had afternoon tea instead. This seemed very attractive to me. He, however, would prefer spending all his free time in Selfridges, Zara and Stead & Simpson… Like any well brought up member of society he carries its prejudices around with him; wears them like a pair of comfortable knickers.
[lix] Though we have to make some careful distinctions. Much of our cultural produce is average; the reason why it is popular, appealing to the majority’s lack of interest and curiosity in specific subjects. However, these cultural products are not sold in this way. Instead we are told how exceptional and unique everything is. One could argue it is the same with Zizek – the content of his thought is mainstream, but its rhetoric is radical and eccentric.
[lx] Alexander Cockburn encapsulated this in a Counterpunch article, where he imaginatively reconstructed what he intuited would be a disaffected employee’s reaction when given the opportunity for revenge.
[lxi] See my Poor Hackney for a reference to one particularly striking eye-witness account; which shows both the contingent nature of events, if the car had been able to drive down the road the woman wouldn’t have stopped and picked up the DVDs, and her moral restraint – her friend told her not to take them all.
[lxii] A common problem with ideologists. In some brilliant pages of Gilles Kepel’s The Roots of Radical Islam he shows how the ideologues of Jama’at Islamiyya accepted the same assumptions as the other political movements of 20th century Egypt: Marxist, liberal, Ba’athist or Nasser’s anti-imperialism.
For an attempt to explain why ideologues tend to share the same assumptions see my Dropout Boogie.
[lxiii] Though see Roger Scruton, who correctly identifies the French intelligentsia’s obsession with revolution as a form of religion, and which has been proselytised to the rest of the continent. He also makes the absolutely critical point that there is more than one type of revolution – for example, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 was an establishment attempt to preserve the system not overthrow it. (TLS 29/08/2012)
Steven Connor’s review of Less Than Nothing is enlightening. It suggests, at least to me, that for Zizek, trapped within his overly rational mind, revolution is a means of psychic escape. Unable to mediate the complex nuances of careful thought and evolutionary reform he wants change now! His inability to properly grasp causal mechanisms creating the apocalyptic need for a fresh start.
It is a trait which Norman Cohen identified in the radical preachers of the middle ages, and which Kepel describes in the fundamentalist movements of the 1970s:
“…the liberation of all that is inherited or conventional, like customs and traditions.” (The Roots of Radical Islam)
What all these ideologues seem to share is a fixed view of ideas and societies: they do no believe that concepts or social organisations can change from within themselves, but on the contrary must remain forever the same. The solution is therefore simple: get rid of them. And yet when we look at intellectual history we realise just how fluid the nature and meaning of ideas are – context is often everything. In this sense ideas are more like living things than inorganic entities.
Timothy Hilton captures something of Zizek's quality with his critical insights into William Morris:
“…a clue to a particular failing in Morris, his totally static sense of history. Despite all his personal energies, despite his conversion to political position based on a socialist dialectic of history, there is never in Morris’s art, whether in his poetry or in his handiwork, any sense of energy, of movement or progression. This is what makes him, in comparison to Ruskin, such a bloodless utopian, and is surely the reason why Morris’s art is so repetitive and so boring.” (The Pre-Raphaelites)
[lxiv] And how strangely short-sighted. Revolutions can often start from the most inconspicuous of actions, many of which are nothing more than a defence of existing rights; and which surely represent the true nature of most popular rebellions – they are essentially conservative actions to maintain the status quo.
[lxv] Although Zizek is surely correct, once you remove the ideological flavouring and intellectual game play. In this it is useful to compare him with Michael Albert who really does believe that the riots were a form of political action.
[lxvi] For a perfect example see Michael Albert’s response to the riots; referred to in footnote 34.
[lxvii] See the quote by David Hawes, together with my commentary, in Can I Have A Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?
See also Adam Shatz’s review of a Derrida biography in the LRB. This review suggests one of the attractions of this extraordinarily influential thinker: you can both fictionalize the intellectual philosophical cannon and condemn it with a fiction of your own. It is the technique of Deleuze and Guattari; one which Zizek has perfected (see my Dropout Boogie for D&G, and Steve Connor’s review in the TLS 26/10/2012).
[lxviii] Notice too how Zizek slides into conventional wisdom by equating terrorism and state violence when in fact they are incommensurate.
“St Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. ‘How dare you molest the sea?’ asked Alexander. ‘How dare you molest the whole world?’ the pirate replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.
“The pirate’s answer was ‘elegant and excellent,’ St. Augustine relates. It also captures with some accuracy the current relations between the United States and various minor actors on the stage of international terrorism, such as Libya and factions of the PLO.” (Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors)
Moreover, also note how Zizek links terrorism with religion, which suggests that only Islamic terror is in his line of sight. But just taking this example shows the limitations of his formulation: the mujahideen where actively encouraged to terrorise the Russians in Afghanistan, and were done so for instrumental reasons by Pakistan, America and Saudi Arabia.
Looking more broadly at Islamic terror we find that the jihadis are simply not disaffected mullahs or mystics. As both Kepel and Gerges show, their theoreticians are sophisticated though typically limited ideologues and polemicists. Their religious ideas part of an attempt at top down revolution and cultural reformation, which in effect means imposing an idealisation onto the host population. Their violence is a political action designed to overthrow autocratic regimes; and which later, starting with the tiny sect Al Qaeda, transmogrified into international terror operations that were not reflexive acts, as Zizek would have it, but based on a belief that big terrorist hits would weaken America’s spirit and so remove its power from the Middle East, thus allowing the jihadis to destroy the existing dictators, believed to be little more than paper puppets of Washington. Just like the early socialists and Arab nationalists the jihadis want to change their societies; they even employ the same means, thus the attempt to copy the officer coups of the secular fifties and sixties. The one difference is their ideology; although if we look carefully we see how much has been influenced by a West they otherwise despise.
The conclusion should thus be obvious: the jihadi movement is a revolutionary force which has its own vanguard parties, and if Zizek was consistent (and not full of liberal prejudice) he should support it.
“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.”
Doesn’t jihadi violence fulfil this criteria, and absolutely? If Zizek was truly consistent, and thus a proper extremist, he would have supported jihadist groups such as Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya (at least until its decision, in line with the jihadi movement in general, to make an accommodation with Egyptian society, when it renounced violence for political action after 2001). The fact that he would rather quote Stalin, tells us something about the content of his radicalism.
[lxix] Even into the 1990s there was a sharp divide in the U.S. between security and law enforcement, to a point where the FBI would not release details to the CIA in case it infringed the judicial process. See Steven Coll’s The Ghost Wars, which charts the gradual erosion of this position as the White House began to respond to the terrorist spectaculars later in that decade.
This book is particularly good at delineating the American bureaucracies concerned with national security (it concentrates on the CIA), and shows how from the 1980s their culture gradually became more illiberal, after the thaw in the 1970s. Thus even in the 1990s there was a still veto on assassination, which now seems to have disappeared. It also highlights just how much the policies and attitudes prevalent in the American presidency over the last decade originated with the Reaganites in the 1980s – rendition, for example, was not a G.W. Bush innovation.
[lxx] It was Ronald Reagan that initiated the first war on terror. Then it was secular nationalists that were the problem, people like Yasser Arafat and Abu Nidal, not religious extremists such as Osama bin Laden, a then friend of the CIA. Given that it is more or less the same group of individuals within the Republican administration who initiated both wars on terror, and given the different ideologies of their victims, it should warn us of over-generalizing about irrational or religious violence. Terrorism usually has some identifiable economic, political or social cause; although it also develops its own operational and ideological momentum. The Republican Ron Paul seems to know this better than Zizek, which shows just how mainstream he can be.
[lxxi] See David Marquand’s The New Reckoning: Capitalism, States and Citizens. One chapter argues that we are reverting to the Middle Ages; a time when the economy, law, culture, politics and language existed in overlapping jurisdictions. Nationalism, which Ernest Gellner argues was a modernizing force, tended to fuse all these social phenomena within a single geographical boundary: the nation state (Nations and Nationalism). Nations now appear to be declining, at least as a contract between the rulers and its population (Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, who uses the metaphor of the army for the classic European state).
Clearly there are differences between 2009 and 1473. In previous centuries there were immensely strong regional powers, crystallised around the aristocracy that both structured and led these local societies. These have to a large extent disappeared. Their most obvious replacement, the local authority, has come under sustained attack in the last thirty years, as power has either been concentrated within the central government or been given up to large corporations; the new Earls and Barons of the modern world, and who, and this is a fundamental reversal, are now stronger than the state bureaucracy. (See Luke Mitchell’s review of Steven Coll’s book on ExxonMobil which captures something of these changes.)
[lxxii] The most perceptive and detailed analysis of terrorism can be found in the copious pages of Noam Chomsky’s books. Tellingly, the majority of this work is concerned with Western State terrorism, which hardly gets a mention in the mainstream literature.
[lxxiii] In a revealing passage of Steven Coll’s The Ghost Wars we read of William Casey’s religious fervour to destroy the godless communists, and his belief that Islam and Catholicism were on the same side. This shows the contingent nature of the secular evangelicalism we see amongst establishment figures today. It also demolishes the idea that there is a battle of cultural absolutes between the enlightened West and the irrationally religious other.
For a quiet demolition of Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations thesis see Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. William Dalrymple’s White Mughals is an explicit rejection of this theory (at least for the British Empire), showing that the binary opposition of cultures arose out of two particular historical processes: the increasing power of Britain in India and the growing influence of Christian evangelicalism within the home country.
[lxxiv] According to Steven Coll, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, responsible for the first World Trade Centre bomb, committed the act because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. There was no religious motive at all. Although Jason Burke describes him as being fanatically anti-American, he nevertheless ends up with a similar conclusion:
“[H]is language was far closer to that of the left-wing terrorists of the 1970s than that of the followers of modern militant Salafi Islam.” (Al-Qaeda)
In Egypt the terror was in response to previous government repression – from Nasser through to Sadat. For a description of the practical thinking of Islamist radicals in using their ideology to solve social problems in a poor country see Kepel’s The Roots of Radical Islam. One example of many: because of its poverty, Egyptian men and women tend not to get married until their late twenties; the men usually working in the Middle East to acquire the money to buy a house. Jama’at islamiyya therefore advocated early marriage to deal with sexual frustration, a major problem in this country.
[lxxv] Thus William Casey advocating terrorist attacks in the central Asian republics of the USSR, which were carried out by the mujahideen (See Ghost Wars).
[lxxvi] One possible argument is that the longer a conflict continues the more ideological it becomes; the ideology replacing the original reasons for war, which have disappeared with time (though even here we must make distinctions between different players in the governmental scene). Thus from early on it was clear to many Russians that they weren’t going to modernise the country, and that their intervention was not much more than a holding operation until the Afghan government was made strong enough to survive. By 1985 they knew that stability could only come through some power-sharing arrangement with at least the more conservative (that is, moderate) of the mujahideen. Yet despite these realities the modernising rhetoric continued unabated, though as each year passed it became more unrealistic, until by the end it was fantastical.
[lxxvii] Noam Chomsky being the most obvious.
[lxxviii] For more up to the minute analysis that confirms this trend see the recent posts on Egypt by Juan Cole. Note that the protests from what Cole calls the Egyptian New Left again refute Zizek’s pessimistic analysis. Revolutions, as he should know, don’t just die on a day. They are both the effect of institutional instability and the further cause of it.
[lxxx] Braithwaite’s account of reform and “revolution” in Afghanistan in the 1970s is a salutary reminder of the unpredictability of social change; especially in societies where the state has incommensurate power, and where it seeks to impose its own ideology on a country whose traditions and cultures resist it.
[lxxxii] Dalrymple’s Nine Lives is an excellent counter to Zizek’s simplistic views. For an account of Islam that was written in more progressive times, and which invisaged the religion gradually evolving into a more modern, self-questioning idiom, see Alfred Guillaume’s Islam. Much of what is regarded as reactionary and intolerant in Islam is not a result of the religion but part of a wider trend of reaction that has taken place around the globe; and which, contra Zizek, seems far more ideological than the period proceeding it; although this could be an illusion based on my own liberal biases.
This is a religious age, where all of us are expected to have some strong faith. What Zizek calls non-ideological is actually a sign of just how hegemonic the western liberal culture is – he cannot think outside of it. Thus his inability to recognise the ideological dominance of the New Right, and the aggressively “hot” ideology of the jihadis; which is thoroughly modern in both its ideas and operations: vanguard groups that are anti-capitalist, and who wish to capture the state so as to install a more equalitarian (Islam the most communist of the monotheisms) and less commercial society.