Archive for September, 2009
Back in 2007, Slavoj Žižek reviewed a book by Simon Critchley entitled, Infinitely Demanding. In that review, Žižek lists what he sees as the alternatives for leftist politics in dealing with capitalists hegemony:
[A]ccept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).
Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.
Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’
Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.
Or, it emphasises the fact that the problem is a more fundamental one, that global capitalism is ultimately an effect of the underlying principles of technology or ‘instrumental reason’.
Or, it posits that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse (the exemplar of this approach is the Zapatista movement).
Or, it takes the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive re-articulation.
Or, it wagers that one can repeat at the postmodern level the classical Marxist gesture of enacting the ‘determinate negation’ of capitalism: with today’s rise of ‘cognitive work’, the contradiction between social production and capitalist relations has become starker than ever, rendering possible for the first time ‘absolute democracy’ (this would be Hardt and Negri’s position).
This set of alternatives is worth pondering, especially at just this moment when the G20 is occupying Pittsburgh and protesters are in the streets. Are those protesters doing any good?
Žižek seems to be arguing, in his review, that a certain anarchic approach to resistance is actually in complicity with the powers-that-be. There is a demand for universal change (the protestors feel good about themselves for having made the demand) and the claim that such a noble and desirable demand is nevertheless impossible or unworkable, given that this is the “real world” (the powers-that-be feel good about themselves for acknowledging the nobility and decency of the protestors without having to relinquish any power). This is what Žižek means by complicity: everyone goes home feeling good, but nothing changes.
Is this what is going on?
It is always a little difficult to know exactly what Žižek is arguing for in his works. This review was no exception, as the letters to the editor make clear (See Graeber’s letter in particular and Žižek’s response). He ends his review:
The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.
And Žižek concludes his rejoinder to his critics:
So what are we to do? Everything possible (and impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to organise.
This is prudent advice, no doubt. But it does—as critics point out—seem like (at least) its own form of complicity, its own form of “mere” resistance. Amelioration. Tinkering. Is that the best we can do?
I will let Žižek and Graeber and Critchley to their quarrel. But I want to ask: What is the role of the state in efforts to create a more just and peaceful world? Žižek is ambiguous about the state (despite his often feigning hurt at being misunderstood). In this review, you will find Žižek “appearing” (Žižek is talented at using “appearance” as a hedge…) to support Chavez and his grab of state power, culminating in Chavez’s consolidation of a myriad of political parties into a single party in support of himself. Žižek writes:
Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees).
Critchley, on the other hand, counsels:
Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes.
So who is wiser? Is Žižek’s “apparent” trust of the state warranted? Is Critchley’s advice a recipe for political impotence?
A recent essay by William M Chace is rather sobering. Here’s a taste:
First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):
English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent
In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself
You can read the rest here. I don’t agree with the entire assessment, but the situation is real and disheartening and, I would argue, dangerous to democracy.
On the “bright” side, perhaps this whole question will go away…you know, like manufacturing and family farming:
Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves—the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.
[NOTE: actually, the day before yesterday…my blog had the swine flu, though, and I couldn’t post…]
It was one of those days. I got to campus at the usual time, but unlike usual, there were no parking spaces in the lot. So I had to drive around the neighborhood awhile to find a legal spot. Finally found one. Had my classes (always good), checked a few subversive books out of the library, chatted with Margaret the Librarian about restaurants and food (as usual), then went to my car…in the parking lot…where I usually park…see where this is going? That lot, it turns out, is the exact opposite direction of where I actually parked my car. Turned around, crossed the campus, entered the neighborhood, chatted with the school crossing guard about the beautiful weather (which she doesn’t always get), and found my car (this all took some precise amount of time, of course).
Started driving through the maze-like (to me) streets, heading back to the main drag. Finally found a street that, I thought, if I turned right, would take me to the main drag. Ooops. Turned out this was the main drag. I’m heading back to campus (all of this taking a certain amount of time).
No problem. I’ll just drive down here, make a right, make a right, and be back at the main drag, and this time I’ll turn left to go home. So I make a right…but there is no immediate second right. I follow the street a ways, and what do I see?
Muslims in the street! Not a demonstration or anything like that, just walking about, chatting, etc. As I drive through the activity, I slow down to see what’s up, and I see I am at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. I’d heard of him—the Sufi Sheikh with the Golden Words, and I knew their headquarters were in the area, but I’d never been here.
Now, as I brought my eyes down from the Fellowship’s sign to the car next to me, I see I am right next to Barbara and Jeff—friends I had not seen in quite a while. Just then, at that exact time.
I parked my car. They parked their car. I found out they were headed to the BMF to pick up a friend to head to an amusement park that was celebrating the Muslim holidays. Barbara and Jeff know lots of people at the BMF, so they took me inside and introduced me around. I was offered what seemed like a very tasty meal (I declined, graciously, I hope). I was loaded up with pamphlets about the Bawa and the organization. Very nice, very hospitable, very warm and friendly.
The BMF feeds the neighbors every day, the ones who don’t always get a meal…did you know that? (It’s not just the Catholic Workers, then….)
So here’s my question: Was it coincidence or kismet that I ended up where I ended up yesterday?
Anyway, here’s an interview with Bawa, who died in 1986.
What do you think???