Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 26, 2015

McKenzie Wark, Bogdanov, Zizek and gold-plated bullshit

Filed under: Ecology,Zizek — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Žižek muses on a new Verso title

Today my eyebrows rose to their maximum height when I ran into a Verso blog post on Twitter. Titled “Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red”, I fully expected another helping of the anti-Abbeyist ideology that permeated Christian Parenti’s Truthout interview. Of course, there is an obvious provocation here. Since ecology and “mother nature” are not terms normally thought of in contradiction with each other, you have to ask what Žižek has in mind. As a past master of the outrageous, you can expect him to fuck with your mind—at least if you are the sort of person who takes the Elvis Superstar of Marxism seriously.

Žižek’s commentary targets a new Verso book titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene” by McKenzie Wark. The Verso blurb states that it “creates philosophical tools for the Anthropocene, our new planetary epoch, in which human and natural forces are so entwined that the future of one determines that of the other.” Without knowing anything about the book in advance, I was reminded of Parenti’s dismissal of John Bellamy Foster’s “nature/society” dualism with the reference to “human and natural forces” being entwined. Of course, if you don’t go beyond the anti-Cartesian abstractions (that ultimately put you in Leibniz’s camp, for what that’s worth), you don’t have a clue about what the fuss is over.

It turns out that despite being represented as an anti-Cartesian, Wark has much more in common with Foster than William Cronon. Žižek describes him as concerned with the metabolic rift that Marx identified as the root cause of a soil fertility crisis (ie., animal excrement flowed into the Thames rather than fertilized the crops)—the very same point that Foster has made in numerous articles. However, Žižek dismisses the possibility of a rift but at the same time praises Wark for rejecting the notion that nature was ever in balance:

Notions like “rift” and perturbed “cycle” seem to rely on their opposite: on a vision of a “normal” state of things where the cycle is closed and the balance reestablished, as if the Anthropocene should be overcome by simply re-installing the human species into this balance. Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance, nature in itself is already unbalanced, the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other.

Of course, it is a bit difficult to figure out where Wark stands solely on the basis of Žižek’s précis. Short of reading his book, the best source would be a long article on E-Flux titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (On Alexander Bogdanov and Kim Stanley Robinson)” where he speaks in the name of the Carbon Liberation Front, a group with just one member—McKenzie Wark.

The Carbon Liberation Front has a number of enemies with those advocating markets as a solution in first place. He also warns against “a romantic turn away from the modern, from technology, as if the rift is made whole when a privileged few shop at the farmer’s market for artisanal cheese.” Uh-oh, I’d better fill the fridge with Kraft’s to stay on Wark’s good side.

Expecting an alternative to these dead-end approaches, you might reasonably expect something in the way of strategy, alliance-building, slogans, etc. But Wark is far more ambitious. His advice is to read Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star”, a science-fiction novel that posits the Martians as having advanced scientific knowledge. (Did Posadas read this, I wonder.) He also recommends his “The Philosophy of Living Experience”, a book that helped him formulate answers to the environmental crisis:

Bogdanov takes his distance even from materialist philosophy before Marx, for it still posits an abstract causation: matter determines thought, but in an abstract way. Whether as “matter” or “void,” a basic metaphor is raised to a universal principle by mere contemplation, rather than thought through social labor’s encounters with it. The revival in the twenty-first century of philosophies of speculative objects or vitalist matter is not a particularly progressive moment in Bogdanovite terms.

The labor point of view has to reject ontologies of abstract exchange with nature. Labor finds itself in and against nature. Labor is always firstly in nature, subsumed within a totality greater than itself. Labor is secondly against nature. It comes into being through an effort to bend resisting nature to its purposes. Its intuitive understanding of causality comes not from exchange value but from use value. Labor experiments with nature, finding new uses for it. Its understanding of nature is historical, always evolving, reticent about erecting an abstract causality over the unknown. The labor point of view is a monism, yet one of plural, active processes.

I think the one thing that rings truest in this excerpt is that Bogdanov took his distance from “materialist” philosophy. In trying to rescue Bogdanov from obscurity and turning him into a prophet of ecosocialism, he seems to have missed the main point, namely that Bogdanov had abandoned Marxism when he was developing his main ideas. This was Lenin’s take:

Why has it become impossible to have A. Bogdanov as a contributor to workers’ newspapers and journals that adhere to a stand of consistent Marxism? Because A. Bogdanov is not a Marxist.

Basically Bogdanov was a neo-Kantian, which in the early 1900s meant a follower of Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist with a distinguished career but not someone very useful for explaining society or history since according to Lenin scholar Neil Harding he denied the existence of a material world except as mediated by the conscious mind. You can understand why Lenin’s knickers would get twisted in a knot over this even though the main problem Bogdanov posed was his politics rather than his metaphysics.

In adopting Bogdanov as a prophet, Wark creates a certain difficulty for those of us trying to make an independent assessment since there is not a single English-language version of his work except for “Red Star”, the sci-fi novel that I have heard is unreadable. Some of it can be read on Google Books but the rewards seem vanishingly thin:

“This is an ordinary glass phial,” Menni explained, “but it contains a liquid which is repelled by the bodies of the solar system. Just enough liquid has been poured m to counterbalance the weight of the bottle, so that they are weightless together. We construe all our flying machines on the same principle. They are made of ordinary materials, but they have a reservoir filled with the appropriate quantity of this minus-matter. All that remains is to give this entire weightless system the proper speed. The flying machines intended for use in Earth’s atmosphere have simple electric motors and wings. Such craft are of course unsuited for interplanetary travel, where we employ an entirely different system, with which I shall familiarize you in more detail later.”

There was no longer any room for doubt.

I don’t know if there is much more to say about McKenzie Wark so let me conclude with a few more words on Žižek who if he was in a poker game would be said to see Wark’s hand and raised him several cards of abstractions. Can you make any sense of this?

My only critical point is that Wark’s unsurpassable horizon remains what he calls “shared life,” and every autonomization of any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation: “Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor”. Here, however, we should raise a double question. Firstly, is such an interruption of the flow of shared life, such a focus on an idea, a beloved, or a task, not precisely what Badiou calls the Event? So, far from dismissing such cuts as cases of alienation, should we not celebrate them as the highest expression of the power of negativity? Furthermore, does our access to the nonhuman molecular level of, say, the quantum universe, not presuppose precisely such a cut from our shared daily life? We are dealing here with a properly Hegelian paradox. Hegel praises the “molar” act of abstraction—the reduction of the complexity of a situation to the “essential”, to its key feature—as the infinite power of Understanding. The truly hard thing is not to bear in mind the complexity of a situation, but to brutally simplify it so that we see its essential form, not its details. The difficult thing is to see classes, not micro-groups fighting each other; to see the subject, not the Humean flow of mental states. We are not talking here just of ideal forms or patterns, but of the Real. The void of subjectivity is the Real which is obfuscated by the wealth of “inner life”; class antagonism is the Real which is obfuscated by the multiplicity of social conflicts.

I would call this gold-plated bullshit.

For a better idea of why Žižek would find the notion of any kind of rift as outside the bounds of his own peculiar notions about ecology, I would refer you to his 2010 New Statesman article titled “Joe Public v the volcano” where he offers this fatuous take on global warming:

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

His answer to global warming is a helluva known known:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Although I doubt that this would ever enter the mind of the Elvis Superstar of Marxism, when places like the Maldives or Bangladesh become uninhabitable, the poor people will become casualties of floods, starvation, disease and chaos-induced violence. That should be obvious and not require familiarity with Lacan or Bogdanov for that matter.

January 16, 2014

Zizek and Abercrombie-Fitch

Filed under: Zizek — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

Slavoj Zizek

Zizek’s client

http://www.critical-theory.com/that-time-zizek-wrote-for-abercrombie-fitch/

That Time Zizek Wrote for Abercrombie & Fitch

March 19th, 2013  |  by Eugene. Published in Theory and Theorists

Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek isn’t always spending his spare time marrying Argentine models or psychoanalyzing toilets. Back in the day, the philosopher also found time to write ads in Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Back to School” catalog.

At one point, Abercrombie & Fitch was trying to appeal to 14-year-old douchebags by publishing soft core porn under the auspices of product catalogs. At another point, Abercrombie & Fitch decided to try a permutation of softcore porn and Slavoj Zizek’s rambling. The results are amazing.

A PDF of the catalog was spotted on The New Yorker today. The full catalog is available for free here (NSFW).

NY Times June 17, 2003
Clothing Chain Accused of Discrimination
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer that appeals to the college set with blond-haired, blue-eyed models, was sued yesterday for racial discrimination, accused of favoring whites for its sales floor jobs.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, charges that Abercrombie discriminates against Hispanics, Asians and blacks in its hiring as it seeks to project what the company calls the “classic American” look.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-447183/Poseurs-Paradise-Whats-really-like-work-new-Abercrombie–Fitch-store.html

Poseurs Paradise! What’s it really like to work at the new Abercrombie & Fitch store?

Two young, shirtless men in low-slung jeans greet you at the door. Disco music pounds out, the air is full of a sickly sweet scent and it is so dark, customers get lost and panic. This is shopping Abercrombie & Fitch style. Savile Row will never be the same.

I’ve been working undercover there after I took a job as an in-store model at the multi-billion dollar U.S. clothing company’s new London store – their first venture into Europe.

My aim was to report from the inside. It happened by chance. You don’t see many Canadian woman in turquoise wellies on public transport in London, so I had already noticed the store’s talent scout when she noticed me, at a London Tube station. I was curious. So was she.

“You’ve got just the right look to come and work for Abercrombie & Fitch” she told me. I was taken aback, flattered, but had no idea what she meant.

“Fantastic” I replied. Abercrombie & Fitch? The name rang a bell. Shortbread? Why would a biscuit firm want to employ me?

She explained that Abercrombie & Fitch was a clothing store and that they were hiring “models”

to “just hang out” around the shop, wearing the company’s clothing.

The penny dropped. I’d seen those risque; posters of a muscular man with a builder’s bottom adorning London buses. I knew this homoerotic campaign has caused a stir.

This, I realised, was the American chain whose use of blatant sex to market their U.S. preppy style has attracted critics as well as custom. They promise a store full of “gorgeous kids”.

July 26, 2013

Zizek versus Chomsky

Filed under: Zizek — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

I had completely forgotten that the first skirmish between the two happened long ago in the course of an interview that Doug Henwood conducted with Zizek. As far as I know, Chomsky ignored Zizek back then unlike today. I have no idea when I wrote this but it was long before I began blogging. I should add that anybody interested in my pre-Unrepentant Marxist rants should go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm. Unfortunately I don’t highlight those that were written prior to my blog’s launching but it is all there, warts and all.

 Doug Henwood Interviews Slavoj Zizek

If a character like Slavoj Zizek showed up in a draft version of one of David Lodge’s broad satires on academic life, the editor would probably tell him to eliminate it because it was overdrawn. As a permanent fixture of high-toned left journals and academic conference plenaries, Zizek usually seems to be lampooning himself.

If nothing else, his embrace of the terminally self-important and boring Reaganite filmmaker David Lynch should have made him the laughing-stock of the intelligentsia, both professional and organic. Perhaps it was a calculated bid to one-up a French academy that had attached itself to Jerry Lewis.

In “The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime,” Zizek solemnly announces that:

Lenin liked to point out that one could often get crucial insights into one’s enemies from the perceptions of intelligent enemies. So, since the present essay attempts a Lacanian reading of David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway,’ it may be useful to start with a reference to ‘post-theory,’ the recent cognitivist orientation of cinema studies that establishes its identity by a thorough rejection of Lacanian studies.

Needless to say, with this on page one, a sensible reader would take the first exit off this highway and put the book in the trashcan.

I would instead refer students of film to the review of “Lost Highway” on http://www.mrcranky.com, a critic with far more sense than the gaseous Zizek:

If you want some help in understanding this film, think of it as a Mobius strip – which is what Lynch is trying to do to your brain – twist it into a confused mass. Two stories occupy each half of the film. First there’s Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) having trouble with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), then there’s Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) having trouble with Mr. Eddie’s (Robert Loggia) girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette). Explaining any more than that would ruin your sense of utter frustration – and my sense of justice: sometimes knowing others will suffer is my only joy in life.

For reasons having something to do either with the zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era or something they put into the drinking water on certain prestigious college campuses, Zizek has emerged as a kind of standard-bearer for the woozy, academic, post-Marxist left. In the latest issue of “Bad Subjects,” there is an interview with Zizek (eserver.org/bs/59/zizek.html) by Doug Henwood, the president of the Slavoj Zizek fan club.

It combines the usual Zizek preoccupations over the dangers of multiculturalism and the undiscovered joys of Lenin, who is to Zizek as some remote and exotic island resort is to a contributor to Travel Magazine. “Have you had a chance to visit St. Lenin lately? The beaches are pristine and the natives so well behaved.”

For veteran Zizek-watchers like myself, it was a surprise to see him also take swipes at anarchists and at Noam Chomsky. For Zizek, “the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals.” After reading this, I nearly resolved to change my name to Louis Zero and listen to Rage Against the Machine 12 hours a day.

The hostility to Chomsky is another story altogether. Bad Subjects editor Charlie Bertsch sets the tone for this in the introduction to the interview: ” For anyone who has tired of the dumbing down of mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds it hard to believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam Chomsky represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to critique global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist slogans, Zizek’s work flashes the promise of something better.”

Of course, it must be said that the “something better” referred to above must be connected to the sort of success that Zizek enjoys in certain circles. For Bertsch, this very well might have more to do with how many times you appear in New Left Review rather than speaking on Pacifica Radio or at a campus teach-in on the war in Afghanistan:

It’s hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly publishing. Most of the people who read its products can also write them. To stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and perseverance. Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both.

Ah, to be a superstar. One would hope that Charlie Bertsch gets a chance to look into Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run” or Norman Podhoretz’s “Making It” to find out how it’s really done.

Turning to the interview itself, we discover that the big problem with Chomsky is not just that he doesn’t know how to connect Lacan to Peewee Herman. Rather it is that he is too preoccupied with “facts”. Henwood poses the question to Zizek: “Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren’t ‘the facts’ enough?”

Zizek’s reply is extraordinary:

Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known. Let’s take Chomsky’s analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It’s exactly what I’d expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it’s more convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don’t think that we really learned anything dramatically new there. I don’t think that merely ‘knowing the facts’ can really change people’s perceptions.

In reality, the big problem has always been the lack of facts in American society on questions such as these. Mostly, what the Central American solidarity movement had to contend with was the immense propaganda campaign against the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua. People like myself joined CISPES or built Tecnica to help counter this disinformation campaign that cost the lives of so many people. When you involve thousands and then millions of people in vast movements opposed to the Vietnam War, the wars in Central America or the wars going on today, much of the effort revolves around getting the truth out. This is what distinguishes Noam Chomsky. It is also what makes Slavoj Zizek such a enormously superfluous figure. When is the last time anybody would pick up a book by Zizek to find out the economic or social reality of a place like Nicaragua or Afghanistan? You might as well read Gayatri Spivak to find out about how to overturn the Taft-Hartley Act.

When Zizek, a Slovenian, finally descends from Mount Olympus to speak about a topic that he presumably has some direct knowledge of, namely Yugoslavia, the results are even more appalling. Contrary to Chomsky who believed that “all parties were more or less to blame” and that “the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own geopolitical goals,” Zizek blames the dastardly Serbs. Not only was “it over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia,” there is no evidence that the “disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West.”

Well, what can one say? Surely, with all the scholarly research on the role of German banks, etc. that has been written by people like the late Sean Gervasi about the breakup of Yugoslavia, one can’t blame Zizek for avoiding the facts like a dirty dog avoids a bath. In any case, for all of Zizek’s Leninist posturing, the main thing he gets wrong is the need to take a principled stand against NATO military intervention in the country he once called home. In an April 24, 1999 Independent interview, Zizek is quite blunt about what should happen:

The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the extent of international apathy towards Milosevic’s aggressive nationalism, which has culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek lambasts ‘the interminable procrastination’ of Western governments and says that ‘I definitely support the bombing’ of Milosevic’s regime by Nato.

Because of statements like this, Lenin decided to start a new movement in 1914. It is singularly obscene that Zizek now holds academic conferences on Lenin. Better he should stick to David Lynch.

Finally on the topic of Lenin himself, Henwood asks Zizek: “What do you find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?”

Zizek answers, “What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him – the ruthless will to discard all prejudices.”

Just to make clear, Zizek is not referring to opposing imperialist war or supporting the self-determination for oppressed nationalities. He has much bigger fish to fry:

Let’s take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First, deeply inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that whenever you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she can infect you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of smoking. There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain falseness in liberalism, that comes down to “I want to be left alone by others; I don’t want to get too close to the others.”

Poor Lenin is reduced to a leftist version of Rush Limbaugh, who has also harped upon his right to smoke in restaurants.

November 3, 2011

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,Zizek — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

For reasons I don’t quite understand, anytime I write anything about Zizek, it generates exceptional traffic here. This may be because there is a lot of interest in Zizek or because he brings out the best (worst?) in me. I confess that Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding, but I do look forward to increased traffic on my blog in the hope that new readers will find other articles useful as well. The one below was written before I began blogging. You can find all my articles, both from that period and afterwards, at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm.

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 31, 2004

An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters” website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the figurative sense)  [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.

August 20, 2011

Marxist contrarians on the British riots

Filed under: economics,philosophy,Zizek — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Joel Kotkin is a contributor to Forbes Magazine, the “capitalist tool” publication founded by the late Malcolm Forbes and now run by his glassy-eyed libertarian son Steve. On his blog there, Kotkin advises in an article titled The U.K. Riots And The Coming Global Class War that both right and left “ideologues” get the British riots wrong:

What’s the lesson to be drawn?  The ideologues don’t seem to have the answers. A crackdown on criminals — the favored response of the British right — is necessary but does not address the fundamental problems of joblessness and devalued work. Similarly the left’s favorite panacea, a revival of the welfare state, fails to address the central problem of shrinking opportunities for social advancement.

You could struggle in vain to find any ideas in Kotkin’s article about how to expand “opportunities for social advancement” even though it concludes with the warning that “If capitalism cannot do that [expand opportunities] expect more outbreaks of violence and greater levels of political alienation — not only in Britain but across most of the world’s leading countries, including the U.S.”

The article exudes a sense that a return to the “good old days” when the bourgeoisie was more ambitious and entrepreneurial could solve the problem. Back in the earlier decades of the 20th century, “working class youths could look forward to jobs in Britain’s vibrant industrial economy and, later, in the growing public sector largely financed by both the earnings of the City of London and credit.” Of course, Britain has about the same prospects in becoming a “vibrant industrial economy” as I do in getting into a pair of trousers with a 31-inch waistband. We have both seen our better days. (I am working on a 33-inch size.)

Kotkin cites an erstwhile Marxmail subscriber as a guide to what might be needed:

As British historian James Heartfield has suggested, the rioters reflected a broader breakdown in “the British social system,” particularly in “the system of work and reward.”

My guess is that this probably the first time this year and maybe the decade that a self-described Marxist has gotten a tip of the hat in Steve Forbes’s magazine. Given the placement of the ad for Wells Fargo (“Learn more about how The Private Bank can help you”) just to the right of the link to Heartfield’s article that appears on Kotkin’s New Geography website, you get a sense of the cognitive dissonance at work.

Well, maybe not so dissonant after all. To start with, Heartfield’s article is titled “Britain Needs a Better Way to Get Rich Than Looting”. Maybe I am old-fashioned or something but the notion that “Britain” needs to get rich seems awfully devoid of class distinctions.  It is no accident that Kotkin has an affinity with one of Spiked online’s few remaining Marxists since he shares Heartfield’s love affair with suburbia. The Wiki on Kotkin states that he “believes in a ‘back to basics’ approach which stresses nurturing the middle class and families with traditional suburban development. “ For his part, Heartfield is as enamored of suburbia as Robert Moses. Just look at what he says on the website for his book “Let’s Build!”:

This book explains why Britain stopped building homes for its citizens to live in. For too long government policy has been in the grip of officials who want to stop new building.

Let’s Build! explains why all the reasons for not building new homes – the scare stories about the environment, about suburbia, about social cohesion – are just excuses.

Turning to the article itself, Heartfield took good care not to say anything that might offend Joel Kotkin. Writing for an editor who works for Forbes is obviously a lot different than writing for Jacobin or Metamute. Of course, if it were up to me I’d never bother dealing with the Joel Kotkins of the world.

Turning to the question of police brutality, Heartfield has a rather unique perspective on the cops: “Nobody would want to see the return of the old authoritarian policing, but the cadre that replaced them have lacked a guiding esprit de corps.” I confess that words escape me on this one. One cannot imagine Lenin ever fretting over the Czarist constabulary’s loss of a “guiding esprit de corps” but then again Lenin is just so passé.

Heartfield also mourns the disappearance of a respect for authority:

Lower down the scale teachers, parents and youth leaders have seen their authority undermined by a culture that disparages discipline, and sees “abuse” everywhere. Teachers’ unions have pointed out that changes in the law mean that a substantial minority are being investigated for allegations of abuse made by students at any time, meaning that they are reluctant to uphold discipline in the classroom. At the same time, teachers and social workers challenge parental discipline at every opportunity.

One does have to wonder how Frank Furedi maintains discipline in his own Spiked online ranks. If a member ever decided to write an article about the dangers of DDT, would they get a caning? Now we do know how that practice did have a certain frisson among private school boys…

When it comes to returning to the good old days, when happy workers went off to the coal mines or steel mills each day with a lunch bucket filled with ham sandwiches and a thermos bottle of steaming hot tea, Heartfield feels that recent methods such as these of getting rich have to be abandoned.

  • Susan Boyle grabbed the public’s affection on a TV talent show and made £10 million.
  • Geordie singer turned X-factor judge Cheryl Cole became Britain’s highest paid TV star.
  • City chiefs like Barclays Bob Diamond and HSBC’s Bob Duggan were awarded bonuses of £6.5 and £9 million last year, from funds boosted by the government’s £200 billion quantitative easing policy.

Ah, we should have realized all along. The collapse of the British coal, auto, steel and shipbuilding industries had nothing to do with global competition but rather the waywardness of those who preferred to make their millions singing show tunes and the like. Time to sell your Marxist literature on amazon.com, I’d gather.

Turning from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser, there’s Slavoj Zizek’s (who were you expecting, Mike Davis?) latest think piece on the London Review titled “Shoplifters of the World Unite”.  It provides stiff competition with Heartfield’s “Britain Needs a Better Way to Get Rich Than Looting” as contrarian title of the year. When Marxists harp on rioters shoplifting or why Britain needs to work on “getting rich”, one wonders whether they are interested in changing peoples’ minds or rather getting them to say things like “Can you believe what Zizek just wrote in the London Review?” In the U.S. we call such people shock jocks. Whether Marxism has any need of their talents is an open question.

Zizek’s article is filled with philosophical babble like this:

This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.

Is this the same Hegel who believed that the Prussian state was the culmination of the historical dialectic? No wonder.

When you read Zizek’s analysis, you have to wonder if he hasn’t been listening to Rush Limbaugh:

The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out.

Well, clearly these rioters have to stop stealing clothing or television sets and carve out the time to read Zizek’s latest article on communism. That will resolve their “ideological-political predicament” once they figure out what he is trying to say.

Like Kotkin and Heartfield, Zizek blames the welfare state on the erosion of the public morale that would lead to such wanton acts of destruction:

Meanwhile leftist liberals, no less predictably, stuck to their mantra about social programmes and integration initiatives, the neglect of which has deprived second and third-generation immigrants of their economic and social prospects: violent outbursts are the only means they have to articulate their dissatisfaction.

The rest of the article continues in this flatulent direction and is not worth commenting on, especially since I am anxious to take a run in Central Park and work on getting that 34 inch waist down to a 33.

Bye for now,

The Unrepentant Marxist

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