Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Slavoj Žižek on Class & Racism



Slavoj Žižek wouldn't be a Marxist if he didn't endlessly talk about class. He does. And it's the fact that postmodernists, post-structuralists, etc., at least according to Žižek, don’t do so that makes them so problematic.

There are indeed many “social antagonisms” in capitalist society. But, according to Žižek, one social antagonism is the source of all the others. Superficially (say, to postmods), it seems as if there are a “series of social antagonisms” (320). And in a (superficial) sense, there are. However, there is a “specific antagonism which predominates over the rest” – class antagonism.


Žižek disagrees with people like Ernesto Laclau who believe that “all elements which enter into hegemonic struggle are in principle equal”. In Marxist reality, on the other hand, “there is always one which, while it is part of the chain, secretly overdetermines its very horizon”. Which one? Class antagonism. In that case, which other peripheral antagonisms is Žižek referring to? He is talking about “economic, political, feminist, ecological, ethnic” antagonisms. And all are subordinate to the class struggle. In fact all antagonisms are equal but class antagonism is more equal than others.

Sometimes Marxists are not very explicit about the theory that capitalism causes racism and sexism - and indeed, basically, all evil. Stating something as explicitly as that may well undermine the Marxist cause. However, such simplicities and crude reductionisms are vital for the Marxist/revolutionary cause.

There's a kind of vital choice which faces Marxists: crude simplicity and revolution or sophistication and no revolution. Parties like the UK's SWP or Respect, for example, take the first option. Marxist theorists like, say, Ralph Miliband or Louis Althusser, take the latter option. However, when it comes to Marxist fundamentals, both Ralph Miliband, as well as Žižek himself, and the SWP believe largely the same things.

So, again, think about the inane simplicity and reductionism of the following Marxist position:

Capitalism causes racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, Islamic terrorism and all the others ills of society.

Now that statement/theory may be a little hard to stomach even if one is a natural radical or instinctive hater of capitalism. It's just so totalist and essentialist. Besides which, surely even the radical or hater of capitalism will know - in his heart - that this, at the very least, simply can't be the whole truth.

Žižek, as a believer in Marxist crudity (if hidden underneath pretentious prose), is explicit. In a passage castigating the post-mod counter-revolutionaries who, nonetheless, enforce “Political Correctness” (capitalised by Žižek), he says that they, in so doing, “betray the retreat from disturbing the actual (economic, etc.) causes of racism and sexism” (130).

Zizek's Analysis of Jew-Hatred in Nazi Germany
 


Let me explain this. Take one of these social antagonisms: racism. More specifically, take Jew-hatred. In the classic Marxist spirit, this too is all about capitalism. Or, more specifically, about class antagonism.

In a rather repulsive case of Marxist reductionism, Žižek argues that not only were the National Socialists (Nazis) a necessary consequence of “class struggle” (124); but so too was their Jew-hatred. In other words, Jew-hatred was – and still is - a mere epiphenomenon of the economic - or class – antagonisms of a particular capitalist society.

Firstly, what the the German workers of the 1920s found was “social antagonism”. Then, when they became Nazis, they carried out a “disavowal/displacement of [that] fundamental social antagonism ('class struggle' which divides the social edifice from within)”. Following on from that, the Nazis indulged - unknowingly of course - in a process of a “projection/externalization of the cause of social antagonisms into the figure of the Jew”. In other words, capitalist wrong created Jew-hatred.

This theory is so full of holes it would make a good string vest.

For a start, European Jew-hatred predates the rise of German National Socialism by around a 1000 years. In fact it predates the rise of capitalism itself by around 700 years (depending on where you place the the beginnings of modern capitalism). Of course a Marxist, or Žižek, will fixate on those aspects of Jew-hatred which were specific to the capitalist or Nazi era. But then there were aspects of Jew-hatred which were specific to the medieval period or to Russian peasant society in the 19th century. So what? The Marxist thesis is that capitalism itself creates racism - not that it has created a specific kind of racism. (Indeed the Marxist Left has its own kind/s of racism and even its very own tradition of Jew-hating: a tradition which dates all the way back to Marx himself - some 70 years before the rise of the Nazis - and which continued through to the Bolsheviks and to Stalin and then all the way to today's boycott-Israel movement.)

In addition, not all Nazis, or Jew-haters, within capitalist societies were the victims of “class struggle” or “class antagonisms”. Many were rich and closeted; as Marxists, when arguing a different case, are often keen to tell us. (Though the Marxist 'auxiliary hypothesis' here will no doubt be that the rich Nazis were not really Jew-haters as such – they simply used the hatred of Jews for political and social advantage.) On a more technical point, even if social antagonism and the class war contributed to Nazi racism, why did it lead specifically to the hatred of the Jews? Why not a hatred of all the Austrians (in Germany), or to bricklayers or scientists? I have already answered that. It did so largely because Jew-hatred, as a tradition, predated the rise of the Nazis by over a 1000 years and predated capitalism itself by around 700 years.

Of course Marxists will have trite answers to all my rejoinders. They always do. In fact, as Karl Popper put it, Marxists always offer us endless 'auxiliary hypotheses' to their original arguments, statements or theories. So many auxiliary hypotheses, in fact, that the original theory, argument or statement ends up looking completely different to what it did when first expressed.

All this ties in with another point made in this piece. Marxist theories are quite deliberately simplistic, reductionist and essentialist. If they weren't that way, not many people would understand them and even less would be fired-up to revolt or become revolutionaries. A complicated or sophisticated theory wouldn’t inspire the masses. This means that the Marxist theory of Nazi Jew-hatred, as well as of racism generally, has to be simplistic and reductionist in order to radicalise the minds of the people; or, alternatively, in order to bring about a revolutionary situation.

Marxist Theories About Racism & Everything



But what about the Marxist theories which explain racism and seem to do so effectively?

Now Marxists have a tendency to think that Marxist theories (such as the one about Nazi Jew-hatred) are sophisticated almost by definition. They are sophisticated primarily because they show us the 'unseen of the economy' and scrape away 'false consciousness'.

Marxists also think their theories are sophisticated for two more basic reasons. One, they are sophisticated quite simply because they are theories. (That's all it takes.) Two, Marxist theories - so Marxists think (and it's partly true) - are at odds with what the 'middle classes' think (despite the fact that virtually all Marxists are middle class); at odds with what most 'straight' people think; with what the hoodwinked man in the street thinks; with what the people who don't wear Che Guevara t-shirts think; etc. Now if Marxist theories are at odds with what the plebs in the pubs and the middle classes think, then such theories must, by Marxist definition, be sophisticated.

The fact that a theory isn't sophisticated simply because it's a theory - let alone true or accurate because it's a theory - doesn't seem to enter the head of the average Marxist. However, whether or not the Marxist theory is accurate or true, it is still nonetheless interpreting political events and realities; which all the plebs, of course, simply 'take at face value'. Again, Marxist theories offer us the 'unseen' of just about everything. And that fact alone seems to be enough for the majority of Marxists.

It follows, then, that Žižek's perverse, reductionist and blatantly partial theory about the rise of Nazi Jew-hatred is still a good thing when seen from a Marxist perspective. Such a theory is meant to be simple. (Even though Žižek himself doesn't explain it in a clear or simple manner; the theory itself is still simple.)

Zizek: the Nazis Were Capitalists


 And now - immediately after Žižek's reduction of 1000 years of Jew-hatred to capitalist class war - Žižek goes on to account for the continuing rise of the Nazis and the culpability of capitalism for that rise.

According to Žižek, after the Nazis had reacted to class struggle in their supposedly non-Marxist way (by becoming Jew-haters), they then carried out a pseudo-revolution ( a non-Marxist revolution). The “Nazi revolution” (124/5), according to Žižek, was a fake revolution. And guess why that was. Yes, you guessed correctly: because they didn't get rid of capitalism. In Žižek's words, it was all an “exemplary case of a pseudo-change, of frenetic activity”. All this change, again, was pseudo-change.

And here comes that Žižek idée fixe again (which he has also aimed at postmods and the non-Marxist Left; and now he's aiming at the Nazis of the 1920s and 1930s): this “Nazi revolution” was a “pseudo-change” quite simply because the Nazis didn't get rid of capitalism. Even though they fundamentally restructured capitalism in Germany, it was still capitalism they restructured. Thus, despite the autobahns, the death and labour camps, the zero unemployment, the improvements in heath care, animal rights legislation, the greening the environment and society generally, etc., all that was pseudo-change because, yes, capitalism was still left in place.

Such is the nature of Žižek's Marxist fundamentalism and essentialism. It's as near to being pathologically Manichean and simplistic as any political or religious ideology could possibly be. And that partly explains his unutterably pretentious prose-style.

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Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau [2000], Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Verso

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