On The Suicide Of The Refugee W.B.
(for Walter Benjamin)
I am told that you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years of exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.
Empires collapse. Gang leaders
are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
– Bertolt Brecht
In the wake of the Paris attacks Slavoj Žižek published, a now widely derided, article in In These Times. My purpose here is not to engage in the evaluation of this piece and its critiques so much; rather to expose how one of the deep errors Žižek makes is an expression of a wider subjectivity that even those of us who disagree with his perspective remain caught in. Facing the horror of our situation we experience a noticeable powerlessness to do anything about it.
What is so striking about Žižek’s argument is how it expresses a double-barrelled fantasy: a fantasy of the state’s capacity to shape social reality and a fantasy of the Left’s ability to wield the state as a tool. This expresses another argumentative coupling: that the way out of the deadlock of liberal states vs Salafist para-states and organisations is class struggle and this takes the form of taking control of the crises that confront us.
It is here where I want to break beyond Žižek. He is entirely right when he argues that in a world that is segmented and divided in a hierarchy of identities the way out is to recognise the possibility of solidarity that exists due to the antagonisms that cut through these identities themselves. ‘The real task is to build bridges between “our” and “their” working classes. Without this unity (which includes the critique and self-critique of both sides) class struggle proper regresses into a clash of civilizations’. This is the keystone of the possibility of hope: that within this dark situation a shared struggle offers a way beyond of all the old shit that is dragging us down.
The error is that he sees the manifestation of ‘class struggle proper’ in the Left seizing the state and wielding it to reshape social reality. My objection to this perspective doesn’t arise from an anarchist purism (though anarchism is generally right on the state’s inability to act as a tool for liberation) but rather that it is a total fantasy that ignores the dynamics of power that operate in capitalism.
It is interesting that Žižek starts this the article with a reference to Syriza. For it is the experience of Syriza that most clearly shows that the state remains enmeshed in a web of wider power dynamics, certainly playing a key part of the processes of social reproduction, but ultimately not a force that can break beyond these bonds. And the process of governing in this reality has compelled Syriza to increasingly move in capital’s direction. ‘A politics oriented towards the state, far from bringing about a radical change in society, leads to the progressive subordination of opposition to the logic of capitalism’(Holloway 2002, 1).
But there is no smugness that is to be gained from this critique. Žižek is expressing a fantasy that we can do something right now, that we can grab the reins of power and reshape the world. If we demonstrate this to be an illusion this doesn’t mean we are suddenly presented with an alternative. The subjective basis of Žižek’s fantasy is that ‘the forces of right are weak’ and that the liberal states and the Salafist para-states and organisations continue to pile wreckage on each other and all of us. This violence is a product of, to use Badiou’s (2005, 122) phrasing, ‘the disjunctive synthesis of two nihilism’: the nihilism of capital accumulation, enforced by the violence of liberal states, and the nihilism of fascism. Mixing my theorists with a cavalier air we could say that if it feels as if we are trapped within violence, it is because we are: all the forces are different factions of Empire. ‘Today, forces which claim to represent the interests of the wretched of the earth clash with others, which pretend to represent justice and peace for all, but such civil wars are nothing but complex power struggles within the hierarchies of imperial power’(Negri 2008, 57).
This powerlessness expresses itself increasingly in the ressentiment of the Australian Left. Faced with the interlocking of Salafist violence, liberal state violence and the ideological production attempted by the media(who excel at being a pack of total arseholes), much of what makes up Left responses is to either point out the hypocrisy of how some deaths are mourned more than others and to draw attention to role the violence and conspiracy of the US and its allies has had in creating Salafism to begin with. Of course both these points are correct. In a world where different people’s lives are counted differently so too are their deaths: and this is abhorrent. The mess we are in now can only be understood in relation to the long histories of colonialism and imperialism, the structural dynamics of the globe and the actions of states and rackets. ‘Daesh is the noxious by-product of a rotting system, the system of imperialism and capital accumulation’(the Editors 2015). But merely, and often bitterly, declaring these realities don’t necessarily do much to change them.
It is entirely justifiable for us to point out that the ‘War on Terror’ especially the invasion of Iraq, which killed 1.2 million people, on top of the million killed by sanctions, and those killed by the first Gulf war has created the context for the expansion of violence and that those of us who opposed the war were right… but then it behoves us to face up to our failure to stop the war itself and why.
It was our collective inability to generate and use power in 2003/4 that still haunts us now. Power: perhaps not power as Žižek understands it, put constitutive counter-power. On the whole, despite some valiant attempts, the movement of 2003/4 (and a few years after) remained within the rules of liberal democracy; it attempted to speak truth to power, rather than breaking these rules and manifesting power by interrupting the operation of the state and generating new and alternative spaces of collective emancipation. ‘Resistance, insurrection and constituent power are the threefold figure of the single essence of counterpower’(Negri 2008, 139).
Right now we aren’t doing much to have an impact on the organisation of our lives on a daily level, in the spaces where we live and work. There are some radiant exceptions: the ability to workers at Hutchinson to resist their arbitrary sacking and win a comprise EBA, the Bentley Blockade, the struggle against the East West Link. But these struggles haven’t yet circulated through the class on a whole and remain contained in part by the internal division and hierarchies that cut across us.
There are good things going on. Myriad comrades known and unknown are doing the best they can to resist reaction and racism from both the state and fascist grouplets. Myriad comrades known and unknown are doing what they can where they work, where they live, where they hang out to assert our needs. As of yet these don’t add up to much. Until something happens, a levee breaks, a movement erupts, ‘something that is awaited but unexpected’ (Virno 1996, 209) we will all remain, partly at least, caught in a subjectivity of powerlessness. The relation between struggles today and eruption tomorrow is unclear. We are a multitude of moles grubbing in the dark.[i] We have to go on insisting on the possibilities that remain hidden, a confidence in the capacity of all of us to act differently and create differently, on the living chance of lives with justice and dignity. It is only in the possibility of lighting a spark in these local struggles that we can hope to have an impact as part of a global one.
Where does this way beyond powerlessness arise from? Capitalist society only operates due to exploitation of our social labour both waged and unwaged. It is our collective ability to pull our creative capacities away from capital and organise them autonomously that is the basis of hope. Even if we don’t yet really know how to do this, or know if the inherited forms of organisation are fit for purpose or if new ones need to be invented, this remains the living and material basis for something better.
Žižek’s fantasy is that of a short cut, one where all this rubbish can be decisively swept away. If we dispense with the fantasy we find ourselves facing the powerlessness we experience looking for the power we know exists. It is this distance between a world embroiled in violence and exploitation and the capacity for something different that hovers just out of view that we are currently destined to inhabit.
As Badiou (2015) writes:
The general plot of this story is the West – homeland of the dominant, civilised capitalism – clashing with ‘Islamism’ – the reference point of bloody terrorism. Appearing against this backdrop we have, on the one hand, murderous armed gangs or individuals with stockpiles of their own, which they wave around in order to force everyone to honour the corpse of some deity; on the other hand, savage international military expeditions mounted in the name of human rights and democracy, which destroy entire states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic…). These wars have thousands of victims, and they never achieve anything more than negotiating a precarious peace with the worst bandits in order to secure the oil fields, mines, food resources and enclaves where big business can prosper.
Things will go on like this until real universalism – humanity itself taking its own fate in hand, with the emergence of the new, decisive historical-political incarnation of the communist idea – deploys its new power at a world scale. At the same time, this will put an end to the enslavement of states to the oligarchy of property-owners and their servants, to the abstraction of money, and finally, to the identities and counter-identities that ravage peoples’ minds and call them to their deaths.
The world situation is a delay – the delayed arrival of the time when every identity (for there will always be different, formally contradictory identities) is integrated into the destiny of humanity in general in an egalitarian and peaceful way. Its arrival is delayed, but it will come, if enough of us want it
Badiou, Alain. 2005. Infinite Thought. London & New York: Continuum.
Badiou, Alain. 2015. The Red Flag and the Tricolore. Verso [cited 18th November 2015]. Available from http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1833-the-red-flag-and-the-tricolore-by-alain-badiou.
Holloway, John. 2002. “Twelve Theses on Changing the World without Taking Power.” The Commoner: A Web Journal For Other Values (N.4 ):1-6.
Negri, Antonio. 2008. Reflections on Empire. Translated by Ed Emery. Cambridge: Polity Press.
the Editors. 2015. Paris. Daesh. Salvage [cited 18th November 2015]. Available from http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/paris-daesh/.
Virno, Paolo. 1996. “Virtuosity and Revolution.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, 189-210. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
[i] Apologises to Marx and Bologna