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Why Zizek’s Critics are Wrong—and Where They Could Have Gotten it Right

Zizek’s critique of the refugee crisis is more sophisticated than his critics are willing to admit—but he, too, missed something big.

BY Jamil Khader

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Zizek argues that the only way to undo this global capitalist deadlock is to re-inscribe the fundamental antagonism, precisely by insisting on the “global solidarity of the exploited.”

Rejoinders to Slavoj Zizek’s polemic on the refugee crisis insist on turning this exchange into Zizek’s Heideggerian moment. His interlocutors find his putatively racist and xenophobic claims about refugees and their cultural traditions to be reckless, irresponsible and inconsistent with his self-professed radical egalitarian politics.

Even worse, they claim that they can hardly distinguish his claims from populist, conservative, anti-immigrant, right-wing Neofascist propaganda, that such claims prove that he has been a closeted racist Neofascist all along. Writing for ROAR magazine, for example, Esben Bogh Sorensen writes, “Essentially, Zizek accepts the dominant idea—shared by institutional Europe and the extreme right—that refugees and migrants pose a problem, threat, or some kind of crisis for 'us' and 'our egalitarianism and personal freedoms.'”

Ironically, as Zizek himself responds to Sara Ahmed, his critique of the hegemony of multiculturalism as an ideology does not mean that he uses multiculturalism as a normative description of the “reality of predominant social relations.” Adam Kotsko thus correctly points out, “Every time [Zizek] mentions the existence of intolerance or cultural difference, for instance, it is taken as an endorsement or legitimation rather than a description of facts that must be taken into account.”

Racist presuppositions, leftist taboos

The problem in the critical reception of his polemic on the refugees is not so much, as Kotsko maintains, that Zizek over-identifies with the “(inadequate) terms of the public debate.” Rather, Zizek’s problematization of the presuppositions inherent to both Western liberal multicultural and populist, anti-immigrant, neofascist discourses on the refugees are mistaken for his own position on the politically correct and postmodern taboos that he opposes. These presuppositions, however, are clearly distinct from his position on the taboos.

The three main presuppositions that Zizek engages in this polemic, and the PC taboos that are related to them, include the following: First, the slippage between refugees and Islamic terrorists, by which racist discourses seem to suggest that the refugees are somehow ISIS terrorists who were transplanted into Europe directly from some ISIS’s terrorism training camps. The corresponding PC and postmodern taboo that Zizek forcefully disavows is the taboo about demonizing the ISIS terrorists—those who enforce this taboo tend to subjectivize the terrorists, with the intention of offering a “deeper understanding” of their humanity in their struggle against Western colonial interventions. For Zizek, there should be no sympathy for the terrorist Other.

Second, the corollary to the slippage between refugees and terrorists is the sweeping homogenization of all Arab refugees into Muslims, whereby the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity of these refugee communities is flattened out. Here Zizek proposes that the taboo concerning the ban on Islamophobia—that any critique of Islam is an expression of Islamophobic sentiments, should be completely rejected. He makes it clear that such an attitude is based on nothing but paternalistic condescension.

And finally, he identifies the Left’s embarrassing silence over oppressive cultural practices among specific Muslim communities in Europe. Here Zizek insists on breaking the PC and postmodern taboo against Eurocentrism. In his view, the European values that ushered the Enlightenment legacy are much needed today, when the global capitalist system has decoupled itself from the democratic project and mutated into a global economy that pursues ruthless accumulation based instead on the authoritarian capitalist policies of the late Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yew.

Unfortunately, his critics do not only conflate these racist claims on the Left and the Right with his own critique of the PC and postmodern taboos, but also downplay Zizek’s sympathy for the refugees and their humanitarian crisis. He is wary that the refugees will be the ones to pay the price for the Paris terrorist attacks and seems to be genuinely concerned about their welfare in the context of rising populist anti-immigrant and neo-fascist sentiments by the global capitalist system itself in their host countries.

He thus proposes institutional and structural solutions to the refugee crisis—he calls for a proper large-scale, as problematic as it may sound, “militarized” coordination operation. His main concern here is to warn against the potential tragic consequences of a haphazard re-settlement plan that simply advocates “open border” policies that fails to take into consideration the rising tide of anti-immigrant hostilities.

His views on the monstrosity of the neighbor (that he is not personally interested in hosting any refugees at his home, because “he would not like to host his own family members at home either”) are well known. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that elsewhere Zizek also expressed his willingness to have the government deduct half of his salary to help accommodate these refugees. In fidelity to fashionable trends in refugee studies, furthermore, he underscores not only the Imaginary dimension of their Otherness (the refugees are “people just like us”), but also the refugees’ class positionality and political agency, however utopian it may seem (they are not merely poor, passive victims).

Zizek for Arabs

These views are consistent with his views on Arabs and Muslims throughout his oeuvre. To call Zizek racist and Islamophobic is to ignore his sober critique of the political realities of the Arab world within the current geopolitical context of the global capitalist system. Indeed, he could have been easily accused of sympathizing with Islamic fundamentalists. For example, he rejects facile liberal theories of the “clash of civilizations” (Huntington) and all Orientalist thinking about Arabs and Islam, opting instead to link the troubling events in the Arab and Islamic world, as well as socio-political excesses, to Euro-American imperialism and to the underlying dynamics of global capitalism.

To be clear, he delves deeper into these realities and their causes in order to show how they prevent us from finding out the truth about global capitalism. For example, he reads religious fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian, or Jewish, not as a symptom of an inherent pathological culture or mind, but as a byproduct of the contradictions of global capitalism. He thus condemns Bin Laden and Breivik in the same breath.

Zizek thus states that Islamic fundamentalism “has nothing to do with a tradition supposedly restored,” and consequently, it is imperative to shift the critique to Western projection of their own fantasies on Islam and Muslims and to the “the dramatic impasses of capitalist modernity.” Islamic Fundamentalism, as he writes about the Balkans in the Western imagination, is abhorrent to Westerners, because “they themselves introduced [it] there; what they combat is their own historical legacy run amok.”

Zizek also links the rise of fundamentalism in the Arabo-Islamic world with the traumatic impact of modernization on Muslim cultures. In Europe, the impact of modernization was absorbed over centuries through Kulturarbeit, or the “formation of new social narratives and myths.” In contrast, as he writes in the Universal Exception, Muslim cultures experienced the shock of modernization directly, without mediation, a “protective screen or temporal delay,” in a way that shattered their “symbolic universe … even more brutally.”

One of the other themes that he discusses in his work concerns the demise of the Arab Left. He shows that Western policies in the Cold War encouraged totalitarian regimes and destroyed leftist movements. As a result, the gap that was left was filled by the growing fundamentalist movements—these Islamo-fascists plug themselves into the frustrations of young people and distort the real issues in the name of religion.

More recently, he talked about the dreams and failures of the Arab Spring in his book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, in the context of the radical, if not revolutionary, movements that dominated the political scene in 2011. Like these other movements, the Arab Spring failed because there was no radical and revolutionary vision that was aiming at transforming the nature of social relations under global capitalism. Once certain demands were met, the revolution came to a halt. Interestingly enough, Zizek maintains that there is a real radical value for political Islam that was not properly utilized in the Arab Spring. But he always makes clear that political Islam is not Islamic fascism, for which he has no sympathies.

In his writings about Palestine, furthermore, Zizek has been paying closer attention to Zionist genocidal ideology and its manifestations in Israeli politics and culture. He has written extensively about Zionist ethnic cleansing and settler terrorism, and how it pervades Israeli representations of the colonial occupation (“hamatzav”). He has even written about Zionist connections to Nazi Germany during WWII—a move which earned him the label of “anti-Semite” from Adam Kirsch and others. Yet Zizek is also critical of anti-Semitism not only in the Arab world, but in its Zionist and Christian Zionist manifestations as well.

For Zizek, anti-Semitism at the philosophical level is not an isolated socio-political phenomenon. Rather, the problem with anti-Semitism is that it displaces the real enemy from global capitalism onto the figure of the Jew. The struggle, then, lies not with the Jews as a religious or ethnic community, but with a political movement (Zionism) that has established a settler-colonial regime in the service of global capitalism in the Middle East to further advance its global capitalist encroachment around the world. The critics who missed this point interpreted his tactical disengagement with Zionism in his earlier  work as a sign of silence over the Israeli apartheid politics and the Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine.

Multiculturalism and global solidarity

Nonetheless, the problem of this polemic lies elsewhere. From the outset of his piece, Zizek is concerned with the question of how to break out of the global capitalist deadlock and its multiculturalist logic. Indeed, he makes it very clear that the refugee crisis is a symptom of the global capitalist system especially, its recent mutation into capitalism with Singaporean values. As a result of these changes, global capitalism intensifies world-wide crises, in order to relocate disposable and uncountable populations in zones of unemployability in the global North. Consequently, these forcibly or voluntarily relocated communities can be managed and controlled more easily on welfare and other schemes (the second section of the piece is subheaded “the political economy of the refugees”).

Multiculturalism, as he states in no equivocal terms, serves as an alibi to the global capitalist system, operating as the main ideological vehicle for suppressing and displacing the class struggle. In turn, the false universalism of global capitalism sustains this multicultural ideology. It allows people universal access to economic exchange, while keeping cultural identity particular.

At the same time, global capitalism has begun to de-couple itself from the Western democratic institutions out of which it has gotten so much mileage (this helps explain the correlation between beefing up the security-surveillance state and the voluntary compromise of personal freedoms and civil liberties which ushers what Agamben, after Carl Schmitt, calls the “state of exception”). Consequently, Zizek argues that the only way to undo this global capitalist deadlock is to re-inscribe the fundamental antagonism, precisely by insisting on the “global solidarity of the exploited.”

Nevertheless, Zizek does not explain how these refugee communities, like other minority and colonized groups in metropolitan centers, can become a part of this egalitarian revolutionary project of global solidarity. Within the realities of multicultural Western societies and their sanctimonious politics of identity, these particular communities are exclusively invested with specific forms of struggle structured around various secondary contradictions, including sexism, racism, homophobia, and colonialism. The problem is that the surplus-investment from the class struggle is projected on these secondary contradictions, in a way that obfuscates the true horrors of the fundamental antagonism.

The challenge for global revolutionary projects is to find a way that can allow these communities to transform the oppressive structures that directly and visibly exploit them, while insisting on linking these secondary struggles back to the fundamental antagonism (class struggle) as a part of this global struggle for emancipation and freedom. This is where Zizek is never explicit.

Malcolm X: subjective destitution and missed opportunities

One thing Zizek is unequivocal about here is that the terms of these struggles around identity politics and secondary contradictions must be set by these communities themselves. Later in the polemic, he refers to the famous encounter between Malcolm X and the sympathetic white female student in which Malcolm suggests that white liberals “should first accept that black liberation should be the work of the blacks themselves, not something bestowed on them as a gift by the good white liberals.” White liberals can only join the black struggle on the terms set by black revolutionaries themselves.

Interestingly enough, Zizek does not delve further into the full context from which the revolutionary thinking of his hero Malcolm X was born. Unlike other black nationalists, Malcolm X was not obsessed with searching for precolonial African roots. Rather, as Zizek states, Malcom X saw the opportunity afforded by the traumatic African-American history of slavery, forcible dislocation and the involuntary erasure of culture and the past, as an opening to the freedom to invent a new universal identity. This is precisely the meaning of his newly iconic last name (X). As he says to Tavis Smiley in an interview,

Because of this Malcolm X …  wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, Roots. You remember that stupid TV series? The greatest honor for you blacks’ desire is to find some tribe in Africa. Oh, I’m from there. No. Of course, Malcolm X meant by the brutality of white men, being enslaved, we were deprived of our roots and so on.

But he wrote about it. He says, but this X paradoxically opens up a new freedom for us, all that white people want to be, not primitive tribal, but universal, creating their own space. We, black people, have a unique chance not to become, not to return to our particular [roots], to be more universal, emancipated than white people themselves. You see, this is the important thing for me.

Malcom X thus traversed the fantasy of roots and past. Elsewhere, Zizek calls this process “subjective destitution,” which makes it possible for the revolutionary subject to invest in a new radical universal subjectivity.

For Zizek, Malcolm X’s subjective destitution is more radical than the latter’s conversion to Islam and his belief in the universality of the Islamic Ummah. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabbazz (Malcolm’s Islamic name) did not only prop up Islam as a new master signifier. More importantly, according to Zizek’s Hegelian reading of Islam as the religion of sublimity, Islam could never be authentically universal, because it is completely antagonistic to concrete images and to the multiplicity or self-differentiation of God, or the One. For Hegel, Islam distorts the particularity of Jewish monotheism and overcomes it in a new form of universal religion, but this universality remains false.

Because it still contains a universal kernel, however distorted it is, Islam remains “undecidable” and open to resignification into a new socialist (universal) register beyond itself. Hence, as he writes in Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle, “Precisely because Islam [harbors] the ‘worst’ potentials of the Fascist answer to our present predicament, it can also turn out to be the site for the ‘best.’” The structure here is akin to Zizek’s old favorite joke, the Rabinovitch joke, in which “an argument against something is an argument for it.”

While it is important to explore Islam’s political ambiguity, as he suggests, the task involves problematizing further two issues that still have no satisfactory answers: First, the validity of the Hegelian claim about Islam’s universality that remains committed to abstractions. This glosses over the place of the Kaa’bah as a concrete object in the formation of Islamic universality. 

This cuboid structure stands in the middle of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca for or towards which Muslims pray five times a day. Needless to mention, the Kaaba bears the traces not only of the polytheistic roots of Islam, but also pre-Islamic animistic traditions associated with stone fetishes (there was more than the Black Stone of the Kaaba, including a white stone and a red stone, in different shrines around the Arabian Peninsula). Until the Prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca in 629 CE, moreover, the Kaaba was considered the shrine of the Nabatean deity Hubal, and hosted 360 idols, representing different deities, three of which made their controversial appearance in the Quran in the infamous Satanic verses episode. In fact, for one year at least during the Treaty of Hudaybiyya (628-629 CE), Muslims performed the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Allah, the One, in the presence of all other deities.

Second, the other issue that this discussion of the political ambiguity of Islam dodges is the problem of Islam’s constitutive symbiotic relationship to capitalism—this  complicates Zizek’s claim that Islam “resists integration into the global capitalist order.”

Concrete universality and the challenge of revolutionary politics today

The true answer to the radical potential of the refugees lies elsewhere in Zizek’s political theory, away from all this theological mystification of the fundamental antagonism. It can be more productively located in his reworking of Hegelian notion of “concrete universality.” In so far as they lack any determinate place in the hegemony of the neoliberal global capitalist regime, these refugees can be said to represent the symptomal truth of the system, its constitutive injustice and inequality. Zizek explains to Glyn Daly: “when you have in a certain social totality those who are 'below us'—the negated or outcast—then precisely insofar as they are the abject, they stand for universality.” As such, refugees constitute the part of the no part of the system, its point of inherent exclusion or exception, in the allegedly democratic and egalitarian neoliberal global capitalist system.

In other words, refugees are constitutive of the global capitalist system, and at the same time they stand outside its notion of the good, a part of no part, as they are increasingly subjected to different forms of enclosure within advanced technologies of apartheid.

They are in the market system, but they cannot indulge in the absolute enjoyment of consumption. They are a part of the nation, but they are consigned to spaces of abjection outside the purview of citizenship. And finally, they are within the republic, but they are denied the democratic rights that are enshrined in the law. As such, as he says to Daly, they embody the failure of universality and stand for the lie of the existing universal system and “what is wrong with society.”

As an exception, therefore, these refugees disclose and destabilize the hegemonic universal framework of the global capitalist system, within which the troubling excess of the fundamental antagonism is foreclosed. In Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Zizek writes in relation to Hegel’s “rabble,” as a trope for the exception, that “it is precisely those who are without their proper place within the social Whole (like the rabble) that stand for the universal dimension of the society which generates them. This is why the rabble cannot be abolished without radically transforming the entire social edifice.”

From this vantage point, it becomes possible to subvert the totality of the system, since the domain of politics proper is not simply about “the negotiation of interests but aims at something more, and starts to function as the metaphoric condensation of the global restructuring of the social space” (Zizek, The Ticklish Subject 208).  The concrete universality of the part of no part becomes, then, the universality of “the public use of reason,” which can redefine “the very universality of what it means to be human.”

This makes it possible for radical revolutionary politics to emerge, because it is from their perspective that a radical revolutionary project can be conceived and theorized now, making them the “very site of political universality.” As such, radical revolutionary and solidarity projects can fully assume the repressed point of exclusion, in order to reconfigure the very coordinates and terms of universality.

To this extent, refugees would not simply engage in inscribing a particular form of difference (i.e., cultural, racial, or religious difference) within the matrix of the dominant symbolic order. Rather, these excluded communities turn the conflict under global capitalism from one between two particular groups to one between the global order and this radical universality, since such communities are more than willing to “introduce a division of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them.’” The part of no part thus introduces, he writes eslewhere, “a totally different Universal, that of an antagonistic struggle which does not take place between particular communities, but splits from within each community, so that the ‘trans-cultural’ link between communities is that of a shared struggle.”

This way, the concrete universality of specific forms of struggle can be made in a double inscription: it is an articulation of particular forms of struggle against exploitation based on the specific experiences of the exploited and oppressed and the secondary contradictions that sustain them At the same time, there is also a re-articulation of these secondary struggles within the struggle over the fundamental antagonism or the class struggle.

In the case of another “symptomal point” namely, the proletariat, Zizek writes that “an event proper occurs only when this symptomal point is fully assumed in its truth—say, when the proletariat grasps that its lack of a proper place within the social body signals that it stands for the universality (universal truth) of the society in which there are proletarians.” 

The main challenge of emancipatory politics today is to assume this truth, by identifying with this symptomal point, the refugees, so that the moment of the truth of the global capitalist system can be reached and the revolutionary event can occur.

Jamil Khader is a professor of English and Dean of Research at the Bethlehem University in Palestine. He is the co-editor of Zizek Now: Current Perspectives in Zizek Studies.

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