The Free World ... of Slums

Slavoj Žižek

The explosive growth of slums—such as this area outside Jakarta, Indonesia—is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our time.

Although Timothy Garton Ash is my political opponent, I’ve always admired his wealth of precise observations and found him a reliable source on the vicissi-tudes of post-Communist Eastern Europe. In his new book, The Free World: America, Europe and the Suprising Future of the West, Ash applies his signature bitterly witty approach to the growing tensions between key Western European states and the United States. His aperçus about the relations among the United Kingdom, France and Germany recall the gentle irony of a novel of manners, giving a new twist to the old topic of European trinity.”

Hegel was among the first to interpret the geo-graphic triad of Germany-France-England as expressing three existential attitudes: German reflective thoroughness, French revolutionary hastiness and English moderate pragmatism. In terms of political stances, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of a predominating social sphere, it is German culture versus French politics versus English economy. Ash observes that today this trinity has undergone a strange displacement: The French are preoccupied with culture (How to save their legacy from vulgar Americanization); the English focus on political dilemmas (Should they join the European Monetary Union?); the Germans worry about the sad inertia of their economy.

A desired goal might be a further shift: The English focused on culture (their cultural tolerance and lack of pretence could serve as an antidote to French arrogant elitism and German excessive seriousness). The French focused on economy (which, against all expectations, theirs has been doing rather well). And — surprise! — Germans on politics (where their recent political life has served as a model of reasonable debate that avoids blind passions).

So far, so good. However, in the second half of The Free World, when Ash diagnoses the threats to freedom in the post-Cold War, he becomes dogmatic and simplistic, his proposed solutions hopelessly naïve and declaratory. True, here and there, one finds insights surprising for a man of Ash’s political position (like his unambiguous attack on the trade agreements that are pushing the poorer countries toward ruin). Yet his positive proposals lack any foundation in a detailed analysis of the global situation. First, he identifies four new Red Armies” (sic!) as forces of Evil (or historical processes) that pose or will pose a threat to democracy in the future: 1) the Near East situation (the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism); 2) the Far East situation (what will China develop into with regard to democracy?); 3) the gap between the rich North and poor South; and 4) the oncoming environmental catastrophe. 

Here, Ash simply enumerates four domains that cause worry. Consequently, his proposed solutions read less like a plan for action grounded in serious analysis of the global constellation and more like a list of desiderata (the developed countries should abide by the rules of fair market competition they impose on the underdeveloped ones; they should make a more serious effort to thwart ecological disaster; only a combined U.S.-E.U. alliance can solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, etc.). Indeed, how can one respond to this platitude: If we want to be able to look ourselves in the face every morning, anyone who earns more than the average wage in a rich country should aim to give 1 percent of his or her annual income to charities with a good track record in the developing world. We can afford it.”

The European publishers of The Free World chose a far more intriguing subtitle for the book, hinting that Ash would explain: Why A Crisis Of The West Reveals The Opportunity Of Our Time.” But the book fails to live up to the expectations aroused by this subtitle, namely, that the post-Cold War world, though it generates new problems, also could provide a unique chance to confront them. My own perception of these problems is hopelessly tinted by outmoded” Marx-ism: The four trouble spots Ash identifies are clearly grounded in the dynamics of today’s global capitalism. This link is self-evident in the case of environmental collapse and the North-South poverty gap. As for Islamic fundamentalism, does it not arise through the refusal of Muslim civilization to integrate the social dynamics of capitalism? And doesn’t China’s strange economic dynamic stem from the fact that it is a Communist state that fully endorses capitalist economy? 

The question should therefore be put at a more general level: Where do we stand regarding global capitalism? Are these troubling spots symptoms of a structural flaw inscribed in the very core of the capitalist machine, or are they accidents that could be kept under control, if not resolved?

This does not mean one should reject Ash’s diagnosis and proposals with the crude Marxist retort: He fails to take into account the dialectical totality of the situation.” But Ash would do well to go back and read Jonathan Alter’s column in Newsweek written directly following 9/11. After stating that we can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values,” Alter none-theless concludes that we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.” This is how First World democracies increasingly function: by outsourcing their dirty work (be it torture or material production) to other countries. Ash is unable to see how the features he condemns (ruthless disregard for the en-vironment, the hypocritical double standards of free trade practices, etc.) are products of the very social dynamic that sustains the First World’s role as exporters of democracy and guardians of universal human rights.

It is true one can only be shocked by the excessive indifference toward suffering, even when this suffering is widely reported and condemned in the media. Sudan offers a current example, but recall the three-year-long siege of Sarajevo, when the population was starving and exposed to permanent shelling and sniper fire. The enigma here is why, although the media was continually covering the crisis, was neither the U.N. forces, NATO nor the United States willing to impose a corridor in Sarajevo through which people and provisions could circulate freely? The only answer to this enigma was proposed by Rory Brauman, who, on behalf of the Red Cross, coordinated the help to Sarajevo: The very presentation of the crisis of Sarajevo as humanitarian,” the recasting of a political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was sustained by a political choice, that of taking the side of Serbia.

Indeed, such a depoliticizing of Human Rights” too often serves as the ideology of military interventionism in support of specific economic-political purposes. For example, the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in the terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was clearly not only motivated by economic self-interest (oil), but by the idea that only certain political and economic conditions — Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, the inclusion into the global market economy, etc. — could bring freedom to the Iraqi people. In Iraq, the humanitarian anti-politics of only preventing suffering implicitly prohibited a positive collective project for social and political transformation. 

What, then, happens to Human Rights when they are reduced to the rights of those excluded from the political process — i.e, when they become useless, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights? Jacques Ranciere, the French philosopher, recently gave this answer:

They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right. For all this, they are not void, Political names and political places never become merely void. The void is filled by somebody or something else. … If those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact Human Rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the right to humanitarian interference” — a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of the victimized populations, and very often against the advice of humanitarian organizations themselves. The right to humanitarian interference” might be described as a sort of return to sender:” the disused right that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the senders.

Thus, in the reigning discourse of humanitarian intervention, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form. This is also where we should look for candidates to fill the position of universal individual,” a particular group whose fate stands for the injustice of today’s world: Palestinians, Guantánamo prisoners, etc. Palestine today presents us with the opportunity” of Ash’s subtitle because all of the standard pragmatic” solutions to the Middle East crisis” have repeatedly failed, which suggests that a utopian invention of a radical new space may be the only realistic” choice. 

But there is a better example of today’s universal individual”: the slum dwellers of the new megalopolises. The explosive growth of slums in the last decades, from Mexico City and other Latin American capitals through Africa to India, China and Indonesia, is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our time. Take the case of Lagos, Nigeria. According to Mike Davis, No one even knows the size of its population — officially it is 6 million, but most experts estimate it at 10 million.” Very soon (or perhaps, given the imprecision of Third World censuses, already) the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural population. And slum inhabitants will compose the majority of this urban population. So we are in no way dealing with a marginal phenomenon, but rather the fast growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions half outside the law, in terrible need of the minimal forms of self-organization. Slum dwellers — marginalized laborers, superfluous civil servants and ex-peasants — are still incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways, many of them working as informal wage workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security coverage. Slums have mushroomed because of the Third World’s inclusion into the global economy. Cheap food imports from the First World have destroyed local agriculture forcing millions to flee the countryside. Their existence is the true symptom” of slogans like Development,” Modernization,” and World Market.”

While one should resist the temptation to elevate and idealize the slum dwellers into a new revolutionary class, it is extremely surprising how many of their features fit the old Marxist definition of the proletarian revolutionary class. Even more than the classic proletariat, they are free” in the double meaning of the word — freed” from all substantial ties and dwelling in a free space outside state and police regulations. They are large collectives, forcibly thrown into a situation where they must invent some mode of being-together, while simultaneously deprived of any inherited ethnic and religious traditions.

Slum dwellers are the counter-class to the other newly emerging class, the so-called symbolic class” (managers, journalists, academics, artists, etc.) that is also uprooted and that perceives itself as directly universal. (A New York academic has more in common with me, a Slovene academic, than with the blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus.) Is this the new axis of class struggle? Or is the symbolic class” inherently split, enabling us to make an emancipatory wager on a coalition between the slum dwellers and the progressives” of the symbolic class?

This brings us back to the title — and underlying project — of Ash’s book: Our main hope for a truly free world” lies in the desolate universe of the slums. We should be watching the slum collectives for signs of new forms of social awareness: They will be the seeds of the future.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.