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.

Jamil Khader

(Matthew Tsimitak / Flickr)

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.

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.”

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 régime 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 (628629 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 régime, 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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH