Žižek’s Gamble, and Ours



I have little patience for Žižek. To some he might be a critical provocateur, but he is really more of a philosophy-themed stand-up comic (whose verborrhea overflows into the writing of too many books). It is to be expected that the mainstream press, when they pick up on him, write silly things. It is also to be expected that more learned readers will respond with subtler interpretations. None of this really matters to most anarchists; it certainly matters very little to me. But, considering a recent piece of his and its repercussions, I was afforded an insight, a new way to say what some of us already know…


In a 2012 article in The Los Angeles Review of Books Adam Kotsko described Žižek’s interventions (at least the more visible ones such as the one I am about to discuss) as strategic overidentifications:

One of Žižek’s primary tactics for shifting the frame of reference is overidentification. This strategy grows out of his experience under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Observing his country’s political life, Žižek came to a paradoxical realization: the fact that no one “really” bought into the official socialist ideology was not an obstacle for the rulers — cynical distance was part of their strategy for maintaining control. In this situation, Žižek proposed, the best way to resist was to take the ruling ideology at its word, naïvely demanding that the leaders fulfill the promise of their ideals.

Kotsko recently invoked this overidentification strategy as a counter to the claim that Žižek is a fascist. This claim has surely surfaced many times (along with more predictable ones such as Stalinist, crypto-conservative, etc.), but it did so most recently in connection with a recent piece in The New Statesman (which Wikipedia describes as a center-left publication) about Margaret Thatcher. In the article, Žižek claims that the Left needs a Thatcher. That is, a Master:

…after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple “Yes” or “No”. We shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision. The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.

I won’t go into the argument as to why Thatcher was a great leader, a Master. I imagine it concerns you as little as it concerns me. But I will cite Žižek one more time and at some length, here concerning democracy and decision-making. Žižek has been discussing leftist objections to economic policies under Thatcher. He then adds:

The other aspect of Thatcher’s legacy targeted by her leftist critics was her “authoritarian” form of leadership, her lack of the sense for democratic coordination. Here, however, things are more complex than it may appear. The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of “epistemological obstacle” to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system. These effectively read as a popularised version of Deleuzian politics: people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this, but only through their own continuous engagement and activity. So we need active participatory democracy, not just representative democracy with its electoral ritual which every four years interrupts the voters’ passivity; we need the self-organisation of the multitude, not a centralised Leninist Party with the Leader, et cetera. It is this myth of non-representative direct self-organisation which is the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall, that is most difficult to renounce. Yes, there are in every revolutionary process ecstatic moments of group solidarity when thousands, hundreds of thousands, together occupy a public place, like on Tahrir square two years ago. Yes, there are moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them. But such states don’t last, and “tiredness” is here not a simple psychological fact, it is a category of social ontology. The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.

Obviously anarchists will object to what I have just cited. But we will do so in more than one way. Leftist, pro-democracy, pro-consensus anarchists will simply rehearse their arguments in favor of direct democracy and whatever our version is of “the self-organization of the multitude” (some may agree with Hardt and Negri enough not to require their own version). Those of us who are not leftists and do not fight for democracy, however, will have a different objection, and have perhaps more to gain than the leftists when we engage with an argument such as the one presented here by Žižek.

The self-appointed activist leaders of the Left gesture towards consensus and collectivities, but in more or less public meetings they decide just as the military master decides in Žižek’s example (which comes from Winston Churchill). On the other hand, though I hardly agree that “people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this,” the truly damaging effects of ignorance and self-deception happen when they are integrated into massive political units. This is why it is so vital for us to sever our anarchy from the political project of democracy. And we accept the risk of incoherence in the eyes of many when we express ourselves along these lines. Consider the apparent contradiction in our response to a view such as Žižek’s: with the leftists, we are against the Master, against her authority. But, though we are sometimes very excited about group solidarity, sometimes we are incredibly suspicious of it. Then we are with Žižek against “the myth of non-representative self-organization,”if that is identified with a generic faith in the virtues of the Mass, grassroots populism, or democracy.

But even in this partial agreement, are we really with Žižek? It is easy enough to call Žižek a fascist given the tone of his call for strong leadership and true unity. But it is also simplistic, and Kotsko is probably right: any piece as mainstream as this one is more about the critique it makes possible than the apparent position it defends. In any case, that is Žižek’s gamble. Or if not, it is at least his job, which, as he writes, he wants to pursue in peace.

Given that Žižek’s strategy combines the negativity of critique with a psychological tactic, it might also be called propaganda. I don’t write that to dismiss it, but to be clear. And I also know that I can only be clear in this way here because I have some sense of who will read me, and am addressing myself to them. I know I am not with Žižek because he does not speak for me, and there is nothing I would publish in The New Statesman instead… our tactic has to be different.



What is the anarchist gamble? If Žižek’s tactic is overidentification, ours is obviously non-identification. If the specific risk that Žižek runs is that his joking Stalinism, fascistic posturing, etc. becomes more than a routine, then our specific risk is that we do not differentiate our positions and practices sufficiently from what Kotsko calls “cynical distance.” Our position might be lost in irrelevance or incommunicability—even incoherence.

I can describe the difference we need to communicate easily enough. Reading through Žižek’s article, it is expected and transparent that what is under discussion are forms of government. Shall the government be strong and authoritarian?  Shall it be participatory and democratic? What is the right form, and what is the right path to that form? And so on. Žižek aptly suggests, at the end of the last bit I quoted, that most people want to be left in peace (he includes himself to avoid accusations of elitism). Indeed. But why call this passivity? Why determine that the fatigue most feel after too much participation in deliberation and meetings is a justification for the authority of a government that works on its own? The true anarchist response, it seems to me, is that such fatigue is a healthy reaction to meetings and expected or required participation of any sort. For someone who continues to assume the necessity of government, the experience of such fatigue points either to the need to offload decision-making onto a Decider, or to the need for More Hard Work, more self-sacrifice, and so on. But for those of us detached from such a necessity, fatigue is one of many symptoms indicating that we should be considering our lives on other terms. To whatever degree we can act on this idea and communicate it, we are differentiating ourselves from “cynical distance” without falling into the mania for activism and participation that always eventually reintegrates us into governmental forms.

From there, I can move to describe the anarchist position that emerges in response to Žižek as follows. First, the Right-Left continuum as it is usually discussed:

—Right: authoritarian traditions
—Left: participatory/popular traditions
Then, on a perpendicular axis, another continuum, from government to non-government: On one extreme we get a kind of absolute politics:
—State communism, fascism, whatever Žižek seems to want.
On the other extreme, we get anti-politics:
—Non-government: communism, anarchy.

Interestingly, the absolute politics extreme might be described as containing the most exaggerated hybrids of the Left and Right traditions. It would be the monstrous composite of the historical trajectories of the political tradition as such. The anti-political position begins when the historical content of the Left as well as the Right is abandoned. This is true in the realm of ideas as well as the realm of action.

How do we communicate our abandonment, our abandon? Let me repeat Žižek: “The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system.” While I am not entirely sure what counts for him as a protest, what he considers to be a demand, and especially what he means by an epistemological obstacle in this context, I will simply note that abandoning the terrain of politics as we knew it must mean ceasing to be concerned with the “proper confrontation” with the crisis of politics (of states, of their economic systems, of their official cultural forms, etc.). For us, demands in the traditional sense are useless, and usually contradictory to our very ways of life. In practice this might mean one or more of the following: no demands, impossible demands, ridiculous demands, and vague, useless demands.[1] Indeed, any of these other sorts of demands or non-demands can and should form something like an “epistemological obstacle” from the point of view of the State and statist politics. The only confrontation we will participate in is one that the State (and States in waiting) will judge improper.

Whether any of us knows how to live out our position without succumbing to incoherence or irrelevance in the long term is another matter. That the position is currently weak is only an argument against it in terms of conventional politics. It is our gamble to exit those terms.

An afterthought:  provisionally, in terms of our current situation, it occurs to me that the only way to approach the mainstream press would not be to place propaganda there (be it of the traditional or clownish Žižekian sort), but simply to fill any space we can occupy with detourned text and images. Beyond that, supposing increasing autonomy and momentum, we can either aim to withdraw completely from the medium, or to neutralize it, doing whatever it takes to remove it completely from our sphere.

[1] Such as the ones from Tiananmen Square Agamben refers to in the final section of The Coming Community: “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands.”