16 March, 2015Issue 27.5Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Embrace the Apocalypse

Karthick Manoharan

Slavoj Žižek
Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism
Allen Lane, 2014
£16.99 (hardback)
240 pages
ISBN: 9780241004968

Cassandra’s tragedy was that no one listened to her. She prophesied the impending disaster, the sack of Troy, but she was just considered mad. Her story is more painful than that of Achilles, who also knew that death was awaiting him, because she understood that there was no glory involved in the madness of war. She saw things for what they were, including the complicity of the gods in the slaughter. In a sense, Slavoj Žižek’s predicament is much like hers, the only difference being that everyone listens to him, but not many understand the urgency of his message. Which is probably why it is easier to look at Žižek as an affable comedian who has some interesting things to say than a profoundly tragic figure who predicts that “we are now approaching a certain zero point—economically, ecologically, socially.”

How do we promote a universalist emancipatory project without slipping into either the self-serving discourse of liberal Western human rights or the narrow confines of anti-Western fundamentalism? How do we defend the best of European values at a time when anti-Eurocentrism is one of the most fashionable slogans among the academic cultural left? Can we criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic and also criticize the anti-Semitic ‘left’ critics of Israel without being pro-Zionist? Can we conceive of a new left within a “communist horizon” that makes a radical break with both the old “totalitarian communism” and the fashionable identity politics of today?

These are the tough questions that Žižek raises in his latest work Trouble in Paradise. And true to his dictum that the primary job of a philosopher is to ask the right questions, he provides very little clues to where the right answers may lie. This book follows quickly on the heels of his Absolute Recoil (2014) and, if one can forgive the fact that some passages may have been pasted from that book to this one, while Absolute Recoil was an audacious attempt to frame a new dialectical materialism for our times, Trouble in Paradise is an indictment of the current state of affairs using those theoretical standards. The book has enough characteristic Žižekisms to provoke the faint-hearted, such as “better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state” or his call for a “Thatcher of the Left” to solve the problems of today.

Žižek is as harsh on the contemporary liberal-Left as he is on the liberal-Right, lambasting simple political binaries. He takes the example of al-Assad’s Syria and the Free Syrian Army, noting that “this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent Third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition.” But there is clearly a Third in Syria—the Kurds who are resisting both the Assad regime and the Islamists, which Žižek does not take into account. Elsewhere, however, he astutely observes that a simple binary between ‘evil’ British colonialism and ‘good’ Indian anti-colonialism cannot be drawn, because there was an alternative “radical-emancipatory opposition” to that offered by the Indian nationalists. For instance, making reference to B.R. Ambedkar, the immensely popular leader of the untouchable Dalit castes, Žižek writes that “a large population of Dalits welcomes English and in fact even the colonial encounter as a whole.” As Žižek rightly points out, prior to the English intervention, the Dalits had no rights, only duties—which meant remaining in servility to the upper castes.

A more radical example from India can be given. The protagonists of the Dravidian Self-Respect movement, which was launched in the mid-1920s to secure greater social and political rights for “backward” castes and women in the Tamil province of South India, also had a different take on colonialism. Under the leadership of the iconoclastic “Periyar” EV Ramasamy, the Self-Respecters, while recognizing the not-so-benign motivations of British colonialism, nevertheless saw the opportunities that “European values” opened up in caste-ridden Indian society as a strategic space to articulate the grievances of the hitherto silenced.

Besides campaigning for social justice for lower castes and women, the Self-Respecters also rejected the idea of the Indian nation-state and subjected the Hindu religion to ruthless criticism, believing that the only salvation lay in embracing the values of the Enlightenment. Influenced by the thinkers of classical British liberalism and the French revolution, they saw European modernity as an equalizer. They ran a journal Kudiarasu (‘Republic’—inspired by the Jacobin republic) to promote egalitarianism, rationalism and atheism—values which were denounced by conservative Indian nationalists as “alien, European values.” Articles by Ramasamy, anticipating second wave feminists by several decades, argued that women must have complete sexual autonomy, the right to an abortion and the right to decide the time of child-bearing, besides insisting that childcare was a labour that had to be divided equally between both parents. Under Ramasamy’s leadership, the Self-Respecters exhibited a reluctance to participate in the Indian anti-colonial struggle, arguing that the discourse of Indian anti-colonial nationalism privileged the elite Hindu castes and their interests at the expense of the lower castes and the working class. The binary between British colonialism and Indian nationalism needs complicating. In colonial India, Ramasamy, not “Mahatma” Gandhi, is the Žižekian Master who compels us to challenge “what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation.”

This drawing of simple binaries on unqualified distinctions of oppressor and oppressed is precisely what afflicts the Left political spectrum today, especially in Anglophone countries. Of course, the right-wing discourse that every Muslim is a potential terrorist is downright racist. But what does one call the equally problematic response of the multicultural left that any criticism of Islam, or the cultural practices of Muslim communities, is tantamount to Islamophobia? If one can excuse away the Charlie Hebdo massacre by reference to the brutality of French colonialism, then one can also excuse Nazism by reference to the brutal political and economic stipulations laid on Germany post-World War I. There is a monopolization of the discourse on Islam by Islamists and liberal Muslims which is being actively, or passively, assisted by the Western multicultural Left at the cost of those within the so-called “Muslim world” who care little for the Islamic religion, and the real or imagined offences against it, and who are instead working towards radical political struggle and social reform within their communities. This is the “Third” that is being ignored. An honourable exception, Žižek is miles ahead of his leftist peers in his insistence that Islamism is not a legitimate response to, but rather an inherent part of, global capitalism–an illegitimate child.

“Nothing is more monotonous than catastrophe,” Sartre said in his novel Iron in the Soul. The inverse holds a deeper truth–nothing is more catastrophic than monotony. To Žižek, the everyday monotony of liberal capitalism is precisely what provokes the catastrophes of moral nihilism and religious fundamentalism. Arguing that liberal Western guilt feeds the insatiable appetite of anti-Western fundamentalisms, Žižek states that “the more you obey what the Other demands of you, the guiltier you are.” At some level, this guilt complex and the patronage of identity politics that follows is best captured by Hollywood, where it is easier to imagine apes taking over the planet than an effective alternative to the current model of capitalism. Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) lazily indulges such guilt in laying the blame for such a takeover on Western scientific rationality. Žižek chooses Bane from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as an ideal revolutionary in the tradition “from Christ to Che Guevara” since he does not represent a Weltanschauung of anti-Western ressentiment feeding on guilt, but actually makes an intervention to radically alter the existing system.

The title of Žižek’s book is taken from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 romantic comedy of the same name. Žižek is a romantic dark comedian, much like the figure of Alceste in Molière’s Misanthrope, who, on a superficial reading, seems to deliberately provoke controversy but who is actually deeply alienated in his concern for a flawed humanity. One might suppose that Žižek laughs at his own dirty jokes, which he has a tendency to repeat quite often. But for all we know he might be privately crying, because the real joke he is trying to convey is the persistent failure of humanity to redeem itself despite having the means at its disposal. The front cover of Trouble in Paradise has the Slovenian covering his eyes with his hands in an expression of exasperation. The back cover has him in an expression of shock. These images sum up the sentiment of the book—exasperation at the way the world is, shock that not enough is being done to work towards what it should be.

Karthick Manoharan is is a completion-year PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of Government, University of Essex.