Žižekian Political Pragmatism: On “The Courage of Hopelessness”

The Pressure of the Political

I just finished Slavoj Žižek’s recent work, The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (2017);  the subtitle of this book reflects his short book on politics published in 2012 as The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, but deviates from the fundamental spirit that informed his 2012 book. While in the 2012 book he dealt on the wave of protests that erupted in response to the financial crisis and the Arab spring protests that deposed well-entrenched Middle-East dictators, his recent  book on politics reflects the cynicism he always had with explosions of collective outbursts. Even in his The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, he expressed his dismay in the disintegration of the Bolivarian revolution to a caudillo administration, contradicting its grassroots base, and the explosion of new fundamentalisms that followed the Arab spring revolts (ISIS in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the sectarian division in Libya). In The Courage of Hopelessness, Žižek puts this same cynicism for calls for action against the interesting rise of right-wing populists from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen.

In combating the “Big Bad Wolf” of politics, the liberal-left is entrenched in making compromises with the establishment just to counteract its perceived enemy. This is embodied in the “Clinton compromise”; where Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is perceived as the only option to combat the vile character of Trump and the values he set against the liberal politically correct politics. Žižek saw this dynamic in the public space as the very deadlock of liberal-leftism that allowed for a figure of Trump to emerged. To put this in perspective, the candidacy of Trump is marked by his opportunism of middle-class woes, taking their problems and presenting them an enemy to blame, while at the same time presenting an economic policy that is moderate by Republican standards (nothing of that anarcho-capitalist pipe dream) from lower taxes to decreased government spending. In contrast, the Clinton compromise took the multi-culturalist and identity politics route and presented it side by side with the interests of Wall Street. Both candidates actually do not propose anything new to the political climate, but it was Trump’s clear pandering of common people’s problems that allowed the fundamental antagonisms in American politics to arise.

The defeat of Bernie Sanders indicates the lack of political imagination within the established Democratic Party, cementing its incapability to organize itself at the grassroots level, opting to make moral platitudes about unity in diversity, instead of embracing the fundamental antagonisms that split American society as a whole. The situation Žižek describes is the difficult situation of being pressured by the political. Sanders and Trump claimed to speak for the common people; while Trump utilized the woes of the common people to catapult his political victory and push for the Republican agenda, Sanders’ campaign synthesized multiculturalism and human rights activism and the basic Leftist stance of economic justice. The appeal of the Sanders campaign is precisely that it vocalized what cannot be said in American politics (if Sanders made such statements in the heyday of McCarthyism, he would’ve been called by the congress and made to admit of his association to the Communist Party and accused as a Soviet spy) i.e. the rift between ordinary Americans and the Wall Street elite that caused the economic collapse in 2008. The Clinton consensus took the multicultural struggle and human rights activism and threw the fundamental antagonism that informed it in Sanders’ campaign; the result was a highly PC discourse aimed at demonizing Trump and his supporters, while at the same time conniving with Wall Street elites and Middle Eastern financiers in a horrible rainbow coalition.

The Clinton compromise was an attempt to reduce the political to a set of struggles opposing the vulgarities of the Trump administration while at the same time retain the same economic structure that rendered more power to the financial elite. Its PC discourse attempts to throw the unhealthy baby of the Trump administration as well as the dirty water of political struggles for economic justice, hoping that pristine democracy can be achieved. However, as the 2016 elections showed, the liberal counterattack failed. Žižek does not mince words when he vehemently criticized the liberal establishment for its incapability to draw from the mass base by embodying its woes and placing it within the struggle for economic justice. Instead, the response from the Democratic party is to hope that everything will renormalize and that Trump is part of a democratic cycle that would eventually allow for more tolerant political climate later on. It is precisely this hope for a renormalization that placed the liberal-left in the quagmire incapable of organizing around a popular base.

Confronted with the emergence of right-wing populists using every opportunistic measure to pander on the common man’s woes, Žižek tries to avoid a lot of the political tendencies that abound both in the enclaves of the liberal and the radical left. While the liberal left hoped to find opportunities in the administration to swing the electorate back to the Democratic party, the radical left (or whatever stands for it in the American left-wing movements) is divided among sectarian lines on how to struggle against the enemy. Explosions of counteroffensive violence, clashing against right-wing nationalists and organizing “Love Trumps Hate” demonstrations do not suffice for an effective approach against the Trump administration. Furthermore, leftist positions oscillate between its cynicism with state mechanisms and its interstitial relationship to it when it comes to moral obligations to accept refugees. Mixed with PC discourse and guilt, the liberal left is causing its own demise, putting itself in the cross-hairs of right-wing propaganda. Given this situation, Žižek’s proposal is highly pragmatic, but surely enough to madden PC sensibilities.

Žižekian Pragmatism: Back to Bureaucratic Socialism

Žižek proposed that a sensible solution to the refugee crisis is to construct an effective bureaucracy to screen and accept refugees, rejecting all forms of humanist blackmail. By removing the status of the refugee as the Levinasian face of the other, he breaks down the only fantasy that sustains the liberal-left’s approach to the refugee crisis. While to PC sentiment a strict immigration and acceptance policy reeks of right-wing demagoguery, the proposal is, at best, the most democratic. The liberal-leftist call for “opening of the borders” is an extra-democratic demand that violates the very principle that bind the nation-state as a concept i.e. the right to defend its borders and internal security. Allowing hapless and victimized refugees inside without screening, one should not be surprised to find among them latent jihadists posing as refugees. While not all refugees are closet jihadists, the possibility of one of them being one is dangerous for the refugees as a whole, submitting them to the unbridled anger of ultra-nationalist gangs. The measure of allowing the refugees to pass through a strict screening process allows for security measures to be done early on.

This proposal is modest and pragmatic. It clearly places the duty of processing in the capacity of the EU and the nations where such centers are to be placed. The immediate criticism that such a position will elicit from liberal leftists (and some in the radical left) is its lack of sharing solidarity with the refugees, submitting them to suspicion through strict screening processes. However, I agree with Žižek here; as someone who experienced lining up to get a US visa and staying for half an hour in the immigration lines just because my name is common to both Latinos and Filipinos, screening is a normal process by which someone proves his innocence to a legal body. Allowing an open border policy to refugees is similar to visa free travel with a huge possibility of wrecking havoc on the host country. At its most basic, Žižek demystifies the refugee, while they are victims of the war, they not innocent victims with pure personalities and attitudes.

Žižek’s demystification of refugees and proposals to systematize the process of accepting refugees reflect the political pragmatism at work in his recent political commentary. One of the crucial sections of his recent book is “A Plea for Bureaucratic Socialism”, what he does is to dispel another leftist mythic alternative to global capitalism i.e. localized politics governed by federal councils instead of a centralized state system. Such position is founded on a fundamental anarchist fantasy: since global capitalism has made nation-states subservient to its cause, an efficient way to combat it would be to abolish the nation-state bureaucracy and give power to a local council to oversee the affairs of different regions. What such position try to do is to transpose the revolutionary role of the multitude to a governing body, hoping that it won’t disintegrate and form another elite body of administrators. Such position reflects its incapability to build from popular political movements to the morning after of political administration. Žižek perceived the left as incapable of dealing with administration, but, at the same time, the moment that it can administer presents a decisive blow to liberal cynicism.

Žižek, in his recent book, echoes a pragmatic approach to political administration. The left is divided within sectarian lines when it comes to the question of the party and the state. While Žižek is critical of vanguardism, one should situate his criticism on vanguardism being merely vanguardist i.e. to simply gather and organize without the goal of administering to those it tries to represent. Žižek challenges all leftists to take the question of administration as part and parcel of the struggle. For all leftists, being drunk on revolutionary fervor leads us to confront the hangover the morning after; the problem with recent left-wing attempts at government is that it thought it can have its cake of leftist administration and eat it with capitalism, only to find themselves being punished by the market. Confronted with the real of the market and its expansive logic of exploitation, the challenge is how should a leftist confront the capitalist real without risking the return towards the old ways within the new.

Ascribing the term “pragmatism” to Žižek’s politics will reek of political and parliamentary reformism, however, it should be clear that for him, the measure of a revolution’s success is not to simply organize the mass base, but to effectively administer to the mass base, changing the coordinates of everyday habits that people do after the revolutionary event has dissipated. The Bolsheviks were aware of this after their victory in the Civil War, knowing well that allowing the proletariat and the farmers to go back to their old ways before the revolution would destroy all the work done before and during the revolution. Lenin expressed this when he wrote in 1918 that the one of the immediate tasks of the Soviet government is to promote open debate in meetings as well as discipline among the ranks of the proletariat and the party. Trotsky reflected on post-revolutionary culture in his article on cinema, vodka, and the church, demanding that in a proletarian state, the cinema presents a higher level of educational culture to replace the cheap entertainment provided by religion and alcohol. Lenin’s pragmatism and Trotsky’s left-wing puritanism resonate the attempt to revolutionize society sponsored by the Soviet government by introducing disciplinary measures and government sponsored forms of amusement (like state-owned theaters). Small measures like this as well as the New Economic Policy (NEP) renewed the Soviet economy after World War I. To Lenin, the NEP was a slow, but necessary, step for the betterment of the Soviet Union.

The modest proposition that the left should be the embodiment of discipline and restraint in contrast to the vulgarity of right-wing nationalist is a strong one and would most likely be rejected by those who see the left as the political spectrum of unbridled freedoms. However, the liberal establishment has already coopted the idea of individual hedonism, with millionaires from Silvio Berlusconi and his orgies and the baller lifestyle of the founders of Uber, making headlines. In such a case, the idea that individual hedonism is set against fascist obsession for order totally misses the point. While the left should fight for individual rights (gender equality and economic justice), such struggles are part and parcel of the leftist administration of the state. Currently, the postmodern left is afraid of the state, content with interstitial distance, hoping the status quo can be coaxed to answer the needs of the majority. However, the Clinton compromise shows us that this is impossible and downright counterproductive.

The ideas of “democratic centralism” and discipline within the party needs to be resuscitated.  Such concepts are widely accepted by the national democratic front. Perhaps, the West has a lot to learn from the party discipline of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Žižekian Political Pragmatism: On “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Conceptualism from a Spectator’s Perspective

I was supposed to write a paper on Wittgenstein and conceptual art. In the process, I [think] have bothered a good number of people with my own ignorance and rudimentary understanding of the subject. Perhaps, the source of my own difficulty lies with my very framework in dealing with the subject. My initial approach was basic: first, define my terminologies and show some theoretical texts, revealing the art-movement’s goals, methods, and motives, determining how and why art would result in such and such a way and not this and that way; second, apply some Wittgensteinian insights with the notions of Lebensformen and sprachspiel, informing the reflection, accompanied with citations from theoretical texts.

My hypothesis was that given a Wittgensteinian framework, conceptual art can be described as a language-game about language-games, showing the nuances involved in the social character of language, diverting from an essentialist definition as mere expression with meaning. It was to be described as an anti-poetic poetics. Furthermore, rejecting the usual definition of art as the expression with form and content, it embodies the fluid character of language in its varied uses and applications within a social symbolic exchange (defined here in the sense of Clifford Geertz’s definition of the term). Though the argument is sustainable as such, the paper reads as a mess of pretentious statements and sketchy arguments and inferences. In a nutshell, it was too prententious (allow me the redundancy) and I decided to scrap it altogether, thinking that one can write about it in sa tamang panahon, when a theoretical grounding is clearly established and the movement understood.

But, I am a mere spectator; not even an artist nor a poet (not even a philosopher!), to venture our in the artistic circles demands understanding, but the art-movement demands more. This piece is not an attempt to fill a hole left by a curiosity nor is it a propadeutic to one. Rather, they are mere scribbles on a notepad as when a spectator goes into a museum to view from his comfortable position and look at art as some object, a thing in the world with the qualities of a thing. He goes out and bangs away at his Mac the words [he thinks] can define art and further shape it. In short, the spectator has the air of a curator and the prententious snobbery of an art-critic (in the mode of New Criticism!!), writing for a future art collector who would gloss at his private collection as some masturbatory object, beating his chest, saying to himself: “what a sophisticated art-collector I am.” Am I that spectator, expecting some kind reimbursement after a hard day’s work? Perhaps, the difficulty of writing starts with that temptation (so prevalent among those who espouse hermeneutics) to find meaning after the literal text (work) already gave its juice, setting the coordinates of some deeper [existential] understanding of the text, admitting to oneself “now that we’ve done our hermeneutic job, let us leave the surplus behind.” If there is a spectator much worse than he is to-day, it is the hermeneutician, with an impression of some greater cultural and existential flare after the act of interpretation and the start of living.

It is this double tap from a hermeneutic spectator and the agent-spectator that I realize kept art as the subject of mere reflection of an artist’s inner feelings or external manifestation of his political [liberal] opinion. My mistake was to remain with Wittgenstein, a philosophical framework lukewarm to politics and reverts to vulgar multi-cultralism and blind cynicism about universalizing discourses wherein it ends up to necessarily state its political voice (a mistake that Chantal Mouffe often makes apropos of political passion and hegemony). Conceptualism is not about language nor does it have a vitalist and abstract conception of life; but an attempt to unravel antagonisms within art itself, revealing the underlying political struggle within society and the ideological fixation that co-opts art. In this case, Walther Benjamin is more relevant than Wittgenstein, since Benjamin’s response to the aesthetization of politics by fascism is to politicize aesthetics. In our neoliberal economic and social landscape, art is aestheticized marketplace, selling artistic sophistication and meaning, determined by the spectator for the spectator and his gang.

Not to really abandon a Wittgensteinian insight, conceptualism (from literary to visual) can be a demand to return to a rough ground, embedded in society. However, it does not cease as such but analyzes the conflicts within members of society and implores universal struggle inasmuch as the communist party does with the broad masses of workers. This is art without the added supplement that sustain art for the spectator, the objets petit a that the spectator introduces with hermeneutics. Conceptualism does not interpret what already was shown; it shows [simply].

Conceptualism from a Spectator’s Perspective


In a classic Filipino Moro-Moro, a pale skinned Christian hero combats a brown skinned savage Moro (a Muslim warrior). The end is always a victory for the Christian hero after which a litany of invocations to the Christian God is made. The prayers consist of an invocation to the Holy Spirit and a litany of thanksgiving to the three persons of the trinity, thanking them for the success in battling the forces of evil and bringing good back to the community. This binary discourse—that of us and other evil other—reaches its apex in the European and American exceptionalism in which the ideals of the enlightenment and American industry are gospel truths set against the barbaric and savage peoples of the Orient. This discourse lost to a new reversal of roles and a re-writing of the old Moro-Moro discourse. Gone were the days when the pale skinned liberator comes from the West, freeing us from the savage brown skinned people of a barbarian faith. In our politically correct times, it is the brown skinned savage that must win but not through conquest but by preventing the physical antagonism while at the same time maintain the antagonism in allowing the other remain as other. There is no victory in this case but the outcome of the story is that the pale skinned Christian warrior tolerates and shakes hands with a “supposed” enemy, while singing some version of Beethoven’s Ninth or Billy Bragg’s version of the Internationale.

Transgressing this ideological discourse unlashes a myriad of antagonisms inherenent in liberal politically correct discourses of the West. With the rise of Islam and the decline of Christianity, Western discontent over its own legacy gathers up to an extreme case of self pity, ignoring the emancipator potentials of its own universe. Ignoring the place upon which they view the other and the tiring search for alternatives, the west is sooner going to collapse under the weight of its own artificially imposed guilt, leaving the place for far-right extremists to provide a hermeneutic reference point to a vacuum left by liberal complacency. Are we in the Philippines lagging behind the western search for alternatives? Is it apparent in how we approach history and how secular interpreters of Filipino history tend to condemn the Spanish colonial era as the country’s own Dark Ages? The search for an ethnic golden age of pure Filipino tribal values and pure Filipino religious world view, untainted by Colonialism drives the intellectual drive towards  self-pity against the present order and an unwarranted nihilism maintaining a distance between my supposedly enlightened vision and the gullible masses. Among “Asian values” capitalisms (including Vietnam and China), following a mixture of liberal or communist forms of economy and governance, the Philippines with its virulent anti-left mass culture, created by an Americanized social institution and government is the candidate for the most Western-like society with its dislike for socialism and communism and an almost religious admiration of democracy and non-violent revolutions. While Singapore and Chine have created its own economic paradigm in authoritarian forms of capitalism, Filipino society is resilient in its belief in free-market economy and the practice of exceptionalism and individualism.

Despite attempts to be like its Western compatriots, it fails to achieve a Western liberal democracy. With an “Extramuros-Intramuros” mentality that transcends the adobe walls of the historic Fort Santiago, the walls separating peoples in Filipino Society are worse than any form of racism. The common thinking is that educated petit bourgeois families (with pale to yellow skin and small Chinese eyes) are always on top of the brown skinned big eyed citizens; any commentary by a university degree holder is viewed as aloof, offering little to nothing to the plight of the poor. The rich are always Chinese, white and educated, wearing their tailored suits and speak straight English with an American (or English) accent. The popularity of the Binay family can be traced back to thins thinking. To those who support the Binays, the Binay family is part of the “other” class, doing their part in the service of the poor and bullied by the elite for being successful at that. The problem is that we are confusing the cause of the illness with the illness itself. Far from being a “rags to riches” story, the Binays are only popular because of the circumstances around the colour of their skin and the exigencies at play with crowd identification. While to a great majority, the Aquinos remain as the poster family for freedom and what stands as the success of democracy post-1986. To critical theorists, the democratic project needs to be expolored given the multicultural circumstances of having 7,107 islands. All of these—for the bottom dwellers—are mere calculations and instruments of elite domination. There is a gist of truth from the criticism of Filipino independent films that they have exploited poverty as a concept, transforming it into a marvellous celluloid spectacle. From the popularity of Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag and Insiang to Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay, the aesthetic of the ugly has prevailed to a certain extent in the films of these directors. Called by critics as “pornography of the poor,” the topic of poverty in independent films makes it a matter of suspicion for common taste. Thus, the black humour in Babae sa Septic Tank perfectly satirizes the excesses of independent filmmakers.

Antagonisms therefore are between academically posh educated theorists of the universities and the common sense mindsets of the urban and rural poor. The task of theory is to present an educational program for the advancement of peoples; but when the theory itself bolsters the antagonism between the educated and the urban and rural classes, the task of criticism and self-criticism remains a burden for all. It is enough to say that democracy, liberalism and the like remain theories that separate the educated from the uneducated. Belief in the “equality before the law” and the “secular liberal state” are privileged positions made by someone who is detached from the community and has the presupposition of freedom within this theoretical state. There is an old joke from the Martial Law period: “in the Philippines, everything is relative, you have to be related.” Is this joke still applicable today in the distrust in any notions of free market capitalism? Clearly, it reflects the notion that free market capitalism is not “free” at all but controlled by a few people inside a meeting room, calling the shots in the control of supply and demand and the economic laws. In this case, there is nothing “free” or a-political in capitalism. Its assertion of apathy to politics is its very inclusion within the political. The pattern provided by telenovellas suggest that participation in the liberal democratic discourse of the law and the market requires economic constraints: from struggling to pay for a lawyer to the payments to the court proceedings, to be even allowed justice, the poor characters are pushed to their economic capacities, driving them to absolute poverty while achieving no justice at all. The rich with the capability to hire the most unscrupulous of lawyers can achieve justice and confidently believe in the democratic notions of due process and the equality before the law. Within the preconceived notions of justice, the economically downtrodden are unable to participate in the Western dominant discourse of liberal democracy. Are they simply bitter in remaining within the sidelines of the minor discourse, seeking participation only at some moments in history?

Here is where advocates of Habermasian theory of dominant discourses and its application in our society find an inevitable impasse. Their effort is: to legislate the denial in the participation in the dominant discourse as the very participation in the dominant discourse of those who are outside it. They are considered other, as outside the legal jurisdiction whose being other is their sole participation in the dominant discourse. They remain as edifices of a resistance to the dominant discourse but at the same time their resistance solidifies the status quo since their very existence is granted by the dominant discourse itself.[1]   The boundary between the dominant discourse and those outside it is separated by class conflict and the refusal to acknowledge this antagonism in the exchange of discourses only proves the weakness of such theory.

Is it not clear in the investigations against the Binay family? The allegations thrown by Sen. Trillanes only bolstered by the popularity of the Binay family and their refusal to appear in the Senate stand as the singularized refusal to participate in the dominant discourse of liberal democracy and its notions of justice and equality before the law. the antagonism between the liberal party, President Aquino, the Senate and Binay as well as the whole media fiasco surrounding it serve as symptoms of a greater rift in Filipino society and democracy. The refusal to accept a materialist approach to the antagonisms in our society proves the bankruptcy of our intellectuals and great admiration is given to the activists who fervently believe in the futile bourgeois attempts to cement its relevance into society.

[1] I am reminded of a passage from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations where in order for ethnology to live it must posit its object as something before it came to study it. Therefore, ethnology and its methods posit pre-ethnology as a constant and that the very method of ethnology is to study its object as a pre-ethnological object. Hence, what it does is to make its own model and retain the old as old, a living museum for the efforts of ethnology. Is it not the same with the Husserlian project of “going back to the things themselves?” In order for phenomenology to work, it must posit as a constant the suspension of any conceptualization in order for the object to appear which means the phenomenologist must consider himself not doing phenomenology (in the epoche) in order for phenomenology to work as a (rigorous) method.