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”


Recently, Scott Jay wrote a scathing attack on left-wing tactics and theory in libcom.org, criticizing the inability of present leftist struggles against austerity and various social issues, involving the various police killings in Ferguson and parts of the US. He accuses the left of engaging in some form of “postmodern” neoliberalism, being complacent in the face of exploitation done by neoliberal policies both in economics and politics. At first glance, Jay’s evaluation might appear correct. With the rise of popular right-wing groups in the US, France, UK and some parts of Europe (with Donald Trump as the obvious candidate but also other Republican hopefuls and Marie Le Pen in France), one could not stop saying to oneself: “where is the left in all of these important issues?” With the flood of refugees coming to Europe and the politics of fear gripping its citizens, it seems that the left is being blamed for allowing refugees (often called migrants instead of refugees), making space for terrorist activity in mainland Europe and posing a danger to traditional European values. Leftist politics appears complex and mostly confined to universities, while the right attempts to cater to common sense reason, posing an easier enemy to blame, an enemy that we can eliminate without remorse.

It is with the rise of right-wing populism that I would enter into argumentation with Jay’s essay which I find too rash in dismissing current left-wing attempts at combatting neoliberalism

The Postmodern Bogeyman

            Jay’s accusation starts with a brave declaration against current theoretical efforts of various philosophers and intellectuals. For him, their work is not sufficient enough and not grounded on a grassroots foundation; furthermore, they have been to confined to the university system, catering to university students engaging in phrase mongering instead of a proper political program in resisting neoliberal policies both in economics and its lackeys in the state apparatuses. Accusing SYRIZA, he argues that the Greek left-wing party is simply good at portraying itself as a unified left, instead of being a genuine resistance to the hostage taking by its creditors. From here, Jay calls the left postmodern neoliberals (and SYRIZA is a postmodern neoliberal par excellence)—a ready-made term (much like revisionism during the 60s) to accuse those who failed or were considered deviant in their theoretical positions—citing the failure of the Greek administration in resistance and instead of acting with the permission of the people during the referendum, followed the whims of the EU. Such is for Jay the elements of postmodern neoliberalism. Today’s leftists can say that they are against postmodern but in reality they are postmodernists in practice, “preferring style over substance and feel good moments and flashy leaders over the brute reality of resisting capitalist exploitation.” [1]

This criticism describes current left-wing tactics simply as an engagement with populist tropes, attempting to win elections and convince people of their worthiness to win than engaging in proper resistance towards neoliberalism. For him, today’s left lacks engagement with the masses, preferring the comfort of electoral politics than of its original goal of organizing the masses. Lastly, all of these criticisms boil down to the incapability of the left to look at reality. It is simply is not doing enough to do proper dialectical materialism and social practice (one is reminded immediately of Mao’s “where do correct ideas come from”), focusing on the construction of a dialogical, non-confrontational, conversational, and academic analysis of current social conditions and proposing soft solutions to social antagonisms than allowing these antagonisms to be revealed and confronted. Hence, the picture that Scott Jay wants to portray the left is that of an outspoken postmodernist, while at the same time denying their attachment to it as such.

Scott Jay’s evaluation however is confined to the failures of the SYRIZA party to resist the exploitative conditions of Greece’s creditors and the electoral antics that followed after its reelection. Postmodern neoliberalism can be described as the two-faced tactic of SYRIZA i.e. to espouse a left-wing program while at the same time, agreeing to neoliberal economic and political frameworks, as seen in the demands of its creditors (i.e. decreased government involvement in industrial and financial sectors as well as defunding social services in lieu of NGOs and charitable organizations, a way for the private sector to invade social security). It is evident from the tone and the way Jay uses the word postmodernism, it is utilized widely to discredit today’s leftist tactics especially their parliamentary election driven moves (from SYRIZA in Greece to PODEMOS in Spain and other attempts at creating a left-wing administration in other parts of the world.) Perhaps, Jay’s fear of a soft left is informed by the loss of the Partido Socialista Unidad de Venezuela (PSUV) against a reactionary group that aims to put Venezuela back on the tracks of neoliberal globalization. That given, do elections and a populist tone make the left deviate from its original goal? Is unity among various echelons and cadres of mass organizations, unified by a single goal a form of showman’s gimmick or a part of a well thought-out tactic, considering the difference of today’s contexts and determined by various elements of the masses? Given these questions in mind, our time demands further examination of conditions from various economic, cultural and social standpoints.

What can be Done?

I would not defend the tactic of parliamentary struggle over armed struggle or vice versa. Both tactics deserve to be heard, given whatever circumstances necessitated by the particular material conditions, determining what can be possible and how to achieve victory for the masses. It is one thing to engage in a genuine criticism of current leftist tactic but it is another to engage in worthless phrase mongering, creating arguments without the full disclosure of what you are fighting for. In the case of Scott Jay’s remarks against SYRIZA, indeed they have failed in resisting the demands of their creditors but what they Greeks have achieved is showing how the current financial market preys on hapless victims of its own financial speculation while at the same time capitalizing on a politics of fear to cement its legitimacy. One should not fail to see this inherent connection between right-wing populism and neoliberal economic policies. The protection of tradition and the security of the borders against an external and easy to blame enemy goes hand in hand with deregulation and salient exploitation of labor, blaming the wrong ones for the disintegration of the economy.

What can be done with failure is a full disclosure of the success of the movement. Slavoj Žižek already makes this point clear in reference to various left-wing failures from the demise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the various defeats in new left-wing adventures into government. What it reveals is that the masses are prepared to engage in various ways of liberating itself from the clutches of those in power. From the power of the vote (in Europe, from SYRIZA to PODEMOS and the current victory in Portugal, as well as the victory of socialist groups in Bolivia and the continuing struggle in Venezuela) to the power of the gun (with the Kurdish struggle in Syria and Iraq, the NPA in the Philippines, the CPN in Nepal and so on), both tactics work to agitate those in power and hence use whatever at its disposal from imperialist control of natural resources and neocolonial influence over Third World countries; but even in these ways of control, the masses, guided by the party, always moves against these elements, through grassroots education and engagement with various labor, cultural and economic sectors, including the university system in the organization of students. Both the power of the vote and the power of the gun are constitutive elements of a common struggle against capitalism in its neoliberal mode. What will determine the course of action is of course not some inherent idea or historical necessity but the contingent elements that surround the lives of those who toil.

[1] Scott Jay, “The Postmodern Left and the Success of Neoliberalism,” http://libcom.org/library/postmodern-left-success-neoliberalism