The recovery of the critical legacy

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

The global capitalist order is, once again, approaching a crisis, and the missing radical critical legacy will have to be resurrected.

The rise of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe has formed what I call a new axis of evil – and it needs to be confronted and defeated. Conservative nationalist populism is back, thirty-two years after the fall of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, and it wants revenge. The recent turn of post-socialist countries like Hungary, Poland and Slovenia in a conservative and illiberal direction concerns us. How did things go so wrong? Perhaps we are paying the price for something that disappeared when socialism was replaced by capitalist democracy. And it is not about socialism itself, but about what mediated this transition.

The “Evanescent Mediator” (vanishing mediator), a term introduced by Frederic Jameson a few decades ago, designates a specific element in the process of moving from an old order to a new one. Unexpected things happen as the old order disintegrates. In addition to the horrors mentioned by Gramsci, promising utopian projects and practices emerge. As soon as the new order is established, a new narrative is constituted and the mediators disappear from this new ideological space.

Here's an example. in your book Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Graham Harman mentions an insightful comment about the 1960s: “You have to remember that the 60s really happened in the 70s”. Thus, comments Harman, “in a sense, an object exists 'even more' in the stage following its initial peak. Arguably, America's dramatic 1960s, with their marijuana, free love, and internal violence, were exemplified even better by the artificial, bland 1970s.

However, if we pay more attention to the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, we will clearly see the main difference: in the beginning, the spirit of permissiveness, sexual liberation, counterculture and drugs were part of a utopian political movement; already in the 1970s, this spirit lost its political content and was completely integrated into the dominant culture and ideology. While it is important to raise questions about the limits of the spirit of the 60s – which so facilitated its integration – the repression of the political dimension remains an important element of popular culture in the 1970s. by sight.

I bring up such questions because the passage of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe to capitalism was not a direct transition either. Between the socialist order and the new order (liberal/capitalist or nationalist/conservative) there was a series of evanescent mediators that the new power tried to erase from memory. I followed this process when Yugoslavia collapsed. Lest there be any misunderstandings, I have no nostalgia for Yugoslavia. The war that devastated the country from 1991 to 1995 was its truth, the moment when all the antagonisms of the Yugoslav project exploded. Yugoslavia died in 1985 when Slobodan Milosevic took power in Serbia and ended the fragile balance that kept it going.

In the last years of the regime, the communists in power knew they were lost. They then desperately tried to find a way to survive as a political force in the transition to democracy. Some mobilized nationalist passions, others tolerated, and even supported, the new democratic processes. In Slovenia, communist leaders were soft on punk music, including the band Laibach, and on the gay movement… (Incidentally, they even financed a periodical gay but, after the free elections, the resources were cut. The newly elected city council of Ljubljana has judged that being gay is not a culture but a way of life that does not need to be sponsored).

On a more general level, most people who protested against communist regimes in Eastern Europe were not aiming for capitalism. They wanted social security, solidarity, firm justice; they sought the freedom to live outside state control, to assemble and express themselves as they pleased; they wanted a simple, honest and sincere life, free from primitive ideological doctrine and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy. That is, the vague ideals that moved the protesters were, in general, extracted from the socialist ideology itself. And, as Sigmund Freud taught us, the repressed returns in a distorted way. In Europe, socialism repressed in the dissident imaginary has returned in the key of right-wing populism.

Even if, in their positive content, communist regimes were failures, they opened a certain space, a space of utopian expectations that, among other things, allowed us to measure the failure of really existing socialism itself. When dissidents like Vaclav Havel denounced the communist regime in the name of human solidarity, they (most of the time without knowing it) spoke from a place opened up by communism itself. This is why they tend to be so disappointed when "really existing capitalism" fails to live up to the high expectations of its anti-communist struggle.

In Poland, at a recent event, a new rich capitalist honored Adam Michnik for his dual success as a capitalist (he helped destroy socialism and is the head of a highly profitable advertising empire); deeply embarrassed, Michnik responded, “I am not a capitalist; I am a socialist incapable of forgiving socialism that has failed.”

Why mention such “evanescent mediators”? In his interpretation of the fall of Eastern European communism, Jürgen Habermas showed himself to be a perfect left-wing Fukuyamist, silently accepting that the current liberal-democratic order is the best possible and that, even if it is necessary to fight to make it fairer, it does not we must question its fundamental premises.

That's why he praised what many leftists considered the great shortcoming of anti-communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that such protesters were not moved by any visions about the post-communist future. For Habermas, those events in Central and Eastern Europe were only "rectification" or "recovery" revolutions (nachholende) whose aim was to allow such societies to achieve what Western Europeans already had; in other words, the return to normality of Western Europe.

However, the “yellow vest” protests in France and other similar demonstrations of recent times are not “recovery” movements. They embody the bizarre reversal that characterizes the current global situation. That old antagonism between the “common people” and the elites of financial capitalism is back with a vengeance, with the “common people” breaking out in protests against the elites, accused of ignoring their sufferings and their demands.

What is new, however, is that the populist right has proved far more capable of directing such eruptions than the left. That is why Alain Badiou was completely correct when he stated, dealing with the gilets jaunes, that “Tout ce qui bouge n'est pas rouge” – not everything that moves (that protests) is red. Right-wing populism today is part of a long tradition of popular demonstrations that were predominantly left-wing.

Here is the paradox we have to face: populist discontent with liberal democracy is proof that 1989 was not just a “recovery” revolution, that it aimed at something more than liberal capitalist normality. Freud talked about Unbehagen in der Kultur, malaise in culture; Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new wave of protests is witness to a kind of Discomfort in liberal capitalism, and the more important question is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it remain in the hands of nationalist populists? Here lies the left's great task. This discontent is not new. I wrote about him over 30 years ago in “Eastern Europe's Republics of Gilead” (a reference to The Tale of Aia), published by New Left Review in 1990. May I quote myself?: “The dark side of the processes in force in Eastern Europe is, therefore, the retreat of the liberal-democratic trend in the face of the growth of corporate nationalist populism with all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism. The speed of this process has been surprising: today, anti-Semitism is found in East Germany (where the lack of food is attributed to the Jews, and the lack of bicycles to the Vietnamese), in Hungary and in Romania (where persecution of the Jewish minority persists). Hungarian). Even in Poland, it is possible to notice signs of a split in Solidarity: the advance of a nationalist-populist faction that blames the failure of recent government measures on 'cosmopolitan intellectuals' (the former regime's code name for Jews)”.

That dark side now re-emerges with force, and its effects are felt in right-wing historical revisionism: first, the socialist aspect of the struggle against communism disappears (remember that the Solidarity it was a workers' union!), then the liberal aspect itself disappears, so that a new history emerges in which the true opposition is that between the communist legacy and the Christian-national legacy – or, as the Hungarian Prime Minister puts it, Viktor Orban: “There are no liberals, only communists with university degrees”.

On July 7, 2021, Orban bought a page in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse to publish his views on Europe. His main arguments were: the Brussels bureaucracy acts like a “superstate” that only protects its ideological and institutional interests – and nobody authorized it to do that. We must abandon the goal of achieving greater unity as the next decade will bring new challenges and dangers, and Europeans need to be protected from “mass migrations and pandemics”.

It is a false pair: immigrants and the pandemic have not invaded us, we are responsible for both. Without US intervention in Iraq and other countries, there would be fewer immigrants; without global capitalism, we would not have a pandemic. Furthermore, it is precisely because of the immigration crisis and the pandemic that we need an even stronger European Union.

The new right-wing populism seeks to destroy Europe's emancipatory legacy: its Europe is a Europe of nation-states determined to preserve their particular identity – when, a few years ago, Steve Bannon visited France, he ended one of his speeches by saying “America in first, long live France!” Long live France, long live Italy, long live Germany... but not Europe.

Does this mean that we should invest all our strength in resurrecting liberal democracy? No. In a sense, Orban is correct, the emergence of the new populism is a symptom of what was wrong with the liberal-democratic capitalism that Francis Fukuyama advocated as the end of history (today, Fukuyama supports Bernie Sanders). To save what is worth saving in liberal democracy, we need to move left, towards what Orban and his cronies mean by “communism”. But how?

Today, in Europe, we deal with three positions – populist right, liberal center, left – within the same universal political arc that extends from right to left. Each of the three positions suggests its own vision of universal political space. For a liberal, left and right are the two extremes that threaten our freedoms; if either one predominates, authoritarianism wins – which is why European liberals see a continuity of communist methods in Orban's actions (in his fierce anti-communism).

For the left, right-wing populism is certainly worse than tolerant liberalism, but it sees its advance as a symptom of what went wrong with liberalism; therefore, if we want to end right-wing populism, we must radically modify liberal capitalism itself, which is turning into a neo-feudal corporate domain. The new populist right exploits the completely justified grievances of ordinary people against the reign of big corporations and banks, which cloak their brutal exploitation, domination and new forms of control over our lives with a false political correctness.

For the new populist right, multiculturalism, MeToo, the LGBTQI+ movement, etc., are just the continuation of communist totalitarianism, sometimes worse than communism itself – Brussels is the core of “cultural Marxism”. the obsession of alt-right with cultural Marxism shows its lack of interest in confronting the fact that the phenomena they criticize, seen as the effects of the cultural-Marxist plot (moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism, etc.), are just the results of the immanent dynamics of the culture itself. late capitalism.

Em The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell described how the unrestrained thrust of modern capitalism undermines the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic, upon which capitalism itself was built. In a new afterword, Bell offers a compelling perspective on contemporary Western society, from the end of the Cold War to the rise and fall of postmodernism, revealing the most important cultural rifts we face as the XNUMXst century unfolds.

The turn towards culture as a key component of capitalist reproduction, and concomitantly the commodification of cultural life itself, allows for an even greater reproduction of capital. Just think of the current explosion of art biennials (Venice, Kassel…): although they present themselves as a form of resistance to global capitalism and its commodification of everything, they are, in their form of organization, the apex of art as a moment of capitalist self-reproduction.

It is therefore clear the importance of remembering the “evanescent mediators”: the global capitalist order is, once again, approaching a crisis, and the disappeared radical critical legacy will have to be resurrected.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on RT Portal.

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