Fascism according to Slajov Žižek

Clara Figueiredo, untitled, essay Films Overdue Analog photography, digitized, Florianópolis, 2017


Žižek's discussions of fascism focus on Nazi Germany and the way in which Nazism turned the class struggle into a clash of races

This note is part of my effort to present Slajov Žižek's political theory as a coherent system: it is therefore about his understanding of Nazism.[I]

Slajov Žižek's discussions of fascism focus on Nazi Germany and the way in which Nazism turned the class struggle into a clash of races. He grasps the aesthetic dimension of Nazi domination, as well as the role of the “totalitarian” master in this domination. How does he combine these elements? Adopting a parallax view. In other words, his account of Nazism covers three registers: the Real in which the confrontation between Nazism and Capital takes place, the Symbolic in which the command of the Nazi bureaucracy operates and the Imaginary in which Nazi aesthetics take place.

National Socialism, explains Slajov Žižek, was an attempt to change something so that nothing changed. (i) Confronted the revolutionary and destabilizing tendencies of capitalism. He did so, however, in a way that sought to ensure the continuity of capitalist production. Nazism attempted to eliminate the fundamental antagonism of capitalism (and its society) by locating it in a specific cause that could be eliminated.

(ii) Instead of seeing and recognizing social division, he conceived of society as a unified body. Thus, the effective division of this unit was treated as an empirical social fact, which could be identified and resolved. In other words, Nazism tried to retain capitalist productivity, subjecting it to political control, that is, shifting the economic crisis to the scope of political coordination.

According to the account given by Slajov Žižek, the Nazi effort to have a capitalism without capitalism was based on attributing two key meanings to the notion of class struggle. The first of them appears as historical and involves this struggle in its positive dimension: national socialism emerged as a specific response to the excesses and ruptures of capitalism (its economic and financial crises), labor unrest and the actions of communist and socialist parties. . The Nazis rose to power through the suppression and elimination of communists.

The second meaning appears as conceptual since it treats the class struggle as an abstraction, as an antagonism or a type of negation. Nazism sought to control and contain the revolutionary excesses engendered by capital itself, shifting them to the figure of the Jewish people, seen as the cause of all disturbance. In this way, he responded to antagonisms by treating what is constitutive of capitalism as if it were something accidental, natural and remediable.

Slajov Žižek argues that National Socialism sought to displace class antagonism, condensing it into a specific people. To understand it as a form of power, he then classifies the Nazi speech as a “master speech”, which is the first of the four speeches described by Lacan.

All of them, as we know, consist of ways of establishing social ties through and within communication; In addition to the aforementioned, there are three others: the discourse of the university, the discourse of the hysteric and the discourse of psychoanalysis (or critical theory in general). These four discourses always combine four activities: government, education, desire and analysis. And they establish the possible relationships between the real, the symbolic and the imaginary.

In the master's discourse, the master is the agent and he has the power to tell others what cannot be contested. He occupies the position of being in charge. His words support the truth. Since the master is the main signifier, he is the one who, in practice, educates and transmits knowledge. He addresses others who appear only as those who obey, that is, as subjected subjects. However, the truth that the master provides cannot be correct or complete since he is also an interpreter, a subject divided into a conscious and an unconscious – however, this split is hidden from those who must obey him. In any case, his speech produces an effect on those subjects who submit to him in the form of a product, a gain or a loss.

What does this have to do with fascism? Slajov Žižek reads Nazism as a structuring force: it introduced a master into the German social field that was in a chaotic state. Describing German anti-Semitism in the 1920s, Slajov Žižek writes: “people felt disoriented, succumbing to an undeserved military defeat, an economic crisis that was eating away at their economies, widespread political inefficiency and moral degeneration… why, the Nazis then created a single agent responsible for everything: the Jew, the Jewish conspiracy. And this restorative magic was produced by the introduction of a master…”

Crucial to the Nazi appeal to order, itself massively disordered and excessive, was the production of meaning, the provision of an explanation that told Germans who they were. The master's discourse begins to order the social field, propagating a certain truth to the subjected subjects (the other Germans), but also producing a remainder, something that could no longer fit into the ordered field provided by the master (the Jews).

The master's speech uses what Lacan called fantasy. The presence of a certain imaginary supports the master's speech, proving to be very necessary for his authority. What, then, does the fantasy structure of Nazism consist of? That the subjects had become an object for the enjoyment of others. The very activity, strength and action that the fascist master now promises and apparently instills in his people is premised on the fact that they, as subjects, have been strongly passive.

From this perspective, he then tells them that they were and are victims of others, who were stealing their enjoyment. But he now guarantees the recovery of that enjoyment due to the very fact that they can now see themselves as forming a nation. This, then, is characterized by a very concrete thing. By putting it on, the subjects supposedly begin to obtain again that pleasure that had been threatened and stolen.

Even if all this fantasy is a complement to the Nazi master's speech, National Socialism also needs another complement, this one of a symbolic order. Understanding fascism symbolically, that is, as a set of norms and laws, requires a change in perspective. Slajov Žižek believes that, to achieve this, it is necessary to understand the role of the Nazi bureaucracy.

Considering the vast bureaucratic infrastructure of the Third Reich, Slajov Žižek rejects Hannah Arendt's account of the banality of evil. In her account of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as is known, Arendt emphasizes Eichmann's meticulous way of proceeding in complying with rules, orders, bureaucracy and paperwork. Thus, the horror of the Holocaust does not appear as a monstrous and terrifying evil, but as an accumulation of details, as mere obedience to orders coming from above, in such a way that he himself no longer felt responsible for what he had done.

Now, the Nazi regime also consists of the rules and laws that compose it, which allowed it to function as such. Slajov Žižek argues that the Holocaust can in no way be reduced to a mechanical by-product of bureaucratic administration. On the contrary, it needs to be understood in its relationship to enjoyment.

The systematic extermination of Jews, Poles, Romanians and homosexuals, even when it became known, was never openly declared. As Slajov Žižek points out, “the implementation of the Holocaust was treated by the Nazi apparatus itself as a kind of obscene and dirty secret, which could not be publicly recognized. Therefore, it could not appear as a simple and direct translation of the action of the anonymous bureaucratic machine of Nazism.”

The fact that the administration of the Holocaust had hidden components, that what was being managed had to remain camouflaged, is what makes Arendt's explanation quite unsatisfactory. There was clearly more to the Holocaust than simply the administration of rules by public officials. And this “more” needs to be explained by the connection between the application of these bureaucratic rules and the joy that the murder of the Jews brought them.

Slajov Žižek suggests three ways in which the symbolic logic of bureaucracy operated in relation to enjoyment. First, the rules allowed subjects to maintain a gap between their duties and the horrors they were committing. In this sense, the rules were a kind of shield, a “big other” in whose name the subjects were acting. They provided subjects with an imaginary projection that concealed real pleasure. Second, the rules allowed subjects to participate in shared transgressions.

Precisely because the horrors of the Holocaust could not be officially recognized, precisely because the crimes remained crimes, they remained obscene violations of German codes of ethics. Thus, whoever violated them did participate in a shared transgression. The gang rape provided a meaning and thus a verisimilitude support to the properly Nazi experience: they were all in it together. Third, the rules provided a libidinal impulse, a certain excess that provides pleasure to those who are following the orders.

In describing the way in which bureaucratization itself was a source of enjoyment, Slajov Žižek writes: “bureaucratic rules would not give a libidinal gain if murders were not taken as an administrative operation, but also a criminal one. Is it not more satisfying to torture prisoners as part of some ordered procedure – for example, through meaningless 'morning exercises' that serve only to torment them? Didn’t this “medicine” produce a boost of satisfaction for the guards when they inflicted pain on the prisoners? Not because they beat them directly, but because the beatings took place under the guise of an activity officially aimed at keeping the unfortunate healthy?”

Now, if all this seems absurd, consider the villains in Hollywood films. Don't they perform well-designed actions on stage to torture and confront the heroes? Note that this point was clearly exposed by the son of the character Doctor Evil in the Michael Myers film called Austin Powers. Faced with the comically devised plan by his father, Scott, to torture the hero, his son naively asks: “Why don’t you just kill him?”

In addition to analyzing Nazism from the perspective of actually existing antagonism and the symbolic logic of bureaucratic rules, Slajov Žižek undertakes a further parallactic shift to once again consider the imaginary dimension of Nazi ideology. To a certain extent – ​​he says – one can understand this ideology provided by the Nazi master, as well as the symbolic rules that aim to guarantee it. However, as there is an irreducible gap between these three domains of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic, they cannot be considered as strictly commensurable.

It was seen that the master's speech distorts the antagonism of the class struggle, transferring it to a supposed unbearable difference of races. By this means, Nazism sought to control the disorder typical of capitalism, now sheltering conflicts within the scope of its own power to act on them; thus, it sees itself as capable of identifying that which supposedly corrupts society and, at the same time, capable of radically purifying it of this corruption. As a result, the racist logic of transfer put in place by the master effects a closure, a complete solidification of the system's excesses.

The fantasy mentioned above supports, without interrupting, the fascist master's speech, insofar as it confirms the supposed theft of pleasure practiced by the Jews. Now, approaching Nazism from a symbolic perspective produces a different analysis. And this is based on an incompleteness or division between the official face of the rules and the obscene enjoyment to which they give rise. This perspective helps to understand German subjects' attachment to the regime, the fact that the rules themselves provided pleasure. The domain of the imaginary, in turn, shows a enjoyment that was crucial to Nazism, namely, an attachment to an aesthetic ideal of community.

Against Heidegger and with Alain Badiou, Slajov Žižek claims that Nazism did not contain any “inner greatness”. Now, this does not mean that he lacked “authenticity” – to use a central category of the philosopher of being and time. “The idea of ​​founding a great solidarity to keep the community of people together” contained a non-ideological core as it functioned as an ideal or aspiration that could not be reduced to a mere instrument of power.

This is how Slajov Žižek argues on this issue: “It is clear that fascist ideology 'manipulated' the authentic popular desire to live in a true community in which strong social solidarity prevails, thus overcoming the fierce competition and exploitation inherent in capitalism. It is clear that it 'distorts' the expression of this desire in order to legitimize the continuation of relations of domination and social exploitation. To obtain this effect, however, it had to incorporate an authentic popular desire.”

Therefore, people were not simply coerced into joining Nazism. They did not participate directly in the struggles and power games that took place within the National Socialist party. Before, the link they maintained with ideological formation was guaranteed by utopian desires, yearnings for something more, for something better. Every ideology, including fascism, depends on a non-ideological core.

Under Nazism, this nucleus was represented as “an ecstatic and aestheticized experience of community”. Far from being an element of the total politicization of society, Nazi spectacles depended on the suspension of politics through well-elaborated rituals. They were theatrical performances that produced an illusion of community, a false mirroring of communal unity; its function was to cover the real fissures that modernization and technological mobilization had created in the social body – organic as imagined.

And not only was the experience of the community aestheticized, but also that which was truly horrible, the concentration camp. Slajov Žižek emphasizes that the Nazi camps involved an “aesthetics of evil.” “The humiliation and torture of the detainees,” he writes, “was an end in itself.” It served no rational purpose and, in fact, was contrary to the efficient use of prisoners in forced labor. Slajov Žižek here follows Giorgio Agamben when he sees the Muslims in the Nazi concentration camps as the “zero level of humanity” or that non-symbolizable point of the Real.

When apprehending fascism through the lens of Slajov Žižek, his analysis of Nazism as a shift from the class struggle to a racial conflict between the German people and the Jewish people was emphasized. This deviation, it was shown, consists of a symbolic operation in which bureaucratic rules also provide food for enjoyment. The operation as a whole is based on an imaginary desire for community that is aestheticized and theatrically enacted. However, these different analyzes do not correspond exactly or fit into a single explanation. Its relationship with the object, that is, like Nazism, has the character of a parallax: they are visions separated by necessary gaps. In other words, in these analyzes it is clear that “there is no direct relationship between economics and politics”, since they do not find themselves on a common path, they do not merge as if they were congruent. In other words, thinking about this relationship also requires accepting certain inevitable changes and certain theoretical distortions.

Furthermore, this parallax overlaps with the real antagonism of the class struggle. Displacements occur precisely to avoid the consequences of struggles between classes. The Nazis attempted to modernize capitalism as much as possible, replacing the class struggle with a “naturalized” power struggle between organic society and its supposed corrupt excess. Thus, for Slajov Žižek, the Nazi “revolution” was not in fact a revolution, but merely a farce, a spectacular performance that covered up and sustained his failure to truly confront this antagonism.

* Jodi Dean is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (USA). She is the author, among other books, of  Comrade: an essay on political belonging (boitempo).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Translator's note

[I] This translation sought to respect the meanings intended by the author rather than her writing itself. A translation ipse litteris it would have been incomprehensible.

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