Archives for posts with tag: Slavoj Zizek

No one likes despotism. Well, I suppose those who derive auxiliary power to enforce the despot’s will might think it’s okay, but if we look at a dictatorship from behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance, then it is certainly not an optimal form of government. Generally authoritarianism, as the imposition of one person or group’s will onto the rest of society, is frowned upon with swathes of historical evidence showing why it might be politically gauche.

In Western culture today, the common authoritarian bogeyman is Donald Trump, who speaks of cracking down with full state authority on dissenters, journalists, and satirists in a picture-perfect representation of tyrannical authoritarianism. What about those attempting to resist Trump’s foreboding ascension? Progressive movements today have a complete disdain for authority, often avoiding leadership of any kind, as they attempt to revolutionize the practices of their country.

In Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution, he says:

The anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.

When looking at the Russian communist revolution with this quotation (and many others from that book, holy) in mind, it is of little wonder that Joseph Stalin’s subsequent regime was so brutal. However, Lenin raises an important point. The very act of revolution is by its nature authoritarian. Even if your future utopia is a stateless one, as Lenin’s indeed was (though he did not consider it utopian), then achieving it will require the annexation of conflicting beliefs through some means or another, and then further displays of authority to maintain that foothold. One cannot be wholly anti-authoritarian and expect to make social change.

Considering how extreme the early communist rhetoric was, it is fairly simple to challenge it even in revolutionary terms. The more educated may cite ‘power-with’ as their response to the traditional, authoritarian ‘power-over’, where one utilizes whatever social authority they possess to work with those who hold less social power to ameliorate their position instead of simply demanding they follow certain criteria in order to conform to societal norms. However, if we consider this practice in the terms of social change, working with someone until they conform to the new paradigm sounds more like 1984 indoctrination rather than its touted anti-oppressive modality; an option not much improved over violent enforcement.

Slavoj Žižek chastises left wing practice in this capacity as a worse form of totalitarianism than its traditional counterpart. The example he uses is of a child not wanting to visit their grandmother. The traditional approach would be to force the child to visit their grandmother without regard for their feelings, but this new approach is different; Žižek dramatizes, “You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless I’m not forcing you to visit her; you should only visit her if you freely decide to do it.” Couched in this approach is the underlying pressure that not only must this child conform to the action that is demanded of them, but they must also want to conform. They must become the person who would willingly perform their social role.

Consider Kim Davis, the woman who refused to license same-sex couples. She was punished in the traditional sense, but the real vitriol was reserved for her characteristics as a person. Her failure was not so much in purposefully breaking this new law, but in her values. In order for her to truly belong within the new societal paradigm, she must not only license same-sex couples, she must want to do it as well. One may claim that these social movements are based on unalterable truths to which anyone could become enlightened should they receive the prerequisite education, but purporting a divine truth merely turns the process into a crusade rather than a simple revolution. There may no longer be rifles, bayonets, and cannons, but the authoritarianism is still present, with much bolder goals in mind.

Though it may sound like it due to the negative connotations of authoritarianism, this is not a condemnation of contemporary progressive movements. As Lenin says, change will always require some degree of authoritarianism. The condemnation occurs when the authoritarianism is obscured, dismissed, or ignored with the results being hypocrisy, delusion, or ineffectual soapboxing respectively. If we wish to avoid the devastation of Leninism, then rather than pretend it doesn’t exist, authoritarianism must be acknowledged and driven along a path that does not lead to a destructive state.

The biggest mistake of Leninism was the us-versus-them dichotomy from which a “proletarian dictatorship” (his words) was the outcome. Separating society into enemies and allies can only lead to oppression and bloodshed. This divisive dyad is still prevalent in the black versus white attitudes of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the women versus men attitudes of popular feminism. Even the term ally is indicative of this mentality; an ally against whom? The faceless Other who must be defeated. If we understand the intrinsic nature of authoritarianism within social change, the presence of this dichotomy is a serious concern. Inclusivity within social change is therefore paramount.

In addition, focusing on policies and practices would alleviate many of the dangers of authoritarianism. Most movements today prefer to prioritize personal identity and expression, again making the paradigm about the values and characteristics of the individual more so than the actual structures of society. The ostracization and shaming of a county clerk only becomes an arm of oppression after the structural foundation of the paradigm shift has been cemented in place. Of note: though Trump has declared gay marriage to be safe, it is important to bring up the potential damage he might cause against Planned Parenthood. Perhaps you might wonder if society had done more to silence pro-lifers when it had the chance, this structure would not be in jeopardy. This is true, but what kind of society would that be? If abortion is good for society, this can be shown through data on women’s health and autonomy, poverty and crime rates, and myriads of other information that could be attributed to the legality and availability of abortions. If it is not, perhaps on the grounds of morality or family cohesion, then there would need to be a weighing of the variables. In none of these instances is a shutting down of dissent necessary.

Alternatively, a path might be available that I will call skeptical authoritarianism. In it, I might recognize that in trying to create change I am imposing my will on others, just as those who seek to maintain the status quo or implement other forms of change are trying to impose their wills on me. If I maintain skeptical attitudes about the infallibility of my position, I may be able to, through dialogue, compromise with the Other. At best (from my perspective), I may make incremental change toward my ideal, but I may also in turn realize other truths that would be unavailable to me if I remained within my own echo chamber.

Fear of authoritarianism within a social movement is nonsensical. Leadership is not an inherent evil, nor is relativism an inherent good. Understanding the nature of change will lead to improved methods of implementing it. Failing to do so, or remaining purposefully oblivious, will either lead to further cycles of traditional revolution, totalitarianism, or annihilation.

The giant news of today is the Brexit exit of Britain from the European Union, so named because the news media saw what the tabloids were doing with portmanteaus and celebrity couples and thought that it would be cute to introduce the concept into monumental, world changing events. If it worked for Brangelina, then it can work for international politics. Now, before we get into it, I’m going to give a little history lesson.

The Treaty of Westphalia is a big deal that happened a long time ago and yadda yadda yadda, history lesson over. Look it up, you scrub. The outcome was that rather than rely on a religion as the primary marker for self-identity, the Westphalian system created a paradigm shift where sovereign nationhood became the fundamental borders between people. It solidified countries into nations with legitimate borders that were now universally acknowledged across Europe. It didn’t stop countries from invading one another, but now they were invading France, rather than invading land that was owned by the French king. The idea was that individual nations could run their own affairs independently, and if one nation seemed to be getting too ambitious, then the surrounding nations would form an alliance to humble it. This didn’t stop people from trying to overturn this balance of power, however, and Napoleon and Hitler both came close to overcoming that institutional barrier. Religion still played a huge role, obviously, but ever so slowly nationalism added itself to humanity’s lexicon of dogmatism.

Henry Kissinger, known for his political acumen in maintaining worldwide stability through warfare (with all the paradox that that implies), in his book World Order advocates for some version of the Westphalian system as necessary for maintaining political cohesion across the globe. He then goes on to say that the world needs the United States to implement its way of living on the rest of the planet for that modified system to be a success because he’s a jingoistic jackass, but we’ll ignore that part of the book for now. However, his point that the world needs identifiable and respected boundaries has some value. The ideal of multiculturalism is a “separate-but-equal” philosophy where each culture is respected on its own merits, despite their differences, and segregated so each unique culture can thrive according to its own direction. For this to function, a Westphalian system seems appropriate.

Increasingly we’re seeing the dangers associated with nationalism borne of Westphalian principles. Britain left the EU because it saw itself not as a part of a whole, but as a distinct nation, fearful of an infection from its surrounding neighbours. Similarly, Donald Trump wishes to make America great again by removing the foreign element from within the American midst. People claim it is a hypocrisy for a nation of immigrants to complain about more of them, but it is not so hypocritical when you realize it is based on an illusory ideal of nationalism. History is not important, the borders are.

This means that the Westphalian system is running into the same ideological problems of its religious predecessor. Though certainly an improvement, as religion claims universal truths and therefore sees no egalitarian compromise while nationalism only claims locational truths, hate is blooming out of fear akin to the expulsion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. This is not a completely unpredictable outcome. The balance of power that the Treaty of Westphalia promised was based on eternal yet balanced conflict between nations. Peace was only possible through the fear of mutually assured destruction that comes from the combat of equal armies. An ideology built on inherent conflict will inevitably lead to further conflict.

Today, power comes from money rather than land, meaning that nations wage wars of GDP rather than on the battlefield, but the mentality remains: one of the arguments of the Leave campaign centred on the financial demands of the European Union on British coffers. Though its effects are still preliminary, as nationalistic fervor is limited to only a few countries and even then there are competing ideologies, I do see the evidence of a potentially fatal flaw of the Westphalian system.

Kissinger is right in that a Westphalian system would need modifications for order to be globally achieved, and he suggests a kind of unifying agent that denies complete segregation between countries and cultures. As discussed, he suggests liberal democracy as that unifying agent, which is dumb, but his idea is not unique nor completely wrong. Slavoj Žižek argues against multiculturalism by saying that a unifying agent of respect is necessary across all cultures for order to exist, and too much leftist focus on tolerance leads to the perils of relativism. In a Westphalian context, this means that distinct nations cannot function on a globally multicultural level if they behave with zealous independence because there is no unifying bond between them and their neighbours.

I believe that for a world order to exist, there does need to be some version of a global ideology with universal adherence. Obviously not a political one as Kissinger suggests, but one based on compassion and respect, closer to Žižek. This cannot be achieved through warfare, as history has proven again and again that attacking an ideology pushes it deeper into fundamentalism in order to retain its sacred beliefs. The book I’m reading now, Jews, God, and History, shows that Jewish people almost always assimilate to the best parts of the dominant culture when they are allowed to practice their religion unencumbered, but violently rebel with religious fervor each time they are coerced. To win a worldwide ideological battle, it cannot actually be a battle. It needs to be an ideological success, and people will conform to it willingly.

I’m pretty sure that everyone in the world is secretly in love with Liberalism. I mean, it’s great. If you don’t love charity, taking care of the less fortunate, and heartwarming moments of celebrities adopting Indonesian children, then you are a heartless monster. Liberalism is the recognition that things in this world are kinda shitty, and steps should be taken to alleviate those problems (Liberalism as a philosophy has a heavy focus on individualism and other things, but for the sake of this post I’m limiting myself to its political aspect). It has given us food banks, needle exchanges, subsidized housing, and a whole slough of feel-good programs and policies meant as a safety net for those who fall through the cracks of the system.

But today, I want to take a look at what liberalism would look like if, instead of focusing on someone’s economic standing, it focused on, say, their race.

Come with me on a whimsical journey to a magical fantasy world rife with racism and prejudice. The liberal think-tank would come up with these great solutions to fight this racism, like maybe some support groups for individuals who suffer from it. We could have AA meetings but for people suffering from racial discrimination. They could talk about their feelings, and find comfort in each other’s stories. Maybe there could be policies enacted that would enable people of colour to collect a stipend every month to cover the difference between their paycheque and the paycheques of their white coworkers. Liberalism would nurture racialized minorities and help them live with the racism that affects their lives daily.

However, the generally agreed upon solution towards racism isn’t to help racialized minorities cope with systemic and individual racism. It is to eliminate racism. It seems so obvious to eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other forms of oppression that still afflict our society today, but the answers for poverty are prevalently liberalized solutions that treat symptoms, and try desperately to ignore the root problems that cause it in the first place.

Why not, instead of helping those who fall through the cracks, we fill in the cracks and prevent anyone from falling through in the first place? It’s our goal for most progressive movements, but when it comes to economic oppression, there is massive resistance.

Is it because eliminating racism is easier than eliminating poverty? I’ve been told that poverty is a necessary evil in order for a society to function. This is part of the Monetarist theory that currently runs the economy of our country: in order to keep inflation in check, there must be a certain amount of unemployment to keep the value of our dollar marketable. However, that is just a theory, and there are alternate theories which disagree. Keynesians believe that if everyone has jobs, then everyone has money, and if everyone has money, then everyone is putting money into the economy. And while Keynesian economics might not be the absolute solution to poverty, it does show that poverty does not have to be a necessary byproduct of a healthy society.

Others might think that poverty is not an oppression; it is the fault of the individual. Despite how prevalent this attitude is, I sincerely hope that I was able to convincingly refute it in this previous blog post: https://blogforchumps.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/the-clarity-of-the-merciless/ The short version is that poverty is not the fault of the individual, and is more often than not the failure of the system.

Still others argue that in order for better policies to be enacted, taxes would need to be raised, and if taxes were raised, then businesses would flee because to them, money is worth more than their community. With businesses gone, there are no jobs, and nobody paying taxes, and therefore no money for social programs anyway. While this idea is debatable, and maybe worth a blog post in itself, the main question that it always raises for me is why are we as a society consigning ourselves to the whims of the worst of us? Do we really want a society that is dependent on those who do not care for that society?

So please. Liberals. Continue to think that poverty is bad, and that something needs to be done to fix it, but come up with better solutions than coping mechanisms, because that makes no God damn sense.

Post-Script: If you like pretty pictures and eccentric Slovenians, you can watch this video here which has a similar theme:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g