I’m not really one for reading political philosophy. In the eternal debate of theory v. praxis, I fall so far on the praxis side that I’m perpetually at risk of falling off the ledge. But it’s true, one should read some theory from time to time, and since Žižek is so often discussed in leftist circles, when I found myself taking shelter from the rain in the English section of a Roman bookstore with nothing to read, I decided to pick up Like a Thief in Broad Daylight, Žižek’s 2018 evaluation of “the Left” in reflection of ascending technocapitalism.
The thing about Žižek is that sometimes he absolutely nails some points, and then as soon as you’ve found yourself nodding along in agreement, he comes out with the most incredible head-ass take you’ve seen in a while. I’ll save the exposition: I loved his assessment of the left’s failure to materialize true revolutionary change, his presentation of the paradoxes of the far right (for instance, “Islamophobic respect for Islam”), and his clearheaded assessment of how choosing candidates like Macron simply reaffirm the creation of the conditions that allow the fascist right to emerge. I will spend more of my time here focusing on his ridiculous positions on identity politics, Charlottesville, and the anarchist left.
It’s pretty hard actually to read anything substantial of politics in the Trump era without a mention of Unite the Right, and without fail Žižek wades into these waters. He begins with a discussion of how the “Liberal left” spent a not insignificant amount of time rehabilitating the image of Robert E. Lee and praises John Brown. He’s not incorrect here, morally or factually, although the breadth of his characterization of “the Left,” which ranges from Clintonite liberals to radical Marxist-Leninists, is so puzzling that it took my eyebrow three days to fall back into its proper place. Žižek then quotes Jamil Khader who states, “[Trump’s] points about violence on ‘many sides’ and that there were ‘some very fine people on both sides’ are symptomatic of the same humanist strategies that liberals and leftists had used during the culture and canon wars to relativize conflicts…” Žižek doesn’t present any understanding of the anarchist or antifascist left in this book, though he positions himself as he does. The real issues are both simpler and more complex than what he argues. But I suspect this is a difficulty in trying to observe the left from 30,000 feet as he does; to my knowledge, Žižek isn’t in any of the group chats, or maybe I’m simply not cool enough to be in the ones he’s in.
Žižek presents this as a form of “multiculturalism,” essentially arguing that Trump’s comments emerge from a centrist fixed mindset which insists that both sides have valid and valuable perspectives, and sides emerge simply as differences of opinion arising from differing perspectives on the same problem. He argues, “[w]hat lurks beneath the fight for statues of Lee is simply the refusal to bring the American revolution to an end.” He connects this to a claim that “Jefferson is an important link in the chain of modern emancipatory struggles.” (He does acknowledge Jefferson as a slave owner).
There are two problems in this. First of all, I was fucking there, man. Our fight for statues had nothing to do with the American revolution, not even in the abstract sense. The fight for the statues had nothing to do with Jeffersonian ideals; if we had our way, we’d be tearing down the Jefferson statue before the Rotunda, too. Second, which left’s response? Do we discount the left in Charlottesville, who started this fight, fought this fight, and continue this fight? Or does that simply get erased in some kind of insistence to glue this to some broader post-Marxist confusion? Žižek’s question in this book is whether we can continue to act local while thinking global, but he doesn’t seem to know what acting local actually looks like, nor does he accept that sometimes, “the Left” thinks local, too. What we did in Charlottesville does not belong to some sort of revolutionary leftist struggle to any degree more than what we want it to be.
The gap in Žižek’s reasoning is so large that the Ever Given could sail through without difficulty. It reflects his disdain for identity politics. Look, mea culpa in contributing to a particularly insipid form of identity politics in the vaguely post-2014ish era, and I agree with much of Žižek’s and the radical left’s disdain for identity politics as a liberalizing force that suppresses revolutionary ideals. But through his rambling discourse, which detours through La La Land and Black Panther, trying to shoehorn more contemporary trends into a broader political discourse (while Black Panther remains beloved, La La Land has had little lasting cultural impact), he swings and misses at the Me Too movement.
He aims particularly intensely at a “trend” of creating sexual contracts as a form of consent negotiation, elevating this concept to a level much higher than it ever really reached. (I am sure some people have attempted to create sexual contracts, including on the blockchain, but plenty of feminist writers have thoroughly dismantled the idea as meaningful or practical, and I need not cover it here). Žižek here invents a thing to get mad at, and then gets mad at it. It gets worse when he describes an example of some women at a college pool who were being sexually harassed by construction workers working next door. The solution was to put a divider between the construction site and the pool, exemplifying what he considers a class divide and also a victory for identity politics in the battle against class struggle. His argumentation was that it was “obvious” that the women were predominantly offended because their harassers were hispanic, working class people. This implication is disgusting at its core.
Žižek argues against the popular social justice idea that only people of X class can speak on issues that pertain to X, saying that it is only trivially philosophically true that, e.g. trans people can speak to trans experience. To some extent I agree, and I am rather frustrated myself by the way that individual identity axes override what should be intersectional discussions, examples of which I will not provide to avoid further discursive discombobulation, but Žižek misses the power dynamics of the issue. The problem is not that cisgender people are unable to speak on transgender issues. The problem is that cisgender people are speaking to cisgender policymakers on transgender issues and depressing transgender concerns to a second class right, one that can be resolved if and only if all cisgender concerns are perfectly managed. The problem is cisgender people don’t know what the fuck they are talking about, and never step back and shut up.
Any 21st century revolutionary struggle is going to have to respect the civil rights struggles and the multiculturalism that the liberal state has set the groundwork for. Marxist-Leninists can dream of recreating the gulags but the rest of us know that they’ll be populated by minorities just like the capitalist prisons of today. Žižek does accurately point out that the left has failed to materialize revolutionary change, and as long as class reductionists fail to mobilize people based on the things they care about, that revolutionary change will continue to fail. Like a Thief in Broad Daylight already feels dated and never did live up to its back-cover promise to explore “our brave new world of Big Tech, [where] work is automated and money melts into air.” I want to read that book. This wasn’t it.