Posts Tagged ‘Slavoj Žižek’

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“Formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates.

— Slavoj Žižek, On Belief

The novel coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how shallow and restricted the notion of formal freedom is in the United States.

After years of pretending that private healthcare and health insurance expanded the freedom of individual choice, even with the changes introduced by Obamacare, the existing health system has failed to protect most Americans from the ravages of the disease. Right now, with over 2 million confirmed cases and over 100 thousand deaths, the United States has over one quarter of the world’s cases and fatalities. And the numbers continue to rise in many states, with the forced reopening of businesses.

Yes, in recent years, Americans have been able to choose to work at a job and use their employer-provided health benefits or to purchase health insurance on state exchanges, thereby dramatically lowering the number of uninsured people. But they haven’t been able to choose what kind of health system they want, how they want their healthcare to be provided. As a result, the existing—understaffed and underfunded—public health system, in the midst of an obscenely unequal economy and society, has been unable to effectively confront the spread of COVID-19.

hertz

It’s that same formal freedom that allows investors to purchase stocks, including equity shares in Hertz, which just happens to have entered bankruptcy protection in late May. Between the 3 and 8 June, Hertz’s stock exploded in price. During that week, it increased to $5.53 per share, from 82 cents, a preposterous rise of nearly seven times—apparently just one example of a more general “flight to crap” in U.S. stock markets. And just to highlight the absurdity of what freedom means in the United States, the nation’s second-largest car-rental agency filed with the Securities and Exchange commission to sell up to $500 million worth of new shares—shares that would likely be rendered worthless after creditors are paid off—in a move that was approved by the federal judge in Delaware overseeing the Hertz bankruptcy case. (And then, just yesterday, Hertz reversed course and decided to pull the plug on the deal.)

And it’s the freedom aircraft manufacturer Boeing relied on in late April to raise $25 billion by selling bonds to investors, to avoid taking aid from the federal government, and then a month later to fire 6,770 workers (part of its plan to reduce a total of 16 thousand jobs).

Meanwhile, employers and the White House (including Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia) are clamoring for businesses to be allowed the freedom to reopen. But they’re worried unemployed workers, who have received supplemental benefits as a result of the CARES act, will not want to return to work under with the risk of becoming infected with the virus. So, they’ve announced both that the extra $600 “disincentive” for people to return to work will be allowed to expire at the end of July and that any workers who refuse to be called back to work will lose their unemployment payments.

Clearly, employers’ freedom to reopen their businesses is coming at the expense of workers’ freedom to stay home during the pandemic. And that’s the limit of formal freedom under capitalism—the kind of fundamental clash during which it is possible to begin to exercise an actual freedom of reimagining and reinventing the rules of economic and social organization.

Thus far, however, we haven’t seen much in the way of actual freedom in the economic sphere. Massive unemployment, and therefore the unremitting pressure on all workers, both those with jobs and those without, will do that. But we might just be witnessing such a site in the other fundamental clash currently taking place, the one that arose in response to the recent murders of George FloydAhmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

The first demand of the Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, freedom from police violence. It’s a freedom enumerated in the Constitution (in the Fourteenth Amendment) but undermined and subverted by the systemic racism that historically and still today has haunted the administration of justice in the United States—by both the police and the courts.

The pandemic has also highlighted—and further exacerbated—the obscene racial inequalities that characterize the American economy and society. For example, black Americans are dying from Covid-19 at three times the rate of white people. And while unemployment has skyrocketed for black and white workers in the COVID-19 labor market, the unemployment rate is much higher for black workers, which has in turn worsened the already-high income and benefits gaps between white and black workers.

As it turns out, the Black Lives Matter movement was already, back in 2016, thinking beyond police violence. As Robin G. D. Kelley explained, the organization is invested in a structural overhaul of the American system that oppresses most people. Its demands therefore include

ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy.

That’s more than a laundry list of demands or a simple political platform (like those of the Democratic and Republican parties). It’s a vision of economic and social transformation that will produce deep structural changes—for black communities and for all Americans. In other words, it aspires to an enactment of actual freedom that questions the existing coordinates of power relations in the United States (and around the world).

The Black Lives Matter movement infuses the current protests—indeed, the multiracial national uprising we’re witnessing across the country—with the potential of becoming the most recent in the tradition of real progressive social movements which, as Kelley explained in his 2002 book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,

do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to imagine a new society.

It’s only a possibility, at this stage—the potential of moving beyond a formal freedom from fear to an actual freedom of redrawing the existing boundaries of the economy and society, by generating radically new questions, theories, and knowledges. It’s a freedom that can only be produced by a combination of ruthless critical thinking and collective political activity.

It’s a freedom that allows us—indeed, compels us—to imagine a new society.

The current situation in Greece appears hopeless. After two European bailouts and five years of Draconian austerity measures, which have left much of Greece in tatters, the Syriza-led government has been forced to accept a third bailout and the imposition of new austerity measures, which will only continue the current depression and leave the country with no real prospects of repaying the accumulation of new debts.

If that’s not a hopeless situation, I don’t know what is.

But Slavoj Žižek [ht: db] invokes Giorgio Agamben to the effect that “thought is the courage of hopelessness.”

The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

I think Žižek is right, although Marx may have put it even better: “You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it, this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope.”

Marx (in a May 1843 letter) was responding to Arnold Ruge, who had expressed a resigned certainty that there could be no popular revolution in Germany. Marx then proceeds to demonstrate how we need to “start all over again”—by studying the philistine “lords of the world” (“lords of the world only in the sense that they fill it with their presence, as worms fill a corpse”), who wallow in “their passive and thoughtless existence.” Marx concludes with the hope that the “enemies of philistinism, i.e., all thinking and suffering people” will eventually arrive at a critical understanding of the old order, which will serve to create a fundamental rupture within existing society and usher in a new one.

The same task has to be taken up today in Greece and, even more so, Europe. Each day we learn more (e.g., thanks to Neil Irwin and others) about how Germany prevailed in the negotiations over Greece in the most recent bailout—and how the rest of Europe (from Lisbon to Latvia) accepted and reinforced the terms of the deal.

The temerity of the Greek government was to challenge the idea that “business as usual”—strict adherence to the existing rules and procedures, from bankers’ dress codes and polite public pronouncements to suggestions (by, among others, Slovenian Finance Minister Dusan Mramor and Wolfgang Schäuble) that the only way the mounting debt could be written down was for Greece to “temporarily” leave the euro zone—would solve the existing problems in Greece and the other austerity-ravaged countries in Europe.

In the end, of course, the Greeks lost. Thus, they have been forced to cobble together parliamentary votes that roll back some of the anti-austerity measures adopted by Syriza since assuming power in January, in addition to levying higher taxes and renewing the program to privatize state assets—just to fend off a liquidity crisis in the banking sector and then to enter into a new round of negotiations over the exact terms of the bailout.

The current situation does, indeed, appear hopeless.

However, in challenging the terms of the bailout—first, in supporting the “no” vote in the 5 July referendum and, then, in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s statements that his government would not implement reform measures beyond those agreed with lenders at the euro zone summit this month—the Greek government has come to represent all the “thinking and suffering people” of Europe and to expose the “passive and thoughtless existence” that characterizes the “lords of the world” who currently reign on that continent.

It is one moment in a long process that is showing the world how the current system cannot solve the problems it has created.

That, perhaps, should fill us with hope.

Syria-news 9-3-13-2

Clearly, many more Americans have begun to follow closely the war in Syria (thereby giving lie to the idea that Americans just don’t care)—and most Americans are opposed to U.S. airstrikes there (which, at leaset thus far, actually seems to be having an effect on their congressional representatives).

The problem is, Americans are being presented with a false choice—not unlike the false choice I suggested was being presented in Egypt.

Slavoj Žižek [ht: ja] is one of the few commentators I’ve read who seem to understand this.

there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers (US and western Europe on the one side, Russia and China on the other). In such conditions, any direct military intervention means political madness with incalculable risks – say, what if radical Islamists take over after Assad’s fall? So will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaida and Taliban cadres?

In such a messy situation, military intervention can only be justified by a short-term self-destructive opportunism. The moral outrage evoked to provide a rational cover for the compulsion-to-intervene (“We cannot allow the use of poisonous gas on civil population!”) is fake. Faced with a weird ethics that justifies taking the side of one fundamentalist-criminal group against another, one cannot but sympathise with Ron Paul’s reaction to John McCain’s advocacy of strong intervention: “With politicians like these, who needs terrorists?”

The situation in Syria should be compared with the one in Egypt. Now that the Egyptian army has decided to break the stalemate and cleanse the public space of the Islamist protesters, and the result is hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead, one should take a step back and focus on the absent third party in the ongoing conflict: where are the agents of the Tahrir Square protests from two years ago? Is their role now not weirdly similar to the role of Muslim Brotherhood back then – that of the surprised impassive observers? With the military coup in Egypt, it seems as if the circle has somehow closed: the protesters who toppled Mubarak, demanding democracy, passively supported a military coup d’etat which abolished democracy … what is going on?

The millions of “impassive observers” in the case of Syria, about whom we should be concerned, are now being displaced and are being forced into the burgeoning refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Those are the places where a humanitarian intervention might actually be useful.

 

 

[ht: gh]

berlusconi_clown

In his most recent essay, Slavoj Žižek presents a bizarre (and, quite honestly, embarrassing) interpretation of the Khomeini revolution:

Now is the time to remember the effervescence that followed the revolution, the explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. That this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the revolution was an authentic political event, an opening that unleashed altogether new forces of social transformation: a moment in which ‘everything seemed possible.’

But he does offer some helpful insights about the clown prince of Italy:

Berlusconi is a significant figure, and Italy an experimental laboratory where our future is being worked out. If our political choice is between permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement has been to reconcile the two, to embody both at the same time. It is arguably this combination which makes him unbeatable, at least in the near future: the remains of the Italian ‘left’ are now resigned to him as their fate. This is perhaps the saddest aspect of his reign: his democracy is a democracy of those who win by default, who rule through cynical demoralisation.

Berlusconi acts more and more shamelessly: not only ignoring or neutralising legal investigations into his private business interests, but behaving in such a way as to undermine his dignity as head of state. The dignity of classical politics stems from its elevation above the play of particular interests in civil society: politics is ‘alienated’ from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of selfish interests that characterise the bourgeois. Berlusconi has effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the bourgeois, who openly exploits it as a means to protect his own economic interest, and who parades his personal life as if he were taking part in a reality TV show.