“Confronting the Desire for Development,” Global Development Primer (GDP) podcast with Dr. Robert Huish, December 28, 2020
Book Launch: “Confronting Desire: Psychoanalysis and International Development.” PANELISTS: Maria Eriksson Baaz, Gavin Fridell, Ilan Kapoor, Philip Kelly. November 19, 2020
David Morrison Lecture in International Development, Trent University, October 3, 2019
Kapuscinski Development Lecture delivered at the University of Vienna, May 12, 2015
February 19, 2014, On Vidoyen.com
The Promises and Pitfalls of “Occupy Wall Street”:
Three lessons we can learn from radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek
Ilan Kapoor, October 14, 2011, Toronto
Occupy Wall Street started as a small protest movement at Zuccotti Park in New York on September 17, but has now grown into a global movement, with demonstrations happening in cities ranging from Seoul to Toronto. One of the key intellectual figures associated with the movement is Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian social critic who has come to be known as “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.”
Žižek’s unique mix of radical politics and popular culture, drawing as much on Marx and Lacan as The Matrix and (dirty) jokes, has made him into a formidable media star and global public intellectual. Not content with just writing books (over fifty to date) or articles (many in the popular press), he gives hundreds of public lectures around the world (check them out on YouTube), and frequently appears on such media outlets as Democracy Now, the BBC and Al-Jazeera. Most recently, he addressed protestors at Zuccotti Park, joining the likes of social critic Naomi Klein.
The following is my take on three of Žižek’s key arguments, emphasizing the promises and pitfalls of contemporary social protest as embodied by Occupy Wall Street.
1. The need for a Left political program
While Occupy Wall Street does not yet have any clear demands or program, Žižek thinks it is crucial that these be clearly articulated as the movement develops globally. What binds the movement, and must continue to do so, is its uncompromising Left politics, committed to (non-violent) civil disobedience and critical of a global capitalist system that is unequal and undemocratic (represented symbolically by Wall Street). The protestors’ catchy slogan, “We are the 99%,” is meant precisely to communicate the struggle against the powerful 1% who make up the corporate, media and political elites.
But Žižek warns against falling into the trap of several other recent social uprisings. The fatal flaw of the UK rioters this past August, for example, was that they had no political message. The riots, according to him, were caused by deep underlying social problems (high inner-city youth unemployment, police harassment and racism, recent cuts to social services); yet they amounted to a “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing.” Instead of opposing the social system, they mostly deteriorated into looting of consumer goods (iPods, TVs, stereos), thereby ironically affirming capitalism and consumerist desire (Žižek entitled his London Review of Books article on this topic, “Shoplifters of the World Unite”!).
Žižek is more optimistic about the Arab Spring, although he sees many of these struggles now faltering. The protests in Egypt, for instance, were a huge victory over authoritarianism and crony capitalism, according to him. But while the initial revolution, led mainly by a disparate and secular Left, had tremendous emancipatory potential, it appears of late to have been hijacked by the army and Islamist groups, amid a deteriorating economic situation.
2. An alternative IS possible
Žižek is adamant that an alternative to capitalist liberal democracy is imaginable, and that we should not be fooled into thinking otherwise. He says that, on the one hand, we in the West live in societies where everything seems possible. In the domain of technology or sexuality, for instance, you can travel to the moon, become immortal through biogenetics, and freely engage in sex of all kinds. On the other hand, in the domain of society and economy, “almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich; they tell you it’s impossible [because we] lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, [but] they tell you, ‘impossible; this means a totalitarian state.’ There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare.” It seems easier to imagine the end of the world through ecological catastrophe than conceive of an end to global capitalism.
Yet, the current global financial crisis has laid bare once again the inherent problems of our economic system — its production of huge inequalities and unevenness, and its tendency to benefit those already in power (banks, speculators, corporate and political elites), at the expense of everyone else. The challenge, according to Žižek, is to use this opportunity to oppose capitalism, without falling into various traps.
One trap is the tendency to lay blame on individuals or personal values, instead of structural processes. “Remember,” declares Žižek, “the problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt.” Another trap is that our criticisms of capitalism will allow the Right to blackmail us, saying we are violent and against democracy. But, Žižek states, “we are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself … They say we don’t respect private property, but in the 2008 financial crash, more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks.”
We should not, then, let our choices be dictated to us by our opponents, according to Žižek. Instead, we have to think hard about what social organization can replace capitalism, and what type of new leaders are required. While deeply opposed to the authoritarian Communism of Soviet Russia and current-day China, Žižek stands for a re-worked and radically democratic Communism, one that is committed to a collective project and “cares for the commons.” He affirms that the “only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.”
3. We must make and sustain the revolution ourselves
Žižek insists that, if there is to be a revolution, we must do it ourselves, rather than “outsourcing” it. He takes to task the tendency by many current protestors in Greece to exert pressure on their political parties to carry out change. The same apples to Spain’s indignados, that brings together Left and Right for an “ethical revolution,” but a revolution addressed not to the people, but to Spain’s existing political elites. Both movements, for Žižek, are cases of expressing a “spirit of revolt without revolution”; both mistakenly believe that meaningful change can come from the very elites who have been the obstacles to change.
Žižek’s implication is that it is the people themselves who must make the revolution: “After outsourcing work and torture, after marriage agencies are now outsourcing our love life, we can see that for a long time, we have allowed our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back.”
His further implication is that the Occupy Wall Street protests are only the very beginning. The hard work for change happens in the days ahead. “There is a danger,” hewarns. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We’ll have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives.” And he continues: “The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering ‘What a nice time we had here.’ Promise yourselves that this will not be the case.”
Video of Žižek speaking at Occupy Wall Street: http://www.thepaltrysapien.com/2011/10/slavoj-zizek-at-occupy-wall-street/
The above Žižek quotes come from three sources: (i) transcript of Žižek speaking at Occupy Wall Street: http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/slavoj-zizek-at-occupy-wall-street-transcript; (ii) S. Žižek, “Shoplifters of the world unite,” London Review of Books, 19 Aug, 2011, http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite; and (iii) S. Žižek, On Violence: six sideways reflections, New York: Picador, 2008.
To Vote or Not to Vote?
Why the “Crisis of Democracy” Should Give Us Pause
Published on straighgoods.ca, 25 April, 2011
So here we are with yet another election on our doorstep, the fourth in seven years. Once again, we have to put up with all those electioneering rituals — speeches, debates, prognostications, polls, media spin, political advertising. Yet, I wonder if voting is the right thing to do this time. Not just because of voter fatigue, but mostly because of what many have called the “crisis” of present-day liberal democracy.
Over the last two decades particularly, liberal democracies around the world have witnessed notable public dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. The most obvious sign is low voter turnout at elections. In post-War Canada, voter turnout at federal elections used to be quite robust (close to 80% in the late 1950s and early 1960s), but has gradually declined, especially since the early 1990s, reaching a historic low of 58.8% in the latest election in 2008. Turnout among young voters aged 18 to 24 has been particularly low. Similar trends have been recorded in the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Japan.
But there are several other signs of political unease as well. One is the call for a movement away from the “first-past-the-post” electoral system towards a system of proportional representation. The former tends to favour large regional parties (e.g. the Bloc Québecois) at the expense of smaller nationally based ones (e.g. the Green Party or the NDP). Proportional representation, it is argued, would produce a fairer result by better reflecting the diversity of Canada’s political interests.
But perhaps the most telling symptom of the democratic malaise is the rise of popular protest and social movements. Across all liberal democracies without exception, the last three decades have seen citizen groups organizing to protest over a range of issues — climate change, globalization, economic policy, gay and lesbian rights, gender equality, anti-racism, military intervention. What these movements tell us is that our competitive party system is failing us. Political parties may provide us with choices, but these choices are now looking increasingly limited. More and more, it seems, parties are beset with financial and political scandals, their platforms and leaders out of touch and often indistinguishable. The result is their increasing lack of accountability, and their neglect and exclusion of key social issues and debates. Hence the need for, and rise of, popular protest movements.
This crisis of democracy appears to suggest, not its dismantling, but the need for its extension. Several possibilities in this direction have been advanced over the years, too many to enumerate here, but a few include: complementing electoral representation with “functional representation,” so that not just political parties but social and community organizations (e.g. NGOs, environmental movements, parent-teacher associations) have a political voice; or instituting more workplace democracy or cooperative and worker management schemes to increase economic accountability and representation. While not without their own risks and dangers (e.g. how do we ensure the internal accountability of the NGOs themselves?), such moves would help make our national political institutions more accountable by better reflecting and representing our economic needs and social and cultural diversity.
So where does this leave me on the decision to vote at the next election? One option is to register a protest vote by either spoiling my ballot or not voting at all. But such an option would only be effective if many of my fellow citizens did the same (thus making it a visible act of protest), and if we did so in an organized fashion (thus making it clearly readable as dissent against our failing democracy). There are many dangers here, the most important of which is that political disaffection from the Left may end up, and often has ended up, profiting the Right.
The other option is to vote for the party that is most likely to initiate meaningful democratic reform. The NDP has been a strong supporter of proportional representation (so has the Green Party, to some extent), although it has not yet made the issue central to its electoral platform. Perhaps this is because the move towards proportional representation, recently put to a referendum and defeated in several provinces (Ontario, P.E.I and B.C.), appears to have disappeared from the national political agenda. Hopefully, the NDP will revive the idea, and rather than catering to the national mood, will lead by educating people about the importance of democratic reform.
But voting for democratic change will not likely be enough. Fundamental political change needs to happen, and most likely always has happened, from outside the political mainstream. Which is why critique and social protest must continue unabated if we are to move towards a more just and accountable democracy.
Voter Turnout Information in Canada and the World:
– Elections Canada: http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=ele&dir=turn&document=index&lang=e
– Conference Board of Canada: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/society/voter-turnout.aspx
Proportional Representation in Canada: http://www.cpj.ca/en/content/winds-change-proportional-representation-canada
B.C. Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform: http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public