Showing posts with label Intellectuals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Intellectuals. Show all posts

Monday, 22 July 2013

Zizek: How to Use Theory to Avoid Looking at Facts.

Zizek has written an LRB article on global protests and revolt entitled 'Trouble in Paradise'. It appeared on 18 July and did not consider the obvious fact that on July 2 the army gave a 48 hour ultimatum to Morsi that proceeded to turn into what it widely regarded as a military coup d'etat by July 4.

Zizek is rather like other radical theorists and revolutionary enthusiasts who seem to have remained silent about how the military takeover has affected the revolution. Chomsky has said nothing on this major development either because it is clearly popular in Egypt and this provides problems for positioning himself

Basically, these thinkers seem to be hedging their bets as they cannot be seen to back a military coup, regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as reactionary and having failed to deliver any real change and do not want to be seen as not backing the will of the people in the streets.

Zizek is in a pickle now because he has consistently and mechanically wrote off any attempt to separate the Islamist concept of radical change from the secular ones in Egypt. Back in 2011 he declared,
'The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society.'
Nothing has dimmed that enthusiasm for dismissing reality. Nor the fact Egyptian society is deeply divided culturally between protesters on the streets who support the Muslim Brotherhood and those who radical secularists who regard it as counter revolutionary.

The fallback option now in 2013 is to switch attention away from these awkward facts and repeat the theory that those who insist that the Egyptian revolt did reflect Egypt's particular history are effectively being the dreaded reactionaries.

So Zizek writes,
'In 2011, when protests were erupting across Europe and the Middle East, many insisted that they shouldn’t be treated as instances of a single global movement.'
And,
' It is easy to see how such a particularisation of protest appeals to defenders of the status quo: there is no threat against the global order as such, just a series of separate local problems.'
Still there is no attempt to look at the obvious fact that in Egypt the street fights between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and those wanting him out was used by the army as a pretext to intervene on the side of those against Morsi to boot out an elected president.
'The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices.'
True, such as what challenge is posed by the fact that many in Egypt clearly think the revolution has been saved by the intervention of the military whereas others who went on the streets two years before are now back on them fuming that their revolution has been stolen from them.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Empty Posturing : Chomsky and Zizek.

'What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing....Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying'. Noam Chomsky on Zizek


'I remember when he defended this demonisation of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: “no this is western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the universe and so on, his defence was quite shocking for me. It was that “no, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know” but I totally reject this line of reasoning'. Slavoj Zizek on Chomsky.

A spat between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek has apparently broken out. Though of almost no importance to most people-and Chomsky has not really argued with Zizek but merely dismissed him as not having anything of importance to say-those who regard them as gurus do seem to think it is important.

However, both Chomsky and Zizek have something in common: they attempt as intellectuals to reach a broad audience by providing those disillusioned with the way the world is with a way to rationalise global problems as mostly, if not wholly, the fault of the West. By realising this, 'we' can change the world for better.

Even so, Chomsky's books are always interesting for those too lazy to glean the facts and interpret them for themselves in the manner Chomsky does. To a point he does teach scepticism and how to challenge received opinions in the media ( or 'public diplomacy' ) especially in relation to foreign policy.

However, it is not really necessary to read more than a few of Chomsky's books. He repeats the same ideas about US Imperialism and the supposedly unmentionable horrors it perpetuates as being justified by the power of money, mandarins and the media in a way that seem rather commonplace now.

At least, that is the thrust of Zizek's challenge when he writes of Chomsky ( or 'critiques' him ) thus,
'His idea is today that cynicism of those in power is so open that we don't need any critique of ideology, you reach automatically between the lines, everything is cynically openly admitted, we just have to bring out the facts of people. Like ‘this company is profiting in Iraq’'
So basically Chomsky is a bit boring these days. For one such as Zizek, who wants to bandy about Theory and enthuse people-especially youth-towards a revolution, Chomsky seems to satisfy a market for smug know-it-alls whilst only Zizek can truly energise them.

The Stance on Egypt.

Indeed, it is noticeable that Chomsky has not yet taken a stance on the recent military takeover in Egypt as it is unclear what US policy is because Washington has no idea how to respond. Many radical leftists have backed the military takeover as a means to facilitate the ongoing unfinished secular revolution.

Chomsky lauded the Arab Spring of 2011 against Mubarak and pointed out he had been backed by the US and Britain. Neither of them have yet had any opinion of the military takeover of July 2013 because it does not fit the usual narrative that the US is to blame for suppressing a true revolution.

In fact, opinion is still divided as to whether the military takeover has snuffed out the revolution or is a stage in its unfolding or whether the military takeover is a coup or not. Maybe it is both. As for Zizek given how sanguine he was about the Arab Revolutions, the silence now may reflect the fact he got in wrong back then.

For in 2011 Zizek offered nothing of interest on Egypt either apart from the usual parochial European ideological perspectives about the 'revolution' conforming to a universal pattern that otherwise bored consumers could buy into. They could get excited about a revolution abroad applying to their own dull societies.
'The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society'.
That exalted claim has since been completely discredited by the course of events in Egypt. The uprising was particular to Egypt and its society has tended towards becoming more polarised in cultural terms by those wanting a secular version of revolution against a rival Islamist led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given that Chomsky has always been sympathetic to direct democracy and popular will in the developing world when it is directed against US backed governments that denied it, as was the case in Egypt before 2011, it seems curious that he too has no opinion on it as Washington itself is not explicitly taking sides.

Chomsky, Zizek and Cambodia.

Of course, Chomsky has no obligation to state an opinion on the military takeover in Egypt. It could be argued that he is waiting for the facts to come out before he declares his viewpoint upon it. And it is on that basis that Zizek attacked Chomsky for his position on the Khmer Rouge in the 1970.

It's more interesting that both Chomsky and Zizek have tended to view the Khmer Rouge according to their propaganda use. Unlike Chomsky, who first played down Khmer Rouge atrocities only to emphasise them  more later when the US cynically backed Pol Pot after 1979 as a counter to the Vietnamese, Zizek has in the past been more positive.
“The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.”
Whether the victims of Pol Pot's slave state thought the Khmer Rouge was a bit unenthusiastic about its revolutionary Year Zero project does not seem to have been factored in to this 'analysis'. And Zizek then thinks he has the moral high ground in accusing Chomsky of being wrong with regards Pol Pot.

The reason for that is it provides Zizek with a means to 'critique' the contradictions in Chomsky the better to advance himself as the Lodestar of True Revolution over his rival. To Zizek, Chomsky's lumbering attempts to get the facts led him to only change his mind when the facts of Pot Pot's mass killing came out.'
For example, concerning Stalinism. The point is not that you have to know, you have to photo evidence of Gulag or whatever. My God you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, of Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on there'.
Clearly, people do need to know the facts about the Gulag and the actual history of the Khmer Rouge as well as taking in the nature of the pathological 'public discourse'. Yet to both Zizek and Chomsky the main issue has always been to fit the facts to the prescriptions of a creed of revolutionary hope for Westerners.

As regards a catastrophe such as Cambodia in the 1970s, there is something callous and slightly sinister about seizing on the nature of Pol Pot's regime to make partisan polemical points as opposed to understanding how a complex variety of factors allowed such a calamity to occur.

It also should be said that one important factor behind the Khymer Rouge was the influence of violent radical Western revolutionary ideas of the same kidney that Zizek is offering. Indeed, along with another theorist, Alain Badiou,  Zizek extols the emancipatory terror of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

At least Chomsky has never actively lauded totalitarian regimes as opposed to simply regarding them as a distraction from the question at hand; that citizens in a Western democracy are confronted by the need to do something about the 'imperialism' of their states.

Even so, while Chomsky clearly never supported Pol Pot he did seek to discredit eyewitness reports and journalism on the ground from those such as Francois Ponchard. Chomsky's propaganda was demolished with precision by Bruce Sharp in Averaging Wrong Answers:Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.

If there is anything to be learned from these sorts of 'intellectual' poses it is this-if revolutions, revolts and uprisings are deemed to be good or bad only depending on whether the US supports or opposes them, then what Chomsky has to say or not is of little importance.

That is why it is curious that so many look up to him as some sort of infallible guru. The same is true of Zizek. It is easier to criticise Zizek because he spouts jargon. It is harder to criticise Chomsky because it is interpreted as always just a means of defending the credibility of the US establishment.

Friday, 22 October 2010

John Gray on the Con-Dem Coalition Government

As always John Gray has the most incisive viewpoint on British political economy and the illusions sustaining the notion that the recovery from the economic crash of 2008 is over or that there will not be radical upheaval in coming years.

Writing in the LRB, ( Progressive, like the 1980s, October 21 2010 ), Gray claims that there is nothing surprising in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government's neoliberal policies of "rolling back the state" but that events and the possibility of political upheaval could lead them to start to increase the powers of the state again.

The forthright support for George Osborne's policy of huge cuts coming from Clegg was not merely part of a political strategy.

On the contrary, it was inherent in the neoliberal creed outlined in the Orange Book in 2004 with its ideological belief in decoupling radical free market ideas from social conservatism and social democracy

The aim of the contributors was to reaffirm a version of liberalism they believed had been lost: one in which support for small government and the free market goes with a strong commitment to civil liberties and freedom of lifestyle.

This strand of liberalism was mistakenly discredited, they argued, when Thatcher attempted to link the free market with social conservatism.

The Orange Book liberals were avowedly anti-conservative. The principal target of their critique of British politics was not the free-market right, however, but the powerful social democratic strand in their own party.

Gone by 2008 was the old liberal belief that the state had a role to insulate and protect the public from the effects of an unfettered free market,society would be subjected to it in order to guarantee the best possible outcomes
Clegg never "sold out": his neoliberal vision was plainly laid out in the Orange Book long before the crash .
What Clegg and his fellow market liberals were engineering was a fundamental reorientation in the party’s values.

Instead of the type of liberalism exemplified by Hobhouse and Keynes, which accepted that the market had to be curbed when it failed to benefit society, the party was sold a liberalism in which the market became the benchmark by which society would be judged.
Rather than being assessed according to standards of freedom and equality, the market became the fundamental norm from which any departure would in future have to be justified.
Gray claims that the consequence of this follows on from the general decline in politics, from one where large parties with a wider membership and institutions of civil society could affect policy, into an oligarchical elite of cliques and micromanaging elites which have more in common with each other than the sale of different political brands suggests.
The hollowing out of parties continued with the rise of New Labour, which was invented by fewer than a dozen people who turned a mass political organisation into a vehicle for the Blair/Brown project of market-friendly modernisation.

As in the 18th-century elite politics analysed by Lewis Namier, British politics today is shaped by a handful of closely related people. The prosaic reality underlying the media romance of sibling rivalry between the Milibands and marital disharmony in the Balls family is competition within this small group.

If the coalition is a novelty in British politics, there is nothing that is remotely new in its ruling ideas....

Both Cameron and Clegg have insisted that moving away from state provision is not just a matter of saving money: the result, they say, will be services that are more responsive to personal choice.

It is true that injecting markets into public services may not save any money; the large changes that are being rapidly introduced in the NHS may end up creating a service that is significantly more costly.

This only confirms that the coalition is ideologically driven. It may believe that it is responding pragmatically, but its view of things is shaped by the ideas of the 1980s: ideas that in many respects lag behind events, and which the coalition may yet be forced to discard.

This is as true in global politics. As far as the USA's prospects are concerned Gray has little reason to think that its decline will be prevented. Events have moved away from the USA and European nations such as Britain calling the shots or having a "progressive future" guaranteed.

Nor will the neoliberal state rejuvenate them vis-a vis the Chinese challenge any more than the way China has embarked on massive industrialisation mean that it is needs to "liberalise". It was by rejecting the IMF and Western advice, the "Washington Consensus" that it has the economic and political power it has now.

The US has been pursuing a Keynesian-style programme of monetary stimulus, which looks like being continued in another round of quantitative easing – QE2, as it is sometimes called.

Whether or not the stimulus will be large enough (some ultra-Keynesians doubt this), it will not be accompanied by any coherent action on the federal deficit. The collapse in Obama’s popularity is likely to result in the Democrats losing control of one or both branches of Congress.

Trapped by its archaic and dysfunctional system of government, the US will then be gridlocked. The global economy will continue to drift, and any recovery in Britain will fall away.

As a consequence of the financial crisis, the market-based globalisation of the past couple of decades is giving way to a model in which states are the principal actors. Chinese state capitalism has weathered the global crisis better than any market liberal economy and even Russia is less burdened by debt.

After the implosion of the American financial system emerging economies need no longer submit to the dictates of a ‘Washington consensus’ that was never implemented in Washington. It might be thought that the current phase of globalisation would allow a greater degree of international co-operation.

In some ways, however, this new phase is more disorderly. The retreat of American power has left the world without a functioning monetary regime.

Economic imbalances are surfacing in geopolitical rivalries and currency wars, and it is unclear how these conflicts will develop. What is evident is that the era in which states were ready to surrender control of their economies to market forces is over.

The postwar welfare state may be history, but governments cannot risk leaving their populations without a shelter against chaos. If social democracy is not a viable option, neither is market liberalism.

International situation pertains towards diminished influence and economic stagnation, then the domestic consequences look no less stark.

The Conservative Liberal democrat Coalition's neoliberal policies are a gamble and could merely intensify the crash that was determined in its intensity and by New Labour's irresponsibility and attempt to substitute public spending with easy loans and borrowing beyond one's means.

A roll-back of the state of the magnitude that the coalition envisages will leave people more exposed to the turbulence of world markets than they have been for generations. Inevitably, they will seek protection.

The prosperity enjoyed by the majority of those in Britain in the decade leading up to the crash was largely an illusion.

Debt-fuelled consumption masked the full extent of the increase in inequality, while the casualisation of sections of the labour force concealed the real scale of unemployment.

Reining back welfare benefits and shedding labour in the public sector as the government intends will only make the drop in living standards that is now unavoidable larger and more painful.

There is much talk of the coalition’s lack of ‘narrative of growth’ to complement the need for retrenchment, but in these circumstances its lack of any convincing narrative of fairness may be more disabling.

In the terms of The Orange Book, condemning the pattern of incomes that emerges from the market as unfair is a category mistake; there is no standard of fairness independent of the market. There is plainly some awareness of this difficulty in the government.

In his conference speech Cameron defended the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners on the ground that it is fairer if this group makes a larger contribution towards cutting the deficit.

At the same time some ministers (including Clegg) have defended dismantling the public sector with the claim that those who work in it enjoy unfair privileges.

Public sector pensions are singled out for particular criticism because they provide a degree of protection against the risks of the market that is no longer available to the rest of the population: fairness requires that everyone be subject to the same insecurity.

Since the result is to place the settled middle-class life to which many people still aspire beyond reach, it is hard to see this view having much traction.


There will be no easy ending to the consequences of the economic crash.

With the possibility of a double dip recession, the capacity for discontent, an upsurge in far right radicalism and violence cannot be discounted. That is what happens when politicians and the public collude in a vast fantasy of debt fuelled growth and living on the tick.