Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021) and Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide For The Non-Perplexed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

End of Ethics

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Ethical progress produces a beneficial form of dogmatism. A normal, healthy society does not debate whether rape and torture are acceptable, because the public “dogmatically” accepts that they are beyond the pale. By the same token, a society whose leaders speak of “legitimate rape” – as a former Republican congressman in the United States once did – or of tolerable torture is exhibiting clear signs of ethical decay, and previously unimaginable acts can quickly become possible.

Consider Russia today. In an unverified video that began circulating this month, a former mercenary from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group is accused of switching sides to “fight against the Russians,” whereupon an unidentified assailant smashes a sledgehammer into the side of the mercenary’s head. When asked to comment on the video – posted under the header “The hammer of revenge” – Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s founder and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, replied that, “A dog receives a dog’s death.” As many have observed, Russia’s behavior is now identical to that of the Islamic State.

Or, consider Russia’s increasingly close ally, Iran, where young girls who have been arrested for protesting the regime are reportedly being married off to prison guards and then raped, on the grounds that a minor cannot legally be executed if she is a virgin.

Or, consider Israel, which proudly presents itself as a liberal democracy, even though it has gradually come to resemble some of the other fundamentalist-religious countries in its neighborhood. The latest evidence of the trend is the news that Itamar Ben-Gvir will be a part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government. Before entering politics, Ben-Gvir was known to display a portrait in his living room of the Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in Hebron in 1994.

Netanyahu, who was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister before being ousted in June 2021, is fully implicated in this ethical decay. In 2019, the Times of Israel reports, he called “for a fight against rising Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism in Europe, hours after the [Israeli] government published a report that said the far-right posed the greatest threat to Jews on the continent.” Why does Netanyahu ignore far-right anti-Semitism? Because he relies on it. The Western new right may be anti-Semitic at home, but it also staunchly supports Israel, which it sees as one of the last remaining barriers against a Muslim invasion.

Unfortunately, all this is just one side of the story. Ethical decay is also increasingly apparent in the “woke” left, which has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant as it advocates permissiveness for all forms of sexual and ethnic identity – except one. The sociologist Duane Rousselle has characterized the new “cancel culture” as “racism in the time of the many without the One.” Whereas traditional racism vilifies the intruder who poses a threat to the unity of the One (the dominant in-group), the woke left want to do the same to anyone who has not fully abandoned all the One’s old categories of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. All sexual orientations and gender identities are now acceptable unless you are a white man whose gender identity corresponds with your biological sex at birth. Members of this cisgender cohort are enjoined to feel guilty just for what they are – for being “comfortable in their skin” – while all others (even cisgender women) are encouraged to be whatever they feel they are.

This “new woke order” is increasingly discernible in absurd real-world episodes. Just this month, the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania planned to sponsor a student-organized event for all those who are “tired of white cis men.” The plan was for attendees to “come paint & write about” their frustrations with “comfortable in skin” white men. Following an outcry and charges of racism, the event has since been postponed.

There is a paradox in how woke non-binary fluidity coincides with intolerance and exclusion. In Paris, the prestigious École Normale Supérieure is now debating a proposal to establish dormitory corridors reserved exclusively for individuals who have chosen mixity/diversity (mixité choisie) as their sexual identity, in order to exclude cisgender men. The proposed rules are strict: anyone not fitting the criteria would be prohibited from even setting foot in these corridors. And, of course, such rules would open a path to even tighter restrictions. For example, if enough individuals define their identity in even narrower terms, they presumably will be able to demand their own corridor.

Three features of this proposal are worth emphasizing: it excludes only cisgender men, not cisgender women; it is not based on any objective criteria of classification, but only on subjective self-designation; and it calls for further classificatory subdivisions. This last point is crucial, because it demonstrates how all the emphasis on plasticity, choice, and diversity ultimately leads to what can only be called a new apartheid – a network of fixed, essentialized identities.

Wokeism thus offers a quintessential study in how permissiveness becomes prohibition: under a woke regime, we never know if and when some of us will be canceled for something we have said or done (the criteria are murky), or for simply being born into the forbidden category.

Far from opposing the new forms of barbarism, as it often claims to be doing, the woke left fully participates in it, promoting and practicing an oppressive discourse without irony. Though it advocates pluralism and promotes difference, its subjective position of enunciation – the place from which it speaks – is ruthlessly authoritarian, brooking no debate in efforts to impose arbitrary exclusions that previously would have been considered beyond the pale in a tolerant, liberal society.

That said, we should bear in mind that this mess is largely confined to the narrow world of academia (and various intellectual professions like journalism), whereas the rest of society is moving more in the opposite direction. In the US, for example, 12 Republican senators voted this month with the Democratic majority to codify the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Cancel culture, with its implicit paranoia, is a desperate and obviously self-defeating attempt to compensate for the very real violence and intolerance that sexual minorities have long suffered. But it is a retreat into a cultural fortress, a pseudo-“safe space” whose discursive fanaticism merely strengthens the majority’s resistance to it.

This piece was originally published in Project Syndicate

The Ukraine Safari

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I don’t usually write about cultural products from my own country, but I must make an exception for Slovenian filmmaker Miran Zupanič’s new documentary Sarajevo Safari, which details one of the most bizarre and pathological episodes of the 1992-96 siege of the Bosnian capital.

It is well known that Serb snipers in the hills surrounding the city would arbitrarily shoot residents on the streets below, and that select Serb allies (mostly Russians) were invited to fire some shots of their own. Yet now we learn that this opportunity was provided not only as a gesture of appreciation but also as a kind of tourist activity for paying customers. Through “safaris” organized by the Bosnian Serb Army, dozens of rich foreigners – mostly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy, but also from Russia – paid top dollar for the chance to shoot at helpless civilians.

Consider the special form of subjectivity that such a safari would confer on the “hunter.” Though the victims were anonymous, this was no video game; the perverse thrill lay in the fact that it was real. And yet, by playing the “hunter,” these rich tourists, occupying a safe perch above the city, effectively excluded themselves from ordinary reality. For their targets, the stakes were life or death.

There is something perversely honest in this melding of reality and spectacle. After all, aren’t top politicians and corporate managers also engaged in a kind of safari? From their safe perch in the C-suite, executives often ruin many lives.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who now serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, recently imputed a similar logic to Western political leaders. Dismissing warnings by the US and NATO about the consequences of a Russian tactical nuclear strike, Medvedev argued that:

“[T]he security of Washington, London, Brussels is much more important for the North Atlantic Alliance than the fate of a dying Ukraine that no one needs. The supply of modern weapons is just a business for Western countries. Overseas and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse. Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”

Medvedev has also said that the Kremlin will “do everything” to prevent “hostile neighbors” like “Nazi Ukraine” from acquiring or hosting nuclear weapons, as this supposedly would pose an existential threat to the Russian state. But since it is Russia that is threatening Ukraine’s existence as a state, Medvedev’s logic dictates that Ukraine, too, should have arms – and even nuclear weapons – to achieve military parity.

Recall Putin’s own words this past June: “… there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called.” Since he obviously views Ukraine as a Russian colony, the West should not treat Ukraine as though it agreed with him. That means rejecting the idea that Western powers should bypass Ukraine and broker a settlement with Russia.

Unfortunately, many Western leftists have been playing directly into Putin’s hands on this issue. Consider Harlan Ullman of the Atlantic Council, who writes: “Clemenceau observed that ‘war is too important to be left to the generals.’ In this case, is Ukraine too important to be left to Zelensky? The US needs a strategy with an off-ramp to seek an end to the violence and the war.”

Leftists from Noam Chomsky to Jeffrey Sachs (not to mention the many Russia apologists on the right) have adopted similar positions. After first insisting that Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia, they now imply that it should not win, because that would leave Putin cornered and therefore dangerous.

But if we had followed the peaceniks’ advice and not sent arms to Ukraine, that country would now be fully occupied, its subjugation accompanied by far greater atrocities than those found in Bucha, Izium, and many other places.

A far better stance has been adopted by the German Greens, who advocate not only full support for Ukraine but also structural reforms to accelerate the transition away from oil and gas, which in turn will steer humanity away from catastrophic climate change. The rest of the Western left has been on safari, refusing an intervention that will challenge its established way of life.

Peaceniks argue that Russia needs a victory or concession that will allow it to “save face.” But that logic cuts both ways. Following Medvedev and Putin’s nuclear threats, it is Ukraine and the West that can no longer compromise and still save face. Recall that Medvedev predicted that the West would refuse to respond militarily to a Russian nuclear strike because it is too cowardly and greedy to do so.

Here, we enter the domain of philosophy, because Putin and Medvedev’s words clearly echo Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. If two self-consciousnesses are engaged in a life-or-death struggle, there can be no winner, because one will die and the victor will no longer have another self-consciousness around who can recognize its own self-consciousness. The entire history of human culture rests on the original compromise by which someone becomes the servant that “averts its eyes” to prevent mutual assured destruction.

Medvedev and Putin presume that the decadent, hedonist West will avert its eyes. And that brings us back to the dynamic captured in Sarajevo Safari. Privileged elites feel as though they can intervene in the real world in strategic ways that entail no personal danger. But reality catches up with everyone eventually. When it does, we must not heed the advice of those concerned only with not provoking the beast in the valley.

[This article was originally published in Project Syndicate. Click here to read the original ]

Women Emancipation

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Four events centering around women have made headlines over the past month: Giorgia Meloni’s electoral victory in Italy, Queen Elizabeth II’s death and funeral, the release of the film The Woman King, and the widespread protests in Iran following the killing of Mahsa Amini by the country’s morality police. Taken together, these four stories highlight essential features of the political terrain.

With the left failing to offer an adequate response to the crisis of liberal democracy, the rise of new right-wing governments in Europe is not particularly surprising. But women’s central role in this movement has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Right-wing leaders like Meloni and Marine Le Pen in France are presenting themselves as stronger alternatives to traditional mainstream masculine technocrats. They embody both right-wing hardness and features usually associated with femininity, such as a focus on care and the family: fascism with a human face.

Now consider the televised spectacle of Elizabeth II’s funeral, which highlighted an interesting paradox: as the British state has fallen ever further from its former superpower status, the British royal family’s ability to inspire imperial reveries has only grown. We should not dismiss this as ideology masking actual power relations. Rather, monarchical fantasies are themselves a part of the process whereby power relations reproduce themselves.

Elizabeth II’s death reminded us of the modern distinction between reigning and ruling, with the former being confined only to ceremonial duties. The monarch is expected to radiate compassion, kindness, and patriotism, and to stay out of political conflicts. As such, monarchs represent not the transcendence of ideology but rather ideology in its purest form. For seven decades, Elizabeth II’s role was to serve as the face of state power. The coincidence of her death with Prime Minister Liz Truss’s rise to power may have been highly contingent, but it was also deeply symbolic of the shift from Queen to Woman King. In her new role, Truss has partly preempted the left by mixing energy subsidies with tax cuts for the rich.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King also deals with the political logic of monarchy. A historical epic about the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, it stars Viola Davis as the fictional general Nanisca. She is subordinated only to King Ghezo, a real-life figure who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1859, and who engaged in the Atlantic slave trade until the end of his reign.

In the film, the Agojie’s enemies include slave traders led by Santo Ferreira, a fictional character loosely inspired by Francisco Félix de Sousa. But, in fact, de Sousa was a Brazilian slave trader who helped Ghezo gain power, and Dahomey was a kingdom that conquered other African states and sold their people into the slave trade. While Nanisca is depicted protesting to the king against the slave trade, the real Agojie served him.

The Woman King thus promotes a form of feminism favored by the Western liberal middle class. Like today’s #MeToo feminists, the Amazon warriors from Dahomey will ruthlessly condemn all forms of binary logic, patriarchy, and traces of racism in everyday language; but they will be very careful not to disturb the deeper forms of exploitation that underpin modern global capitalism and the persistence of racism.

This stance involves downplaying two basic facts about slavery. First, white slave traders barely had to set foot on African soil, because privileged Africans (like the kingdom of Dahomey) furnished them with an ample supply of fresh slaves. And, second, the slave trade was widespread not only in western Africa but also in its eastern parts, where Arabs enslaved millions, and where the institution lasted longer than in the West (Saudi Arabia didn’t formally abolish it until 1962).

Indeed, Muhammad Qutb, the brother of the Egyptian Muslim intellectual Sayyid Qutb, vigorously defended Islamic slavery from Western criticism. Arguing that “Islam gave spiritual enfranchisement to slaves,” he contrasted the adultery, prostitution, and casual sex (“that most odious form of animalism”) found in the West with the “clean and spiritual bond that ties a maid [a slave girl] to her master in Islam.” One still hears such talk from some conservative Salafi scholars, such as Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body. But one wouldn’t know it from listening only to Western middle-class liberals.

Fortunately, Islam’s historical associations with slavery need not impede predominantly Muslim societies’ emancipatory potential. The massive protests in Iran have a world-historical significance, because they combine different struggles (against women’s oppression, religious oppression, and state terror) into an organic unity. Iran is not part of the developed West, and the protesters’ slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“woman, life, freedom”) is not some mere offshoot of #MeToo or Western feminism. Though it has mobilized millions of ordinary women, it speaks to a much broader struggle, and it eschews the anti-masculine tendency that one often finds in Western feminism.

The Iranian men who are chanting “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” know that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom – that the oppression of women is merely the most visible manifestation of a larger system of state terror. Moreover, the events in Iran are something that still awaits us in the developed Western world, where the trends toward political violence, religious fundamentalism, and the oppression of women are accelerating.

We in the West have no right to treat Iran as a country that is desperately trying to catch up with us. Rather, it is we who must learn from Iranians if we are going to have any chance of confronting right-wing violence and oppression in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and many other countries. Whatever the immediate result of the protests, the crucial thing is to keep the movement alive, by organizing social networks that can continue to operate underground in the event that the forces of state oppression achieve a temporary victory.

It is not enough simply to express sympathy or solidarity with the Iranian protesters, as if they belong to some faraway exotic culture. All the relativist babble about cultural specificities and sensitivities is now meaningless. We can and should see the Iranian struggle as synonymous with our own. We don’t need female figureheads or Woman Kings; we need women who will mobilize us all for “woman, life, freedom,” and against hate, violence, and fundamentalism.

Courtesy: Project Syndicate

Ukraine: The Missing Link

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I once asked my younger son if he could pass the salt, only to be met with the response, “Of course I can!” When I repeated my request, he snapped back: “You asked me if I could do it, and I answered you. You didn’t tell me that I should do it.”

Who was freer in this situation – me or my son? If we understand freedom as freedom of choice, my son was freer, because he had an additional choice about how to interpret my question. He could take it literally, or he could interpret it in the usual sense, as a request that was formulated as a question out of politeness. By contrast, I effectively renounced this choice and automatically relied on the conventional sense.

Now, imagine a world where many more people acted in everyday life the way my son did when he was teasing me. We would never know for sure what our partners in conversation wanted to say, and we would lose an immense amount of time pursuing pointless interpretations. Is this not an apt description of political life over the last decade? Donald Trump and other alt-right populists have capitalized on the fact that democratic politics relies on certain unwritten rules and customs, which they have violated when it suits them, while avoiding accountability by not always explicitly breaking the law.

In the United States, Trump’s Republican Party lackeys are pursuing such a strategy ahead of the next presidential election. According to a fringe legal theory that they have embraced, a loophole in federal election law would permit a state’s legislature to appoint its own presidential electors if the secretary of state decides that he or she cannot certify the result of an election. Republican election deniers are now running for the offices that they will need to override the will of the voters in 2024. The GOP thus is attempting to destroy one of the basic conditions of democracy: that all political participants speak the same language and follow the same rules. Otherwise, a country will find itself on the verge of civil war – an outcome that almost one-half of Americans now expect.

The same conditions apply to global politics. For international relations to work, all parties must at least speak the same language when they talk about concepts like freedom and occupation. Russia obviously is undermining this condition by describing its war of aggression in Ukraine as a “special operation” to “liberate” the country. But Ukraine’s government has also fallen into this trap. Addressing the Israeli Knesset on March 20, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel.”

Palestinian political scientist Asad Ghanem described Zelensky’s speech as “a disgrace when it comes to global struggles for freedom and liberation, particularly of the Palestinian people.” Zelensky “reversed the roles of occupier and occupied.” I agree. And I also agree with Ghanem that, “every possible support must be given to Ukrainians as they resist [Russia’s] barbaric aggression.” Without Western military support, most of Ukraine would now be under Russian occupation, destroying a pillar of international peace and order: the integrity of borders.

Unfortunately, Zelensky’s Knesset speech was not a singular event. Ukraine regularly takes public positions in support of the Israeli occupation. In 2020, it quit the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; and just last month, its ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, declared that: “As a Ukrainian whose country is under a very brutal attack by its neighbor, I feel great sympathy towards the Israeli public.”

This parallel between Israel and Ukraine is totally misplaced. If anything, the Ukrainians’ situation is closest to that of the West Bank Palestinians’. Yes, Israelis and Palestinians at least acknowledge their adversaries’ otherness, whereas Russia claims that Ukrainians are really just Russians. But not only does Israel deny that the Palestinians are a nation (as Russia does with Ukraine); the Palestinians also have been denied a place in the Arab world (like Ukrainians vis-à-vis Europe before the war). Moreover, like Russia, Israel is a nuclear-armed military superpower that is de facto colonizing a smaller, much weaker entity. And like Russia in the occupied parts of Ukraine, Israel is practicing a politics of apartheid.

While Israel’s leaders welcome Ukraine’s support, they have not returned the favor. Instead, they have oscillated between Russia and Ukraine, because Israel needs Russia’s continuing toleration of its own military strikes on targets in Syria. But Ukraine’s full support for Israel mainly reflects its leaders’ ideological interest in presenting their struggle as a defense of Europe and European civilization against a barbaric, totalitarian East.

This framing of the fight is untenable, because it requires glossing over Europe’s own roles in slavery, colonialism, fascism, and so forth. It is crucial that Ukraine’s cause be defended in universal terms, around shared concepts and interpretations of words like “occupation” and “freedom.” To reduce Ukraine’s war to a struggle for Europe is to use the same framing as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “court philosopher” Aleksandr Dugin, who draws a line between “Russian truth” and “European truth.” Confining the conflict to Europe reinforces Russia’s own global propaganda, which presents the invasion of Ukraine as an act of decolonization – part of the struggle against Western neoliberal domination and a necessary step toward a multipolar world.

By treating Israel’s colonization of the West Bank as a defensive struggle for freedom, Ukraine is validating another power’s aggression and thus compromising its own fully justified struggle for freedom. Sooner or later, it will have to make a choice. Will it be truly European, by participating in the universal emancipatory project that defines Europe? Or will it become a part of the new right’s populist wave?
When Ukraine asked the West, “Can you pass the howitzers?” the West did not cynically quip, “Yes, we can!” and then do nothing. Western countries replied reasonably by sending weapons to fight the occupiers. Yet when Palestinians ask for support of any kind, they receive nothing but empty statements, often accompanied by declarations of solidarity with their oppressor. When they ask for the salt, it is handed to their opponent.

Courtesy: Project-syndicate. Click here to read the original

Ouverture: Living in a Topsy-Turvy World

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Contemporary life is defined by excess. There must always be more, there is never enough. We need a surplus to what we need to be able to truly enjoy what we have. Slavoj Žižek’s guide to surplus (and why it’s enjoyable) begins by arguing that what is surplus to our needs is by its very nature unsubstantial and unnecessary. Following excerpt deported from the author’s most recent book, Surplus-Enjoyment : A Guide For The Non-Perplexed published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel uses the term “die verkehrte Welt”—usually translated into English as “topsy turvy world”—to designate the madness of the social reality of his time. “An example of topsy-turvy occurs when your carefully-made plans got messed up at the last minute and everyone is running every which way with no idea where to go.” Does this sentence from Yourdictionary.com entry for “topsy-turvy” not encapsulate perfectly the basic reversal in a Hegelian dialectical process in the course of which even the best-made projects turn into their opposite—a dream of freedom into terror, morality into hypocrisy, excessive wealth into poverty of the majority? Back in 1576, Thomas Rogers wrote in his A Philosophical Discourse Entitled The Anatomy of the Mind: “Devilish it is to destroy a city, but more than devilish to evert cities, to betray countries, to cause servants to kill their masters, parents their children, children their parents, wives their husbands, and to turn all things topsy turvy.” Three basic relations of domination (masters over servants, parents over children, husbands over wives) are here turned around or, rather, inside out—is this not a succinct formula of Hegel’s thought?

So is the present book yet another one on Hegel? In order to explain the logic of denial (Verneinung), Freud evokes a remark made by one of his patients: “You ask who that woman in my dream can be. Whoever she is, it’s not my mother.” Freud’s reaction (which has since become proverbial) is: the question is settled then, we can be sure it is indeed his mother. I can say exactly the same about this book of mine: whatever this book is about, it’s not about Hegel, and this is not a Freudian denial but literally true. Yes, Hegel is ever-present in it. Even when he is not directly mentioned he lurks in the background, but the topic of the book is exactly what its title says: it’s about how the paradoxes of surplus-enjoyment sustain the topsy turviness of our time.

In an ideological space, different stances get connected into what Ernesto Laclau called a “chain of equivalences”— for example, extreme right-wing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic get combined with New Age spirituality. Melissa Rein Lively’s focus on wellness, natural health, organic food, yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation, etc., led her into a violent rejection of vaccines as a source of dangerous contamination. Today, this process is palpable all around us. We live in a weird moment where multiple catastrophes—pandemic, global warming, social tensions, the prospect of full digital control over our thinking …—compete for primacy, not just quantitatively but also in the sense of which of them will count as the “quilting point” (Lacan’s point-de-capiton) which totalizes all others. Today, the main candidate in the public discourse is global warming, while lately the antagonism which, in our part of the world, at least, appears as the crucial one is that between partisans of vaccination and vaccine-sceptics. The problem here is that, for COVID sceptics, the main catastrophe today is the fake vision of the (pandemic) catastrophe itself which is manipulated by those in power to strengthen social control and economic exploitation. If one takes a closer look at how the struggle against vaccination condenses other struggles (struggle against state control, struggle against science, struggle against corporate economic exploitation, struggle for the defense of our way of life…), it becomes clear that this key role of the struggle against vaccination is the outcome of an ideological mystification in some aspects even similar to anti-Semitism: in the same way that anti-Semitism is a displaced-mystified form of anti-capitalism, the struggle against vaccination is also a displaced-mystified form of class struggle against those in power.

To find a way in this mess, we should perhaps mobilize the distinction between apocalypse and catastrophe, reserving the term “catastrophe” for what Anders called “naked apocalypse.” Apocalypse (“an uncovering” in Ancient Greek) is a disclosure or revelation of knowledge; in religious speech, what apocalypse discloses is something hidden, the ultimate truth we are blind to in our ordinary lives. Today we commonly refer to any larger-scale catastrophic event or chain of detrimental events to humanity or nature as “apocalyptic.” Although it is easy to imagine the apocalypse-disclosure without the apocalypse catastrophe (say, a religious revelation) and the apocalypse catastrophe without the apocalypse-disclosure (say, an earthquake destroying an entire continent), there is an inner link between the two dimensions: when we (think that we) confront some higher and hitherto hidden truth, this truth is so different from our common opinions that it has to shatter our world, and vice versa, every catastrophic event, even if purely natural, reveals something ignored in our normal existence, places us face to face with an oppressed truth.

In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom,” Anders introduced the concept of naked apocalypse: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” Anders’s idea was that a nuclear catastrophe would be precisely such a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom will arise out of it, just the obliteration of ourselves and our world. And the question we should ask today is: what kind of apocalypse is announced in the plurality of catastrophes that today pose a threat to all of us? What if apocalypse in the full sense of the term which includes the disclosure of hitherto invisible truth never happens? What if truth is something that is constructed afterwards, as an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe?

Like to find the answer through Zizek’s brain, click here to have your copy.

Ukraine: Bipolarity Trap

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As everyone knows, Volodymyr Zelensky played a Ukrainian president in the television series Servant of the People before becoming Ukraine’s president in real life, and that irony led many not to take him seriously (as if a president who previously served in the KGB is better). But less well known is the basic plot of the series.

Zelensky played Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko, a schoolteacher whose students record him ranting about corruption, share the video online (where it goes viral), and then sign him up as a candidate in the country’s next presidential election. Having unwittingly tapped into Ukrainians’ widespread frustration over corruption, Goloborodko wins, faces a steep learning curve in office, and eventually starts to confront the country’s oligarchy from his new position of power.

The show’s depiction of Ukraine is apt. Of all the post-communist countries in Eastern Europe, it was the hardest hit by economic “shock therapy” (sweeping market reforms and privatization) in the 1990s. For three decades since independence, Ukrainian incomes have remained below where they were in 1990. Corruption has been rampant, and the courts have proven a farce.

As Luca Celada of il manifesto writes, “the ‘conversion’ to capitalism has followed the usual pattern: a class of oligarchs and a narrow elite have enriched themselves disproportionately by despoiling the public sector with the complicity of the political class.” Moreover, financial assistance from the West has always been “strongly tied to reforms that Ukraine was required to implement, all under the banner of fiscal restraint and austerity,” further immiserating much of the population. Such is the legacy of the capitalist West’s engagement with post-independence Ukraine.

Meanwhile, my sources in Russia tell me that President Vladimir Putin has assembled a group of Marxists to counsel him on how to present Russia’s position in the developing world. One can find traces of this influence in the speech he gave on August 16:

“The situation in the world is changing dynamically and the outlines of a multipolar world order are taking shape. An increasing number of countries and peoples are choosing a path of free and sovereign development based on their own distinct identity, traditions, and values. These objective processes are being opposed by the Western globalist elites, who provoke chaos, fanning long-standing and new conflicts and pursuing the so-called containment policy, which in fact amounts to the subversion of any alternative, sovereign development options.”

But, of course, two details spoil this “Marxist” critique. First, sovereignty “based on their own distinct identity, traditions, and values” implies that one should tolerate what the state is doing in places like North Korea or Afghanistan. Yet that is completely out of step with true leftist solidarity, which focuses squarely on antagonisms within each “distinct identity” in order to build bridges between struggling and oppressed groups across countries.

Second, Putin objects to “the subversion of any alternative, sovereign development options,” even though that is exactly what he is doing in Ukraine by seeking to deprive its people of self-determination.

Putin is not alone in pushing this pseudo-Marxist line. In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen now presents herself as the protector of ordinary working people against multinational corporations, which are said to be undermining national identities through the promotion of multiculturalism and sexual depravity. In the United States, the alt-right succeeds the old radical left with its calls to overthrow the “deep state.” Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon is a self-proclaimed “Leninist” who sees a coalition of the alt-right and the radical left as the only way to end the reign of financial and digital elites. (And, lest we forget the progenitor of this model, Hitler led the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.)

More is at stake in Ukraine than many commentators seem to appreciate. In a world beset by the effects of climate change, fertile land will be an increasingly valuable asset. And if there is one thing Ukraine has in abundance, it is chernozem (“black earth”), an extraordinarily fertile soil with high concentrations of humus, phosphoric acids, phosphorus, and ammonia. That is why US and Western European agrobusiness firms have already bought up millions of hectares of Ukraine’s farmland – with just ten private companies reportedly controlling most of it.

Well aware of the threat of dispossession, the Ukrainian government imposed a moratorium on land sales to foreigners 20 years ago. For years thereafter, the US Department of State, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank repeatedly called for this restriction to be removed. It was only in 2021 that the Zelensky government, under immense pressure, finally started allowing farmers to sell their land. The moratorium on sales to foreigners remains in place, however, and Zelensky has said that lifting it must be put to a national referendum, which would almost certainly fail.

Nonetheless, the cruel irony is that, before Putin launched a war to colonize Ukraine by force, there was some truth to the Russian argument that Ukraine was becoming a Western economic colony. If the conflict has any silver lining, it is that the neoliberal project has been put on hold. Since war demands social mobilization and a coordination of production, it offers Ukraine a unique chance both to halt its expropriation by foreign corporate and financial entities and to rid itself of oligarchic corruption.

In pursuing this opportunity, Ukrainians must bear in mind that it is not enough simply to join the European Union and catch up to Western living standards. Western democracy itself is now in deep crisis, with the US veering toward ideological civil war, and Europe being challenged by authoritarian spoilers from within its own ranks. More immediately, if Ukraine can achieve a decisive military victory (as we should all hope), it will find itself deeply indebted to the US and the EU. Will it be able to resist even greater pressure to open itself up to economic colonization by Western multinationals?

This struggle is already playing out beneath the surface of Ukraine’s heroic resistance. It would be tragic if Ukraine defeated Russian neo-imperialism only to yoke itself to Western neoliberalism. To secure genuine freedom and independence, Ukraine must reinvent itself. While being a Western economic colony is certainly better than being absorbed into a new Russian empire, neither outcome is worthy of the suffering Ukrainians are now enduring.

Copyright © Project Syndicate [ Click here to read the original version of this article ]

Degeneracy of New Right

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A recent crisis in northern Kosovo came and went quickly, because nobody wanted an escalation. But it will return, because Russia is maneuvering in the Balkan shadows to stoke the tensions that gave rise to it. The mundane origin of the crisis shows how easily a spark can be fanned into a conflagration.

The Kosovo government had announced a measure requiring Serbs living in northern Kosovo to apply for local license plates, replacing their Serbian plates. But Serbs staged protests (with reports of gunfire) and road blockades at two border crossings, pushing Kosovo authorities to delay the measure for a month while they discuss next steps.

Serbia has long had a similar rule for Kosovar license-plate holders on its territory, and Kosovo was merely trying to apply the same standard. The problem, of course, is that Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent state, even though the United States and around 100 other countries do.

This would be a purely local story were it not implicated in the geopolitical dynamic triggered by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. But as Vladimir Đukanović, an MP from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, channeling Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine, recently mused, “Serbia might be forced to engage in the ‘denazification’ of the Balkans.” Even the expression “forced to engage” echoes the Kremlin’s farcical line about being provoked by NATO aggression to invade Ukraine.

Moreover, Đukanović’s reference to “the Balkans” follows the same logic as the Russian line, which implies that all of Europe, caught in the vortex of self-destructive degeneracy (LGBTQ+, same-sex marriage, no clear gender distinctions, and so forth), ultimately will have to be “denazified.” As Aleksandr Dugin, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s court philosopher, explains, “We are fighting the absolute evil, embodied in Western civilization, its liberal-totalitarian hegemony, in Ukrainian Nazism…”

According to this new conservativism, Nazism, Communism, and woke hedonism all amount to the same thing. But this corralling of opposites really is too much even for a hardline Hegelian. It reveals the glaring inconsistency not just of Kremlin propagandists but also of the pro-Russian US and European alt-right, which claim to embody traditional Christian values even as their words and actions countenance genocide and glorify sexual violence.

As a leading player in this culture war, the Kremlin has been intervening through its proxies not only in Kosovo but also in Bosnia, which it has warned against NATO membership. Unfortunately, the Western leftists and pacifists have chosen simply to ignore the geopolitical dimension of Putin’s “denazification” project. As Jeremy Corbyn, the former British Labour Party leader, recently complained, “Pouring arms in [to Ukraine] isn’t going to bring about a solution, it’s only going to prolong and exaggerate this war. We might be in for years and years of a war in Ukraine.”

Implicit in this position is that Western governments should simply let Russia occupy Ukraine. Yet it is an odd “pacifism” that applies pressure on the victim (which must not defend itself too vigorously) and its supporters (which must not help the aggressor’s target too much), rather than on the attacker.

Western “pacifists” insist that we “de-demonize” Putin. There will have to be some kind of negotiation sooner or later, so we should treat him as a future partner. In fact, we should do the exact opposite: the attack on Ukraine compels us to re-demonize Putin, not personally but as an exponent of a dangerous geopolitical and ideological project.

There is mounting evidence that Russia is changing into something that is radically foreign to denizens of today’s Western democracies, but all too familiar to students of European history. Consider the Russian Liberal Democratic Party’s recent proposal to replace the term “president” with “pravitel” (“ruler”). The former, according to the party, has “always embarrassed us,” because it was first used in the US, spreading to the rest of the world only “much later.”

While the new right’s main ideological target is Western “degeneracy,” its fascination with strongman rule is permeated with obscenity. In a recent campaign appearance, Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, gushed that her fellow Republicans Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have “big dick energy.”

This is a necessary, rather than contingent, feature of the new right’s defense of Christianity. To attract enough followers, its leaders must provide the surplus enjoyment (“the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions”) of the obscene. An ideology that allows its adherents to act on their worst impulses can mobilize millions.

To take another example, is Russia’s “peacemaking military intervention” in Ukraine not like the “legitimate rape” that US Representative Todd Akin, then the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, defined in 2012? According to Akin, abortion should be banned outright, because if a woman suffers “legitimate rape,” her body will somehow know not to get pregnant.

Facing outrage at the remark, Akin claimed that he had “misspoken.” What he meant was that there are “legitimate cases of rape” that police refer to “when they’re doing an investigation or whatever.” But his basic message remained: if a woman gets pregnant from rape, she must have secretly wanted it, because otherwise her body’s “stress” response would have prevented it.

It is telling that Putin has referred to Ukraine in the same way. At a press conference on February 7, he mocked the Ukraine government’s objections to the Minsk agreements, adding, “Like it or not, it’s your duty, my beauty.” The sexual connotations of that line are well known for Russians and Ukrainians from “Sleeping Beauty in a Coffin,” by the Soviet-era punk rock group Red Mold: “Sleeping beauty in a coffin, I crept up and fucked her. Like it, or dislike it, sleep my beauty.”

The implication is that the rape of a country sometimes is justified. The victim was asking for it. As with rape, what motivates the New Right is not love, but domination.

Copyright © Project Syndicate

What the “Woke” Left and the Alt-Right Share

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The Canadian psychologist and alt-right media fixture Jordan Peterson recently stumbled onto an important insight. In a podcast episode titled “Russia vs. Ukraine or Civil War in the West?,” he recognized a link between the war in Europe and the conflict between the liberal mainstream and the new populist right in North America and Europe.

Although Peterson initially condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, his stance gradually morphs into a kind of metaphysical defense of Russia. Referencing Dostoevsky’s Diaries, he suggests that Western European hedonist individualism is far inferior to Russian collective spirituality, before duly endorsing the Kremlin’s designation of contemporary Western liberal civilization as “degenerate.” He describes postmodernism as a transformation of Marxism that seeks to destroy the foundations of Christian civilization. Viewed in this light, the war in Ukraine is a contest between traditional Christian values and a new form of communist degeneracy.

This language will be familiar to anyone familiar with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime, or with the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. As CNN’s John Blake put it, that day “marked the first time many Americans realized the US is facing a burgeoning White Christian nationalist movement,” which “uses Christian language to cloak sexism and hostility to Black people and non-White immigrants in its quest to create a White Christian America.” This worldview has now “infiltrated the religious mainstream so thoroughly that virtually any conservative Christian pastor who tries to challenge its ideology risks their career.”

The fact that Peterson has assumed a pro-Russian, anti-communist position is indicative of a broader trend. In the United States, many Republican Party lawmakers have refused to support Ukraine. J.D. Vance, a Donald Trump-backed Republican Senate candidate from Ohio, finds it “insulting and strategically stupid to devote billions of resources to Ukraine while ignoring the problems in our own country.” And Matt Gaetz, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Florida, is committed to ending US support for Ukraine if his party wins control of the chamber this November.

But does accepting Peterson’s premise that Russia’s war and the alt-right in the US are platoons of the same global movement mean that leftists should simply take the opposite side? Here, the situation gets more complicated. Although Peterson claims to oppose communism, he is attacking a major consequence of global capitalism. As Marx and Engels wrote more than 150 years ago in the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

This observation is studiously ignored by leftist cultural theorists who still focus their critique on patriarchal ideology and practice. Yet surely the critique of patriarchy has reached its apotheosis at precisely the historical moment when patriarchy has lost its hegemonic role – that is, when market individualism has swept it away. After all, what becomes of patriarchal family values when a child can sue her parents for neglect and abuse (implying that parenthood is just another temporary and dissolvable contract between utility-maximizing individuals)?

Of course, such “leftists” are sheep in wolves’ clothing, telling themselves that they are radical revolutionaries as they defend the reigning establishment. Today, the melting away of pre-modern social relations and forms has already gone much further than Marx could have imagined. All facets of human identity are now becoming a matter of choice; nature is becoming more and more an object of technological manipulation.

The “civil war” that Peterson sees in the developed West is thus a chimera, a conflict between two versions of the same global capitalist system: unrestrained liberal individualism versus neo-fascist conservativism, which seeks to unite capitalist dynamism with traditional values and hierarchies.

There is a double paradox here. Western political correctness (“wokeness”) has displaced class struggle, producing a liberal elite that claims to protect threatened racial and sexual minorities in order to divert attention from its members’ own economic and political power. At the same time, this lie allows alt-right populists to present themselves as defenders of “real” people against corporate and “deep state” elites, even though they, too, occupy positions at the commanding heights of economic and political power.

Ultimately, both sides are fighting over the spoils of a system in which they are wholly complicit. Neither side really stands up for the exploited or has any interest in working-class solidarity. The implication is not that “left” and “right” are outdated notions – as one often hears – but rather that culture wars have displaced class struggle as the engine of politics.

Where does that leave Europe? The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall paints a bleak but accurate picture:

“Putin’s aim is the immiseration of Europe. By weaponising energy, food, refugees and information, Russia’s leader spreads the economic and political pain, creating wartime conditions for all. A long, cold, calamity-filled European winter of power shortages and turmoil looms. … Freezing pensioners, hungry children, empty supermarket shelves, unaffordable cost of living increases, devalued wages, strikes and street protests point to Sri Lanka-style meltdowns. An exaggeration? Not really.”

To prevent a total collapse into disorder, the state apparatus, in close coordination with other states and relying on local mobilizations of people, will have to regulate the distribution of energy and food, perhaps resorting to administration by the armed forces. Europe thus has a unique chance to leave behind its charmed life of isolated welfare, a bubble in which gas and electricity prices were the biggest worries. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently told Vogue, “Just try to imagine what I’m talking about happening to your home, to your country. Would you still be thinking about gas prices or electricity prices?”

He’s right. Europe is under attack, and it needs to mobilize, not just militarily but socially and economically as well. We should use the crisis to change our way of life, adopting values that will spare us from an ecological catastrophe in the coming decades. This may be our only chance.