For those who don’t know, Slavoj Zizek is a psycho-analytically inclined communist (in the Marx-Trotsky sense, not the Obama-New Labour sense) philosopher from Slovenia with a terrible lisp and a tic for rubbing his nose like a coke fiend. Here’s him answering a question at a talk a couple of years ago, where he makes a pretty common observation:
The observation is that nowhere does the political left have a programme. The left can bitch and wheeze and obstruct, but anything leftists try peters out as soon as the enthusiasm it started with dissipates. You see this in stuff like the Occupy movement. Remember that? Everything was about to change before it went back to staying the same. At least in Europe there are now ideas about limiting what bankers or C-suite managers make, but it’s not like the difference is going to be spread around ‘the 99%’. It’s window dressing. Or remember how the internet was going to stop Kony? Turns out the internet was misinformed and got distracted by porn, as usual, but it’s not like anybody got any closer to stopping black kids in equatorial countries from dying.
In this sense, leftists nowadays are kind of like spoiled kids around Christmas. The new toys/protests are great because they’re new and the kids imagine all sorts of possibilities of how much fun they’re going to have and how they’re going to impress their friends with their awesome skateboarding/hula-hoop/hackysack/computer skillz. A week later, the toys are collecting dust or repurposed for things like plagiarizing homework, and those calling themselves social democrats are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and subsidizing hedge funds. There’s a reason for this, and it’s ironic, or paradoxical, or antinomious.
The odd thing is that the right is having trouble right now because it has so many programmes that they’re kind of incoherent. Everybody on the right has ideas on what to do, and they’re more interested in fighting each other than fighting this ineffectual left. The neo-liber(al)tarians are stumbling over the religious conservatives who are nervous about the ethno-fascists. They have so many ideas about how to deal with just about every issue, from monetary policy (ranging from low-interest, supply side dogma to ditching any kind of central bank) to environmental protection (ranging from kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out to good stewardship of Creation), that there’s more to choose from on the right than between right and left.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t admire the right anymore than I pity the left, ‘cause I got my bunker stocked, fields tilled, enough camo netting to keep the drones away, and an isolated supply of water that’s Ice-nine safe. But as long as people are committed to making big decisions by picking criminals off a list from one club or another, which is a system Wikipedia calls ‘representative democracy’, why the left is so full of basket cases is relevant to everybody. If the system is going to make you choose between the reds and the blues, and the reds are playing like spoiled, clueless kids, it’s worth your time to think about why. Who knows? It might just matter one day what dead white Guy the criminals with their fingers on the button think was the smartest.
The left is failing because it can’t articulate anything but resistance, there is no positive vision attached. The question is why (not).
I couldn’t figure it out either until lunch the other day. Some hippie teenagers I sometimes buy booze for wanted to go out for lunch. They took me to this new place that advertised more vegetarian options, meat from humanely slaughtered animals, sustainably caught fish, etc. But when we got there, they all just ordered rice pilaf and grumbled about that. Between mouthfuls of tofu-fed ocelot, I asked them what the problem was. They were disillusioned by the fact that the flyers this new place had distributed made all these fancy claims about ethical eating, but the menu didn’t actually display any symbols of organic testing agencies or environmental stewardship organizations. They felt swindled by the fact that the place had advertised with certain values they shared, but then the restaurant failed to display the proper credentials.
I didn’t get this annoyance at all, so I asked them to elaborate. They said that advertising is always somehow false and untrustworthy, but the symbols implied that there was some kind of obligation. Without the symbols, the proprietors would be able to sell anything and the consumer was at their mercy. Colour me outraged.
Here’s what I didn’t get and still don’t: words are symbols. If the restaurant’s proprietors tell me that there’s no leper in my delicious horseburger, and it turns out that it’s made of leprous appendages that have just been sterilized and seasoned, I’m still gonna put a brick through their window and I’ll be well within my rights. If you say one thing and do another, you’ve lied, and that’s wrong. Words are symbols, and they can obligate people, so what do the symbols help?
If you think this is a stretch here’s another test. Is it okay to cheat on your partner before marriage? (Hint: it’s called ‘cheating’) As soon as you give another person a reason to believe they’re the only one, you can’t then put on your junior litigator decoder ring and claim that it’s all good until you exchange I dos. If you keep that dissolution clause open in the back of your head, you’re not ready to get married yet, your partner doesn’t deserve your crap, and the ceremony won’t help.
But hypothetically, what would the ceremony provide that isn’t already there? The same thing as the symbols in the restaurant: the obligation is monitored by a superior third-party. You don’t have to rely on the proprietors/your partner, because the deal is underwritten by someone else you both are supposed to respect more than you respect each other. But this is insane. You have far less connection to the certifying agent, whether priest, justice of the peace, or organic agency, than you do to the proprietor/partner who is standing in front of you or tickling your pickle in the dark. So instead of trusting the person you know and can talk to, you trust a faceless bureaucracy you can’t even get on the phone. And instead of expecting them to live up to standards everybody knows and can understand from everyday life, you put more stock into legalistic standards nobody ever even reads. Good luck when s/he goes on that stag(ette) in Vegas. I’m sure you’ll sleep just fine.
So the words are symbols that can obligate, but it’s symmetrical. The symbols are just words, by which I mean that if the words the proprietor used to describe his fancy food are just advertising, so are the fancy symbols that could guarantee its quality. They’re advertising the agencies that issue them, but there’s more. They also advertise those agencies’ authority to pronounce on what’s good and what’s sketchy, but there’s more. They also advertise the way of ordering the world where a powerful, remote third-party is responsible for mediating the relationship between two people standing in front of each other. They advertise the world where you trust vague symbols more than the dude you can reach with a friendly smile and/or a right hook.
So these teenagers are upset because there’s no higher authority around to guarantee the credibility and stability of the symbolic order. God is dead, but he’s the only one who wasn’t out to get us. But what does this have to do with the harebrained lefties?
Let’s look in more detail about what the left can do and always does. First, cynicism comes easy. Everybody knows that democracy is a sham, or at least it’s lost its way, and the game is now a stitch up between the lobbyists and the corrupt moralists (no sic) at the top. The corporations are in bed with the parties, and the tail is wagging the dog. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Any organization with a head needs a guillotine, but exactly this cynicism has led to paralysis. Detaching the head from the body has the same effect in an organization as it does in a spinal cord.
The only thing on which the left seems able to decide quickly, efficiently and resolutely is what they’re against. With a catchy slogan and sentimental meme, you can move mountains – at least for a few weeks. 1%? That’ll do. Indignation? Sounds like something everybody can have in common – let’s go!
What does that remind you of? Exactly. Aimless teenage rebellion. The fact of teenage rebellion is more important than its content because the only thing it needs to achieve is to differentiate the teenager’s identity from the parents’. In recent lefty protest, getting people to notice that they’re taking a stand overshadows whatever it might be they’re trying to achieve, if anybody even stopped to think about that. And just like a rebelling teenager, it’s a hollow threat. There are calls for somebody else to change the terms of the deal, but no will to take responsibility and actually change things autonomously. The teenager might complain about dad being a tyrant and slam her door, but she doesn’t move out. The kid might defiantly start smoking and shoplift some vodka, but he’s still calling mom to bail him out. Don’t shut down a port or the rail lines, just beg for the broke government to solve the problem by redistributing what doesn’t exist anyway. The politics are pointless, and the rebellion is hollow and immature.
When the left gets something like a movement going, how is it structured? How is it organized and against whom is it directed? Well, the dark side of the force consists of Kapital, patriarchy, the XYZ lobby, the illuminati, SPECTRE, the clergy or some other version of anonymous late middle-aged men in matching suits. And the cure is to reject all of this in the form of rejecting hierarchy and dogma. This plays out in people’s assemblies at occupy rallies where all can speak with equal authority and talking shops where the point isn’t to decide what to do as much as providing a safe space where nobody’s agency is neglected or negated. Of course, if the pomo critique that there are only truth claims but no Truth, anything more structured would be just another tyranny of arbitrary privilege. (Translation, if anybody needs it: anybody telling others what to do or what the rules are is bound to offend* somebody, and avoiding offense is the lefties’ highest value.)
As to how this rejection of hierarchy translates into ineffectuality, there are a couple of ways to look at it. Game theory would tell you that there are maybe too many possibilities that are all fairly attractive, and there’s just no means to decide among them. If the democratic socialists have a point, the Marxist-Leninists have a point, the anarchists have a point, there is no way to decide among them, who’s to say what’s best? This is kind of like a family passing the turnstiles at Disneyland and not being able to decide what to do first because everybody wants to start at a different ride, and at the end of the day what they’ve seen more than anything else are the turnstiles and each others’ furrowed brows. The kids are gonna cry and mom and dad are gonna need a drink at the end of the day, but they’ll get over it. A leader would solve the problem by being the designated speaker to pronounce a program, to say what to do first and what next.
There might be something to this, but there are plenty of examples of people making collective decisions without a leader. A group of philosophy and pop culture geeks who will argue about a 4 second movie scene for pages can even get their sh!t together enough to launch a website and organize contests with fabulous prizes!!! (keep the submissions** coming!) Dozens of people can figure out how to arrange themselves in a cinema without anybody telling them where to sit. People can even overthrow a well-armed tyrant without having any person able to give orders.
The other way to explain the lefties’ capacity to get nowhere at lightspeed is more obvious in the sense of being less analytically formal but harder to see because it’s so ideologically incorrect. Here’s a simple intuition: if everybody’s right then somebody’s lying. Every person and every faction can explain itself with words, but if you’re too jaded to believe the words of the Guy selling us grain-fed tofu fries face-to-face, then how are you ever going to believe the odd-smelling stranger from the People’s Front of Judea trying to sell us a heretical utopia? In other words, the failure is not an inability to decide between several attractive options, but a lack of faith in the intentions and statements of others.
This second mechanism is far more pathological than game theory’s version of Buridan’s ass. Think of it in terms of the Disneyland example: here nobody moves because nobody trusts anybody else. Bobby wants to do the teacups, and he’s not totally against mom’s suggestion of ‘It’s a Small World’, but he suspects she might just be leading him astray to collect a promotional commission or sell him into pop culture servitude, so he refuses to listen to her out of mistrust rather than conviction in the indisputable superiority of the teacups. This is a far more dysfunctional family, because they don’t even trust each other in pleasure. Here the parents are going to be on Xanax, at least, and the kids are gonna be skimming doses.
And if you want to go hipster, here’s the irony (or the paradox if you’re still in pomo mode): the lefties are sceptical of authority, so they reject hierarchical modes of organization, but once they achieve their egalitarian structure, they become paralyzed because they don’t trust any statement that doesn’t have an official seal guaranteeing its authenticity, and only an authoritative voice can vouch for the symbols. The right doesn’t have this problem. They have dozens of prophets and plenty of faith/credulity in them. Their problem is indecision, like the first family. And since that’s the more soluble problem, they’re also gonna win.
*Offence? Isn’t it more than just offensive to deny everyone’s unique subjectivity? No. Almost nobody in any given political discussion is expressing an original idea; it’s much more the recitation of ideas they’ve heard somewhere, so the point isn’t to make sure everyone hears the idea but that they recognize you as having (re)-expressed it. So the problem isn’t denying their message so much as denying them room in the spotlight and airtime. This is in almost every case a bruised ego, implying offence, not a negation of subjectivity, implying injustice.
**This might be a submission of sorts, but not to the contest.