Slavoj Zizek has been telling lies about me. He attacked a recent book of mine, Infinitely Demanding, in the London Review of Books. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse, but I will spare the reader the grisly details. What I would like to do here is to use this debate as a lever for trying to think about the difficult question of the nature and plausibility of a politics of non-violence and try and explore what I see as the complex dialectic of violence and non-violence. Those with an eye for detail might notice that the following represents both a clarification and a shift in the position on violence and non-violence presented in Infinitely Demanding.
I would like to begin by discussing Zizek’s recently published book Violence and then expand and deepen my focus by way of a reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’. This will lead to a thinking through of the idea of divine violence and an interpretation of the Biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the injunction to non-violence. In conclusion, I will turn to the specifics of the political disagreement between myself and Zizek, which turn on the question of the relation between authoritarianism and anarchism.
Zizek enjoys a good joke. Here’s one of my favourites: two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One of them feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. ‘I think I saw one down the corridor outside’, says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no W.C. Wandering ever further into the recesses of the theatre, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat and his friend says to him, ‘What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot’.
This gag perfectly describes the argument of Zizek’s book on violence. Drunkenly watching the rather boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming subjective need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the whole world to see.
So it is with violence. Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a seemingly innocent political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts of violence that disturb the supposed peace and normal flow of everyday life. We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls ‘systemic’ violence that is endemic to our socio-economic order.
The main ambition of Zizek’s book is to refer subjective violence to the objective violence that is its underside and enabling precondition. ‘Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious “dark matter” of physics’(p.2), Zizek writes, which is invisible to naked eye. In the ‘Six Sideways Reflections’ into which Violence is divided, Zizek offers a rather cool and at times cruel analysis of the varieties of objective violence. He asks good, tolerant multicultural Western liberals like you, like us, like them (delete where appropriate) to suspend our outraged and impassioned responses to acts of violence (what he later calls, with Nietzsche, a reactive rather than active force) and turn instead to the real substance of the global situation. In order to understand violence, we need some good old-fashioned dispassionate Marxist materialist critique.
At the heart of Zizek’s book is an argument about ideology that has been a powerful constant feature of his work since The Sublime Object of Ideology, his first book in English from 1989. Far from existing in some sort of post-ideological world at the end of history where all problems can be diagnosed with neo-liberal economics and self-serving assertions of human rights, ideology completely structures and falsely sutures our lived reality. This ideology might be subjectively invisible, but it is objectively real. Each of us is onstage pissing in that plant pot. Ideology structures or, better, sutures experience, masking what the early Zizek – at the time much, much closer to Laclau than now – saw as the basic antagonism, the political antagonism that structures social relations.
The great ideological illusion of the present is that there is no time to reflect and we have to act now. On the contrary, Zizek asks us to step back from the false reactive urgency of the present with its multiple injunctions to intervene like good humanitarians. In the face of this fake urgency, we should be more like Marx who, with a potential revolution at the gates in 1870, complained to Engels that the activists should wait a couple more years until he had finished Das Capital.
Zizek’s diagnosis of this ideology is, as ever, quite delightful, producing counter-intuitive inversions that overturn what passes for common sense. Zizek rages against the reduction of love to masturbatory self-interest, the multiple hypocrisies of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the supposed liberal philanthropy of Bill Gates and George Soros. There is a fascinating analysis of the scenes of torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which display, Zizek rightly contends, nothing more than the obscene underside of American culture, the culture of incarceration.
But whither all this dialectical brio? Ay, there’s the rub. Zizek concludes the book with an apology for what he calls, following Walter Benjamin, ‘divine violence’. I shall come back to this in some detail below. Divine violence is understood theoretically as, ‘the heroic assumption of the solitude of the sovereign decision’. Practically, Zizek illustrates this with the questionable examples of the radical Jacobin violence of Robespierre in France in the 1790s and the invasion of the dispossessed, a decade or so ago, descending from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro to disturb the peace of the bourgeois neighbourhoods which border them.
But, in a final twist, Zizek counsels us to do nothing in the face of the objective, systemic violence of the world. We should ‘just sit and wait’ and have the courage to do nothing. The book ends with the words, ‘Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do’. True enough, but what can this possibly mean?
Let me briefly turn to the governing concept of Zizek’s recent work, the parallax, and what is purportedly his magnum opus, The Parallax View. The concept of parallax is a way of giving expression to, at its deepest, the radical non-coincidence of thinking and being. Such is Zizek’s metaphysics. If Parmenides and the entire onto-theological tradition that follows him, famously recovered by Heidegger, claims that it is the same thing to think and to be, then Zizek disagrees. Between thinking and being, between, in his parlance, the ticklish subject and the tickling object, there exists a radical non-coincidence, a constitutive lack of identity. Such is, of course, nothing more than the teaching of Lacan and the parallax view is the expression of the pas-tout, the not-all that circles around the traumatic kernal of the Real.
In the conclusion to The Parallax View (pp.375-85), although it is suggested throughout the book, Zizek claims that the parallax view opens onto a politics, what he calls - echoing Badiou - a subtractive politics, expressed in the figure of Melville’s Bartleby, who reappears as the hero in the closing pages of Violence.(pp.180-83) What interests Zizek in Bartleby is his insistent ‘I would prefer not to’, where Zizek places the emphasis on the ‘not to’ or the ‘not to do’, on Bartleby’s impassive, inert and insistent being, which hovers uncertainly somewhere between passivity and the vague threat of violence. So, at the level of politics, it is ultimately the politics of Bartleby’s smile, of his ‘not’ that Zizek wants to oppose to other forms of thinking about politics. Which other forms? Well, mine for example, but we’ll come back to that.
At the core of Zizek’s relentless, indeed manic, production of books, articles and lectures is a fantasy, I think, what my psychoanalyst friends would call an obsessional fantasy, a very pure version of the obsessional fantasy. On the one hand, the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby. On the other hand, Zizek dreams of a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed, something like Sophocles’ Antigone.
But Shakespearean tragedy is a more illuminating guide here than its ancient Greek predecessor. For Zizek is, I think, a Slovenian Hamlet, utterly paralyzed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage. In short, behind its shimmering dialectical inversions, Zizek’s work leaves us in a fearful and fateful deadlock, both a transcendental-philosophical deadlock and a practical-political deadlock: the only thing to do is to do nothing. We should just sit and wait. Don’t act, never commit, and continue to dream of an absolute, cataclysmic revolutionary act of violence. Thus speaks the great obsessional.
As Hamlet says, ‘Readiness is all’. But the truth is that Zizek is never ready. His work lingers in endless postponement and over-production. He ridicules others’ attempts at thinking about commitment, resistance and action - people like me and many others - while doing nothing himself. What sustains his work is a dream of divine violence, cruelty and force. I hope that one day his dreams come true.
Let me begin to try and deepen and perhaps depolemicize matters by going back to the source of Zizek’s notion of divine violence in Benjamin’s dense, difficult and massively over-interpreted essay, ‘Critique of Violence’ (Derrida, Agamben and Judith Butler have all been over this essay with a fine tooth-comb). The first thing to keep in mind, and this will be my main point in what follows is that Benjamin’s essay is called ‘critique of violence’, and I want to think about what that might mean in relation to the topic of non-violence. The essay is a critique of the violence of the law, where Benjamin writes, ‘violence…is the origin of the law’(p.242). This is exemplified in the death penalty as the violence over life and death, and embodied in the activity of the key executive institution of the modern state, the police. In the act of violence, then, the essence of the law is manifested, as well as – to use Hamlet’s word – revealing something rotten, etwas Morsches, about the law.
As many of you will know, Benjamin advances some fascinating, but slightly obscure, conceptual distinctions: between law-making and law-preserving violence, between the political and the general strike, and between mythic and divine violence. Let’s take them in turn and use them to unravel the argument of Benjamin’s essay.
The first distinction between a violence that is rechtsetzend and rechtserhaltend is, for Benjamin, internal to the theory and practice of law. The claim is that all law is either law-making or law-preserving and that both these forms are violent. Benjamin makes a fascinating aside about the violent origin of every contract,(p.243) which recalls Shylock’s undermining of Antonio’s idealization of law as mercy by returning it to the brute materiality of the contract, of the bond, of the pound of flesh, cut from close to the heart. The same would also go for constitutional law, it requires a violent cut, a moment of decision and the assertion of power, say, for example, in a revolution or a period of dramatic social transformation.
What Zizek misses, and I suspect he deliberately misses, is the fact that the operation of law-making and law-preserving violence raises a question. Benjamin writes, ‘…the question poses itself whether there are no other than violent means for regulating conflicting human interests’.(p.243) At the beginning of the next paragraph, he writes, ‘Is any non-violent resolution of conflict possible?’(p.243) His answer is that such a non-violent resolution of conflict is indeed possible in what he calls ‘relationships among private persons’, in courtesy, sympathy, peaceableness and trust. This leads Benjamin to conclude that ‘…there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of “understanding”, language, (‘die Sprache)’.(p.245) Without wanting to get into the complexities of what Benjamin means by language, particularly his idea of a pure language (reine Sprache) we can already see that he is not simply arguing, like Zizek, that all human life is utterly pervaded determined at every level by systemic or objective violence, but that a sphere of non-violence is available, at the private or what Benjamin calls the ‘subjective’ level. Against Zizek, I want to defend this sense of the subjective.
Benjamin continues by turning to Georges Sorel’s account of the general strike and makes a distinction between two forms of strike: the political strike and the proletarian general strike. Whereas the political strike is law-making, that is, it simply reinforces state power, the latter attempts to destroy state power and argue for ‘a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state’. As such – and readers of Infinitely Demanding will perhaps see where I am heading with this line of thought – where the political strike is law-making, the proletarian general strike is, to use Benjamin’s word, ‘anarchistic’.(p.246) That is, it is revolutionary rather than reformist, committed to non-violence rather than the violence of law, moral rather than governed by law and the state, and subjective rather than objective. Such anarchism does not requires the violence of contracts or indeed constitutions, but aims at the extra-legal resolution of conflict, ‘Peacefully and without contracts’, as he writes, ‘On the analogy of agreement between private persons’.(p.247)
It is not difficult to imagine why Zizek chooses to avoid and suppress this crucial aspect of Benjamin’s essay. What he wants is Bartelbian inertia, on the one hand, and the sexy excitement of the prospect of a dose of ultra-violence, on the other. He wants to live his obsessional deadlock and not give up on his desire for postponement and lack of readiness, a desire that fuels his over-production. However, what I have just tried to explain about Benjamin’s essay is the conceptual background against which he introduces his key concept of divine violence. Let’s now turn to that idea.
Benjamin makes two key assumptions. Firstly, he writes,
‘Since, however, every conceivable solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence, obtaining hitherto, remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle, the question necessarily arises as to what kinds of violence exist other than those envisaged by legal theory.’(p.247)
So, we cannot expect a radical change in the state of human beings in the world if we exclude violence as a matter of principle. I think this is a crucial point and it has also led to misunderstandings of my defence of non-violence and neo-anarchism in Infinitely Demanding. To be clear, I do not think that in the sphere of politics it makes sense to assert and hold to some principled and a priori conception of non-violence. The standard objection to anarchism always turns on this point: how can you justify your use of violence? Shouldn’t you be committed to non-violence? If you resort to violence, don’t you begin to resemble the enemy you are fighting against?