Why Slavoj Zizek is a Waste of Space for the Social Scientifically Literate Left

Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history. Here is the original piece, which I have deconstructed below.

We all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, in his first campaign: “Yes, we can!” – we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the US continues its covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on its allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even on our allies?” Obama murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: “Yes, we can.”

But simple personalisation misses the point: the threat to freedom disclosed by whistleblowers has deeper, systemic roots.

Classic immunisation strategy used by intellectuals to conjure up an image of the opponent that is then officially denounced as unfair, yet the image leaves the desired bad aftertaste that contaminates the rest of the argument

Edward Snowden should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed US secret services; what he revealed is something that not only the US but also all great (and not so great) powers – from China to Russia, Germany to Israel – are doing (to the extent they are technologically able to do it).

His acts provided a factual foundation to our suspicions of being monitored and controlled – their lesson is global, reaching far beyond the standard US-bashing. We didn’t really learn from Snowden (or Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true. But it is one thing to know it in general, another to get concrete data. It is a little like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around – one can accept the abstract knowledge, but pain arises when one gets the steamy details, pictures of what they were doing …

This is more revealing of Zizek’s sexual history than anything else. Some people think about these matters in the exact opposite way: i.e. the abstract possibility of infidelity (if it matters) prepares you for when it happens, so that you end up being more understanding, regardless of whether you continue the relationship. In fact, this is probably the more rational route. After all, you might wonder what strange sort of political impotence would have people (1) entertain the prospect that they are under constant surveillance, (2) not do anything about that prospect, yet (3) get very upset once it is shown to have happened. Here it is worth recalling that representative democracy is not predicated on trust – but on suspicion! That’s why elections happen on a regular basis, even if nothing bad seems to be happening. That gives people an opportunity to voice those dark thoughts, which in turn can inject a level of uncertainty that might not have been expected. That people carry on voting in the Clintons, Blairs and Obamas back into office has nothing to do with lack of access to facts but a measured judgement of harms vis-à-vis benefits, all of which are assessed under conditions of uncertainty. It would be a slight exaggeration to say that a vivid imagination works much better in political reasoning than supposedly solid facts, but it’s close to a truth that Zizek fails to appreciate.

Back in 1843, the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing”. In such a situation, to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon. Or, as Marx goes on: “The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicising it.”

This, exactly, is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order, who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights etc. What happens in WikiLeaks disclosures is that the shame – theirs, and ours for tolerating such power over us – is made more shameful by publicising it.

This is playing to the Left’s toy soldier gallery. The ancien regime could afford to be cynical because their right to succession didn’t involve popular approval. If democratically elected officials are keeping secrets from the public, then something else is involved. While ‘national security’ may be too sanguine an explanation for the secrecy, that is probably part of it – along with other things that might be teased out by the normal democratic means, and which in the end may or may not matter in the electorate’s judgement as to whether the politicians have done an adequate job.

What we should be ashamed of is the worldwide process of the gradual narrowing of the space for what Kant called the Immanuel “public use of reason”.

In his classic text, What Is Enlightenment?, Kant contrasts “public” and “private” use of reason – “private” is for Kant the communal-institutional order in which we dwell (our state, our nation …), while “public” is the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason: “The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use that a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.”

We see where Kant parts with our liberal common sense: the domain of state is “private” constrained by particular interests, while individuals reflecting on general issues use reason in a “public” way. This Kantian distinction is especially pertinent with internet and other new media torn between their free “public use” and their growing “private” control. In our era of cloud computing, we no longer need strong individual computers: software and information are provided on demand; users can access web-based tools or applications through browsers.

This makes no sense whatsoever. Kant is really pulling a Leo Strauss here. He lived in a time of benevolent despotism. For the ‘public’ to retain its potency yet appear non-threatening, it had to be confined to the utopian realm of the literate (still a minority of Europe in the late 18th century). So ‘public’ = ‘perhaps actual in the future’. In that respect, the closest contemporary analogue to Kant’s sense of the public is ‘virtual’ in the sense of science fiction, which often presents very vivid challenges to the status quo but without providing any clear sense of how we might get from here to there. Kant is effectively reassuring the despot that these challenges are really paper tigers in the short term, so as to ensure that the ‘light’ of the Enlightenment is not simply blown out peremptorily, say, by abrogating freedom of the press.

As for Kant calling the exercise of official reasoning as ‘private’, he is imagining a world in which the state is dominant, its bureaucracy divides society into functional units, and each official exercises authority by virtue of speaking from his proper unit. That sense of ‘propriety’ is what Kant means by ‘private’ (i.e. within well-defined borders). But of course, it is also somewhat ironic because it suggests that this sense of propriety is valid ONLY under the status quo.

To a certain extent, Marx still lived in Kant’s world but we certainly do not. Zizek fails to tell the difference.

This wonderful new world is, however, only one side of the story. Users are accessing programs and software files that are kept far away in climate-controlled rooms with thousands of computers – or, to quote a propaganda-text on cloud computing: “Details are abstracted from consumers, who no longer have need for expertise in, or control over, the technology infrastructure ‘in the cloud’ that supports them.”

Here are two telltale words: abstraction and control. To manage a cloud there needs to be a monitoring system that controls its functioning, and this system is by definition hidden from users. The more the small item (smartphone) I hold in my hand is personalised, easy to use, “transparent” in its functioning, the more the entire setup has to rely on the work being done elsewhere, in a vast circuit of machines that co-ordinate the user’s experience. The more our experience is non-alienated, spontaneous, transparent, the more it is regulated by the invisible network controlled by state agencies and large private companies that follow their secret agendas.

These two paragraphs might conform to what I have described as Kant’s sense of ‘public reason’, which unfortunately is not Zizek’s own! Speaking of ‘secret agendas’ is an inflammatory irrelevance unless you think that government and big business have actually managed to achieve what you imagine them capable of. However, given the number of outright disasters – which are more impressive than whistleblowers – you might come to believe that Zizek is egging the pudding with regard to any straightforward sense of big data resulting in big control. Of course, this provides no grounds for complacency. But the real critical effort should be placed on revealing the fallibility of ‘big data’ as inputs to state action. If anything, the whistleblowers celebrated by Zizek are just as certain as the allegedly menacing states about the latter’s potential efficacy. Yet, this is the myth that really needs to be addressed – but which Zizek unfortunately occludes.

Once we choose to follow the path of state secrets, we sooner or later reach the fateful point at which the legal regulations prescribing what is secret become secret. Kant formulated the basic axiom of the public law: “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.” A secret law, a law unknown to its subjects, legitimises the arbitrary despotism of those who exercise it, as indicated in the title of a recent report on China: “Even what’s secret is a secret in China.”

China is not a representative democracy in the Western sense and has not claimed otherwise. There is no reason to expect China to live up to Zizek’s reading of Kantian maxims. If we truly wish them do so, then I suggest that mass propaganda is in order (which I might support). Otherwise this high dudgeon is simply presented to raise the political temperature.

Troublesome intellectuals who report on political oppression, ecological catastrophes, rural poverty etc, got years in prison for betraying a state secret, and the catch was that many of the laws and regulations that made up the state-secret regime were themselves classified, making it difficult for individuals to know how and when they are in violation.

What makes the all-encompassing control of our lives so dangerous is not that we lose our privacy, that all our intimate secrets are exposed to Big Brother. There is no state agency able to exert such control – not because they don’t know enough, but because they know too much. The sheer size of data is too large, and in spite of all intricate programs for detecting suspicious messages, computers that register billions of data are too stupid to interpret and evaluate them properly, ridiculous mistakes where innocent bystanders are listed as potential terrorists occur necessarily – and this makes state control of communications even more dangerous. Without knowing why, without doing anything illegal, we can all be listed as potential terrorists. Recall the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he doesn’t want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I am afraid that if I go, there will be chaos, everything will fall apart – but I am even more afraid to discover that if I go, things will just go on as normal without me, a proof that I am not really needed!” Something similar can be said about the state control of our communications: we should fear that we have no secrets, that secret state agencies know everything, but we should fear even more that they fail in this endeavour.

Clearly the editor was on holiday. This is simply paranoia, and perhaps Zizek’s weird late Cold War closeness to the Stalinist mentality may be to blame for this particular outpouring. Again, the problem is not that the state may really know too much but that it may THINK it knows too much, such that the comprehensiveness of big data issues a more liberal license for action than the state would normally have. In contrast, a productive ‘left’ response must begin with recognition of this fundamental epistemic difference.

This is why whistleblowers play a crucial role in keeping the “public reason” alive. Assange, Manning, Snowden, these are our new heroes, exemplary cases of the new ethics that befits our era of digitalised control. They are no longer just whistleblowers who denounce the illegal practices of private companies to the public authorities; they denounce these public authorities themselves when they engage in “private use of reason”.

We need Mannings and Snowdens in China, in Russia, everywhere. There are states much more oppressive than the US – just imagine what would have happened to someone like Manning in a Russian or Chinese court (in all probability no public trial). However, one should not exaggerate the softness of the US: true, the US doesn’t treat prisoners as brutally as China or Russia – because of its technological priority, it simply does not need the brutal approach (which it is more than ready to apply when needed). In this sense, the US is even more dangerous than China insofar as its measures of control are not perceived as such, while Chinese brutality is openly displayed.

It is therefore not enough to play one state against the other (like Snowden, who used Russia against the US): we need a new international network to organise the protection of whistleblowers and the dissemination of their message. Whistleblowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do it, we can also do it.

These last three paragraphs show why Zizek has become a waste of space for the Left – especially for anyone trained in social science. He is surfing on the surfaces of recorded political action without considering the differences in the structures of accountability that are bringing them about and potentially limiting or extending them. Just as Zizek ignorantly fetishises the potential of ‘big data’ to bring about a ‘Big Brother’ style world, he equally ignorantly fetishes American ‘technological priority’ (a euphemism for military might), without realizing the potential for enormous unintended and unanticipated failure. To be sure, these failures could have even more disastrous consequences than Zizek imagines, but for him to imagine them he would need to wake up from his Stalinist dystopian fantasy.

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