III. Žižek: The August Uprising as a “zero-degree protest”

Or how a zero-philosopher is frightened by the reality of class struggle

 

But before we deal with these organisations we want to refer our readers to the assessment of Slavoj Žižek, one of the favourite intellectuals of the British left and a philosopher of the radical wing of the petty bourgeoisie. His attitude to the August Uprising is characteristic of the approach of the middle class left. He wrote in an article in the online-edition of the London Review of Books:

 

Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’. (…) If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented. The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?” (8)

 

Žižek’s statement is a perfect example of the reactionary nature of the left-wing intelligentsia which in the hour of sharp class struggle denounces the rebels from the proletariat and the oppressed. Furthermore it summarises the arrogance of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals towards the proletariat and expresses the gross distance – no, let us better say the abyss – between such intellectuals and the mass of the proletariat.

 

First Žižek claims that the working class fighters “had no message to deliver”. The Uprising was according to him a “meaningless outburst”, a “‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence”, a “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing”. This can only be said by an intellectual who didn’t participate in the uprising, who refuses to read or to understand the many reports of eye-witnesses and who considers the fighters to be “ferals” or “stupid animals”. The whole chronology of the August Uprising starting with the police murder of Mark Duggan and the violent suppression of the protest rally on 5th August, the numerous statement of activists reported in the media, our own experience of the RKOB delegation in conversations with the people in Tottenham and Enfield – all this makes it completely obvious that the hatred against the police, against the racist discrimination, against the poverty and the system behind it were the causes and the motivation for the rebellion. The problem is not the “zero-degree protest” but the zero-degree understanding of the revolt by a middle class intellectual.

 

It is only logical that Žižek slanders the rebellious working class youth as “rabble” – abusing poor old Hegel. It is not a far way to conclude from the “rabble” to the “feral” of Cameron and his right wing propagandists.

 

Žižek tries to present his slander as philosophical wisdom with his reference to Hegel’s ‘abstract negativity’. But we Marxists know that movement is impossible without negativity – indeed Lenin spoke about “negativity, which is the inherent pulsation of self-movement and vitality” (9) Negativity is a step towards Negation, part of the movement of the contradictions. Politically speaking the spontaneous August Uprising of the poor and oppressed was a step on their contradictory road in acting as a revolutionary subject – despite the denial of the zero-philosopher.

 

Finally Žižek arrogantly compares the rabble rioters to the university student demonstrating in November 2010. The unruly spontaneous protest of university students is great (these are the people whom Žižek teaches every day) while the unruly spontaneous protest of the dangerous “rabble” (with whom people like Žižek hardly ever have contact) is dangerous and “mindless”. It is true that the working class youth in the poor districts are not well organised in parties and unions. This is not their fault, but the fault of the labour movement. It is therefore not surprising that they did not formally present petitions and declarations. It is also quite possible that they are not as educated as the university students who could explain more eloquently their demands to the media. So what, Mister Philosopher?! You better learn the language and the desire of the working class – go to the areas where they live and support their struggle and efforts to organising. If not, Mr. Žižek, stay at your university but please spare us with your wisdom about the working class, black and migrant youth whom you slander as “rabble”!

 

It is a shame that many leftists praise Žižek as a Marxist philosopher. This tells us a lot about the understanding of Marxism of these leftists. In fact reading Žižek's assessment of the Uprising is important because it expresses – on a “philosophical” level – the approach of the left-wing middle class and labour aristocracy to the violent forms of class struggle of the lower strata of the proletariat. To a certain degree he acts today as the philosopher of petty bourgeois left-wing aristocratism.

 

Some time ago comrade Simon Hardy from the League for the Fifth International published a good critique of Slavoj Žižek and correctly characterised him as an “idealist Trojan horse”, writing “but he is in fact a Trojan horse, smuggling in idealist and anti revolutionary concepts into the left.” (10) But today as the LFI and its British section Workers Power have ceased to be a revolutionary organisation they promote Žižek's reactionary article about the Uprising on their own website. (11) Without a single word of critique in their preface readers of the WP website are invited to join Žižek denouncing of the “zero-degree protest” of the “rabble”. It reflects the sentiments about the August Uprising and the political degeneration of the LFI/WP leadership that such a reactionary statement can find praise and promotion on its website!

 

It is the arrogant reaction of the pseudo-Marxists to the spontaneous uprisings of the masses. The Russian Marxist fighter, Vladimir Lenin, wrote a polemic in his preface to the Russian translation of Karl Marx’s letters to Kugelmann in 1907 against the Menshevik Intellectual Plekhanov, who was an old leader of the revolutionary movement in Russia. Plekhanov condemned the defeated Revolution of 1905 in Russia, moaning that the “masses should not have taken up arms”. Plekhanov compared himself even with Marx, who was warning the masses in Paris in September 1870 that the insurrection under the concrete circumstances would be an act of desperate folly. Whilst Marx warned the masses in advance he didn’t hesitate a single moment to support their struggle half a year later culminating the Uprising of the Paris Communes in March 1871. He rather expressed full enthusiasm, developed tactics to guide the masses, to show them the next steps forward combined with the perspectives in their concrete struggle.

 

Lenin wrote about this in his polemic against Plekhanov:

 

The historical initiative of the masses was what Marx prized above everything else. Ah, if only our Russian Social-Democrats would learn from Marx how to appreciate the historical initiative of the Russian workers and peasants in October and December 1905!

 

Compare the homage paid to the historical initiative of the masses by a profound thinker, who foresaw failure six months ahead—and the lifeless, soulless, pedantic: “They should not have taken up arms”! Are these not as far apart as heaven and earth?

 

And like a participant in the mass struggle, to which he reacted with all his characteristic ardour and passion, Marx, then living in exile in London, set to work to criticise the immediate steps of the “recklessly brave” Parisians who were “ready to storm heaven”.

 

Ah, how our present “realist” wiseacres among the Marxists, who in 1906-07 are deriding revolutionary romanticism in Russia, would have sneered at Marx at the time! How people would have scoffed at a materialist, an economist, an enemy of utopias, who pays homage to an “attempt” to storm heaven! What tears, condescending smiles or commiseration these “men in mufflers” would have bestowed upon him for his rebel tendencies, utopianism, etc., etc., and for his appreciation of a heaven-storming movement!” (12)

 

Žižek today as well as all “Marxists” who share his sentiments on the August Uprisings, including the LFI/WP leadership, sneered at the masses on the streets and the ones who are really participating in their fight. If this behaviour would be characteristic for Marxists, than Marx would not have been one.

 

In contrary to the behaviour of LFI/WP leadership a delegation of the RKOB from Austria went to Britain to agitate day and night in the working class districts of London and to participate in the struggle of the proletarian youth. Of course there have been a lot of weaknesses of these struggles and one can even say that the perspective of the developments, i.e. the massive repression afterwards, could have been foreseen. But Marxism includes a very simple principle: If the proletarian masses are on the streets fighting against the bourgeois state apparatus revolutionaries have to participate, have to develop the correct tactics for this struggle. Wiseacres can sneer at the masses (the revolutionary masses will sneer back at them too) but if they dare to call themselves Marxists they have to be unmasked.

 

 

(8)           Slavoj Žižek: Shoplifters of the World Unite, London Review of Books, 19 August 2011, http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite

 

(9)           In German: W.I. Lenin, Konspekt zur ‚Wissenschaft der Logik’. Die Lehre vom Wesen; in: LW 38, S. 133; in English: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/cons-logic/ch02.htm#LCW38_129

 

(10)         Simon Hardy: Slavoj Žižek, an idealist Trojan horse, LFI, 28/10/2010, http://www.fifthinternational.org/content/slavoj-zizek-idealist-trojan-horse

 

(11)         http://www.workerspower.co.uk/2011/08/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite/

 

(12)         W. I. Lenin: Vorwort zur russischen Übersetzung der Briefe von K. Marx an L. Kugelmann (1907); in: LW 12, S. 101; in English: Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx’s Letters to Dr. Kugelmann, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1907/feb/05.htm

 


 

Chapter 2: Understanding of the August Uprisings

Chapter 4: Lootings and the illusions of "pure" insurrections