Rundle on Zizek

I’m more of a fan of Guy Rundle than Slavoj Zizek. Now the former has reviewed the latter’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. It’s a generally positive review – it’s good as motivational literature apparently – but it makes the following point about a certain brand of philosophical Marxism that has been pretty fashionable these last few years, a point I think is spot on:

The question Žižek perhaps does not face is whether invoking the idea of communism for the relatively unspecified transformation he suggests acts as a form of focus, and a renewal of possibility, or a slaking-off of energy by taking on the glamorous role of spectre, the – hushed tones – ‘communist’. It is not ridicule that is the greatest risk, but an easy resort to an historically given role, which not only refuses to connect to current struggles or movements, but on whose ideal content one is equally silent.

If you start worrying about what you are going to call a movement, before you actually get on with building it, are you firing your guns too early? After all, it is potent movements – from Methodism to Big Bang physics to Marxism itself – which have been named by their enemies, a moment of recognition of their real status. Meanwhile it is the most ephemeral and/or dated movements – Theosophy, Christian Science, fissiparous late Trotskyism – that wasted so much energy arguing over names.


Since the act of self-describing is rhetorical anyway, its only criteria of judgement is whether it gets some sort of effect – or whether it instead rushes to get a dividend from a process of getting people to think otherwise what, at this stage, needs to be more concrete and particular, albeit not fragmented and ungrounded in postmodern fashion.

Published in: on 2 December, 2009 at 7:31 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make against “a certain brand of philosophical Marxism” by quoting Rundle on Zizek (I might add I am no fan of Zizek and know little of Rundle other than his at times annoying eclecticism). The point is well taken that some on the left act like keystone cops, slipping and sliding on the names of movements barely existent. However surely “communist” has a history even more long lived than the regimes named thus? If a movement or movements arise against capital and for a social order not organised by markets or other idealist hierarchies, what will we call it? Now it looks like I’m getting ahead of myself. Still, the point I am trying to make is that the term “communist,” sullied and begrimed by murder and bureaucratic horror as it is, is a term that refers to a content. But more importantly it is a term we can use despite what these movements will call themselves (when they arise!), or what their enemies will lumber them with (and no doubt “communist” will be such a term of abuse, as it even was in the 19th century under different conditions).

  2. Hi Anthony,

    His point is not so much that ‘communism’ is a bad word. Just before the bits I quoted: “But the main problem with his re-invoking of communism does not lie with its squalid or criminal expressions in recent decades, but with what purpose its use is serving now.”

    Rather he’s making the point that it’s rather easy to call yourself a communist and engage in critical critiques, but that in itself isn’t politics. There’s a risk that it just becomes a kind of identity politics, good for the self-regard of the ‘communist’ but without much importance otherwise. Implicitly he’s contrasting it to when ‘the spectre of communism [was] haunting Europe’ – because when Marx and Engels wrote that, they didn’t mean a few radical exiles had come together to form the archimedian point that would move the world with this great idea they had come up with. They were hitching themselves to a word reactionaries had been using to badmouth a much broader rising political force that terrified them. It was a force that had most of Europe in revolutionary turmoil within six months, and the self-described communists were a small current within it and relating to it.

    Like I said, Rundle’s is generally a positive review, and he captures my own ambivalence about Zizek and Badiou. Now, I’ve only read some of their popular writing, not the serious philosophy. Some of it appeals to me – the critique of liberalism, the injunction to keep trying to build a force to the left of reformism even while prospects are bleak. It works as motivational literature, chicken soup for the radical soul.

    But my problem comes with the practical politics. Maybe this is more a point about Badiou than Zizek, and maybe reflects certain Badiouvians of my acquaintance rather than Badiou himself or Badiouvians in general, but it seems to me to be idealist. Pose the ‘communist hypothesis’, think as if there is only ‘one world’, etc. The position is everything. Worst, disregard what most people think of as politics, because anything which reproduces society as it is is ‘not politics’.

    In certain conditions, flying the flag might be a substantial material act. But it proves it only when people flock to it. My worry with this kind of politics is that it is a recipe for more political isolation and beautiful soul ‘communism’, a renunciation of engagement with real political forces, and eternal confinement to student and bohemian circles. My suspicions are raised by a failure to take political economy seriously, which is extraordinary within Marxism, and a dismissal of actually existing political forces and discourses.

  3. As for Rundle’s ‘eclecticism’, well, he’s a journalist and essayist rather than an academic. I think he’s pretty awesome at what he does, and it’s too bad most of his writing is paywalled within Crikey.

    Finally, you write, “markets or other idealist hierarchies”. Markets seem pretty obviously material to me! Which makes me think we are using different definitions. What do you mean?

    • Hey Mike,

      Apologies for the tardy reply. I’ve been joyfully away from the computer for the last month or so.

      I generally agree with your – and apparently Rundle’s – criticism of Zizek. My point, if a tad obtuse, is that the ‘communist movement’ has never been identical with ‘official’ communism, of whatever variant. Rather it is a term that can be used to describe historical struggles, whether or not they self-identified as ‘communist’ – at least those mass struggles of the modern era that were in some shape “anti-capitalist” or radically democratic. Thus we can understand Marx’s comment regarding communism being ‘the real movement of history’. That is communism is not merely a movement that is sui generis as it were, but rather as the barely repressed ‘secret’ of modernity, intimately bound up with the long course of bourgeois struggles over the last five hundred or so years.

      I agree that revolutionists should take political economy seriously. However where we differ in this regard is our perspective. You appear to see revolutionary criticism as a variant of or development of classical political economy, whereas I believe that Marx initiated something far more radical – i.e. the critique which pointed to the need to reject and overcome political economy. Thus you can understand my comment ‘markets or other idealist hierarchies.’ Marx set out to critique the value-form as a set of material social relations that was ideologically founded on idealist assumptions, e.g. Smith and Ricardo’s labour theory of value. I was not denying the materiality of markets; rather I was, perhaps clumsily, pointing to the idealist assumptions of the markets. I believe that most revolutionaries do not go far enough in their critique of the market. They happily point out the irrationality of market distribution whilst foregoing arguing against the irrationality of market relations as a whole, leaving open the possibility of a ‘rational’ market, or a ‘mixed economy.’

      • Hey Anthony, no worries, I’ve been away too… it’s nice to have a protracted discussion in a lazy summer way anyway.

        I don’t see socialist criticism as ‘a variant or development of classical political economy’ because it’s broader than political economy. But you’re right that I don’t see that part of Marx’s project which is concerned with political economy to be a total break from it. I also think there’s a lot for modern socialists to learn from classical, Keynesian and neoclassical economics – and that anyone whose entire knowledge of economics comes from Capital is likely to not understand Capital itself very well, since it was very much formed by its historical context in engagement with the political economy of the day.

        I still don’t think I understand your point. I’m not sure whether you are arguing that political economy/economics needs to be rejected and overcome because it is completely wrong about how capitalist society works, or because knowledge of how the economic sphere of capitalist society works deforms one’s political project due to too much respect for the mechanisms. When you say the value-form is a “set of material social relations… ideologically founded on idealist assumptions, e.g. Smith and Ricardo’s labour theory of value”, are you arguing that value relations exist _because_ Smith and Ricardo theorised them? If that’s what you mean, that itself seems really idealist to me and I completely disagree.

        To me, political economy/economics is the term for any social scientific study of the economic sphere of society. There’s certainly a lot of bad economics out there, but having some standard to judge it implies a better economics. What is most important and of continuing relevance in Marx’s critique of political economy is his understanding of the historical contingency and the explicitly social structure of its categories, and in fact the very existence of a relatively autonomous ‘economic sphere’ of capitalist society. He also made a bunch of arguments _within_ political economy, informed heuristically by those meta-economic ideas – many of which are insightful and interesting, but which don’t replace political economy as such and which stand or fall based on standards of argument and evidence that aren’t unique to Marxism.

        I don’t claim too much importance of a detailed understanding of economics to socialist strategy. But we should draw a clear distinction between the practical _political_ ‘critique of the market’ (as you put it), in the sense of an attempt to build a real socialist society, and the social scientific understanding of how the capitalist economy works (and ‘the market’ is only one element of that.)

    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks for the reply.

      I agree with most of what you say. Yes ‘there’s a lot for modern socialists to learn from classical, Keynesian and neoclassical economics – and that anyone whose entire knowledge of economics comes from Capital is likely to not understand Capital itself very well.’ But that yes is conditional on the object of capital being (bourgeois) political economy (the ‘bourgeois’ is a little redundant as political economy is *the* bourgeois ‘science’ par excellence), and neo-classical and Keynesian economics being both extensions of classical political economy, as too they are responses to Marx’s critique of such.

      However I disagree that ‘having some standard to judge it [i.e. political economy] implies a better economics.’ In much of Capital Marx’s ‘standard’ is political economy itself, i.e. he uses classical political economy and drives it to the point of absurdity to show, as you say, its ‘historical contingency.’ However it is a moot point that Marx provides a ‘better economics.’ One of the points of his value-form critique is to argue that economics, as a distinct ‘sphere,’ is an illusion. The value-form critique is merely an update or development of his argument in ‘On the Jewish Question’ in which he points to the fallacious split between ‘political man’ and ‘bourgeois (economic) man.’ That is not to say that this split is unreal or ideal; merely that is justification is fallacious. And this argument is a moment of a practice which points to the overcoming of ‘economic’ insofar as economics is presented as a separate ‘sphere’ or ‘basis’ of general human activity. For Marx it is precisely the problem that economics has come to dominate and organise human activity in capitalist societies that needs to be theorised and overcome. Hence I conditionally agree with you: yes, we need to understand the critique of political economy; no, this is not a new or better economics.

      And no, I was not arguing that value relations exist as a result of Smith and Ricardo’s theories. Rather, along with Marx, I would argue that their theorisation is insufficient and ultimately wrong. Marx’s ‘superior’ critique of value is too often taken for a general theory; even when it is clear that Marx points to both the historically peripheral nature of value-production in pre-capitalist societies as to he points to the supersession of value-production in post-capitalist societies. And when I say ‘peripheral’ I realise that there is a historical development of value-production preceding full blown capitalist societies that lays the foundation for the economic and political triumph of generalised capitalist social relations. I apologise for being unclear in my earlier response.

  4. Thanks for this quote. If Zizek’s books generate insights in the form of critical reviews then I guess I can live with him continuing to publish.

    On this: “a renunciation of engagement with real political forces”, yes definitely, and a renunciation of the various knowledges involved in those forces’ production, reproduction, internal discussions and decision making etc. On flying the communist flag, I’m all for that, but part of this neglect of the knowledges within political forces seems to me a neglect of questions of *how* one flies the flag while trying to engage. In my (admittedly minor) experience in mass movements and mass organizations, that one’s motivations are ideological does not win one point when trying to persuade people of what one thinks ought to happen. More of than not, if one succeeds in moving people toward one’s views it is *despite* being a communist (and thus gaining a bit more credibility for that flag). There’s more to say here – how to appeal to the nonrevolutionary interests of the class in itself in such a way that helps things move a step closer to the class for itself – but I have to get going. For now just wanted to say that I find very little of Zizek et al useful for any of that “more to say,” which is I think part of what you and Rundle are saying, yeah?
    take care,

    • Hey Nate,

      Yeah. The only qualification I would make is that it is of course an essential part of Marxist politics that we do take a critical view of the movements we are part of, assessing their capacity and trying to build their self-understanding. I think that’s what potentially makes us useful to the movements and what ultimately gives us credibility. I can see how Badiou or Zizek’s critiques of liberal politics as usual could seem profound to people who aren’t used to the idea, or just enjoyable to read for people who like to see it reinforced, but it is old news for Marxists.

      I do think it’s interesting that self-described Marxists like Badiou and Zizek play the same kind of role in Theory circles that used to be filled by people who described themselves as critics of Marxism like Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault (not to say they were always hostile). It’s a positive sign of the times, I think, but I see it as a bellwether rather than a generator if you know what I mean, because Theory of that kind is ultimately not as important for politics as politics is for Theory. Like you said once (I think) about someone else, it’s easier to see why Marxism is useful to them than vice versa. But maybe this is unfair – like I said, I haven’t read either’s weightier books.

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