On Zizek and the London Riots

Dear Editors,

I mostly enjoyed Musab Younis’s article on the London riots. However, I was taken aback by the dismissive allusion to Zizek and his supposedly slightly predictable Hegelianism. Whether one likes Zizek’s writings or not, this sort of jibe strikes me as profoundly unhelpful.

As Christian Lorentzen has pointed out, the one philosopher hipsters know is the Big Slovenian. That in itself does not invalidate his claims. If n+1 really wishes to go beyond the postmodern playfulness so typical of our age, a different strategy is necessary. A proper critique should follow the Nietzschean injunction that the most thorough dissection of an opponent is to make his arguments appear stronger than they actually are. Everything else is just resentment.

I happen to think that leftists can learn a lot from Zizek precisely because of his Hegelianism. If there’s one philosopher whose thought is anything but predictable and nearly explodes with complexity, it’s Hegel. He can teach us a lot about the student protest and the recent riots in Britain.

For one, Hegel dispenses with the conflation of “state” and “government” that by now has become absolutely standard on the left. There’s nothing natural to this way of thinking. Actually, it’s a genuinely liberal idea, championed above all by John Stuart Mill and full of contradictions. Mill claims that when we say “state,” we refer to nothing other than the government in power. By accepting this premise, the left chooses to wear the liberal straitjacket. Education cuts followed by heavy policing aren’t government decisions, they’re the result of “statist violence.” What gets lost on the way are the conceptual tools that allow us to efficiently defend public education, social rights, et cetera. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to mount an antistatist defence of public education.

Hegel—and Zizek—provide us with these tools. For Hegel, in the triad civil society-state-government, a government is a representative of the state. So what is the state then? Taking his cue from Hobbes, Hegel claims it’s the idealized version of our collective life. But while for Hobbes, the collectivity merely serves to rein in our animal instincts, for Hegel the state becomes a far more enabling entity, an ethically powerful vision of living together. This is no trifling matter because his theory was developed in response to the French Revolution, which at a certain point in his life, he supported. Eric Weil showed in the 1950s what a progressive reading of Hegel could look like. If a government fails to be the proper representative of the collectivity, civil society has every right to topple it. If the government triples tuition fees, acting to the detriment of the public weal, it decidedly does not act on behalf of the state understood in this idealized sense.

Younis  mentions “state violence” too, referring to the harsh and disgraceful sentencing of rioters. For Hegel, the judicial system is a branch of government and as such distinct from the state. Looking at the ridiculous legal spectacle we’ve recently observed, Weil’s Hegel might have said that short-term aims of the government have led to a political takeover of the law. Once again, this development is directly detrimental to the ideal collectivity that is the state. (And here you can see the complexity come into play. Civil society acts on the state, changing it in the process. But agents or representatives of the state can also participate in civil society, as exemplified by the recent UK police protests against the cuts.)

One could go on indefinitely. For now, I’d just like to take note of the urgent necessity to become aware of our conceptual dependence on liberal thought. The antistatism of Deleuze, Foucault and most recently Badiou has done nothing to remedy it. On the contrary, it has played into the hands of neoliberalism. Reading Zizek seems a more promising start. Here’s an extract from his review of Alain Badiou’s Logiques des mondes:

The main ambiguity of this position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish the state (and capitalism), why act with a DISTANCE towards the state? Why not with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the New Left’s Third Way? Perhaps, it is time to take seriously Stalin’s obsessive critique of “bureaucracy,” and to appreciate in a new (Hegelian) way the necessary work done by the State bureaucracy. In other words, is Critchley’s (and Badiou’s) position not that of relying on the fact that someone else will assume the task of running the state machinery, enabling us to engage in the critical distance towards the state? Furthermore, if the space of emancipatory politics is defined by a distance towards the state, are we not abandoning the field (of the state) all too easily to the enemy? Is it not crucial WHAT form the state power has? Does this position not lead to the reduction of this crucial question to a secondary place: ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what kind of state we have? So when Badiou claims that the Red Guardists “prescribed for the decades to come the affirmative realization of this beginning, of which they themselves, since their fury remained caught into what they were raising against, explored only the face of pure negation,” will this “affirmative realization” be the one of inventing a new way of dispensing with the State, of “abolishing” it, or a mere distance towards the State, or—much more radically—a new APPROPRIATION of State apparatuses?

—Danilo Scholz

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