On the ‘West’: a perverse defence of politics

Slavoj Žižek - by Palestra Slavoj Žižek, Secom UnB, Foto: Mariana Costa, 12 March 2013, 20:20 (Slavoj_Žižek_2013_8556931759.jpg) (CC BY 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]), via Flickr
Slavoj Žižek – by Palestra Slavoj Žižek, Secom UnB, Foto: Mariana Costa, 12 March 2013, 20:20 (Slavoj_Žižek_2013_8556931759.jpg) (CC BY 2.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]), via Flickr
There has been a considerable amount of popular interest in the concept of the ‘West’ in recent weeks because of Donald Trump’s speech in Poland about it. From Peter Beinart’s denunciation of the inherent racism of the concept to the resharing of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2016 piece in The Guardian arguing that the ‘West’ itself does not exist, accusations of ‘Eurocentrism’ are floating around afresh.

It is not my intention here to give a takedown of Trump’s Warsaw speech, much as I promised a Polish Dominican a few weeks ago that I would (I will save my bullets for later). Instead, I want to work through why despite all the protestations about Eurocentrism, whiteness, and Christian privilege, I am unconvinced that the West is all bad. This, I hope, will serve as prelude for whatever exegesis I will perform on Trump (and Bannon, who probably actually wrote the speech) in the future, as well as to set the groundwork for the ‘macrodiaconal analysis’ I described yesterday of the world that we currently inhabit.

One of the essays that gave me some new ideas for how to talk about the ‘West’ was Slavoj Žižek’s London Review of Books piece on Maidan in 2014. The protests in Ukraine have by now been definitively written off by most of the Left as the combined work of Ukrainian national fascists and NATO provocation, but Žižek, standing mostly alone on this question as a committed leftist, has given a very different spin on things. He said that it mattered that the protesters at Maidan had an imagination of what the West was like – one that wasn’t as naïve as most people who are – as he suggests in another work, The Fragile Absolute – casually racist toward Eastern Europeans thought was the case:

The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimean referendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainian fascism. The events in Ukraine – the massive protests that toppled Yanukovich and his gang – should be understood as a defence against the dark legacy resuscitated by Putin. The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise good relations with Russia over the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece. In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.

Explaining this, Žižek repeats one of his most frequently told jokes – the one about the Jew called Rabinovitch who wants to emigrate from the Soviet Union. When the bureaucrat asks him why, Rabinovitch gives two reasons. His first reason, he says, is that he’s worried that the Soviet Union is going to lose power. Never, replies the bureaucrat. ‘That’s the second reason,’ Rabinovitch retorts.

In the same way, the desire to join the EU that propelled the protests at Maidan – they were in fact called Euromaidan – might be taken as a critical appraisal of what is usually taken to be a hyper-bureaucratic structure, with austerity budgets that once drove Greece into bankrupt, to boot. Provocatively, Žižek asserts that maybe the EU shouldn’t be asking whether Ukraine deserves to be part of it, but whether the EU deserves to have Ukraine, with all of its people’s dreams about what the EU could be:

Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy [to get Russian aggression out of Eastern Ukraine] until it renews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only by leaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive. It is not the Ukrainians who should learn from Europe: Europe has to learn to live up to the dream that motivated the protesters on the Maidan. The lesson that frightened liberals should learn is that only a more radical left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.

The act of trying to join the EU, Žižek suggests, was ultimately one that critiqued the EU as it was then and still currently is. The EU may be a hyper-bureaucracy, it may be annoying, it may be ineffective. But the protesters at Maidan were appealing to something more primal than the bureaucratic. For them, the EU embodied Europe and all of its mythologies about human rights, dignity, democracy, freedom, and all of the rest of those pretty sounding words. Jaded commentators, mostly affiliated with the ‘Left,’ might point out that those words are, in the words of Malcolm X, just that: pretty sounding words. What about all the people of color, indigenous people, and colonized workers, peasants, and precarious workers who never got to taste these bourgeois and elite principles?

That is just the point, Žižek is suggesting. The myths are worth fighting for, especially with their explicitly Christian legacy, because they can be made true in ways that are more than talk. Indeed, the hopes and dreams of Ukrainians, for example, would demand that the EU live up to its Europeanness.

I discovered much later after initially stumbling on this piece that this argument is one of the central threads that animates Žižek’s work, found initially articulated in Critical Inquiry in 1998 under the title ‘A leftist plea for Eurocentrism.’ In that piece, Žižek challenges the way that what can be broadly called the Left have generally been practicing radical emancipatory politics, a kind of politics in which ordinary persons determine for themselves what future they want instead of having some superhuman, mythical ‘big other’ tell them what they want and how they want it. Conventionally, one might think that a trenchant account of political freedom would require some kind of assault on white supremacy and legacies of Euro-American colonization. These historical legacies were and continue to be terrible, Žižek says, but the shorthand accusation of Eurocentrism has become a kind of social censorship, a gotcha card of sorts where if you ‘center’ Europe, America, white men, the ‘West,’ and all the rest, then you yourself are reinforcing all that colonial oppression. Wouldn’t another strategy, Žižek inquires, be to double down on the European values of radical emancipation, to stop being hypocrites about the universal language and actually be universal? If the EU is so bureaucratic and people on the Left are giving the general concepts of ‘Europe’ and the ‘West’ flak for historic and contemporary colonization, doesn’t it follow that nobody in Europe is actually doing the politics that radical emancipation requires? Isn’t this apolitical alternative between the hyper-bureaucracy and the cultural politics of anti-Eurocentrism the real problem?

The global situation even in the 1990s was desperate enough for Žižek to make that plea because of what he saw as the alternative: ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ which is not his term (it is Lee Kwan Yew’s – and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s quote, at that), though he has since received lots of flak for it. Although there are many texts in which Žižek deploys this term, I think the 1998 piece is where he explains it the most clearly:

The late-capitalist solution is best epitomized by two city-states, Hong Kong and Singapore. In Singapore, we find the paradoxical combination of capitalist economic logic with corporate communitarian ethics aimed at precluding any politicization of social life. Hong Kong under Chinese rule seems to move towards the same solution, albeit in a more Americanized, multiculturalist, and pluralist spirit. It is deeply significant that, in the last years of his life, the late Deng Xiaobing [sic] himself, the so-called father of Chinese reforms, expressed his admiration for Singapore as the model to be followed in China. The motto of “wise” Asian rules like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew – the combination of the full inclusion of their economies into global capitalism with the traditional Asian values of discipline, respect for tradition, and so forth – points precisely towards globalization without universalism, that is, with the political dimension suspended. In a different way, the model towards which the United States seems to be moving – the permissive coexistence of a multitude of ways of life within the global capitalist framework – approaches in another way the same result of depoliticization. The rising globalization without universalism demonstrates that the opposition of globalization to particular cultural identity embodied in a specific way of life is deeply misleading. What is effectively threatened by globalization is not the cosa nostra (our private secret way of life from which others are excluded, which others want to steal from us) but its exact opposite: universality itself in its eminently political dimension. One of today’s common wisdoms is that we are entering a new medieval society in the guise of the new world order. The grain of truth in this comparison is that, like medieval times, the new world order is global, but not universal, since it strives for a new global order with each part in its allocated place. (Žižek 1998: 1008-9).

I quote this in full to reinforce Žižek’s later clarification that the term ‘capitalism with Asian values’ has ‘nothing to do with Asian people and everything to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism as such to suspend democracy’ (see Trouble in Paradise, p. 23-4). Žižek, after all, is easy to misread. Does not this passage speak of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ as if it were a sort of yellow peril? Doesn’t Žižek definitely demonstrate his ignorance by misspelling Deng Xiaoping’s name? Isn’t the use of ‘la cosa nostra’ in relation to the ‘private secret way of life’ potentially homophobic and transphobic? Isn’t his taking feudalism as a given the ‘Middle Ages’ a kind of medievalism that doesn’t even get at how complex those times were?

As usual, Žižek is playful, and in this case, he is playing his readers because he knows us to be geographical fundamentalists. For most people, a reference to ‘Asia,’ or to the ‘West,’ or to ‘la cosa nostra,’ or even to the ‘medieval,’ is to talk about a place that is real, coherent, and local. This is precisely the kind of parochial thinking he is making fun of in this passage: in a perverse way, it is parochialism that is becoming universal. The phenomena of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ in Singapore, Hong Kong, and even mainland China, the feudalism of medievalizing mythology, la cosa nostra: these are not places for Žižek in the geographical sense – they are symptoms of a globalized parochialism, the giving-in to a private order where politics is not possible because everybody is just supposed to know and be in their proper place. In turn, the ‘West,’ or ‘Europe,’ or even ‘the United States’ in this passage are not places either – they are manifestations of a universal impulse toward politics. This is not white supremacy or Western superiority: this is the ‘West’ as a symbol of a radical emancipatory politics that comes from a truly primal urge.

In other words, Žižek is not saying that radical emancipatory politics come from ‘Western values’; he’s saying that the ‘West’ comes from somewhere deep, somewhere primal, somewhere universal where politics – the practice of determining our collective future together by giving each other the assumption of so much dignity that we can duke it out in words and action – is primary. This is quite a bit like Sam Rocha’s folk phenomenology, an exploration of the experience of ordinary people in the world: at the end of the day, you don’t have to go to school or be ideologically brainwashed to know that the real way you relate to another person is to simply be a person. Politics is not ideology; quite the opposite: ideology gets in the way of politics, of really facing your fellow person and arguing out what your common future is supposed to be. To advocate for politics as such is not to advance yet another ideology, another dogma, another kind of parochialism: in fact, Žižek is so scared of this that one of his newer provocations is that he doesn’t want to live in a ‘direct democracy’ where everyone has to decide together where electricity or water comes from – he wants a ‘nicely alienated state’ where those amenities are piped into the home invisibly by an inconspicuous bureaucracy. Those who try to turn Žižek’s warnings against ‘capitalism with Asian values’ into an alt-right ‘West versus the rest’ attempt to dismantle the ‘bureaucratic state’ are in for a rude awakening: technological advances, state bureaucracies, and even militaries (which Žižek says can be used to process asylum claims very efficiently) can be good things when they serve the purpose of primal, personal politics.

The paradox is that this is precisely the ideal of the ‘West,’ though in practice it has played out better for Rocha’s Tejano, my Cantonese, and the Ukrainians’ occupation of Maidan – even while the West as it is as a place is a technocratic, intersectionally oppressive institutional reality that may well be seduced by an efficiency that has surpassed it in ‘capitalism with Asian values.’ Of course, then, it would be correct to say that the Greeks weren’t white, and some ideas that are attributed to the ‘West’ are better articulated in Islamic philosophical history: the point is that the ‘West’ is, in the words of one of Žižek’s titles less than nothing, and yet the concept has a sort of primal power to move people in the here-and-now toward the radical emancipatory politics that requires precisely the absence of a big other to tell people what they want and how they want it. What Žižek is naming the West actually has never existed except as a myth, and it is one that is believed in far more by those historically colonized and oppressed than their gweilo oppressors. What is called ‘capitalism with Asian values’ might have been formulated as a symptom in Singapore and Greater China, but the danger that Žižek sees is that it is the pinnacle of a post-patriarchal white man’s fantasy.

The West, in short, is not the enemy because it is also not a place. It emerges from a universal primal urge that is oriented toward politics. That may be the position from which to contest Trump’s appeal to ‘western values.’ But that too is but a symptom. The demon to be cast out is the one that threatens the disappearance of politics altogether, and because all of Žižek’s names for it (‘capitalism with Asian values,’ la cosa nostra, a return to feudal medievalism) are caricatured references to imprecise phenomena that are but symptoms, the question to ask of it – as at every exorcism – is: what is your name?

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