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Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Zizek and Gaddafi: Living in the old world
A prominent European philosopher who argues that the Arab Spring is over simply can't fathom a new, hopeful world.
Last Modified: 01 Sep 2011 12:32
Slavoj Zizek's failure to understand the true nature of the upheavals across the Arab world, such as in Libya, above, can be ascribed to his 'postmodern existential angst' and lack of imagination [EPA]

Just a couple of days before the fall of Tripoli to Libyan rebels, Saidj Mustapha, a prominent Algerian political scientist was asked his opinion about the Arab Spring.

He responded by outlining a number of key factors that he thought had contributed to the making of the dramatic transnational revolutions, particularly the aging leadership and the young population, mixed with the corruption of the ruling regimes, concluding that: “The young people who launched this revolution do not come from the traditional political institutions, such as political parties or military coup elites. This makes us look forward to a phase of democratic transition from an authoritarian regime to a pluralistic, democratic system.”

When he was asked to predict what would happen in Libya (this interview was conducted in Algiers on August 19, 2011, just before the Libyan rebels entered Tripoli), he gave a detailed answer, scenario-by-scenario, analysing the possibilities of (1) civil war that would split Libya like Sudan, (2) the triumph of the Transitional National Council, and (3) the nightmare of Iraq or Somalia and civil strife in which he feared that the al-Qaeda in Maghreb might be the beneficiary. In a very short interview, but still in very precise terms, Saidj Mustapha was meticulous, caring, optimistic, and above all celebratory of the Arab Spring and the new horizons of open-ended politics it had occasioned.

As the fate, or metahistorical force of events, would have it, exactly on the same day, August 19, 2011, the London Review of Books published an essay by the famous European philosopher Slavoj Zizek, frivolously titled (as is his wont), “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” in which he gave his take on the recent UK riots.

Zizek's worldless world

In this article, Zizek concurred with Alain Badiou, his French counterpart, that “we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence”. Zizek continued to suggest that “the riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: terrorist attacks and suicide bombings”. But, he stipulated, “the difference is that, in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris, terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning provided by religion.”

So what we have here, as Zizek saw it, defined by shoplifters and terrorists, is a “worldless” world (informed by Badiou and shoplifters) and occupied by “absolute Meaning” (suggested by Hegel and Osama bin Laden). 

Zizek then turns his attention to the Arab Spring: “But weren’t the Arab uprisings a collective act of resistance that avoided the false alternative of self-destructive violence and religious fundamentalism?” This should have given the European philosopher a sign of hope in what appeared to be a worldless world filled with absolutist religious meanings thrown like grenades by terrorist Hegelians. But it did not. The European philosopher has lost all hope: “Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated.”

“The end of revolution?”  So early? So early in the game and so utterly has the European philosopher lost all hope. How did he come to that conclusion? “Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony.”

To be sure, this has by now become a cliché concern among a certain segment of Arab intellectuals too, but more as a defiant rallying cry than a metaphysical fait accompli, the air in which Zizek was delivering his ruling. There were other Arab activists and intellectuals who were even more concerned about their revolution being derailed and kidnapped by the perfectly business-suit-clad and clean shaven neoliberals, by the IMF, by the World Bank, by the NATO bombings, by American neoconservatives “helping Arabs transit to democracy”, while they put “boots on the ground” and signed with them lucrative business deals.

Zizek: out of touch

But strange that the (evidently Marxist) European philosopher had no concerns about those kinds of “suffocating” the revolution. On a previous occasion I have suggested that the distinguished European philosophers like Zizek who wish to say something about other parts of the world need to diversify among their native informers. But alas, Zizek seems not to have listened to my advice. “The losers,” he warns Europeans, “will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak - in spite of the CIA funding they are getting - to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists”.

All these key confusions of Zizek - his “secular left” in particular is a giveaway - should warn him to start shopping around (with a proper credit card of course, for shoplifting is nihilistic) for better native informers. The ones he has now are no good. In a “worldless” world, filled with Absolute meanings of militant Islamists stealing revolutions like shoplifters, Zizek’s diagnosis is that “today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old one after the uprising, when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment is over?"

In this “worldless” world we have, it seems, a lack of organisation; yes indeed, party politics. Zizek mourns precisely where and what Saidj Mustapha celebrates. Zizek dismisses not just the UK shoplifters, the Muslim terrorists, and the Arab revolutions, but even the Spanish indignados

In this context, the manifesto of the Spanish indignados, issued after their demonstrations in May, is revealing. The first thing that meets the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: 'Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.'

They make their protest on behalf of the 'inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life'. Rejecting violence, they call for an ‘ethical revolution ... The indignados dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power ... And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

So no hope in Spain either, where people are revolting without having a revolution. Is it not entirely unpredictable that the European philosopher goes back to Greece, his fictive birthplace, for solace and hope:  “The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime).”

But even good old Greece is not a happy scene for “the Absolute Professor” (this was Søren Kierkegaard ‘s choice term for Zizek’s idol Hegel), for “even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on”.

This to Zizek is anarchy, lacking in revolutionary discipline, the necessary cadre of political party apparatchiks of the old Soviet sort. “When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness."

The abyss had opened and the postmodern professor has become positively punctilious; yes, indeed, dare we say it: conservative. All it takes is a riot in London (retail therapy on steroids), a terrorist attack in New York, and a misinformed native informer of the Arab Spring in the philosopher’s company to turn the world dark and worldless, filled with Absolute fanaticism, and expose the postmodern existential angst unable to read the signs of time.

Is the Arab Spring half-full or half-empty?

Whence the difference between these two perspectives: the Arab intellectual morally invested and politically engaged, while his European counterpart morally aloof and politically pessimistic? One has everything to gain, a world to live; the other nothing to lose, having lost his world to worldlessness. The Algerian political scientist thrives on a visionary reading of a world that Zizek dismisses as already worldless. Why is Saidj Mustapha not afraid of a conspiracy between the Islamists and the generals? Why is Joseph Massad far more afraid of American neoliberals and neoconservatives than of Islamists? A world is unfolding right in front of Zizek’s eyes and he sees the world worldless, the Egyptian revolution suffocated, the Arab Spring lost. How and why is it that the Algerian intellectual celebrates precisely what the European philosopher mourns: the absence of party politics, the rise of a politics beyond clichés? 

Zizek mourns worldlessness, and designates absolute Meaning as the cause of terrorism. He does not see the world that is unfolding right before him as a hopeful, purposeful, worldly, life-affirming world. This is because, just like Gaddafi, Zizek is stuck in his old ways. He cannot believe his eyes, he cannot believe what is happening to him: that his world has ended, not the world; that he (embodying a European philosophy at the losing end of its dead certainties) lives a worldless world, not the world.

Zizek and Gaddafi are identical souls, sticking to the worlds they know, militantly, the world they are losing - defiant rebels banging at the Bab Aziziyeh compound of their habitat, a world that is either theirs or it will not exits: “Après moi, le déluge.”  Barely begun, Zizek dismisses the Arab Spring and then mourns the loss of idealism among the shoplifters.

It is in fact the European philosopher himself that is the gravedigger of history, having nothing to see, nothing to say, nothing to celebrate, because this history is not his history, is not History, for History has always been His, and not anyone else’s. It is quite a moment in History when the Hegelian cannot tell between signs of a disease (shoplifting and terrorism) as the thesis and the sights of a cure (the Arab Spring) as antithesis - giving it up to generals and Islamists. London riots and terrorism of one brand or another are the symptoms of a disease, of capitalism and its imperialist fighter jets running amok from the top to the bottom.

Arab Spring is the renewed ground zero of history, the sight of a world that is beginning to reveal itself, precisely at the moment when the European philosopher sees the world “worldless” because it is not his world - just like Colonel Gaddafi - a world in which he cannot imagine himself, for he has been imagining the world for everyone else. The Arab Spring is the opening horizons of a hope of emancipation, of a renewed reading of world, of worlds. But Zizek does not see it because this is not the world of his making, the visage and force of a world Hegel had delegated to pre-History, non-History. Zizek has already recited the obituary of the Arab Spring, while what appears as a worldless world to the European philosopher is a world he cannot fathom, as it is being inhabited by others he cannot not read. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard University Press, 2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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