Time for some “disciplinary terror”? Try again.

Where I part company with Slavoj Žižek (see previous posts 1 | 2) is, in the end, his unapologetic Marxist-Leninism, and in particular his apparent support for a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. As he writes

One of the mantras of the postmodern Left has been that we should finally leave behind the “Jacobin-Leninist” paradigm of centralized dictatorial power. But perhaps the time has come to turn this mantra around and admit that a good dose of just that “Jacobin-Leninist” paradigm is precisely what the Left needs today. (First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, p.125)

This includes what Žižek describes as the four “invariants” of communism:

strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people.

And yes, he did just say “disciplinary terror”. Now, as this blogger suggests, there is probably more than a hint of épater le bourgeois to this: a desire to shock bourgeois liberal opinion. As Terry Eagleton points out in a review of one of Žižek’s other books:

His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them.

And certainly there is value in being reminded of how liberal democracy can function as a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, and equally how democracy is far from inevitable as a consequence of capitalism (as evidenced by “capitalism with Asian values” on the one hand, and the post-democratic populism of a politician such as Silvio Berlusconi in the West).

But really, whatever the flaws of liberal democracy, they pale in comparison to the catastrophic consequences of the dictatorship of the proletariat (or at least of regimes claiming to be the dictatorship of the proletariat). The response to these consequences has to be better thanŽižek’s mantra throughout First As Tragedy (taken from Beckett’s Worstward Ho!): “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’m not an anarchist any more than I am a Marxist, but one of the principles I find most attractive in anarchism is the idea that those looking to change society should themselves prefigure the society they are looking to create. (This is one reason why I find the co-operative movement appealing: it represents an attempt to prefigure a future society founded on cooperation and free association, while at the same time providing practical benefits today.)

The failure of “Really Existing Marxism” in the 20th century arose from its claim that dictatorial means could achieve libertarian ends. In Ellulian terms, it was an attempt to use the power of “the prince of this world” to conquer “mammon” (to which we can then apply Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:25,26); the Diggers would have said that Marxist-Leninism was just “kingly power” under a new guise. The consequences of this had been predicted by anarchists and others even within Marx’s lifetime, half a century or more before the Russian Revolution.

“Try again, fail again, fail harder”? No, not good enough. Time to try something else instead.

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15 Responses to Time for some “disciplinary terror”? Try again.

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Gandhi’s ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’? I do love that sentiment. Of course, the trick is to work out what the change is that you want to see in the world.

    Me, I’ve decided I want everyone to become wealthy capitalists who are able to live off the proceeds of centuries of capital accumulation… 😉

  2. John H says:

    Zizek quotes a similar line towards the end of his book: “We are the ones we have been waiting for”.

    PS: the system in which everyone gets to live off the benefits of centuries of capital accumulation is called “communism”. 😉

  3. John H says:

    More seriously: yes, you are right that “prefigurement” can operate across a number of different political/economic philosophies.

    Equally, though, “the end justifies the means” is a viewpoint found across the spectrum, too – whether in the dictatorship of the proletariat, or “trickle-down” approaches which say, in effect, “Yes, the poor are going to be worse off in the short term, but in the long term they’ll do better as overall wealth increases.”

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Yep, I’m a communist. Apart from the respect for private property rights, the ‘intensely relaxed’ attitude ‘about people getting filthy rich’ (to coin a phrase), the abhorrence of gulags, the preference for the individual over the collective, a total inability to stomach Marxian historiography, economics and philosophy, and not looking good in red. But yes, apart from those minor differences, I’m a raging commie. 😉

  5. John H says:

    You’re just in denial.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    When grazing one of Žižek’s books in a bookstore, I came across a quote much like the one in the post. I quickly went from intrigued to incensed. I slammed the book back onto the table and said something I won’t repeat here. The last word of it was “forever.” Let’s just say quotes like that don’t endear anyone to a classical liberal.

  7. Thomas says:

    ‘And yes, he did just say “disciplinary terror”. Now, as this blogger suggests, there is probably more than a hint of épater le bourgeois to this: a desire to shock bourgeois liberal opinion. As Terry Eagleton points out in a review of one of Žižek’s other books:

    His aim is not to justify such demented views, but to make things harder for the typical liberal middle-class dismissal of them.’

    Um, that’s just delusional. Zizek means just what he says, and the implications are just what you think they are. Now, I will agree that the lunatic does not wish to ‘justify such demented views’ – no justification is necessary to the Jacobin-Leninist-may I add Maoist – Kmerrougeist – Al-Quaedist philosophical celebrity; it’s all just so self-evidently right don’t you know. Lefty apologists for Zizek and the ilk are again delusional if they think that the programs on offer aren’t about straight-forward violence and terror and evil served with a dose of bad prose. In short, the ‘yes the guy said that, but he’s really after something else and this is a wily strategy to shock you so you’ll see that something else’ doesn’t wash. He said it, he meant it, and folks should realize he’s an idiot who’s lucky to be working at all.

  8. John D says:

    Elsewhere Ellul says that violence, without distinction, begets nothing but violence in a continuous cycle of reciprocity. Girard takes up the next half of the argument, namely how Jesus is the solution to violence and its institutions. But who needs them as an answer to Zizek when we have Kundera?

  9. John H says:

    Thomas: I think Zizek is more difficult to pin down on this than that, though I agree he does mean… whatever it is he is saying, and not just using it as a “wily trick” with a different end in mind.

    He is scathing about “Really Existing Socialism” and the oppressive nature of the 20th century communist regimes. He expands on his Leninism in an interview with New Statesman as follows:

    I think it’s too easy to play this moralistic game – state power is corrupted, so let’s withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power. Here, I’m an old Hegelian. I hate the position of “beautiful soul”, which is: “”I remain outside, in a safe place; I don’t want to dirty my hands.” In this ironic sense, I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. That’s what I miss in today’s left. When you get power, if you can, grab it, even if it is a desperate situation. Do whatever is possible.

    What he seems to be saying is that he is a Leninist in the sense of rejecting a purist impotence, not in the sense of actually agreeing with everything Lenin did when he did “dirty his hands”.

    But to go back to what I said in my post: much as I appreciate Zizek’s insights and analysis on a lot of subjects, this is where I part company with him. Completely. Even “ironic” Leninism is out of the question. The only comfort is that, in a genuinely Leninist regime, Zizek would be the first against the wall!

  10. John H says:

    John D: agreed on all counts. If it’s a choice between Ellul and Zizek, Ellul wins hands down every time. (Must read some Kundera. I remember getting about two chapters into “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in my late teens.)

  11. Phil Walker says:

    I think I might manage to be a bit more serious this morning.

    It occurs to me that if you really trusted the people (I nearly mistyped ‘prople’, which seems more closely to summarise Zizek’s attitude), you wouldn’t need disciplinary terror.

  12. John H says:

    Phil: I think “trusting the people” is Marxist jargon. See this quote from Paulo Freire:

    “[Bourgeois converts to communism] truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favour without that trust.”

    In other words: “trusting the people” is an injunction on bourgeois intellectuals not to try to take control of the revolution; “disciplinary terror” is what is then done to proletarians who fail to get with the programme…

    Edit: I wonder also if it is precisely intended to counter objections to “disciplinary terror”. As the intellectuals recoil in horror from the excesses of revolution – the rolling tumbrils, the “thud” of the guillotine blade, the shootings in the back of the head – and appeal to outmoded and bourgeois conceptions of freedom and justice, they will be sternly admonished to “trust the people” who are executing revolutionary justice on their oppressors.

  13. Phil Walker says:

    Ah, more a sort of ‘trust the ochlos‘ than ‘trust the demos‘?

  14. John H says:

    *Googles “ochlos”*

    Yes, that’s it. 😉

  15. PS: the system in which everyone gets to live off the benefits of centuries of capital accumulation is called “communism”.

    Only if you exclude future generations from the definition of “everyone,” i.e. the people who are impoverished by a policy of capital consumption.

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