‘Living in the End Times’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna


Living in the End Times

Verso, London and New York, 20101. 481pp., $22.95 / £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781844677023

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

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Like all Žižek’s books, Living in the End Times is undermined by the methodological inadequacy of Žižek’s particular brand of ‘Post-Marxism’. For ‘Post-Marxism’, one would better read ‘anti-Marxism’, and anti-Hegelianism to wit. That might seem perverse, given Žižek’s well-established love affair with Hegel, but the Hegel which Žižek attempts to reformulate through the prism of Lacan has, unfortunately, little in common with the original. What Žižek actually effects is a dehistoricization of the genuine Hegelian dialectic when he argues that the ‘standard discourse’ on ‘the Hegelian Spirit which alienates itself, and then recognises itself in its otherness and thus re-appropriates its own content is deeply misleading.’ (230)

As a result, instead of the conventional logical/historical unfolding by which an abstract moment is ‘sublated’ in a fuller, more concrete moment, Žižek absolutises the retroactive role of the dialectical process whereby ‘spirits return-to-itself [and] creates the very dimension to which it returns.’ (231) A genuinely dialectical progression is increasingly eroded in favour of a static, psychoanalytic based ontology in which the dialectical process is unmoored from the series of historical/logical categories which give to it its content. And by annulling the historicity of the Hegelian dialectic at the level of ontology, the consequences for Žižek’s politics and so-called Marxism are grievous.

To elaborate: Marx posed the question of proletarian revolution as a living historical development in which a series of moments are ‘sublated’. A process of primitive accumulation, which culminates in the separation of the individual proprietors from ownership of the means of production by the emergent capitalist class, is subsequently superseded when the ownership of the means of production is reasserted but in a fuller more concrete form; particularised, individualised property is re-established in and through a universal form by the social agent (proletariat) which has the capacity to do so as a consequence of its historical formation and collective power. We experience here a Hegelian movement of the classical type – indeed Marx even framed it in explicitly Hegelian terms as a ‘negation of negation’.

But because Žižek rejects classical Hegelianism – ‘the Hegelian Spirit which alienates itself, and then recognises itself in its otherness and thus re-appropriates its own content is deeply misleading’ – it is inevitable that he rejects the very dialectical movement, ‘the negation of negation’ , which provides the spirit and historical exegesis of Marx’s Capital. For Žižek, the existence of a proletariat which ‘re-appropriates its own content is deeply misleading’. The revolutionary act, therefore, is no longer premised on the historical formation of a proletariat which is compelled to ‘reappropriate’ its alienated labour product by the abolition of private property at the point of production in and through the assertion of working class ownership and control. For Žižek, ‘communism should no longer be conceived as the subjective (re)appropriation of the alienated substantial content’ (232).

But in as much as Žižek wishes to maintain (superficially) a revolutionary edge, he must now locate some other social agent which can offer the possibility of some manner of revolutionary resistance and redemption. In abandoning the concept of the proletarian revolution as the culmination of a historical development orientated around the centrality of the productive process and the modes and forms which facilitate it, in eschewing such analysis, Žižek is forced to circumvent concrete historical development more broadly in his search for the revolutionary agent. And so he alights on the rather romantic notion of ‘slum dwellers’.

It is these people, he asserts, who will provide a genuinely potent resistance to capitalism in the twenty-first century, and who have the power to fundamentally transform it. They possess this power not because they have been historically constituted as a concrete class which stands in a determinate relation to the means of production within the social totality, they are significant not for the fact they have emerged in and through historical process but, more precisely, because they stand outside it. They represent ‘the singular universality exemplified in those who lack a determined place in the social totality, who are “out of place” in it and as such directly stand for the universal dimension … the crowds in the slums constitute a large reservoir for political mobilisation’ (124)

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Žižek is simply wrong; that ‘slum dwellers’ don’t have any type of revolutionary capacity. The point is that the category itself is highly amorphous; it isn’t, as I have already emphasised, derived from a consideration of immanent historical and socio-economic process, but rather involves the external and more cosmetic considerations of a) geological location, and b) relative level of poverty. Within the ‘slum dwellers’ we have all variety of ‘socio-economic’ types: wage labourers selling their labour power in the inner city, itinerant labourers doing odd jobs here and there, artisans and market stall owners selling products, speculators, rentiers and, of course, the lumpen, atomised elements which persist on the fringes.  

It is therefore difficult to imagine why such a disparate grouping might attain the level of shared interest necessary to act in a unified and revolutionary manner simply because they belong to the same geographical space. But on those occasions where there have been genuinely revolutionary upheavals in the slums it is worth noting they are often the product of proletarian movements and community organisations coming together and undercutting the sheer heterogeneity in social composition, as in the case of El Alto in Bolivia, for instance. Given Žižek’s emphasis on ‘slum dwellers’ as the central agent of twenty-first century revolution, one might expect Living in the End Times to devote space to a consideration of social composition of the slums and the forms of organisation which facilitate revolutionary activity within them. But, on this subject, Žižek barely utters a word.  

And so Living In the End Times provides us with the three fold motif of Žižek’s Post-Marxism. First the Hegelian dialectic is nullified at the ontological/methodological level; this then manifests at the political level with the rejection of the proletariat as historical-revolutionary process – which, in turn, means that Žižek is compelled to look for some fashionable but ultimately ahistorical social category (slum dwellers) in order to fill in the revolutionary blank. Having developed a profoundly abstract and ahistorical approach to revolutionary politics, like all Post-Marxists, Žižek is then compelled to point out just how old-fashioned and dogmatic the tenants of a classically Marxist historicism are. He delivers a vague and meandering critique of the Marxist labour theory of value, for instance, which seems, rather bizarrely, to centre on Venezuela:

Venezuela … is now unambiguously exploiting other countries: the main source of its wealth, oil, is a natural resource, its price is a rent which doesnot express value (whose sole source is labor). Venezuelans are enjoying a form of collective rent from the developed countries, rent gained by the fact of possessing scarce resources. The only way on can talk about the exploitation of Venezuela here is to abandon Marx’s labor theory of value for the neo-classical theory of three factors of production (resources, labor, capital) each of which contributes to the value of the product. (241)  

The passage combines a series of vague assertions and non-sequiturs such that it is not easy to see what is actually being said. The price of Venezuela’s oil is a rent which does not express value. What means rent here? Is Žižek drawing attention to the rent derived from the more productive – for whatever reason – land which yields a greater surplus profit at any given moment than elsewhere given the same or similar capital invested? And is this the reason it ‘does not express value’ for such a difference is not (immediately) dependent on labour power?

But, if this is the case, surely the ‘added’ value, which appears not as the result of labour power but as an inherent natural product, presents as a temporary occurrence whereby individual price fluctuates above value in a specific instance – but only in the context of the overall pool of value produced by the labour power generated by the sector or industry more generally, a total value which might itself be in abeyance. And, furthermore, is this not explicated by the classical Marxist notion of differential rent? Is not Žižek’s ‘refutation’ of the Marxist labour theory of value here a result of the fact that he simply ignores the schism between value and price more generally?  

In addition, according to Žižek, Venezuelans enjoy this ‘collective rent’. Strange that, considering so few of them seem to be landowners. The great majority in the Venezuelan oil industry are, of course, those whose labour power converts the oil into its commodity form: i.e. workers – so even if one assumes, as Žižek seems to, that the temporarily substance-less, so called ‘added’ value generated by an oil-rich terrain in an increasingly oil depleted world economy; even if one assumes that this ‘added’ value has somehow converted the entire Venezuelan population into a mass collective of rentiers (presumably because they enjoy a higher level of state expenditure on social projects – though how this makes them rentiers is beyond me); but even assuming all this, one would still have to acknowledge that the premise of this ‘substance-less’ ‘added’ value, would remain the labour power of the Venezuelan working classes extracting the oil in the first place. It is a topsy-turvy inversion, to say the least, to argue that it is the Venezuelan workers who are exploiting ‘developed countries’ and yet, ultimately, this is precisely the position Žižek’s logic yields.  

One can see, I think, how Žižek’s abandonment of a class driven historicism of the classical Marxist type, provokes a severe political disorientation on his part. Like most Post-Marxists, Žižek goes on to emphasise the role of ‘immaterial labour’ as the fundamental constituent of value in the modern epoch. The paucity of this crude abstraction has, to my mind, been effectively and comprehensively critiqued elsewhere (when has material labour not been embroiled in an immaterial/mental aspect – i.e. the thought which is required to structure and accomplish it? And when has this immaterial aspect not been necessarily grounded in materiality? – i.e. the materiality of the cells in the brain which stage thought or the materiality of those commodities which the so called ‘immaterial’ information which is transmitted through a (material) programme like Facebook – is designed to sell?)  

None of Žižek’s points on the role of ‘immaterial labour’ or his rather tepid critique of the Marxist labour theory of value are innovative or warrant a great deal of interest. But what is fascinating and simultaneously repellent, are the kind of political conclusions he draws from them. Once Žižek realises there is no point in workers trying to appropriate their alienated labour product – i.e. to take control of the factories – and once this knowledge is supplemented by the notion of a nexus of ‘immaterial labour’ which an (unintellectual) working class is forever sundered from; once these factors are in place, the political conclusions are inevitable, and Žižek realises how little practical value the traditional forms of working class struggle actually have – ‘striking’, for example, ‘where it occurs at all – is more a protest act addressed primarily to the general public rather than owners or managers’ (342).

But Žižek doesn’t reserve his disdain only for those working class people who seem to behave in a crudely Marxist fashion by striking; by trying to assure a wage which might improve their living conditions, and by otherwise foolishly engaging in those practises humanity submits to when it has not yet benefited from the wisdom of Slavoj Žižek. Living in the End Times extends its critique to those protests which are extra-economic: for instance, the huge demonstrations which erupted around the world against the most recent invasion of Iraq. Žižek describes these protests in a way which would, I think, intrigue anyone who participated in them. ‘The protesters’, he graciously explains, ‘saved their beautiful souls … not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically they even provided an additional legitimization for it.’ (326)

Žižek’s position here is not only morally dense, it is, as well, intellectually so. One might expect, from a supposed connoisseur of Hegel (and if one is a connoisseur of Hegel, then one knows a little Aristotle) some appreciation of the tension between potency and actuality. The spectacle of the two million who flooded the streets in London combined with the fact the government would go on to prosecute a war anyway – does not, thereby, suggest that the protestors merely facilitated the will of the government and the ruling class. What Žižek should have queried – in the Aristotelian/Hegelian tradition – is what kind of potential reality would have unfolded, had all those people not taken to the streets. The government succeeded in prosecuting the war in Iraq, yes, but if we hadn’t made our opposition known en masse then it is very likely we would now be embroiled in conflicts, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Iran as well, for the administration would have felt emboldened to act unimpeded by any possibility of mass resistance.  

There are, it should be said, some positive aspects to Living in the End Times. Žižek’s account of the historical persecution of the Jews is perspicuous and poignant. His recognition that the ‘ethnic’ conflicts which have plagued Congo are not the result of a ‘primitive’, ‘pre-modern’ culture, but a direct product of the incursions of global capitalism, provides a worthwhile and necessary tonic to the racist narrative which usually wraps itself around this issue. His analysis of the on-going displacement of the Palestinian people is both astute and humane. But these elements are few and far between. One of the most troubling aspects about Living in the End Times involves the sheer wealth of repetition – the same insights which have featured in many of Žižek’s other books – his analysis of the same films like Hitchcock’s Vertigo for example, or his interpretation of Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian war; these insights crop up over and over, sometimes relayed verbatim.  

The front cover of Living in the End Times informs us that Žižek is, ‘The most dangerous philosopher in the West’. But on actually reading the book one receives the impression of Žižek as a minor celebrity desperate to peddle his brand and keep the books churning out. In this book the vein of political conservatism which often teeters into a shock-jock and commercially orientated reactionaryism– gives one the distinct suspicion that not only does Žižek not believe we are living in the end times – but also that he is extremely satisfied with the times we are living in. Žižek is not the most dangerous philosopher in the west – but he may well be the most fashionable one. As for Living in the End Times itself, it brings to mind the witticism attributed to Dr Johnson, for it is both good and original … only the part that is good is not very original, and the part that is original is really not all that good.

2 September 2013

3 comments

  1. Of course, if one takes the view that Hegel’s phoipslohy is a purely reflective one and offers no insight into “practical” problems (such as those found in contemporary legal or moral problems), then Hegel’s failure to establish the boundary of individual choice, intention, and responsibility may not be a failure at all: Perhaps from some grand philosophical and reflective (or religious) perspective, it is appropriate to say that human actors “will” _everything_ in the universe that their individual actions precipitate or help to precipitate.

  2. what I think most people miss out on is the way that Zizek’s ‘Leninism’ is in fact really a demand for ‘realism’ on the left: and that in today’s context this places him at the right wing end of the new post-Leninist left. A post-Leninist left speaking in the name of self-discipline, realism and getting our hands dirty. Not gulags but balanced budgets. Its also of a piece with a particular way of understanding class (a kind of right wing labourism basically) and a hostility to ‘identity’ politics, ‘multi-culturalism’, cultural relativism etc, dressed up as left wing but often couched in traditional right wing populist mode: a critique of bloody students, a middle class left etc. I think we’re going to see more and more of this on the left, partly because of the legitimate frustration which exists about our own marginalisation: partly in terms of a debate about directions when that marginalisation begins to come undone. This, much more then theoretical arguments about post-Marxism or on the other hand, fears of ‘totalitarian Marxism’, is what is the more significant thing about some of these arguments. IMHO. (the stuff on Maoism and Indian slums was just absurd incidentally. He appeared to have just made this up to fit in with his wider narrative).

  3. I think you are essentially correct JohnG, in your description of Zizek’s demand for ‘realism’ on the left – and the right-wing populist form this demand takes. Having read a few of Zizek’s books of late, I was quite struck by a resemblance to Christopher Hitchens in his political delivery. Like Hitchens, Zizek presents a broad left which has become robotic and monotonous in its dogmatic rendering of the same tired mantras – thus Zizek is able to locate himself as an independent, fiery free-thinker prepared to risk everything by going against the grain etc….but such attack on ‘dogma’ then allow him to reassert some of the most banal, reactionary and sometimes racist tropes so favoured by the status quo – his comments on Roma, for example, very much along the lines of – ‘those well-to-do liberals living in the wealthy cosmopolitan centres might condemn attacks on Roma as racist – but hey – none of them have actually had to live next door to actual (shock, gasp!) Gypsies’

    The method of presenting reaction in the garb of revolution received its most potent expression in the 19th century with Nietzsche, I think, but in recent times Hitchens became its most able protagonist. Like Zizek, Hitchens professed some level of fidelity to the original founders of Marxism, and both thinkers have had to perform surgery on the classical philosophy in order to reconfigure it (mutilate it) to mediate much of the latent reactionary elements which inhere in their own political makeup.

    You say that such forms (‘left wing but often couched in traditional right wing populist mode’) become more pervasive as a result of a more general ‘marginalisation’ of the left, and I agree, but then you go on to add – ‘This, much more then theoretical arguments about post-Marxism’ is the ‘significant thing’.

    The juxtaposition here seems a little odd. Post Marxist theory I think – with its displacement of historical process by some neo-Kantian category which has a distinctly noumenal flavour – like ‘the field of discursivity’ in Mouffe and Laclau or some variant of the Lacanian Real in Zizek; the nullification of the historical in these terms is galvanized by a concomitant down-turn in the historical process itself; these neo-Kantian political-Marxist categories are imbued with power and resonance precisely in a period when there has been a down turn in class struggle and it seems, to all intents and purposes, as though history has gone to sleep, or – in the phrase of István Mészáros – has come to resemble an ‘eternal present.’

    In other words, ‘theoretical arguments about post-Marxism’ are to some degree synonymous with the historical marginalisation of the left and a broader slack in the class struggle. The opposition of ‘theoretical arguments about Post-marxism’ to some implied ‘concreteness’ of historical reality – seems to me an opposition borne out of a dull pragmatism which verges on common sense. Arguments, incidentally, are always ‘theoretical’ even in their pragmatist variant.

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