Reviewed by Tim Walters
Chris McMillan’s contribution to the rapidly expanding field of Žižek studies aims to challenge directly what is perhaps the thorniest of the many criticisms aimed at the Slovenian Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxist theorist, a charge often leveled by his would-be allies on the radical Left: that his work is ‘good theory, bad politics’. (1) McMillan grounds his analysis in an engagement with Žižek’s entire body of work, and finds that—contra the prevalent belief amongst Žižek’s detractors in this regard—‘his work identifies the path towards a regeneration of Marxist political practice and an effective disruption of global capitalism in the name of a better future.’ (1) For McMillan and Žižek the name of this better future is ‘Communist’, although both of these authors rather struggle to know quite what to do with a signifier of this weight.
McMillan begins with the requisite but still useful account of Žižek’s unlikely ascent to celebrity intellectual status, his startlingly brilliant and prolific theoretical output, and the academic cottage industry that has begun to accumulate around his work, including many scholars for whom Žižek’s growing influence is a real worry. Given that the book is framed as a defense of the value and utility of Žižek’s political thinking, McMillan focuses on confronting those critics who have taken objection to Žižek’s theory along these grounds, rather than dwelling on those critics who have made less thoughtful charges that he is a plagiarist and/or a self-plagiarist, that he is a conservative, a fascist of the Left, an anti-Semite, and so forth.
And without question, Žižek’s politics are of a strange order, oftentimes alienating those otherwise in thrall to his exhilarating and disruptive analysis of the ideological systems of contemporary capitalism from a subversive materialist perspective. While Žižek is broadly admired as a counterintuitive diagnostician of our present cultural moment, he has always seemed less assured when called upon to generate viable alternatives to the crises generated by capitalism, seemingly changing course every few years to advocate one less than satisfying idea after another. McMillan’s approach is to divide Žižek’s developing ideas about how to apply his own brand of Marxism into political strategy into stages: ‘an initial implicit support of [Ernesto] Laclau’s radical democratic project’ followed by ‘a controversial affair with the Lacanian act’, then a rejection of immediate political action through the notion of ‘subtractive politics’ and, finally, ‘contentious support for the ‘communist hypothesis.’’ (7) Notably, it seems that none of these ideas has taken a permanent hold in Žižek’s thinking, and indeed they often appear contradictory: Žižek’s scathing attacks on liberal democracy seem at least somewhat at odds with his early adherence to Laclau’s radical democracy, and his advocacy of the self-destructive madness of the Lacanian act as a preferred revolutionary tactic is in some ways precisely the opposite of his endorsement of Bartleby/ subtractive politics, in which the subject refuses to participate at all.
Although it takes him too long to get there—he spends a good deal more time than is necessary unpacking Žižek’s use of Lacan and Marx—McMillan is at his best when charting this development, demonstrating real mastery of the many threads and nuances of Žižek’s thought, which is no mean feat given his subject’s predilection for developing even his most fundamental ideas paratactically, often across several works of various genres and in different media (documentaries, lectures, newspaper articles, interviews, dense academic philosophical treatises, short popular books of cultural criticism, etc.). Ultimately, though, McMillan can only do so much with what Žižek gives him to work with, and if the book is in some ways unsatisfying this largely reflect the gaps in the Slovenian’s theory regarding how we might begin to affect the sweeping, systemic change he is adamant that we urgently require. (Indeed, this ambivalence seems reflected in the very structure of McMillan’s book, which doesn’t begin explicitly addressing Žižek’s thinking around political practice until the sixth chapter of eight, and which doesn’t get to the Communism of the title until the penultimate, and shortest, chapter.)
What Žižek has been absolutely consistent on as regards anti-capitalist activism is his refusal to align his brand of Marxist theory with any concrete program of action or implementable series of policy recommendations, which seems to me an entirely reasonable theoretical position to take, regardless of the frustrations it may cause his followers or the ammunition it supplies his critics. However, as McMillan makes clear, his myriad critiques of capital have at times coalesced around certain liberatory ideas—the act, subtractive politics—which do appear like recommendations of specific modes of resistance, albeit of an unconvincing sort.
Žižek’s promotion of the Lacanian act is ground zero for his critics’ claims that he has nothing useful to offer those seeking direction about how to make the world better by freeing it from capital other than violent, totalitarian, revolutionary fantasies. It also seems to demonstrate an incompatibility between psychoanalytic theory and Marxist political practice, which is a charge often leveled at Žižek. The act—‘a moment of madness that cannot be accounted for within conventional reason’ (138)—typically takes violent, self-destructive forms of limited political utility. The examples Žižek provides in his discussion of this concept include Keyzer Soze murdering his own family in The Usual Suspects, Sethe killing her daughter in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and ‘Jack’ (Edward Norton) beating himself to a pulp in Fight Club. While each of these may be radical, destabilizing gestures, none seems to provide much help to those wanting to move the world to a future free from capital, as McMillan recognizes: the act ‘is quite divorced from predominant Leftist political narratives such as Laclau’s battle for hegemony, the inevitability of historical materialism or managerial Leftism’ (138). Rather, an act ‘comes with a sudden seizing of the moment and as such is associated more with revolutionary terror than policy planning and political strategy’. (138) While McMillan suggests rather cautiously that revolutionary uprisings like the Arab spring may be acts of a sort, he clearly understands those limitations of this idea identified by Žižek’s critics, noting that ‘shooting one’s own family … provides little inspiration for responding to capitalism.’ (140)
Žižek himself seems of late to have moved on from the idea of the act, but the notion of subtractive politics which immediately replaced it is a similarly risky gambit. McMillan explains Žižek argument that ‘we must enact a form of subtractive politics which attempts to detach a fetishized defence from the Real. … those invoking a subtractive procedure actively seek to avoid the seductive appeal of these fetishistic points, refusing, for example, to engage in the kind of charitable endeavor that lessens the felt trauma of injustice’. (152) The potential downside of non-participation in hegemonic political and economic systems that Žižek recommends here is self-evident, as McMillan recognizes: ‘in terms of a policy statement, it is difficult to see how the ideas of subtractive politics would be any different from a Republican manifesto’. (152) The refusal of liberal gestures (voting, charitable giving, etc.) which may be involved in sustaining the operations of capital by masking or justifying its effects might be sound theoretically but are ‘an immensely risky political strategy, one that would place millions of lives in danger’. (154)
And finally we get to Žižek’s recent interest in Communism, a theoretical path which McMillan argues Žižek arrives at circuitously, via a prior commitment to ‘the practice of concrete universality’ (158) in which we ‘identify the grand contradictions of capitalism, specifically the mass extinction of the lumpenproletariat and the ecological impossibility of including them within capitalism, with the systematic operation of capitalism’ (160). Here the idea is to subversively confront capitalism with those it excludes but depends upon, thus drawing ‘a direct line between capitalism and these horrors, suggesting that this suffering is the necessary consequence of the way of life in which we participate’. (160) The notion of Žižek as self-identified Communist is an undeniably intriguing and exciting one for those of us who would like to see his theoretical work move towards greater concreteness and consistency in terms of his formulation of a position about revolutionary Marxist political practice. Despite its promising but somewhat misleading title, however, Žižek and Communist Strategy has relatively little to say in this regard, although that is no fault of McMillan’s. This is a recent turn for Žižek, and an approach he has only begun to write and speak about in fits and starts since 2009, the year of an influential conference he co-organized in London on ‘The Idea of Communism’ in response to Alain Badiou’s unexpected embrace of ‘the communist hypothesis’ in The Meaning of Sarkozy. Since this event—which was attended by something of a who’s who of Leftist philosophers including Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Michael Hardt, Jean-Luc Nancy, Antonio Negri, and Jacques Ranciere—Žižek has begun to integrate the idea of Communism into this work (particularly First as Tragedy, Then as Farce) although it remains unclear precisely what he means by his use of this loaded term.
Indeed, the more pertinent issue might be what he will eventually mean by it, as he has not yet fully articulated what this commitment entails beyond a ‘political identification with the ‘part of no part’ of capitalism’ and attendant advocacy of ‘the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ at the expense of liberal democratic values’ (168), and reading of Communism as a Utopian ‘eternal idea’ (170) which suggests that the emerging crisis of the commons and ‘the contradictions of capital are such that it cannot go on forever’. (179) While McMillan succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which this emergent position logically follows from Žižek’s consistent interest in radical emancipatory projects, those looking for greater clarity about what precisely this rejuvenated idea of Communism will look like in practice will be left wanting, a lack that is not lost on McMillan who concludes that, thus far, ‘Žižek has no programme, let alone policies … his political intervention into communism is located in an entirely disruptive evocation of the globally disenfranchised and their association with capitalism’.(169)
Those waiting to discover how a Žižekian Communism might facilitate the move from the horrific inequalities of our present moment to a world beyond capital will need to wait until the release later this year of two new books in which he may more fully develops these ideas: Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism and Trouble in Paradise: Communism After the End of History. If Žižek here decides to turn his theoretical brilliance toward providing something other than brilliant theory about a Communist future, Chris McMillan’s Žižek and Communist Strategy provide a lucid and engaging account for those who are curious about how he got there, as well as offering a comprehensive explication of the complex theoretical field from which this idea emerged. However, McMillan suggests that the emergence of a less theoretical Žižek is unlikely. Again and again he states that Žižek does not provide manifestos, blueprints, programmes, policy, or directions for political action (1, 10, 16, 18, 51, 94, 97, 163, 165, 167, 183) and Žižek has repeatedly said as much himself. Ultimately, the lesson of McMillan’s book might be that perhaps it’s time we stopped expecting anything different or more from Žižek than he is already giving us, since maybe that’s enough.
7 October 2014