Monday, October 04, 2010

More chocolate laxative.

Zizek has dusted off some of his old routines - the tolerant liberal, the chocolate laxative, decaffeinated Otherness - and tenuously connected them to some current political controversies in order to visit this upon us. As amusing as these whiskered old gags may once have been, and as much as I once thought Zizek quite sharp on the limitations of multiculturalism, the more he repeats himself (or repeats on himself), the less persuasive he becomes. And that's when he's not, you know, bigging up empire, traducing Lenin, reflating Euro-supremacism in the guise of the liberal tolerance that he criticises, and generally carving out a niche as the Roy Chubby Brown of European philosophy.

The basis of Zizek's polemic is that while once European politics was polarised between centre-right and centre-left, it is now increasingly polarised between a large pro-globalisation centre, and a smaller but growing anti-globalisation xenophobic right. The pro-globalisation centre is the hypocritical tolerant liberal who 'respects' the Other in a certain way, but only respects a non-invasive Otherness that doesn't intrude on his/her private space, this being the political space of Europe. Thus, while the centrists attack the populist right, they celebrate diversity and Otherness in the same way that 'moderate' antisemite Robert Brasillach celebrated the achievements of Chaplin, Proust and Yehudi Menuhin, while insisting that instinctive antisemitism could only be constrained by the practise of moderate antisemitism. The populist right can only be appeased by the practise of a moderate anti-immigrant racism. The example of Brasillach does, admittedly, resonate. Bourgeois politicians whipping up racism do indeed rely on the idea that there's something instinctive and commonsensical about it, and that it can only be controlled through moderate, sensible, prudent racism.

But the rest completely fails as an index of the concrete political realities on race and globalisation in Europe. First of all, when the pro-globalisation "centre" attacks the xenophobic right, it is usually not in the name of liberal multiculturalism. Rather, it is in the name of an alternative nationalism based on cohesion, integrationism, an acceptance of "legitimate concerns", and a regretful conclusion that multiculturalism (read: multi-racial society) "didn't work" and that immigration has to be severely limited while minorities are to be disciplined and coerced into internalising some core set of national or European or Western values. It is culturally dominative, hierarchical and authoritarian, not 'tolerant', libertarian or egalitarian. Official multiculturalism has its limits, but it is not to blame for the right-wing anti-immigrant turn of mainstream politics. Indeed, the tolerant liberal, Zizek's sock puppet opponent, is entirely innocent of this bullying. He, let's suppose it's a he, is obviously white, but he's not all bad. He supports attempts to attack and undermine the material legacy of white supremacy, such as affirmative action. His worst crime is that he doesn't want to hear loud rap music in the privacy of his home. (Because, as I'm sure you already know, black people uniformly walk around white neighbourhoods with ghetto blasters playing NWA's 'Fuck The Police' at top volume. White people, by contrast, play Bach on gramophones while writhing with ecstasy over Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right. This has been confirmed by our finest evolutionary psychologists - it's hard-wired behaviour, and there's nothing we can do about it.) It seems rather unfair to blame him for those who want to destroy affirmative action and purge the country of immigrants.

Secondly, it fails because some of the most hawkishly pro-globalisation forces in European and American politics are also the most right-wing xenophobic anti-immigrant forces. If you look at the Tory Right and UKIP, or even the Law and Justice Party, they may be Eurosceptic, but they aggressively favour US-led globalisation. In the US, many the same right-wingers who favour 'free trade' and other shibboleths of globalisation are also among the most pungent anti-immigrant racists. There are, of course, nativists and fascists who fit into Zizek's characterisation of the xenophobic right as anti-globalisation, but these are still minority fringe currents, and not by and large the people who lead Law and Justice, or the Dutch Freedom Party, for example. The Tea Partiers, meanwhile, may have some nativists among them, but their texts are Austrian, and their 'Contract from America' contains a great deal about economic freedom and nothing at all about restricting globalisation or free trade. The opposition being created here between multiculturalist globalisation and xenophobic reaction is illusory. This is because globalisation is an imperialist process that is entirely compatible with restrictions to migration. It does not entail free movement for labour, except on terms amenable to Euro-American capital, since its purpose is precisely to facilitate the exploitation of labour and the extraction of surplus largely for shareholders based in the core capitalist economies.

Lastly, Poland, Zizek's "best example", is not actually typical of a European trend. The legacy of Stalinism, and the postcommunist purges, has meant that politics has been narrowed to a division between liberal-conservatism and right-wing nationalism. But there is a new left emerging there, reflecting dissatisfaction with - well - 'globalisation' among other things. The bulk of the continent is still bissected between left and right, weakly reflected at parliamentary level by parties of the centre-left and centre-right. Despite the best efforts of capital to coopt electoral processes, and despite the illusory transcendence of left and right by 'Third Way' politicians, organised labour retains the ability to uphold some basic social democracy. Indeed, the capitalist crisis is accentuating this polarisation between left and right, and bringing that struggle to a head, as the victor will determine whether labour bears the costs of crisis, or whether the bankers and the rich do. It goes without saying that if the right wins, immigrants and minorities will be among the first to suffer, and the fragile institutions of multiculturalism will be in tatters.