Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in Iraq rallies:

The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”

Quite clearly, Bush had no interest in allowing the popular demonstration to affect his government’s policy. The public are allowed to have their say precisely because their say is meaningless. Compare this to a dictatorship – this kind of huge public display is not allowed (and is in fact violently suppressed), not because a dictator hates free speech, but because in that context free speech is actually a danger to his power. In the US, the overwhelming mores of civil obedience means the state does not have to worry that such a huge public demonstration will move towards the kind of insurrection which would enable actually changing the government’s policy.

Now, a caveat – Chomsky has made an important point which in a sense responds to Zizek’s dismissal of these protests: that there were no Anti War protests during the first several years of the Vietnam War – and that these anti-war protests and the political consciousness they reflect at the beginning of the Iraq war severely hampered US ability to commit atrocities in Iraq. In fact, this inability to commit atrocities perhaps lost them the war, and has ensured that a stable US backed dictator will not be installed – and when the US eventually leaves the Iraq-Iran alliance the US fears will probably still happen. However, the fact that these protests have in some sense improved the geopolitical situation by limiting the US’s ability to commit atrocities does not make the protests adequate to the demands placed on civil society today (which include not only colonialist wars, but also environmental crises, and the repression of indigenous, women’s, and minority rights).

So, protesting today is stuck between two ineffective sides – either it is non-violent support for the policies one is attempting to oppose, or it is unorganized violent “anarchist” outbursts which the state has no problem marginalizing and demonizing. Zizek points out the same apparent two alternatives were present in Europe, and resulted in the French riots of 2005:

The celebration by people like Habermas of the pan-European movement against the Iraq war was thus perhaps a little bit misplaced and facile: the whole affair was rather a supreme case of fully co-opted acting out. Our predicament is that the only alternatives appear to be violent outbursts like those that erupted in the French suburbs a few years ago – l’action directe, as one of those post ’68 Leftist terrorist organizations called itself.

Between these two ineffective alternatives, what is there? Zizek’s suggestion is characteristically dense and un-useful:

What is needed instead is the act proper: a symbolic intervention capable of undermining the big Other (the hegemonic social link), of re-arranging its coordinates.

What can we salvage from this expression? Well, we can say that the “act proper” will not be co-optable, like the 2003 anti-war marches. Also, it won’t be sideline-able, like the Battle of Seattle style, or French Banlieue (even more disorganized and principle-less!) riots. It will have to “symbolically undermine” the current circulation of power and authority. What might count as this? What might be empirically effective at re-arranging the logical structure of power?

Zizek’s mistake here is the standard philosopher activist’s mistake – and one I am constantly guilty of. This idea that there is some perfect intervention, some lever in the machine which a very smart person can find, and then be able to make a big difference with a small amount of activity. This is probably just false – in fact, power is incredibly good at adapting to the different ways it is distorted. And actions which throw it into turmoil are not easy. That said, I can think of a few examples which might count as “undermining the big other” in Zizek’s sense.

I wrote a post a few months ago for BuryCoal about the Gaza flotilla raid, and what it might mean for climate activism. In it, I argued that the flotilla raid pushed the issue of the occupation of Palestine and the West Bank to a point where it could no longer be largely ignored by the mainstream press. While the IDF tried with all its might to own the narrative of the events, it could not maintain 100% mainstream opinion on its side, and this breach in Israeli PR has importantly damaged the mainline liberal account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Margaret Atwood’s change of position – from “there was bad behavior on both sides”, to recognizing Israel as the primary agressor, and marking Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – she calls apartheid (or “Hafrada” to use the Hebrew term) “Israel’s shadow”. In short, this event was important because of its throwing the symbolic Zionist machine into disarray – Israel could neither call the activists anarchists (well, they could not do so with the effectiveness that Canada has dismissed the G20 protestors), nor could they say “Exactly! This is why we oppress the Palestinians – so you can fight for their freedom!”.

A similar, although less dramatic event, might have taken place recently in Washington D.C. James Hansen has been arrested along with other activists at a protest opposing mountaintop removal and coal mining. The arrest of such a prominent and intellectually respectable public figure could spark the kind of civil disobedience which the US state can not simply dismiss as terrorist, or as anti-American. It is heartening to see this disobedience spreading to effective direct actions which obstruct the free flow of carbon intensive economy, like this protest in Newcastle, Australia, which disrupted activity at a coal port.

In a sense, anti-coal or anti-oil and gas acts of civil disobedience may be more effective at jamming the current political order than activist activities based on social justice. Every particular social justice issue must be argued on its own merits, and there is a whole industry of detractors who are paid to de-legitimize those who fight for the rights of the oppressed. This industry is certainly operative against climate change – in fact its success has significantly lowered the proportion of Americans who believe climate change is caused by humans. But the universality of this issue, and the breadth of respectable intellectuals and scientists who recognize the absolute need for policy action on climate change, makes this issue much more difficult for corporately funded PR firms to sideline, or for States to dismiss as anarchist hooligans.

21 thoughts on “Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

  1. Milan

    This is beside the main point, but:

    when the US eventually leaves the Iraq-Iran alliance the US fears will probably still happen

    This is overly simplistic. Iraq isn’t a unified state that can really be allied with anybody. Rather, it is a collection of factions that vary in their levels of influence and their alliegances. The United States definitely fears increased Iranian control over Iraq (it welcomed the 1980-89 Iran-Iraq war because it kept them busy with each other, rather than destabilizing the region), but there is little prospect for a formal alliance between the two, at least in the foreseable future.

  2. Milan

    One other factual point: James Hansen was already arrested protesting coal back in June 2009. It will take much more than that to “spark the kind of civil disobedience which the US state can not simply dismiss as terrorist, or as anti-American.”

    I actually don’t get the sense that protests against fossil fuels in the U.S. are generally dismissed in one of those two ways. Rather, they are seen as the actions of a group concerned more about nature than about human beings, and insensitive to the economic suffering that people are enduring right now.

    Of course, there are also those who deny the existence of climate change and thus have no problems at all with the domestic exploitation of fossil fuels in the United States (indeed, the usually welcome it because it theoretically reduces U.S. reliance on imports).

  3. Milan

    liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder

    I think we all have every reason to be scared of wasting time, given the urgency of addressing climate change. Grand experiments with abolishing capitalism and radically altering structures of government may be intellectually satisfying, but it is dubious whether they can be successfully completed in the amount of time we have.

    Our best strategy looks like a combination of (a) working in areas where political will already exists, like improving vehicle efficiency, (b) working to increase the level of political will for tougher climate change mitigation policies, and (c) planning for when such an increased level of will exists. That approach can usefully incorporate tactics like pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistencies, rebutting weak counterarguments, and explaining what benefits would accompany escaping from our reliance on fossil fuels.

  4. Tristan Post author

    “(it welcomed the 1980-89 Iran-Iraq war because it kept them busy with each other, rather than destabilizing the region)”

    “Welcomed”? Do you think you might be putting this a bit mildly?

  5. Tristan Post author

    “I actually don’t get the sense that protests against fossil fuels in the U.S. are generally dismissed in one of those two ways”

    I didn’t mean to argue that they are – my point was they do avert these characterizations.

  6. Tristan Post author

    Here’s the argument that’s been made on what democracy in Iraq will lead to warmer Iraq-Iranian relations:

    “Noam Chomsky: In other words, suppose that the parliament, instead of being an elite force, dominating the population, suppose the parliament represents popular will, say the popular will of 80 percent of Iraqis who want the occupying forces to withdraw, according to the British Ministry of Defence. Suppose that happens? Well then the occupying forces should immediately initiate withdrawal and leave it to the Iraqis. Now there’s a good reason why Washington and London are not contemplating that. It has nothing to do with the fate of the Iraqis, quite the contrary. Just think for a minute. What would an independent Iraq be likely to do, an independent, more or less democratic Iraq? Think. I mean if you’re going to have a Shi’ite majority. Therefore the Shi’ites will have a lot of influence in policy, probably a dominant influence. The Shi’ite population in the south, which is where most of the oil is, would much prefer warm relations to Iran over hostile relations to Iran. Furthermore they are very close relations already, the Badr brigade, which is the militia that mostly controls the south, was trained in Iran. The clerics have long-standing relations with Iran; the Ayatollah Sistani actually grew up there. Chances are pretty strong, they’ll move towards a some sort of a loose Shi’ite alliance, with Iraq and Iran. Furthermore right across the border in Saudi Arabia, there’s a substantial Shi’ite population, which has been bitterly oppressed by the US-backed tyranny in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist tyranny. Any move towards independence in Iraq is likely to increase the efforts to gain a degree of autonomy and justice. That happens to be where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is. So you can see not far in the future a loose Shi’ite alliance controlling most of the world’s oil, independent of the US. Furthermore, it is beginning to turn toward the East. Iran has pretty much given up on Western Europe, it assumes that Western Europe is too cowardly to act independently of the US, well it has options. It can turn to the East. China can’t be intimidated. That’s why the US is so frightened of China. It cannot be intimidated. In fact, they’re already establishing relations with Iran and in fact even with Saudi Arabia, both military and economic. There is an Asian energy security grid based on Asia and Russia but bringing in India, Korea and others. If Iran moves in that direction, having abandoned any hope in Europe, it can become the lynchpin of the Asian energy security grid.”


  7. Tristan Post author

    “I think we all have every reason to be scared of wasting time, given the urgency of addressing climate change. Grand experiments with abolishing capitalism and radically altering structures of government may be intellectually satisfying, but it is dubious whether they can be successfully completed in the amount of time we have.”

    If you want to talk about the “grand experiments” socialists and anarchists would like to attempt – the first one would simply be to restrict the power of capital. This isn’t anti-capitalist at all, in fact it’s the basic condition which Rawls specifies must be in place in a Capitalist society for it to qualify as potentially morally justifiable. I wrote about this here: http://northernsong.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/whats-wrong-with-rawls-defence-of-capitalism/

  8. Milan

    Climate change activism is useful when it either achieves directly beneficial effects (such as disrupting coal exports) or when it helps to build political will for effective legislation and regulation.

    There are many problems that arise when climate change activism gets tied to activism on unrelated issues. For one thing, many of the issues that have motivated energetic protests for decades aren’t going to be resolved any time soon (Tibet, Kashmir, etc). Attaching an urgent problem like climate change issue to an unrelated issue that is going nowhere is like attaching an anchor to a ship that we desperately need to speed up. Doing so also undermines the kind of post-partisan consensus that is necessary to (a) avoid populist movements that seek to abolish unpopular restrictions on fossil fuel use and (b) avoid a situation where successive governments alternate between setting up structures to deal with climate change and then tearing those structures down.

  9. Tristan Post author

    The power of capital to regulate public opinion, to discredit science, and to control the state are not “unrelated issues” to climate change. In fact, I see no rational explanation of why states have been unable to act on climate change thus far other than a simple story about opposition from capital. Even Margaret Thatcher was starkly in favour of climate change mitigation back in 1990 – this is not a partisan or ideological issue, it’s an issue of, to use the technical term “political possibility”.

    “Political possibility” has nothing to do with popular opinion, scientific opinion, or even the free opinions of the elite. It has to do only with what business asks for. That’s why a public health care system, which has been publicly supported by the US population since the 70s, only became “politically possible” when GM asked for it.

    Unless you think a constrained corporate elite can take better care of the population by deceiving and sidelining the public, than genuine leadership based on policy rather than advertising – then some form of political reform should be part of CC activism.

    That doesn’t mean that every single issue needs to be attached to climate change activism (although climate justice is a real issue) – it means we actually need to make specific judgements about specific cases and issues, not make generalizations about “tying activism to unrelated issues”.

  10. Tristan Post author

    More from Zizek’s “Living in the End Times”:

    “The lesson [of Copenhagen] is bitter and clear: the state political elites serve capital, they are unable and/or unwilling to control and regulate capital even when the very survival of the human race is ultimately at state. Fredric Jameson’s old quip holds today more than ever: it is easier to imagine a total catastrophe which ends all life on earth than it is to imagine a real change in capitalist relations – as if, even after a global cataclysm, capitalism will somehow continue…”

  11. Milan

    Assuming the kind of radical change you think is required really is required, where would you personally be most effective in helping to bring it about?

  12. Tristan Post author

    Education and advocacy in various places that I’m either already in, or want to get into. So, the university is one, but it’s probably not the most relevant place where education needs to happen. I’ve been involved with Common Cause’s book group, and I’d like to help Common Cause develop a more serious education program along the lines of IBT’s (International Bolshevik Tendency) intensive worker education programs.

    Common cause – http://linchpin.ca/

  13. Tristan Post author

    From Facebook –

    “Jiayi Zhou:

    I think a huge part of the trouble is that the majority of people (even people who consider themselves progressive on environmental issues) can’t stomach the idea of civil disobedience for themselves – not just because of the political impalpability, but how much the idea of getting arrested has become tied to a certain kind of lifestyle to the middle/upper-middle class. Criminality has become criminalized, if you will. And I don’t think one or two high profile ‘sensible’ people geting arrested will do the trick within the hegemonic culture we live in. That said, I think cultures can change very quick during times of upheaval, and it’s very possible that we’re at the cusp of such a time.

    On a completely snarky note, what I wrote on Bastille’s day: “This is what a ‘liberal democratic revolution’ looks like; terror & repression that gave rise to a dictator who conquers 1/2 a continent.””

  14. Milan

    Yesterday, I was at an event featuring short policy presentations and a lot of discussion. In general, the quality of discussion impressed me, and made me more optimistic about the quality of the policy-making community in Canada.

    That said, many people who I spoke to expressed incredulity when I said that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut to zero. It was the same situation I encountered with 350.org people.

    Before we can succeed in dealing with climate change (and global emissions need to be deeply cut by 2050), we need to at least get the majority of educated people to recognize that leaving fossil fuels unburned and moving early to a zero-carbon economy is a legitimate possibility. Right now, it isn’t even in the scope of possible actions under consideration.

  15. Milan

    Changing that perspective requires a lot more than some credible people getting arrested, though I don’t yet know exactly what will be required.

    Arguably, we are better off not giving the general public the whole pill to swallow now. Most people already accept that emissions need to be cut. Informing them of just how far might serve to paralyze, rather than galvanize, them.

  16. Milan

    How many people do you encounter who already knew it? And how much does the average person protest or disagree when you raise the issue?

    I think it’s fair to say that a small minority of Canadians realize that stopping anthropogenic climate change requires totally abandoning fossil fuels (aside from perhaps a very small quantity which can be counterbalanced with CCS).

  17. .

    Germany Shocked by ‘Disproportionate’ Police Action in Stuttgart

    A hardline police operation against demonstrators protesting against a new railway station project in Stuttgart has shocked Germany, after more than 100 people were injured by tear gas and water cannon. German commentators argue that the police went overboard and warn of more violence to come.

    The controversial Stuttgart 21 railway project has been the focus of increasing protests in recent months. But Thursday seemed to mark a turning point as the conflict between the authorities and protesters escalated dramatically.

    Around 600 police used water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and batons in an operation against over 1,000 demonstrators in the southwestern city of Stuttgart on Thursday. The activists had tried to use a sit-down protest to prevent the city’s Schlossgarten park from being cleared so that work could begin on felling trees in the park as part of construction work on the new station. Thursday’s protests were attended by a broad cross-section of society, including pensioners and children.

    The protest’s organizers said in a statement that more than 400 protestors had suffered eye irritation as a result of the police’s operation, with some suffering from lacerations or broken noses.

    The German Red Cross said on Friday morning that 114 demonstrators had been treated on site, and a further 16 were taken to hospitals. Among the injured were school children who had been taking part in an officially registered demonstration.

    Images of people bleeding from the eye after being hit by water cannon featured on German television and newspapers Friday. One 22-year-old protestor suffered a serious eye injury after being hit in the right eye by a water cannon jet, a Stuttgart doctor told the news agency DPA, adding that the man might lose his sight in that eye as a result.

  18. .

    “The second theory about how to win the Republicans’ support was to go straight to their industry backers. If the oil companies and the nuclear industry and the utilities could be persuaded to support the legislation, then they would lobby Republicans. Rosengarten called the strategy “If you build it, they will come.” This was the strategy Obama used to pass health care. He sent his toughest political operatives—like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina—to cut deals with the pharmaceutical industry and hospitals, which at key points refrained from attacking the bill. (The pharmaceutical industry actually ran ads thanking Harry Reid for passing the bill.) In early 2010, K.G.L. shifted its focus from the Senate to industry.”

  19. .

    “In September, I asked Al Gore why he thought climate legislation had failed. He cited several reasons, including Republican partisanship, which had prevented moderates from becoming part of the coalition in favor of the bill. The Great Recession made the effort even more difficult, he added. “The forces wedded to the old patterns still have enough influence that they were able to use the fear of the economic downturn as a way of slowing the progress toward this big transition that we have to make.”

    A third explanation pinpointed how Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman approached the issue. “The influence of special interests is now at an extremely unhealthy level,” Gore said. “And it’s to the point where it’s virtually impossible for participants in the current political system to enact any significant change without first seeking and gaining permission from the largest commercial interests who are most affected by the proposed change.””

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