Why I am a communist (and why you should join the party!)

After finishing Žižek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” (which is a precursor to his “Living in the End of Times”), I feel compelled to compile a list of his basic points and tasks. Žižek is often met with the charge that he never comes out with a position or a political task, that he simply theorizes, etc. But I find that any close (and kind) reading of Žižek proves the exact opposite (or rather, there is something sick and hyper(re)active about our times when we do not see in his voracious philosophical output a form of action in itself). And yet in FTTF, while he ridicules those who look to the intellectual class for their answers and programs for action (see Chomsky on this same point in this short video), he points to various “tasks” to be undertaken. These are simple tasks– and thus the hardest to know how to implement. My goal in this note is to stress what I think are Žižek’s main points and tasks in FTTF.

First and foremost, there is an implicit interrogation and/or “return” to the Cartesian cogito that pervades his entire work. I think Žižek sees as an “absolutely modern” philosophical project that we must not back down from. In FTTF, it comes out why this project is so important (although his theoretically elaoration of this project is much clearer in other works; see The Parallax View or The Ticklish Subject). To begin with, Žižek references Kant’s distinction between the private and public sphere. Here, private does not mean my local or familial sphere, where public would then mean my “social identities” as American, PTA-member, Christian, middle-class, or whatever. Rather, it is under the heading of “private” that all these particular collective identities fall. Žižek hearkens Pauls “there are no men or women, no Jews or Greeks” to point out that these ‘ethnic roots’, these ‘national identities’ “are not a category of truth,” they are private-pathological in the Kantian sense (104). Under the heading of “public,” in contrast, these particular private-collective identities fall away for the sake of universal Reason: “One participates in the universal dimension of the ‘public’ sphere precisely as a singular individual extracted from, or even opposed to, one’s substantial communal identification [i.e., ‘private uses of reason’–TL]– one is truly universal only when radically singular, in the interstices [gaps, holes, etc.–TL] of communal identities” (105).

For anyone following Žižek’s project, I think this is an indispensable distinction to take into consideration and remember. Even in his choice to write in English, after writing multiple books in his native language, Žižek enacts this “dimension of emancipatory universality outside the confines of one’s social identity.” When, as Roland Boer cites, many of his ex-fellow country men regard Žižek with disdain, we might even see this as proof of this “outside himself” that he enacts. But most importantly, we have to see in this ‘neutralizing’ or ‘withdrawing’ capacity the function of the Cartesian cogito as such. “Public” is that Reason which is transnational, transethnic, and universally exercised by this cogito as an “empty form” bypassing particular determinations, and thus linking the radically singularized with the absolutely universal. For Žižek, it is this direct link between singular and universal, bypassing the particular, which is…. communism.

It is in this light that we can better understand Žižek’s emphasis on the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded in FTTF. The Excluded are those social groups who have no determined place in the given social hierarchy; and his charge to (against) democracy is how it relates to this dimension of the Excluded. In the US, as new voter registration laws are enacted and other forms of voter suppression (such as shorting the window for voting, lying as to when the ballot must be returned, etc.), it is clear that democracy, as it is right now, is in many ways still “afraid” of what including the excluded could mean. On this point, Žižek himself cites Chomsky: “it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated.” We might hypothesis that the full participation of the Excluded poses such a threat because it is also the negation of private-pathological interests and identifications noted above. In a radical contiguity with the Cartesian cogito, it embodies “globally” the universality of the “public use of reason”: it is blatantly the evidence of injustice and its cry to be heard.

Thus, Žižek recalls young Marx’s idea that the realization of the proletariat implies the realization of philosophy: the former stands for this Excluded finally intruding into the social body, the latter for this cogito (null-point, lost object, subject, etc.) finally intruding into the “psychological” body. Žižek relates both of these to what Badiou calls the “point of inconsistency”: that element in a situation for which there is no proper place for it within the situation, whose dislocation or exclusion is constitutive of the situation itself (or rather, it is “included” in the mode of exclusion). What is so uncanny about social life is that it is these Excluded points which allow the whole mechanism to go on (i.e., there could be no global financial capitalism if it weren’t for the countless Excluded who were impoverished under its bane). Let Žižek speak here on this odd ‘short-circuit’ between Excluded social class (proletariat) and cogito as psychological null-point: “the Communist wager is that the only way to solve the ‘external’ problem (the re-appropriation of alienated substance) is to radically transform the inner-subjective (social) relations” (99) (see my post on Peter Osborne’s The Politics of Time).

Now, Žižek is not obfuscating when speaking of “the inner-subjective (social) relations,” he is mobilizing the very antagonism that gives rise to the Communist exigency (echoing Marx when he said that it is our social-being which determines our consciousness, not vice versa). That we pause and say to ourselves, “Social– and inner-subjective– what?” is part of the active dimension of this text. Transforming these inner-subjective (social) relations is what is “active” throughout all of Žižek’s texts. To miss the link between this transformation and “solving the ‘external’ problem” of class struggle is to miss antagonistic kernel of this struggle in ourselves (it is also to totally misread or misconstrue Žižek’s– whose??— “project”). Now, truly, isn’t the communist notion of the abolition or overcoming of “private” property simply a trans- or re-coding of Kant’s imperative to enter the “public use of reason,” to divest oneself of particular determinations for the sake of the universal singular, or the singularly universal, and thus to cease speaking in the name of pathological-private interests and to instead speak, finally, in the name of and for all (in a trans-historical, non-totalizable sense)? This is why Žižek must say (and it requires it be said in one breath): “We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject, a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito” (92). Enter, stage left, that Bee Gee’s lyric: “I finally died… which started the whole world living.”

Thus, you cannot pin Žižek with mere soap-boxing when he writes that we must find a “link of solidarity” between all those who are struggling for justice, when he says that “we require a politicization process which strengthens the struggle here, there, and everywhere.” I think that one can say without exaggerating that such a “politicization process” is at work right at the level of the Cartesian cogito in Žižek’s work. To really read his work (and I would argue: to read any great philosophic or poetic work) requires a vertiginous entry into this trans-historical struggle with “ourselves.” Thus, an intriguing reading strategy is to let notions of subjectivity to slip in even when Žižek is talking about state politics. When he writes, “the goal of revolutionary violence is not to take over state power, but to transform it, radically changing its functioning, its relationship to its base, and so on,” I think he is equally cautioning against the so-called ‘death [overthrow] of the subject’, and instead advocating a transformation of its function and its relation to the social (i.e., the “publicizing” of it, in the Kantian sense mentioned above). Likewise, “we are dealing with the dictatorship of the proletariat only when the state itself is radically transformed, relying on new forms of popular participation,” I don’t think we can dismiss  Žižek’s own participation on the “popular front,” even if one chooses to caricature-ize him as eccentric, philosophically lazy (or some other simplification that is truly lazy).

Of course, Žižek never fully fleshes out this ‘short-circuit’ between proletarian-Excluded social class and the null-point of Cartesian cogito in so many words, but the link is clear. When Žižek says that we must “no longer follow the pattern of an evental explosion followed by a return to normality,” but instead “assume the task of a new ‘ordering’ against the global capital disorder,” we are talking about a transformation of personality as such: no longer the explosions of genius that leave us floundering in the return to normal life, but a transformation of everyday life as such; no longer a constant battle with doubt and self-revolution, but the willful enforcing of a new discipline upon ourselves, ‘making the state work in non-statal ways.’ These are obviously “just metaphors” until they are made actual in concrete ways in the reader’s life; and Žižek is clearly not trying to play the part of “big Other” who could say how these transformations and revolutions are carried out in his reader’s lives. But in the emptying out of his interest, with the interests of the cogito-proletarian “in mind,” it is as if his texts were a kind of tabula rasa upon which one can read oneself and our time. I cannot help but emphasize this point, especially for those would-be or current readers of Žižek: when he writes that we must, “not so much unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement,” this is as personal-practical as it is social-theoretical. Only a critic who cannot personally take this ‘advice’ to heart could retort that Žižek offers nothing ‘concrete.’ In comparison to Jameson in particular (who also writes of the future as “distruption” or “radical break,” outside the need to posit practical-political solutions), I find Žižek to be much more “inspiring” in this sense.

To be a “communist,” therefore, at least in my rendering of Žižek’s rendering of it, is to give voice to the Excluded (within and without), stripping oneself of particular determinations to the greatest extent possible, which implies interrupting whatever movement is predominant (both at large and deep within ones soul). One must re-think things, again and again, “beginning from the zero-point” (87). This is why communism is less an idea than a response to a certain antagonism– the fundamental one, between the “one” and the “many,” likewise between the “excluded” universal and the many “included” particulars. Žižek himself, in all his works, has never shied away from offering personal-practical advice (although this advice is simply an empty form that the reader appropriates for their own “private” struggle). FTTF concludes in this fashion. Žižek writes of the

notion of a choice or act which retroactively opens up its own possibility: the idea that the emergence of the radically New retroactively changes the past– not the actual past of course (we are not in science fiction), but past possibilities.

In other words, we have to choose our destiny (“freedom is the freedom to choose ones destiny,” even though we are determined by it): assuming that our future is doomed, we have to mobilize ourselves in the act that will change today as if it were a change in a “past” possibility. In light of the unavoidable coming catastrophe linked to capital, we have to seek the movement that will introduce something new into this causal chain and thus bring to light some possible that was obfuscated by it. We must act against historical necessity by asserting our capacity to freely decide for something else, and to make it happen ourselves (emphasis on the “our”). This is the chance that something that was impossible according to current or past possibilities suddenly becomes possible through the interruption of the new (outlook, practice, book, friend, love, social group, etc.).

This means, above all, that we cannot wait until we have ‘full knowledge of the situation’ to act and decide, for this will always keep us within the realm of what’s possible, preventing the new from retroactively changing this “past” realm. This is why Knowledge must be totally divorced from the function of the Master who would have control over it, for the Master can only deal with the coordinates of the situation and the Knowledge at hand. This is why Žižek says that “the true act fills in the gap in our knowledge,” for it brings to light what was possible about the past which had, at the time, seemed impossible to our knowledge (obviously inspired by the Freudian-Lacanian idea of another kind of knowledge: the kind we enjoy discovering-making). This is why “waiting for someone else to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our inactivity,” why

The key test of every radical emancipatory movement is… to what extent it transforms on a daily basis the practico-inert institutional practices which gain the upper hand once the fervor of the struggle is over and people return to business as usual.

…and why this doesn’t only apply to the revolutionary and ‘external’ scale, but also to those “inner-subjective (social) relations.” Implicit with being radically modern in Rimbaud’s sense is not backing down from the gains that have been made (tenir le pas gagné: literally, “hold to the step/not gained”). We must continue to realize and act upon revolutionary potentials after the “big Event,” the personal epiphany, has long passed. How many of us have had such an epiphany (drug- or love- induced, perhaps), only to feel a sourness the ‘next day’ when the fireworks have faded and the monotony of the business day returns? We are challenged to fight this monotony and remain in fidelity to such events, or rather, release ourselves even from the need of such big events: to make of the everyday a constant “filling the gap in our knowledge,” and to make a whole life of this “filling in” (consecrating oneself, in a sense, to the public use of Reason). This, I think, is what makes one a communist today (and what makes me one): to form a practical-personal-political practice which helps “a new modality of existence of the [communist] hypothesis come into being” (Badiou).

I have departed a bit from my initial intentions in this post in that I haven’t enumerated nearly all of Žižek’s points, certainly not all the “tasks” he gives. I have, instead, tried to point out the short-circuit between the re-assertion of the “negative project” of the Cartesian cogito and the communist project of the emancipation of the Excluded proletariat-oppressed class. Philosophy, if it is to live, has to align itself with this project, or render itself yet another “intellectual labor,” consumable and consigned to the prevailing oppositions of the times. But there is an urgency sense in which one must subtract oneself from these prevailing terms and oppositions in the triple sense of 1) withdrawing-detaching-disconnecting oneself, 2) rendering visible a “minimal difference” (what Derrida calls “marking the difference”), i.e., letting the universal function show forth and thus 3) destroying the existing order by letting it disintegrate under the weight of its own inconsistencies (129). This is what begins at least with Descartes and carries through countless contemporary poets (Pessoa, Celan, Spicer), even if they are not able to formulate “subtraction” in the way Badiou and Žižek are able to. In truth, there is no need to formulate it this way. What’s necessary is letting-show-forth the becoming-singular that occurs on ones way towards ones/the Excluded, on the way to the Universal exercise of Reason.

We might ask if it is a sign of weakness or strength that this “subtraction” takes place, in our age, less in the ‘external’ sphere of class struggle in its overt forms and more on the level of those “inner-subjective (social) relations” (i.e., that one takes less to revolutionary organizing than to philosophical exposition). But we should not allow ourselves to say that these struggles are disconnected; on the contrary, each makes way for the other. For both, it is a task “for which no quick formula is at hand.” It is, in a sense, a battle to the death, with a death that is not so much promised as promising: an abolition/overcoming of private property as the relinquishing of that particular “private” identity that we all cling to so heartily in our individualist and consumerist age, for the sake of entering the “public” and universal sphere of Reason, which absolutely implies the radical singularization of the (voice of the) dead one. And, as everyone knows, only a communist knows how to be dead…

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3 Responses to Why I am a communist (and why you should join the party!)

  1. Aaron Wentz says:

    Good stuff. I’ve heard it argued that the work of the Left nowadays is to focus on organizing with other Leftists, that is, forging communication within our own ranks. Which I tend to agree with. Your point about the short-circuit between the individual and social level structuring the Communist project is an important one. I really don’t know what to do. Which Zizek has argued is partly what makes the situation so open. Perhaps as he argues in FTTF, we, in fact, are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.

    In that vein, I wonder, in practical terms, where this is happening, where the Left (Communists) are organizing themselves (again). The reason I ask is that I want to involve myself. Have you seen this beginning to happen, in any serious way around theory (not some outmoded protest model)? I came across this last night:

    There are some serious flaws, but it seemed to be on the right track. A beginning. Thoughts?

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