McKenzie Wark on Fri, 11 Feb 2000 19:21:00 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Why do we all love Zizek?

Where would we be without Slavoj Zizek? Where would the purely rhetorical
leftism of the intellectuals be without hos rhetorical skills? Why, we
would have to actually learn something about policy. We would have to
immerse ourselves in all the boring details of how to administer education
or welfare, or reform the taxt system, or any of the intricate, detailed,
troublesome issues that actually do differentiate social democratic from
liberal or conservative politics. 

Note what Zizek is saying: the far right are indeed right to oppose a
simple minded oppositionalism to the technics of politics, the little
problems of instituting justice. What the far left and the far right share
is a lack of patience for the problem of allocating resources. Oh for the
good old days of debt financing! Where the problem of the tradeoff between
different allocations of scarce state resources was simply to borrow more,
and more, and more...  As for whether there might be negative effects on
the economy as a whole from this approach to finscal policy, oh let's not
bother thinking about that. Too complicated. Too hard.

And something that involves a real competence, a knowledge of how
political economy actually works, a familiarity with the evidence and the
arguments from the applied knowledge of state craft. 

The only thing 'post political' thesedays is the pseudoleftism exemplified
by Zizek's column on Austrian politics. This rush to embrace populism and
its defusal of politics, its fantasy of replacing the technics of politics
with the fantasy of ideology. 

This is a fatal temptation for 'the left' -- the point at which it outs
itself as not being 'the left' at all, but really just a variant of the
rhetoric of the right. It is not the populist right that is acting 'like'
the left in its oppositionalism. Quite the reverse.  'The left' is really
part of the right. A left wing conservatism, loning for the good old days
when rhetoric and ideology really seemed to rule, when the specialisation
of knowledge as applied to the problem of justice had not developed within
and around the state. 

Populism's appeal is for the reinstatement of special status, usually for
groups such as organised labour, small business or farmers. Usually there
is an unstable alliance of two or three of these groups.  They long for a
return to the protection of the state. They want the benefits of
international trade but don't want anyone else to benefit.  They want
other people's markets opened while their own to remain closed. In this
sense the response from other European powers to the Austrian situation is
quite appropriate: a threat to withdraw the benefits Austria enjoys within
the (limited and still protected)  world of intra-European trade and

The instinct of leftist intellectuals is torn by the rise of populism.  We
learned the hard way, in the 30s, that flirting with it is very, very
dangerous. But intellectuals also want their privileges maintained within
the state. They (we) want the benefits of globalisation but not the costs.
We want to travel, to work abroad, have our work known everywhere. Yet we
also want a privileged relation to the state, an authority legitimated by
it (even if only as its internal opposition). 

Increasingly irrelevant to the actual problems of state, wary of too close
a flirtation with populism but attracted to its oppositional rhetoric,
there is nowhere for the old style intellectual to go but into the media.
There the old rhetorics still have a function -- that of filling up column
inches. Providing the illusion of an ideological debate -- something
simple that journalists can dramatise. But what a sorry end for leftism:
retailing old rhetorics to journalists, filling space in magazines -- and
providing comfort to populists in their refusal of the detail of politics,
the technics of justice, the calculus of compromise. It is not that social
democracy hs betrayed its followers. Quite the contrary, it is the
intellectuals who have failed social democracy, by failing to grow up, as
it has had to, and provide real benefits for its constituencies.

And how pathetic that it takes the populist right to mount a critique of
social democracy when it fails! Where are the intellectuals who refused
the benefits of complicity with social democracy in power, who had
something more than a rhetorical critique of its shortcomings? 


McKenzie Wark
Guest Scholar, American Studies, New York University
"We no longer have origins we have terminals"

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