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Inke Arns: Zizek, part 1

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Date: Mon, 05 Jul 1999 11:42:00 +0200
From: Inke Arns <>
Subject: Zizek, part 1

Hi everybody,

this is Zizek's new text (the "original"!) which we got from him yesterday
during the Kosovo conference here in Berlin. It was published in die Zeit
(in a shorter version). The Zeit version was translated by Michael Pollak,
and posted on Nettime some days ago. Here it is in its full beauty. 

Best wishes,



Slavoj Zizek

The Impasse of the Left

The top winner in the contest for the greatest blunder of 1998 was a
Latin-American patriotic terrorist who sent a bomb letter to a US
consulate in order to protest against the American interfering into the
local politics. As a conscientious citizen, he wrote on the envelope his
return address; however, he did not put enough stamps on it, so that the
post returned the letter to him. Forgetting what he put in it, he opened
it and blew himself to death - a perfect example of how, ultimately, a
letter always arrives at its destination. And is not something quite
similar happening to the Slobodan Milosevic regime with the recent NATO
bombing? For years, Milosevic was sending bomb letters to his neighbors,
from the Albanians to Croatia and Bosnia, keeping himself out of the
conflict while igniting fire all around Serbia - finally, his last letter
returned to him. Let us hope that the result of the NATO intervention will
be that Milosevic will be proclaimed the political blunderer of the year.

	And there is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the West
finally intervened apropos of Kosovo - let us not forget that it was there
that it all began with the ascension to power of Milosevic: this ascension
was legitimized by the promise to amend the underprivileged situation of
Serbia within the Yugoslav federation, especially with regard to the
Albanian "separatism." Albanians were Milosevic's first target;
afterwards, he shifted his wrath onto other Yugoslav republics (Slovenia,
Croatia, Bosnia), until, finally, the focus of the conflict returned to
Kosovo - as in a closed loop of Destiny, the arrow returned to the one who
lanced it by way of setting free the spectre of ethnic passions. This is
the key point worth remembering: Yugoslavia did not start to disintegrate
when the Slovene "secession" triggered the domino-effect (first Croatia,
then Bosnia, Macedonia...); it was already at the moment of Milosevic's
constitutional reforms in 1987, depriving Kosovo and Vojvodina of their
limited autonomy, that the fragile balance on which Yugoslavia rested was
irretrievably disturbed. From that moment onwards, Yugoslavia continued to
live only because it didn't yet notice it was already dead - it was like
the proverbial cat in the cartoons walking over the precipice, floating in
the air, and falling down only when it becomes aware that it has no ground
under its feet... From Milosevic's seizure of power in Serbia onwards, the
only actual chance for Yugoslavia to survive was to reinvent its formula:
either Yugoslavia under Serb domination or some form of radical
decentralization, from a loose confederacy to the full sovereignty of its
units. Therein, in ignoring this key fact, resides the problem of the
otherwise admirable Tariq Ali's essay on the NATO interventionin

"The claim that it is all Milosevic's fault is one-sided and erroneous,
indulging those Slovenian, Croatian and Western politicians who allowed
him to succeed. It could be argued, for instance, that it was Slovene
egoism, throwing the Bosnians and Albanians, as well as non-nationalist
Serbs and Croats, to the wolves, that was a decisive factor in triggering
the whole disaster of disintegration." (1)

It certainly is true that the main responsibility of others for
Milosevic's success resides in their "allowing him to succeed," in their
readiness to accept him as a "factor of stability" and tolerate his
"excesses" with the hope of striking a deal with him; and it is true that
such a stance was clearly discernible among Slovene, Croat and Western
politicians (for example, there certainly are grounds to suspect that the
relatively smooth path to Slovene independence involved a silent informal
pact between Slovene leadership and Milosevic, whose project of a "greater
Serbia" had no need for Slovenia). However, two things are to be added
here. First, this argument itself asserts that the responsibility of
others is of a fundamentally different nature than that of Milosevic: the
point is not that "they were all equally guilty, participating in
nationalist madness," but that others were guilty of not being harsh
enough towards Milosevic, of not unconditionally opposing him at any
price. Secondly, what this argument overlooks is how the same reproach of
"egoism" can be applied to ALL actors, inclusive of Muslims, the greatest
victims of the (first phase of the) war: when Slovenia proclaimed
independence, the Bosnian leadership openly supported the Yugoslav Army's
intervention in Slovenia instead of risking confrontation at that early
date, and thus contributed to their later sad fate. So the Muslim strategy
in the first year of the conflict was also not without opportunism: its
hidden reasoning was "let the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs bleed each other
to exhaustion, so that, in the aftermath of their conflict, we shall gain
for no great price an independent Bosnia"... (It is one of the ironies of
the Yugoslav-Croat war that the legendary Bosnian commander who
successfully defended the besieged Bihac region against the Bosnian Serb
army, commanded two years ago the Yugoslav army units which were laying a
siege to the Croat coast city Zadar!). 

	There is, however, a more crucial problem that one should confront
here: the uncanny detail that cannot but strike the eye in the quote from
Tariq Ali is the unexpected recourse, in the midst of a political
analysis, to a psychological category: "Slovene egoism" - why the need for
this reference that clearly sticks out? On what ground can one claim that
Serbs, Muslims and Croats acted less "egotistically" in the course of
Yugoslavia's disintegration? The underlying premise is here that Slovenes,
when they saw the (Yugoslav) house falling apart, "egotistically" seized
the opportunity and fled away, instead of - what? Heroically throwing
themselves also to the wolves? Slovenes are thus imputed to start it all,
to set in motion the process of disintegration (by being the first to
leave Yugoslavia) and, on the top of it, being allowed to escape without
proper penalty, suffering no serious damage. Hidden beneath this
perception is a whole nest of the standard Leftist prejudices and dogmas:
the secret belief in the viability of Yugoslav self-management socialism,
the notion that small nations like Slovenia (or Croatia) cannot
effectively function like modern democracies, but, left to their own,
necessarily regress to a proto-Fascist "closed" community (in clear
contrast to Serbia whose potential for a modern democratic state is never
put to doubt). As to this key point, even such a penetrating political
philosopher as Alain Badiou insists that the only Yugoslavia worth of
respect was Tito's Yugoslavia, and that in its disintegration along ethnic
lines all sides are ultimately the same, "ethnic cleaners" in their own
entity, Serbs, Slovenes or Bosnians: 

"The Serb nationalism is worthless. But in what is it worse than others?
It is more broad, more expanded, more armed, it had without any doubt more
occasions to exercise its criminal passion. But this only depends on
circumstances. /.../ Let us suppose that, tomorrow, the KLA of the Kosovar
nationalists will take power: can one imagine that one Serb will remain in
Kosovo? Outside the victimizing rhetorics, we haven't seen one good
political reason to prefer a Kosovar (or Croat, or Albanian, or Slovene,
or Muslim-Bosnian) nationalist to the Serb nationalist. /.../ Sure,
Milosevic is a brutish nationalist, as all his colleagues from Croatia,
Bosnia, or Albania. /.../ From the beginning of the conflict, the
Westerners have effectively only take side, and in an awkward way, of the
weak (Bosnian, Kosovar) nationalism against the strong (Serb and
subsidiary Croat) nationalism." (2)

The ultimate irony of such Leftist nostalgic longing for the lost
Yugoslavia is that it ends up identifying as the successor of Yugoslavia
the very force that effectively killed it, namely the Serbia of Milosevic.
In the post-Yugoslav crisis of the 90s, can be said to stand for the
positive legacy of the Titoist Yugoslavia - the much-praised
multiculturalist tolerance - was the ("Muslim") Bosnia: the Serb
aggression on Bosnia was (also) the aggression of Milosevic, the first
true post-Titoist (the first Yugoslav politician who effectively acted as
if Tito is dead, as a perceptive Serb social scientist put it more than a
decade ago), against those who desperately clinged to the Titoist legacy
of ethnic "brotherhood and unity." No wonder that the supreme commander of
the "Muslim" army was General Rasim Delic, an ethnic Serb; no wonder that,
all through the 90s, the "Muslim" Bosnia was the only part of
ex-Yugoslavia in whose government offices Tito's portraits were still
hanging. To obliterate this crucial aspect of the Yugoslav war and to
reduce the Bosnian conflict to the civil war between different "ethnic
groups" in Bosnia is not a neutral gesture, but a gesture that in advance
adopts the standpoint of one of the sides in the conflict (Serbia). 

	The ultimate cause of the opposition to the NATO bombing of
Yugoslavia in some Leftist circles is the refusal of these circles to
confront the impasse of today's Left. This same refusal also explains the
properly uncanny appeal of negative gestures like the spectacular retreat
of the German super-minister Oskar Lafontaine: the very fact that he
stepped down without giving reasons for his act, combined with his
demonization in the predominant mass media (from the front page title of
The Sun - "The most dangerous man in Europe" - to the photo of him in
Bild, portraying him from the side perspective, as in a police photo that
follows arrest), made him an ideal projection screen for all the fantasies
of the frustrated Left which rejects the predominant Third Way politics -
if Lafontaine were to stay, he would save the essentials of the welfare
state, restore their proper role to the Trade Unions, reassert the control
of politics over the "autonomous" financial politics of the state banks,
even prevent the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia... While such an elevation of
Lafontaine into the cult figure has its positive side (it articulates the
utopian desires for an authentic Left that would break the hegemonic Third
Way stance of accepting the unquestioned reign of the logic of the
Capital), the suspicions should nonetheless be raised that there is
something false about it: to put it in very simple terms, if Lafontaine
were effectively in the position to accomplish at least SOME of the
above-mentioned goals, he would simply NOT step down, but go on with his
job. The cult of Lafontaine is thus possible only as a negative gesture:
it is his STEPPING DOWN that created the void in which utopian Leftist
energies can be invested, relying on the illusion that, if external
circumstances (Schroeder's opportunism, etc.) were not preventing
Lafontaine from doing his task, he would effectively accomplish something.
The true problem is, however: what would have happened if Lafontaine were
NOT be forced to step down? The sad, but most probable answer is: either
NOTHING of real substance (i.e. he would have been gradually "gentrified,"
co-opted into the predominant Third Way politics, as already happened with
Jospin in France), or his interventions would trigger a global
economico-political crisis forcing him, again, to step down and
discrediting Social Democracy as unable to govern. (In this respect,
Lafontaine is a phenomenon parallel to the leaders of the Prague Spring of
68: the Soviet intervention in a way saved their face, saved the illusion
that, if remained to stay in power, they would effectively give birth to a
"socialism with a human face," to an authentic alternative to both Real
Socialism and Real Capitalism.)

Human Rights and Their Obverse

Does this mean that one should simply praise the NATO bombing of
Yugoslavia as the first case of an intervention - not into the confused
situation of a civil war, but - into a country with full sovereign power.
True, it may appear comforting to see the NATO forces intervene not for
any specific economico-strategic interests, but simply because a country
is cruelly violating the elementary human rights of an ethnic group. Is
not this the only hope in our global era - to see some internationally
acknowledged force as a guarantee that all countries will respect a
certain minimum of ethical (and, hopefully, also health, social,
ecological) standards? This is the message that Vaclav Havel tries to
bring home in his essay significantly titled "Kosovo and the End of the
Nation-State"; according to Havel, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia

"places human rights above the rights of the state. The Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia was attacked by the alliance without a direct mandate from
the UN. This did not happen irresponsibly, as an act of aggression or out
of disrespect for international law. It happened, on the contrary, out of
respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which
protects the sovereignty of states. The alliance has acted out of respect
for human rights, as both conscience and international legal documents
dictate." (3)

Havel further specifies this "higher law" when he claims that "human
rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots
somewhere outside the perceptible world. /.../ while the state is a human
creation, human beings are the creation of God." (4) If we read Havel's
two statements as the two premises of a judgement, the conclusion that
imposes itself is none other than that the NATO forces were allowed to
violate the existing international law, since they acted as a direct
instrument of the "higher law" of God Himself - if this is not a clear-cut
case of "religious fundamentalism," than this term is devoid of any
minimally consistent meaning... There are, however, a series of features
that disturb this idyllic picture: the first thing that cannot but arouse
suspicion is how, in the NATO justification of the intervention, the
reference to the violation of human rights is always accompanied by the
vague, but ominous reference to "strategic interests." The story of NATO
as the enforcer of the respect for human rights is thus only one of the
two coherent stories that can be told about the recent bombings of
Yugoslavia, and the problem is that each story has its own rationale. The
second story concerns the other side of the much-praised new global
ethical politics in which one is allowed to violate the state sovereignty
on behalf of the violation of human rights. The first glimpse into this
other side is provided by the way the big Western media selectively
elevate some local "warlord" or dictator into the embodiment of Evil:
Sadam Hussein, Milosevic, up to the unfortunate (now forgotten) Aidid in
Somalia - at every point, it is or was "the community of civilized nations
against...". And on what criteria does this selection rely? Why Albanians
in Serbia and not also Palestinians in Israel, Kurds in Turkey, etc.etc?
Here, of course, we enter the shady world of international capital and its
strategic interests.

	According to the "Project CENSORED," the top censored story of
1998 was that of a half-secret international agreement in working, called
MAI (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The primary goal of MAI
will be to protect the foreign interests of multinational companies. The
agreement will basically undermine the sovereignty of nations by assigning
power to the corporations almost equal to those of the countries in which
these corporations are located. Governments will no longer be able to
treat their domestic firms more favorably than foreign firms. Furthermore,
countries that do not relax their environmental, land-use and health and
labor standards to meet the demands of foreign firms may be accused of
acting illegally. Corporations will be able to sue sovereign state if they
will impose too severe ecological or other standards - under NAFTA (which
is the main model for MAI), Ethyl Corporation is already suing Canada for
banning the use of its gasoline additive MMT. The greatest threat is, of
course, to the developing nations which will be pressured into depleting
their natural resources for commercial exploitation. Renato Ruggerio,
director of the World Trade Organization, the sponsor of MAI, is already
hailing this project, elaborated and discussed in a clandestine manner,
with almost no public discussion and media attention, as the "constitution
for a new global economy." (5) And, in the same way in which, already for
Marx, market relations provided the true foundation for the notion of
individual freedoms and rights, THIS is also the obverse of the
much-praised new global morality celebrated even by some neoliberal
philosophers as signalling the beginning of the new era in which
international community will establish and enforce some minimal code
preventing sovereign state to engage in crimes against humanity even
within its own territory. And the recent catastrophic economic situation
in Russia, far from being the heritage of old Socialist mismanagement, is
a direct result of this global capitalist logic embodied in MAI. 

	This other story also has its ominous military side. The ultimate
lesson of the last American military interventions, from the Operation
Desert Fox against Iraq at the end of 1998 to the present bombing of
Yugoslavia, is that they signal a new era in military history - battles in
which the attacking force operates under the constraint that it can
sustain no casualties. When the first stealth-fighter fell down in Serbia,
the emphasis of the American media was that there were no casualties - the
pilot was SAVED! (This concept of "war without casualties" was elaborated
by General Collin Powell.) And was not the counterpoint to it the almost
surreal way CNN reported on the war: not only was it presented as a TV
event, but the Iraqi themselves seem to treat it this way - during the
day, Bagdad was a "normal" city, with people going around and following
their business, as if war and bombardment was an irreal nightmarish
spectre that occurred only during the night and did not take place in
effective reality?

	Let us recall what went on in the final American assault on the
Iraqi lines during the Gulf War: no photos, no reports, just rumours that
tanks with bulldozer like shields in front of them rolled over Iraqi
trenches, simply burying thousands of troops in earth and sand - what went
on was allegedly considered too cruel in its shere mechanical efficiency,
too different from the standard notion of a heroic face to face combat, so
that images would perturb too much the public opinion and a total
censorship black-out was stritly imposed. Here we have the two aspects
joined together: the new notion of war as a purely technological event,
taking place behind radar and computer screens, with no casualties, AND
the extreme physical cruelty too unbearable for the gaze of the media -
not the crippled children and raped women, victims of caricaturized local
ethnic "fundamentalist warlords," but thousands of nameless soldiers,
victims of nameless efficient technological warfare. When Jean Baudrillard
made the claim that the Gulf War did not take place, this statement could
also be read in the sense that such traumatic pictures that stand for the
Real of this war were totally censured...

	There is another, even more disturbing aspect to be discerned in
this virtualization of the war. The usual Serb complaint is that, instead
of confronting them face to face, as it befits brave soldiers, NATO are
cowardly bombing them from distant ships and planes. And, effectively, the
lesson here is that it is thoroughly false to claim that war is made less
traumatic if it is no longer experienced by the soldiers (or presented) as
an actual encounter with another human being to be killed, but as an
abstract activity in fron of a screen or behind a gun far from the
explosion, like guiding a missile on a war ship hundreds of miles away
from where it will hit its target. While such a procedure makes the
soldier less guilty, it is open to question if it effectively causes less
anxiety - one way to explain the strange fact that soldiers often
fantasize about killing the enemy in a face to face confrontation, looking
him into the eyes before stabbing him with a bayonet (in a kind of
military version of the sexual False Memory Syndrome, they even often
"remember" such encounters when they never took place). There is a long
literary tradition of elevating such face to face encounters as an
authentic war experience (see the writings of Ernst Juenger, who praised
them in his memoirs of the trench attacks in World War I). So what if the
truly traumatic feature is NOT the awareness that I am killing another
human being (to be obliterated through the "dehumanization" and
"objectivization" of war into a technical procedure), but, on the
contrary, this very "objectivization," which then generates the need to
supplement it by the fantasies of authentic personal encounters with the
enemy? It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a video
game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the face
to face killing of another person; it is, on the opposite, this fantasy of
a face to face encounter with an enemy killed in a bloody confrontation
that we construct in order to escape the trauma of the depersonalized war
turned into an anonymous technological apparatus. 

The Ideology of Victimization

What all this means is that the impasse of the NATO intervention in
Yugoslavia is not simply the result of some particular failure of
strategic reasoning, but depends on the fundamental inconsistency of the
very notion of which this intervention relies. The problem with NATO
acting in Yugoslavia as an agent of "militaristic humanism" or even
"militaristic pacifism" (Ulrich Beck) is not that this term is an
Orwellian oxymorom (reminding us of "Peace is war" slogans from his 1984)
which, as such, directly belies the truth of its position (against this
obvious pacifist-liberal criticism, I rather think that it is the pacifist
position - "more bombs and killing never brings piece" - which is a fake,
and that one should heroically ENDORSE the paradox of militaristic
pacifism); it is neither that, obviously, the targets of bombardment are
not chosen out of pure moral consideration, but selectively, depending on
unadmitted geopolitic and economic strategic interests (the obvious
Marxist-style criticism). The problem is rather that this purely
humanitarian-ethic legitimization (again) thoroughly DEPOLITICIZES the
military intervention, changing it into an intervention into humanitarian
catastrophy, grounded in purely moral reasons, not an intervention into a
well-defined political struggle. In other words, the problem with
"militaristic humanism/pacifism" resides not in "militaristic," but in
"humanism/pacifism": in the way the "militaristic" intervention (into the
social struggle) is presented as a help to the victims of (ethnic, etc.)
hatred and violence, justified directly in depoliticized universal human
rights. Consequently, what we need is not a "true" (demilitarized)
humanism/pacifism, but a "militaristic" social intervention divested of
the depoliticized humanist/pacifist coating. 

	A report by Steven Erlanger on the suffering of the Kosovo
Albanians in The New York Times (6) renders perfectly this logic of
victimization. Already its title is tell-taling: "In One Kosovo Woman, An
Emblem of Suffering" - the subject to be protected (by the NATO
intervention) is from the outset identified as a powerless victim of
circumstances, deprived of all political identity, reduced to the bare
suffering. Her basic stance is that of excessive suffering, of traumatic
experience that blurs all differences: "She's seen too much, Meli said.
She wants a rest. She wants it to be over." As such, she is beyond any
political recrimination - an independent Kosovo is not on her agenda, she
just wants the horror over: "Does she favor an independent Kosovo? 'You
know, I don't care if it's this or that,' Meli said. 'I just want all this
to end, and to feel good again, to feel good in my place and my house with
my friends and family.'" Her support of the foreign (NATO) intervention is
grounded in her wish for all this horror to be over: "She wants a
settlement that brings foreigners here 'with some force behind them.' She
is indifferent about who the foreigners are." Consequently, she
sympathizes with all the sides in an all-embracing humanist stance: "There
is tragedy enough for everyone, she says. 'I feel sorry for the Serbs
who've been bombed and died, and I feel sorry for my own people. But maybe
now there will be a conclusion, a settlement for good. That would be
great." - Here we have the ideological construction of the ideal
subject-victim to whose aid NATO intervenes: not a political subject with
a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering, sympathizing with all
suffering sides in the conflict, caught in the madness of a local clash
that can only be pacified by the intervention of a benevolent foreign
power, a subject whose innermost desire is reduced to the almost animal
craving to "feel good again"... 

i n k e . a r n s __________________________ b e r l i n ___
49.(0)30.3136678 | |
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