Friday, 11 January 2013

Books: The Year Of Dreaming Dangerously by Slavoj Zizek

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously is the Hegelian/Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek's look at the explosive year of 2011.  It's a thought provoking albeit difficult read that frustratingly for some branches away from its ostensibly topic. But if you know anything about Zizek you realise he has the bigger philosophical picture in mind and has no interest in journalistic accounts or concrete economic analysis-if you want that it is best to read Paul Mason's book on the same subject. I have neither the time (nor the ability to be honest) to do an in-depth review of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, so instead here is a lengthy quote from Joe Kennedy's review of the book. He subtracts from the dense prose, Zizek's critique of the liberal managerial middle classes, their nostalgia for social democracy and their absorption into the all-encompassing capitalist system-a subject very close to my heart.

"Milner’s work describes a class which emerged in late capitalism, fulfilling a similar structural role to the factory owners of the industrial era without actually controlling the means of production. This class is not solely, or even predominantly, constituted of people (such as bankers or other financial sector workers) who would tend to affiliate themselves politically with (broadly) conservative interests, but of those whose labour allows them to persist in identifying, at least on paper, with emancipatory causes. Academics provide the obvious example here, but it wouldn’t take long to come up with a long list of other professions–particularly in the swelling charity sector– that could be identified using Milner’s rubric. As the means of production are concentrated in the hands of an increasingly smaller group, those paid a surplus-wage become absolutely instrumental to the maintenance of economic hierarchy. Žižek explains:

The evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus-wage is, of course, an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence–or, as Milner puts it, the necessity of the surplus-wage is not economic, but political: to maintain a “middle class” for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of the social hierarchy is not a mistake, but its whole point, for the arbitrariness of evaluation plays a role homologous to the arbitrariness of market success.

On these terms, academics, journalists and charity workers may imagine themselves as working to undermine capitalist “stability” while all the while being, even in the grip of radical belief, the key agents of stabilisation. With this in mind, Žižek looks at the British tuition fee protests as an example of a rebellion which experienced itself as radical but was, at its core, a demonstration for the preservation of extant structures of power: “not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to a proletarian status.” What was demanded was not a levelling-out, but a defence of the means (the surplus-waged bourgeoisie put in place by the relatively arbitrary mechanism of the degree system) by which post-Fordist capitalism continues to operate.*

This point is liable to provoke some dissonance amongst those who both see its logic and recognise themselves amongst those being targeted. It’s slightly tempting to kick against Žižek for having the temerity to call out the egalitarian pretensions of his audience in this way, but there’s little getting around it: more than ever before, capitalism relies on that section of the middle class who habitually imagine themselves as in opposition to it. Furthermore, it’s this faith that one is part of the solution rather than of the problem which further entrenches the system, as dissenting energy is invested in tactical goals which turn out to contribute nothing to the radical strategic objective. For Žižek, social democracy of the kind achieved in much of Europe after the Second World War is dead, although its image is kept alive as a red herring which causes discontent to attach itself to partial goals (such as the removal of tuition fees) incapable of elevating themselves into a consistent list of radical demands which could act as a catalyst for systemic change.

As ever, Žižek links nostalgia for the economic and infrastructural achievements of social democracy with the way in which post-war socialism’s surviving offspring, identity politics, is still the primary occupation of many on the left. In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, he positions this analysis within the context of a liberal atheism which puts “culture” in the place of religion, substituting the demands of universalist belief systems with those of a dogma of disavowal:

Culture is […] the dominant ideological topic of the “enlightened” liberals whose politics is focused on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance. The key question is thus: why has “culture” emerged as our central life-world category? With regard to religion, we no longer “really believe”, we simply follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of our respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong […] “I don’t really believe in it, it’s just part of my culture” seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed or displaced belief characteristic of our times. Perhaps, then, the “non-fundamentalist” notion of “culture” as distinguished from “real” religion, art, and so on, is in its very core the name for the field of disowned or impersonal beliefs–”culture” as the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously”.

It is interesting to note here how Žižek opposes “culture” and real “art”, a distinction which points towards the way the “salaried bourgeoisie” are, in Anglophone countries at least, the primary consumers of novels, poetry, films, and plays which might in some senses be called post-aesthetic. The latter-day middlebrow is not the preserve of the conservative middle class but of those who see “culture” as its own justification, the practice which guarantees for “tolerance” and against “fundamentalism” but sets out no external truth-conditions of its own. A slightly off-the-wall, but pertinent, example, might be the twenty-first century British obsession with stand-up comedy, which might be regarded as the genre par excellence of the surplus-waged. Linking nearly all the comedians adored by the liberal left is a general scepticism about belief, a position which might be called nihilistic (were that term not to imply some notion of commitment and following through). The politics–such as they are–of the stand-ups tend to hinge on ridiculing straw men (the British Conservative Party) and lampooning the religious universalism of reactionary Christians, particularly those who form the primary constituency of the US Republicans.

By fighting–or laughing at–the intolerance of some forms of universalism while refusing to “take seriously” or lay claim to any definable, non-partial political principles the surplus-wage class undermines the emancipatory values it perceives itself as sharing. Žižek’s argument in The Year of Living Dangerously is for a new universalism which abandons the fetishisation of a now-impossible social democracy. He glimpses intimations of its spirit in the (to him) genuinely “evental” Arab Spring and, more problematically, last summer’s UK riots. Without either validating these claims or subjecting them to the standard sophistic quibbling about the intellectual left’s appropriation of civil unrest, it is clear that Žižek is coming closer to an authoritative mapping of the contradictions which early twenty-first century socialist politics struggles to resolve."

* Zizek (and Kennedy) ignores the involvement of students from the further education collages and the youth from London's estates, especially on the 9th December 2010 tuition fees demo.  

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Best Novels Read In 2012

1: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (2009)

A sprawling 'family saga' like novel set in the years between 1895 to 1919. A.S. Byatt of course is a Booker Prize winning author and literary top-gun so more to The Children's Book then my opening sentence would suggest. The writing is beautiful and like all good historically set novels you live and breath the era. Sometimes the information contained within the pages from art of the period to politics reads like a history lesson and slows the narrative down but otherwise the book drew me on to its tragic ending. The cover is equally as beautiful, stunning in fact-something you can't get with a Kindle!

2: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (2007)

3: Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell (2009)

Ramsey Campbell is one of my favourite authors...Thieving Fear is another eerily unsettling excursion into progressively accumulating dread as the four protagonists of the novel are literally infected by their worst nightmares by an un-dead Victorian occultist.

The Best CD's Released/Re-issued in 2012 (and 2011)

1: Swans: The Seer (Double CD)

2: Acid Mothers Temple: Son of Bitches Brew

3: Om: Advaitic Songs

4: Julia Holter: Ekstasis

5: UFOmammut: Omo-Opus Primum/Oro-Opus Alter

6: My Bloody Valentine: EP's 1988-1991 (Double CD)

7: Ulver: Childhood's End

8: Six Organs of Admittance: Ascent

9: Bob Mould: Silver Age

10: Small Faces: Small Faces/Small Faces 3rd Album (Deluxe Editions)

The Best Films & DVD/Blu-Ray Re-issues of 2012 (and 2011)

1: Berberian Sound Studio, Directed By Peter Strickland (2012)

2: Harakiri, Directed By Masaki Kobayashi (1962)

3: The Skin I Live In, Directed By Pedro Almodovar (2011)

4: Mary and Max, Directed By Adam Elliot (2009)

5: House of Tolerance, Directed By Bertrand Bonello (2011)

6: The Devils, Directed By Ken Russell (1971)

7: Drive, Directed By Nicholas Winding Refn (2011)

8: Treacle Jr, Directed By Jamie Thraves (2011)

9: Island of Lost Souls, Directed By Erle C. Kenton (1932)

10: Submarine, Directed by Richard Ayoade (2010)

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Message From Underground Man

2012 was a grim year for most working class people and for those on the radical left it was particularly depressing. The high hopes roused in the 2011 revolts came back to planet Earth with a bump as the youth rebellion and Occupy seemed to fade away and the emancipatory dreams of the Arab Spring degenerated into civil war, foreign intervention and power grabs by reactionary political and religious organisations. The public sector unions regardless of a lot of fighting talk gave up the struggle and put on another purely symbolic A to B march dominated by union bureaucrats in October. We drowned in a spectacle of national celebration and flag waving as the Jubilee and the Olympics were pumped out by the mass media and the left retreated into its usual comfort zones, separated from the complex and messy world outside by a wall of outdated dogma that has not changed much since the Russian Revolution or The Spanish Civil War.

But this is not a time for wallowing in pessimism either. It is obvious we are entering an era of momentous change as the horrors of austerity hit more and more people, in the process throwing up more and more sites for grassroots resistance. Capital is restructuring itself before our very eyes, using the economic crisis to accelerate the processes of Neoliberalism-a formation of a down trodden work force without any employment rights or a welfare safety net, with virtually all public services privatised. But capitalism has major problems in achieving this free market Utopia for the rich and powerful. As the comforts and illusions of mass consumerism and easy credit are slowly taken away and the police/security state becomes necessarily more oppressive, breaking basic human rights to contain spreading dissent, more and more people will began to see through the ideology of so-called liberal democratic capitalism. Revolt will be ungainly, messy, sometimes frightening but inevitable it will arise and out of this a counter-power (federations of workers councils, neighbourhood assemblies and radical municipalities) has a possibility to form, challenging capital and the state which sustains it and providing a genuine alternative. 2013 might be the year that we get a real glimmer of hope for the future.