by Alan Johnson
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Is this idol of the liberal Left a sort of fascist?
January 1st, 2013
Liberals always say about totalitarians that they like humanity, as such, but they have no empathy for concrete people, no? OK, that fits me perfectly. Humanity? Yes, it's OK – some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99 per cent are boring idiots. (Slavoj Žižek)
Zeev Sternhell’s study of inter-war French fascism was – or rather should have been – paradigm-shifting because he showed that fascism was “neither Left not Right.” Rather, the ostensibly opposed extremes were united in their hatred of what they called “the established disorder” of materialism, parliamentary democracy and bourgeois society, as well as in their “distaste for the lukewarm,” and their fascination with “the idea of a violent relief from mediocrity”. These ideas, or more precisely, prejudices, gained influence and created an intellectual climate that was able to erode “the moral legitimacy of an entire civilisation,” and foster an inchoate ideology of revolt based on spirit and will.
While the “intellectual rock star” Slavoj Žižek, a man feted on campusus around the world, is ostensibly on the far Left of the political spectrum, much of his sensibility – his structure of feeling and response to the world around him – is reminiscent of nothing so much as interwar European fascism.
In France, the fascists used the expression “the established disorder” to sum up their hatred for the materialism, liberalism and democracy from which they craved release through a “national revolution” of the spirit. In eerily similar terms Žižek writes of our society as “an insulated artificial universe”, all “coffee without caffeine”, a “staged fake”, “utilitarian”, “despiritualised”; a “spectral show” in which life merely “drag[s] on as its own shadow”.
Like the Italian fascist philosopher Gentile, who fulminated against a society defined by “the regime of money, the essential leveling, materialistic and cosmopolitan regime,” Žižek attacks the entire “space of European modernity” as nothing but a “miserable utilitarian/ egoistic universe of market calculation”.
And just as the inter-war German conservative revolutionary Ernst Jünger “hated democracy like the plague” Žižek condemns it as a form of “corruption” in its essence, unable to provide a “place for Virtue.”
Fascist ideology, whatever its specific predicates, repudiates human reason and exalts irrationalism and irrationalist violence, often in the form of wanton military aggression and imperialism. A fascist mass movement is the most aggressive form of militant irrationalism.
-- Project Democracy's Program -- The Fascist Corporate State, by Webster Griffin Tarpley
Žižek believes western liberal civilisation is a nightmare from which only violent “revolution” can awaken us. “Extreme violence” will be required to “peel off the deceptive layers of reality” because we are only truly alive, only constituted as fully human subjects when we “commit ourselves with an excessive intensity which puts us beyond ‘mere life’ ”. Was it not Ernst Jünger who believed that “The ideal of individual freedom has become meaningless over against a spirit that sees happiness in rigorous discipline and service for the great deeds”? Was it not the national socialist Edouard Berth, author of Satellites de la ploutocratie, who in 1912 said that only violence could stop the culture “becoming universally bourgeois”?
Žižek is an heir to this hatred of the bourgeois, this yearning for heroism and this desire for a leap beyond our – he borrows this term from T.S. Eliot – “metaphysical malaise.”
Fascist doctrine. I mean only such doctrine as asserts the absolute authority of the state, or the infallibility of a ruler. 'The corporative state', recommended by Quadragesimo Anno, is not in question. The economic organisation of totalitarian states is not in question. The ordinary person does not object to fascism because it is pagan, but because he is fearful of authority, even when it is pagan.
-- The Idea of a Christian Society, by T.S. Eliot
And Žižek’s contempt for the 99 per cent of people who are “boring idiots” is no one-off outburst in an interview. The same thought is expressed in more considered terms in his books. He has long exuded contempt for the “bourgeois”, “common” and “vulgar” life, with its “egoistic craving” and has made clear his loathing for the “pathetic figure of a good little man maintaining his heroic dignity in horrible conditions”. Instead Žižek exalts the political warrior who has “utter military fidelity, answering “the Call of the ‘eternal’ Event” and living out an “authentic existential project”. (In other words, a fanatic.) We find just the same aristocratic appetites present in Drieu La Rochelle who wrote in Socialisme fasciste (yes, there were lots of books and pamphlets with titles like that between the wars) that the “incentive of lucre” must be replaced by the “incentive of duty” because “the foundation of moral force [is] a disposition to sacrifice, a will to fight”.
Another point of kinship with left-fascism – one thinks of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1970s West Germany – is Žižek’s spiritualization of the self-sacrificial death. The intellectual historian Richard Wolin tells us that the inter-war left-fascist (and father of post-structuralism) Georges Bataille “effusively praised Italian Fascism’s morbid iconography – mortuary symbols, black pennants, and death’s heads”, believing that “[a] living man regards death as the fulfillment of life; he does not see it as a misfortune.” Exactly the same morbid attraction to self-sacrificial death can be found in Žižek’s writings, and nowhere more so than In Defence of Lost Causes, his 500-page warrant for Left-wing totalitarianism released in 2008.
When a Left-wing thinker valorises fanaticism in the service of an aestheticised and spiritualised notion of “revolution” and parades a sensibility that treats unquestioning fidelity to a transcendent Cause – regardless of the consequences, up to the point of self-sacrifice – as the only possible basis of a fully human existence, then perhaps he has not just ‘lost his way’ to use Nick Cohen’s happy phrase. Perhaps he is in the process of finding quite another politics altogether. Sometimes even Žižek senses where he is heading.
The only “realistic” prospect is to ground a new [politics] by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (“human rights”, “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “resignifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice … if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!
Alan Johnson is the Editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and Senior Research Fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). A professor of democratic theory and practice, he is an editorial board member of Dissent magazine, and a Senior Research Associate at The Foreign Policy Centre.