[Marxism] Hamid Dabashi vs. Zizek

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 1 15:58:09 MDT 2011

Zizek and Gaddafi: Living in the old world
A prominent European philosopher who argues that the Arab Spring is over 
simply can't fathom a new, hopeful world.

Hamid Dabashi Last Modified: 01 Sep 2011 12:32

Slavoj Zizek's failure to understand the true nature of the upheavals 
across the Arab world, such as in Libya, above, can be ascribed to his 
'postmodern existential angst' and lack of imagination [EPA]

Just a couple of days before the fall of Tripoli to Libyan rebels, Saidj 
Mustapha, a prominent Algerian political scientist was asked his opinion 
about the Arab Spring.

He responded by outlining a number of key factors that he thought had 
contributed to the making of the dramatic transnational revolutions, 
particularly the aging leadership and the young population, mixed with 
the corruption of the ruling regimes, concluding that: “The young people 
who launched this revolution do not come from the traditional political 
institutions, such as political parties or military coup elites. This 
makes us look forward to a phase of democratic transition from an 
authoritarian regime to a pluralistic, democratic system.”

When he was asked to predict what would happen in Libya (this interview 
was conducted in Algiers on August 19, 2011, just before the Libyan 
rebels entered Tripoli), he gave a detailed answer, 
scenario-by-scenario, analysing the possibilities of (1) civil war that 
would split Libya like Sudan, (2) the triumph of the Transitional 
National Council, and (3) the nightmare of Iraq or Somalia and civil 
strife in which he feared that the al-Qaeda in Maghreb might be the 
beneficiary. In a very short interview, but still in very precise terms, 
Saidj Mustapha was meticulous, caring, optimistic, and above all 
celebratory of the Arab Spring and the new horizons of open-ended 
politics it had occasioned.

As the fate, or metahistorical force of events, would have it, exactly 
on the same day, August 19, 2011, the London Review of Books published 
an essay by the famous European philosopher Slavoj Zizek, frivolously 
titled (as is his wont), “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” in which he 
gave his take on the recent UK riots.

Zizek's worldless world

In this article, Zizek concurred with Alain Badiou, his French 
counterpart, that “we live in a social space which is increasingly 
experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can 
take is meaningless violence”. Zizek continued to suggest that “the 
riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that 
the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: 
terrorist attacks and suicide bombings”. But, he stipulated, “the 
difference is that, in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris, 
terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning 
provided by religion.”

So what we have here, as Zizek saw it, defined by shoplifters and 
terrorists, is a “worldless” world (informed by Badiou and shoplifters) 
and occupied by “absolute Meaning” (suggested by Hegel and Osama bin 

Zizek then turns his attention to the Arab Spring: “But weren’t the Arab 
uprisings a collective act of resistance that avoided the false 
alternative of self-destructive violence and religious fundamentalism?” 
This should have given the European philosopher a sign of hope in what 
appeared to be a worldless world filled with absolutist religious 
meanings thrown like grenades by terrorist Hegelians. But it did not. 
The European philosopher has lost all hope: “Unfortunately, the Egyptian 
summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a 
time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated.”

“The end of revolution?”  So early? So early in the game and so utterly 
has the European philosopher lost all hope. How did he come to that 
conclusion? “Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The 
contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the 
Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but 
are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will 
tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure 
ideological hegemony.”

To be sure, this has by now become a cliché concern among a certain 
segment of Arab intellectuals too, but more as a defiant rallying cry 
than a metaphysical fait accompli, the air in which Zizek was delivering 
his ruling. There were other Arab activists and intellectuals who were 
even more concerned about their revolution being derailed and kidnapped 
by the perfectly business-suit-clad and clean shaven neoliberals, by the 
IMF, by the World Bank, by the NATO bombings, by American 
neoconservatives “helping Arabs transit to democracy”, while they put 
“boots on the ground” and signed with them lucrative business deals.

Zizek: out of touch

But strange that the (evidently Marxist) European philosopher had no 
concerns about those kinds of “suffocating” the revolution. On a 
previous occasion I have suggested that the distinguished European 
philosophers like Zizek who wish to say something about other parts of 
the world need to diversify among their native informers. But alas, 
Zizek seems not to have listened to my advice. “The losers,” he warns 
Europeans, “will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak - in spite of the 
CIA funding they are getting - to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the 
true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has 
been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from 
trade unions to feminists”.

All these key confusions of Zizek - his “secular left” in particular is 
a giveaway - should warn him to start shopping around (with a proper 
credit card of course, for shoplifting is nihilistic) for better native 
informers. The ones he has now are no good. In a “worldless” world, 
filled with Absolute meanings of militant Islamists stealing revolutions 
like shoplifters, Zizek’s diagnosis is that “today’s left faces the 
problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old 
one after the uprising, when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment 
is over?"

In this “worldless” world we have, it seems, a lack of organisation; yes 
indeed, party politics. Zizek mourns precisely where and what Saidj 
Mustapha celebrates. Zizek dismisses not just the UK shoplifters, the 
Muslim terrorists, and the Arab revolutions, but even the Spanish 
In this context, the manifesto of the Spanish indignados, issued after 
their demonstrations in May, is revealing. The first thing that meets 
the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: 'Some of us consider ourselves 
progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. 
Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but 
we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social 
outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, 
businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.'
They make their protest on behalf of the 'inalienable truths that we 
should abide by in our society: the right to housing, employment, 
culture, health, education, political participation, free personal 
development and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life'. Rejecting 
violence, they call for an ‘ethical revolution ... The indignados 
dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and 
controlled by a lust for power ... And this is the fatal weakness of 
recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to 
transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. 
They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

So no hope in Spain either, where people are revolting without having a 
revolution. Is it not entirely unpredictable that the European 
philosopher goes back to Greece, his fictive birthplace, for solace and 
hope:  “The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to 
the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared 
in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime).”

But even good old Greece is not a happy scene for “the Absolute 
Professor” (this was Søren Kierkegaard ‘s choice term for Zizek’s idol 
Hegel), for “even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of 
self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom 
with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are 
allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on”.

This to Zizek is anarchy, lacking in revolutionary discipline, the 
necessary cadre of political party apparatchiks of the old Soviet sort. 
“When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move 
beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was 
not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement 
whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not 
enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs 
a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with 
all necessary harshness."

The abyss had opened and the postmodern professor has become positively 
punctilious; yes, indeed, dare we say it: conservative. All it takes is 
a riot in London (retail therapy on steroids), a terrorist attack in New 
York, and a misinformed native informer of the Arab Spring in the 
philosopher’s company to turn the world dark and worldless, filled with 
Absolute fanaticism, and expose the postmodern existential angst unable 
to read the signs of time.

Is the Arab Spring half-full or half-empty?

Whence the difference between these two perspectives: the Arab 
intellectual morally invested and politically engaged, while his 
European counterpart morally aloof and politically pessimistic? One has 
everything to gain, a world to live; the other nothing to lose, having 
lost his world to worldlessness. The Algerian political scientist 
thrives on a visionary reading of a world that Zizek dismisses as 
already worldless. Why is Saidj Mustapha not afraid of a conspiracy 
between the Islamists and the generals? Why is Joseph Massad far more 
afraid of American neoliberals and neoconservatives than of Islamists? A 
world is unfolding right in front of Zizek’s eyes and he sees the world 
worldless, the Egyptian revolution suffocated, the Arab Spring lost. How 
and why is it that the Algerian intellectual celebrates precisely what 
the European philosopher mourns: the absence of party politics, the rise 
of a politics beyond clichés?

Zizek mourns worldlessness, and designates absolute Meaning as the cause 
of terrorism. He does not see the world that is unfolding right before 
him as a hopeful, purposeful, worldly, life-affirming world. This is 
because, just like Gaddafi, Zizek is stuck in his old ways. He cannot 
believe his eyes, he cannot believe what is happening to him: that his 
world has ended, not the world; that he (embodying a European philosophy 
at the losing end of its dead certainties) lives a worldless world, not 
the world.

Zizek and Gaddafi are identical souls, sticking to the worlds they know, 
militantly, the world they are losing - defiant rebels banging at the 
Bab Aziziyeh compound of their habitat, a world that is either theirs or 
it will not exits: “Après moi, le déluge.”  Barely begun, Zizek 
dismisses the Arab Spring and then mourns the loss of idealism among the 

It is in fact the European philosopher himself that is the gravedigger 
of history, having nothing to see, nothing to say, nothing to celebrate, 
because this history is not his history, is not History, for History has 
always been His, and not anyone else’s. It is quite a moment in History 
when the Hegelian cannot tell between signs of a disease (shoplifting 
and terrorism) as the thesis and the sights of a cure (the Arab Spring) 
as antithesis - giving it up to generals and Islamists. London riots and 
terrorism of one brand or another are the symptoms of a disease, of 
capitalism and its imperialist fighter jets running amok from the top to 
the bottom.

Arab Spring is the renewed ground zero of history, the sight of a world 
that is beginning to reveal itself, precisely at the moment when the 
European philosopher sees the world “worldless” because it is not his 
world - just like Colonel Gaddafi - a world in which he cannot imagine 
himself, for he has been imagining the world for everyone else. The Arab 
Spring is the opening horizons of a hope of emancipation, of a renewed 
reading of world, of worlds. But Zizek does not see it because this is 
not the world of his making, the visage and force of a world Hegel had 
delegated to pre-History, non-History. Zizek has already recited the 
obituary of the Arab Spring, while what appears as a worldless world to 
the European philosopher is a world he cannot fathom, as it is being 
inhabited by others he cannot not read.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and 
Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the 
author, most recently, of Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard 
University Press, 2011).

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