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What Is To Be Done?

Paul O’Mahoney

Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, by Slavoj Žižek, Penguin, 117 pp., £9.99, ISBN: 978-00241278840

This latest addition to the prolific Žižek’s output is in large part culled from pieces of journalism published over the past twelve months, dealing with the migrant crisis and related phenomena, from the Paris terror attacks of November 2015 to the mass sexual assaults during new year’s celebrations in Cologne. The book allows for presentation of these reflections in a more considered and consistent form; and, while its tone, brisker pace and brevity may betray its journalistic origins, it is not inappropriate, given the urgency of the subject matter and the need for practical proposals, that it should have more references to other pieces of journalism and sociological research and fewer to the German Idealist philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis so associated with Žižek’s work.

The figure of the neighbour, in the abstract, the multiplicity of that figure’s potential manifestations and equally diverse forms of “troubles with the neighbours”, have always been central to Žižek’s work; it is thus no surprise that migrations unprecedented in the era of welfare state capitalism should not only occasion his direct reflections but also, and more unusually, force his hand as regards offering solutions. The current mass migrations of course present a dual challenge: on the one side, the European destination countries feel it acutely and fear it as a potential threat to their way of life, an unexampled form of present, and promise of future, “troubles with the neighbours”. The challenge facing those attempting to reach Europe meanwhile is not only to stay alive; it does not end with their gaining Europe but is only transformed into a fresh set of troubles in a new neighbourhood. European countries and peoples must struggle with the problems of how to protect and provide for refugees, but also how to control the intake, better integrate those accepted and ultimately facilitate a mass (and perhaps forced) repatriation with the passing of the conditions which drove the original migration. On the other side are migrants who, in light of the foundational and immutable principle of the political, protego ergo obligo (taking the sphere of the political in its broadest sense as the norms governing relations within or between collectives of “political animals”), have a political duty – which conditions and transcends any putative “human right” – to integrate and to respect the norms and traditions of the receiving country.

The issue of tolerance brings the duality of the challenge faced into focus. Concerned as Žižek is in part here with breaking a series of “leftist taboos”, he is conscious that the contemporary leftist liberal who considers tolerance a duty, injunction and cardinal virtue is likely to exaggerate similarities between peoples or the immediate compatibility of immigrant communities with a host nation. Tolerance is something the quantity of which becomes demand-led: “in accommodating refugees, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made to feel guilt for not practising enough tolerance – Muslim children are not served pork in schools, but what if the pork eaten by other children disturbs them, etc., etc?” In a similar vein, the claim is commonly made that misogynistic immigrants represent a minority, while the majority “has a deep respect for women”; the problem for Žižek is that it is often the case that a woman is respected “insofar (and only insofar) as she fits the ideal of a docile servant” and does not act “in full autonomy”. The injunction to tolerance is part of a modern liberal ideology; and ideology “does not reside primarily in stories invented (by those in power) to deceive others, it resides in stories invented by subjects to deceive themselves”: at bottom, “The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing is fundamentally a lie”. In other words, human beings are liable collectively and individually to deceive themselves, and to do so systematically. The obverse here is the pretence of tolerance which in fact extends only to those who are maximally integrated, who learn the language and adopt the norms, general beliefs and even dress of their new neighbours. This falsity illustrates the inherent difficulty of integration for immigrants, a difficulty more acute for those who come as part of a mass migration; while they may benefit (in matters of dress, religion, etc.) from the Western norm that one must respect and therefore tolerate the right of a person to hold a belief, that norm does not imply respecting the content of their belief; and the disregard or contempt that accompanies the tolerance of a practice or belief is often more wounding than open suppression of or opposition to it.

Here the difficulty becomes: what if, in coming to know refugees, we come to see that they are “like us” in being “impatient, violent, demanding – plus, usually, part of a culture that cannot accept many of the features we perceive as self-evident?” Žižek returns to this idea throughout, insisting for example that “most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with the Western European notion of human rights”. In this respect, a good number of refugees “want to have their cake and eat it. They basically expect to get the best of the Western welfare state while retaining their specific way of life, which is in some of its key features incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare state”. Against pressure to give up aspects of their way of life or fundamental beliefs and acquiesce to Western norms, Žižek asks, “how many of them really want to be integrated? What if the obstacle to integration is not Western racism?” As regards culture, however, the Western notion is increasingly “the name for all those things we practise without really believing in them, without ‘taking them seriously’”. A cultural practice is in this light something which is permitted one only so long as it remains inoffensive, evacuated of what for its adherent gives it weight and dignity. One can thus see how a debate about a Leitkultur, a leading or dominant culture, which for Žižek is already a debate not about different cultures but between differing visions of how different cultures should coexist, in reality forecloses inclusion of those whose culture could not support or countenance such a debate. The coexistence or relative hierarchy of cultures (or civilisations) points to the crucial topic of Islamic fundamentalist violence, the terrorism which is the source of the greatest fear of Islamic collectives or cultures and the greatest expression of their rage and sense of inferiority. It is important to understand that the fundamentalist violence which is anathema to and a reaction to Western culture is not decisively religious; Žižek agrees with the French psychoanalyst Alain Badiou that religion is not a decisive factor with fundamentalists: “it merely serves as a medium for the perverted expression of disavowed class envy and hatred”. “The basic fact of fundamentalist Fascism is envy. Fundamentalism remains rooted in the desire for the West in its very hatred of the West”, and thus “Islamo-Fascism”, so-called, is in reality not primarily religious but an expression of impotence converted or perverted into nihilism and self-destructive rage.

Solutions to these problems are hardly easy, at least if one rejects, like Žižek, the admittedly simpler strategy of shutting borders and refusing all claims for asylum, and of forcing compliance with a dominant culture on any migrant communities. Thus, with the stakes so high, the migrant and refugee crisis is described by Žižek as “a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to rethink our very foundations”, presenting a situation in which “we are compelled to reinvent the basic coordinates of our way of life”. One might well echo Žižek’s own judgement on some discussed analyses and recommendations of Badiou: “Easy to say, difficult to do.” Be that as it may, the final section bears the title “What is to be done?” – with Žižek, a clear echo of Lenin and a nod to the author’s revolutionary inclinations – and takes up the gauntlet in proposing solutions.

The natural goal is to change the conditions in refugees’ and migrants’ countries of origin, and this will involve acceptance of a degree of responsibility for those conditions borne by European powers and other developed nations who benefit from a capitalist system which causes and perpetuates drastic inequalities. As for the citizens of disadvantaged or underdeveloped countries, a question of education arises. This is neither the mealy-mouthed lip-service customarily paid to the benefits of education for a population nor the idea that those from what appear from a Western perspective to be backward nations or cultures can be enlightened through instruction. This naive and rather condescending attempt to enlighten is contrasted with what Žižek considers a true “education”. In his chapter centred on the Cologne sexual assaults (reportedly by gangs of men of Arab or North African origin, on white, Western women), Žižek writes: “The naive attempts to enlighten immigrants (explaining to them that our sexual mores are different, that a woman who walks in public in a miniskirt and smiles does not thereby signal sexual invitation, and so on) are examples of breathtaking stupidity.” This is because “Immigrants know all this perfectly well – and that is why they are doing it. They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, and they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities.” Thus, the task is “not to teach them what they already know very well, but to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness”. If these attempts at “enlightenment” are hopeless, Žižek looks to education, required not only for migrants and refugees but for the poor and oppressed citizens of Western nations, as a remedy: “it is not enough simply to give voice to the underdogs as they are now: in order to enact actual emancipation, they have to be educated (by others and by themselves) into their freedom – an almost impossible task in the darkness that is growing all around Europe and the Middle East”. Tolerance is further not only insufficient, it can be a barrier to true integration of marginalised groups into a genuine struggle which grants and defines their autonomy. In his view, “The only way to break out of this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance of others. Don’t just respect others: offer them a common struggle, since our struggles today are common.” There is a need to “bring the class struggle back”, and the only way of doing this is “to insist on the global solidarity of the exploited and oppressed”. This need to educate cuts across various groups, from refugees to the poor in developed nations; there is, says Žižek, a need “to teach [ordinary people] to recognize their own responsibility for the prospect of their destruction”. While ordinary people in many instances fear different cultures (those wedded to traditional morality fear the forces which erode it, for example; the educated are often resented by those lacking education, particularly in America; exponents of radical, libertarian free-market capitalism are resented by advocates for “social justice”), and one of the greatest fears is a radically different, immigrant culture, Žižek insists that apparently moral conflict is in reality a displaced form or modality of class struggle, that “‘culture war’ is ‘class war’ in a displaced mode”. Only through such “education” is there hope for the remedy of exploitative relationships between persons, classes or nations. 

His canvas is broad, and Žižek has always in mind the bigger picture. He is unequivocal in his assertion that the developed West must accept the fact that “mass migrations are our future”. If we accept this, European countries must look to alleviate the conditions which drive migrations, while those countries’ underprivileged or disenfranchised classes must similarly look beyond or outside of themselves and foster global solidarity between oppressed or disadvantaged collectives. He closes with the rather portentous consideration that: “Maybe such global solidarity is a utopia. But if we don’t engage in it, then we are really lost. And we will deserve to be lost.”

The notion of a global class of the disadvantaged with compatible and communicable interests and goals is however dubious. It represents an abstraction with insufficient reality to inform concrete politics; and Žižek is explicit in his concession that what is required in contemporary analyses is “to change the terrain toward concrete social and economic analysis”, analysis which, one presumes, ought to inform a concrete politics. Abstraction can be unhelpful here, in diverting attention from the concrete political realities, even where one wishes ultimately to change those realities.

Perhaps the most difficult and insidious abstraction in the present debates is precisely “Europe”, which is so often discussed as a unifying and noble idea, even an ideal, and whose invocation appeals to the values and history of this unifying, if not historically united, entity. This of course is problematic: this invoked “Europe” today is really a kind of journalist’s shorthand, the Europe of putative “European values”, where the ancient Greeks are reduced to the inventors of democracy (and modern Greeks imagined their descendants), and, in deference to the secularised Christianity that goes by the name of humanism, Jesus Christ is a kind of enterprising and charismatic social worker whose message was misappropriated for political ends first by the Roman empire and subsequently by the Roman church, but is available in an uncorrupted form to a discerning reader of the gospels: these of course are the sorts of values today’s standard bien pensant liberal intellectual, who both forms and conforms to popular opinion – to do otherwise than conform to such would be antidemocratic, cardinal sin – can get behind.

The democratic question is never far away. Refugees essentially demand the radical extension of the foundational European Union principle of freedom of movement, but the opening of borders in a nation-state system would suspend functioning democracy. In Germany, the most common questioning or criticism of Angela Merkel’s open invitation to refugees “concerned precisely democracy, but with a Rightist-populist twist ... what was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation?” Žižek draws the conclusion that this primarily highlights “the limits of democratic legitimization”. But in a system which nominally cherishes the democratic mandate above all other sources of legitimisation, the question becomes a more urgent one. This is especially the case as the migrant crisis is one which affects not some abstract “Europe” which is the repository of salutary humanitarian values, but the European Union, a concrete political entity whose existence depends on cooperation between democracies and which, constantly antagonised by nationalist sentiments of its members, experiences a more or less perpetual, to borrow Jürgen Habermas’s phrase, “legitimation crisis”.

Žižek was moved to call Merkel’s welcoming of refugees to Germany, and necessarily Europe, in a piece not reproduced here, “a genuine ethical miracle”, but rather typically restricted this to a comment on its unprecedented nature without actually committing himself to (what would seem implied for many by the choice of words) endorsement of that welcome. In reality, and on reflection, it is scarcely conceivable that one could endorse it; it was Merkel’s and Germany’s (or, Merkel’s Germany’s) drastic miscalculation which transformed a humanitarian emergency into a mathematical one. It led to Austria’s closing its borders with Germany, sparking similar closures in other states in a disruption of the established system unprecedented within the relevant territories since the formalisation of the Schengen area. That it encouraged more people not only to attempt to enter Europe, but to continue on toward Germany, Sweden or other destinations considered most desirable, the permitting of which defied not only the Dublin Regulation on refugees but all logic, is indubitable, and is evidenced in the confrontations on the Macedonian border, where dissatisfied migrants used an improvised battering ram to break down a fence and attacked Macedonian police, leading the latter to respond with tear gas. These confrontations give some indication of the true scale of the difficulties now faced. What if they were to be repeated, but led to fatalities, perhaps even the deaths of women and children? It is not certain that one could predict or manage the reaction of migrants within Europe to the spectacle of their compatriots being killed on Europe’s periphery – and this is before one considers the reports that about ten per cent of the nearly 1.3 million migrants admitted to Germany have been lost track of. The scramble to remedy a crisis whose dimensions have rapidly become unmanageable led ultimately to an absurd, unworkable deal struck with Turkey whereby migrants would be accepted or returned to Turkey on a one-for-one basis, a deal supplemented or sweetened by the provision of €3 billion in aid to Turkey to facilitate migrants.

Žižek is correct that this hypocritical and base gesture is a “shamelessly disgusting act”; but this is due not only to capitulation to Turkish blackmail (Žižek accepts that what Turkey is doing is “playing a well-planned political game” in “officially fighting ISIS but effectively bombing Kurds who are really fighting ISIS” – just as George Soros has identified as the design behind Putin’s bombing of Syria the consequent mass influx of refugees into Europe to precipitate the division and perhaps collapse of the EU). There is also the crass falsity in the deal’s implicit gesturing toward the possibility that a cooperative Turkey might one day gain admittance to the EU (the prospect would trigger secession by numerous member states in response to the revolt of their populations, and thereby threaten the necessarily nondemocratic, quasi-technocratic systems the union’s institutions require for their functioning; it is the likely irruption of the democratic claim more than potential secession of members that militates against Turkish admission). Should the EU extend to Turkey the waiving of visas for travel to the Schengen area (the medium-term goal of Turkish authorities) under these conditions – and regardless of the rightness or otherwise of that extension under different conditions – Europe’s capitulation to this blackmail would become humiliating and grotesque. If the pledging of the money amounted to “rewarding one of the chief culprits for the rise of ISIS in Syria”, granting partial acceptance into Europe in these conditions would be to reward its initial refusal either to prevent or deter irregular migration to Europe or proportionally to match German openness (however misguided, or resented by some party to it, this openness may have been).

That it was resented by member states which by default had to respond to the rise in migrant numbers makes even more central the issue of democratic legitimisation. If legitimisation – essentially, consent of the population to reception of high numbers of refugees or migrants – was perhaps lacking within Germany, something arguable but not definite, its lack in other member states who were affected by Merkel’s unilateral invitation is certain. The upshot of dramatically increased migration was the inevitable impossibility of detaining and screening all arrivals, leading to an increase in unscreened and undocumented entrants to the European Union. In this light perhaps the most appropriate and ironically honest response to calls to accommodate refugees was that of Slovakia, whose cynicism was so brazen as to extort admiration: they agreed to take refugees, but not Muslims, based on the solicitous consideration that Muslims would not feel at home there. This was so transparent it can hardly even be called disingenuous; they did not intend to dupe or convince anybody, and essentially only held to or returned the logic of Saudi Arabia’s ridiculous offer to pay for mosques for refugees in Europe rather than taking them in themselves. The cynicism was the more breathtaking for its being tricked out in a language of cultural concern (and it perhaps admitted a more sinister reading, between the lines: “They would not be at home here ... believe me, we would make quite sure of that ...”). These are realities insufficiently treated here: Žižek at all times displays such hostility to the average or representative “leftist liberal”, whom he considers a craven, self-interested hypocrite, while insisting equally on the crudity and irrelevance to all debates of representatives of right-wing, “anti-immigrant populism”, that he often seems to neglect the fact that these figures are extremes, and that there is a whole spectrum in between them whose concerns require addressing. These extreme figures are identified as sources of the “double blackmail”, the one hypocritically urging the opening of all borders (while banking on the impossibility of the demand’s realisation), the other calling for the immediate closing and policing of borders; but that they are types, and common types, does not make them importantly representative. 

The book entertains – this is always to Žižek’s credit, even if he is wont to overdo recourse to popular, vulgar or controversial claims or examples – though details of the various analyses in chapters also suffer for their casual or cursory treatment; exasperation, a sentiment familiar to any reader of Žižek, will likely be provoked here by his customary love of paradox or contrarian analysis.

Žižek’s position might be said to offer alternatives to, on the one hand, a commentator such as Alexander Betts (who accepts absolutely the idea that states have an obligation to offer asylum to refugees), and on the other and at the other extreme the brutal, essentially social Darwinist recommendations of Garrett Hardin and other forecasters of Malthusian catastrophe, who would argue for the morality of allowing groups who through overpopulation or warfare make their traditional territories less habitable or secure to be reduced. Žižek is far closer to the former, and his solutions echo some of those of Betts. He is absolutely correct in his contention that prevention or control of future migration is a matter of changing and bettering the conditions in disadvantaged countries; and he is correct that the developed West must accept some responsibility for those dismal conditions. How this would be achieved is the real point of contention, and there has latterly been a resurgence of more hard-line and less forgiving proposals: for some, a new and acknowledged form of colonialism is the answer, whereby less powerful and traditionally unstable and underdeveloped states would become the protectorates of larger and more powerful states, which would guarantee stability in return for, for example, rights to exploit or to profit from the sale of a percentage of the client state’s natural resources. (This “solution” would in effect only recur to the logic of Article 22 of the original Covenant of the League of Nations.) For others, of Hardin’s school, the surest way to improve conditions in a state is to force the hand of its own citizens, and this begins with making migration an arduous prospect and the “exit” option unprofitable.

Žižek’s preference for a fostering of global solidarity seems considerably preferable to either, if workable; but how it would be accomplished is not clear. It could begin with theorists and intellectuals like Žižek, but it is likely the most effective “carriers” of this education and doctrine of solidarity would today be international NGOs, a fact which diminishes its prospects of success. It is difficult to imagine Western governments successfully fostering or working to export such ideas, and it is doubly difficult to imagine connections being forged by the underprivileged classes within Western society: quite apart from a lack of education, opportunity or influence among such classes, their members are too often living a hand-to-mouth existence which limits their political activity. Further, Žižek’s ideas are, especially given his scorn for and lack of faith in free market capitalism or what he calls “the liberal-democratic consensus”, explicitly internationalist-revolutionary, and therefore if carried to their natural conclusion are – put simply, even if it sounds an archaic note – potentially treasonous.

As has been shown, Žižek is quite explicit that his position represents utopian hopes; and how well any reader therefore receives is likely to depend, quite apart from the merits of Žižek’s arguments, on whether that reader finds utopian sentiment at all tolerable. If one can pardon the utopian, or pursuit of what seems within a current system impossible, then the book will at the least seem worthwhile and thought-provoking – perhaps even to proffer long-term and inclusive solutions. Should one prefer in this matter that any critic propose immediate and workable measures to counter an immediate and escalating crisis – deferring utopia, or conceding it to the exigencies of the moment – then it may be found wanting.


Paul O'Mahoney lives and works in Dublin