Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations

The current political conjecture, after a long-running string of defeats for the Left, conveys an oppressive, immobilizing pessimism. According to Adrian Johnson in Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations, the innovative experiments in emancipatory politics of the 20th century have not fared well. Given this scenario, “the era of revolutionary politics certainly looks to be over” (p. xiv). It is therefore difficult not to see capitalism nowadays as the only game in town; “the sole viable option available for organizing humanity’s multiple forms of group coexistence” (p. xxvii). How likely is it then that today’s political circumstances will remain imperious to abrupt ruptures and turns in history?

Given the established run of capitalism, Johnson detects two pitfalls to the present-day political situation: complacent quietism and hubristic utopianism. The first danger is overconfidence or the belief in historical teleologies proffering guarantees “to the effect that socialism can’t fail eventually to succeed” (p. xvi). In the view of economism, “the flow of sociohistorical trends inevitably will carry one effortlessly to the shores of a post-capitalist paradise” (p. xv). The dialectics of history, in other words, unambiguously point to a utopian society beyond capitalism.

This tall tale messianism, the sanguine faith in historical eventualism, however, has been steadily discredited by the lengthy string of losses suffered by the Left. The alternative response, what Johnson describes as the cheap-and-easy option, is underconfidence; that is, lapsing into total cynical despair and weariness given the ongoing series of disheartening defeats. The temptation of comfortable discouragement “fundamentally accepts that the partnership of liberal democratic state apparatuses and poorly regulated free markets indeed is here to stay” (p. xvi). The representatives of underconfidence therefore urge people to passively accept the unsurpassable enveloping limit of what remains historically possible and “resign themselves to refining what merely exists as already established” (p. xvi).

The third alternative to overconfident economic determinism and immobilizing despair is revolutionary ruptures, what Badiou calls an “event” and Žižek an “act”. For Badiou and Žižek global capitalism is not an inescapable enclosure. They plead for this acknowledgment on the basis that “the apparently impossible happened in the past [and] it will occur again in incalculable, unforeseeable forms in the future too” (p. xvii). Such reality-shattering shifts cannot however be anticipated by diagnosing already-present socioeconomic tensions, as traditional Marxist analysis would have it. On the contrary, they irrupt unexpectely and rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t possible. Acts of insurrection, Johnson argues, are “untimely interventions that appear possible only after the fact of actually transpiring—and before which such interventions are impossible qua unimaginable in the eyes of the popular political imagination” (p. xviii).

Insomuch as Žižek delineates this untimely development of accidents avec Hegel, it is a quite new, heterodox understanding of the dialectic. The alternative use of the notion of dialectics posits history as a series of unexpected upheavals and twists, rather than a zigzagging but ultimately linear progress: “Žižek’s Hegelian Geist is an illusion of perspective floating atop a volatile historical-material mixture of contingencies and retroactions” (p. xix). To the lay mind there is much in the long-running cadence of variables and accidents that must appear miraculous, but the momentous abrupt turns of history are the non-miraculous outcomes of “unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces” unfolding throughout time (p. xix).

One can be excused for thinking that such explosive, subversive events that break away from and shatter the slow-moving inertia of status quo realities is altogether unrealistic and utopian, but it remains the case that buying into the notion that today’s established run of things is impervious to incalculable factors and unforeseen occurrences to come is the most utopian sentiment of all. In short, the conviction that the surprises around which historical times take shape are not exhausted is less naïve than the belief that our given situated reality is here to stay permanently.

This post simultaneously published @ Indigenous Ink

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