‘The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, buy their way out of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wildlife preserves, and so on’ .
Whilst such controversial statements may be the reason why many people have slated Zizek’s little book on a big topic, but Violence was to me hard-hitting and thought provoking. Yes, Zizek may have used these arguments before, and yes, he lacks empirical research and jumps too quickly from high to low culture; creating an effect more akin to a pyrotechnic display than an academic argument. But for its ability to prompt greater reflection on the deep and complex causes of violence in society today, this book is of value.
Zizek, as many of his readers already know, does not shy away from controversy, instead using it to grab attention and involve the reader in the argument. Although he prefers to cast ‘sideways glances’ at violence in each of his chapters, Zizek does not shrink from the reality of actual instantiations of violence that have faced us throughout history right up to those on the TV news every day: from French Revolutionary terror, the Holocaust, and Stalinist repression, to the horrifying events at Abu Ghraib. However, he is driven by a fierce desire to avoid fetishising violence, emphasising that graphic descriptions and gory horror stories sometimes end up appealing to us out of shock and fascination – leading to a preoccupation with the gruesome details of each instantiation of violence. Hence his sideways glances try to resist the allure of its horror and achieve a more dispassionate engagement that may help us to see the underlying causes more clearly.
This is not to ask that we stop feeling the horror that this ‘subjective’ violence naturally produces, but that we try to mitigate this momentarily, to avoid a fake urgency where we rush headlong into trying to stop subjective violence while continuing in our failure to understand, and then tackle, the causes of objective violence. He believes that we should ‘step back’ and ‘disentangle ourselves’ from what he calls ‘the fascinating lure’ of directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, such as ‘acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, and international conflict’, which is all ‘violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent’ . Instead, he argues that we need to be able to ‘perceive the contours of the background that ’causes such outbursts in order to identify the objective violence that lurks here’ .
For example, he says that when the media ‘bombard us’ with the usual humanitarian crises we see on our televison screens we must remember that the very fact that this crisis has been covered instead of another is the result of complex and often, ‘behind the scenes’ struggle which concerns less proper humanitarian concerns, and more cultural, ideologico-political and economic considerations . He gives an example of when Time Magazine ‘got it wrong’, using, for their cover story on 5 June 2006, the ongoing crisis in the Congo, where around 4 million people died in the last decade.
But none of what Zizek calls, ‘the usual humanitarian uproar’ followed, bar a few readers’ letters. He observes that it was as if ‘some kind of filtering mechanism blocked this news from achieving its full impact in our symbolic space’ . He remarks, bitterly, that the magazine should have stuck to its more common topics, such as the plight of Muslim women, or victims of 9/11; even an Israeli/Palestinian clash, since ‘the death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese’ . Hence it is objective violence that sets the scene in which subjective violence is played out. Subjective violence is the effect, whereas objective violence is the cause.
These six glances enable Zizek to develop arguments that attack our contemporary socio-economic order from various perspectives. Firstly, he asserts that it is symptomatic of this political order that we are distracted from the urgency to attend to objective violence. Instead there is a vast predilection in modern liberal societies to oppose all forms of violence, alerting us in a flurry, to the urgent need of the latest natural disaster or humanitarian crisis that has been picked up by the media radar. Yet, he asks, if there is something suspicious about this enforced focus on subjective violence, for ‘by obliterating from view other forms of violence’ it is as if we are being forced to look at one thing, while the real root of the problem sneaks by, out of sight, behind us.
So Zizek develops his category of ‘liberal communists’ to refer to the liberal intelligentsia who have sold-out and accepted capitalist economics, doing good works while keeping the very system in place that makes this work necessary. He cites the ideology of these liberal communists as one where market and social responsibility can be reunited for mutual benefit, unveiling the shallowness and hypocrisy behind these ideals in descriptions of those who ‘give with one hand what they first took with the other’  – like George Soros and Bill Gates, who Zizek claims, divide their time equally between personal pursuit of profit and humanitarian activities, without realising the self-eliminating nature of this routine, as they spend half their time contributing to promulgating a violent and destructive system, and the remaining to helping a few of its victims.
Zizek’s familiar argument emerges here, explaining that liberal communists go unnoticed in today’s society because when any ideology is at its strongest it simply becomes accepted and beyond dispute, part of the backdrop culture, the common sense of society: its ‘features, attitudes and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked’ and instead ‘appear … neutral, non-ideological, natural’ . So despite liberal arguments to the contrary, we are not beyond politics – beyond right and left. Zizek highlights how our current era is marked by post-political ‘claims to leave behind the old ideological struggles and instead, focus on expert management and administration, while “bio-politics” designates the regulation of security and welfare of human live as its primary goal’ . Yet he notes how these two goals overlap, for they neutralise challenges to the system and also take away the old objects of passion and feeling that ideologies used to command. He argues, that the only way to mobilise people, to make them passionate enough to act in whichever way suits the ‘powers that be’, is through fear. So, today’s so-called ‘end-state’ neutral bio-politics, is actually just a new politics of fear.
Zizek wants to shock and irritate until he wakes us up to this realisation, to make us change perspective just a little, so when ‘bombarded by the heart-warming news of a debt cancellation or a big humanitarian campaign to eradicate a dangerous epidemic’, we can see beneath the veil of decency and reveal the liberal communist and their violence that is at work underneath [32-3].
Another glance, this time to post-hurricane New Orleans and 2005 Paris riots, shows this raw expression of emotion from yet another side. What Zizek saw in these events was an expression of pure resentment: violence and anger with no requests or demands beyond being heard. Yet he says that the absence of a wider social project of which this was a part, is just another symptom of our liberal capitalist world. The protestors’ impotence and lack of cognitive mapping (the ability to link one’s actions to the wider context) show that the only outlet for our emotions and rage is violence, which can only express impotence: our impotence to act in any productive way to resolve the problem that is the socio-economic divide.
Thus he makes an impassioned plea to try to overcome the cruel injustices and poverty that cause resentment to spread and violence to flare. Focusing on the worrying plans to build a wall around the North African Spanish enclave of Melilla, to prevent its penetration by immigrants, Zizek remarks that, contra what he terms the ‘soft-hearted’ liberal view that we should tear down this wall, and all others to promote free migration, the true wall that needs to be torn down is the socio-economic divide, that is what provokes people to, desperately, try to escape their own world.
In the final apocalyptic chapter we finish the journey, coming from our beginning, at the unmasking of false anti-violence, to this manic, loosely constructed endorsement of emancipatory violence. But in this unacknowledged invoking of Derridian post-structuralism the violence is objective, that which is beyond the law, because it is establishing a new law. This is the sort of violence that is a breaking out of the old order, revolutionary, but not necessarily establishing a new order: simply a resistance of meaning – a pure act of resistance in the hope of overturning the structures that holds us captive today.
Despite my endorsement of this work, two broad problems emerge. Firstly, Zizek’s critique is not really about us, about citizens in Western democratic states, going about our lives, and facing difficult moral and ethical decisions every day. Instead, his critique is a critique of the media, of globalisation, of the anti-capitalist movement, of business, and of the academic classes: of their arguments, their lives and commitments. Indeed, such a critique is necessary, but it is perhaps also important to address and acknowledge its subject more explicitly, so that we can begin to turn the lens on those who promote our violent system, while also preventing disillusionment among those of us who may already think we are doing our level best to reveal the manipulation and control that is going on behind the headlines.
Instead by trying to sweep the whole world into one analysis in this book (although one can always turn to his other work for clarification and greater detail) Zizek risks over-simplifying the problem, and needlessly writing off possible sources of inspiration and strength for the anti-capitalist struggle. For example, rather than condemning all religious groups, charities, existing political mechanisms for welfare and redistribution, and support groups for vulnerable people, would it not be more sensible to cautiously weigh up and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the role that all such groups play in challenging the current hegemonic powers?
Secondly, by entitling his book ‘Violence’, and (over-)emphasising the violent roots of our current state of the world, I wonder if Zizek is not capitalising on the very fear that he accuses liberal capitalist culture of exploiting? Painting the world as one where the domain of violence has become equal to the domain of love seems defeatist, perverse, and quite frankly, untrue. Surely a better way to counter this may be to construct ways to develop solidarity and resistance rather than entrenching the inevitability of the very depths of violence to which our culture stoops?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.