‘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?
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
2 May open meeting for artist-led poster campaign: End Tory Rule
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
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