Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘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?
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead