One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. It might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).

Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.

Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’

Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.

Or, it emphasises the fact that the problem is a more fundamental one, that global capitalism is ultimately an effect of the underlying principles of technology or ‘instrumental reason’.

Or, it posits that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse (the exemplar of this approach is the Zapatista movement).

Or, it takes the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive re-articulation.

Or, it wagers that one can repeat at the postmodern level the classical Marxist gesture of enacting the ‘determinate negation’ of capitalism: with today’s rise of ‘cognitive work’, the contradiction between social production and capitalist relations has become starker than ever, rendering possible for the first time ‘absolute democracy’ (this would be Hardt and Negri’s position).

These positions are not presented as a way of avoiding some ‘true’ radical Left politics – what they are trying to get around is, indeed, the lack of such a position. This defeat of the Left is not the whole story of the last thirty years, however. There is another, no less surprising, lesson to be learned from the Chinese Communists’ presiding over arguably the most explosive development of capitalism in history, and from the growth of West European Third Way social democracy. It is, in short: we can do it better. In the UK, the Thatcher revolution was, at the time, chaotic and impulsive, marked by unpredictable contingencies. It was Tony Blair who was able to institutionalise it, or, in Hegel’s terms, to raise (what first appeared as) a contingency, a historical accident, into a necessity. Thatcher wasn’t a Thatcherite, she was merely herself; it was Blair (more than Major) who truly gave form to Thatcherism.

The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left.

Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding, is an almost perfect embodiment of this position.* For Critchley, the liberal-democratic state is here to stay. Attempts to abolish the state failed miserably; consequently, the new politics has to be located at a distance from it: anti-war movements, ecological organisations, groups protesting against racist or sexist abuses, and other forms of local self-organisation. It must be a politics of resistance to the state, of bombarding the state with impossible demands, of denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms. The main argument for conducting the politics of resistance at a distance from the state hinges on the ethical dimension of the ‘infinitely demanding’ call for justice: no state can heed this call, since its ultimate goal is the ‘real-political’ one of ensuring its own reproduction (its economic growth, public safety, etc). ‘Of course,’ Critchley writes,

history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes.

So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it? And what would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler? Surely in such a case one should ‘mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty’ one opposes? Shouldn’t the Left draw a distinction between the circumstances in which one would resort to violence in confronting the state, and those in which all one can and should do is use ‘mocking satire and feather dusters’? The ambiguity of Critchley’s position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way? Why limit oneself to a politics which, as Critchley puts it, ‘calls the state into question and calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect’?

These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

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Vol. 29 No. 24 · 13 December 2007

Convinced, nay, chastened by Slavoj Žižek’s arguments for a new realism on the left, I shall be campaigning over the next months to dissuade those planning to ‘save their beautiful souls’ in street protests against the bombing of Iran from doing any such thing (LRB, 15 November). And I have written a letter to my congresswoman (she’s a bit of an anti-war firebrand, so Žižek will forgive me if my intervention fails to have immediate results), along the lines: ‘While respectfully recognising the US state’s representation of my interests, and its right and duty to protect them by force of arms, might I propose that you propose that the strike against Iranian facilities be limited to 50 bunker busters per nuclear installation, with a total TNT not exceeding, say, half the Hiroshima device per site? And could I put in a plea for restraint in the use of depleted uranium? I realise this may be intruding too far on the administration’s prerogatives, but would you perhaps suggest, to those in the know, double-checking of intelligence before the targets are finally decided on? Oh yes, collateral damage … Couldn’t we make a strictly between presidents offer of undercover medical help, Quds force to Quds force, in the unlikely event?’ These seem to me ‘strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands’. They’re sure to do the trick.

T.J. Clark
University of California, Berkeley

‘Sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’ seems to be Slavoj Žižek’s new slogan for fighting capitalism. He writes of the million-strong demonstration against the war on Iraq: they ‘served to legitimise it.’ All that happened was that ‘the protesters saved their beautiful souls.’ Žižek’s brilliant dialectical insight allows us to see that all struggles that do not fully achieve their objectives sanctify the status quo. So the events of May 1968 in France must have legitimised the Gaullist regime, the Cuban revolution continued US domination of Latin America, the independence of India the British Empire, the revolutions of 1848 European reaction, the civil rights movement American racism. And if the US now attacks Iran we must at all costs not take to the streets against it. Perhaps the philosopher should go beyond interpreting the world in confusing ways and try to change it.

Chris Harman
International Socialism Journal, London E8

Reading Slavoj Žižek’s strangely giddy defence of Hugo Chávez, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Bananas, in which Allen’s character, a product-tester named Fielding Melish, joins a group of guerrillas in the mountains of ‘San Marcos’, a right-wing Latin American military dictatorship. The guerrilla leader brandishes his gun, his revolutionary slogans and his Che beard with equal aplomb, and promises that the day of liberation is near. Once the guerrillas triumph, he changes the official language to Swedish and announces that everyone must wear their underpants outside their clothes. Venezuelans aren’t speaking Swedish yet, but Chávez’s drive to concentrate power in his own hands brings them one step closer. I prefer the Subcomediante Marcos.

André Bénichou
Nanterre, France

Vol. 30 No. 1 · 3 January 2008

Slavoj Žižek is a delightful provocateur and a gifted intellectual comedian (LRB, 15 November 2007). One day he’s denouncing do-gooder capitalists like George Soros by insisting that capitalism is an irredeemable system of structural violence; the next he’s informing the left that there’s no chance of ever overcoming it. One day he’s embracing Lenin as a man whose aim was to destroy all states for ever, the next he’s arguing that the state must be maintained as the only remaining bulwark against capitalism. If you ask Žižek to review a book your readers are unlikely to learn much about it. Thus he pays a good deal of attention to Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding, but largely for his own purposes.

Critchley is one of the few intellectuals who have taken seriously the possibility that those who are actively engaged in fighting capitalism might have something relevant to say. He has tried to understand what they are attempting and to work out how the tools at his disposal might be helpful. His book does not simply propound a Levinasian ethics, understood as an infinite responsibility to the other, but is itself an attempt to practise one. Žižek appears to object to this project on principle. When you shave away the posturing, his real message is that intellectuals have always been, and always must be, whores to power. He can’t quite come out and say this, so he conveys it in a series of rhetorical manoeuvres, mostly based on the use of the term ‘we’. ‘We’ are intellectuals, ‘we’ are the left (since the left apparently consists primarily of intellectuals), but ‘we’ also seem to include anyone from Tony Blair and the Democratic Party in the US to the current rulers of the People’s Republic of China. As a result ‘we’ obviously cannot stand opposed on principle to cruise missiles and interrogation chambers because our real brothers and sisters are not those being blown up by or strung up in them, but rather, those pushing the buttons and calculating stress positions.

I’d offer two points readers might wish to consider. First, capitalism will not be around for ever. An engine of infinite expansion and accumulation cannot, by definition, continue for ever in a finite world. Now that India and China are buying in as full players, it seems reasonable to assume that within fifty years at most, the system will hit its physical limits. Whatever we end up with at that point, it will not be a system of infinite expansion. It will not be capitalism; it will be something else. However, there is no guarantee that this something will be better. It might be considerably worse. Might we not do well at least to consider what something better might be like? If nothing else it seems an odd moment to call off all speculation about alternatives. And if one does wish to think about alternatives to capitalism, how better to do this than to engage with those building such alternatives in the present?

Why is Chávez the model? Why not, say, Evo Morales, who, unlike Chávez, really was placed in power by, and remains answerable to, genuine social movements? Could we imagine Žižek, even in his fantasies, patiently listening to the demands of the directly democratic assemblies of El Alto? Chávez may be a virtuoso performer but he is also a political comedian holding power with no real responsibility except to give his audience pleasure.

David Graeber
Goldsmiths, University of London

Vol. 30 No. 2 · 24 January 2008

My critics make the following claims (Letters, 13 December 2007): 1. that my message to the left is that there is no chance of overcoming capitalism; all we can do is to ‘sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’; 2. that I advocate modest realistic demands rather than the pursuit of big impossible goals; 3. that in dismissing the Western democratic left, I support power-mad dictators like Chávez. That such mutually exclusive positions have been read into the same short text shows that I touched a nerve.

It is truly weird that David Graeber thinks my ‘real message’ is that ‘intellectuals have always been, and always must be, whores to power.’ On the contrary, isn’t it the advocates of resistance from the interstices of power, such as Simon Critchley, who claim that direct engagement with power turns intellectuals into whores? In my view, the withdrawal to such a safe moralising position is the highest form of corruption.

My opinion is that the left is not able to offer a true alternative to global capitalism. Yes, it is true that ‘capitalism will not be around for ever’ (it is the advocates of the new politics of resistance who think that capitalism and the democratic state are here to stay); it will not be able to cope with the antagonisms it produces. But there is a gap between this negative insight and a basic positive vision. I do not think that today’s candidates – the anti-globalisation movement etc – do the job.

So what are we to do? Everything possible (and impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to organise. However, I don’t think this holds for protests against the war in Iraq, which fitted all too smoothly the space allotted to ‘democratic protests’ by the hegemonic state and ideological order. Which is why they did not, even minimally, scare those in power. Afterwards, both government and protesters felt smug, as if each side had succeeded in making its point.

Slavoj Žižek
Birkbeck, University of London

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