Going ‘beyond Marx’ – or regressing?

CS National Executive member Callum Williamson reviews The year of dreaming dangerously

Slavoj Žižek: dictatorship

The year of dreaming dangerously attempts to “locate the events of 2011 in the totality of the global situation, to show how they relate to the central antagonism of contemporary capitalism” (p1). Slavoj Žižek attempts to do this by addressing the rise of rightwing populism; the Arab spring; Occupy Wall Street; the London riots; and the prospects of emancipatory struggle today.

The book begins with a survey of contemporary capitalism and the prevailing trends in its development, of which three are identified as characterising our present system: “the long-term trend of shifting from profit to rent … rent based on privatised ‘common knowledge’ and rent based on natural resources”; the “stronger structural role of unemployment”; and the rise of a “salaried bourgeoisie” (p8). The “salaried bourgeoisie” described by Žižek does not constitute a class in any Marxist sense: it is used to describe sections of the managerial class, civil servants, doctors, journalists and all those who earn a “surplus wage” and supposedly have more free time.

Of course, this categorisation is useless in understanding the class struggles of ‘post-industrial’ societies, since it includes sections of different classes with antagonistic interests. As for the “stronger structural role of unemployment”, in reality this refers to the greater prominence of what Karl Marx called the “reserve army of labour” and is a vindication of Marx’s predictions regarding the consequences of the intensifying organic composition of capital, whereby human labour is replaced more and more in productive processes by machines (this also accounts for the increasing role of rent Žižek refers to).

Žižek criticises Marx for his alleged historicism in relation to the prospects of social revolution, referring specifically to a passage fromPreface to a contribution to the critique of political economy:

At certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production … Then begins an era of social revolution … No social order is ever destroyed before the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.1

Here Marx – allegedly at his “historicist worst” – is said to have missed the fact that:

… capitalism thrives because it avoids its fetters by escaping into the future. This is also why one has to drop the ‘wisely’ optimistic notion that mankind “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”: today we face problems for which no clear solutions are guaranteed by the logic of evolution (p8).

However, Marx’s point was that the question of social revolution is posed only when the productive forces have been developed to the extent required for the social transformation and a ‘gravedigger’ class has been formed with sufficient strength to challenge for power. The argument was not that “clear solutions” to the world’s problems will reveal themselves to us, irrespective of consciousness and politics. Marx fully understood how capitalism is constantly engaged in a process of creative destruction – ever expanding, circumventing barriers to its growth that confront it, but crucially never being able to resolve its internal contradictions. He argued:

[capital] constantly revolutionises … tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces … its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.2

Žižek’s argument seems to be born out of a pessimistic attitude towards the current political situation rather than a serious assessment of today’s socio-economic conditions. Marx’s argument holds true today: the proletariat exists (under whatever name) and it is still capable of overthrowing capital and running society.

The rise of rightwing populism in Europe and North America has accelerated in response to both the ‘war on terror’ and the crisis of capitalism. It is worth noting that populist movements that wish to win support amongst large sections of workers often take up the protectionist economic policies that social democratic parties abandoned in the 1980s-90s (Le Pen’s Front National being a good example). Other populist forces, such as the UK Independence Party and the US Tea Party movement, are distinctly petty bourgeois and so combine nationalism with rabidly ‘neoliberal’ politics. Whilst these politics are a real expression of petty bourgeois class interests, the populist parties of the west that enjoy support from large sections of the working class are a post-welfarist phenomenon.

Žižek rejects the idea that this is simply a result of “ideological manipulation” (p31) and, of course, whilst the mechanisms of ideological control have been greatly developed, the decline in the power of working class institutions and working class politics is the central cause of the rise of nationalist, ethno-cultural identity politics. What has occurred (most obviously in the US) is an opposition between, on the one side, rightwing populists as self-proclaimed representatives of the decent, hard-working majority and, on the other, the ‘decadent, hedonistic, permissive, liberal elite’ that is ‘betraying the nation’. This is part of a “culture war” that in fact is a “class war in a displaced mode” (p31).

Riots and uprising

In discussing the London riots, Žižek argues the liberal left identified only the “objective conditions for the riots” (p58) – poor relations with the police, unemployment, poverty, etc – while leaving the specific “subjective” reasons behind unaccounted for. An explanation offered is that the rioting was a result of a contradiction between the demands of consumerist ideology and the material circumstances of those who took part. However, it goes without saying that the motivations of the rioters would have varied considerably (animosity towards the police was certainly a genuine factor) and that ultimately the answer as to why the existing discontent expressed itself as it did lies in the absence of any emancipatory project capable of galvanising people and a left capable of leading a real fight. For Žižek the lack of any coherent ideological framework to which individuals can relate effectively with the world and conduct struggle created a “consumerist carnival of destruction” (p60).

He contends: “The radical emancipatory potential of Islam is no fiction” (p65) and cites some of the great historical revolts of the oppressed that found their expression in religious movements. It is in this light that he sees the Arab spring. What Žižek overlooks is that it is the social forces supporting the revolts that harbour “emancipatory potential”, not the ideas of Islam. This is demonstrated by the fact that, while these ideas have sometimes been mobilised as part of emancipatory struggles, they have more frequently been utilised for reactionary purposes. The decline of socialism in the Arab world has meant that resistance to imperialism, dictatorship and the tyranny of domestic oligarchs has tended to take the form of fundamentalist Islam.

Žižek comments on the role of the Taliban in the class conflicts of the Swat Valley in Pakistan in reference to a New York Times article from 2009 that claimed the insurgency had brought about a class revolt in order to gain support of the landless farmers; and rightly points out that “the distinction between the ‘true’ agenda and instrumental manipulation is externally imposed on the Taliban: as if the landless farmers themselves do not experience their plight in ‘fundamentalist religious’ terms” (p72). However, the ‘true’ class character of such movements can be judged objectively – not by looking at the discourse of struggle, but by observing the class interests they serve. Islamist groups (of various kinds) have developed great momentum since the beginning of the Arab spring and have gained governmental office in Tunisia (in a coalition) and Egypt; they have been in control of areas of Syria and Libya. However, whilst civil war and foreign intervention have stifled the revolutions in Syria and Libya for the time being, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo is facing serious pressure from the masses.

Žižek sees the Middle East as ready to erupt again and expects more uprisings. However, the dire economic conditions make it increasingly likely that the discontent among the oppressed will create forces which will raise the banner of social justice. The question then is whether it will be the “new secular left” (p75) and the labour movement or the ultra-conservative religious groups that will organise and lead the struggle. What is worrying is that it is the clearly the religious reactionaries who are in the ascendancy for now.

2011 was a year in which numerous ‘horizontal’ movements, from Oakland to Madrid, entered the political stage. Žižek is, initially, frank about the weaknesses of these movements, pointing out that they have now died down and that their desire to be ‘apolitical’ means they risk becoming coopted into a reformist project or appropriated by forces of reaction. He points out that an “honest fascist” could agree with almost all of the demands of the ‘indignados’ (p79). For him “It is here that we encounter the fatal weakness of the current protests. They express an authentic rage that remains unable to transform itself into even a minimal positive programme for social change” (p78). Then there is, of course, the issue of the organisational forms of these protests – forms that are clearly inadequate for the tasks of social revolution. Žižek stresses the need for revolutionary movements to create new forms of organisation and discipline.

Bizarrely, he then proceeds to claim that nonetheless “what should be resisted at this stage is any hasty translation of the energy of the protests into a set of concrete demands”, which calls on the movements to advance a “minimal positive programme” (p78) – the lack of which was just a few pages earlier described as the biggest weakness of those movements. The author goes on to say that the key “insights” of Occupy are that it identifies that it is the economic system itself that needs to be addressed; and that a new kind of democracy is needed to cope with developments in global capitalism (p87). Whether these were really the insights of Occupy is highly debateable, but for Žižek they point towards radical conclusions: “Is there a name for this reinvented democracy beyond the multi-party representational system? There is indeed: the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p88). What is missing is any indication of how exactly we get from protest to power.

The book arrives at the point where the crucial question is raised: what must revolutionaries do now? The events of 2011 are meant to be “fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present” (p128). He continues: “What is needed, then, is a delicate balance between reading the signs from the (hypothetical communist) future and maintaining the radical openness of that future” (pp128-29). There are comparisons then between a communist in our times analysing events and a Christian waiting for god to perform miracles. But, while communists are acting as political monks, Žižek adds that well placed, “moderate” demands can affect dramatic systemic change (p134). What he advocates in practical terms seems to be half economism and half withdrawal to a position of political spectator.

The principal drawback of The year of dreaming dangerously lies in the absence of any practical proposal. Although it may be pointed out that this was not the author’s goal in writing the book, much of this absence seems to stem from Žižek’s pessimism – the desire to go ‘beyond’ Marx actually leads to a regression. However, the book includes some interesting interpretations of 2011 and, as usual, there is a lot to discuss in what Žižek writes.

For example, he states that the anti-European Union rhetoric of much of the far left is illusory and utopian, in that it calls for an impossible return to a post-war-style welfarist settlement; instead he correctly insists that the left must avoid the trappings of nationalism and aim to build anotherEurope.


1. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.

2. K Marx Grundrisse:www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch08.htm.

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