Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours (2016)
What Is to Be Done?
So what is required in such a desperate situation? What should Europe do? Fredric Jameson recently proposed the utopia of the global militarization of society as a mode of emancipation: while the deadlocks of global capitalism are more and more palpable, all the imagined democratic-multitude-grassroots changes ‘from below’ are ultimately doomed to fail, so the only way to effectively break the vicious cycle of global capitalism is some kind of ‘militarization’, which is another name for suspending the power of the self-regulating economy.56 Perhaps the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe provides an opportunity to test this option.
The criteria for acceptance and settlement have to be formulated in a clear and explicit way: which and how many refugees to accept, where to relocate them, and so on. The art here is to find the right middle way between following the desires of the refugees (taking into account their wish to move to countries where they already have relatives, etc.) and the capacities of different countries to accommodate them. The total right to ‘free movement’ should be limited, if for no other reason than that it doesn’t exist even among the refugees: who – especially with regard to class position – is able to overcome all the obstacles and enter Europe is obviously a matter of financial privilege, among other things.57
Furthermore, it is a simple fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights. The problem here is that the obviously tolerant solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) no less obviously doesn’t work. If Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour (which we consider a part of our freedoms), Western liberals also find it impossible to bear many practices (such as the subordination of women) that are part of the Muslim life-world. In short, situations explode when members of a religious community experience as blasphemous injury and a danger to their way of life not a direct attack on their religion, but the very way of life of another community: this was the case with attacks on gays and lesbians by Muslim fundamentalists in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, and with those Frenchmen and women who see a woman covered by a burka as an attack on their French identity, which is why they also find it ‘impossible to remain silent’ when they encounter such a woman in their midst. One has therefore to do two things: first, formulate a minimum set of norms that are obligatory for everyone, without fear that they will appear ‘Eurocentric’: religious freedoms, the protection of individual freedom against group pressure, rights of women, and so on; and second, within these limits, unconditionally insist on the toleration of different ways of life. And what if norms and communication don’t work? Then the force of law should be applied in all its forms. One should reject the predominant Left-liberal humanitarian attitude. Complaints that moralize the situation – the mantras of ‘Europe has lost empathy; it is indifferent towards the suffering of others,’ and so on – are merely the obverse of racist anti-immigrant brutality. They share the presupposition – which is in no way self-evident – that a defence of one’s own way of life excludes ethical universalism.
In the debate about Leitkultur (the dominant culture) that took place around a decade ago, conservatives insisted that every state is based on a predominant cultural space, which the members of other cultures living in the same space should respect. Instead of playing the Beautiful Soul and bemoaning the emergence of a new European racism that is heralded by such statements, we should turn a critical eye upon ourselves, asking to what extent our own abstract multiculturalism has contributed to this sad state of affairs. If all sides do not share or respect the same civility, then multiculturalism turns into a form of legally regulated mutual ignorance or hatred. The conflict about multiculturalism already is a conflict about Leitkultur: it is not a conflict between cultures, but a conflict between different visions of how different cultures can and should co-exist; about the rules and practices these cultures have to share if they are to co-exist. One should therefore avoid getting caught up in the liberal game of ‘how much tolerance can we afford’: should we tolerate it if refugees settling in Europe prevent their children going to school; if they force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; if they arrange the marriages of their children, if they maltreat – and worse – gays among their ranks? At this level, of course, we are never tolerant enough; or we are always-already too tolerant, neglecting the rights of women, and so on. The only way to break out of this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance of others. Don’t just respect others: offer them a common struggle, since our problems today are common; propose and fight for a positive universal project shared by all participants.58
This is why the crucial task of those fighting for emancipation today is towards a positive emancipatory Leitkultur, which alone can sustain an authentic coexistence and immixing of different cultures. Our axiom should be that the struggle against Western neocolonialism as well as the struggle against fundamentalism, the struggle of Wikileaks and Snowden as well as the struggle of Pussy Riot, the struggle against anti-Semitism as well as the struggle against aggressive Zionism, are parts of one and the same universal struggle. If we make any compromise here, if we are lost in pragmatic compromises, our lives are not worth living.
One has therefore to broaden the perspective: refugees are the price humanity is paying for the global economy. While large migrations are a constant feature of human history, their main cause, in modern history, is colonial expansions. Prior to colonization, countries mostly consisted of self-sufficient and relatively isolated local communities: it was colonial occupation that threw off the rails this traditional way of life and which led to large-scale migrations (not, of course, forgetting the other related forced migrations of the slave trade).
The ongoing wave of migrations in Europe is no exception to this. In South Africa, over a million refugees from Zimbabwe are exposed to violence from the local poor for ‘stealing’ their jobs. And there will be more migrations, not just because of armed conflicts, but because of new ‘rogue states’, economic crises, natural disasters, climate change, and so on. It is now known that, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, Japanese authorities thought for a moment that the entire Tokyo area – 20 million people – might have to be evacuated. Where, in this case, would they have gone? Under what conditions? Would they be given a piece of land in Japan on which to settle, or be dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia were to become more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while large sub-Saharan regions grow too arid to sustain large populations: how would such an exchange of population be organized? When similar things happened in the past, social changes occurred in a chaotic and spontaneous way, accompanied by violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in today’s conditions, with weapons of mass destruction available to virtually all nations.
The main lesson to be learned, therefore, is that humankind should get ready to live in a more ‘plastic’ and nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may result in the need for unheard-of large-scale social transformations and population movements. We are all more or less rooted in a particular way of life, protected by rights, but some historical contingency may all of a sudden throw us into a situation in which we are compelled to reinvent the basic coordinates of our way of life. (It seems that even today, centuries after the arrival of white men, Native Americans (‘Indians’) haven’t succeeded in stabilizing their situation in a new way of life.) One thing is clear: in cases of such turmoil, national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new levels of global cooperation invented. And what about the immense economic and consumer changes that will have to happen as a result of new weather patterns or shortages of water and energy sources? Through what decision-making processes will such changes be agreed on and executed? The solution is not some mythic ‘freedom of movement for all’, but a carefully prepared and well-organized process of change.
Europe will have to reassert its full commitment to providing means for the dignified survival of refugees. There should be no compromise here. Large migrations are our future, and the only alternative to such commitments is a renewed barbarism (or what some will call the ‘clash of civilizations’). However, the most difficult and important task is a radical economic change that abolishes the conditions that create refugees. The ultimate cause of refugees is today’s global capitalism itself and its geopolitical games. If we do not transform it radically, immigrants from Greece and other European countries will soon join African refugees.
When I was young, such an organized attempt to regulate the commons was called Communism. Maybe we should reinvent it. It is not enough to remain faithful to the Communist Idea: one has to locate in historical reality the antagonisms that make this Idea a practical urgency. The only true question today is this: do we endorse the predominant acceptance of capitalism as a fact of (human) nature, or does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms to prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are in fact four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe; the more and more palpable failure of private property to integrate into its functioning so-called ‘intellectual property’; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, as has been mentioned above, new forms of apartheid, new walls and slums. There is a qualitative difference between the last feature, the gap that separates the Excluded from the Included, and the other three, which designate the domains of what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call ‘commons’, the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act which should also be resisted, with violent means if necessary. These domains are:
– the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of ‘cognitive’ capital, primarily language – our means of communication and education – but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, mail, etc. (If Bill Gates were to be allowed a monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual had literally taken ownership of the software texture of our basic network of communication);
– the commons of external nature, threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and the natural habitat itself);
– the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity): with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realistic prospect.
What the struggles to defend these commons share is an awareness of the destructive potential that may be unleashed if the capitalist logic of enclosing the commons is allowed free reign, perhaps resulting in the self-annihilation of humanity itself. It is this reference to ‘commons’ that justifies the resuscitation of the notion of Communism: it enables us to see the progressive ‘enclosure’ of the commons as a process of proletarianization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance. However, commons can also be restored to collective humanity without Communism, in an authoritarian-communitarian regime: the de-substantialized, ‘rootless’ subject, deprived of its substantial content, can also be counteracted in the direction of communitarianism, of finding its proper place in a new substantial community. There is nothing more ‘private’ than a state community that perceives the Excluded as a threat and worries how to keep them at a proper distance. In other words, in the series of four antagonisms outlined above, the one between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one: without it, all others lose their subversive edge. Ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development; intellectual property into a complex legal challenge; biogenetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight for ecology, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, oppose the copyrighting of genes, without confronting the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded: one can even formulate some of these struggles in the terms of the Included threatened by the polluting Excluded. In this way, we get no true universality, only ‘private’ concerns in the Kantian sense of the term. Corporations like Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favour among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities. The trick is that they sell products with a progressive spin: one buys coffee made with beans bought at above fair-market value, one drives a hybrid vehicle, one buys from companies that provide good benefits for their customers (according to the corporation’s own standards), and so on. In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian fighting against poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist, mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.
It is at this point that refugees – those from the Outside that want to penetrate the Inside – bear witness to another level of the endangered commons: the commons of humanity itself, threatened by a global capitalism which generates new walls and other forms of apartheid. Only the fourth antagonism, the reference to the Excluded, justifies the term Communism: the first three effectively concern questions of humanity’s economic, anthropological, even physical survival, while the fourth one is ultimately a question of justice.
So who will do all this? Who will be the agent of the restoration of the commons? There is only one correct answer to Leftist intellectuals desperately awaiting the arrival of a new revolutionary agent, the old Hopi saying with a wonderful Hegelian dialectical twist from substance to subject: ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’ (This saying is a version of Gandhi’s motto, ‘Be yourself the change you want to see in the world.’) Waiting for another to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our inactivity. However, the trap to be avoided here is the one of perverse self-instrumentalization: ‘We are the ones we are waiting for’ does not mean that we have to discover how we are the agent predestined by fate (historical necessity) to do the task. It means, on the contrary, that there is no big Other to rely on. In contrast to classical Marxism, in which ‘history is on our side’ (the proletariat fulfils a predestined task of universal emancipation), in today’s constellation, the big Other is against us: left to itself, the inner thrust of our historical development leads to catastrophe, to apocalypse. Here, the only thing that can prevent catastrophe is pure voluntarism, i.e. our free decision to act against historical necessity. In a way, it was the Bolsheviks who, towards the end of the civil war in 1921, found themselves in a similar predicament. Two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no all-European revolution, and remembering that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote:
What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?59
Giorgio Agamben observed that ‘thought is the courage of hopelessness’60 – an insight which is especially pertinent for our historical moment, when even the most pessimistic diagnoses as a rule finish with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative. The dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice: it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the truly courageous stance is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most probably the headlight of a train approaching us from the opposite direction.
Is this not the predicament of the Morales government in Bolivia, or of the (now deposed) Aristide government in Haiti and the Maoist government in Nepal, or of the Syriza government in Greece? Their situation is ‘objectively’ hopeless. The whole drift of history is basically against them: they cannot rely on any ‘objective tendencies’ pushing them on their way. All they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. But, nonetheless, does this not give them a unique freedom? One is tempted to apply here the old distinction between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom for’: does their freedom from History (with its laws and objective tendencies) not sustain their freedom for creative experimenting? In their actions, they can rely only on the collective will of their supporters.
Maybe this is, in the long term, our only solution. Is all this a utopia? Maybe, even probably. The latest chaotic events in Europe, the half-tragic half-comical mixture of impotent declarations and chaotic-egotistic behaviour of the EU members, the inability to impose a minimum of coordinated action, demonstrates not only a particular failure of the EU but a threat to its very survival. The Leftist counterpoint to this confusion is an idea circulating in the underground of many disappointed radical Leftists, a softer repetition of the decision for terror in the aftermath of the 1968 movement: the crazy idea that only a radical catastrophe (preferably an ecological one) can awaken the large crowds and in doing so give a new impetus to radical emancipation. The latest version of this idea relates to the refugees: only an influx of a really large number of refugees (and their disappointment since, obviously, Europe will not be able to satisfy their expectations) can revitalize the European radical Left … I find this line of thought obscene: notwithstanding the fact that such a development would for sure give an immense boost to anti-immigrant brutality, the truly crazy aspect of this idea is the project to replenish the ranks of missing radical proletarians in Europe by importing them from abroad, so that we will thereby bring about revolution by an imported revolutionary agent …
During the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza, Podemos), while in the second half the attention has shifted to the ‘humanitarian’ topic of the refugees: a shift in which class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by liberal-cultural notions of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday 13 November, however, even these ideas (which at least still involve large socio-economic issues) are now eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with forces of terror – and it is easy to imagine what will follow: the paranoiac search for ISIS agents among the refugees, and so on. The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners, concealed behind the platitudes in the style of je suis Paris, will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not by engaging in pathetic shows of anti-terrorist solidarity but by insisting on asking one simple question: cui bono? And there should be no ‘deeper understanding’ of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of ‘their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to brutal European interventions’): they should be characterized as what they are, as the Islamo-Fascist obverse of the European anti-immigrant racists – the two are two sides of the same coin.
So let’s bring class struggle back – and the only way to do it is to insist on the global solidarity of the exploited and oppressed. Without this global view, the pathetic solidarity with Paris victims is a pseudo-ethical obscenity. Although a great obscurity surrounds the influx of refugees into Europe, the majority of them undoubtedly are trying to escape terrifying conditions in their country. A day after the Paris attacks, one of them dryly commented on TV: ‘Imagine a city like Paris, where the state of exception that reigns there today is simply a permanent feature of daily life for months if not for years. This is what we are escaping from.’ One cannot ignore the moment of truth in this statement: don’t confuse terrorists and their victims.
Maybe such global solidarity is a utopia. But if we don’t engage in it, then we are really lost. And we will deserve to be lost.
57. That’s why, incidentally, Lenin, an internationalist if there ever was one, insisted on the importance of frontiers: ‘What does the “method” of socialist revolution under the slogan “Down with frontiers” mean? We maintain that the state is necessary, and a state presupposes frontiers. The state, of course, may hold a bourgeois government, but we need the Soviets. But even Soviets are confronted with the question of frontiers. What does “Down with frontiers” mean? It is the beginning of anarchy […] The “method” of socialist revolution under the slogan “Down with frontiers” is simply a mess. Only when the socialist revolution has become a reality, and not a method, will the slogan “Down with frontiers” be a correct slogan. Then we shall say: Comrades, come to us …’ (Quoted from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/7thconf/29d.htm.)
58. The complex predicament of Tibet throughout the 1950s clearly shows the limitations of respect for a specific way of life (in this case, respect for the Tibetan feudal theocracy). In late 1950, a local farmer sought refuge with a Chinese Army garrison after local Tibetan authorities threatened to punish him severely for his ‘illicit’ (in view of the local feudal rules) act of visiting his relatives in a nearby village without asking for permission from his feudal master. After long deliberation, the Chinese army decided to give him protection – and was immediately accused by the Tibetan local powers of brutally intervening into their specific way of life …
59. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966, p. 479.
60. Quoted from http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben.
Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours