A critique of Slavoj Zizek’s commentary for the first video of a mini-series by RT that focused on the volatile situation in France regarding Les Gilets Jaunes – the Yellow Vest movement – made at the end of 2028 – which is now entering its 10th week.
By Boris Kagarlitsky, Jan 5, 2019
The Yellow Vest movement has dumbfounded not only the French ruling elites, but also left-wing intellectuals throughout Europe. This, to be fair, has always been the case with every serious revolutionary movement over the last hundred years. Not one successful revolution was ever ‘correct’ according to left-wing intellectuals and politicians. The fact that the Yellow Vests are treated in a similar fashion could be considered as the significant evidence of the events we are currently witnessing, and their potential to initiate serious change in the life of French society, as well as in the rest of the Europe.
The intellectuals have been treating the Yellow Vests with empathy, but at the same time with paternalistic skepticism, and sometimes even condescending ridicule. For example, while of course citizens have a right to protest, their demands and views are contradictory, and their potential to win this battle is not quite so clear. Moreover, almost all analysts have claimed that the program, which has been put together by the grass-roots movement, cannot be accomplished.
One characteristic example of this critique was the appearance of Slavoj Žižek on Russia Today. Žižek sees the mass protests in France as an indisputable symptom of the systemic crisis, but then he parrots the ideologies of the ruling class in their denunciation of the movement’s program. This Slovenian intellectual sees the resolution of the current problems in the emergence of some kind of socialist bureaucracy (although it is not clear if this bureaucracy has to be of a Soviet or Scandinavian variety) and that it is this which would save the day. Nevertheless, it is not clear who would create this bureaucracy and how and why it could articulate the interests of the society and the workers.
It immediately becomes apparent that, while accusing the Yellow Vests of inconsistency, the philosopher contradicts himself every step of the way. His reasoning about the demands of the protesters that are impossible to meet “within the existing system” is an abstraction, which is typical of such intellectuals. They see the system as something completely holistic and unchanging, and therefore any demands that contradict its current state are declared unrealistic. Žižek condemns populism but, in doing this, he calls into question any popular demands by and needs of those involved.
Even if we accept Žižek’s thesis regarding the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters “within the existing system”, the question remains: who will change this system and how? Could it be the same enlightened bureaucracy, which, by the philosopher’s own admission, exists only in his imagination?
The theory about the need to change the system completely and at once may sound very radical, but it lacks political substance. Any change in the system would comprise scores, and may be even hundreds of distinct steps and measures, which simply cannot be carried out simultaneously or consistently. Moreover, almost all serious changes involve multiple phases. The transition from one phase to the next could happen in a very short period of time, given the revolutionary situation, but the subsequent step is impossible without the preceding one. For example, the creation of a complete system of democratic planning is impossible without taking control of the top levels of the economy.
Likewise, the implementation of a large scale social investment program requires the reform of government institutions and changes in finance legislation. Of course, it is possible to take some steps in this direction but we should understand that they will not be very effective until a certain critical mass of institutional transformations has been accumulated. This is why any reforms and revolutions, even if they eventually move the society forward, early on are accompanied by ambiguous results, and often by the objective worsening of the situation. Most importantly, anytransformative measures, anysteps to change the society and the state can (and would) be considered partial, insufficient, reformist, and so on. A true understanding of their significance is only possible in the context of the process as a whole.
But let us return to the discussion of the Yellow Vests. Why cannot their demands be met? Yes, Žižek makes an important proviso: the demands cannot be met “within the existing system”. But even here he is absolutely wrong. Most of the demands have been realized in the past by Western capitalism, but after the victory of neoliberalism, these social advances were abolished. In other words, the protesters are just trying to win back the gains made by the working class, which they have lost during the past 30 years. Of course it is impossible to return to the 1960s or 70s. The practical work on the restoration of the welfare state would be successful only if it creates new forms and new possibilities for its development. However, we are talking here about something else: The thesis that social reforms are impossible within the capitalist system is just not true. It is a whole other story that these reforms never result from the good will of the ruling class, but rather are won through the struggles of the working class.
In order to support his hypothesis about the contradictory demands of the Yellow Vests, Žižek points out that it is impossible to lower the taxes on the working people and at the same time to increase the financing of education, healthcare, the social sphere and so on. It is quite telling that this proposal is an idea borrowed from neoliberal experts. It is famous in Russia as the formula offered by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was caught on camera saying to the Crimean retirees: “Money is scarce, but hang in there.”
In reality, there are many ways for governments to obtain the money required for social spending, without squeezing the working class through excessive taxation. One could create effective state enterprises, and use the profits for social needs. One could increase taxes on large corporations, or at least take away some of the tax benefits the transnationals have enjoyed in almost all countries over the last decade. One could reduce benefits for the upper layers of bureaucracy, and stop wasting resources on meaningless ‘prestigious’ projects; one could cut spending on the repressive apparatus, or fight corruption more effectively. One could stimulate economic growth and increase the wages, so that even when the taxes are cut, the overall budget revenue increases. One could even finance social programs at the expense of the budget deficit: contrary to the opinion of liberal pundits, an increase in government spending does not automatically lead to a proportional increase in inflation (currently, loans issued by private banks stimulate inflation to a much greater extent than government spending).
While repeating the falsehood of the ruling class apologists about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters, Žižek does not notice that the danger for the elites from the Yellow Vest protests comes precisely from the fact that these demands can be easily met even today, even within the existing capitalist economy. However, these demands simply contradict the interests of the ruling elites. In other words, it is not the impossible demands that the issue; the problem is the class contradictions which are inherent to capitalism. Only pressure exerted by the masses on the ruling elites, who time after time have been forced to make concessions to the outraged people, has allowed any social progress within the existing system.
The same applies to the notorious ‘inconsistency’ of the Yellow Vests. For sure, the demands are somewhat contradictory. Nevertheless, this does notmean that they are impossible to meet –quite the contrary – it indicates the opposite. A completely consistent and absolutely non-contradictory socio-economic and political program can exist only in the mind of an ideologue, and even then, only if he does not realize the existence of objective contradictions within a socio-historical process or a social structure. Only a mass movement, which combines different social groups and somehow takes into account their diverse interests, is able to attract and mobilize the vast majority of the people. All movements that have managed to change societies have been populist movements. The Bolshevik slogan, ‘Land to the peasants’, which enabled Lenin’s team to take power and win the civil war, originated not in the socialist theory, but reflected the real needs of the petty-bourgeoispeasantry. Without their participation, the revolution did not stand a chance.
A flawless ‘consistent’ program can never be implemented by definition because it will never gather the support of the majority. Even if a wise dictator attempted to implement it from above, in reality, he would still have to make concessions, given the inconsistency of public interests and the need to maintain the support of a sufficiently large mass of his subjects.
At the same time, the inconsistency of the Yellow Vests’ demands is also deliberately exaggerated by the propaganda machine of the powers that be. From the left’s standpoint, the requirement to break up the leading banks would appear rather dubious. Marxist or left-leaning Keynesian economists will certainly say that the nationalization of the largest financial institutions and their subordination to public control is a much more reasonable point of view from society’s perspective. But first, this requirement is not only relatively feasible, it also does not contradict the logic of the market economy. And secondly, even if it is implemented, nothing terrible would happen. What is more, the situation would still be much better than it is now, as breaking up the banks would weaken their political power and undermine the control of government policy by financial capital.
Does everything above mean that Žižek is wrong about the systemic crisis? By no means. What the Yellow Vests really reflects is the fact that the system has come to a certain critical point. Yet, the transition of the society to a qualitatively different condition happens precisely through such contradictoryuprisings by the people, an act that historians have been calling revolutionsfor the last three hundred years. If the Yellow Vests do win; if their demands are met on the whole (and remember, no single program was ever entirely accomplished; certainly, not at once), it will not lead to the abolition of capitalism.
This, on the one hand, will radically change the balance of class forces in French society, and on the other hand, will give rise to new social interests and demands that grow out of the new situation and the new opportunities it will allow. In fact, we are dealing here with a kind of “transition program” (using the term of Leon Trotsky), with the only difference that it is formulated not by intellectuals and politicians, but spontaneously by the masses themselves.
We can criticize spontaneous grass-roots movements, along with their inevitable excesses and mistakes, as much as we want, but we also have to admit that with the complete bankruptcy of the left-wing political and intellectual community, the masses simply have no choice other than to take their fate into their own hands. In other words, the spontaneous politics of the masses is better than the opportunism of politicians and the narcissism of intellectuals.
It is not surprising that for leftist intellectuals, including the best (one of which is Slavoj Žižek), such a turn of events is unexpected and unpleasant. Intellectuals can criticize politicians as much as they want, putting themselves above political games, but at some point they may discover that their integrity and the depth of their statements do not give them any trump cards in the eyes of the masses. Moreover, the situation is even worse for public intellectuals than it is for academics. The latter, at least, do not anticipate that the people, having seen the light, will call them as new leaders. On the contrary, public intellectuals genuinely confuse their media success and their popularity with public influence. These are not only different, but, in some cases, are totally opposite things.
Any progressive mass movement needsintellectuals. The Yellow Vests also need them, but not as arrogant teachers and mentors, not as picky judges who evaluate other people’s actions, but as equal and useful comrades.
The right to qualify for leadership in a mass movement must be earned by a practical presence in this movement. Not by past achievements and clever publications, but by constant activity, direct participation in the events and the willingness to share with people, not only taking responsibility for the results of their struggle, but also the risks (including moral ones) and failures. It is important to focus, not only on abstract theoretical correctness, but also on the political efficiency and practical successes of the here and now, on the efficiency in the interests of this movement and the block of social forces this movement represents.
The main requirements are, not to judge or evaluate but to take part; to struggle, to make mistakes, to correct them… and of course, to win.