"Divine Violence and Liberated Territories: SOFT TARGETS talks with Slavoj Zizek"

By Slavoj Zizek/SOFT TARGETS, 4 June 2007

Divine Violence and Liberated Territories:SOFT TARGETS talks with Slavoj Žižek

Los Angeles, March 14, 2007

ST: Let’s start with the question of violence. What, today, is the relation between violence and politics?

This question is particularly confused on the Left. Let’s take the use made of two authors, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, for example. I don’t have any problem with Schmitt. But Schmitt’s concepts of "decision" and "exception" function precisely to erase the crucial distinction governing Benjamin’s "Critique of Violence," namely the distinction between "mythical" and "divine" violence. For Schmitt, to put it quite simply, there is no divine violence. For him there is an illegal violence that is a foundation, a violence of the exception that gives rise to the law. Many Leftists who flirt with Benjamin want to speak of some "spectral" violence that never really happens, or they adopt an attitude like Agamben’s and simply wait for some magical intervention. I’m sorry, but Benjamin is pretty precise. An example he gives of divine violence is a mob lynching a corrupt ruler! That’s pretty concrete. In a new book I’m writing on violence, I’m going to address this issue. Franz Fanon has suffered a similar fate. He was very clear about the role of violence, and he certainly wasn’t speaking of some "transcendental" violence. He meant killing, he meant terror. But this dimension of their work is not present in contemporary commentators. We have a softened, "decaffeinated" Fanon and Benjamin.

ST: It is not for nothing that Sorel is the fundamental reference for Benjamin! This is completely effaced in Agamben’s discussion of the text. When discussing divine violence in recent texts, you tend to refer to events like the uprisings of the Brazilian favelas and the slums of Caracas rather than the antiglobalization movement and its theorists. The example you yourself provide for "divine" violence, in a recent text on Robespierre, are the "food riots" in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s . . . Do these upheavals bear witness to the emergence of a new "subject" of struggles to come? In making this identification, doesn’t one risk the "populist" temptation you elsewhere denounce?

I was in Brazil during the food riots. People from the favelas simply descended into the city and began to loot, to terrorize the middle classes a little bit. I was shocked at how these events were treated. At first, people were horrified, as if it came from nowhere, a divine catastrophe. But once the police took care of the situation, the burnt stores and so on were treated like one more tourist attraction! But violence is a complex phenomenon, and several things have to be taken into account. First of all, we have to emphasize that violence is always a structural problem, an "objective" feature of contemporary capitalist societies. Today, we are fascinated by what I, following Badiou, call "subjective" violence, with an easily identifiable agent. Balibar has developed the idea, itself found in the Marxist tradition more generally, of a basic, structural violence in the functioning of capitalism itself. It is absolutely necessary to read explosions of subjective violence against this structural or objective violence. We shouldn’t focus exclusively on the subjective dimension. And we should also remember that violence is not necessarily activity, action. It is not always the case that social functions run by themselves and that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of violence to transform them. To the contrary, it often takes a lot of violence to make sure things stay the way they are. Sometimes, then, the truly violent act is doing nothing, a refusal to act.

ST: The general strike?

Yes, you can say that. But the problem is how to actualize it today. In any case, there are moments when the radical gesture is to do nothing. The question is, as always, that of temporality, of timing. But, look: the real problem is that it is very difficult to be truly violent. The violence of real transformation. The task of the revolutionary is indeed to be violent, but also to avoid the type of violence that is, in fact, merely an impotent passage à l’acte. Often, the most brutal explosions of violence are admissions of impotence—even of a fear before the real act. Stalin, in a way, was much more violent than Hitler, for example. I’m speaking of the collectivization—this was madness. This was the true revolution. I don’t necessarily support it, but it’s true. I don’t buy the old Trotskyist equation, Lenin=revolution, Stalin=Thermidor. Maybe in 1933 or 1934. In 1928 or 1929, we saw the most radical change imaginable. Think about it: the peasantry made up 80 percent of the Russian population at the time. He truly wanted to break the peasants. It failed. But that was true violence. If by violence you mean, then, changing the basic social infrastructure, the fundamental relations of society, it’s very difficult. All the explosions of 20th century violence, whatever their differences, represent failures on this level. As for Sorel and the general strike, I am sympathetic on some level, but the major problem is that it is a little too close to what might be called an "aestheticist" explosion of freedom. For me, the true problem of revolution is not taking power; it’s what you do the day after. How you rearticulate everyday life. Here Stalin failed. By 1933 or 1934, no one talked about the creation of a "New Man" and so on.

ST: How do you understand, within this framework, the violence of the French banlieues? You mentioned, for example, the favelas and the food riots...

It obviously has nothing to do with what people like Alain Finkelkraut propose, that it’s an Islamist attack on the French republic and so on. The first thing they burned was the mosques. That’s why the fundamentalists were the first to raise their voices against the revolts. The young people of the banlieue simply wanted to say (to adopt a slogan from Badiou): we are here, and we are from here. It was a question of asserting their sheer existence. It was a pure demand for visibility. This is the best example of the limitations of our much-vaunted democracy. There are enormous numbers of people who find themselves in a situation where their most essential demands cannot be formulated in the language of a political problem. It’s what Roman Jakobson called "phatic" communication—not, "I want this" but simply, "here I am."

ST: You often insist, in a very polemical way, on the need to maintain the Marxist categories of class analysis. But when we speak of the favelas, the banlieues, the slums, aren’t we speaking of new social and political forces that indicate the limits of Marx’s categories? Given the fragmentation and complexity of the political at the global level, is it still possible to use the categories of "class" and class struggle to describe the current situation and its antagonisms? Couldn’t we argue that the use of the categories today represents a certain refusal to address the specificity of the "concrete situation"?

I see your point. The way I try to squeeze out of this problem is to redefine the concept of the proletariat in a way similar to Badiou and Rancière: those who stand for a universal singularity, those who belong to a situation without having a specific "place" in the situation, included but without any part in the social edifice. As such, this excluded non-part stands for the universal. The concept of the proletariat becomes a shifting category. But how can this be linked to the problems of political economy? This is a huge problem. I don’t have a real solution. Are we supposed to abandon the labor theory of value, or redeem it? People as different as Badiou and Fredric Jameson claim we already know how capitalism works, and that the real issue is the invention of new political forms. I don’t think we really know how capitalism functions today. The entire Marxist conceptual structure is based on the notion of exploitation. How does this concept function today? I don’t have an answer. All the terms used to describe the contemporary moment—"post-industrial society," "information society," "risk society" and so on—are completely journalistic categories.

ST: But doesn’t your redefinition of "proletariat" distance it too quickly from the question of production? Don’t we have to begin by examining the redefinition of productive labor itself, to analyze the increasingly unstable categories of productive and unproductive labor, employed and unemployed and so on? Doesn’t a term like "multitude," for example, at least indicate this instability?

This is where things become perplexing for me. The problems you mention are important. But there is, of course, an economy specific to the slums and the banlieue, an illegal market that is nevertheless extremely "dynamic," without any regulations and so on...

ST: Pure neoliberalism?

Yes. And so we shouldn’t forget, then, that even if the favelas are outside direct state control, they are still integrated into the mechanisms of the economy. More interesting than the question of productivity and unproductivity is the question of how certain economic forces both do not exist and yet are fully integrated into the networks of capital. Just look at the economy of the newly "liberated" Afghanistan—it’s finally integrated into the world market, though of course the most important product is opium. But let us return to the question of the multitude. It’s a very ambiguous category. Contemporary capitalism seems to have the same "predicates" as what Negri calls the "multitude." In Brazil, Negri recently claimed that we no longer even have to struggle against capitalism, that it’s almost already communism. This is also a question of the State. I’m becoming skeptical of the Leftist anti-State logic. It will not go unnoticed that this discourse finds an echo on the Right as well. Moreover, I don’t see any signs of the so-called "disappearance of the State." To the contrary. And to take the United States as an example, I have to confess that 80 percent of the time, when there is a conflict between civil society and the State, I am on the side of the State. Most of the time, the State must intervene when some local right-wing groups want to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and so on. I think it’s very important, then, for the Left to influence and use, and perhaps even seize, when possible, State apparatuses. This is not sufficient unto itself, of course. In fact, I think we need to oppose the language of "ligne de fuite" and self-organization and so on with something that is completely taboo on the Left today—like garlic for the vampire—namely, the idea of large State or even larger collective decisions. It’s the same with the notion of "deterritorialization": I’ve even begun to think that we should rehabilitate the notion of "territory." Peter Hallward gave me this idea. Almost all the conflicts of our time, especially in the Middle East, are structured by the question of territory. I think the Left should begin to think in terms of what could be called "liberated territories."

ST: But when Negri and Hardt use the term "deterritorialization," don’t they mean something very specific, namely that the difference between productive and unproductive labor has become increasingly unclear, and therefore that the site of exploitation is no longer localized, but disseminated across the social surface—the entire space of society is politicized, and no longer simply the factory?

Let’s start with Negri and Hardt. Somewhere in the middle of Multitude, there is an intermezzo on Bakhtin and carnival. I violently disagree with this carnivalesque vision of liberation. Carnival is a very ambiguous term, more often than not used by reactionaries. My God, if you need a carnival, today’s capitalism is a carnival. A KKK lynching is a carnival. A cultural critic, a friend of mine, Boris Groys, told me that he did some research on Bakhtin and that it became clear that when Bakhtin was producing his theory of carnival in the 1930s, it was the Stalinist purges that were his model: today you are on the Central Committee, tomorrow . . . With the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, the opposition between rigid State control and carnivalesque liberation is no longer functional. Here I agree with what Badiou said in the recent interview with you published in Il Manifesto: "those who have nothing have only their discipline." This is why I like to mockingly designate myself "Left-fascist" or whatever! Today, the language of transgression is the ruling ideology. We have to reappropriate the language of discipline, of mass discipline, even the "spirit of sacrifice," and so on. We have to do away with the liberal fear of "discipline," which they characterize—without knowing what they’re talking about—as "proto-fascist." But back to Negri. You know, the Left produces a new model every ten years or so. Why was Ernesto Laclau’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy so popular twenty years ago? It suited a moment when the priority of class struggle gave way to the linking of particular struggles (feminist, etc.) in a chain of struggles. Now, Laclau is trying to dust off the theory to fit the new Latin American populism of Chavez, Morales and so on. Negri, I’m afraid, did capture a certain moment, that of Porto Alegre and the antiglobalization movement—that was, de facto, his "base." But what is problematic for me is his theory that if today the very object of production is the production of social relations themselves, then the way is open to what he calls "absolute democracy." I totally reject this logic. It is pure, ideological dreaming. In the final twenty pages of Multitude, the position is more or less theological—the tropes of "ligne de fuite" and resistance and so on are all founded on the fantasy of a "collapse" of Empire. In a way, it is the "optimistic" mirror image of the model you find in someone like Agamben, who presents not so much a pessimism but a "negative" teleology, in which the entire Western tradition is approaching its own disastrous end, the only solution to which is to await some "divine violence." But what is Benjamin talking about? Revolution—that is, a moment when you take the "sovereign" (this is Benjamin’s word) responsibility for killing someone. What does violence mean for Agamben? He responds with "playing with the law" and so on. Forgive me for being a vulgar empiricist, but I don’t know what that means in the concrete sense.

ST: You mentioned "liberated territories"—isn’t the first example that comes to mind the southern zone of Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut? Isn’t it possible to conceive of a phenomenon like Hezbollah not simply as a theologico-political form of communitarian organization but as a phenomenon of resistance irreducible to its theological support? Isn’t this the theoretical task for us, rather than characterizing this phenomenon, as is common on both the Left and the Right, as simply "obscurantist"?

This is really a matter of concrete judgment. I’ll ask you, quite naively: where do you see this dimension? I would like to be convinced. It’s quite fashionable to speak of self-organization, to say of Hamas or Hezbollah that "it’s not only rockets, there’s the social services, etc." But, look, every fascist regime does such things. It’s not enough. I think the Iranian revolution, for example, was a true event. There it’s clear. Of course, what you see today in Iran is a conservative populist regime buying off the poor with oil money. I have nothing against Islam as such, and in the Iranian revolution it is quite clear that it played a crucial role, but it was an Islam effectively linked to a Leftist position of social upheaval. It’s quite clear that, in the history of this revolution, it took around two years for the conservatives to take control. Again, I don’t have a problem with Islam as such. I think it is potentially a great emancipatory religion. It originally defined itself as a non-patriarchal religion, for example. I have written on this. Badiou spoke in the recent interview in Il Manifesto of a new form of organization outside the logic of the State and the Party—but what if you see this as a negative phenomenon, as a radical closure of social space? What kind of social space is being proposed? It’s important not to drift too far away from Marx here and his definition of the proletariat as a "substanceless subjectivity." This is essential. So if this form of organization belongs neither to the State or the Party, isn’t this because it represents a totalization of social space, something pre-modern . . .

ST: . . .an anti-modern reaction to the State?

Yes, yes. I don’t care about the social services and so on. The question is: when it is a question of workers, of women, and so on, where do you see any promise of emancipation? It’s not a rhetorical question. I want to see it, and I don’t. The big question for me—and here I am an unashamed Eurocentrist—is the political solution in Palestine, namely the necessity of a single, secular state. Is the goal of Hezbollah or Hamas a single, secular state, or not? I totally support the Palestinian cause, and even Palestinian "terror," provided it is publicly oriented toward a single, secular state. The option proposed by Hamas and Hezbollah is not a single secular state, but the destruction of Israel, driving the Jews "into the sea." I don’t buy the anti-imperialist solidarity with these forces.

ST: A final question. "That which produces the general good is always terrible": to what extent do you identify with this formula of Saint-Just’s? In what sense is the reinvention of a "new form of Terror," to put it in your terms, a necessary condition for a contemporary emancipatory politics?

I think the French Revolution, this violent explosion of egalitarian terror, is crucial. Before, terror simply meant the "mob" erupting in violence, but they don’t take over—they simply kill. I am speaking of the Jacobin Terror. This is the key event. You either buy it or you don’t.

from SOFT TARGETS v.2.1