Slavoj Žižek on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left

With my lectures for next two weeks (basically) written, I’ve turned to some fun reading: namely, Slavoj Žižek’s latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. It’s an unsurprisingly-passionate critique of contemporary capitalism post the recent so-called financial crash. While few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, his analyses of the big movements are very insightful, often compelling, and nearly always worth reflecting on – if for no other reason than that no-one quite says it like Žižek. Here he is on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left:

‘A true Left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions, but as something inevitable, as a chance to be fully exploited. The basic insight of the radical Left is that although crises are painful and dangerous they are ineluctable, and that they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. The difference between liberalism and the radical Left is that, although they refer to the same three elements (liberal center, populist Right, radical Left), they locate them in a radically different topology: for the liberal center, the radical Left and the Right are two forms of the same “totalitarian” excess; while for the Left, the only true alternative is the one between itself and the liberal mainstream, the populist “radical” Right being nothing but the symptom of liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat. When today we hear a politician or an ideologist offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, triumphantly asking (purely rhetorical) questions such as “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocker of religion to be punishable by death?” what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer – who would have wanted that? The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. This is why, for a true Leftist, the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle in which two opposed poles generate and presuppose each other. Here one should take an Hegelian step backwards, placing in question the very measure from which fundamentalism appears in all its horror. Liberals have long ago lost their right to judge. What Horkheimer once said should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk (critically) about liberal democracy and its noble principles should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism. And, even more pointedly, one should emphatically insist that the conflict between the State of Israel and the Arabs is a false conflict: even if we will all come to perish because of it, it is a conflict which only mystifies the true issues.

How are we to understand this reversal of an emancipatory thrust into fundamentalist populism? In authentic Marxism, totality is not an ideal, but a critical notion-to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include within a system all its “symptoms:’ it antagonisms and inconsistencies, as integral parts. In this sense then, liberalism and fundamentalism form a “totality:’ for their opposition is structured so that liberalism itself generates its opposite. Where then do the core values of liberalism – freedom, equality, etc. – stand? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save its own core values from the fundamentalist onslaught. Its problem is that it cannot stand on its own: there is something missing in the liberal edifice. Liberalism is, in its very notion, “parasitic” relying as it does on a presupposed network of communal values that it undermines in the course of its own development. Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystificatory reaction of course – against a real flaw inherent within liberalism, and this is why fundamentalism is, over and again, generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself – the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left. Or, to put it in the well-known terms of 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism will need the brotherly help of the radical Left’. – Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London/New York: Verso, 2009), 75–77.