Friday, August 13, 2010

Liberal Utopianism

Žižek's recent book First as Tragedy, Then As Farce, which I read earlier this year, is a characteristic combination of the nearly brilliant and the borderline stupid. My favorite bit is the section during which he discusses Utopia. He would call it pragmatic liberalism—that is, the current system—the "utopia in power", which manages to dismiss all competing visions as themselves utopian, indeed as dangerously so. In fact, "ideological naturalization" is such that few enough can even imagine such visions. Instead, we are repeatedly entreated to place our trust in gradual reformism, even as the so-called "left wing" of Liberalism, the Democratic Party, moves ever rightward, ever confident that it can do so without truly alienating left-wing voters. So I love it when Žižek says that "simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence", and when he describes the noble ideals this simplistic liberalism claims to stand for and says:
The problem lies with the "utopian" premise that it is possible to achieve all that within the coordinates of global capitalism. What if the particular malfuctionings of capitalism [.. .] are not merely accidental disturbances but are rather structurally necessary?
Of course, they are exactly that, structurally necessary, there's no "what if" about it. There is simply no way for the capitalist system to meet the basic needs of the many or the many other needs it calls into being. Žižek goes on to say:
This is how one should answer those who dismiss any attempt to question the fundamentals of the liberal-democratic-capitalist order as being themselves dangerously utopian: what we are confronting in today’s crisis are the consequences of the utopian core of this order itself.
And here, I think, we confront the limits of Žižek's approach. There are, in a sense, two utopias at work here, but Žižek has a tendency to conflate them. They work hand in hand, but they are not the same, and only one has the power, the other has delusions and carries water for the utopia in power. To be sure, they both dismiss competing (leftist) visions as themselves dangerously utopian. There is the liberal capitalist economic regime—the utopia in power—now in its neoliberal phase, pretending to promote freedom for all, pretending that its notion of freedom bears any resemblance to what ordinary people understand by the word freedom. Alongside this we have the true progressive believers, those people who believe the system is good (the best we have), that the course of American history is a progressive one (a noble "experiment"), in the sense of the gradual expansion of rights to more and more people, those who believe capitalism can be restrained (or that a return to Keynesianism is possible). These are the liberal activists who believed in Bill Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry or Barack Obama, or even if any one or all of these men have not been quite the embodiment of progressive values, believed they are nevertheless the best we have. More to the point, they believe liberalism is besieged and that any overly radical approach is either a threat to the beloved system or a dangerous risk, given the spectre of the lunatic Right. From this perspective, genuinely left-wing activists (even Nader voters) are painted as "dangerously utopian".

Confusion aside, Žižek is exactly right that the time has long since come when we should ignore the crap about freedom spouted by liberals in power and turn the tables on the true-believing reformers by labeling them "dangerously utopian".

1 comment:

J.R. Boyd said...

Really interesting, Richard. I don't know anything about Zizek, but his name has come up in several contexts that piqued my interest. It's really good to get your take -- particularly on the brilliant and the stupid.

To touch on another post, BDR has got me reading JR by Gaddis; now you've got me thinking about Gaddis and the postmodern writers. I feel like I struggle with fiction at this point in my life.

By the way, I wanted to thank you for the book recommendations you made a while back. It sounds like you've been up to quite a lot of good reading lately.