Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s latest offering is a look at the way in which western societies understand, and importantly misunderstand violence.
Zizek’s central thesis is that the liberal conception of violence is limited to subjective forms of violence, violence which is performed by a clearly identifiable human agent. Zizek claims that what is required to understand the logic and motives behind contemporary acts of subjective violence is to step back from the visible violence which often appears spontaneous and inexplicable, allowing us to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.’ (p1) What lurks behind the easily perceptible forms of subjective violence according to Zizick are forms of objective or systemic violence.
Objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to the ‘normal’ state of things. Objective violence is invisible since is sustains the very zero level standard against which we perceive things as subjectively violent. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious dark matter of physics, the counterpart to an all to visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence (p2)
Thus Zizek urges reader to reject the fascination shown by the western media for various forms of subjective violence and instead to analyse the systemic violence which creates the social conditions and actors required for the outbursts of subjective violence. To this end Zizek examines a number of prominent exemplars of recent subjective violence; the reactions to the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed, the Parisian riots of 2005, the violence involved on both sides of the War on Terror and the violence in the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and explores the ways in which material inequalities, poverty, cultural imperialism and liguistic/symbolic violence can be understood as the underlying causes of the subjective violence which dominates media discourse on the topics.
Applying such thought to a local level, how do we make sense of the recent attacks along the Easton cyclepath or the near daily outbursts of road rage on our heavily congested streets? Do we demonise the people who committed this violence, treating it as evidence of their wrongheadedness and ‘evil’ as subjects, or do we examine and act to change the structures surrounding those people and the systemic violence they suffer; coming from disadvantaged backgrounds in a society whose rich are growing rapidly richer while the poor go nowhere, where class mobility is far less than a generation ago, living in a community that lacks youth centres and other activities for young people to enjoy, questioning Bristol City Council’s bizarre urge to fill the inadequate roads with ever increasing volumes of traffic (see the new Cabot Circus Car Park) and the lack of affordable and reliable public transport (its current guise of First Great Western providing private profits allied with extortionate prices and atrocious service)? Do we seek ways to effect and change the ideology of competitive individualism which sees young people growing up in a society which urges them to look out for themselves and no one else or do we simply label them little bastards, wrongful creatures who have exercised their free will to be irrationally evil?
Critiquing the liberal concept of pacifism as the rejection of all forms of subjective violence, Zizek instead implores the endorsement of forms of emancipatory violence, as ‘To chastise violence outright, to condemn it as ‘bad’ is an ideological operation par excellence, a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence.’ (p174) The argument here is that by colluding with the social, economic and political conditions of massive inequality and extreme poverty, people are perpetrating forms of systemic violence which breeds the necessary qualities of resentment and anger which cause the subjective violence abhorred by pacifists. What Zizek claims is necessary then, is a systemic transformation to eliminate or at least minimise the systemic violence endemic to globalised capitalism.
Consequently, Zizek argues that ‘Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.’ (p183) In situations where everyday life perpetuates a cycle of poverty and misery for others – often those who have laboured to produce goods consumed in the first world, but also marginalised groups within western nations – the most violent thing a person can do is to simply ignore this systemic violence and lead an uneventful life, claiming to hate violence while creating the conditions of a society which produce it.
Where I feel Zizek falls down somewhat is his lack of meaningful discussion as to what activities he feels are necessary for a massive reduction of systemic violence. Drawing on Che Guevara, Zizek argues that love is an essential component of revolutionary thought and action, as out of love for others alongside solidarity, the desire for the overthrow of repressive socio-economic systemic machinery is born. This emphasis on love as an essential component of opposition to global capitalism is something Zizek shares with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the authors of Emprire and Multitude, whose writings maintain that the information revolution is in the process of creating radical social formations capable of challenging the system of global capitalism. Zizek however critiqes Hardt and Negri, somewhat unfairly contending that ‘Negri himself, the guru of the postmodern left, praises digital capitalism as containing in nuce all the elements of communism – one only has to drop the capitalist form and the revolutionary goal is acheived.’ (p14) Such a grossly oversimplified account of Negri’s search for revolutionary potentiality within emergent technologies and contemporary activism sees Zizek align Negri with the likes of Bill Gates and the CEO’s of Shell Intel and Google, allowing him to ridicule them all as the faces of liberal communism; those who fight subjective violence while perpetrating acts of systemic violence.
While Hardt and Negri stress their support for new activist movements such as the Zapatistas, Indymedia and the anti- War G8 and WTO protests, Zizek is somewhat less forthcoming about where he sees hope and potential in contemporary activism. While his elaboration of systemic violence and how this effects subjective violence is a practically useful one for activist movements and critical thought, his claims that the Porto Alegre movement has failed, and furthermore that while ‘Leftist political movements are like banks of rage. They collect rage investments from people and and promise them large-scale revenge, the re-establishment of global justice,’ (p158 ) the current situation according to Zizek sees a reality in which ‘There is no longer a global rage potential.’ (p159 ) If there no longer exists the potential for the coming together of the worlds people to fight for global justice, freedom and democracy, then how does one go about effecting large scale changes to the systems which inflict violence on so many peoples and their environments? Zizek offers no real answer here beyond the adoption of emancipatory violence, another concept he shares with Hardt and Negri.
Such sentiments appear to offer little hope in the way of emerging movements to challenge the systemic violence present in the current global order, and so in my estimation take the sheen of what otherwise is an excellent exposition of the violence which often appears invisible but thoroughly permeates the fabric of neoliberal culture.