I see Zizek discovered Cosmism and decided to use it as a master narrative for Russia at war. While I’ve got time for some of Zizek’s writing – not least on Lenin, this is at the level of an undergrad drinking-while-reading.
On the one hand Cosmism is a welcome change from the usual, and very lazy analysis that sees Russia as some kind of Thanatos culture (obsessed with death). However, Zizek seems to confuse Cosmism with celebration of death and Thanatos. He completely misses the point. Cosmism is so indelibly linked to the Soviet project of overcoming death for all humankind. I mean, even Star Trek is a warmed over version of ‘dialectical monism’ (things become ‘one’ via change). Keti Chukhrov did a good write up of this in her book. She has a lovely passage on Ilyenkov’s Soviet ‘eternal return’:
if mind is ever the attribute of matter, and matter cannot do without thinking, any form
of matter will develop into mind, and since the mind is only the human
mind, humankind will always be able to be reborn in other galaxies.
Transhumanism and all those related esoteric Russian avenues of thought are about as far as one could get from relevance to the war. Which is presumably why Zizek the jackdaw thinker pounced on them like shiny baubles. Truly beyond parody.
Thing is, Zizek is just a lazy f*cker. He did a slightly more serviceable job in Meduza just a few days ago. In that piece he makes a good point that directly challenges my thesis about ‘defensive consolidation’ that is hard to counter: “Don’t be fooled by pragmatic arguments about the lack of power of ideology. Most people are cynics who don’t take it seriously. But it still works.” In one line we perhaps have Zizek’s main lasting contribution to marxian psychoanalysis. When we say we’re not ideological, we prove the point that there is ideology. When we say ‘There’s No Alternative’ to the cartel politics we have in the US or UK: that’s ideology. When Russians say ‘My country right or wrong. I’m not for war’, that’s an insidious reconstituted form of regime ideology.
The problem with this? There is no ideology behind Putinism, neither Cosmological, nor Thanatos. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Zizek wouldn’t be Zizek without a defence of the ‘what if’ federal USSR survived. Ok, this is a short piece, but it still comes out like a very childlike crayon version of some actually quite reasonable alternative history. I guess here I am also disturbed by his typical lack of knowledge about the Bloc he grew up in. In garbled fashion he says that the Soviet multicultural federative union was salvageable/a template for a peaceful post-USSR. One *might* agree with ginormous caveats, but here Zizek has to couch it in terms of ‘pluralism’, precisely the opposite of any conceivable Soviet ontology. This is a red rag to me: read just any discussion of monism and communism in anthropology, I beg you! Dumont, Lambek, Descola, Graeber – all authors I read thanks to my colleague A. K. Clearly Zizek is not a wide reader, I mean, we even have evidence he never really read Ranciere (see the Counterpunch take-down).
Something you always suspected: your favourite lefty uncle is really just the worst liberal simp: “The ideal Russia in my view is the eastern version of the European Union. I think the EU is a pretty efficient system of institutions.” Wow! Screw that sidewise with a big Frontex boat. Phillip Cunliffe and Christopher Bickerton have just written two useful articles in the NLR on the EU as a dysfunctional set of institutions which block real politics: The EU’s power strengthens in proportion to the decay of democracy within member countries, and political legitimacy within it comes from elite supranationalism, rather than democratic representation. The EU is neither ‘federal’, nor ‘democratic’ in any meaningful way, its institutions serve a minority of the Bloc and have been unable to deal with expansion, neighbour-relations, internal imbalances, democratization and any of the challenges of C21 you might mention. And the barriers to changing this are formidable. The irony is that one could envisage a post-USSR democratic socialist federation as a better model than the EU. Bickerton in particular highlights how EU decision-making is usurped by national interests (European Council) in a way that makes the USSR look like a paragon of post-national governance. Zizek provides just one more example of Westerncentric (EU bloc as the only imaginable sovereignty pool).
Okay, on Lenin Zizek is ‘not even wrong’ – Lenin the thinker is of course anti-imperialist, but you can’t defend Lenin just by blaming Stalin as the original Leninist. Once more, this is sub-undergraduate Russian history. Next up, a good bit: who doesn’t like someone taking Chomsky’s bullshit down a peg or too, or ridiculing the disgustingly hypocritical reaction of parts of the German left? I mean, we all do that for breakfast every day.
The useful part of the article is on the coalesce of authoritarian countries and post-fascism. However, of course this ain’t original. Is an anti-liberal alliance possible between Taliban, China and Russia? What about global capitalism? Seems a bit… lacking in materialist analysis. Has he read Klein and Pettis on China? Why would China align with anyone when they can’t even raise internal consumption enough to dream of non-dependence on US demand. The hackneyed ‘BRICS’ is another giveaway. I’m sorry, you what? BRICS is so 2008, you know.
As someone who owns many Zizek books and who paid for hardback copies, I just can’t stand it when he memoryholes his own work: now he calls for war communism without communism – just cowardly! In ‘In Defence of Lost Causes‘ Zizek wrote: ‘between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp was also, at that historical moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism’. Zizek literally wrote perhaps one of the best non-academic defences of Stalinism as a way of rehabilitating communism. He seems to have forgotten this.
Then there’s some very obvious if simplistic stuff about identity politics in the US being a distraction from the politics of solidarity and opposing fascism. Finally we get one decent point: “Russia is now a very traumatized, divided country. The official discourse is becoming more radical…most people are just scared. Russia cannot be rejected as a country. The Putin-supporting crowd is not even applauding itself.”
Basically Zizek presents a set of arguments indistinguishable from any of my blogs from the last year. He adds: “fascism is a way of avoiding internal contradictions by proclaiming a false sense of solidarity.” “Russia is the most divided society, and if you play the card of national unity correctly, this can be partially disguised. So the term can be applied to Russia, but it is very limited in time.” Like me, Zizek would disagree with the ‘harder’ Russian fascism diagnosers like Greg Yudin.
“The tragedy of Russia is that in the 1990s the West tried to forcefully impose a neoliberal model on it. The direct result is Putin and the war.” writes Zizek at the end. Once again, a bit of a caricature. I wouldn’t be annoyed, but it does disservice to the ‘trauma’ argument with which I agree and which is at the heart of most of what I’m writing at the moment. Again, Zizek clearly didn’t read ANY scholarship on domesticating neoliberalism, or even any serious work on neoliberalism published after 2000. There are reams on this that avoid this ‘victim’ narrative Zizek repeats. Neoliberalism was as much a Russian elite project as anything and even emerges earlier indigenously within Soviet planning.
Surely it’s possible to write a ‘Zizekian’ materialist analysis of the war, and one which takes account of psychoanalysis (ressentiment) and actual history (geopolitical tragedy, actually-existing socialism) without Zizek. It must be tried. And preferably without hiding behind the opaque shadow of a Lacan or Badiou.
Got any good pointers if i want to understand more about russian/soviet cosmism?
I haven’t read this but it looks interesting and informative. Maybe too academic, but worth a go https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=O8FpAgAAQBAJ&pg=PR4&lpg=PR4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false