Slavoj Žižek, prolific Marxist theorist and enfant terrible of the Left, has been running his mouth on refugees in recent months.
Žižek has dismissed the plight of migrants and refugees as nothing more than a “liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity,” rather than a genuinely tragic humanitarian catastrophe. His position has been met with significant and legitimate criticism from those on the Left who bristle at his belief that the influx and integration of Middle Eastern refugees threatens European, and more generally Western, civilization.
But, even these critics fall short of identifying what’s wrong — and what’s actually right — in Žižek’s commentary. Indeed, there is some truth to his analysis though Žižek seems to arrive at even these accurate assessments by mistake.
One fundamental question is whether Žižek even believes the things he writes. A strong case could be made that his statements on refugees are actually part of larger efforts to provoke his audience.
Professor Adam Kotsko, who has written extensively on the subject of interpreting Žižek’s philosophical and political theories, argues that Žižek’s rhetorical strategy is generally to antagonize left-wing and liberal readers, in order to “provoke those readers into showing that they refuse to ask concrete questions about how to exercise power, preferring instead to demonstrate their purity through denunciation of others.”
For instance, when Leftists and liberals argue that Syrian refugees are fleeing to Europe to escape the consequences of Western imperialism (rather than Bashar al-Assad), they are making less of a factual statement than an (instrumentally) political one. In truth, there is little evidence to support their claims: 52% of Syrian refugees polled said they would not return to Syria if Assad remained in power, while a whopping 75% said the war they are escaping from is the result of Assad (not ISIS or Western-funded rebels’) actions.
These facts highlight the deeper truth behind Žižek’s critique of liberals: namely, that their identity and ideology exists merely as a counterweight to their conservative counterparts. As Kotsko argues, “[T]he mainstream left and the mainstream right are locked in a symbiotic relationship . . . Thus left and liberal parties are complicit in the racist reaction that they both denounce and indulge. If it weren’t for the racism of the right, mainstream liberals would have nothing to run against.”
While Žižek rightly recognizes that Syrian refugees do not generally place primary blame (if any at all) on Western neocolonialism, Žižek’s own reasoning about the causes of the crisis is similarly myopic and arguably bigoted.
Much like many rightwing commentators, Žižek argues that the massive westward migration of Syrian refugees is the result of the “spread” of ISIS and, by extension, Islam. While this is patently false, it is the inverse of the reductive Leftist claim that Syrian refugees only exist as a consequence of imperialism. Both theories cast Syrians as passive objects to be “saved,” rather than agents of their own history.
What is most distressing, however, is that, in making these arguments, Žižek has convinced himself that he is transcending Left/liberal thinking on the refugee crisis. In fact, he is doing exactly what he accuses his opponents of. Either deliberately or unconsciously, Žižek is recycling a tactic of Leftist discourse: adopting the values of the powerful, but inverting the language.
Take for instance, some Leftists who argue that Syrians who were being besieged and bombed by Assad’s forces were fair game because they had welcomed the opposition into their midst. Such logic is not lost on anyone who is familiar with Israeli propaganda – which condemns Palestinian civilians to death for supposedly allowing armed fighters into their midst.
For his part, Žižek has inverted the same Islamophobic language, propagated by right-wing thinkers and politicians, to explain the “real cause” of the refugee crisis from a so-called non-conservative perspective.
Where Is ‘Norway’?
In an article for The London Review of Books, Žižek argues that Syrian refugees are coming into Europe “possessed by a dream” – the dream of reaching the utopian social democratic haven of Sweden and Norway – a milk-and-honey land of radical egalitarianism, tolerance, and security. This idea of “Norway,” Žižek argues, is a metaphor for a humane society. Noting the rise of Scandinavian anti-immigrant, neo-Fascist parties, however, Žižek concludes that “‘there is no Norway,’ even in Norway.”
This facile argument, which dismisses both the motivations of Syrians and the political complexities of Europe, is wholly inadequate. But Žižek’s critics have also failed to appreciate why. While they argue that “Norway” – the humanitarian ideal – does indeed exist, what they do not understand is that the ideal is not solely a European one.
Just because “Norway” is shorthand for a humane society, does not mean that it cannot or is not found in the Syria of today. Indeed, Norway already exists within Syria itself. It is in Aleppo, Idleb, Kafranbel, and Ma’aret Al-Numan and a dozen others cities and villages where hundreds of protests have taken place against both the Assad regime and al-Qaeda, following the recent partial ceasefire. As Charles Lister, an expert on Syrian rebel groups, recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “In parts of Idlib, some protests even began to adopt slogans hostile to Assad’s regime and al Qaeda. In the town of Maarat al-Numan, Nusra Front’s patience wore out on March 11, when its fighters violently dispersed demonstrators and attacked the bases of the 13th Division, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group vetted by the CIA and supported through a multinational command center in Turkey.”
After five years of carnage and half a million deaths (as of February), largely Assad’s doing, Syrians are coming out in droves demanding—as Žižek would say—Norway. I doubt that Žižek would defend such a Norway, since he believes the Syrian revolt is a “pseudo-struggle.” Similarly, his critics also fail to appreciate this Norway, when they ignore its roots in a demand for radical egalitarianism in Syria. In gliding over or considering this basic fact to be irrelevant, they reproduce the very object of their critique.
Depoliticizing the Tragedy
The refugee tragedy is a political tragedy. To depoliticize it is to betray any pretense of compassion and empathy for refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn or failed states. This is the irony in positions taken by both Žižek and his critics – both claim to understand the tragedy and to have the refugees’ interests at heart, but utterly fail to acknowledge the crisis’s political roots.
This result is the natural byproduct of a philosophy both sides simultaneously criticize and subscribe to, namely, one that dismisses and dreads unauthorized and inconvenient rebellions.
There are few on the Left who would argue that U.S.-backed dictators are not “so bad” or are the “lesser evil.” But, when it comes to murderous dictators that are not supported by the West, the story is quite different.
Jerusalem-based Palestinian writer and anarchist activist, Budour Hassan, recently wrote on her personal blog about how radicals, such as herself, viewed the Syrian revolution as inconvenient because many still had faith in the “axis of resistance,” which includes Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, and its power to liberate Palestinians. She also wrote about her regret in holding such a position:
When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”
I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.
I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.
I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.
All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.
‘Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,’ I thought to myself, ‘but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.’ That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.
I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.
One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.
When Leftists liberals make the argument that Syrian refugees are overwhelmingly escaping Western imperialism, rather than the Assad regime, their narrative is bound to appear insufficiently attentive to facts. Similarly, when Žižek claims Islam is to blame for the refugee crisis he fundamentally ignores the political forces that have made this tragedy possible.
A Hollow Solidarity
To his credit, however, in his London Review of Books article, Žižek argues that Europe must help the refugees by “moving beyond mere tolerance: we should offer others not just our respect, but the prospect of joining them in a common struggle, since our problems today are problems we share.” This call for global solidarity, while admirable, is one that Žižek fails to follow through on.
Ultimately, it is the lack of self-awareness and ignorance of basic facts that undermines this powerful aspect of Žižek’s philosophy and leaves him, rightly, open to criticism.