Inke Arns on Mon, 05 Jul 1999 08:55:13 +0200

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Syndicate: Zizek, part 1

Hi everybody,

this is Zizek's new text (the "original"!) which we got from him yesterday
during the Kosovo conference here in Berlin. It was published in die Zeit
(in a shorter version). The Zeit version was translated by Michael Pollak,
and posted on Nettime some days ago. Here it is in its full beauty.

Best wishes,



Slavoj Zizek

The Impasse of the Left

The top winner in the contest for the greatest blunder of 1998 was a
Latin-American patriotic terrorist who sent a bomb letter to a US consulate
in order to protest against the American interfering into the local
politics. As a conscientious citizen, he wrote on the envelope his return
address; however, he did not put enough stamps on it, so that the post
returned the letter to him. Forgetting what he put in it, he opened it and
blew himself to death - a perfect example of how, ultimately, a letter
always arrives at its destination. And is not something quite similar
happening to the Slobodan Milosevic regime with the recent NATO bombing?
For years, Milosevic was sending bomb letters to his neighbors, from the
Albanians to Croatia and Bosnia, keeping himself out of the conflict while
igniting fire all around Serbia - finally, his last letter returned to him.
Let us hope that the result of the NATO intervention will be that Milosevic
will be proclaimed the political blunderer of the year.
	And there is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the West finally
intervened apropos of Kosovo - let us not forget that it was there that it
all began with the ascension to power of Milosevic: this ascension was
legitimized by the promise to amend the underprivileged situation of Serbia
within the Yugoslav federation, especially with regard to the Albanian
"separatism." Albanians were Milosevic's first target; afterwards, he
shifted his wrath onto other Yugoslav republics (Slovenia, Croatia,
Bosnia), until, finally, the focus of the conflict returned to Kosovo - as
in a closed loop of Destiny, the arrow returned to the one who lanced it by
way of setting free the spectre of ethnic passions. This is the key point
worth remembering: Yugoslavia did not start to disintegrate when the
Slovene "secession" triggered the domino-effect (first Croatia, then
Bosnia, Macedonia...); it was already at the moment of Milosevic's
constitutional reforms in 1987, depriving Kosovo and Vojvodina of their
limited autonomy, that the fragile balance on which Yugoslavia rested was
irretrievably disturbed. From that moment onwards, Yugoslavia continued to
live only because it didn't yet notice it was already dead - it was like
the proverbial cat in the cartoons walking over the precipice, floating in
the air, and falling down only when it becomes aware that it has no ground
under its feet... From Milosevic's seizure of power in Serbia onwards, the
only actual chance for Yugoslavia to survive was to reinvent its formula:
either Yugoslavia under Serb domination or some form of radical
decentralization, from a loose confederacy to the full sovereignty of its
units. Therein, in ignoring this key fact, resides the problem of the
otherwise admirable Tariq Ali's essay on the NATO interventionin Yugoslavia:

"The claim that it is all Milosevic's fault is one-sided and erroneous,
indulging those Slovenian, Croatian and Western politicians who allowed him
to succeed. It could be argued, for instance, that it was Slovene egoism,
throwing the Bosnians and Albanians, as well as non-nationalist Serbs and
Croats, to the wolves, that was a decisive factor in triggering the whole
disaster of disintegration." (1)

It certainly is true that the main responsibility of others for Milosevic's
success resides in their "allowing him to succeed," in their readiness to
accept him as a "factor of stability" and tolerate his "excesses" with the
hope of striking a deal with him; and it is true that such a stance was
clearly discernible among Slovene, Croat and Western politicians (for
example, there certainly are grounds to suspect that the relatively smooth
path to Slovene independence involved a silent informal pact between
Slovene leadership and Milosevic, whose project of a "greater Serbia" had
no need for Slovenia). However, two things are to be added here. First,
this argument itself asserts that the responsibility of others is of a
fundamentally different nature than that of Milosevic: the point is not
that "they were all equally guilty, participating in nationalist madness,"
but that others were guilty of not being harsh enough towards Milosevic, of
not unconditionally opposing him at any price. Secondly, what this argument
overlooks is how the same reproach of "egoism" can be applied to ALL
actors, inclusive of Muslims, the greatest victims of the (first phase of
the) war: when Slovenia proclaimed independence, the Bosnian leadership
openly supported the Yugoslav Army's intervention in Slovenia instead of
risking confrontation at that early date, and thus contributed to their
later sad fate. So the Muslim strategy in the first year of the conflict
was also not without opportunism: its hidden reasoning was "let the
Slovenes, Croats and Serbs bleed each other to exhaustion, so that, in the
aftermath of their conflict, we shall gain for no great price an
independent Bosnia"... (It is one of the ironies of the Yugoslav-Croat war
that the legendary Bosnian commander who successfully defended the besieged
Bihac region against the Bosnian Serb army, commanded two years ago the
Yugoslav army units which were laying a siege to the Croat coast city
	There is, however, a more crucial problem that one should confront here:
the uncanny detail that cannot but strike the eye in the quote from Tariq
Ali is the unexpected recourse, in the midst of a political analysis, to a
psychological category: "Slovene egoism" - why the need for this reference
that clearly sticks out? On what ground can one claim that Serbs, Muslims
and Croats acted less "egotistically" in the course of Yugoslavia's
disintegration? The underlying premise is here that Slovenes, when they saw
the (Yugoslav) house falling apart, "egotistically" seized the opportunity
and fled away, instead of - what? Heroically throwing themselves also to
the wolves? Slovenes are thus imputed to start it all, to set in motion the
process of disintegration (by being the first to leave Yugoslavia) and, on
the top of it, being allowed to escape without proper penalty, suffering no
serious damage. Hidden beneath this perception is a whole nest of the
standard Leftist prejudices and dogmas: the secret belief in the viability
of Yugoslav self-management socialism, the notion that small nations like
Slovenia (or Croatia) cannot effectively function like modern democracies,
but, left to their own, necessarily regress to a proto-Fascist "closed"
community (in clear contrast to Serbia whose potential for a modern
democratic state is never put to doubt). As to this key point, even such a
penetrating political philosopher as Alain Badiou insists that the only
Yugoslavia worth of respect was Tito's Yugoslavia, and that in its
disintegration along ethnic lines all sides are ultimately the same,
"ethnic cleaners" in their own entity, Serbs, Slovenes or Bosnians:

"The Serb nationalism is worthless. But in what is it worse than others? It
is more broad, more expanded, more armed, it had without any doubt more
occasions to exercise its criminal passion. But this only depends on
circumstances. /.../ Let us suppose that, tomorrow, the KLA of the Kosovar
nationalists will take power: can one imagine that one Serb will remain in
Kosovo? Outside the victimizing rhetorics, we haven't seen one good
political reason to prefer a Kosovar (or Croat, or Albanian, or Slovene, or
Muslim-Bosnian) nationalist to the Serb nationalist. /.../ Sure, Milosevic
is a brutish nationalist, as all his colleagues from Croatia, Bosnia, or
Albania. /.../ From the beginning of the conflict, the Westerners have
effectively only take side, and in an awkward way, of the weak (Bosnian,
Kosovar) nationalism against the strong (Serb and subsidiary Croat)
nationalism." (2)

The ultimate irony of such Leftist nostalgic longing for the lost
Yugoslavia is that it ends up identifying as the successor of Yugoslavia
the very force that effectively killed it, namely the Serbia of Milosevic.
In the post-Yugoslav crisis of the 90s, can be said to stand for the
positive legacy of the Titoist Yugoslavia - the much-praised
multiculturalist tolerance - was the ("Muslim") Bosnia: the Serb aggression
on Bosnia was (also) the aggression of Milosevic, the first true
post-Titoist (the first Yugoslav politician who effectively acted as if
Tito is dead, as a perceptive Serb social scientist put it more than a
decade ago), against those who desperately clinged to the Titoist legacy of
ethnic "brotherhood and unity." No wonder that the supreme commander of the
"Muslim" army was General Rasim Delic, an ethnic Serb; no wonder that, all
through the 90s, the "Muslim" Bosnia was the only part of ex-Yugoslavia in
whose government offices Tito's portraits were still hanging. To obliterate
this crucial aspect of the Yugoslav war and to reduce the Bosnian conflict
to the civil war between different "ethnic groups" in Bosnia is not a
neutral gesture, but a gesture that in advance adopts the standpoint of one
of the sides in the conflict (Serbia).      
	The ultimate cause of the opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in
some Leftist circles is the refusal of these circles to confront the
impasse of today's Left. This same refusal also explains the properly
uncanny appeal of negative gestures like the spectacular retreat of the
German super-minister Oskar Lafontaine: the very fact that he stepped down
without giving reasons for his act, combined with his demonization in the
predominant mass media (from the front page title of The Sun - "The most
dangerous man in Europe" - to the photo of him in Bild, portraying him from
the side perspective, as in a police photo that follows arrest), made him
an ideal projection screen for all the fantasies of the frustrated Left
which rejects the predominant Third Way politics - if Lafontaine were to
stay, he would save the essentials of the welfare state, restore their
proper role to the Trade Unions, reassert the control of politics over the
"autonomous" financial politics of the state banks, even prevent the NATO
bombing of Yugoslavia... While such an elevation of Lafontaine into the
cult figure has its positive side (it articulates the utopian desires for
an authentic Left that would break the hegemonic Third Way stance of
accepting the unquestioned reign of the logic of the Capital), the
suspicions should nonetheless be raised that there is something false about
it: to put it in very simple terms, if Lafontaine were effectively in the
position to accomplish at least SOME of the above-mentioned goals, he would
simply NOT step down, but go on with his job. The cult of Lafontaine is
thus possible only as a negative gesture: it is his STEPPING DOWN that
created the void in which utopian Leftist energies can be invested, relying
on the illusion that, if external circumstances (Schroeder's opportunism,
etc.) were not preventing Lafontaine from doing his task, he would
effectively accomplish something. The true problem is, however: what would
have happened if Lafontaine were NOT be forced to step down? The sad, but
most probable answer is: either NOTHING of real substance (i.e. he would
have been gradually "gentrified," co-opted into the predominant Third Way
politics, as already happened with Jospin in France), or his interventions
would trigger a global economico-political crisis forcing him, again, to
step down and discrediting Social Democracy as unable to govern. (In this
respect, Lafontaine is a phenomenon parallel to the leaders of the Prague
Spring of 68: the Soviet intervention in a way saved their face, saved the
illusion that, if remained to stay in power, they would effectively give
birth to a "socialism with a human face," to an authentic alternative to
both Real Socialism and Real Capitalism.)

Human Rights and Their Obverse

Does this mean that one should simply praise the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia
as the first case of an intervention - not into the confused situation of a
civil war, but - into a country with full sovereign power. True, it may
appear comforting to see the NATO forces intervene not for any specific
economico-strategic interests, but simply because a country is cruelly
violating the elementary human rights of an ethnic group. Is not this the
only hope in our global era - to see some internationally acknowledged
force as a guarantee that all countries will respect a certain minimum of
ethical (and, hopefully, also health, social, ecological) standards? This
is the message that Vaclav Havel tries to bring home in his essay
significantly titled "Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State"; according to
Havel, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia

"places human rights above the rights of the state. The Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia was attacked by the alliance without a direct mandate from the
UN. This did not happen irresponsibly, as an act of aggression or out of
disrespect for international law. It happened, on the contrary, out of
respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which
protects the sovereignty of states. The alliance has acted out of respect
for human rights, as both conscience and international legal documents
dictate." (3)

Havel further specifies this "higher law" when he claims that "human
rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots
somewhere outside the perceptible world. /.../ while the state is a human
creation, human beings are the creation of God." (4) If we read Havel's two
statements as the two premises of a judgement, the conclusion that imposes
itself is none other than that the NATO forces were allowed to violate the
existing international law, since they acted as a direct instrument of the
"higher law" of God Himself - if this is not a clear-cut case of "religious
fundamentalism," than this term is devoid of any minimally consistent
meaning... There are, however, a series of features that disturb this
idyllic picture: the first thing that cannot but arouse suspicion is how,
in the NATO justification of the intervention, the reference to the
violation of human rights is always accompanied by the vague, but ominous
reference to "strategic interests." The story of NATO as the enforcer of
the respect for human rights is thus only one of the two coherent stories
that can be told about the recent bombings of Yugoslavia, and the problem
is that each story has its own rationale. The second story concerns the
other side of the much-praised new global ethical politics in which one is
allowed to violate the state sovereignty on behalf of the violation of
human rights. The first glimpse into this other side is provided by the way
the big Western media selectively elevate some local "warlord" or dictator
into the embodiment of Evil: Sadam Hussein, Milosevic, up to the
unfortunate (now forgotten) Aidid in Somalia - at every point, it is or was
"the community of civilized nations against...". And on what criteria does
this selection rely? Why Albanians in Serbia and not also Palestinians in
Israel, Kurds in Turkey, etc.etc? Here, of course, we enter the shady world
of international capital and its strategic interests.
	According to the "Project CENSORED," the top censored story of 1998 was
that of a half-secret international agreement in working, called MAI (the
Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The primary goal of MAI will be to
protect the foreign interests of multinational companies. The agreement
will basically undermine the sovereignty of nations by assigning power to
the corporations almost equal to those of the countries in which these
corporations are located. Governments will no longer be able to treat their
domestic firms more favorably than foreign firms. Furthermore, countries
that do not relax their environmental, land-use and health and labor
standards to meet the demands of foreign firms may be accused of acting
illegally. Corporations will be able to sue sovereign state if they will
impose too severe ecological or other standards - under NAFTA (which is the
main model for MAI), Ethyl Corporation is already suing Canada for banning
the use of its gasoline additive MMT. The greatest threat is, of course, to
the developing nations which will be pressured into depleting their natural
resources for commercial exploitation. Renato Ruggerio, director of the
World Trade Organization, the sponsor of MAI, is already hailing this
project, elaborated and discussed in a clandestine manner, with almost no
public discussion and media attention, as the "constitution for a new
global economy." (5) And, in the same way in which, already for Marx,
market relations provided the true foundation for the notion of individual
freedoms and rights, THIS is also the obverse of the much-praised new
global morality celebrated even by some neoliberal philosophers as
signalling the beginning of the new era in which international community
will establish and enforce some minimal code preventing sovereign state to
engage in crimes against humanity even within its own territory. And the
recent catastrophic economic situation in Russia, far from being the
heritage of old Socialist mismanagement, is a direct result of this global
capitalist logic embodied in MAI.   
	This other story also has its ominous military side. The ultimate lesson
of the last American military interventions, from the Operation Desert Fox
against Iraq at the end of 1998 to the present bombing of Yugoslavia, is
that they signal a new era in military history - battles in which the
attacking force operates under the constraint that it can sustain no
casualties. When the first stealth-fighter fell down in Serbia, the
emphasis of the American media was that there were no casualties - the
pilot was SAVED! (This concept of "war without casualties" was elaborated
by General Collin Powell.) And was not the counterpoint to it the almost
surreal way CNN reported on the war: not only was it presented as a TV
event, but the Iraqi themselves seem to treat it this way - during the day,
Bagdad was a "normal" city, with people going around and following their
business, as if war and bombardment was an irreal nightmarish spectre that
occurred only during the night and did not take place in effective reality?
	Let us recall what went on in the final American assault on the Iraqi
lines during the Gulf War: no photos, no reports, just rumours that tanks
with bulldozer like shields in front of them rolled over Iraqi trenches,
simply burying thousands of troops in earth and sand - what went on was
allegedly considered too cruel in its shere mechanical efficiency, too
different from the standard notion of a heroic face to face combat, so that
images would perturb too much the public opinion and a total censorship
black-out was stritly imposed. Here we have the two aspects joined
together: the new notion of war as a purely technological event, taking
place behind radar and computer screens, with no casualties, AND the
extreme physical cruelty too unbearable for the gaze of the media - not the
crippled children and raped women, victims of caricaturized local ethnic
"fundamentalist warlords," but thousands of nameless soldiers, victims of
nameless efficient technological warfare. When Jean Baudrillard made the
claim that the Gulf War did not take place, this statement could also be
read in the sense that such traumatic pictures that stand for the Real of
this war were totally censured...
	There is another, even more disturbing aspect to be discerned in this
virtualization of the war. The usual Serb complaint is that, instead of
confronting them face to face, as it befits brave soldiers, NATO are
cowardly bombing them from distant ships and planes. And, effectively, the
lesson here is that it is thoroughly false to claim that war is made less
traumatic if it is no longer experienced by the soldiers (or presented) as
an actual encounter with another human being to be killed, but as an
abstract activity in fron of a screen or behind a gun far from the
explosion, like guiding a missile on a war ship hundreds of miles away from
where it will hit its target. While such a procedure makes the soldier less
guilty, it is open to question if it effectively causes less anxiety - one
way to explain the strange fact that soldiers often fantasize about killing
the enemy in a face to face confrontation, looking him into the eyes before
stabbing him with a bayonet (in a kind of military version of the sexual
False Memory Syndrome, they even often "remember" such encounters when they
never took place). There is a long literary tradition of elevating such
face to face encounters as an authentic war experience (see the writings of
Ernst Juenger, who praised them in his memoirs of the trench attacks in
World War I). So what if the truly traumatic feature is NOT the awareness
that I am killing another human being (to be obliterated through the
"dehumanization" and "objectivization" of war into a technical procedure),
but, on the contrary, this very "objectivization," which then generates the
need to supplement it by the fantasies of authentic personal encounters
with the enemy? It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a
video game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the
face to face killing of another person; it is, on the opposite, this
fantasy of a face to face encounter with an enemy killed in a bloody
confrontation that we construct in order to escape the trauma of the
depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological apparatus.

The Ideology of Victimization

What all this means is that the impasse of the NATO intervention in
Yugoslavia is not simply the result of some particular failure of strategic
reasoning, but depends on the fundamental inconsistency of the very notion
of which this intervention relies. The problem with NATO acting in
Yugoslavia as an agent of "militaristic humanism" or even "militaristic
pacifism" (Ulrich Beck) is not that this term is an Orwellian oxymorom
(reminding us of "Peace is war" slogans from his 1984) which, as such,
directly belies the truth of its position (against this obvious
pacifist-liberal criticism, I rather think that it is the pacifist position
- "more bombs and killing never brings piece" - which is a fake, and that
one should heroically ENDORSE the paradox of militaristic pacifism); it is
neither that, obviously, the targets of bombardment are not chosen out of
pure moral consideration, but selectively, depending on unadmitted
geopolitic and economic strategic interests (the obvious Marxist-style
criticism). The problem is rather that this purely humanitarian-ethic
legitimization (again) thoroughly DEPOLITICIZES the military intervention,
changing it into an intervention into humanitarian catastrophy, grounded in
purely moral reasons, not an intervention into a well-defined political
struggle. In other words, the problem with "militaristic humanism/pacifism"
resides not in "militaristic," but in "humanism/pacifism": in the way the
"militaristic" intervention (into the social struggle) is presented as a
help to the victims of (ethnic, etc.) hatred and violence, justified
directly in depoliticized universal human rights. Consequently, what we
need is not a "true" (demilitarized) humanism/pacifism, but a
"militaristic" social intervention divested of the depoliticized
humanist/pacifist coating.    
	A report by Steven Erlanger on the suffering of the Kosovo Albanians in
The New York Times (6) renders perfectly this logic of victimization.
Already its title is tell-taling: "In One Kosovo Woman, An Emblem of
Suffering" - the subject to be protected (by the NATO intervention) is from
the outset identified as a powerless victim of circumstances, deprived of
all political identity, reduced to the bare suffering. Her basic stance is
that of excessive suffering, of traumatic experience that blurs all
differences: "She's seen too much, Meli said. She wants a rest. She wants
it to be over." As such, she is beyond any political recrimination - an
independent Kosovo is not on her agenda, she just wants the horror over:
"Does she favor an independent Kosovo? 'You know, I don't care if it's this
or that,' Meli said. 'I just want all this to end, and to feel good again,
to feel good in my place and my house with my friends and family.'" Her
support of the foreign (NATO) intervention is grounded in her wish for all
this horror to be over: "She wants a settlement that brings foreigners here
'with some force behind them.' She is indifferent about who the foreigners
are." Consequently, she sympathizes with all the sides in an all-embracing
humanist stance: "There is tragedy enough for everyone, she says. 'I feel
sorry for the Serbs who've been bombed and died, and I feel sorry for my
own people. But maybe now there will be a conclusion, a settlement for
good. That would be great." - Here we have the ideological construction of
the ideal subject-victim to whose aid NATO intervenes: not a political
subject with a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering,
sympathizing with all suffering sides in the conflict, caught in the
madness of a local clash that can only be pacified by the intervention of a
benevolent foreign power, a subject whose innermost desire is reduced to
the almost animal craving to "feel good again"... 

i n k e . a r n s __________________________ b e r l i n ___
49.(0)30.3136678 | |
mikro: | Syndicate:

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