Inke Arns on Sun, 24 Oct 1999 20:11:33 +0200

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Syndicate: Zizek: Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism

[Hello, thanks to David for sending the URL -- here's the text....
greetings, inke]

Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism

Slavoj Zizek

Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane. Bloomsbury,
532 pp., £25, 6 September, 0 7475 4458 1

Vaclav Havel's life would seem to be an unrivalled success story: the
Philosopher-King, a man who combines political power with a global moral
authority comparable only to that of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Nelson
Mandela. And just as at the end of a fairy tale when the hero is rewarded
for all his suffering by marrying the princess, he is married to a
beautiful movie actress. Why, then, has John Keane chosen as the subtitle
of his biography 'A Political Tragedy in Six Acts'?

In the Seventies, when Havel was still a relatively unknown Czech dissident
writer, Keane played a crucial role in making him known in the West: he
organised the publication of Havel's political texts and became a friend.
He also did much to resuscitate Havel's notion of 'civil society' as the
site of resistance to Late Socialist regimes. Despite this personal
connection, Keane's book is far from hagiography - he gives us the 'real
Havel' with all his weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. He divides his Life into
six stages: the early student years under the Stalinist regime; the
playwright and essayist of the Sixties; the defeat of the last great
attempt at 'socialism with a human face' in the Prague Spring of 1968; the
years of dissidence and arrest which culminated in Havel's emergence as the
leading spokesman for Charter 77; the Velvet Revolution; and finally the

Along the way, we get an abundance of 'endearing foibles', which far from
tarnishing Havel's heroic image, seem somehow to make his achievement all
the more palpable. His parents were rich 'cultural capitalists', owners of
the famous Barrandov cinema studios ('bourgeois origins'). He has always
had unreliable habits (a fondness for eau de toilette, sleeping late,
listening to rock music) and is known for his promiscuity, notwithstanding
the celebrated prison letters to his working-class wife Olga. (When he was
released from jail in 1977, he spent his first weeks of freedom with a
mistress.) In the Eighties, he was ruthless in establishing himself as
Czechoslovakia's most important dissident - when a potential rival emerged,
doubtful rumours would start to circulate about the rival's links with the
secret police. As President he uses a child's scooter to zoom along the
corridors of the huge Presidential palace.

The source of Havel's tragedy, however, is not the tension between the
public figure and the 'real person', not even his gradual loss of charisma
in recent years. Such things characterise every successful political career
(with the exception of those touched by the grace of premature demise).
Keane writes that Havel's life resembles a 'classical political tragedy'
because it has been 'clamped by moments of . . . triumph spoiled by
defeat', and notes that 'most of the citizens in President Havel's republic
think less of him than they did a year ago.' The crucial issue, however, is
the tension between his two public images: that of heroic dissident who, in
the oppressive and cynical universe of Late Socialism, practised and wrote
about 'living in truth', and that of Post-Modern President who (not unlike
Al Gore) indulges in New Age ruminations that aim to legitimise Nato
military interventions.

How do we get from the lone, fragile dissident with a crumpled jacket and
uncompromising ethics, who opposes the all-mighty totalitarian power, to
the President who babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the
Cartesian paradigm, reminds us that human rights are conferred on us by the
Creator, and is applauded in the US Congress for his defence of Western
values? Is this depressing spectacle the necessary outcome, the 'truth', of
Havel the heroic dissident? To put it in Hegel's terms: how does the
ethically impeccable 'noble consciousness' imperceptibly pass into the
servile 'base consciousness'? Of course, for a 'Post-Modern' Third Way
democrat immersed in New Age ideology, there is no tension: Havel is simply
following his destiny, and is deserving of praise for not shirking
political power. But there is no escape from the conclusion that his life
has descended from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Rarely has one individual played so many different parts. The cocky young
student in the early Fifties, member of a closed circle which holds
passionate political discussions and somehow survives the worst years of
the Stalinist terror. The Modernist playwright and critical essayist
struggling to assert himself in the mild thaw of the late Fifties and
Sixties. The first encounter with History - in the Prague Spring - which is
also Havel's first big disappointment. The long ordeal of the Seventies and
most of the Eighties, when he is transformed from a critical playwright
into a key political figure. The miracle of the Velvet Revolution, with
Havel emerging as a skilful politician negotiating the transfer of power
and ending up as President. Finally, there is Havel in the Nineties, the
man who presided over the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and who is now
the proponent of the full integration of the Czech Republic into Western
economic and military structures. Havel himself has been shocked by the
swiftness of the transformation - a TV camera famously caught his look of
disbelief as he sat down to his first official dinner as President.

Keane highlights the limitations of Havel's political project, and the
Havel he describes is sometimes remarkably naive, as when, in January 1990,
he greeted Chancellor Kohl with the words: 'Why don't we work together to
dissolve all political parties? Why don't we set up just one big party, the
Party of Europe?' There is a nice symmetry in the two Vaclavs who have
dominated Czech politics in the past decade: the charismatic
Philosopher-King, the head of a democratic monarchy, finding an appropriate
double in Vaclav Klaus, his Prime Minister, the cold technocratic advocate
of full market liberalism who dismisses any talk of solidarity and community.

In 1974, Paul Theroux visited Vietnam, after the peace agreement and the
withdrawal of the US Army, but before the Communist takeover. He writes
about it in The Great Railway Bazaar. A couple of hundred US soldiers were
still there - deserters, officially and legally non-existent, living in
slum shacks with their Vietnamese wives, earning a living by smuggling or
other crimes. In Theroux's hands, these individuals become representative
of Vietnam's place in global power politics. From them, we gradually
unravel the complex totality of Vietnamese society. When Keane is at his
best, he displays the same ability to extract from small details the global
context of what was going on in Czechoslovakia. The weakest passages in the
book are those which attempt to deal more conceptually with the nature of
'totalitarian' regimes or the social implications of modern technology.
Instead of an account of the inner antagonisms of Communist regimes, we get
the standard liberal clichés about 'totalitarian control'.

Towards the end of his book, Keane touches on the old idea of the 'King's
Two Bodies' and points to the equivalent importance of the Leader's body in
Communist regimes. A 'pre-modern' political order, he writes, relies on
having such sacred bodies, while the democratic system, in which the place
of power is supposedly empty, is open to competitive struggle. But this
contrast fails to grasp the intricacies of 'totalitarianism'. It is not
that Keane is too directly anti-Communist, but that his liberal-democratic
stance prevents him from seeing the horrifying paradox of the 'Stalinist

Lenin's first major stroke, which he suffered in May 1922, left his right
side virtually paralysed and for a while deprived him of speech. He
realised that his active political life was over and asked Stalin for some
poison so that he could kill himself; Stalin took the matter to the
Politburo, which voted against Lenin's wish. Lenin assumed that because he
was no longer of any use to the revolutionary struggle, death was the only
option - 'calmly enjoying old age' was out of the question. The idea of his
funeral as a great state event he found repulsive. This was not modesty: he
was simply indifferent to the fate of his body, regarding it as an
instrument to be ruthlessly exploited and discarded when no longer useful.

With Stalinism, however, the body of the Leader became 'objectively
beautiful'. In 'On the Problem of the Beautiful in Soviet Art', an essay
from 1950, the Soviet critic Nedoshivin wrote: 'Amid all the beautiful
material of life, the first place should be occupied by images of our great
leaders . . . The sublime beauty of the leaders . . . is the basis for the
coinciding of the "beautiful" and the "true" in the art of socialist
realism.' This has nothing to do with the Leader's physical attributes and
everything to do with abstract ideals. The Leader in fact is like the Lady
in courtly love poetry - cold, distanced, inhuman. Both the Leninist and
the Stalinist Leader are thoroughly alienated, but in opposite ways: the
Leninist Leader displays radical self-instrumentalisation on behalf of the
Revolution, while in the case of the Stalinist Leader, the 'real person' is
treated as an appendix to the fetishised and celebrated public image. No
wonder the official photos of the Stalinist era were so often retouched,
and with a clumsiness so obvious it almost seemed intentional. It signalled
that the 'real person' with all his idiosyncrasies had been replaced by a
wooden effigy. One rumour circulating about Kim Il Yong is that he actually
died in a car crash a couple of years ago and a double has taken his place
for rare public appearances, so that the crowds can catch a glimpse of the
object of their worship. This is the ultimate confirmation that the 'real
personality' of the Stalinist leader is thoroughly irrelevant. Havel of
course is the inverse of that: while the Stalinist Leader is reduced to a
ritualistically praised effigy, Havel's charisma is that of a 'real
person'. The paradox is that a genuine 'cult of personality' can thrive
only in a democracy.

Havel's essay on 'The Power of the Powerless', written in 1978, was
perceptive in explaining how Late Socialism operated at the domestic,
day-to-day level. What was important was not that the people deep down
believed in the ruling ideology, but that they followed the external
rituals and practices by means of which this ideology acquired material
existence. Havel's example is the greengrocer, a modest man profoundly
indifferent to official ideology. He just mechanically follows the rules:
on state holidays, he decorates the window of his shop with official
slogans such as 'Long Live Socialism!' When there are mass gatherings he
takes part affectlessly. Although he privately complains about the
corruption and incompetence of 'those in power', he takes comfort in pieces
of folk wisdom ('power corrupts' etc), which enable him to legitimise his
stance in his own eyes and to retain a false appearance of dignity. When
someone tries to engage him in dissident activity, he protests: 'Who are
you to get me mixed up in things which are bound to be used against my
children? Is it really up to me to set the world to rights?'

Havel saw that if there was a 'psychological' mechanism at work in
Communist ideology, it was not to do with belief, but rather with shared
guilt: in the 'normalisation' that followed the Soviet intervention of
1968, the Czech regime made sure that, in one way or another, the majority
of people were somehow morally discredited, compelled to violate their own
moral standards. When an individual was blackmailed into signing a petition
against a dissident (Havel, for example), he knew that he was lying and
taking part in a campaign against an honest man, and it was precisely this
ethical betrayal that rendered him the ideal Communist subject. The regime
relied on and actively condoned the moral bankruptcy of its subjects.
Havel's concept of 'living in truth' involved no metaphysics: it simply
designated the act of suspending one's participation, of breaking out of
the vicious cycle of 'objective guilt'. He blocked off all the false
escape-routes, including seeking refuge in the 'small pleasures of everyday
life'. Such acts of indifference - making fun in private of official
rituals, for instance - were, he said, the very means by which the official
ideology was reproduced.

A 'sincere' believer in official Late Socialist ideology was, therefore,
potentially much more dangerous to the regime than a cynic. Consider two
examples from countries other than Czechoslovakia. First, the emblematic
figures of Evald Iljenkov (1924-79) and Aleksei Losev (1893-1988), the two
prototypes of Russian philosophy under socialism. Losev was the author of
the last book published in the USSR (in 1929) which openly rejected Marxism
(he called dialectical materialism 'obvious nonsense'). After a short
prison term, he was allowed to pursue his academic career and, during World
War Two, even started lecturing again - his formula for survival was to
withdraw into the history of aesthetics. Under the guise of interpreting
past thinkers, especially Plotinus and other Neoplatonists, he was able to
smuggle in his own spiritualist beliefs, while, in the introductions to his
books, paying lip service to the official ideology with a quote or two from
Khrushchev or Brezhnev. In this way, he survived all the vicissitudes of
Communism and was hailed after 1989 as the representative of an authentic
Russian spiritual heritage. Iljenkov, a superb dialectician and expert on
Hegel, was, on the other hand, a sincere Marxist-Leninist. He wrote lively,
individual prose and endeavoured to engage with Marxism as a serious
philosophy rather than as a set of official maxims. This didn't go down
well: he was excommunicated and committed suicide.

The second example is Yugoslav 'self-management socialism' and the
fundamental paradox contained within it. Tito's official ideology
continually exhorted people to take control of their lives outside of the
structures of Party and State; the authorised media criticised personal
indifference and the escape into privacy. However, it was precisely an
authentic, self-managed articulation and organisation of common interests
which the regime feared most. Between the lines of its propaganda, the
Government suggested that its official solicitations were not to be taken
too literally, that a cynical attitude towards its ideology was what was
actually wanted. The greatest catastrophe for the regime would have been
for its own ideology to be taken seriously and acted on by its subjects.

Havel was especially penetrating in his denunciation of the inherent
hypocrisy of Western Marxism and of the 'socialist opposition' in Communist
countries. Consider the almost total absence of a theoretical confrontation
with Stalinism in the works of the Frankfurt School, in contrast to its
permanent obsession with Fascism. The standard excuse was that the
Frankfurt School critics did not want to oppose Communism too openly, for
fear that they would be playing into the hands of Cold Warriors in the
Western countries where they lived. But this is obviously not sufficient:
had they been cornered and made to say where they stood in the Cold War,
they would have chosen Western liberal democracy (as Max Horkheimer
explicitly did in some of his late writings). 'Stalinism' was a traumatic
topic on which the Frankfurt School had to remain silent - silence was the
only way for its members to retain their underlying solidarity with Western
liberal democracy, without losing their mask of radical leftism.
Their ultimate alignment with the Western system is equivalent to the
stance of the 'democratic socialist opposition' in the German Democratic
Republic. Although members of the opposition criticised Communist Party
rule, they endorsed the basic premise of the regime: that the Federal
Republic of Germany was a neo-Nazi state, the direct inheritor of the Nazi
regime, and that, therefore, the existence of the GDR as the anti-Fascist
bulwark had to be protected at any cost. When the socialist system was
really threatened, the opposition publicly supported it (take Brecht's
position on the East Berlin workers' demonstrations in 1953, or Christa
Wolf's on the Prague Spring). The opposition retained its belief in the
inherent reformability of the system, but argued that true democratic
reform would take time. A rapid disintegration of socialism would, it
thought, only return Germany to Fascism and strangle the utopia of the
'Other Germany', which, in spite of all its horrors and failures, the GDR

This is why opposition intellectuals so deeply distrusted 'the people'. In
1989, they opposed free elections, well aware that, if given the chance,
the majority would choose capitalist consumerism. Free elections, Heiner
Mueller said, had brought Hitler to power. Many Western social democrats
played the same game, feeling much closer to 'reform-minded' Communists
than to dissidents - the latter somehow embarrassed them as an obstacle to
the process of detente. It was clear to Havel that Soviet intervention in
1968 had preserved the Western myth of the Prague Spring: the utopian
notion that, were the Czechs to be left alone, they would give birth to an
authentic alternative to both Real Socialism and Real Capitalism. In fact,
had the Warsaw Pact forces not intervened in August 1968, either the Czech
Communist leadership would have had to impose restraint, and Czechoslovakia
would have remained a fully Communist country, or it would have turned into
a 'normal' Western capitalist society (though perhaps one with a
Scandinavian social-democratic flavour).

Havel also discerned the fraudulence of what I would call the 'interpassive
socialism' of the Western academic Left. These leftists aren't interested
in activity - merely in 'authentic' experience. They allow themselves to
pursue their well-paid academic careers in the West, while using the
idealised Other (Cuba, Nicaragua, Tito's Yugoslavia) as the stuff of their
ideological dreams: they dream through the Other, but turn their backs on
it if it disturbs their complacency by abandoning socialism and opting for
liberal capitalism. What is of special interest here is the lack of
understanding between the Western Left and dissidents such as Havel. In the
eyes of the Western Left, Eastern dissidents were too naive in their belief
in liberal democracy - in rejecting socialism, they threw out the baby with
the bath water. In the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played
patronising games with them, disavowing the true harshness of
totalitarianism. The idea that the dissidents were somehow guilty for not
seizing the unique opportunity provided by the disintegration of socialism
to invent an authentic alternative to capitalism was pure hypocrisy.

In dissecting Late Socialism, Havel was always aware that Western liberal
democracy was far from meeting the ideals of authentic community and
'living in truth' on behalf of which he and other dissidents opposed
Communism. He was faced, then, with the problem of combining a rejection of
'totalitarianism' with the need to offer critical insight into Western
democracy. His solution was to follow Heidegger and to see in the
technological hubris of capitalism, its mad dance of self-enhancing
productivity, the expression of a more fundamental
transcendental-ontological principle - 'will to power', 'instrumental
reason' - equally evident in the Communist attempt to overcome capitalism.
This was the argument of Adorno's and Horkheimer's Dialectic of
Enlightenment, which first engineered the fateful shift from concrete
socio-political analysis to philosophico-anthropological generalisation, by
means of which 'instrumental reason' is no longer grounded in concrete
capitalist social relations, but is instead posited as their
quasi-transcendental 'foundation'. The moment that Havel endorsed
Heidegger's recourse to quasi-anthropological or philosophical principle,
Stalinism lost its specificity, its specific political dynamic, and turned
into just another example of this principle (as exemplified by Heidegger's
remark, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, that, in the long run, Russian
Communism and Americanism were 'metaphysically one and the same').

Keane tries to save Havel from this predicament by emphasising the
ambiguous nature of his intellectual debt to Heidegger. Like Heidegger,
Havel conceived of Communism as a thoroughly modern regime, an inflated
caricature of modern life, with many tendencies shared by Western society -
technological hubris and the crushing of human individuality attendant on
it. However, in contrast to Heidegger, who excluded any active resistance
to the social-technological framework ('only God can save us,' as he put it
in an interview, published after his death), Havel put faith in a challenge
'from below' - in the independent life of 'civil society' outside the frame
of state power. The 'power of the powerless', he argued, resides in the
self-organisation of civil society that defies the 'instrumental reason'
embodied in the state and the technological apparatuses of control and

I find the idea of civil society doubly problematic. First, the opposition
between state and civil society works against as well as for liberty and
democracy. For example, in the United States, the Moral Majority presents
itself (and is effectively organised as) the resistance of local civil
society to the regulatory interventions of the liberal state - the recent
exclusion of Darwinism from the school curriculum in Kansas is in this
sense exemplary. So while in the specific case of Late Socialism the idea
of civil society refers to the opening up of a space of resistance to
'totalitarian' power, there is no essential reason why it cannot provide
space for all the politico-ideological antagonisms that plagued Communism,
including nationalism and opposition movements of an anti-democratic
nature. These are authentic expressions of civil society - civil society
designates the terrain of open struggle, the terrain in which antagonisms
can articulate themselves, without any guarantee that the 'progressive'
side will win.

Second, civil society as Havel conceived it is not, in fact, a development
of Heidegger's thinking. The essence of modern technology for Heidegger was
not a set of institutions, practices and ideological attitudes that can be
opposed, but the very ontological horizon that determines how we experience
Being today, how reality discloses itself to us. For that reason, Heidegger
would have found the concept of 'the power of the powerless' suspect,
caught in the logic of the Will to Power that it endeavours to denounce.

Havel's understanding that 'living in truth' could not be achieved by
capitalism, combined with his crucial failure to understand the origins of
his own critical impulse, has pushed him towards New Ageism. Although the
Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and
misery, at the same time they opened up a space for utopian expectations
which, among other things, facilitated the failure of Communism itself.
What anti-Communist dissidents such as Havel overlook, then, is that the
very space from which they criticised and denounced terror and misery was
opened and sustained by Communism's attempt to escape the logic of
capitalism. This explains Havel's continuing insistence that capitalism in
its traditional, brutal form cannot meet the high expectations of his
anti-Communist struggle - the need for authentic human solidarity etc. This
is, in turn, why Václav Klaus, Havel's pragmatic double, has dismissed
Havel as a 'socialist'.

Even the most 'totalitarian' Stalinist ideology is radically ambiguous.
While the universe of Stalinist politics was undoubtedly one of hypocrisy
and arbitrary terror, in the late Thirties the great Soviet films (say, the
Gorky trilogy) epitomised authentic solidarity for audiences across Europe.
In one memorable film about the Civil War, a mother with a young son is
exposed as a counter-revolutionary spy. A group of Bolsheviks put her on
trial and at the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik demands that
the sentence be severe, but just. After she confesses her crime, the court
(an informal collective of Bolshevik soldiers) rules that she was seduced
into enemy activity by her difficult social circumstances; she is therefore
sentenced to be fully integrated into the new socialist collective, to be
taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son,
who is unwell, is to be given proper medical care. The surprised woman
bursts out crying, unable to understand the court's benevolence, and the
old Bolshevik nods: 'Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!' No matter
how manipulative such scenes were, no matter how far they were from the
reality of 'revolutionary justice', they nonetheless bore witness to a new
sense of justice; and as such, gave viewers new ethical standards against
which reality could be measured.

Havel seems now to be blind to the fact that his own opposition to
Communism was rendered possible by the utopian dimension generated and
sustained by Communist regimes. So we get the tragi-comic indignity which
is his recent essay in the New York Review of Books on 'Kosovo and the End
of the Nation-State'. In it, he tries to say that the Nato bombing of
Yugoslavia placed human rights above the rights of the state, that the Nato
alliance's attack on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without a direct
mandate from the UN was not an irresponsible act of aggression, or of
disrespect for international law. It was, on the contrary, according to
Havel, prompted by 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
treaties dictate.

Havel further invokes 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.' He seems to be saying that Nato
forces were allowed to violate international law because they acted as
direct instruments of the 'higher law' of God - a clear-cut case of
religious fundamentalism. Havel's statement is a good example of what
Ulrich Beck, in an article in Die Süddeutsche Zeitung last April, called
'militaristic humanism' or even 'militaristic pacifism'. The problem with
this approach is not that it is inherently contradictory, an Orwellian
'peace is war.' Nor is the Nato intervention best met with the
pacifist-liberal argument that 'more bombs and killing never bring peace'
(it goes without saying that this is wrong). It is not even enough to point
out, as a Marxist would, that the targets of bombardment weren't chosen
with moral considerations in mind, but were determined by geopolitical and
economic interests. The main problem with Havel's argument is that
intervention is presented as having been undertaken for the sake of the
victims of hatred and violence - that is, justified by a depoliticised
appeal to universal human rights.

A report by Steven Erlanger on the suffering of the Kosovo Albanians in a
May edition of the New York Times was entitled 'In One Kosovo Woman, an
Emblem of Suffering'. This woman is from the outset identified as a
powerless victim of circumstance, deprived of political identity, reduced
to bare suffering. As such, she is beyond political recrimination - an
independent Kosovo is not on her agenda, she just wants the horror over:

Does she favour 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 for the Nato intervention is grounded in her wish for the
horror to end:

She wants a settlement that brings foreigners here 'with some force behind
them'. She is indifferent as to who the foreigners are.

She sympathises with all sides:

'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

Meli is the ideal subject-victim to whose aid Nato comes running: not a
political subject with a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering,
someone who sympathises with all suffering sides in the conflict, caught in
the madness of a local clash that can only be stopped by the intervention
of a benevolent foreign power.

The ultimate paradox of the Nato bombing of Serbia is not the one that was
regularly rehearsed by Western opponents of the war: that by an attempt to
stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Nato triggered cleansing on a larger scale
and created the very humanitarian catastrophe it wanted to prevent. A
deeper paradox involves the ideology of victimisation: when Nato intervened
to protect Kosovar victims, it ensured at that same time that they would
remain victims, inhabitants of a devastated country with a passive
population - they were not encouraged to become an active politico-military
force capable of defending itself. Here we have the basic paradox of
victimisation: the Other to be protected is good insofar as it remains a
victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar
mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their
suffering); the moment it no longer behaves as a victim, but wants to
strike back on its own, it all of a sudden magically turns into a
terrorist, fundamentalist, drug-trafficking Other. This ideology of global
victimisation, the identification of the human subject as 'something that
can be hurt', is the perfect fit for today's global capitalism, though most
of the time it remains invisible to the public eye.

Havel praised the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia as the first case of a
military intervention in a country with full sovereign power, undertaken
not out of any specific economico-strategic interest but because that
country was violating the elementary human rights of an ethnic group. To
understand the falseness of this, compare the new moralism with the great
emancipatory movements inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. These
were movements directed not against a specific group of people, but against
concrete (racist, colonialist) institutionalised practices; they involved a
positive, all-inclusive stance that, far from excluding the 'enemy'
(whites, English colonisers), made an appeal to its moral sense and asked
it to do something that would restore its own moral dignity. The
predominant form of today's 'politically correct' moralism, on the other
hand, is that of Nietzschean ressentiment and envy: it is the fake gesture
of disavowed politics, the assuming of a 'moral', depoliticised position in
order to make a stronger political case. This is a perverted version of
Havel's 'power of the powerless': powerlessness can be manipulated as a
stratagem in order to gain more power, in exactly the same way that today,
in order for one's voice to gain authority, one has to legitimise oneself
as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.

The ultimate cause of this moralistic depoliticisation is the retreat of
the Marxist historico-political project. A couple of decades ago, people
were still discussing the political future of humanity - will capitalism
prevail or will it be supplanted by Communism or another form of
'totalitarianism'? - while silently accepting that, somehow, social life
would continue. Today, we can easily imagine the extinction of the human
race, but it is impossible to imagine a radical change of the social system
- even if life on earth disappears, capitalism will somehow remain intact.
In this situation, disappointed Leftists, who are convinced that radical
change of the existing liberal-democratic capitalist system is no longer
possible, but who are unable to renounce their passionate attachment to
global change, invest their excess of political energy in an abstract and
excessively rigid moralising stance.

At a recent meeting of the leaders of the Western powers dedicated to the
'Third Way', the Italian Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema said that one
should not be afraid of the word 'socialism'. Clinton and, following him,
Blair and Schroeder, are supposed to have burst out laughing. This says
much about the Third Way, which is 'problematic' not least because it
exposes the absence of a Second Way. The idea of a Third Way emerged at the
very moment when, at least in the West, all other alternatives, from
old-style conservativism to radical social democracy, crumbled in the face
of the triumphant onslaught of global capitalism and its notion of liberal
democracy. The true message of the notion of the Third Way is that there is
no Second Way, no alternative to global capitalism, so that, in a kind of
mocking pseudo-Hegelian negation of negation, the Third Way brings us back
to the first and only way. Global capitalism with a human face.

This, then, is Havel's tragedy: his authentic ethical stance has become a
moralising idiom cynically appropriated by the knaves of capitalism. His
heroic insistence on doing the impossible (opposing the seemingly
invincible Communist regime) has ended up serving those who 'realistically'
argue that any real change in today's world is impossible. This reversal is
not a betrayal of his original ethical stance, but is inherent in it. The
ultimate lesson of Havel's tragedy is thus a cruel, but inexorable one: the
direct ethical foundation of politics sooner or later turns into its own
comic caricature, adopting the very cynicism it originally opposed.

Slavoj Zizek's The Ticklish Subject is published by Verso. He is senior
researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana. 

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