calin dan on 31 Jan 2001 13:47:07 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Zizek on Lenin (fragment)

Dear Friends

Zizek will deliver on Lenin at a conference in Essen, February 2-4. here
excerptrs of a text disseminated by on The Philosophy Network list.



Slavoj Zizek: Lenin, Lukacs, Stalin; The Leninist Freedom.


Is this, however, the whole story? How does freedom effectively function in
liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton's presidency epitomizes the
Third Way of the today's (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological
blackmail, his healthcare reform program would nonetheless have amounted to
a kind of act, at least in today's conditions, since it would have been
based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big
State expenditure and administration - in a way, it would have 'done the
impossible.' No wonder, than, that it failed: its failure - perhaps the only
significant, although negative, event of Clinton's presidency - bears
witness to the material force of the ideological notion of 'free choice.'
That is to say, although the large majority of the so-called 'ordinary
people' were not properly acquainted with the reform program, the medical
lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defense lobby!) succeeded in imposing
on the public the fundamental idea that, with universal healthcare, free
choice (in matters concerning medicine) will be somehow threatened - against
this purely fictional reference to 'free choice', all enumeration of 'hard
facts' (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no
less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

We are here at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: the freedom of
choice, grounded in the notion of the 'psychological' subject endowed which
propensities s/he strives to realize. And this especially holds today, in
the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call 'risk society,' when the
ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurity caused by the
dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you
have to change job every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a
long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as the liberation from the
constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and
again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality?
You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan,
so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay?
Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better
life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety,
the postmodern or 'second modernity' ideologist will immediately accuse you
of being unable to assume full freedom, of the 'escape from freedom,' of the
immature sticking to old stable forms... Even better, when this is inscribed
into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant
with natural abilities and tendencies, then I, as if it were automatic,
interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the
result of me being thrown around by the market forces.

Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to reassert the
opposition of 'formal' and 'actual' freedom in a new, more precise, sense.
What we need today, in the era of the liberal hegemony, is a 'Leninist'
traité de la servitude libérale, a new version of la Boetie's Traité de la
servitude volontaire that would fully justify the apparent oxymoron 'liberal
totalitarianism.' In experimental psychology, Jean-Leon Beauvois took the
first step in this direction, with his precise exploration of the paradoxes
of conferring on the subject the freedom to choose. Repeated experiments
established the following paradox: if, after getting from two groups of
volunteers the agreement to participate in an experiment, one informs them
that the experiment will involve something unpleasant, against their ethics
even, and if, at this point, one reminds the first group that they have the
free choice to say no, and one says to the other group nothing, in both
groups, the same (very high) percentage will agree to continue their
participation in the experiment. What this means is that conferring formal
freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom will
do the same thing as those (implicitly) denied it. This, however, does not
mean that the reminder/bestowal of the freedom of choice does not make any
difference: those given the freedom to choose will not only tend to choose
the same as those denied it; on the top of it, they will tend to
'rationalize' their 'free' decision to continue to participate in the
experiment - unable to endure the so-called cognitive dissonance (their
awareness that they freely acted against their interests, propensities,
tastes or norms), they will tend to change their opinion about the act they
were asked to accomplish. Let us say that an individual is first asked to
participate in an experiment that concerns changing the eating habits in
order to fight against famine; then, after agreeing to do it, at the first
encounter in the laboratory, he will be asked to swallow a living worm, with
the explicit reminder that, if he finds this act repulsive, he can, of
course, say no, since he has full freedom to choose. In most cases, he will
do it, and then rationalize it by way of saying to himself something like:
'What I am asked to do is disgusting, but I am not a coward, I should
display some courage and self-control, otherwise scientists will perceive me
as a weak person who pulls out at the first minor obstacle! Furthermore, a
worm does have a lot of proteins and it could effectively be used to feed
the poor - who am I to hinder such an important experiment because of my
petty sensitivity? And, finally, maybe my disgust of worms is just a
prejudice, maybe a worm is not so bad - and would tasting it not be a new
and daring experience? What if it will enable me to discover an unexpected,
slightly perverse, dimension of myself that I was hitherto unaware of?'

Beauvois enumerates three modes of what brings people to accomplish such an
act which runs against their perceived propensities and/or interests:
authoritarian (the pure command 'You should do it because I say so, without
questioning it!', sustained by the reward if the subject does it and the
punishment if he does not do it), totalitarian (the reference to some higher
Cause or common Good which is larger than the subject's perceived interest:
'You should do it because, even if it is unpleasant, it serves our Nation,
Party, Humanity!'), and liberal (the reference to the subject's inner nature
itself: 'What is asked of you may appear repulsive, but look deep into
yourself and you will discover that it's in your true nature to do it, you
will find it attractive, you will become aware of new, unexpected,
dimensions of your personality!'). At this point, Beauvois should be
corrected: a direct authoritarianism is practically non-existent - even the
most oppressive regime publicly legitimizes its reign with the reference to
some Higher Good, and the fact that, ultimately, 'you have to obey because I
say so' reverberates only as its obscene supplement discernible between the
lines. It is rather the specificity of the standard authoritarianism to
refer to some higher Good ('whatever your inclinations are, you have to
follow my order for the sake of the higher Good!'), while totalitarianism,
like liberalism, interpellates the subject on behalf of his own good ('what
may appear to you as an external pressure, is really the expression of your
objective interests, of what you really want without being aware of it!').
The difference between the two resides elsewhere: 'totalitarianism' imposes
on the subject his/her own good, even if it is against his/her will - recall
King Charles' (in)famous statement: 'If any shall be so foolishly unnatural
as to oppose their king, their country and their own good, we will make them
happy, by God's blessing - even against their wills.'(Charles I to the Earl
of Essex, 6 August 1644) Here we already encounter the later Jacobin theme
of happiness as a political factor, as well as the Saint-Justian idea of
forcing people to be happy... Liberalism tries to avoid (or, rather, cover
up) this paradox by way of clinging to the end to the fiction of the
subject's immediate free self-perception ('I don't claim to know better than
you what you want - just look deep into yourself and decide freely what you

The reason for this fault in Beauvois's line of argumentation is that he
fails to recognize how the abyssal tautological authority ('It is so because
I say so!' of the Master) does not work only because of the sanctions
(punishment/reward) it implicitly or explicitly evokes. That is to say,
what, effectively, makes a subject freely choose what is imposed on him
against his interests and/or propensities? Here, the empirical inquiry into
'pathological' (in the Kantian sense of the term) motivations is not
sufficient: the enunciation of an injunction that imposes on its addressee a
symbolic engagement/commitment evinces an inherent force of its own, so that
what seduces us into obeying it is the very feature that may appear to be an
obstacle - the absence of a 'why.' Here, Lacan can be of some help: the
Lacanian 'Master-Signifier' designates precisely this hypnotic force of the
symbolic injunction which relies only on its own act of enunciation - it is
here that we encounter 'symbolic efficiency' at its purest. The three ways
of legitimizing the exercise of authority ('authoritarian,' 'totalitarian,'
'liberal') are nothing but the three ways to cover up, to blind us from the
seductive power of, the abyss of this empty call. In a way, liberalism is
here even the worst of the three, since it naturalizes the reasons for
obedience into the subject's internal psychological structure. So the
paradox is that 'liberal' subjects are in a way those least free: they
change the very opinion/perception of themselves, accepting what was imposed
on them as originating in their 'nature' - they are even no longer aware of
their subordination.

Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990,
when Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people
were thrown into a situation of the 'freedom of political choice' - however,
were they really at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of
new order they actually wanted? Is it not that they found themselves in the
exact situation of the subject-victim of a Beauvois experiment? They were
first told that they are entering the promised land of political freedom;
then, soon afterwards, they were informed that this freedom involves wild
privatization, the dismantling of the social security, etc. etc. - they
still have the freedom to choose, so if they want, they can step out; but,
no, our heroic Eastern Europeans didn't want to disappoint their Western
tutors, they stoically persisted in the choice they never made, convincing
themselves that they should behave as mature subjects who are aware that
freedom has its price... This is why the notion of the psychological subject
endowed with natural propensities, who has to realize its true Self and its
potentials, and who is, consequently, ultimately responsible for his failure
or success, is the key ingredient of liberal freedom. And here one should
take the risk of reintroducing the Leninist opposition of 'formal' and
'actual' freedom: in an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to break
this seductive power of the symbolic efficiency.

Did something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological
individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early
1930s? The Russian avantgarde art of the early 1920s (futurism,
constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even
endeavoured to reinvent a new industrial man - no longer the old man of
sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly
accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial
Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very 'ultra-orthodoxy,' i.e. in
its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of
man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc.,
emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough
depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare
of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to the
'Taylorization,' to the Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the
utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the
'behaviorist' approach to acting - no longer emphatic familiarization with
the person the actor is playing, but the ruthless bodily training aimed at
the cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform the
series of mechanized movements... This is what was unbearable to and in the
official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist 'socialist realism'
effectively was an attempt to reassert a 'Socialism with a human face,' i.e.
to reinscribe the process of industrialization into the constraints of the
traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts,
paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the
global Machine, but as warm passionate persons.

The obvious reproach that imposes itself here is, of course: is the basic
characteristic of today's 'postmodern' subject not the exact opposite of the
free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate,
namely the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of
a victim of circumstances beyond his control? Every contact with another
human being is experienced as a potential threat - if the other smokes, if
he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of
victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard
cases of sexual or racist harassment - recall the growing financial industry
of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the
financial claims of the holocaust victims and forced laborers in the Nazi
Germany, up to the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans
hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their
past slavery... This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim
involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter
with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject's precarious
imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the
inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today's predominant form
of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject
paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of

Calin Dan
Rozengracht 105/D4
NL-1016 LV Amsterdam
T: + 31 (0)20 770 1432
F: + 31 (0)20 623 7760

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