The Obscene Underside of Liberal Democracy: Slavoj Zizek. Natasa Kovacevic

Written as a direct response to the events and debates surrounding 9/11, Slavoj Zizeks Welcome to the Desert of the Real! warns that any reaction to WTC attacks will be disastrous as long as it continues to be imprisoned within the logic of liberal democracy and/or nationalist fundamentalism. Both political approaches, Zizek pontificates, untiringly invoking Lacanian psychoanalysis, effectively obscure the Real of global social antagonism: drastic inequalities created by multinational capitalism. What Zizek wants to redeem in Welcome to the Desert of the Real! is a viable Leftist politics which alone can expose the obscene Truth of multinational capitalism and render irrelevant the “war on terrorism.” A radical socialist approach confronts the Real of social conflict instead of displacing it onto biopolitical concerns, such as race, gender, religion, or ethnicity. In that sense, post-9/11 attitudes ranging from multicultural tolerance to criticism of otherness are missing the point: the usual dirges about the “clash of civilizations,” rhetorical reification of Christian-Islamic (as well as Judeo-Islamic enmities), and, finally, popular attempts to “understand the truth” about Islam jointly block any meaningful political action.

Zizeks ire is understandable, and certainly, prophetic if we consider the current global political situation. The intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still largely discussed in terms of the “clash of civilizations,” obscuring any legitimate political concerns that either Palestinians or Israelis may have. US and British inauguration of Saddam & sons as the source of all antagonism (i.e. terrorism of “fundamentalist” Islam against Western “democracy”) both signals a symbolic deposition of Osama and Al Qaeda as significant targets and foreshadows future interchangeable arch-villains to be located, most probably, in Iran, Syria, and/or North Korea. Both official Israel and the United States thus continue on what Zizek calls “the way of the superego”: the underlying sameness of global capitalist expansion is rephrased as a basic conflict between respect for biological and cultural diversity and human rights, on the one hand, and fundamentalist, authoritarian disregard of such rights, on the other (142). While Zizek believes that neither of the two options is what it is cracked up to be – Western “democracy” is also fundamentalist, whereas Muslim “fundamentalism” is largely a defense mechanism against Western capital – he nevertheless concludes that the essential problem of todays politics is that “the line of division is no longer between Right and Left, but between global field of `moderate post-politics and extreme Right repoliticization” (135).

So what is the solution? In a characteristic fashion, Zizek reclaims the need for extreme, radical, antagonistic politics, but one with a Leftist twist. In earlier books, such as Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? and On Belief, Zizek has qualified liberal democracy as an anemic political ideology which dabbles in rhetorical constructs such as “freedom” and “human rights,” all of which serve to mask the control the system has achieved over its apologists, resulting in their deeper unfreedom. While these books focus on ways in which this rhetoric helped liberal democracy sell itself as an ideology of freedom to post-Communist Eastern Europe, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! demonstrates how liberal democracy post-9/11 posits itself as a master-signifier with respect to any radical political alternative, attaching to it the negative signifier “fundamentalism.” The first essay, “Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance,” attempts to deconstruct this dialectics by claiming that the suicidal – “fundamentalist,” “terrorist” – attack on the WTC was, paradoxically, more radically alive, more of a confrontation with the Real of global capitalism than official US digestion of this event ever was. Countering Alain Badious description of the 20th century as one with the “passion for the Real,” Zizek provocatively proposes that this century is fraught with instances of avoidance of confrontation with the Real of social antagonism. In the same way that the Holocaust was merely a semblance of the Real of social problems in Nazi Germany and flowery Communist rhetoric concealed “real” existing social(ist) inequalities, the Truth of the WTC attacks – in Lacanian terms, the obscene underside of the law of global capitalism – was hidden behind liberal democracys “war on terrorism.” US response, Zizek notes, has been not to bravely wade through the “desert of the Real” but to withdraw from it even further, entering “warfare without warfare,” “reality itself deprived of its substance, of the hard resistant kernel of the Real” (11). Symptomatically, the disaster itself can be experienced as nothing else but Hollywoodized spectacular effects, as another semblance: “precisely because it is real, that is, on account of its traumatic/excessive character, we are unable to integrate it into (what we experience as) our reality, and are therefore compelled to experience it as a nightmarish apparition” (19).

In the second essay in this book, “Reappropriations: The Lesson of Mullah Omar,” Zizek recapitulates Omars question to the American people after 9/11 – “Cant you think for yourselves?” – as a simple plea to think beyond the binary of democracy and fundamentalism (57). Zizek here digs up the traumatic, Real kernel lurking behind the “war on terrorism”: defining the conflict as that between democracy and fundamentalism, as a clash of civilizations, disguises the internal clashes within every civilization as well as conflicts between economic and geopolitical interests. Thus, instead of reducing the conflict to religious or cultural difference, instead of either chanting clichés about giving peace a chance or raising battle cries against the Arab world, we need to look at how the dynamics of global capitalism contributed to the WTC collapse. In other words, the only reasonable political initiative would be to confront the Real integrally built into American comfort, into its over-mourned “holiday from history.” But, Zizek complains, US policy has not been transformed by its recent trauma; thus, saying that “nothing will be the same” after 9/11 is hypocritical because current US operations in the Middle East indicate that America is merely strengthening old ideological coordinates in a battle against anti-globalizing processes.

In the third essay, “Happiness after 9/11,” Zizek launches a familiar diatribe against his favorite liberal democratic staple, multicultural tolerance. Zizek is not against multicultural tolerance as a theoretical concept; rather, he disapproves of its particular American variation because it respects “horizontal differences” such as religion, race, or cultural habits but disregards “vertical differences” of political conviction and social class (65). In support of his claim, Zizek cites the example of Guantanamo Bay prisoners who are allowed to act out religious convictions, etc., but are in return completely depoliticized – they do not even have the status of POWs. Because this multicultural, essentially post-political approach has achieved hegemonic currency, the only acceptable line of resistance today is that of supposedly marginalized voices to a mysterious capital power, manifested in the fight for the acceptance of such voices. As this resistance itself now becomes the hegemonic norm, the root (Real) of global capitalist antagonism is pushed into the background. Zizek proposes that we instead summon the courage to reject liberal democracy as a master-signifier and a main political fetish, and explore other political options. Instead of advocating multicultural tolerance that in effect sustains the power of capital rather than challenging it, we should seek “actual universality” which is “not the never won neutral space of translation from one particular culture to another, but, rather, the violent experience of how, across the cultural divide, we share the same antagonism” (66).

The fourth essay, “From Homo Sucker to Homo Sacer,” is possibly the most intriguing and intellectually original in the collection. Zizek revises and, with respect to the contemporary situation, updates Agambens coinage to denote not only a human being outside a political community, but also any human being stripped of political identity through liberal democratic biopolitics of “human rights.” Thus, Homo sacer is both a terrorist who violates the rules of universal “human rights” and a victim of such violation; the former is typically treated as an unlawful combatant disturbing the global imperial order, whereas the latter is on the receiving end of humanitarian aid, a victim deemed to have no political agency of his/her own. Homo sacer today, Zizek claims, is “the one who is deprived of his or her full humanity, being taken care of in a very patronizing way” (91). Since there are no longer civil rights, only human rights in the name of which all can be crushed, Homo sacer, a human being without full humanity, can also be murdered with impunity. We have in fact seen this method in full force in US/NATO military interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and most recently, Iraq: while the extermination of “terrorists” is justified because they supposedly threaten global order, the concomitant murdering of innocent civilians is anesthetized as “collateral damage.” Since neither group is granted legitimate political identity, their US patrons are expected to take over the “restructuring” of the region once global order is precariously restored.

There is no way out with post-political liberal democracy, Zizek claims: its ultimate terrain of politics has become “mere life,” its Law replaced by administrative biopolitical measures. Its obscene underside manifests itself in the treatment of such brutal measures as bombardment or war torture as a matter of mere legislation, of democratic voting. In order to reject liberal democracy, one should transcend “mere life,” a compendium of private – sexual, professional, leisure – choices that today replace ideological causes. Zizek here indulges in a Benjaminian, Messianic vision of revolutionary lifestyle, arguing “against the radical pursuit of secularization, worldly life” that transforms it into “an abstract, anemic process” (88). Instead, we can be truly alive only if we “commit ourselves to excessive intensity” that places us beyond the happiness of “mere life,” or, as Zizek seems to be hinting, beyond the pleasure principle (88). This conclusion in fact resonates with his earlier statement that the “excessive intensity” of a suicide bombing is, in a radical sense, more alive, more in touch with the Real, than the virtual war conducted by US soldiers.

Zizeks predilection for a Messianic, utopian vision of life is certainly influenced by his long-time fascination with the teachings of St. Paul, which he believes are the only viable Christian legacy for our era. Zizeks insights about Paulinian agape, or “love of the neighbor,” which shaped his earlier book The Fragile Absolute, find its way into the fifth and final essay in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, titled “From Homo Sacer to the Neighbor.” Analyzing the recent refusal by Israeli soldiers to target Palestinian civilians, Zizek argues for a radically ethical Act of refusal to treat the other as Homo sacer and for acceptance of the other as neighbor: this represents a materialization of Paulinian agape which “enjoins us to `unplug from the organic community into which we were born” (The Fragile Absolute 121). Such an Act collapses differences between men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, Iraqis/Afghanis and Americans; in short, the refusal makes Homo sacer indistinguishable from a full member of a polity. In a sense then, Islams radical resistance to globalization, Zizek opines, also bears potential for truly ethical Acts of refusal. In order to engage with the Real of global capitalism, however, Islamic resistance needs to be re-articulated as a Leftist, socialist project.

While the insistence on spontaneous Acts of refusal throughout the conflict zones would seem to recall Hardt and Negris confidence in the power of de-centered multitude or Deleuzian rhizomatic war machine, Zizek in fact doubts that any resistance to the order can succeed without a unified political agenda. Although throughout the book Zizek explores options of resistance in the areas currently undergoing US invasion, in the final pages he surprisingly turns to unified Europe with a socialist agenda as the only possible counterweight to US globalism. Because of this thematic switch, Zizeks vision of viable anti-globalization activism ultimately remains muddled, despite some brilliant theoretical insights. Another weakness of Welcome to the Desert of the Real! is that Zizek occasionally locks himself into the logic of liberal democratic biopolitics that he denounces. Although he repeatedly states that focusing on the “horizontal” interstices between Islam and Christianity post 9/11 only distances us from considering “vertical” issues of class and economic exploitation, he sometimes slips into facile generalizations about the alleged clash of Islam and Christianity. According to one such generalization Islam has a better track record than Christianity when it comes to tolerance of other religions; because of an Islamic majority, Zizek concludes, Sarajevo was the only truly multicultural city in the former Yugoslavia (a curious conclusion indeed, as little else remains in post-war Sarajevo other than an absolute Islamic majority). The next generalization about Islam, however, contradicts the first one: in considering the events of 9/11, Zizek argues, we should not try to exempt Islamic teachings from blame and preach that this is a religion of love rather than destruction. Apparently, what Zizek keeps trying to dismiss as concerns of biopolitics, or, “mere life,” creeps back into his discourse, as dimensions which complicate his designation of global capitalism as the ur-source of all human conflict.

Despite occasional generalizations as well as a tendency to recycle arguments and examples from previous books, Zizek opens up interesting new ways of contextualizing 9/11 in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!. Pushing beyond the rhetoric of liberal democracy versus fundamentalism, Zizeks greatest contribution in this work lies in his unmasking of the war on terrorism as a tool of expansive capital power which can only be challenged if the old world is brave enough to take new political risks, to initiate a radical battle for a socialist alternative. Zizek implores us to reject a de-ideologized liberal democrat as well as “a Fascist with a human face” (e.g. Haider, Le Pen) and instead cast our votes for a “freedom fighter with an inhuman face” (82).

Natasa Kovacevic is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Florida. You can contact her at

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