Retro Blogging Hits

John Holbo is nit-picking Zizek again. Man, this takes me back…

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44 Responses to “Retro Blogging Hits”

  1. Kevin Says:

    “[O]ne point I want to make is that when Zizek critiques liberalism, which he does a lot, he almost always uses ‘liberal’ to mean, narrowly, economic neoliberalism. Forces of economic globalization. The Washington Consensus. Liberalism is: Sarkozy trying to make France more Anglo-ish. It’s never: John Rawls.”

    Isn’t “equating liberalism with neoliberalism” Zizek’s intention? Can anyone seriously read Zizek and not already know this? Furthermore, even if Zizek was doing this, why would it be problematic?

    Zizek does explicitly deal with Rawls, as a Google search as apparently complicated as “zizek rawls” will reveal. See:

    “What Rawls doesn’t see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment…”

    Zizek of course isn’t immune to criticism, but this post in particular would make Norman Holland proud.

  2. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Neoliberal economics and liberal politics are inextricably tie. Holbo is off his rocker.

  3. Craig Says:

    I’m not sure which is worse: Holbo on Zizek or Holbo on economics. Oh, I know, Holbo on Zizek on economics.

  4. Bryan Says:

    If I understood the post and comments correctly, according to Holbo Zizek is basically at fault for criticizing liberalism in the sense of “actually existing liberalism,” rather than John Holbo’s extremely narrow and idealized definition of liberalism, which seems to basically encompass Rawlsian political philosophy and social democratic economic theory (…even though Zizek does comment, albeit briefly, on Rawls’ idea of distributive justice in TWTN and writes extensively on the problems of the latter)? Isn’t this basically the same flawed hermeneutical technique Holbo used to criticize Zizek’s analysis of Kierkegaard way back when?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think it’s the exact same technique. He’s not “charitably” assuming that Zizek must be talking about Rawls everywhere he talks about liberalism.

    It does seem like a wrong-headed complaint, given that his approach to communism is also so focused on the “actual existing” past versions of communism rather than just on the theory.

  6. jholbo Says:

    (Should I or shouldn’t I? I shouldn’t.)

    Running down the list:

    Kevin: “Isn’t “equating liberalism with neoliberalism” Zizek’s intention? Can anyone seriously read Zizek and not already know this?”

    Obviously Zizek intends to do it. (You did read my post?) But from the fact that someone intends to do something, it doesn’t follow that it is necessarily a good idea. (I take it you see the flaw in this assumption.) Which brings us to:

    “Furthermore, even if Zizek was doing this, why would it be problematic?”

    Because the equation doesn’t hold? The equation is false? (Unless you know better, of course. But I seriously doubt that you could.)

    Which brings us to Rod: “Neoliberal economics and liberal politics are inextricably tie.”

    Of course. But it hardly follows that they are, literally, one and the same thing. In fact, they obviously aren’t. And, in any case, my point wasn’t that Zizek fails to discuss liberal politics but that he fails to discuss liberalism qua political philosophy. The tradition that extends from, say, John Locke to John Rawls and around and about and beyond.

    Craig says … Craig is … capitalizing his name! Well, alright then! But I remember back in the old days … things weren’t always so capital … takes me back …

    Bryan says: “If I understood the post and comments correctly, according to Holbo Zizek is basically at fault for criticizing liberalism in the sense of “actually existing liberalism,” rather than John Holbo’s extremely narrow and idealized definition of liberalism, which seems to basically encompass Rawlsian political philosophy and social democratic economic theory (…even though Zizek does comment, albeit briefly, on Rawls’ idea of distributive justice in TWTN and writes extensively on the problems of the latter)?”

    Bryan does not understand the post (but possibly he understood some of the comments, I cannot in good conscience deny the possibility.) There is obviously nothing wrong with critiquing ‘actually existing liberalism’ and saying not word one about, say, Rawls. But it’s a serious mistake to think that Zizek restricts himself to ‘actually existing liberalism’, in an economic sense, restraining himself from touching on the philosophical issues, or even politics, somehow confining himself to wonking on concerning the efficacy, or lack thereof, of economic policy. (I’m really not sure how you could have gotten the contrary impression, but it is definitely mistaken.)

    Z’s critique of liberalism, in a political-philosophical sense, which I take to be most forcefully offered in “Tarrying” (but I am happy to be corrected by those who know better) is that the flaw in it is precisely a function of the philosophy behind it (the trouble doesn’t, as it were, trickle down from inefficacious neoliberal economic policy). He takes the flaw to be a kind of Kantian formalism at its heart. It strives to universalize itself but, tragically, can’t. It seems strange for a philosopher who critiques liberalism AND takes the flaws in liberalism to be symptomatically expressive of the philosophy behind it NOT to consider the philosophies that are generally taken to be behind it. Obviously he can say that everyone is wrong and it’s none of that. It’s Kantian formalism, soup to nuts. But then an argument to that effect – or even just a statement to that effect – would not be taken amiss.

    It is also mistaken to suggest that I am faulting Zizek for not devoting his life to some superfine, narrow sense of liberalism that is, privately, dear to my own heart. (Somehow I am universalizing my own subjectivity in illegitimate fashion.) My criticism is that he does not discuss any form of liberalism, in a philosophical sense. Not really. Not much. Take your pick. He doesn’t discuss it. He does make a few generalizations about liberalism but, so far as I can tell, they have the notable defect of being obviously false. I discuss this a bit in the post, and would be happy to discuss it further, if anyone has any examples of general statements by Zizek about liberalism that they think do not exhibit this characteristic defect.

    There is, in general, something quite absurd about supposing that Zizek is just not intending to say anything about the sort of liberal theory that I fault him for not considering. It’s not as though he would say, if asked, that, although he has fundamentally critiqued liberalism, in a philosophical sense, of course John Rawls’ philosophy, and all the rest of that sort, stand unassailed, like so many white ivory towers – because, he, Zizek, only meant to complain about Thatcherism? I’m sorry, but that’s not Zizek. (It’s nice that he chats about Rawls a bit in that interview, but it still doesn’t much stick to the ribs, philosophically. I would prefer a substantial bit of a book or article, if it could be provided.)

    Last but not least, Adam says: “It does seem like a wrong-headed complaint, given that his approach to communism is also so focused on the “actual existing” past versions of communism rather than just on the theory.”

    The criticism here, I take it, is that I am really demanding that Zizek discuss liberalism in a way that is inconsistent with his mode of discussing communism. Whereas surely the most that I can expect is that he treat the two in parallel fashion.

    But it is not true that Zizek has nothing whatsoever to say about communism in a theoretical or philosophical sense. (Nor does Adam think so, I’m sure.) Zizek is not a comprehensively anti-theory thinker, as it were, regarding both communism and liberalism. But he is comprehensively a- or anti-philosophical when it comes to liberalism. This seems to be 1) worth noting; and 2) not such a hot idea. I would hope that Adam would at least grant 1) even if he doesn’t grant 2)

    Of course all this is mildly snarky, on my part, I can’t deny it; but it seems to me that one ought to be able to get past all that and respond substantively, if there are actually substantive problems with what I am saying.

    And if Adam wants to discuss the old Zizek and Kierkegaard stuff – which it was my distinct impression he did not want to discuss – then of course that’s alright, too. (And if not, then he shouldn’t drop grumpy hints that there’s something wrong with it. Rather, we should pick up the thread where we dropped it last time and carry on. If I recall, the point at which we left it was this. He said the problem was that I was committed to P. I pointed out that I had actually claimed only: if P then Q. Which is consistent with the denial of P. And there it lay. Although it could, for all that, be picked up again. P’s and Q’s provided on request. Or not, to suit personal taste.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So you’re back to the thing where you pretend I haven’t told you what’s wrong with your Zizek-Kierkegaard thing? This really is a retro thread!

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Before long, we’ll be debating the move from theory to Theory!

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To take the risk of responding more substantively (and thus being flooded with even more passive-aggressive “procedural” questions), you’re incorrect to claim that Zizek is saying that liberal formalism is based on Kantian ethical formalism. He’s saying it’s analogous to Kantian ethical formalism.

  10. jholbo Says:

    “So you’re back to the thing where you pretend I haven’t told you what’s wrong with your Zizek-Kierkegaard thing? This really is a retro thread!”

    We’re back to the thing that happened after you stopped pretending you had told me and actually told me. At which point I said I thought you misunderstood the form of my argument. And, since getting to this point took five years, we dropped it as a bad bet. I am perfectly happy to leave it at that and try a different tack. On the other hand, if the retro thing really does it for you …

    “Before long, we’ll be debating the move from theory to Theory!”

    As you like it. Again, the retro thing.

    As to your final point: yes, looking at that passage again, he does strictly say only that the two are analogous. Not that the one is based on the other. But I inferred that he was reading liberalism, as it were, symptomatically. He was, in effect, saying that the thinking – the spirit – behind liberalism is a kind of Kantian formalism-like thinking. At that point, the distinction between ‘like’ and ‘based on’ becomes not so crucial. At any rate, let it be as you say: he is only asserting an analogy or parallel. I still take this bit of “Tarrying” to be Z.’s major statement of the flaw in liberalism, as he sees it, and I don’t think it is strengthened by substituting ‘analogous to’ to ‘based upon’. Do you? If so, how so and why?

    Do you at least agree that this passage in “Tarrying” is a major statement by Zizek of what he sees as wrong with liberalism? So, to assess Zizek’s assessment of liberalism, this would be a good passage to look to? Is there a better, more recent statement that updates and modifies this now rather old statement? Finally, do you agree that this passage is important because this thought about the flaw in liberalism – that it necessarily excludes – is taken up and extended in newer writings? The communist hypothesis stuff? It seems to me this is what he is doing in his recent books.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Anthony: Because I’m bored and worried our traffic was getting too low.

    John: You are correct that Tarrying represents his most sustained critique of liberalism. He is interpreting it “philosophically” or “theoretically” (as seen in the reference to Kant), but is not responding to the philosophical self-presentation of liberalism (as one would find in Rawls, for example). And it does seem that his current focus on what liberal capitalism excludes is rooted in his analysis in Tarrying, which is actually a point I hadn’t thought of before. Not so retro after all perhaps, if John Holbo is pointing out the long-term coherence of an aspect of Zizek’s thought!

  12. Bryan Says:

    The fact that there’s a more sustained critique of liberalism in *Tarrying* and no where else really in Zizek’s work makes sense given that *Sublime Object* in the end defends a kind of liberal formalism (I remember reading somewhere Zizek remarking that he thought *Sublime Object* was in retrospect “too Kantian/formal”), which isn’t really that surprising given that he also ran for President (not to be confused with PM) of Slovenia as a liberal when the communist regime collapsed. So in some ways *Tarrying* is more of a turn than anything, probably having to do with the practical and theoretical problems of nationalism, as with his critique of Rawls.

  13. Craig Says:

    Adam: has it increased traffic?

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, but I think that Abject-Oriented Ontology did much more.

  15. jholbo Says:

    “John Holbo is pointing out the long-term coherence of an aspect of Zizek’s thought!”

    Read your friends close, and read your enemies closer, I always say.

    “Adam: has it increased traffic?”

    I visited three times.

    Anthony: “Why is this happening?”

    After I leave, you can lower the tone back down. But for now, back to Adam: “He is interpreting it “philosophically” or “theoretically” (as seen in the reference to Kant), but is not responding to the philosophical self-presentation of liberalism (as one would find in Rawls, for example).”

    That’s what I wanted to confirm, and I am gratified that Adam agrees with my assessment. I don’t want it to be that my critique is invalid because I missed some major textual section somewhere. But this leaves us with a puzzle. what is the ‘it’ that Zizek takes himself to be interpreting philosophically? Is ‘it’ just actually-existing liberalism, in a descriptive political-economic-social-institutional sense, as opposed to liberalism in any normative or theoretical sense? That doesn’t fit with a number of things Zizek says. Just for example: he regards Rorty as a liberal, but Rorty is offering a normative account of why liberalism is a good thing, and making claims about how a liberal society ought to be ordered optimally. If Zizek really is uninterested in even touching on anything like that, he should not consider Rorty a ‘liberal’ in his sense. But he does consider Rorty, and even takes Rorty to be within the scope of his critique. More generally, Z. clearly uses ‘communism’ both as a name for a cluster of actually-existing arrangements, at various historical points, AND as a term for a normative ideal/goal. AND he wants to propose communism as an alternative to liberalism. But then he should do an apples-to-apples comparison. He should consider liberalism, too, both as an actually-existing phenomenon and as a normative/philosophical ideal. But, apparently, he doesn’t.

    How would he justify that? After all, it seems possible that actually-existing liberalism might be flawed but the ideal of liberalism more admirable/credible. (This is what Z. thinks about communism, after all.) This hardly seems like an out-of-the-way possibility, but Zizek totally overlooks it. Or ignores it. Why (do you think)?

    Of course I know what he would say: sit and spin, liberals, this book wasn’t written for you! (This is pretty much what he says at the start of “Tragedy” and “Lost Causes”.) But then it seems fair for the liberals to say: since ‘sit and spin’ isn’t a fundamental critique of liberalism, merely a directive concerning liberalism’s fundament, Zizek actually hasn’t offered a fundamental critique of liberalism – ever – despite his claims to have done so. Is that fair?

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Based on your requirements for a fundamental critique of liberalism, it does seem that he has not offered one. I’m not convinced that it’s a major failing, but whatever.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In other news, I wish they hadn’t spent so much time on the theater troupe in the last season of Deadwood. I also think they revealed Laura Palmer’s killer way too early in Twin Peaks.

  18. jholbo Says:

    Hmmm, my requirements seem pretty minimal to me: in order to offer a fundamental critique of x you must have something substantive to say about x. You are, I take it, conceding that this is setting the bar too high for Zizek to clear? But you are ok with that?

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is really getting to be one of those cases where you’re constantly shifting the ground of conversation. I’m conceding that he doesn’t do any extended engagement with liberal political theory. I don’t take that to be a big problem or to be significantly out of step with his practice otherwise. I’m totally fine with him critiquing neoliberalism as the political-economic instantiation of liberalism and academic-style multicultural tolerance as the cultural instantiation of liberalism.

    Virtually every politician in the world who can be fairly characterized as liberal embraces neoliberalism, for instance. Like one could name Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, etc., etc. As for Rawls, the only place I’ve seen him discussed at length is on Crooked Timber. His relative levels of attention to each seem to be justifiable to me.

  20. jholbo Says:

    “As for Rawls, the only place I’ve seen him discussed at length is on Crooked Timber.”

    You’ve never seen him discussed in an academic context? A seminar or lecture? Book or article?

    Also, I’m not insisting that Zizek discuss Rawls, per se. I’ve said this several times, even once already in this thread, but I might as well say it again. He’s an example. Rawls is (you’ll have to take my word on this, apparently) a prominent political philosopher who advocates a form of liberalism. But he isn’t the only such person.

    Liberalism – in a philosophical sense – is normative position. A philosophy of liberalism is a statement of how things ought to be, politically (optimally or ideally). Neoliberalism isn’t that. It’s more a set of allegedly instrumentally efficacious economic policies. As to descriptions of actually existing politics – that’s not normative theory either. It’s sociology or political reporting or something else. Zizek himself says in that interview in which he discusses Rawls that he thinks it’s a terrible mistake to think you can just describe actually existing politics – just give ‘the facts’ – and let that stand as your critique. He is adamant that there needs to be a normative, philosophical component to the critique. This seems inconsistent with what you are saying on his behalf.

    As to academic style multiculturalism as a sort of passive-aggressive personality tic – which is what Zizek considers it to be – do you really consider it more central to liberalism, as a topic in political philosophy, than, say, the the subjects discussed in the first two paragraphs of the SEP entry of liberalism I linked in my post. Let me just cut and paste:

    “‘By definition’, Maurice Cranston rightly points out, ‘a liberal is a man who believes in liberty’ (1967: 459). In two different ways, liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value. (i) Liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man’ (Locke, 1960 [1689]: 287). Mill too argued that ‘the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…’ (1963, vol. 21: 262). Recent liberal thinkers such as as Joel Feinberg (1984: 9), Stanley Benn (1988: 87) and John Rawls (2001: 44, 112) agree. This might be called the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gaus, 1996: 162-166): freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom, especially through coercive means. It follows from this that political authority and law must be justified, as they limit the liberty of citizens. Consequently, a central question of liberal political theory is whether political authority can be justified, and if so, how. It is for this reason that social contract theory, as developed by Thomas Hobbes (1948 [1651]), John Locke (1960 [1689]), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1973 [1762]) and Immanuel Kant (1965 [1797]), is usually viewed as liberal even though the actual political prescriptions of, say, Hobbes and Rousseau, have distinctly illiberal features. Insofar as they take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal, and so argue that any limitation of this freedom and equality stands in need of justification (i.e., by the social contract), the contractual tradition expresses the Fundamental Liberal Principle.

    (ii) The Fundamental Liberal Principle holds that restrictions on liberty must be justified, and because he accepts this, we can understand Hobbes as espousing a liberal political theory. But Hobbes is at best a qualified liberal, for he also argues that drastic limitations on liberty can be justified. Paradigmatic liberals such as Locke not only advocate the Fundamental Liberal Principle, but also maintain that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest. Only a limited government can be justified; indeed, the basic task of government is to protect the equal liberty of citizens. Thus John Rawls’s first principle of justice: ‘Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of equal basic liberty compatible with a similar system for all’ (Rawls, 1999b: 220).”

    Now I don’t agree with all of that, but it seems to me in the right general area. This general area seems more pertinent to a discussion of liberalism, as a philosophy, than remarks on academic multiculturalism and its psychological discontents. (Zizek’s main critique of multiculturalism, after all, is that it is a form of relativism. But liberals, in a philosophical sense, aren’t relativists.) Finally, academic multiculturalism, as a personality type, is largely confined to academia. Whereas, presumably, we want to discuss society and politics outside of the ivory tower as well.

    Obviously you are slightly annoyed by all this, so let me turn it around and give you a chance to say your piece and we’ll be done with it. Zizek does not critique liberalism, qua normative position. He has some things to say about economic policy, and about the personalities of some academic types. How is that supposed to be enough? How do you critique liberalism, effectively, without engaging liberal notions about the proper relationship between, say, liberty and equality?

  21. Gabe Says:

    John, is it possible that you are mistakenly assuming Zizek has to have a systematic critique of liberalism because you think he is building a universal philosophical system whereas all he is really doing is engaging in “spiritual exercises” in the sense of Pierre Hadot? He’s provoking us to break out of closed patterns of thought, but not proposing a systematic alternative.

    The Badiou-Zizek concept of communism is basically the Rapture for (continental) philosophy students, it is purposely ineffable. Asking about distributive justice in this context is like asking if we still wear underpants in heaven, a category mistake is being made.

  22. stras Says:

    Given that American liberals overwhelmingly vote for political candidates who espouse neoliberal beliefs – and indeed, largely deride those who vote for those whose beliefs represent something to the left of neoliberalism (Nader, Green Party, Socialist Party, etc.) – I don’t see what’s so controversial about using “liberal” for “neoliberal,” even in the American context. Indeed, it seems fairly obvious to me that American liberalism is solidly neoliberal, and has been such for twenty-plus years. To complain that Zizek hasn’t much to say about Rawls is silly; if Zizek has little to say about Rawls in his criticism of liberalism, it’s because there’s little of Rawls in present-day liberalism.

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m in continental philosophy — Rawls just never comes up.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And now that I’ve read the rest of your comment, it does seem that there’s a normative element to neoliberalism — namely that the market is the realm of genuine freedom and the state exists to support markets and create market-like mechanisms where they previously did not prevail — and to multiculturalism, which extends the principle of non-interference to “cultural” questions (however defined).

    Claiming that neoliberalism is just a set of economic politices is not an adequate description of the phenomenon. Even talking about liberalism as a political philosophy as though it’s separable from economics is pretty misguided — the principle of private property has been very central to most forms of liberalism that I’m familiar with. It’s weird that your list of liberal theorists would include Locke and Mill but not Adam Smith, for example. Asking a Marxist intellectual to ignore the economic element and just look at the normative theory is even more questionable, even if you thought they could in principle be separated.

    Neoliberalism is the dominant form of liberalism today, the dominant way of talking about the principle of liberty. Talking about someone like Fukayama seems entirely appropriate in that context, for example — or even Thomas Friedman. Talking about previous theorists does not seem to be a particularly urgent task, unless you (unlike Zizek) are concerned to take liberalism back to its “better” or “more authentic” roots.

  25. Maladjusted Says:

    In agreement with Adam’s last comment (on why it’s wrong to equate neo-liberalism with a ‘simple’ economic policy) : it’s not only the —opponents- of neo-liberalism who recognise the latter’s ‘normative’ dimension: some of its most famous adherents have also been perfectly explicit about this aspect of the ‘ideas’.

    For example, among the many interesting (and, of course, very scary) things about Hayek is that he, is, on a number of occasions, perfectly explicit about the fact that human beings will need to ‘adjust’ (a word, in which, I think, Adorno was right to consistently associate with thumb-screws and the rack) if the new market utopia is to flourish.

    In fact, Hayek goes so far as to suggest that not only major, but fundamental, moral-psychic reconstruction will be necessary in order to make neo-liberalism work. Specifically, the ordinary citizens need to learn to “overcome” what for Hayek is the -anachronistic- revulsion for selfish behaviour, in order to realise the ‘truth’ that the relentless pursuit of self-interest, “in fact” serves the greater good better than any attempts to aim at said good directly ever could.

    Also, even if there weren’t any Hayek-style ideologues, it’s surely a Marxist point acknowledged by everyone (even anti-Marxists) that where there is a disparity between the real economic order, and the espoused political philosophy, the former tends to end up trumping, and over-determining the latter, … “Sure, we love democracy and freedom, but y’know, now that the banks are in trouble…”

    Related: another reason why I like the samples of APS’s “grey ecology” work is the suggestion (if I understand it correctly) that the left can also take advantage of the idea of…norms…that are adhered to, in a sense, automatically, by virtue of a certain economic structure: a strategy of in a sense, twisting a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism (that ideology can be embedded in practices in such a way that individual consciousness can be irrelevant -c.f. fetishistic disavowal), in the service of something other than Capital.

  26. jholbo Says:

    “I’m in continental philosophy — Rawls just never comes up.”

    OK, let’s try again. Suppose someone – an analytic philosopher, say – proposed to offer a fundamental philosophical critique of continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is treated by this aspiring critic as a two-part system. It consists of a Swedish-style social safety net plus slightly annoying, pretentious, French academic personality types. Since that combination is annoying (maybe because it turns out the Swedes are hypocrites who begrudge immigrants their generous benefits) continental philosophy is intellectually bankrupt. When asked why she doesn’t have a word to say about, say, Sartre, or Heidegger, or Derrida, or Foucault, or any of that, she replies – I’m an analytic philosopher. They aren’t famous enough. (‘I don’t think I’ve ever taken a class on them. And I don’t think they are really all that influential in the world, and that’s what matters to me.’) Now that last bit could be true. It might be that she just never studied the stuff. And it is true that, compared to Barack Obama or Justin Bieber, Heidegger doesn’t rate. But then the objection is: why did you say you were offering a fundamental critique of continental philosophy when that is, apparently, the very last thing on earth you were dreaming of doing?

    But now we come to point two:

    “Even talking about liberalism as a political philosophy as though it’s separable from economics is pretty misguided — the principle of private property has been very central to most forms of liberalism that I’m familiar with.”

    But the problem here is that neoliberalism is not ‘the principle of private property’. That’s totally wrong. You can believe in private property without subscribing to neoliberalism. Easiest thing in the world. And the fact that political philosophy is not separable from economics – not fully, neatly, and tidily – is no argument whatsoever that are not, to some extent distinct.

    Let me put it this way. A classic statement of neoliberal economics (not the only possible formulation of its key points, but a famous one) is Williamson’s. See the list of recommendations here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Consensus#List_of_recommendations

    By contrast, a classic statement of liberal political philosophy (not the only possible formulation, but a famous one) is the US Constitution. (I could link to it, but I trust you are familiar enough with the broad outlines, and can Google as needed.) Zizek is saying that the problem is that we can’t see beyond the liberal horizon. That doesn’t mean: we can’t conceive of rejecting any of the recommendations on the Williamson list. That’s just absurd. Of course we can. What Zizek is really saying is: we can’t conceive that any form of government could provide a better mix – idealistically and realistically – than something sortakinda like what the US Constitution aims to provide. I think that’s plausible. Yes, people do tend to assume that liberal democracy is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government, except for all the others. And Zizek quotes Churchill’s quip as a sample of the sort of thinking he has to push against. We could be communists instead, and then the US Constitution, and everything like the US Constitution, would all go away – it would be like the Berlin Wall coming down, in the other direction: it would all turn out to have been very fragile and superficial. And that’s indeed what should happen. That’s the communist hypothesis.

    So it’s really a mistake to read Zizek as targeting the Washington Consensus. Properly, he’s targeting the US Constitution. (But again, this is only an example. Pick any Western European government instead, or Australia, or Canada. The problem is that all these government types exhibit normatively intolerable features, by Zizek’s lights. For example, when the wrong people win elections, they are allowed to serve in office. Also, he thinks they can’t last.)

    And yet, despite the fact that he is targeting the US Constitution, he’s not discussing the US Constitution. He’s not considering the philosophical and theoretical reasons why this sort of order is thought to be, generally, a good stability point: an optimal mix of pragmatism and idealism. Now you might say: yes, but the poor US Constitution is looking a bit tattered of late, isn’t it? But that’s presumably why, instead of exclusively discussing actual politics – but by all means: discuss actual politics – you also should consider what might be the case instead of actual politics. You have two options, if you think existing liberalism is flawed. Replace it with something else or try to improve it. Zizek goes for the former, but the latter is an obvious possibility. At that point, perhaps – as in your case – you may say to yourself ‘geez, has anyone ever written about this stuff?’ and you may draw a blank. But then you can go to the library or google and it turns out that lots of people have written about this stuff. Rawls is, against, just an example, but a prominent one.

    The short version of my criticism is this: you can’t show that nothing like the US Constitution could ever be a good idea, even ideally, just by grumbling about IMF-style austerity and Thatcherism and Reaganomics and that sort of stuff. Or even by grumbling about Clintonian triangulation. The question of whether Clintonian triangulation is a shrewd tactic is separate from the question of whether liberal democracy is a defensible ideal, in political philosophy. (But they are related! Yes, of course they are related. But they are not the identical.)

  27. Craig Says:

    Kotsko: Even talking about liberalism as a political philosophy as though it’s separable from economics is pretty misguided — the principle of private property has been very central to most forms of liberalism that I’m familiar with.

    Holbo: But the problem here is that neoliberalism is not ‘the principle of private property’.

    Can we agree that Holbo isn’t even trying to address what Kotsko said? The quotation makes no reference to neoliberalism, but to liberalism in all its iterations. The requisite proof here would be to establish that there are forms of liberalism, commonly held, that do not take the right to private property as a given. Unfortunately, we find this in Locke, Smith, Bentham, Mill, and, yes, twentieth century social liberals as well as neo-liberals.

    The rest of the comment does with Zizek what Holbo just did with Kotsko. Is this an example of the vaunted “argument” fetishized by Holbo: just make up shit and make up more shit about that shit?

  28. jholbo Says:

    “The requisite proof here would be to establish that there are forms of liberalism, commonly held, that do not take the right to private property as a given.”

    Sorry Craig, you’re holding the thing upside down and backwards. The requisite proof here would be to establish that there are NO forms of liberalism commonly advocated that do NOT take economic neoliberalism as a given. Unless you have established that, you cannot attack liberalism, in general, just by attacking economic neoliberalism. You can’t be sure that knocking the latter will knock all forms of the former unless all forms of the former are essentially committed to the latter. But it’s easy to provide examples of liberalism that do not take neoliberalism as a given, and that are not committed to it. Rawls, for example. Read the SEP article. So the attack on liberalism, by proxy attack on neoliberalism, fails. So how is Zizek’s critique then supposed to work?

    I am willing to grant that liberals take private property rights very very seriously. That’s true. There are a few complications, and some qualifications to be made. (Some liberals are utilitarians, hence not fundamentally committed to rights at all. But we can leave that aside.) But it simply doesn’t follow from the fact that I, as a liberal, advocate private property rights that I have to sign on to the Washington Consensus. So you can’t attack the wisdom of private property just by attacking the efficacy of the Washington Consensus. That is, the crash of 2008, if it means the Washington Consensus is shattered, does not mean private property is discredited, or liberal democracy. We can’t so easily slide between these distinct charges.

  29. voyou Says:

    But Zizek isn’t specifically attacking neoliberalism – he’s talking about liberalism in the very broad sense in which Hobbes, Rousseau, and neoliberalism are all forms of liberalism – that is “liberalism” in exactly the sense of your quotes from the SEP. The features of liberalism which Zizek attacks in neoliberalism are features of this broad liberalism. This is why he doesn’t talk much about Rawls – in this broad sense, Rawls and Friedman (Thomas or Milton) aren’t very different.

    Now, you can say that Zizek doesn’t do much to establish that there is this broad “liberalism” that he discusses; but he didn’t just come up with this broad form of liberalism at random, he’s leaning on about 150 years of Marxist writing on the subject.

  30. Gabe Says:

    This has been very enlightening for me. What would count here as Adam accepting John’s argument? That noting that liberal democracy (or any system based on private property) as implemented is unjust, exploitative, etc. is insufficient and it also needs to be shown to be logically/ philosophically inconsistent or contradictory within its own terms? And how do we judge when this has been shown? And does that mean that John can show there is a logical incoherence about the philosophies of libertarianism or communism before getting to whether they are compatible with biological humans? If not, why is only Zizek being asked to pass this test?

  31. jholbo Says:

    “But Zizek isn’t specifically attacking neoliberalism – he’s talking about liberalism in the very broad sense in which Hobbes, Rousseau, and neoliberalism are all forms of liberalism”

    Here we should distinguish attacking and critiquing. Zizek is unqeustionably attacking all of liberalism, as you say. But he is also, as Adam admits, only critiquing neoliberalism (and mocking some academic personality tics). That’s my point. Zizek’s attack is seriously overextended, relative to the scope of his critique. That’s the concern. Mine, anyway.

    “What would count here as Adam accepting John’s argument? That noting that liberal democracy (or any system based on private property) as implemented is unjust, exploitative, etc. is insufficient and it also needs to be shown to be logically/ philosophically inconsistent or contradictory within its own terms?”

    Let me take Rawls as an example (while re-emphasizing – what I tell you three times is true! – that he is only an example. There are other liberals under the sun, and I am not hereby making some weird demand for Rawls-centrism.) Rawls would be happy to take “liberal democracy … as implemented is unjust, exploitative” as a premise. I certainly don’t see any actually existing states meeting Rawls’ rather exacting standards, as laid down in “A Theory of Justice” and “Political Liberalism”. But I left out a bit there: “any system based on private property”. Again, Rawls would be happy to admit that all existing societies are unjust. None are ideal, certainly. That includes all existing societies based on private property. But he is committed to the view that private property is, ideally – optimally – consistent with justice. So maybe here is where the dispute is joined. But here’s the rub. Zizek doesn’t critique the institution of private property. He critiques neoliberal economics – for example, on the grounds that it blew up in 2008. Now I have no doubt that he in fact disapproves of private property, as an institution. Nevertheless, he doesn’t offer a critique of it. And he pretty clearly isn’t just porting a standard Marxist critique over. Because it wouldn’t fit with his Badiou-ish account. (And Badiou has no critique of private property that I am aware of.) Z. needs a new communist hypothesis for our times. He says as much. That means a new critique of private property. But he doesn’t offer one.

    “… needs to be shown to be logically/ philosophically inconsistent or contradictory within its own terms?”

    I don’t insist that liberalism be shown to be inconsistent or illogical within its own terms – though that would for sure do it for me. (I’m pretty laid back and informal when it comes to argument, notwithstanding my reputation as a fetishist.) I only insist that some reason for doubting its merits as a normative political philosophy be offered. I do admit that Zizek offers one hint in this regard: liberalism causes nationalism. And nationalism is bad. Ergo, liberalism is bad. (That’s a bit crude, but that’s the nut of it.) That doesn’t show that liberalism is inconsistent or illogical, but it counts as an objection to it, in my book. I just don’t happen to think this particular argument is very compelling.

    “And does that mean that John can show there is a logical incoherence about the philosophies of libertarianism or communism before getting to whether they are compatible with biological humans? If not, why is only Zizek being asked to pass this test?”

    I don’t really understand what you are saying here. You are suggesting I’m holding Z. to a higher standard than I am holding myself, but how so exactly? (Do any of my comments, above, clear this up?) I take myself to be quite consistent. If Zizek says he is critiquing liberalism, qua political philosophy, then he should be providing reasons for doubting its worthiness as a normative political philosophy. Likewise, if I am critiquing libertarianism or communism, I should be providing reasons for doubting their merits. That’s pretty much it.

  32. Gabe Says:

    “I only insist that some reason for doubting its merits as a normative political philosophy be offered.”

    Surely you’ve been provided with *some* reason (in terms of actual existing liberalism, exploitation etc) for doubting its merits. The objections to communism are usually the same, actual existing led to the Gulags, Delong on Kolakowski, and Thompson, etc.

    The higher standard you seem to be holding is you want Zizek to answer the question: “suppose Rawl’s proposal was realised, would you still object to this and if so why?”, but then applying that standard to you would allow Badiou to say “suppose we were all truly emancipated and free, would you still object to this and if so why?”.

  33. Tim Morton Says:

    does anyone recall what the term ” scapegoat” means?

  34. jholbo Says:

    “Surely you’ve been provided with *some* reason (in terms of actual existing liberalism, exploitation etc) for doubting its merits.”

    Well, of course. But as much as just that could be gotten out of John Rawls (and again, he’s just a prominent example. I’m aware that he is not the only liberal on earth.) Surely Z.’s critique should go a bit further than that.

    “The higher standard you seem to be holding is you want Zizek to answer the question: ‘suppose Rawl’s proposal was realised, would you still object to this and if so why?'”

    That isn’t strictly a standard I’m imposing, but answering this question would be a damn fine idea.

    “but then applying that standard to you would allow Badiou to say “suppose we were all truly emancipated and free, would you still object to this and if so why?”.”

    Yes, clearly that’s just what he should do. And I should answer him (or feel very ashamed of myself). And my answer would depend on what his answer to the first question. But quite likely it would end up being: it depends on what you turn out to mean by ‘free’.

    Because I think one of the major defects of Badiou and Zizek’s versions of the communist hypothesis is that they have more or less abandoned traditional (Marxist) notions of what sort of ideal freedom and equality communism demands, without replacing them with anything new. But that’s hardly a non-controversial claim, I admit.

    “does anyone recall what the term ”scapegoat” means?”

    I do!

  35. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m puzzled by Tim Morton’s comment.

    I also know that Rawls exists and I know his basic “veil of ignorance” argument. He’s just not a central figure in the traditions I work with. Someone like Habermas would probably be the closest to a more or less “standard liberal” position in continental circles, or (in some interpretations) the later work of Derrida. Crooked Timber is the only setting where I interact with people for whom Rawls is more than a name-drop. Things like this happen, due to the well-known “world enough and time” problem. Not all of us have time to constantly bang our head against the wall reading people we think are fundamentally misguided.

  36. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m pretty familiar, however, with the US Constitution, Locke, Mill, etc., as is virtually every educated person on earth. If Rawls is this lone voice in the wilderness offering a version of liberal political theory that doesn’t necessarily require private property, and if every single instance of liberal democracy in all of human history has been capitalist, then maybe we should take it for granted, after all this time, that the real payoff of liberalism is capitalism and go ahead and critique the specific (and really, really brutal) form capitalism has taken in our world: namely, neoliberalism.

  37. Maladjusted Says:

    @jholbo

    Isn’t Zizek’s attitude to Rawls simply explainable on the grounds that for Z., Rawls isn’t sufficiently different from the mainline tradition of ‘political liberalism’, to count as a useful figure for opposing neo-liberalism?

    I mean, I don’t think Zizek (or anyone) would conflate Hayek with Locke, or with Montesquieu (not to mention the obvious differences between the two) or with Constant, de Tocqueville, or J.S. Mill… And he certainly wouldn’t conflate people like Rawls of Habermas with any of the above, let alone with Hayek or Milton Friedman.

    But, at the same time, his point would surely just be that these figures, for all their obviously differences, share the fact, that they do not advocate a political philosophy sufficiently distinct from liberalism. And it’s not that Z. simply equates liberalism with neo-liberalism, but rather that he thinks that the former has proven itself an inadequate defense against the latter. Thus, I’m sure Zizek woudl differentiate between a neo-liberal ideologue, and a good Habermasian (in that he’d vote for the latter over the former.) At the same time, however, he’s saying that ‘liberal’ thinkers of a more social-democratic bent (including Rawls, who to me, is like a theoretically weaker Habermas) do not have the resources to oppose neo-liberalism adequately: liberalism’ in the more ….noble-sense…ends up, in its impotence, providing a kind of screen for capitalism’s illiberal ‘business as usual’.

  38. jholbo Says:

    “I’m pretty familiar, however, with the US Constitution, Locke, Mill, etc., as is virtually every educated person on earth.”

    Well, OK, but you said you thought Rawls was just some guy we talked up at Crooked Timber, which does suggest a certain … skew to your education. It’s not as though Rawls’ work is less standard at this point than Mill or Locke in political philosophy. If someone told me that didn’t know about Rawls I would tend to assume they didn’t know about Mill or Locke either. Rawls is certainly past the point where ‘I nevah hoid of the guy’ reflects badly on him, rather than on the speaker, in a philosophical context.

    “if every single instance of liberal democracy in all of human history has been capitalist, then maybe we should take it for granted, after all this time, that the real payoff of liberalism is capitalism and go ahead and critique the specific (and really, really brutal) form capitalism has taken in our world: namely, neoliberalism.”

    2008 made lots of folks say the Washington Consensus is dead. Neoliberalism is dead. [although it seems to be back to it's old zombie ways in 2010. - ed] Zizek says this is a great opportunity for communism. But no one said, in the aftermath of the Lehmann collapse, ‘Oh, I guess that whole Constitution of the United States business was a bad bet from the start’. Or ‘so I guess private property was a mistake, after all.’ Rather, they were worried about more recent mis-steps in economic policy.

    Now the question is: why does Z. think the Constitution of the United States and the very institution of private property – not just neoliberal economic policy – is a bad bet, in light of 2008? You can say that he thinks the former are bad just because they led to the latter. But is that it (that’s the communist hypothesis at present)?

    It would seem to follow from this that if we can just imagine our way out of the Washington Consensus (which, honestly doesn’t seem difficult) we can save liberalism as a philosophical ideal. But surely Z. isn’t going to let that stand. It would follow that the communist hypothesis (thinking our way out of neoliberalism) is potentially consistent with liberalism. Whether it is or not is an empirical question for policy wonks. Can that be right? Surely Z. needs to articulate some philosophical objection to liberalism itself – the ideal – not just a policy complaint about how things actually worked out.

    Next up: is Badiou’s version of communism consistent with capitalism?

  39. Adam Kotsko Says:

    After the last two years, it seems to me that the US Constitution is not working out.

  40. jholbo Says:

    Well alright, then. But do you think it was a bad idea, in principle. Or has it just not worked out?

  41. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Since the dawn of time mankind has wondered if there is any point to a discussion with John Holbo.

  42. jholbo Says:

    “… if there is any point to a discussion with John Hobo.”

    There’s certainly a point to it (nor do I speak only for myself). On the other hand, it’s definitely not for everyone. You wouldn’t want to give it to everyone in their X-Mas stockings, for example.

  43. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think we need to call it a day. Thanks for playing, everyone!


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