The magazine "In These Times" (via AL Daily) has one of those classic pieces of Marxist European philosophising which I thought we'd said goodbye to along with the 20th Century. It helps of course to have the right sort of name, and Slavoj Zizek fits the bill nicely. It's not a spoof though - at least I don't think so - as someone of the same name has recently been writing for the London Review of Books.
Zizek is musing on the 80th anniversary of the death of Lenin. Why, he wonders, is there such an embarrassed silence over his legacy? Lenin had a fairly robust view of what to do with people who disagreed with him: basically, they should be shot. Zizek comments:
This dismissive attitude towards the “liberal” notion of freedom accounts for Lenin’s bad reputation among liberals.
Well yes, it may have something to do with it: a "liberal" notion of freedom implies, quaintly, that you shouldn't be killed just for holding opposing views. Indeed mass murder is not generally favoured in liberal (or indeed "liberal") circles. But Zizek is getting into his stride:
Their [the liberals] case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom, but as even leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion “formal,” so that “actual freedom” equals the lack of freedom.
Um, how's that again? So all freedom is formal? - sorry, "formal"? No time to worry about that; Zizek is off again:
But today, after the terrifying experience of the Really Existing Socialism, is it not more than obvious where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independent of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves...”). Second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent “objectivism” is the form of its opposite, a thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is “objectively” an enemy of the working class).
Got that? (Oh come on now!...is it not more than obvious?) The fault he's trying to describe (the fault that liberals see in Leninism) is pure totalitarianism: someone (well, Lenin actually) decides what's right, and dresses it up in ideology. If you disagree, then you're dead.
But Zizek is not happy about this objection. What after all is this wonderful freedom of choice which liberal ideology is so keen on? Take a couple of examples: Clinton's attempt to introduce healthcare reform, which was defeated by the Medical lobby, who argued that to reform the current system would be to remove free choice. Can you believe those doctors? - who would have thought that the idea of freedom could be used so cynically? (Though it might be argued that you wouldn't need to invoke Lenin's name in order to argue against that use of the idea of freedom.) Or Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism - the people were told by the West that they had free choice now, but did they really?
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. Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990, when the Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people were thrown into a situation of “freedom of political choice”—however, were they really at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of new order they actually wanted?
Like in a survey? Maybe not, but they did make it fairly clear that they wanted Really Existing Socialism to become No Longer Existing Socialism as soon as possible.
Liberal "formal" freedom of choice: for Zizek it's a sham, false consciousness. It takes away your energy for what you really want to do, which is to foment revolution, join Marxist groups, and hold meetings to decide which comrades should be expelled for Trotskyite deviationism. All liberal freedom has to offer is the choice between Coke and Pepsi (an argument which always struck me as rubbish - what about Seven-up? Or Sprite?). A truly revolutionary choice, on the other hand, involving Lenin's "actual" freedom, would be, oh let's see now, which of my neighbours do I denounce as a counter-revolutionary so I can get their apartment, before they do it to me first.
Zizek has an interesting little metaphor for us to ponder:
It is a well-known fact that the “Close the door” button in most elevators is a totally disfunctional placebo, placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey - when we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just pressed the floor button without “speeding up” the process by pressing also the “Close the door” button. This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor of the participation of individuals in our “postmodern” political process.
The elevators I use don't have a close-the-door button: they have an open-the-door button, which you use (and yes it works) when you see someone coming who's not going to make it otherwise. But oh dear how tiresomely literal of me. Clearly the wonderful aptness of the metaphor for our miserable "postmodern" society should forestall any such minor quibbles. So let's carry on: Lenin has the answer to this apparently, in his distinction between "formal" and "actual" freedom. But just what is this "actual" freedom?
“formal” freedom is the freedom of choice within the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. In short, Lenin’s point is not to limit freedom of choice, but to maintain the fundamental Choice—when Lenin asks about the role of a freedom within the class struggle, what he is asking is precisely: “Does this freedom contribute to or constrain the fundamental revolutionary Choice?”
Which is pretty much where we came in. "Actual" freedom is the freedom to contribute (or not) to the "fundamental revolutionary choice". Whatever that "fundamental revolutionary choice" may be, you can be sure that there'll be a Lenin around to tell you if you've made the right fundamental revolutionary choice. And if you haven't, well, no pathetic liberal freedom is going to stop you getting what's coming to you.
This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.
To which one can only say: rubbish. How is it that you can come out with the most complete nonsense and be assumed to be making profound points if you write incomprehensibly enough and have a middle-European name?