Slavoj Žižek · Shoplifters of the World Unite · LRB 19 August 2011

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Shoplifters of the World Unite
Slavoj Žižek on the meaning of the riots
You are invited to read this free essay from the London Review of Books. Subscribe now to access every article from every fortnightly issue of the London Review of Books, including the entire archive of over 12,500 essays and reviews.

‘peace does not mean fealty’
Adam Shatz

Slavoj Žižek teaches at the School of Law, Birkbeck College.

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Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon. We are told again and again that we are living through a debt crisis, and that we all have to share the burden and tighten our belts. All, that is, except the (very) rich. The idea of taxing them more is taboo: if we did, the argument runs, the rich would have no incentive to invest, fewer jobs would be created and we would all suffer. The only way to save ourselves from hard times is for the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. What should the poor do? What can they do? Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’. There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were missing the obvious truth, just as the commentators on the riots have done. We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology: the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite

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it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. Perhaps this is one of the main dangers of capitalism: although by virtue of being global it encompasses the whole world. through the satisfying of the barbarian’s ‘basic instincts’. People in much worse material straits.lrb. therefore. is that both conservative and liberal reactions to the unrest are inadequate. though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded. a priori suspected and harassed by the police. The global dimension of capitalism represents truth without meaning. The first conclusion to be drawn from the riots. the only form protest can take is meaningless violence. The problem with this account. citing diminished social mobility. would answer in the language used by social workers and sociologists. http://www.’ This is what ‘back to basics’ was really about: the unleashing of the barbarian who lurked beneath our apparently civilised. The conservative reaction was predictable: there is no justification for such vandalism. not only unemployed but often unemployable.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite Page 2 of 4 . its obscene complement was revealed by Norman Tebbit: ‘Man is not just a social but also a territorial animal. hard work and a sense of responsibility.Slavoj Žižek · Shoplifters of the World Unite · LRB 19 August 2011 9/4/11 11:49 AM The protesters. What’s wrong with this account is not only that it ignores the desperate social situation pushing young people towards violent outbursts but. Instead of indulging ourselves in revenge fantasies. allowed free rein. implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions. We live in cynical times. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence? Alain Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space. the disintegration of paternal authority. rising insecurity. the porn industry. Can we even imagine what it means to be a young man in a poor. in the 1990s. Meanwhile leftist liberals. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative. have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. though. it must be part of our agenda to satisfy those basic instincts of tribalism and territoriality. the lack of maternal love in his early childhood. bourgeois society. perhaps more important. what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’. no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper. stuck to their mantra about social programmes and integration initiatives. with no hope of a future? The implication is that the conditions these people find themselves in make it inevitable that they will take to the streets. When. and still be subject to capitalist control – viz. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations. To riot is to make a subjective statement. no less predictably. and it’s easy to imagine a protester who. let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression. from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist. to prevent further explosions of this kind we need not more tolerance and social help but more discipline. racially mixed area. On British streets during the unrest. a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots.co. Herbert Marcuse introduced the concept of ‘repressive desublimation’ to explain the ‘sexual revolution’: human drives could be desublimated. In the 1960s. that it ignores the way these outbursts echo the hidden premises of conservative ideology itself. but the stripped-down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology. weren’t living on the edge of starvation. from West to East: there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’. or even as a utopian project. the neglect of which has deprived second and third-generation immigrants of their economic and social prospects: violent outbursts are the only means they have to articulate their dissatisfaction. we should make the effort to understand the deeper causes of the outbursts. caught looting and burning a store and pressed for his reasons. but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideologicalpolitical predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit. the Conservatives launched their ‘back to basics’ campaign. one should use all necessary means to restore order.

but in the rioters’ own. violence and counter-violence are caught up in a vicious circle. Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else. The conflict is not between different parts of society. the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force. protest against the system. The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own. a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. The difference is that. at its most radical. The riots should be situated in relation to another type of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. onto the streets. the conflict between society and society. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. is the worse: as Stalin would have put it. between those with no stake in their community and those whose stakes are the highest. From a revolutionary point of view. terrorist attacks are carried out in service of the absolute Meaning provided by religion. if violent. they are both worse. The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. in contrast to the riots in the UK or in Paris. too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’. Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine. Caribbean. One of the forms this reaction took was the ‘tribal’ activity of the local (Turkish. It is meaningless to ponder which of these two reactions. between those with everything. the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations. In both cases. In both instances. and those with nothing. it is envy masked as triumphant carnival. who were largely absent from the spring protests.Slavoj Žižek · Shoplifters of the World Unite · LRB 19 August 2011 9/4/11 11:49 AM He knows what he is doing. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals. The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor. There is likely to be a new explosion. Sikh) communities which quickly organised their own vigilante units to protect their property. As such. but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. fighting the forces of social disintegration? Here too one should reject the demand to take sides. they also contain a moment of genuine protest. The cars burned and the shops looted were not in rich neighbourhoods. as the case of (non-Arab) Iran made clear.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite Page 3 of 4 . in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’ The riots are a demonstration of the material force of ideology – so much. perhaps. from trade unions to feminists. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. as well as the true agents of the spring events. for the ‘post-ideological society’. the problem with the riots is not the violence as such. we are dealing with blind passages à l’acte. each generating the forces it tries to combat. and that includes the warning given by both sides that the real danger of these outbursts resides in the predictable racist reaction of the ‘silent majority’. But weren’t the Arab uprisings a collective act of resistance that avoided the false alternative of self-destructive violence and religious fundamentalism? Unfortunately. to lose. in which violence is an implicit admission of impotence.co. they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists? The predominant reaction of Western public opinion to the pact between Islamists and the army will no doubt be a triumphant display of cynical wisdom: we will be told that. popular upheavals in Arab countries always http://www. but is doing it nonetheless. conservative or liberal. then. or are they representatives of the working class.lrb. it is.

how to move beyond mere protest. Some of us are believers. others are apolitical. some not. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution. one should remain unconditionally faithful to the radical-emancipatory core of the Egypt uprising. To do that. health. as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite Page 4 of 4 . including the entire archive of over 12. We are people. they call for an ‘ethical revolution. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. that they themselves have to be the change they want to see. Contact us for rights and issues enquiries. economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians.’ Rejecting violence. without a voice. Today’s left faces the problem of ‘determinate negation’: what new order should replace the old one after the uprising. Instead of placing money above human beings. political participation. culture.’ Who will be the agents of this revolution? The indignados dismiss the entire political class. we shall put it back to our service. But even in Greece.Slavoj Žižek · Shoplifters of the World Unite · LRB 19 August 2011 9/4/11 11:49 AM end in militant Islamism. But one should also avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause: it’s too easy to admire the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. others conservative.. We hope you enjoyed reading this free essay from the London Review of Books. a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies. the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power. but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. the protest movement displays the limits of selforganisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it. leaving us helpless. but we are all concerned and angry about the political. The first thing that meets the eye is the pointedly apolitical tone: ‘Some of us consider ourselves progressive. Against such cynicism. when the sublime enthusiasm of the first moment is over? In this context. I am not a product of what I buy. When the protesters started to debate what to do next. facebook 10461 twitter 1605 share email letter cite print More by this contributor » ISSN 0260-9592 Copyright © LRB Ltd. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. The situation in Greece looks more promising. is revealing. bankers. Mubarak will appear as having been a much lesser evil – better to stick with the devil you know than to play around with emancipation. probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime). education. right and left. yet the manifesto nevertheless consists of a series of demands addressed at – whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them. issued after their demonstrations in May.lrb. not products. free personal development and consumer rights for a healthy and happy life. businessmen.500 essays and reviews. one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness. employment.’ They make their protest on behalf of the ‘inalienable truths that we should abide by in our society: the right to housing. why I buy and who I buy from.co. 1997-2011 | Send Us Feedback ^ Top | Librarians | Copyright | Terms & Conditions | Privacy | Sitemap | Accessibility http://www. Subscribe now to access every article from every fortnightly issue of the London Review of Books. the manifesto of the Spanish indignados.

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