Returning to political philosophy, Zizek’s Living in the End Times discusses an idea, which I discovered in the writings of Ché Guevara, that lies at the centre of the problematic in the Utopias project.
“The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.”
Think of this as a true contradiction. A revolutionary becomes a murderer, but in the name of love for the people he’s murdering. And this isn’t just PR, but the actual motives of the revolutionary. And Zizek’s analysis, complicated and integrated with an analysis of Hollywood movies as it is, helps explain one aspect of how this works.
The contradiction lies in the methods to produce a utopia, a society of perfect relations among people where love is the law of the land (and so it is a land where law is unnecessary) brought into existence through violence and terror. But this goes beyond the violence of the revolutionaries themselves, revolutionaries who attack and kill agents of the oppressive regime. The violence which must be encouraged to bring about utopia is even violence against the oppressed themselves.
|Consider the notion that the most virtuous slaveowner is|
the one whose horrifying violence toward his slaves best
demonstrates the inevitable injustice of slavery.
Zizek considers this example, which illuminates the horror of the concept of transformative violence. In a regime of slavery, the truly horrible people are the humane slaveowners who treat their charges with dignity. The slaveowner we should praise, goes this perspective, is the sadist who whips his male slaves to death, works them until they crash, and regularly rapes the women and children of his workforce. The humane slaveowner (in Zizek’s eyes, the humane liberal democrat) lets us live with an oppressive system by toning down its most intense features, trying to legislate against mistreatment of slaves. But a slave with rights against mistreatment is still a slave. The most violent, vile slaveowner is the true ally of an anti-slavery revolutionary because he articulates the full might of this oppressive structure openly and honestly.
When a culture has developed in the context of a particular political structure, there is a corresponding sense of what it is to be reasonable. The analysis above, that the actions of a sadistic, rapist slaveowner are more in line with a movement to overturn slavery than a humane, respectful slaveowner, does not sound reasonable. But a total revolution would overturn every aspect of a political culture and the social contexts of people’s meetings. A genuine revolutionary movement changes the standard of what is considered reasonable. To appear reasonable in the regime you wish to change is a compromise that prevents you from changing that regime.
My own take on the idea introduces a temporal dimension to this analysis, a framework for introducing a process of change into the system. At the least, there must be continuity of action through a transformative political process. Zizek seems to have struck the essential element of how deep into thought and ethics a cultural change must go to be complete. Yet at least so far in Living in the End Times, he seems to have missed the process by which this happens, focussing only on the before and after, but not the transformation itself.