Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Morning Žižek: ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite!’

with 8 comments

The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?

Written by gerrycanavan

August 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

8 Responses

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  1. “Zygmunt Bauman characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’: more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, 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, for the ‘post-ideological society’. From a revolutionary point of view, the problem with the riots is not the violence as such, but the fact that the violence is not truly self-assertive. It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.”


    August 19, 2011 at 10:36 am

  2. mm i don’t think it was especially blind, as much as anyone can generalize about the participants of something so disorganized. mark duggan’s death was more than just suspicious — he was shot multiple times at close range without having fired back and it’s not clear if he even drew his weapon. the opposite was claimed by the police and repeated by the media days after the shooting (initial barrages of misinformation like these should at this point be assumed as a standard tactic). there are claims he was shot while handcuffed, a.k.a. executed. police harass young men of color who live in tottenham and brixton on a regular basis. all this, and the riot was actually triggered by cops clubbing a 16 year old girl during a peaceful protest over his death.

    the idea that the rioters are mindless, not “self-assertive,” and consumerist ‘dupes’ is pretty condescending. no they weren’t organized into a political bloc, but the reasons for violence and looting seem a lot clearer to me than they tend to be made out in this and other articles — the violence a response to police violence, the theft because they had the opportunity to take stuff they’re usually (and unjustly) denied (and the state-assisted theft of public funds by private wealth vastly outstrips the millions of pounds redistributed or destroyed by rioters). if the goal is to better organize people like these — and i don’t know if it should be — this litany of insults (a comparison to al-qaeda? really?) seems a funny way of going about it.


    August 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  3. like for example this seems pretty self-assertive:

    Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything: “Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?” “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.” Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ”’ There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.”

    more here along with a more concrete analysis and some reasonable demands.


    August 19, 2011 at 11:53 pm

  4. I disagree with Zizek on a lot, but I don’t think your reading of him is very just. I think the blindness Zizek refers to has more to do with the absence of a concrete political program – this is what we want, this is how we will achieve it. (This was what I was getting at with the “phenomenology of rioting” comment I made in our conversation). Simply saying, “We are expressing our rage at an unjust system” is not enough, at least in his eyes. In some ways Zizek is basically repeating Lenin’s analysis of the Russian Revolution – there were the strategists, the thinkers, the people who really pulled off a revolution, and then there were the bomb-throwing anarchists etc. The idea that the two were utterly embedded in one another doesn’t cross Lenin’s mind, and I think Zizek doesn’t see the relation, either. More importantly, I think neither of them understand to what degree revolutionary “programs” are the result of hegemony contests in an already-active “revolution.” Lenin and the Bolshevik party was the result, not the cause, of the Russian Revolution. I’m sending you something from our translation that you might find worthwhile in this regard – a different kind of look at Lenin and the revolution, still extremely admiring of Lenin, but also capturing very acutely the problems with “political realism.” But the point, for Zizek, is not that the protestors are blind, raging maniacs, but rather, that they don’t have a political program with concrete goals.


    August 20, 2011 at 9:13 am

    • i think you’re only responding to the part of the essay that’s for you — the part that implies the traditional marxist argument against anarchism. but unlike a significant minority of anti-cuts protesters, the rioters weren’t anarchists, so there’s no reason to assume some kind of ideological inadequacy on their part. the rest of the essay is about repeating msm clichés, like the confutation of the rioters and small business owners into a single ‘underprivileged’ mass devouring itself: “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.” the neighborhoods, like any neighborhoods and more so than most, are diverse in terms of race and class. it’s just the racist logic of ‘bad neighborhoods’ to try to collapse the petty bourgeois shopkeepers and the lumpen, student, and working class rioters into the same category. the rioters didn’t destroy and loot ‘their own’ neighborhoods, they destroyed and looted property that didn’t belong to them.

      “But the point, for Zizek, is not that the protestors are blind, raging maniacs”

      he doesn’t use those exact words, but look at what he says: 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,” they’re engaged in “meaningless outburst,” “(self-)destructive violence,” entirely without agency they are merely “a demonstration of the material force of ideology,” they’re “second and third-generation immigrants” pointlessly coddled by “social programmes and integration initiatives,” you can’t trust their own explanations for what they’re doing because they’ll just parrot liberal sociological platitudes, the only thing that separates them from al-qaeda is their nihilism. then he uses that ‘observation’ as a pivot to shit on the arab spring for a paragraph. it’s quite a piece of work.


      August 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    • Yeah, I was more or less drawing out what I read as Zizek’s central point; but reading the essay, itself, I’d say I was being too forgiving. I’d recommend Ranciere’s Nights of the Proletariat for its depiction of the relation between petty bourgeois and the proletariat. In some sense – although only “In some sense” – you have to conflate the petty shop owners and the student “rabble.” They’re often related, literally (as in, they come from the same gene pool). Or, one group of (relatively privileged) immigrants or second-generation immigrants owns the shop while a group of less-privileged immigrants creates the riots. What do you do with the small shop owners? On the one hand, they often represent some of the most reactionary members of society. On the other hand, each little shop, founded on some kind of idea, some kind of principle, is its own attempted (asocial) utopia.

      What I was getting at in the lack of a program – and I realize that there are, in fact, programs – is that, from the point of view of Zizek, this is the problem: Who’s going to step in an fill the vacuum. Of course, I’m arguing that Zizek completely ignores the prehistory of the Russian Revolution, reads the largeness of Lenin only through the largeness that history bestowed on him. In other words, no one was thinking about Lenin as the natural leader of the new Russia in 1903 or 1904. He was dynamic and energetic and charismatic, and I’m sure people close to him saw him as something special. But nothing was determined. For Zizek, this small group of insignificant revolutionaries was actually a massive political movement with a whole army behind it, and this just isn’t true. The writings of Lenin in 1910 were probably less widely-read than, e.g., the writings of Naomi Klein or Hardt and Negri (or Zizek) today.

      In sum: 1) You’re right about Zizek; 2) The MSM’s concern for “small business owners” is generally hypocritical – more a platform for denouncing looters than a sign of actual concern for “small business owners” – but that’s not to say they deserve to be looted. 3) Lack of a program, for Zizek, means lack of one program, as though the revolutions of the past had a single program that they developed and adhered to and followed through to the end. The grumblings of an old man about “the good old days,” which were far worse than he remembers them being. We’re probably agreed on points 1 and 3. I’m interested in your position on point 2.


      August 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm

      • ok, on point 2 — i don’t think they ‘deserve’ to be looted any more (more like less) than i think british soldiers deserved to be shot during the american revolution, or aristocratic families deserved to be executed during the french and russian revolutions. i don’t think warren buffet or barack obama deserve to be beaten or robbed either, and i certainly don’t think bystanders to the riots deserved to have been hurt. but in this case the question of justice really only decides how the rioters will be punished and if anyone is going to care enough to protect them (there is no committee who can determine future rioting policy). mostly unemployed, they’re being persecuted — years in prison for stealing 5 dollars of water, organizing on facebook, students with a precarious grip on middle class aspiration crushed, family evicted because their children participated, etc. it’s brutal. and it’s mostly for looting high street shops. mostly — there was some real brutality — but there’s no controlled, equalized space in which ‘real justice’ can be administered, it’s just straight-up war at this point. and i find it hypocritical for anyone with marxist politics to respond to the destruction of property and violence to property owners by the unpropertied with moral condemnation or, as zizek does, condescension and vilification. even in the abstract, it doesn’t make sense for leftists to permit all this automatic identification with the shopkeepers just because they were victimized; those who assaulted them are getting it far, far worse.


        August 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      • “Or, one group of (relatively privileged) immigrants or second-generation immigrants owns the shop while a group of less-privileged immigrants creates the riots. What do you do with the small shop owners?”

        from what i’ve read, the victims seem more likely to forgive their attackers than anyone else.


        August 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm

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