Žižek’s thoughts on the refugee crisis are useless, even harmful, for creating a pan-European leftist movement capable of challenging the far-right.
Photo by Mariana Costa, via Flickr.
In a recent article Žižek replied to the critique of a previous text he wrote on the so-called ‘refugee crisis.’ The exchange between Žižek and his critics essentially revolved around whether the left should support the refugees and migrants’ demands for open borders and the right to live where they choose, or not.
Žižek claimed that the refugees’ dream, represented by “Norway,” doesn’t exist, whereas one critic points out that it is our duty to create it. Particularly problematic is his use of phrases like “our way of life,” “Western values” and figures like “the typical left-liberal.” The most important thing that is missing in Žižek’s text is an analysis of the potentiality of the refugees and migrants’ struggles.
In his response to the criticism, Žižek begins by complaining about the shift from what he calls “radical emancipatory movements” like Syriza and Podemos to “the ‘humanitarian’ topic of the refugees.” This, we are informed, is not a good thing because the refugee and migrant struggles are actually nothing but “the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance” replacing the more genuine “class struggle.”
Why this is the case is left unclear. Rather, we are told that:
[t]he more Western Europe will be open to [immigrants], the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.
There are several problems in this statement, especially the idea of a “we” of “Western Europe” contrasted against an image of a “way of life” somehow shared by all refugees and migrants. Before turning to that problem, however, it is useful to examine one of Žižek’s favorite tropes — the “typical left-liberal” — which sits at the heart of his critique.
Žižek’s “typical left-liberal” — a figure that is reiterated and criticized throughout much of his writing — is a figure who holds tolerant and multicultural views, but whose antiracism is actually a kind of subtle racism. In the piece in question the “left-liberal” humanist figure is a person who is afraid of criticizing Islam and who (according to Žižek) unjustly accuses those who do so of being Islamophobic.
But who is this “left-liberal” Žižek has spent so much time criticizing? On closer inspection this figure does not actually represent any position on the left. The left does not face a problem of too much tolerance, this is a straw man. If anything, it faces the twin problems of nationalism (or a national imaginary) and an inability to adequately critique Western values — problems which Žižek’s text demonstrate.
Žižek’s critique therefore completely misses the heart of the discussion: how to thoughtfully criticize fundamentalist religious views as well as “the West” and “Western values.” Žižek does neither of these.
Žižek places this misrepresented figure of the “left-liberal” on the one side, while countering in with an even more problematic and essentially racist stereotyped figure of the refugee/migrant:
Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.
Now, compare this to a recent statement made by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National:
“Without a policy restricting immigration, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to fight against communalism and the rise of ways of life at odds with … values of the French Republic.”