Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: September, 2015

Howard Jacobson is the worst living writer

Linger but a while, dear reader, on these words – and forgive me my presumptive apostrophising, but the fact, crude as it may be, yet remains: you are my sadly anonymous reader, and I am the great and lauded novelist Howard Jacobson, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, once the winner, fêted by the literary establishment for my wry and incisive wit, my charming, bittersweet empathy, my deft dabbings of sentiment, my scarf, my beard, and all my other many enlivening qualities. I’ve read Ulysses. By this point you might already feel an exhaustion, or a poison bulge of resentment suppurating in the back of your throat; you may long for me to get to the point. But I beseech you, put this aside. Learn, as King Solomon is said to have learned, that all things must pass. I’ve also read Middlemarch. The point may never arrive, or it may only come in the final sentence. What a life this might be if we could grow beyond humanity’s unfortunate predilection for the pointed! No more blades to cut and wound, nor razor-wire to keep us apart from one another, only soft, sagging flesh, or the generous shade of trees, which I adore, oaks especially. Did I, perchance, mention that I’ve read Ulysses? It is, in many ways, the point (there it is again) of apotheosis of the grand Victorian humanist novel, and might you discern something of Leopold Bloom in my humble self? Reader, perhaps you may. A learned toleration, a mournful libidinality, a gentleness and goodness that so faintly lingers from a time now past. How I yearn for a world of peace and unity! But, malheureusement, that is not the sphere on which we have sprouted. So in the meantime, please allow me to nurture this seedling of a scintilla in your intracranial folds, let it grow and take root: we must shoot the proles and nuke the Gaza Strip.

There’s something uniquely repulsive about Howard Jacobson’s weekly columns in the independent. His books are bad, but they’re bad in the normal way, the way in which basically all recent capital-L Literary novels are bad. Like Donna Tartt, or Jonathan Franzen, or Haruki Murakami, or Karl Ove Knausgård, or that one that you quite like. The way in which any lingering (post-)modernist concern for the questions of what a text is and what its possibilities might be are shunted aside in favour of minute observations about family life and sexual neuroses occasionally jumbled up with flatulent pronouncements on the Human Condition. It’s a little like a return to the traditions of 19th century realism (an era in which, as now, the only actually worthwhile English novels were shoddily produced, amateurishly written, and shamelessly pulpy), but more than that it’s the dying pant of the novel as a dominant literary form. Howard Jacobson’s particular shtick is that all his novels are a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male; it’s like Philip Roth on benzodiazepines. Shoddy but not unusual. But as a columnist, he’s the absolute worst in Britain, and very possibly the world.

This isn’t something I say lightly. As you’d expect from a class of people who, looking out at a planet full of constant horror, mostly see the chance to have a correct or profitably offensive opinion about it, the professional commentariat is a gallery of monsters and imbeciles. Katie Hopkins, circling the drowning refugees in her speedboat as she cackles through plasticky gums. Jeremy Clarkson’s jeans, which have long sunk into his skin and colonised his organs, so that he’s now just denim all the way through, entertainingly calling for the mass extermination of this week’s despised minority. An army of broadsheet bores, endlessly droning in the imperative mood, telling the public and the government and the opposition what they should and shouldn’t do, as if having a column in a daily newspaper confers some kind of spiritual leadership. Simon Jenkins. Jonathan Jones. Me. But Howard Jacobson isn’t satisfied with the usual conventions of the bad opinion column; he’s a Booker-winning novelist, deigning to bring his subtle art to this most debased of forms – mostly by draping run-of-the-mill reactionary opinions in the kind of sanctimonious waffle that makes you wish for the sleek, punchy polemicism of a Richard Littlejohn or a Melanie Phillips. Howard Jacobson could write two thousand words on how a square has four sides, tack on some class chauvinism or virulent anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and produce something virtually indistinguishable from his usual output. Howard Jacobson is Britain’s worst living writer.

It’s sadly not possible to go through every single one of Howard Jacobson’s terrible columns, but luckily in the last month alone he’s managed to produce some of his stupidest crap to date. I’ll start with the fluff. Exhibit A, a column from the 18th of September, titled ‘I don’t understand this ‘LinkedIn’ and the way it evokes memories of childhood rejection in me.’ This is a late contribution to the genre of Old People Vocally Infuriated By The Internet, and has apparently come to us through a wormhole leading to the year 2006, when it was last acceptable for apparently serious newspapers to print sentiments along the lines of ‘What’s all this Face-Book nonsense? Why don’t you just read an actual book, with your actual face?’ It also bears a strange resemblance to the slogan t-shirts still sold (but to whom?) in Camden Market and souvenir shops, the ones with messages like ‘Forget Google – ask my wife!’ or ‘You looked better on Facebook’ – although these at least have the virtue of brevity. In his essay, Jacobson describes receiving an (almost certainly automated) email from some unknown person inviting him to use the social networking service, and while he refuses, he’s still wracked by guilt, by ‘the idea of someone hanging on, anxiously eyeing the mail every morning, wondering if you received the original request, wondering if you’ve responded yet, wondering if you ever will’ – which is naturally bound to bring a Proustian reminiscence of ‘all the rebuffs and repudiations one’s suffered – in my case a half a century of unrequitedness.’ Jacobson isn’t just confused by what the website does, he can’t even work out its name – but because he’s an award-winning writer, he’s befuddled in a profoundly literary way. ‘Never having heard it spoken, and possessing no instinct for cyber semiotics, I couldn’t make out the word the letters added up to.’ Eventually he decides it’s ‘a Finnish translation of the name of a princess from One Thousand and One Nights […] the Princess Link-a-din.’ A simple two-word phrase is too much for him, which raises the unsettling implication that this lauded men of letters is actually functionally illiterate.

Jacobson’s inevitable prescription is to log off. ‘Only deconnect,’ he says (see what he did there?). ‘Out in the free, uncompromised world of the unlinked no hell-troll can hound the mildest Corbyn sceptic.’ Which is a strange way of framing things, given that earlier in the month Jacobson had written an article neatly slotting the then-leadership candidate into his grand overarching mythos, a kind of fantasy world in which the political Left, and in particular the Palestine solidarity movement, is motivated solely by a foaming hatred of the Jews. (And what about those anti-zionists who, like myself, happen to be Jewish? In his novel The Finkler Question, we’re represented in the title character’s former incarnation as a greedy, egotistical Shylock character, cynically deploying his Jewishness to curry favour with pro-Palestinian Gentiles while in fact pathologically hating his own people. In Kalooki Nights a similar figure, a cartoonist desperate to expunge his unwanted Jewishness onto the page, discovers to his horror that the people commissioning his work are overt antisemites. In other words, we’re just self-haters. In which case, Howard Jacobson is just another cop putting fences up around the borders of Jewish identity.) The point, when he gets round to it, is this: let’s say Corbyn is not himself an antisemite – although of course it’s not ‘possible to guarantee the complexion of another’s soul’ – but why does he spend so much time hanging out with people who are? Why does he want to boycott Israel but not Hamas? It’s a boring and boorish smear, cribbed directly from our more frenzied tabloids; what Jacobson does, in his inimitable style, is add insufferability to stupidity. ‘The offence you take at any imputation of prejudice is the hollow hypocrite’s offence,’ he says to Corbyn, ‘and your protestations of loving peace and justice, no matter who believes them, are as ash.’ A solid effort, but it could be improved by using the full phrase, beloved by teenage poets for decades, ‘as ashes in my mouth.’ The Booker Prize comes with an award of £50,000. There’s no justice.

Jacobson never outrightly states that Palestine solidarity is driven by antisemitism (he’s far too literary for that); he just occasionally wonders, or considers, or innocently questions the motives of this or that person, again and again, in column after column, a lone man in a small cell farting out little insubstantial clouds of suspicion until the accumulating stink fills the room. From his attack on Corbyn: ‘The truism that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is repeated ad nauseam. Nor, necessarily, does it. But those who leave out the “necessarily” ask for a universal immunity. Refuse it and they trammel you in the “How very dare you” trap.’ How very dare you indeed. When footage emerged of a young Queen performing a Nazi salute, Jacobson did all the requisite forelock-tugging – ‘I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know’ – before, in the last two paragraphs, saying what he really sat down to say: British Jews like Howard and I shouldn’t be worried about the be-swastika’d upper classes, but we should be terrified of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the political Left (where antisemitism ‘goes by another name’). In 2009, immediately after a war that killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis, Jacobson wrote a column with the title ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’ Within, amid the usual self-inflating pontification, he described comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘the latest species of Holocaust denial.’ In 2011, he wrote a kind of open letter to his fellow author Alice Walker, begging her not to join the aid flotilla to Gaza that would shortly be subjected to murderous State piracy in international waters. In particular, he focuses on the fact that the flotilla was carrying ‘letters expressing solidarity and love’ for children in Gaza. This offends his egalitarian instincts. ‘Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity?’ What really grates Jacobson about the anti-occupation movement is its certitude, the way they’ve entirely made up their minds – how gauche, how unsophisticated; they should, like him, airily flit between parties, make a big show of holding them up to equal scrutiny, before inevitably fluttering to rest on the side of the nuclear-powered colonialists rather than the people they’re occupying.

Not that Howard Jacobson’s prejudice is limited to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: he has plenty of scorn for the poor and tactless here at home. Take another piece, also published in the last month, on lad culture at British universities. For Jacobson, the problem with sexual assault on campus isn’t the sexual assault, it’s the fact that it’s happening on campus. The problem is that universities are no longer for the elite, but have been invaded by a tide of oversexed oiks. He looks back fondly on his days as a student at Cambridge, when everyone at university was shy, scrawny, studious, celibate, and not ‘interested in the carnivals of the proletariat.’ In his telling, over-serious middle class boys never rape anyone, only the feral underclasses. Jacobson and his dweeby cohort were, he says with all apparent seriousness, just like Paul Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers – a strange citation, given that Morel wasn’t exactly a standard-bearer for good sexual ethics. ‘Where have men of this sort gone?’ (They’ve probably all escaped to Link-a-din.) He continues: ‘In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there.’ Besides his thoughtless class hatred, Jacobson betrays an incredibly impoverished attitude to literature – the idea that it exists to turn us into kinder, milder, gentler people, that great art ought to be a kind of primitive Xanax. (Should someone tell Howard Jacobson what DH Lawrence actually got up to? Maybe instead of Sons and Lovers he should have read Women in Love, which towards the end features another wealthy and bookish young man attempting to strangle his girlfriend to death.) He ends with a defiant insight: ‘Sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.’ Midway through the act? Maybe he’s freakier than I thought.

Unlike the best tabloid columnists, real masters of their craft, Howard Jacobson never entertainingly rolls around in the muck of his own hatred. Instead, against all the evidence, he insists that he’s a good right-on liberal – a socialist, even. After all, how could anyone be prejudiced when they have such a profound love of words? Even if it’s a love that he expresses in the same way Paul Morel expresses his love for Miriam: by imposing himself on them. But the real question isn’t why Jacobson is so bad; it’s why people still seem to respect him despite his total worthlessness. If this is how our heroes write now, then literature ought to be put out of its misery. In a way, Howard Jacobson really does perform a trenchant and incisive critique of our society – but it’s not in the things that he writes, it’s in the reaction to them.

One last one. Jacobson’s most recent column, published over the weekend, is another ebulliently witty broadside against any and all criticism of Israel. This time, his ire is drawn by a Spanish clowning troupe who protested by stripping naked in front of the apartheid wall near Bethlehem, inadvertently upsetting some local residents. Cue the usual whinging about the fiendish complexity of the situation, and how ‘meddlesome’ it is for anyone other than Howard Jacobson to take a moral stance. But before he gets there, a brief detour on the virtues of staying shtum when you don’t have anything of value to contribute, in this ‘age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge.’ Jacobson quotes Wittgenstein, or, at least, a scrap of Wittgenstein he picked up somewhere else: ‘I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up.’ Physician, mate, heal thyself.

Advertisements

GOP 2016: Give Iran the bomb

I watched the latest Republican debate on a glitchily illegal stream from a dull and unassuming corner of north London. The debate was long, lasting roughly four thousand years; when the victor poked his head up from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the vast and mighty empire he had sworn to protect was long extinct, remembered only in Chinese textbooks and a few quirks of heraldry. And the time difference didn’t help; by the time it finished I was utterly exhausted, feverish and all but insensate. It’s hard to talk about what happened during the debate, when I can’t really be sure that any of it had happened at all. For instance, I could swear that at one point the CNN moderators had let eleven wild hogs loose onto the stage, and announced that the Republican nomination for President would be given to whichever candidate first wrestled their animal to the ground. Mike ‘Gabagool’ Huckabee bullishly nutted his hefty porker of an opponent in the back of the head: a meaty thump as two thick craniums collided, echoing with two sets of identical, frantic squeals. Rand Paul, caprine and trembling, faced his pig with hollowed cheeks and hungry eyes; they seemed to weave circles around his podium, fleeing and pursuing at the same time. Donald Trump’s pig just took a place by the man’s side, reared up onto its back trotters, and started oinking along to his speeches. I looked from pig to man and man to pig, but it was impossible to say which was which. That was when I realised that the fatigue had got the better of me: for the last twenty minutes, I had been watching the debate with double vision.

So much of the debate was like that. Did Ted Cruz really try to bolster his arguments by referring to an editorial cartoon? Did Jeb Bush really say that his brother had kept America safe by referring to 9/11? Was there really a long period in which everyone was fantasising about live brain harvesting? Were the candidates really asked what they’d like their Secret Service codenames to be? Did John Kasich really say Unit One? Did Rand Paul really say Justice Never Sleeps? Did Carly Fiorina really say Secretariat? Secretariat? But all I had to do was look on Twitter, and there it was. Once, political candidates spoke entirely in soundbites for the evening news, and that was bad enough. Now, their campaign teams are busy at work as the debates take place, frantically pasting their quips and dribbles onto stock photographs and dumping them online, to be shared and faved by the faithful. As the Situationists knew, any large enough collection of images creates a miniature reality, and these worlds are not required to make sense. Each candidate stood in the centre of their own pocket universe, each fundamentally identical, each identically insane. For someone with an interest in any of these lazily arranged gargoyles, it must have all made perfect sense. For me, it was like staring into a black hole.

It wasn’t really taking place in Simi Valley; we were on the ramparts of Elsinore. A new staging, the worst in history, in which everyone was trying to be Hamlet. First, the ghost of Ronald Reagan, clanking before the gates in his Air Force One-shaped armour, blood and senescence dripping from its joints, finally lifting his visor before his children to reveal a black maw, flesh dripping in streaky rivulets from fang to void. He wasn’t an entertainer who turned into a politician, he was entertainment itself, forgetting everything that precedes it, annihilating everything it faces, politics included. And then the ghost vanishes, and the play begins: eleven Hamlets all at once: they feign madness, they spurn words for bloodshed, they blankly dispatch their one-time friends, they cynically condemn women to a needless death, they dance with poisoned swords. But it’s all idiocy, and the result doesn’t matter: outside, the armies of Fortinbras have taken the walls.

It’s easy to say, with a dismissive shrug, that the Republicans are crazy. But they’re not, and the truth is far worse: they’re all pretending to be crazy. In the pre-debate, the warm-up freak-parade before the main event, each lesser candidates jostled to be crazier than the last. One of them (Lindsay Graham? Bobby Jindal? Does it matter? A beast with four heads and one voice) announced that Iran would only respect America if it started unilaterally ripping up international treaties. Another said that the Iranians would only be cowed by an American president who could bite the head off a newborn baby. Look at me! I’m crazy! I want to nuke the Sun! I’m even crazier! I repeatedly run at electrified fences! I shit the bath! I eat rocks! Early in the debate proper, Rand Paul responded to the idea that the nuclear agreement with Iran should be immediately cancelled by saying ‘I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless.’ It was a weird moment: vaguely sane sentiments coming from the mouth of someone named after a woman who tried to turn psychopathy into the highest moral virtue, whose utopian New Sodom could only exist, even in fiction, with the help of a perpetual motion machine. There was no applause. The crowd stared, with the ravenous confusion of ten thousand starving hyaenas. Faced with the prospect of a weaponised Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina insisted that she had ‘a lot of faith in the common sense and good judgement of the voters of the United States of America.’ Meanwhile, the candidate that the voters of the United States of America have said they prefer – by double-digit margins – proudly thrust a steaming bowl of turds towards the camera. ‘I’m rich,’ he announced. ‘I’ve gone potty in many countries, all over the world. I could make a potty as big as the moon, if I wanted to.’

The other candidates knew better; their Howard Beale shticks were immaculate. They ranted about mass deportations, wars of extermination, burning flags, burning everything, the end of the world, and then insisted that Iran must not be allowed to enrich plutonium, because it’s ruled by a fanatical doomsday cult. (Honourable exception: Ben Carson, who just mumbled about nothing in particular with the breathy, halting affectlessness of a six year old child trying to read a phone book, and should probably give up rhetoric for his far less demanding day job as a paediatric neurosurgeon.) For all that they claim to love the American people, the thing these people actually addressed was an ugly caricature, and, like fast food or architecture, politics tends to create the people that it panders to. Driven by packs of bankers and witless condescending liberals from plywood mansions to breeze-block slums; bloated on imperial superprofits and dodgy credit; taunted by a myth of Rugged Individualism, deserts and danger, big leprous skies and the open road, as they teem like farmed salmon in the sluices of human history’s most advanced and uncaring bureaucracy; convinced that there’s nothing beyond America’s shining shores but threat and violence and, somewhere, a little gremlin of an ayatollah laughing at their ignorance. A creature that needs pills to fuck and foreign wars to not mind. It craves death, not in the sense of any flouncy romantic void, but megadeaths, irradiated zones, mutilated corpses on live TV. It doesn’t want a president, it wants a holy madman, a barbarian warlord, and a hug.

But it’s not enough to blame the voters. This is the eliminationist impulse of the terrified metropolitan liberal classes, every bit as vicious and bloodthirsty as the proles they despise, but less willing to cop to it: democracy doesn’t work, gas them all and bring in some drab rational middle-managers to return the country to prosperity. But in fact, the feigned frenzy of the Republican Party is just an American version of the administrative technocracies already imposed on much of the rest of the world. It’s not that the political right has gone insane; insanity has come to function as an effective substitute for politics. Case in point: Donald Trump. Earlier in the race, he said of the the Vietnam War veteran (and good friend of Ukrainian neo-Nazis) John McCain – who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down during an attack on civilian infrastructure in Hànội – that ‘he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.’ Normally this would have ended his campaign; the one solid law of American politics is that you do not criticise The Troops. But his surge carried on unabated. He didn’t even have to apologise. This isn’t even liberal democracy any more: everyone involved is just form, blank and total, without any possibility of content; language without signification, madness without a psyche. This holds across the spectrum: Hillary Clinton, a blinding-white astral demon made of chicken gristle and wax-paper, doesn’t even pretend that she’s running for any reason beside her own personal hunger for power. She wants to rule the world; it’d be hers by birth, only she wasn’t born, she emerged like a lizard out its egg from the cold undeath of money, fully formed. Her entire campaign is less advertising than a judicial sentence. We have been condemned to four to eight years of Hillary Clinton, because it’s her turn now. There’s not much that’s good about the Republican party, but at least they’re from this planet.

During the debate the biggest issue was (of course) Iran, and the deal that had just been agreed that would prevent Iran from building any of the nuclear weapons that it wasn’t building anyway. This incensed most of the candidates, who seemed to think that eliminating Iran’s nuclear capacity was only worthwhile if it took place in the context of eliminating Iran as such. Which raises the question: what’s the point of making sure Iran can’t have the bomb, if we’re then just going to give it to Mike Huckabee, or Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton? Watching the debate as it ended, as the streets outside me filled with cars and chatter, normal people with something to live for, my head throbbed and my teeth chattered and the parade of lunatics onscreen seemed to turn to me and hiss vague personal threats through secret corners of their mouths obscured by the blurry low-resolution feed and I thought: give Iran the bomb. Not that it matters, but the country is a plateau of stability in a region turned to jelly by successive waves of imperialism; surrounded by Isis on one side, the Taliban on the other, and Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, Iran may as well be a Denmark on the Caspian. Not that it matters, but an Iran with an independent deterrent, safe from attack and invasion, no longer cowed in the shadow of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, might be the only thing that can save the human species. Not that it matters. Give Iran the bomb, because when the sun came up all I could see was a mushroom cloud, the flash before the devastation, and if we all go out together and the fire laps from pole to pole, I don’t want it to be because of Donald Trump.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

%d bloggers like this: