By Greg Godels
January 14, 2023
With a dismal start to the new year, it was hard to find a ray of hope among war news and parliamentary foolishness.
But gifts often come from unexpected places. My daily dose of CounterPunch— the website co-founded by one of my journalistic heroes, the late Alexander Cockburn– served up a gift: an article by Gabriel Rockhill burying the infamous pseudo-Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, in the dung heap that he merits.
Žižek is an intellectual pederast. By that, I mean that he is one of the latest in a long line of frauds, peddlers, and opportunists who seduce young people hungry for new ideas, for radical thinking, for a vision beyond the staid, ivy-covered walls of academia. He seduces them in the cheapest, most disreputable way, by weaving long, convoluted, purposefully obscure tapestries from manufactured, tortured words and clever, but paradoxical phrases. For the inexperienced, those hungry for a perspective only available to those who with the patience to decrypt, Žižek and his ilk are irresistibly attractive.
Many of us– I suspect Rockhill as well– have fallen under the spell of one or more of these intellectual conjurers in our studies.
As long as there has been a left, there have been the distractors, the obscurantists, the charlatans who derail movements by diverting the energies of promising young people into the weeds of opaque theory.
In my student era, it was thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and others in the so-called Frankfurt School, who painted a dark picture of left prospects, directing radicals towards cultural critiques and the political efficacy of the lumpen proletariat and third world movements and away from working class agency and the then-influential Communist movements. It was not uncommon for young activists to carry unread copies of Marcuse’s books in their book bags to impress their friends.
Later generations of radicals were subjected to “post-Marxist” French and German thinkers, who wrote nearly unreadable texts filled with neologisms and sentences constructed (or encoded) to be deliberately provocative and ambiguous. Much of this was scattered around the vague, but radical-sounding philosophical pole of postmodernism (and post structuralism). Intellectual hipsters collected the profound-sounding works of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others.
The fall of the Soviet Union only encouraged the growth and spread of confusion from thinkers who were intent upon “rethinking,” “reimagining,” or replacing Marxism. Before that devastating event, the existence of a real, existing socialist community was a splash of cold water to the faces of the academic dreamers.
Sadly, the handful of serious Marxists holding university positions are blocked from notoriety, while the poseurs like Žižek achieve celebrity status. And the best practitioners who combine theory and practice, like Michael Parenti, can’t get a teaching job or academic support at any level.
Common sense and experience should show everyone that prestige and recognition in an advanced capitalist country like the US will not find its way to authentic revolutionaries. Marxists like Herbert Aptheker, Phillip Foner, James Jackson, Victor Perlo, Henry Winston etc. never found their books reviewed in the New York Times, or their letters published. Conversely, manuscripts published by elite publishers and billed as dangerously fresh and original, like Hardt and Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press), are invariably a trip towards an ideological dead end.
One can almost measure a thinker or his or her work’s value by its distance from acceptability or celebrity– the more independent and challenging to the status quo, the more distant.
Žižek enjoys wide acceptance by the capitalist establishment as the iconic left thinker, a figure posed as the embodiment of rebellion and resistance to power. Far too many fail to see the contradiction in the ruling class promoting the agent of its demise.
Now comes Gabriel Rockhill, exposing Žižek for the scoundrel that he is.
Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek is a very long, demanding article. To smother the popularity of this intellectual fraud, one must delve into his entire career, his chameleon-like disguises, his shifts and maneuvers, his reliance upon obscure phrases and freshly minted words, his looseness with the truth disguised as “playfulness,” and his limitless opportunism. Rockhill tracks all of this, but at the cost of enormous research and documentation.
Sadly, this scholarship doesn’t fit well into the Twitter world, but no one should give an ounce of legitimacy to Žižek without reading this critique.
Rockhill recounts his own infatuation with Žižek during his formal education, his own encounter with the man, and his disillusion with his virulent anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism.
Amusingly, Rockhill dubs Žižek “the Elvis of cultural theory,” an apt description for someone who appropriated Marxism the same way that Elvis borrowed and diluted rhythm and blues for the amusement of a white, middle-strata audience at a time when the authentic practitioners were denied media access because of segregation and racism.
Žižek’s role in the anti-Communist opposition to the Yugoslavian leadership in his homeland is exposed and elaborated by Rockhill, noting the celebrity philosopher’s deep involvement with the post-Soviet regime and its move toward capitalism.
Further, Rockhill documents the convergence of Žižek’s thinking with US (and imperialist) foreign policy, as well as his near xenophobic Eurocentrism.
The Discreet Charm of the Petty-Bourgeoisie, Rockhill’s penultimate section, takes the reader into the Lacan-Badiou-Nietzsche weeds that are the nourishment of the herbivorous Žižek. Rockhill does his best to render the discussion perspicacious, but I suspect that it is still two removes from clarity. Nonetheless, there are gems of Rockhill’s insights in the section.
I fear that Rockhill’s brilliant takedown may be lost to the tastes for brevity, shallowness, or anti-theory that plague so many on the US left. The fact that the CounterPunch link on its email blast to me took me to the wrong article only underscores my fear.
Read this wholesome, nourishing article!