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10/10/2014 iek and Communist Strategy - Review by Tim Walters - Marx & Philosophy Review of Books 1/4
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
Chris McMillan (ed)
iek and Communist Strategy: On the Disavowed Foundations of Global Capitalism
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2013. 216pp., 19.99/ $35.00 pb
ISBN 9780748682331
Reviewed by Tim Walters
Comments (3)
About the reviewer
Tim Walters
Tim Walters is a College Professor in the Department of English at Okanagan College, in British Columbia, Canada. He writes
about Slavoj iek, film, football, revolutionary politics, and late-capitalism from a Marxist perspective.
Chris McMillans contribution to the rapidly expanding field of iek studies aims to challenge directly what is perhaps the
thorniest of the many criticisms aimed at the Slovenian Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxist theorist, a charge often leveled by his
would-be allies on the radical Left: that his work is good theory, bad politics. (1) McMillan grounds his analysis in an
engagement with ieks entire body of work, and finds thatcontra the prevalent belief amongst ieks detractors in this
regardhis work identifies the path towards a regeneration of Marxist political practice and an effective disruption of global
capitalism in the name of a better future. (1) For McMillan and iek the name of this better future is Communist, although
both of these authors rather struggle to know quite what to do with a signifier of this weight.
McMillan begins with the requisite but still useful account of ieks unlikely ascent to celebrity intellectual status, his
startlingly brilliant and prolific theoretical output, and the academic cottage industry that has begun to accumulate around his
work, including many scholars for whom ieks growing influence is a real worry. Given that the book is framed as a defense of
the value and utility of ieks political thinking, McMillan focuses on confronting those critics who have taken objection to
ieks theory along these grounds, rather than dwelling on those critics who have made less thoughtful charges that he is a
plagiarist and/or a self-plagiarist, that he is a conservative, a fascist of the Left, an anti-Semite, and so forth.
And without question, ieks politics are of a strange order, oftentimes alienating those otherwise in thrall to his exhilarating
and disruptive analysis of the ideological systems of contemporary capitalism from a subversive materialist perspective. While
iek is broadly admired as a counterintuitive diagnostician of our present cultural moment, he has always seemed less assured
when called upon to generate viable alternatives to the crises generated by capitalism, seemingly changing course every few
years to advocate one less than satisfying idea after another. McMillans approach is to divide ieks developing ideas about
how to apply his own brand of Marxism into political strategy into stages: an initial implicit support of [Ernesto] Laclaus
radical democratic project followed by a controversial affair with the Lacanian act, then a rejection of immediate political
action through the notion of subtractive politics and, finally, contentious support for the communist hypothesis. (7)
Notably, it seems that none of these ideas has taken a permanent hold in ieks thinking, and indeed they often appear
contradictory: ieks scathing attacks on liberal democracy seem at least somewhat at odds with his early adherence to
Laclaus radical democracy, and his advocacy of the self-destructive madness of the Lacanian act as a preferred revolutionary
tactic is in some ways precisely the opposite of his endorsement of Bartleby/ subtractive politics, in which the subject refuses
to participate at all.
Although it takes him too long to get therehe spends a good deal more time than is necessary unpacking ieks use of
Lacan and MarxMcMillan is at his best when charting this development, demonstrating real mastery of the many threads and
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nuances of ieks thought, which is no mean feat given his subjects predilection for developing even his most fundamental
ideas paratactically, often across several works of various genres and in different media (documentaries, lectures, newspaper
articles, interviews, dense academic philosophical treatises, short popular books of cultural criticism, etc.). Ultimately, though,
McMillan can only do so much with what iek gives him to work with, and if the book is in some ways unsatisfying this
largely reflect the gaps in the Slovenians theory regarding how we might begin to affect the sweeping, systemic change he is
adamant that we urgently require. (Indeed, this ambivalence seems reflected in the very structure of McMillans book, which
doesnt begin explicitly addressing ieks thinking around political practice until the sixth chapter of eight, and which doesnt
get to the Communism of the title until the penultimate, and shortest, chapter.)
What iek has been absolutely consistent on as regards anti-capitalist activism is his refusal to align his brand of Marxist
theory with any concrete program of action or implementable series of policy recommendations, which seems to me an entirely
reasonable theoretical position to take, regardless of the frustrations it may cause his followers or the ammunition it supplies
his critics. However, as McMillan makes clear, his myriad critiques of capital have at times coalesced around certain liberatory
ideasthe act, subtractive politicswhich do appear like recommendations of specific modes of resistance, albeit of an
unconvincing sort.
ieks promotion of the Lacanian act is ground zero for his critics claims that he has nothing useful to offer those seeking
direction about how to make the world better by freeing it from capital other than violent, totalitarian, revolutionary fantasies. It
also seems to demonstrate an incompatibility between psychoanalytic theory and Marxist political practice, which is a charge
often leveled at iek. The acta moment of madness that cannot be accounted for within conventional reason (138)
typically takes violent, self-destructive forms of limited political utility. The examples iek provides in his discussion of this
concept include Keyzer Soze murdering his own family in The Usual Suspects, Sethe killing her daughter in Toni Morrisons
Beloved, and Jack (Edward Norton) beating himself to a pulp in Fight Club. While each of these may be radical, destabilizing
gestures, none seems to provide much help to those wanting to move the world to a future free from capital, as McMillan
recognizes: the act is quite divorced from predominant Leftist political narratives such as Laclaus battle for hegemony, the
inevitability of historical materialism or managerial Leftism (138). Rather, an act comes with a sudden seizing of the moment
and as such is associated more with revolutionary terror than policy planning and political strategy. (138) While McMillan
suggests rather cautiously that revolutionary uprisings like the Arab spring may be acts of a sort, he clearly understands those
limitations of this idea identified by ieks critics, noting that shooting ones own family provides little inspiration for
responding to capitalism. (140)
iek himself seems of late to have moved on from the idea of the act, but the notion of subtractive politics which immediately
replaced it is a similarly risky gambit. McMillan explains iek argument that we must enact a form of subtractive politics which
attempts to detach a fetishized defence from the Real. those invoking a subtractive procedure actively seek to avoid the
seductive appeal of these fetishistic points, refusing, for example, to engage in the kind of charitable endeavor that lessens the
felt trauma of injustice. (152) The potential downside of non-participation in hegemonic political and economic systems that
iek recommends here is self-evident, as McMillan recognizes: in terms of a policy statement, it is difficult to see how the
ideas of subtractive politics would be any different from a Republican manifesto. (152) The refusal of liberal gestures (voting,
charitable giving, etc.) which may be involved in sustaining the operations of capital by masking or justifying its effects might
be sound theoretically but are an immensely risky political strategy, one that would place millions of lives in danger. (154)
And finally we get to ieks recent interest in Communism, a theoretical path which McMillan argues iek arrives at
circuitously, via a prior commitment to the practice of concrete universality (158) in which we identify the grand
contradictions of capitalism, specifically the mass extinction of the lumpenproletariat and the ecological impossibility of
including them within capitalism, with the systematic operation of capitalism (160). Here the idea is to subversively confront
capitalism with those it excludes but depends upon, thus drawing a direct line between capitalism and these horrors,
suggesting that this suffering is the necessary consequence of the way of life in which we participate. (160) The notion of
iek as self-identified Communist is an undeniably intriguing and exciting one for those of us who would like to see his
theoretical work move towards greater concreteness and consistency in terms of his formulation of a position about
revolutionary Marxist political practice. Despite its promising but somewhat misleading title, however, iek and Communist
Strategy has relatively little to say in this regard, although that is no fault of McMillans. This is a recent turn for iek, and an
approach he has only begun to write and speak about in fits and starts since 2009, the year of an influential conference he co-
organized in London on The Idea of Communism in response to Alain Badious unexpected embrace of the communist
hypothesis in The Meaning of Sarkozy. Since this eventwhich was attended by something of a whos who of Leftist
philosophers including Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Michael Hardt, Jean-Luc Nancy, Antonio Negri, and Jacques Ranciereiek
has begun to integrate the idea of Communism into this work (particularly First as Tragedy, Then as Farce) although it remains
unclear precisely what he means by his use of this loaded term.
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Indeed, the more pertinent issue might be what he will eventually mean by it, as he has not yet fully articulated what this
commitment entails beyond a political identification with the part of no part of capitalism and attendant advocacy of the
dictatorship of the proletariat at the expense of liberal democratic values (168), and reading of Communism as a Utopian
eternal idea (170) which suggests that the emerging crisis of the commons and the contradictions of capital are such that it
cannot go on forever. (179) While McMillan succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which this emergent position logically
follows from ieks consistent interest in radical emancipatory projects, those looking for greater clarity about what precisely
this rejuvenated idea of Communism will look like in practice will be left wanting, a lack that is not lost on McMillan who
concludes that, thus far, iek has no programme, let alone policies his political intervention into communism is located in
an entirely disruptive evocation of the globally disenfranchised and their association with capitalism.(169)
Those waiting to discover how a iekian Communism might facilitate the move from the horrific inequalities of our present
moment to a world beyond capital will need to wait until the release later this year of two new books in which he may more fully
develops these ideas: Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism and Trouble in Paradise:
Communism After the End of History. If iek here decides to turn his theoretical brilliance toward providing something other
than brilliant theory about a Communist future, Chris McMillans iek and Communist Strategy provide a lucid and engaging
account for those who are curious about how he got there, as well as offering a comprehensive explication of the complex
theoretical field from which this idea emerged. However, McMillan suggests that the emergence of a less theoretical iek is
unlikely. Again and again he states that iek does not provide manifestos, blueprints, programmes, policy, or directions for
political action (1, 10, 16, 18, 51, 94, 97, 163, 165, 167, 183) and iek has repeatedly said as much himself. Ultimately, the lesson
of McMillans book might be that perhaps its time we stopped expecting anything different or more from iek than he is
already giving us, since maybe thats enough.
7 October 2014
Carl Davidson wrote, on 9 Oct 2014 at 2:36pm:
Where is the strategy? All I see is...
'Again and again he states that iek does not provide manifestos, blueprints, programmes, policy, or directions
for political action (1, 10, 16, 18, 51, 94, 97, 163, 165, 167, 183) and iek has repeatedly said as much himself.'
As usual, a lot of verbiage, but not much help for organizers.
Peter Thompson wrote, on 9 Oct 2014 at 3:49pm:
So do you need a blueprint or a roadmap?
sarban wrote, on 9 Oct 2014 at 4:05pm:
I endorse Carl Davidson's point. We want self-rule for those who work and produce. It's a structural flaw -
inequality - that needs to be corrected. The psychological aberrations that result from maldistibution of wealth
and power in society, from general social mismagement that is, should not become the primary focus of theory.
The kind of analysis thet interests Zizek is very out of place in a country like India.
Review information
Source: Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Accessed 10 October 2014
This review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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