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You Can’t Always Get What You Want, or In Defense of False Choices

Žižek on Macron and LePen

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll find you get what you need” — Mick Jagger

Blackmail is ugly. Political blackmail is more than ugly: it undermines the political as a distinct mode of human action, and transforms it into a manipulative battle of insult and insinuation. In a recent piece in The Independent, Slavoj Žižek hurled the charge of political blackmail at French liberals, and their allies, who urge the French left to hold their noses and vote for Macron. Žižek dissents, and draws close parallels between the French runoff, to take place on Sunday, and the 2016 American Election:

 “Le Pen is a far-right Holocaust revisionist. Macron isn’t. Hard choice?”. . . This is liberal blackmail at its worst: one should support Macron unconditionally; it doesn’t matter that he is a neoliberal centrist, just that he is against Le Pen. It’s the old story of Hillary versus Trump: in the face of the fascist threat, we should all gather around her banner (and conveniently forget how her side brutally outmaneuvered Sanders and thus contributed to losing the election).

As a stalwart Sanders supporter, I remember how it smarted to learn how the DNC stacked the deck against Sanders during the primaries and the convention. I thought then, and still think now, that Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate to run in a hinge election fueled by antiestablishment sentiment. Her sense of entitlement, her carelessness, her inability to run anything like a minimally effective campaign, and her neoliberalism-lite wonkish policies, all convinced me that it would be an uphill slog for her, because I thought Trump was a far more serious threat to her electoral success than most thought him to be. So I understand how Žižek might think this a form of “liberal blackmail.” But it isn’t. Not necessarily, anyway.

If one believes in popular sovereignty, then one ought to believe that anyone’s vote should reflect their firm convictions. Thus it is a form of bullying to admonish someone by scolding “you have to vote for candidate X, or else you are aiding and abetting evil!!!” Fellow citizens have their reasons, and one should respect them. But that does not mean one should refrain from making a strong case aimed at persuading them if you think their reasons are bad ones, ones that might bring about catastrophic results. I thought then, and still think now, that Donald Trump was catastrophe personified, for two reasons: first, his authoritarian, quasi-fascist bent, and second, his sheer ineptitude rooted in the deepest of malignant narcissisms. So I do not think proclaiming “Vote for Hillary, or else we get Trump!” is, exactly, “blackmail.” Rather, I think it is an urgent plea to think carefully about both the long and short term results. Which is precisely what voting is all about.

If I were a French citizen, I would conclude, pace Žižek, “no, this isn’t a hard choice.” Mick Jagger is right: you can’t always get what you want. And if you insist on it, you might lose everything you need.

Žižek’s counterargument is that if the Left resigns itself to Macron, the same neoliberal policies of Chirac, Sarkozy et. al. that brought about the hard-Right counter-reaction will continue apace. So, depressingly, in the 2022 election the Front Nationale might be in an even better position to consolidate its gains and inaugurate a nightmare of racism and xenophobia:

Are we not allowed at least to raise the question: yes, Macron is pro-European — but what kind of Europe does he personify? The very Europe whose failure feeds Le Pen populism, the anonymous Europe in the service of neoliberalism. This is the crux of the affair: yes, Le Pen is a threat, but if we throw all our support behind Macron, do we not get caught into a kind of circle and fight the effect by way of supporting its cause?

No, not really. Filling in a scan-sheet bubble on an election ballot is not necessarily a sign of support. The act of voting legitimately encompasses many motivations, from enthusiastic support of candidate X to sheer revulsion at candidate Y. So one is only caught in Žižek’s vicious circle if, after casting one’s ballot, one goes home and twiddles one’s thumbs while the victorious lesser-of-two-evils candidate manages to slowly muck things up. But this betrays an unwarranted constriction of political action to walking to the polling station in regular intervals. It ignores the fact that most successful political action results from grassroots, bottom-up organization, rather than formal participation in the antics of the official state.

Žižek should know this. The fall of Stalinoid communism in Eastern Europe had many causes, but agitation by the citizenry certainly figured as one of them. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. operated outside the explicit machinery of government, but it’s beyond serious dispute that it was the most powerful and successful political force in America during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Civil Rights movement was not unconcerned with who was running for office, but its genius was in viewing voting as only a part, and not the most important part, of being politically engaged. It is unthinkable that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 could have been passed without the movement’s relentless persuasive outside pressure. Similar claims could be made for LGBT rights. Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay and lesbian marriage, would also have been inconceivable without the organizational power of LGBT activists, who changed hearts and minds — and threw sand in the machinery of official Washington. So the first order of business for the French Left should be: having defeated the Far Right, we organize to oppose the dead neoliberal Center.

Žižek will have none of this. He laments that if Macron, as expected, wins the French runoff election, nothing will change: technocracy and austerity will remain the given in French and EU politics. Europe will still languish in the iron grip of financiers and plutocrats. It is as if he is complaining: we can’t get what we want, so our choices are false ones, so the French Left, and the Left generally, would be entirely justified in sitting this one out:

In the hopeless situation we are in, facing a false choice, we should gather the courage and simply abstain from voting. Abstain, and begin to think. The commonplace “enough talking, let’s act” is deeply deceiving — now, we should say precisely the opposite: enough of the pressure to do something, let’s begin to talk seriously, ie, to think! And by this I mean we should also leave behind the radical leftist self-complacency of endlessly repeating how the choices we are offered in the political space are false, and how only a renewed radical left can save us — yes, in a way, but why, then, does this left not emerge? What vision has the left to offer that would be strong enough to mobilize people? We should never forget that the ultimate cause of the act that we are caught into — the vicious cycle of Le Pen and Macron — is the disappearance of the viable leftist alternative.

It is hard to know where to begin analyzing this odd exhortation. First of all, why does “thinking” preclude “acting,” as Žižek seems to imply? In practical matters (like art, and literature, and politics) the two usually go together, with thought directing action and action in turn refining and redirecting thought. Second, does Žižek’s Bartleby-like inclination[i] to do nothing really imply that “we should also leave behind . . . endlessly repeating how . . . only a radical left can save us — yes, in a way, but why, then, does this left not emerge?” One can argue that hasn’t emerged only because it never went away, and will build up steam only if one drops the Bartleby act and gets to the gritty task of bottom-up organizing and mobilizing, forming coalitions, both temporary and lasting, to challenge both centrist orthodoxy and rancid Right populism. Thus the rise of Trump and his minions in the United States has had at least one salutary effect: it has laid the ground for strong, vocal resistance — as long as those resisting, on the left and in the center and even among “never Trump” conservatives, do not fall into the kind of morose factionalism and narrow purism that has undermined many a movement, and which Žižek himself seems to exemplify.

Žižek wants a Hegelo-Marxist Millennium. Now. But you can’t always get what you want. If you try, sometimes, to both think and act in both the long and the short run, you might get what you need. And I believe that what is needed today, in France, is a resounding defeat for LePen; tomorrow, the French Left can take on Macron, with a vengeance. Bon chance.


[i] Žižek cites Bartelby as a model for the Left at the end of his short book Violence (Picador, 2008, p. 183). For a critique of Žižek on this score, see Simon Critchley, “Violent Thoughts About Slavoj Žižek” in Naked Punch , a modified version of which can be found in his The Faith of the Faithless (Verso, 2012). To my mind, Critchley’s take on Žižek is spot-on. It remains unsurpassed, and of continuing relevance to Žižek’s views on the Left.

Michael Quirk

  • Andrew Arato

    Zizek is a fool. Always was. Always will be.

    Macron’s was an important victory for the idea of Europe, and a serious defeat of right wing populism. Maybe he will fail. But we should hope the contrary…..

    • Michael Quirk

      I always try to interpret thinkers charitably, and to give them the benefit of the doubt. Believe me I tried with Zizek, I really did. But I cannot be charitable. Part of it is his inability to hold a single thought for more than a page or two (I strongly suspect he has ADHD). But mostly it’s that anyone who can say, with a straight face, that we should do nothing until a latter-day Lenin makes an appearance, and that right wing populism is no worse than neoliberalism, is indeed a fool.

      As for Macron, I agree — while he might fail, it was a good sign that he won. And he handled that other fool, Donald Trump, masterfully.

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