Slavoj Zizek: Steve Bannon's Brussels plans threaten Europe's liberal legacy

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University.
Slavoj Zizek: Steve Bannon's Brussels plans threaten Europe's liberal legacy
The American far right has spotted a gap in the European market, as the continent buckles from the fallout of mass migration and austerity. For liberals to maintain control, they must ally themselves with the radical left.

Recently, it has been widely reported that Steve Bannon plans to establish a group to coordinate right-wing nationalist populists all around Europe. Based in Brussels, "The Movement," as the body is called, will research and write policy proposals, commission polling, and share expertise on messaging and data targeting. It already employs 80 people and its ultimate goal is nothing less than to radically change the political landscape of Europe, by sidelining the liberal consensus and replacing it with my-country-first anti-immigrant nationalism.

Right now, US public opinion is obsessed with alleged Russian meddling into their electoral process – but just imagine if Putin were to send someone to Washington to act like Bannon in Brussels. Thus, here we encounter the old paradox: the separatist forces of disunity are better at establishing their transnational unity than the forces of international solidarity. No wonder liberal Europe is in a panic.

We are bombarded by the idea that today, in the early 21st century, the precious liberal legacy of human rights, democracy and individual freedoms is threatened by the explosive rise of "fascist" populism, and that we should gather all our strength to keep at bay this threat. This idea should be resolutely rejected on two levels. First, populism didn't hit Earth like a comet (as Joschka Fischer wrote about Donald Trump): its rise is more like a crack in the earth, a flow of lava streaming out – and it is the result of the disintegration of the liberal consensus and the inability of the Left to offer a viable alternative. The first step in fighting populism is, therefore, to cast a critical glance at the weaknesses of the liberal project itself – because populism is a symptom of this weakness.

Illusory free will

Second and more important, the real danger resides elsewhere. The most dangerous threat to freedom does not come from an openly authoritarian power, it takes place when our unfreedom itself is experienced as freedom. Since permissiveness and free choice are elevated into a supreme value, social control and domination can no longer appear as infringing on subject's freedom: it has to appear as (and be sustained by) the very self-experience of individuals as free.

There are a multitude of forms where unfreedom appears in the guise of its opposite: when we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice (to choose our healthcare provider); when we no longer can rely on a long-term employment and are compelled to search for new precarious work every couple of years, we are told that we are given the opportunity to re-invent ourselves and discover unexpected creative potential that lurks in our personality; when we have to pay for the education of our children, we are told that we become "entrepreneurs of the self," acting like a capitalist who has to choose freely how he will invest the resources he possesses (or borrowed) – into education, health, travel.

Constantly bombarded by imposed "free choices," forced to make decisions for which we are mostly not even properly qualified (or possess enough information about), we more and more experience freedom as a burden that causes unbearable anxiety.

Furthermore, most of our activities (and passivities) are now registered in some digital cloud which also permanently evaluates us, tracing not only our acts but also our emotional states; when we experience ourselves as free to the utmost (surfing the web where everything is available), we are totally "externalized" and subtly manipulated.

The digital network gives new meaning to the old slogan "personal is political." And it's not only the control of our intimate lives that is at stake: everything is today regulated by some digital oversight, from transport to health, from electricity to water. That's why the web is our most important commons today, and the struggle for its control is THE struggle today. Albeit an underreported battle.

Off the shelf

The enemy is the combination of privatized and state-controlled commons, corporations (Google, Facebook) and state security agencies (NSA). This fact alone renders insufficient the traditional liberal notion of representative power: citizens transfer part of their power to the state, but on precise terms (this power is constrained by law and limited to very precise conditions in the way it is exercised, since the people remain the ultimate source of sovereignty and can repeal power if they so decide. In short, the state with its power is the minor partner in a contract which the major partner (the people) can at any point repeal or change, basically in the same way each of us can change the supermarket where we buy our provisions.

Liberalism and its great opponent, classical Marxism, both tend to reduce the state to a secondary mechanism which obeys the needs of the reproduction of capital. So, they both thereby underestimate the active role played by state apparatuses in economic processes. Today (perhaps more than ever) one should not fetishize capitalism as the Big Bad Wolf that is controlling states: state apparatuses are active in the very heart of economic processes, doing much more than just guaranteeing legal and other (educational, ecological…) conditions of the reproduction of capital.

In many different forms, the state is more active as a direct economic agent – it helps failing banks, it supports selected industries, it orders defense and other equipment – in the US today than ever before. Around 50 percent of production is mediated by the state, while a century ago, this percentage was between five percent and 10 percent.

Old rope

One has to be more specific here: the digital network that sustains the functioning of our societies as well as their control mechanisms is the ultimate figure of the technical grid that sustains power today – and does this not confer a new power to the old Trotsky idea that the key to the State lies, not in its political and secretarial organizations, but in its technical services? Consequently, in the same way that, for Trotsky, taking control of the post, electricity, railways, etc., was the key moment of the revolutionary seizure of power, is it not that today, the "occupation" of the digital grid is absolutely crucial if we are to break the power of the state and capital?

In the same way as Trotsky required the mobilization of a narrow, well-trained "storming party, of technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers" to resolve this "question of technique," the lesson of the last decades is that neither massive grassroots protests (as we have seen in Spain and Greece) nor well-organized political movements (parties with elaborate political visions) are enough. Instead, we also need a narrow strike force of dedicated "engineers" (hackers, whistle-blowers…) organized as a disciplined conspiratorial group. Its task will be to "take over" the digital grid, and to rip it from the hands of corporations and state agencies which now de facto control it.

WikiLeaks was just the beginning, and our motto should be a Maoist one: let a hundred of WikiLeaks blossom. The panic and fury with which those in power, those who control our digital commons, reacted to Assange is a proof that such an activity hits the nerve. There will be many blows below the belt in this fight – our side will be accused of playing the enemy's hands (like the campaign against Assange for being in the service of Putin), but we should get used to it and learn to strike back with interest, ruthlessly playing one side against the other in order to bring them all down.Were Lenin and Trotsky also not accused of being paid by Germans and/or by the Jewish bankers? As for the scare that such an activity will disturb the functioning of our societies and thus threaten millions of lives, we should bear in mind that it is those in power who are ready to selectively shut down the digital grid to isolate and contain protests. Indeed, when massive public dissatisfaction explodes, the first move is always to disconnect the internet and cell phones.

Or, to put it in the well-known terms from 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left.

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