Zizek’s Pseudo-Analysis of the Syrian Revolution

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A year on, Zizek’s article on the Syrian Revolution as a “Pseudo struggle” probably deserves more critical consideration than it got. Not because it wasn’t widely read, but because I think it was largely read by folks who reactively absorbed it, or who found it so distasteful it was difficult to read without fuming in anger. And to be clear, I’m suggesting reconsideration now not because it was actually good, but because we can perhaps learn more from the interpretive failures and failures of solidarity than from seemingly “good examples”. It’s true that as a whole, the article amounts to an interpretive war against revolting Syrians. Worse, it’s deeply orientalist in the sense that everything “revolutionary” about the Arab spring is expected to centre around Zizek’s own perceptive subject position. It does however, have a good interpretive point about what constitutes revolutionary processes:

“[In the Egyptian Revolution] the explosion of heterogeneous organisations (of students, women and workers) in which civil society began to articulate its interests outside the scope of state and religious institutions. This vast network of new social units, much more than the overthrow of Mubarak, is the principal gain of the Arab spring; it is an ongoing process, independent of big political changes like the coup; it goes deeper than the religious/liberal divide.”

This is basically a good idea – a key part of revolutionary processes is the creation of new social units, new interpretive and relational ways that society can articulate its own interests to itself. What’s wrong with Zizek’s article is that just because he can’t easily perceive these processes going on in Syria, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening there.

“The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. ”

Worse, Zizek doesn’t even actually say that these processes are not happening in Syria, only that these processes are not “clearly perceptible”. But clearly perceptible to who? If Zizek had bothered to speak with activists who organized in the first years of the Syrian revolution, such as Razan Ghazawi, before Assad’s violent repression of protests militarized the struggle, then he would know that these processes were taking place in Syria. Moreover, if he listened to Syrian activists like Yasser Munif, he would learn about the important role of “local coordinating committees”, revolutionary democratic local and accountable committees set up to operate liberated areas.

Another argument in the article which I didn’t recognize when it first came out, or perhaps it just looks prophetic in retrospect, is this commentary on the Taliban and the future of Syria. Zizek disputes the standard reading of the Taliban as just another “fundamentalist Islamist group” enforcing its rule by terror, pointing to a “class revolt” they engineered, exploiting fissures between “a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. In relation to Syria then, Zizek claims that even if Assad “somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years.”

ISIS did not come out of Assad’s victory, although perhaps it is related to the stagnation and failure of the revolution to topple Assad (and perhaps the revolution’s failure to articulate itself in radical emancipatory frameworks that extend beyond religious/liberal divides). It’s worth asking, also, about what class fissures (although tribal and sectarian fissures seem more relevant here) has ISIS exploited?

Perhaps the way to end is with a surprising implication of Zizek’s position on Syria. While he dismisses what he perceived about Syria as “Pseudo struggle”, he also argues that there is no alternative to Revolution for Syrians. The only alternative to the “Taliban” scenario, according to Zizek, is the “radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.”

The only pseudo in here is Zizek’s pseudo-analysis of Syria. One word that does not appear in Zizek’s article is ‘dignity’.

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