Tuesday, October 18, 2005


My opinion on Slavoj Zizek is pretty similar to my opinion on Walter Benjamin. Both of them say some really interesting things, but sometimes I'm left staring at the page/screen thinking 'what the hell is going on'. In Zizek's case me having a rudimentary, at best, knowledge of Lacanian psycho-analysis is no help. However, for those of you who are subsrcibed to New Left review, he wrote an interesting article last issue, entitled Against Human Rights. Now, obviously since it was Zizek the subject matter strayed quite a lot. One thing that I really agree with him on is the role 'rights' play in depoliticising struggles, and de-linking the economic sphere from our attention. As Zizek puts it:

However, the question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

However, I think that Zizek's conception of Human Rights is a bit one dimensional. Insofar as he ignores the positive impact that they can have, in terms of people's lives. This is reminscent of certain Brezhevites, who talk about 'bourgeois' political rights, which we have to counterpose to 'proletarian' economic rights. This is me is nonsense. In a very real sense all rights are bourgeois, inasmuch as their form is rooted in commodity exchange. But this does not tell us everything about their content or their effect in the material world.

Until it is possible to transcend the law it need to be vigorously contested, in line with an explicit class struggle.

However, we should try to transcend the notion of broad generalities of right, becuase (as I have already noted) these rights are indeterminate, and so can be 'captured'. An example can be taken from a recent land law lecture. Here, the lecturer was talking about a generalised 'right' or law for unproductive land to be expropriated and put to better use. Now, on the one hand, this could create good factual situations, where the poor peasantry are able to occupy and use the land of big business (a la Venezuela). Yet the very scope of such a right simulataneously allows capital the power to kick people out of their homes for 'development'.

The 'bad side' of the right is always contained as a 'potentiality' within the right itself but it needs a particular set of circumstances to actualise. What I think it would be interesting to see is how class struggle is able to demarcate the 'scope' of a right, so that its material effect is different. Becuase if content is, to a degree 'up for grabs', people like Zizek might do better to capture the content and engage in critique.

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