Slavoj Žižek and problematic “left” arguments about refugees

I have great respect for Slavoj Žižek’s work, and I think that, despite all the criticisms that come with his celebrity status, he has made an important contribution to scholarly and public debates on a number of topics – not least the ever recurring issue of “global capitalism in crisis”. I have been feeling though lately, reading some of his long commentaries on Greece, that he is somewhat losing his shine – his rhetorically sharp, but substantively empty, defense of Syriza’s u-turn on the bailout comes to mind.

Reading his latest piece in the London Review of Books on refugees has unfortunately confirmed to me that I think it is time to let fresh blood on the scene, and new arguments and theories take the spotlight. In this piece, he uses his well known, if not somewhat overused, rhetorical arguments against left liberalism to package what seem to me the thoughts of a disillusioned radical going down a dangerous path of reactionary self-preservation.

In his sophisticated analysis of the root causes of the refugee crisis – nothing to object there – he inserts some really problematic statements, which have little to do with his generally relevant analysis of the world system.

He claims that “we must abandon the notion that it is inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’. If we don’t, the way will be clear for the forward march of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe.” It’s not clear from his piece, however, what kind of alternative reaction to such problematic positions he is suggesting. His elusive language fuels suspicion that if he were pushed to speak more frankly, nothing positive would come out of it.

Žižek then wholeheartedly embraces the “European way” – that very way he has been critiquing here and elsewhere. He goes on about how refugees should follow the rules of the host countries and avoid engaging in “religious, sexist or ethnic violence” – somewhat implying they are more at risk of doing so than other groups.

Sadly, Žižek’s piece is representative of a wave of problematic arguments about refugees dressed up in left language that is rapidly spreading throughout Europe. This is certainly true in Italy and Greece, especially when apparently humanitarian concerns for the well-being and “choice” of refugees are coupled with quick calls for refugees to leave Italy and Greece asap to reach their “desired” Northern destinations. As an example, just two days ago in the Greek election TV debate, Lafazanis, the leader of the new radical left party Popular Unity, cynically used the metaphor “refugees” to refer to Greek youths leaving the country in search of work, in response to questions and answers on refugees and immigration – this was not a slip, as he used the same metaphor in a press conference some days before. He knows that the metaphor speaks to the feeling of frustration and despair experienced by Greeks living through one of the worst economic crises in Western history, and has no qualms about manipulating those feelings with inappropriate parallels – to feel the full weight of austerity measures in a European country cannot be compared to running away from war.

Žižek’s call for a radical transformation of the workings of capitalism to avoid such crises in the future cannot be taken too seriously in this context. It is used as propaganda to justify dangerous reactionary popular sentiments that intellectual and political leaders are often quick to engage with – for their own short-term political gain or even just to impress their audience.

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