Contemporary society seems to be constantly on the verge of violence. Outbursts, riots, civil unrest, wars, armed conflict, and invasions have become unavoidable images attached to our world. Every time you open your phone, you learn about a genocide or ethnic cleansing which seems to be taking place somewhere in the world.
According to Slavoj Zizek, we shouldn’t let ourselves be swayed into action by these images. A more silent, invisible violence should be examined before we can challenge the individual outbursts of subjective violence.
Slavoj Zizek on Two Types of Violence
What do we think about when we hear the word “violence”? We think about crime, terror, murder, gunshots, stabbings, international conflict, protests, riots, and assaults. Our imagination has been captured by these images of violence. For Zizek, this is only subjective violence, the most obvious type of violence, “performed by a clearly identifiable agent.” Zizek invites us to step back and perceive the contours in which this violence is expressed. After stepping back, we notice that there are two kinds of objective violence that can be harder to detect: the systemic violence generated by the smooth-running operations of our system and symbolic violence.
Subjective and objective violence can not both be perceived from the same standpoint. Subjective violence is perceived as the disturbance of the normal, against the backdrop of its absence. Zizek compares systemic violence to dark matter. Just like how the movement of the galaxies and other astronomical events can not be explained without dark matter, neither can subjective violence with its outbursts be understood without the invisible systemic violence of everyday life.
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You open up the TV and all of a sudden you see random conflicts, wars, famines, and crises that occur all over the world, seemingly like some sort of Jackson Pollock painting, colors splashed randomly in the contours of the world. People dead in Pakistan, Children starving in Somalia, women killed by Iranian police, an earthquake somewhere left thousands homeless three years later. All these outbursts, which might seem random, are symptoms of systemic, invisible, smooth, clean violence.
How Can Violence Become Invisible?
Zizek gives the account of the Soviet government’s expulsion of anti-communist Intellectuals in 1922, who were forced to leave in a boat to Germany. One of these was Nikolai Lossky, an intellectual and philosopher who had previously lived a life of privilege, with maids and servants. Lossky was a benevolent person who cared for the poor and lived a gentle life of art and philosophy. He was left wondering: what did I do wrong? Indeed, invisible violence doesn’t require individual agents to do anything wrong.
In the wake of Black movements in the US, many white people find themselves asking: “How is this my fault?” This is the question that all benefactors of systemic violence find themselves asking, and they have a right to ask it. From their perspective, they might have done everything right, but somehow, they’re getting accused of doing something wrong. Advanced industrial capitalist consumers find themselves in the same predicament as the rest of the exploited world. The comfortable lifestyle of Lossky, white middle-class people, and people in advanced capitalist countries can only be sustained as long as the systems of domination and exploitation continue to function, continue to export systemic violence elsewhere, tortured peasants in Russia, starving children in Somalia, gang wars in the hood.
“The Losskys and their kind effectively ‘did nothing bad’. There was no subjective evil in their life, just the invisible background of this systemic violence” (13)
Zizek invites us to suspend our commonly held liberal attitudes towards violence, an attitude which only has eyes for subjective violence and declares that all else must wait. This compulsion to act on the obvious, combined with humanitarian calls of emergency, Zizek finds suspicious. It views violence as an act committed by this or that evil agent, by this or that crowd, by this or that leader. It conceals from our view all other forms of violence which go on as usual to reproduce the same subjective violence which liberals try to remedy.
This kind of liberal reaction has become its own meme on the internet. After the death of George Floyd, liberals (and not just them) would post black squares as a sign of sympathy for the violence witnessed. After the war in Ukraine was made official, their profile pics changed to Ukrainian flags. The liberal simply sympathizes with whatever the cause of the day happens to be: violence against an LGBT member, dying children in the Congo, a river poisoned in South America by a US corporation, or a mass shooting. These events are never connected to objective violence. They remain fragmentary, disconnected, random. The liberal often attempts to pathologize the evil people behind the act of violence in an attempt to absorb the event within their framework.
Actress AnnaLynne McCord posted a viral video fantasizing about how Putin’s invasion could have been stopped if he had received enough motherly love. The objective violence which leads to the invasion is swept under the rug. All that remains is a bad person doing a bad thing because they’re bad. This video is just one case of armchair psychology which was immediately invoked to try and decode Putin’s mind. Other articles and papers were written by actual professionals making all sorts of suggestions as to what psychological trigger in Putin’s head might have caused the war. Indeed, they might be correct. Perhaps Putin didn’t get much love from his mother or perhaps Putin has a personality disorder. However, this pathologizing discourse only serves to obfuscate the real objective violence that would and will still be there, Putin or not. Putin is an event caused by systemic and symbolic violence. The actor, the agent is merely accidental. What matters is the place in the structure that they occupy.
Liberal Communists and the Erasure of Violence Through Charity
In Zizek’s words:
“Liberal communists are pragmatic. They hate a doctrinaire approach. For them there is no single exploited working class today. There are only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa – and liberal communists really love humanitarian crises which bring out the best in them!”
If you’re confused by the term Liberal Communist, you should be. Zizek is employing it ironically, to point out a new sort of liberal, the wealthy CEOs and business executives who are dedicated to creating frictionless Capitalism. He’s talking here about Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or George Soros. They give away with one hand what they take with the other.
The remedy to structural problems is just the same structure but with a human face. They want a non-capitalist capitalism, coffee without caffeine, as Zizek would say. They want Capitalism to be able to maintain its structures of exploitation but then remedy the exploitation after it occurs.
Soros divides his working day into one half where he engages in exploitative financial speculation and the other half in his many humanitarian organizations in post-communist countries. Charity is the tool that the “liberal communists” use to fight the overexploitation that they create.
Zizek on Terrorism and Fundamentalism
Reactionary fundamentalists, Zizek argues, aren’t fundamentalists in the real essence of the word: they don’t really hold deep beliefs. He compares their reaction to a meeting between a hedonistic westerner to a Buddhist. The Buddhist would merely note that the hedonist lifestyle is self-defeating, but he wouldn’t hate the hedonist. If you’re confident in your own faith, you neither hate nor envy the nonbeliever; however, many fundamentalists in the western world seem to be doing just that.
The fundamentalists lack true conviction, and their fight against the Other is a projected fight against their own temptation for the sinful life that they’re prohibited from enjoying, all the pleasures which the west dangles in front of them and which they can’t possess. Their violence is proof not of their faith but of their lack of faith. Islamic terrorists do not commit acts of terror because they feel superior to the inferior west but because they feel inferior. The Other has internalized our metrics of moral judgments and sees himself through them.
The white male, the most common demographic committing recent mass shootings, doesn’t see society as degraded as they often claim in their manifestos but sees himself as part of that society. The outbursts are a sign of one’s perceived inferiority towards the Other, how one is seen through their eyes. Elliott Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, is one such example of this.
Terrorism, according to Zizek, is based on the envy of enjoyment which is being denied to the terrorist. Rodgers uploaded a video to YouTube outlining his motives for what he was about to do. He despised women for rejecting him and envied sexually active men. Rodgers perceived himself through the eyes of the Other, unworthy, undeserving of female affection. This pathology for Zizek isn’t personal but fundamentally social. In Zizek’s formula, prohibition of enjoyment becomes enjoyment of prohibition. After Rodger’s attack, many young men started to identify themselves as “incels” or involuntary celibates, men who were incapable of having sexual intercourse with a woman. Far from using the new term in a derogatory sense, incels started to take a certain pride in their status. They now enjoyed their prohibition.
In Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s claims that “If there isn’t a God everything is permitted” is flipped on its head by Zizek. He claims that only through a belief in God can any horrible act obtain moral justification. The Christian and Islamist fundamentalist terrorism hasn’t been stopped by a belief in God, but it has served as a bedrock for the justification of their acts.