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An Ode to the Death of Europe and a Concerned Love Letter to Žižek

My dearest Žižek. I worry about you. Lately you have said things that make me concerned that that brilliant mind of yours might have run into overdrive and short-circuited somewhere. Because we all agree that you are brilliant. That´s why we´ve been reading you for years and have relished in your incisive and creative ways of flipping conformist thinking on its head and revealing the dark underbellies of soft thinking. So, please dear, tell me what´s going on?

I saw you on Channel Four saying that we need to zoom out from the images of rescued refugees on the Mediterranean sea and see the larger cinematographic frame – the Marxist social totality. I couldn´t agree more. Why then, have you delved into the murky waters of cultural difference? Can´t we please leave that for the mad right-wingers and the soft-hearted liberals? If we want to see the social totality, then shouldn´t we talk about two things? 1. The filthy rich capitalists who are robbing us. 2. What Europe really is (as opposed to what she loves to claim to be).

I don´t think we need to spend much time discussing question one – we obviously agree on the need to abolish capitalism, preferably as soon as yesterday. However, I have a creeping sensation that we disagree on issue number two. In your piece last year, “In the Wake of the Paris Attacks, the Left Must Embrace Its Radical Western Roots”, you wrote:

Global capitalism has no problem in accommodating itself to a plurality of local religions, cultures and traditions. So the irony of anti-Eurocentrism is that, on behalf of anti-colonialism, one criticizes the West at the very historical moment when global capitalism no longer needs Western cultural values in order to smoothly function. In short, one tends to reject Western cultural values at the very time when, critically reinterpreted, many of those values (egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc.) can serve as a weapon against capitalist globalization. Did we already forget that the entire idea of Communist emancipation as envisaged by Marx is a thoroughly “Eurocentric” one?

Your rescue project is premised on the assumption that it is possible to separate egalitarianism, and the notions of freedom and equality as they sprung out of the Enlightenment and European modernity, from the development of trans-Atlantic slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and capitalism itself. I´m sure you might denounce me as just another leftist trying to assuage my own guilt by crying out the horrors of European exploitation (as I´m sure I am), but my criticism is not in the post-modern vein of refusing the notion of the universal. Rather, I´d like to take the opposite position, and ask what it would mean for the ideals of freedom and equality to be truly universal.

So let´s start at the beginning. One reading of the fact that the horrors of trans-Atlantic slavery co-existed with the Enlightenment and the virtues of the ideals imbued in the French revolution is to say that this was simply just an example of European hypocrisy and their failure to extend the same ideals to the people they subjected and exploited in the rest of the world. This meaning that the ideals of freedom and equality were not tainted in themselves, but rather there was just a lag in their expansion (and Europeans´ ability to realise that other people are people too). Susan Buck-Morrs provides a good example of this type of reading when it comes to the French response to the Haitian revolution, and Hegel´s refusal to see that the only logical conclusion to his thinking would be for the black slaves of Haiti to revolt and claim their freedom (as indeed they did). Hegel´s blatant racism, placing Africa and black people outside the realms of both humanity and history, here somehow just stood in the way of reason. Now this reading makes rescuing the ideals themselves unproblematic. It simply becomes a matter of agreeing that they apply to everyone, and that the late 18th Century thinkers of the Enlightenment were just unfortunately a bit slow in realising that slaves are people too, most likely because of the strong economic interests of the French and British in keeping the slave trade going. So through such a reading, you can argue that the ideals of the European Enlightenment is a legacy that is worth fighting for.

Now, what if those ideals were not as innocent as all that? And I´m sorry, but this is exactly where I thought you would adore the chance of tearing conformist ideas about Europe apart. But maybe I was wrong about you.

Following Fanon and contemporary thinkers such as Frank B. Wilderson III, Sadiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and others, the Enlightenment and European modernity constituted the modern subject in opposition to the slave. What freedom meant, and what being a human being meant, was premised on having an opposite – the non-being of the slave. For whiteness to be imbued with value, and to have coordinates in the world, it constituted itself through modernity by positing its opposite. Now this kind of reading does not allow for the Enlightenment ideals to be disentangled from slavery, not simply in the economic sense, but in the more fundamental sense of what it means to be human. Through this reading, the ontological abyss that was set up through European modernity, that relegated the slave to the zone of non-being, did not change with the end of neither slavery nor the end of colonialism. Rather, the same structure still imbues whiteness with value in a way that would not collapse with the end of capitalism. For this relation to change, the end of capitalism is not in itself sufficient, rather the end of the world itself is necessary, as Fanon argued.

In his defense of you, Adam Kotsko makes the point that embracing the European heritage for you means to do so, “(…) so long as we recognize that the true European heritage is the heritage of egalitarianism and revolution.” What I am trying to argue here is that this is simply false. There is no “true European heritage” that can be nicely disentangled from Europe´s domination and exploitation of the rest of the world. The universality of freedom and equality only come to fruition with the death of Europe and the notion of Western civilization. Now if a revolution should bring the world to an end in this sense, that would collapse whiteness completely, the universal values of freedom and equality could be conceptualised. Through a dialectical reading the move from the particular to the universal would be possible, where the Haitian (not the French) revolution would be the example of the universality of freedom and equality. The subject so far having been relegated to the zone of non-being would be the one to tear the structure apart, and that revolution would not spare the likes of me and you.

Then, to the question of whether the entire idea of Communist emancipation is a Eurocentric one. Does you mean that it originated in Europe, or that the hope of bringing capitalism down comes from (part of) its core? I guess for a European communist, it would be desirable to envision capitalism being squashed from Europe, not least to try to inspire some hope of radical politics making a difference now that the neoliberal horrors of structural adjustment (that most countries in Latin-America and Africa have had much worse rounds of) have come home to roost in Europe. Don´t get me wrong, I was incredibly hopeful and in awe when the Greeks went to the polls last year and voted OXI. But then Syriza turned on them. And as much as Podemos and Corbyn are inspiring, we have come to the extreme position where even arguing for a full welfare state looks incredibly radical. And then we are back to the dependency theorists of the 1970s, – is the working class in the core capitalist countries not in fact benefitting immensely from the exploitation of the rest of the world? For Hosea Jaffe, not just the European economies, but even European democracy itself could not have emerged and sustained itself without the foundation of capitalist exploitation of the rest of the world. He read South Africa during apartheid as a mirror of the world, with its white “democracy” at the core, dependent on the slave-like conditions of the blacks of both South Africa and the region. Now, despite the relative and increasing poverty of the European precariat, to what extent are they (we!) willing to give up the privileges that being a citizen of the core gives? With an increasing transnational elite of capitalists that use the fluidity of globalization to avoid getting taxed in any part of the world, and with many EU and American politicians in their pockets (how else could TISA come up), it would seem that the only hope is not the European left, but rather a real internationalism of the exploited. And I´m sorry Žižek, but after five hundred years of European enslavement of the rest of the world for our own purposes, our credibility in leading the revolution is simply non-existent. Not only capitalism must fall, but whiteness and the concept of Europe as such.

So, – a toast to the true universality of freedom and equality, and to the end of Europe as we know her.

With much love,

Maria

More articles by:

Maria Dyveke Styve is pursuing a PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway.

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