Review: Slavoj Žižek: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors

Slavoj Žižek’s compellingly persuasive insights into the current refugee explosion, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors, could not arrive at a more urgent time. Whether governments will pay attention to his prognosis is another matter. I doubt that much will be done to alleviate this international tragedy until it becomes totally out of control. Many observers anticipate a massive refugee flow in a few more years when climate change necessitates such movement. It will probably make the current refugee crisis look pretty minor. You have to be a total optimist to believe that governments will act before then.

Źižek draws a fascinating analogy between an incident almost three hundred years ago and a recent one that should still be in most readers’ minds: the 1730s Paris cat massacre and the Cologne incident at the beginning of the year that resulted in German women being harassed and raped by recent Arab immigrants. The cat massacre was provoked “when a group of printing apprentices tortured and ritually killed all the cats they could find, including the pet of the master’s wife.” Their revolt was the result of living in a filthy, freezing room and being fed food that the cats had rejected because the cook had sold the leftovers they were supposed to be given. The apprentices felt that they were treated worse than the cats that were sometimes treated as if they were people. “One bourgeois…had [cat] portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl.” The boys killed the cats. “The cat massacre obviously served as an indirect attack on the master and his wife, and expressed the workers’ hatred for the bourgeois: the masters love cats; consequently the workers hate them.”

The Cologne incident Žižek describes as “a carnivalesque rebellion of the underdogs…a public spectacle of instilling fear and humiliation, of exposing privileged Germans to painful helplessness.” Both parties were victims. Moreover, “the naive attempts to enlighten immigrants (explaining to them that our sexual mores are different, that a woman who walks in public in a miniskirt and smiles does not thereby signal sexual invitation, and so on) are examples of breathtaking stupidity. Immigrants know all this perfectly well—and that’s why they are doing it. They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, and they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. The task is not to teach them what they already know very well, but to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness.” Obviously, that is no easy task.

Źižek describes the immigration problem as a terminal illness. “There is something weird about the solemn declaration that we are at war with the Islamic State: all the world’s superpowers against a religious gang controlling a small patch of mostly desert land….” And this a few pages later, “ The more we treat refugees as objects of humanitarian help, zizekrefugeesand allow the situation which compelled them to leave their countries to prevail, the more they come to Europe, until tensions reach boiling point, not only in the refugees’ countries of origin but here as well.” He refers to this situation as double blackmail. Yet he believes the “refugee crisis offers…Europe a unique chance to redefine itself….”

But before we get to his plan, Źižek patches together a quilt of contributing factors, beginning with “the obscene underside of religions,” post-colonial dependencies resulting in a new era of apartheid: “one in which secluded parts of the world with an abundance of food and energy are separated from a chaotic outside plagued by widespread turbulence, starvation and permanent war.” That’s a rather brilliant analogy, describing the West/non-West split as equivalent to apartheid. Global capitalism is the grounding for ethnic warfare. Failed states are “one of the ways in which the great powers practice their economic colonialism.” Add to the cauldron the insanity of a specific instance of, say, “Turkey…playing a well-planned political game (officially fighting ISIS but effectively bombing Kurds who are really fighting ISIS)….” This is almost as insane as the recent American election. Žižek lets no madness go without at least another blistering absurdity. The transportation of refugees has become a huge business, highly profitable. And the guest workers in some Middle Eastern countries should be identified as what they really are: slaves.

The immigrants are also not without their own moral blinders. “They basically expect to get the best of the Western welfare state while retaining their specific way of life, which is in some of its key features incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare state.” So refugees avoid Italy in favor of Scandinavian countries. A final critique: “One should not forget that the Islamic State is also a big mafia trading company selling oil, ancient statues, cotton, arms and women-slaves, ‘a mixture of deadly heroic propositions and, simultaneously, of Western corruption by products.” What a bloody, hopeless mess.

For me, Žižek’s prognostications imply a huge amount of optimism although he understands that the refugee/immigrant/mass migration problem will not self-correct. He proposes “reception centers” where “thousands have to be registered and scanned; the organized transport of those accepted to reception centres in Europe; and their redistribution to their potential sites of settlement.” How will that work with so many governments refusing to increase the number of refugees they have already accepted? Second, “formulate a minimum set of norms that are obligatory for everyone, without fear that they will appear ‘Eurocentric’: religious freedoms, the protection of individual freedom against group pressure, rights of women and so on; and…within these limits, unconditionally insist on the toleration of different ways of life.” “Don’t just respect others: offer them a common struggle, since our problems today are common; propose and fight for a positive universal project shared by all participants.”

I don’t see factions in the West willing to accept these proposals, though I agree with Žižek’s remark that “refugees are the price humanity is paying for the global economy.” That means “humankind should get ready to live in a more ‘plastic’ and nomadic way….” And if this doesn’t work, “bring class struggle back—and the only way to do it is to insist on the global solidarity of the exploited and oppressed.” Such a remark from a Marxist is no surprise and something we need to seriously consider. To drive his point home, Žižek quotes a refugee a day after the Paris attacks: “Imagine a city like Paris, where the state of exception that reigns there today is simply a permanent feature of daily life for months if not for years.”

Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors is a chilling glimpse into the future. Act now; solve the problem of mass migrations before it is too late and you choke to death on your own racism. So what do you think the chances are that Western governments (holding almost all of the strings) will do that? Sort of like refusing to admit that climate change exists.

Slavoj Žižek: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors
Melville House, 127 pp., $17.99

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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