Mélenchon and Žižek; Accelerationism and Edgelordism

There’s a particular set of attitudes or postures which I’ve always known as Ultraleftism. A central element of this is the notion that the masses need to hit rock bottom in order to gain consciousness of their plight, that things will only start to get better when they get as bad as they possibly can.

This idea seems to be undergoing a revival, particularly online. I recently learnt a new word: edgelord. It designates someone who, in the words of urbandictionary.com, “uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person”.

The term seems to have derived from the forum 4chan, the breeding swamp of the ‘alt-right’. It’s inevitable that in the face of the various crises assailing humanity disaffected teenagers feel inclined to sound like they can tough out armageddon, and hence it’s routine to see expressed on Facebook pseudo-nihilistic sentiments like ‘the human race is a blight on the planet’ or sub-Nietzschian statements like ‘morality is for assholes’.

However, there’s also an ideological rationale for such outbursts: Accelerationism. Derived partly from Deleuze and Guattari, this is a dense and complex theory with a number of variants but in simple terms it proposes that the self-destructive processes inherent to capitalism should be accelerated in order to provoke radical social change, that (as Steven Shaviro puts it here) that “the best way to shorten capitalism’s lifespan is to push it to the extreme”.

Someone else who has written on the subject and who you can see here addressing it in a excerpt from a speech which actually accelerates in speed and incoherence towards the end, is Slavoj Žižek. Although he seems to dismiss the notion of accelerationism in that clip, an exemplary instance of it in a contemporary poltical context is his endorsement of Trump. It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another semi-serious pantomime attempt to provoke his audience. However, if we link it to his purposefully obnoxious statements about those who help refugees, we can see accelerationism (or, as I would call it, ultraleftism, and possibly more than a little edgelordism) at work. It is of course essential to remember that Žižek is cleverer than his audience, and that he wants to stay ahead of it at every turn. When he attacks ‘liberals’ and bemoans the failures of ‘the Left’ it is those who read his books, attend his lectures and share his videos that he is targetting (and blaming). For all his crypto-Maoist invocations of a divine revolutionary ‘event’, he knows that there can be no ‘True Left’ and we are no more about to try to build one than he is to command it. He is leading his (mostly young and in many cases very impressionable) audience on. He is, after all, whether he accepts the responsibility or not (and I believe that his trolling his followers in this way is a characteristically perverse way of rejecting the role), a political leader and the people he leads are, whether he or they accept the label or not, pretty much all left-liberals*.

Recently in France there has been a surge of support for a more conventional left-wing political leader: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He has a proud history of fighting fascism, but in the wake of his failure to make the second round of the presidential election he has refused to back the centrist candidate, leaving wide open the possibility of a fascist victory on Sunday. One common argument from his followers is that there is no point voting against the far-right now as they will only grow in strength over the next five years of ‘neoliberalism’. His failure to pronounce in favour of the only candidate who can beat Le Pen has inspired a movement for absention, with only one third of his first-round voters saying they will vote against her. If the Front National wins on Sunday it will be largely thanks to the ‘Left’.

In Paris nowadays it’s common to see armed soldiers on the streets. The same is true of Rome, where I live. They’ve never bothered me, although more than once I have seen them stop random black people walking into metro stations. They’re there to prevent terrorist attacks, which are by no means a remote possibility. But if there was a sudden change in political power the mechanisms of armed repression would already be in place, and the same is true in France.

Is the French ‘Left’ in a position to resist a militarised fascist dictatorship starting in two days’ time? In the coming years, as the rising tide of racism meets the coming climate crisis, we will all need to engage in acts of bravery and sacrifice. Are we ready, powerful and united enough to do so now? Once they see a hard-right government in power, will the masses be magically compelled to rebel and bring about socialism? No, no and non. As things stand, the Left hasn’t even managed to sand off the hard edge of market fundamentalism. It has failed to cohere and communicate a specific programme, and whether in the US, the UK or France it refuses to accept any responsibility for the consequent rise of the far-right. Letting Le Pen get elected – just like allowing Trump to take power in the States – would be a hysterical response to that failure, a gesture of impotence and despair, not all that different in essence from the empty and petty words of politically frustrated teenagers on internet forums.

In the midst of this petulant quasi-adolescent posturing, it’s refreshing to see that there are still some adults on the Left. This week Yanis Varoufakis laid out clearly why failing to vote for Macron to stop Le Pen would be a catastrophe and a betrayal. He rightly finds the notion that ‘neoliberals’ and fascists are equatable is particularly egregious. The epithet ‘neoliberal’ has become synonymous with the name Macron, as a handy political insult. Up until now I’ve continued to use the term despite the widespread lack of clarity with regard to its meaning. Having read lengthy books on the subject by writers such as Philip Mirowski and David Harvey, I don’t think that its existence is by any means a myth. However, seeing the cataclysmically inane way it is being thrown around in this election (as Mirowski says, it is often used nowadays as “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism”) I’m now inclined to agree with Geoffrey Hodgson that its use should be abandoned**.

*****

We live inside the Temple. If it collapses, we all die. That doesn’t mean we can’t dismantle it, or prepare for our eventual escape. But if we think it’s just a matter of blowing it up we may as well join Isis. Such self-destructive impulses have nothing to do with enlightened or egalitarian values. Such thinking is more a form of Nihilism than anything remotely progressive.

If you have a vote in the French election, use it. Don’t be an ultraleftist connard.

* Some are currently finding that rejecting the label ‘liberal’ and using it as a term of abuse puts them into pretty unsavoury company. Incidentally it’s now been pointed out to me that Žižek is indeed abusing his position to argue the same irresponsible nonsense as he did with Trump. Because Donald’s really been wobbling on his throne of late, hasn’t he. I’d give American cryptofascistneoliberalcapitalism a week more at the very most. In the meantime, fascist victory Sunday, communist revolution Monday, ça marche pous vous?! Don’t forget the book signing! Exit through the death camp!

** Anyone even vaguely interested in these issues should read that article. There’s also a far more articulate and evenly-tempered reponse to this whole depressingly predictable/predictably depressing Zizek-doesn’t-mind-Le Pen furore here.

*** This article didn’t go down too well on one particular Zizek fanboy forum. Oh well, if you can’t beat em, join em:

6 thoughts on “Mélenchon and Žižek; Accelerationism and Edgelordism

  1. Thank you for this… the left needs to take responsibility for what has become of our ‘party’. Zizek has become the only way to truly be part of the ‘left’, and god forbid you disagree with him on anything. Throwing around hate towards ‘liberals’ and banishing any slightly critical commentary from leftist political discourse is giving hate and division even more power, and reminds me exactly of hard rightists. So sad to see an idea I love so much turn to pure shit.

    I’m so thankful for your article though, it gives me hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very very much for saying so! I’ve really riled his fan club and was wondering what the point was of having written the thing, so it’s extremely gratifying to know that at least someone appreciates it. The thing you mention about the term ‘liberal’ is really important, there’s a conflation between the way it’s uses by the far right and the Zizek-influenced ‘Left’. He and Assange in particular have built a heavily-trafficked bridge between the two and it needs blowing up.

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  2. You seem stuck in your ideology. Pinning this on Zizek is a bit of a reach. How many follow him as you suggest? Not many and most don’t understand him. There is little left of the left except for the neo-liberals. Good luck with the blame game. We are in a puddle of shit and don’t have the shoes for it.

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    1. Your last sentence is fabulous but the others I find a little puzzling. Zizek certainly isn’t lacking in influence, I can think of few over the last few years (excepting perhaps Naomi Klein) who’ve played more of a role in leading the left internationally. Not everyone understands him, as you say – there are always chunks of his books I have to skip over as I’m often unable to deal with the dense discussions of Lacan or Hegel that he presents. My argument here is with his political role. He’s certainly taught people like me to think more critically and dialectically but when it comes to advice on how to act politically his constant telling us to think instead of act, to not respond with frantic overactivity but to reflect and read is not in the least bit helpful. Philosophers are allowed to contradict themselves but his role as a figure of widespread political influence precludes that. What results are perverse interventions like this one around the French election. We can of course relate to his intellectual rationalisations for his position, but it’s singularly unhelpful to tell us right now that neoliberalism has caused the crisis and is therefore not the solution. That is blindingly obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention. The impact of saying that now is that fewer people will vote for Macron and the chance of Le Pen being elected -remembering that the French Left is in no more a position to fight her than the US Left is to take on Trump – increases.

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  3. I think this article was a typical manifestation of the international fear surrounding the election, a fear that was justified, but also ignorant of the current situation in France.
    It’s easy to tell us to “vote utile”, like our media outlets always do, when you don’t live in France, when you haven’t voted for Hollande five years ago after his infamous Bourget speech where he proclaimed “finance is my enemy”, and saw him enacting the same policies as his predecessors, Sarkozy and Chirac, as soon as he entered in the Élysée.
    And now, you wanted us to vote for the same man who created in large part the Loi Travail/El-Khomri, which sparked months of protests one year ago exactly ? Well, I hope you are happy and can sleep in peace, now that our rights are going to be crushed during the next 5 years for the benefit of his billonaire friends like Patrick Drahi, using the same old justifications : “we have to reduce our deficits, we can’t afford to have poor people living decently in this country”. I hope you will be glad to see the number of homeless people increasing each time you will come to visit us.

    If you would have paid close attention to the results of the first round, you would have known that, whatever the rate of abstention was going to be, a Macron victory was guaranteed, since he was ahead of Le Pen from the start. If you exclude it, the former voters of Fillon, Mélenchon and Hamon predictably favored Macron over Le Pen in majority. Hell, on the French subreddit, which was overwhelmingly pro-Mélenchon, lots of people urged everyone to vote for Macron while holding their nose, and a good part agreed to do so.
    Now, in effect, the amount of abstention and blank votes was superior to the Le Pen votes, and I think it’s great, because it sent a clear message : “We don’t want Le Pen, but we actually don’t want any of you. Using Le Pen as a scarecrow every election is becoming old. Just have your neoliberal candidate and let our resentment grow”.
    Where I live, cops used tear gas in the streets not even one hour after the results of the election were announced. Not against Le Pen supporters, but against the pissed off youth who wanted to protest no matter who have been elected. It’s telling.

    Now, regarding Zizek, he said numerous times “if Le Pen get elected in France, AfD/PEDIGA in Germany, and PVV in the Netherlands, Europe is finished”.
    The leftists who wanted Le Pen to win are as ignorant as the self-righteous liberals who prompted us in the Guardian to unconditionally vote for Macron. We can see that Trump was only a neocon in “anti-establishment” clothing, but what now ? Nothing changed after a couple of months of liberal indignation.
    The only alternative for the left is to support movements like Nuit Debout, the opposition to the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, etc. These internet-addicted leftists need to the read the two last Invisible Committee books.
    Change won’t happen from the top-down, after an impossible and chimeric revolution, but from the bottom-up, from concrete acts of disobedience uniting people away from the keyboard.

    And liberals should, pardon my French, shut the fuck up. It’s easy to wonder why people make the “wrong choices” in a cushy apartment in the center of Paris, London, Munich or New York, when you don’t have any fear of becoming homeless the next month despite having a degree (or not). Your patronizing attitude and “right choices” won’t change the continual decrease of the living standards for most people, they will actually accelerate it, because you are actually the true accelerationists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner as I wanted to reflect on what you’ve written.

      I’d hate to come across as glib or callous about the fate of people condemned to perpetual unemployment and feelings of despair and betrayal. I’ve seen the effects of austerity in the UK and shared the anger and frustration at politicians who didn’t challenge the right-wing narrative about what caused the crisis. It’s funny you should mention the Invisible Committe as just a cople of days ago I came across The Coming Insurrecxtion on my shelves and was thinking about the shift from the optimism (quasi-nihilistic, but still) of that text to today’s mood. Obviously things like Nuit Debout and campaigns around things like the airport are essential and to be lauded. My bouef with the Left at the moment, however, is that it is deluded about its strength. Whether in France or the UK the shift towards the far-right has defined political discourse over the last couple of years – talk of ‘revolution’ against neoliberalism nowadays is as likely to come from the right as from the left, and I believe (in relation to the US as well) that there is a confluence in language which is to our disadvatange. Although I completely agree that (as you put it so well) the left has to engage in acts of civil disobedience away from the keyboard, I don’t think this is the time to go on the attack against indignant liberals. I also don’t think foreign left-liberals were calling for unconditional support for Macron.

      Maybe I am becoming more conservative or maybe this is just a mood which will pass, but there’s so much easy angry rhetoric these days inspired by an anger which is certainly understandable but also very open to manipulation and cooption by the ascendant far-right. I’m increasingly persuaded by what Varoufakis says about defending liberal capitalism from the extreme neoliberals, of whom Macron may turn out to be one – I just hope that the coming struggles are not driven by the strain of nihilism which I think at present unites the far-left and the far-right and which I think progressives (a problematic term but one that I find useful) have to resist.

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