The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, published in France as a neo-radical philosopher and glittering of late in the constellation of travelling professors on the American university circuit, has announced that “notre tâche aujourd’hui est de réinventer une terreur émancipatrice” (“our task today is to reinvent a liberating terror”), igniting as well as stemming from “la violence populaire” (“the violence of the people”). Robespierre is back, decked out in gown and mortarboard.
For Zizek, as Adam Hirsch points out in The New Republic (December 3, 2008), the WTC nineteen who incinerated 3000 people were actually victims of global capitalism, and therefore members in good standing of the international Left and heroes of our time. Thus, judging from Zizek’s recent statements and especially from his introduction to his latest sortie, Robespierre: entre virtu et terreur, written, by his rather intermittent lights, to further the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity, his fascination with Robespierre should come as no surprise.
Indeed, the “peace-loving” Left, which sees itself as the representative of the hidden will of the people and the herald of an equitable future for all, clearly has a powerful Robespierrean element in its make-up. As German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Zizek’s sane antithesis, explains in Terror from the Air, “In the cultural domain ‘revolution’ is a code word for ‘legitimate’ violence.” Left revolutionary culture also features a strong Surrealist component. Adjusting for politics, what Sloterdijk goes on to say in his book about Surrealism’s leading exponent, Salvador Dali, could be applied equally well to Zizek and his neo-Robespierrean kind: “an imperious amateur, given over to the illusion of using an exacting technical device for the expression of metaphysical kitsch.”
For Zizek and his followers, the “exacting technical device” is a philosophical discourse with a distinct Marxist slant and the “metaphysical kitsch” it produces is the dream of a new world built upon the detritus of the old. In order to achieve this aim, anything goes, no matter how absurd, vindictive or discriminatory. The hybris of this incendiary project is evident in the overheated rhetoric of another trendy and pretentious book, Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s jargon-clotted, academic bestseller, Empire, which could just as well have been written by Zizek.
“The mythology of the languages of the multitude,” the duo write, “interprets the telos of the earthly city, torn away by the power of its own destiny from any belonging or subjection to a city of God, which has lost all honor and legitimacy.” Once again we find the acolytes of the Left worshipping at the shrine of a secular religion, as did the historical Robespierre, determined to build the shining City of Man regardless of the suffering of men. Of course, the transformative violence all these authors promote has been tried before, not only in the French revolutionary period, but in the social gulag of the Communist urbs proletariorum, leading to the misery, disempowerment and impoverishment of hundreds of millions.
The revolution of sensibility which the Left is advancing relies on the various means of repression available to it, from the censorship of the tongue to hiring restrictions in the University to the “black mythology” of mediatric propaganda to violence in the name of “the people.” This is why the Left is unwilling to oppose the modus operandi of global terror as a strategy of warfare—it is partial to its own form of the terreur émancipatrice in the culture wars, which it considers legitimate. Terror, however, is terror, whatever flavour or variety it assumes.
The modern Western university, as a central domain source for the theory of emancipatory terror, is a signal case in point and one that is worth examing in some detail. For it is there, behind its hallowed portals, that the greatest harm is done. In effect, the modern university has become a recruitment center for the left-wing shock troops of the future. Uncle Noam wants you! Intimidation through the abuse of authority and an atmosphere of threat or violence is gradually becoming the norm in the conduct of parietal life. When indoctrination fails, then intimidating, failing or assaulting university students who ask inconvenient questions or espouse unpopular positions becomes just another strand in the beaupers of the Left. And as we know, conservative speakers must often be accompanied by bodyguards when they address campus audiences.
The hypocrisy is almost beyond belief. Doing all they can to promote the virtues of “diversity,” “freedom” and “multiple narratives,” the professional nihilists who populate the Robespierrean Academy, like their collaborators in the media and the political and administrative classes, are, in fact, perpetuating a closed-shop ideology. The concept of “difference” they advocate does not extend to those who may be in disagreement with them. As Bernard Chapin, author of Escape from Gangsta Island: A School's Progressive Decline, writes, “the leftist bon mot “respect diversity” is but a twisted joke. The radical’s concept of diversity is limited to encountering someone of a different sex or hue who feels exactly the same way about politics as they do” (Pajamas Media, June 6, 2009).
From the Robespierrean perspective, the enemy is not fanatical Islam, the practitioners of stealth jihad or the ironbound autocracies of Russia, China, North Korea and Venezuela, but conservative thinkers who have warned against the enfeeblement of the national will, the politicizing of the University and the dilution of the traditional curriculum. The minions of the Left takes great pride in the aggressive means they deploy to silence those whom they are unwilling to engage in debate.
The sudor of violence, both implicit and explicit, that swelters in our universities is not a sign of agonistic courage, but the very opposite, an expression of weakness, fear, ignorance and abject cowardice. The reference point adopted by our liberal-left professors and administrators and their impressionable student clientele remains perpetually outside any current reality, so that what may look like political dynamism is only a misplaced and imprudent politics with largely destructive effects on actual events.
It is, in the last analysis, merely a kind of political Surrealism that strives to create a new and fanciful consensus by disrupting conventional wisdoms, regardless of the casualties it inflicts on the way to its destination. Hence its affinity for “legitimate” violence and “revolutionary” upheaval. One part Lenin, one part Dali, our soapbox Robespierres stand before us, accoutered in all their bluster and perniciousness.
The efforts of our contemporary Robespierres and Robespierrettes are directed toward finding ways of reinterpreting reality in order to suit what they believe to be their interests and to conform to their desires. But the adroit evasion of pivotal questions, the practice of intimidation and the shutting down of an informed conversation, coupled with a studied obliviousness to how the world actually works, will one day exact its price.
And the price will be an exorbitant one. But there is one consolation. Judging from historical precedent, whatever form the instrument may take, whether macabre or remedial, the Zizeks of the Left will also meet the waiting guillotine.