All posts

Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Part 1)

Notes from the LeftEast editors: This is the first out of four parts of the article of Dragan Plavšić, which offers a critique of the recent book of Slavoy Zizek and Agon Hamza ” “From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo”. The second part of the article can be read here, the third one here, and the last one here.

There is nothing quite like reading Slavoj Žižek; better still, there is nothing quite like listening to Slavoj Žižek. But above all, there is nothing quite like being confused by Slavoj Žižek.

A giant of the contemporary intellectual Left, Žižek has for many years explicitly sought to address “the burning question” of how to formulate a “leftist, anti-capitalist project” for our times.[1] So, when our giant turns his attentions to Kosovo and the Balkans, as he does from time to time, we pay keen attention to the “leftist” perspective his reputation suggests he will bring to the issues, in the hope that it will assist us on the Balkan Left.

However, when we look more closely at what Žižek has to say, we find him sowing much unwelcome confusion. In fact, what we get is a bittersweet mix indeed, one that reveals a tension between two fundamentally incompatible aspects of his thinking on Kosovo and the Balkans.

For on the one hand, Žižek’s theoretical-philosophical critique of the issues appears to reflect classical leftist themes, such as anti-imperialism and anti-nationalism. On the other hand, however, his practical-political proposals often fail to embody these themes, betraying, at best, a deep ambiguity about imperialist intervention in the Balkans and, at worst, a deep complicity with nationalist modes of thinking, above all on the question of ethnic partition.

The Balkan Left outside Greece is weak indeed, confined to largely intellectual and often student circles. It is a platitude to say that we need to think clearly and coherently about the key issues we face in the Balkans – not least those of imperialism and nationalism – if we are to begin to exert some valuable political influence beyond our own immediate circles.

Unfortunately, Žižek’s views on Kosovo and the Balkans confuse more than they clarify, and disorientate more than they guide.

Our purpose, therefore, is to argue that we can do better, as the contrasting approach of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, shows, for example; but first, we need to see what Žižek does well in order to better appreciate how he then confuses and disorientates.

Žižek: Against ethno-centric reasoning!

Last year, Žižek published a book entitled From Myth to Symptom: the case of Kosovo, with Agon Hamza, a Kosovo Albanian intellectual, comprising two essays, one by each co-author.[2] As their joint introduction states, somewhat grandly, their main aim is to provide – “for the first time ever” – a “leftist reading of a country that has been subject to all sorts of (neo)imperial interventions and experiments.”[3]

And indeed, following the US-led NATO bombing of rump Yugoslavia in 1999, it is no exaggeration to say that Kosovo underwent a wholesale invasion, albeit one that had the consent of Kosovo Albanians determined to escape the oppressive rule of Milošević’s Serbia. What was, in the first instance, a military invasion, was also, as time has amply demonstrated, an economic, political and cultural invasion, the neo-colonial objects of which have been, and remain, Kosovo Albanians (and Serbs).

From Myth to Symptom seeks to offer a “leftist reading” of this process that draws on the thought of Alain Badiou. His 1993 Ethics trenchantly critiqued the “ethical ideology” of the West, a critique in part prompted by the then war in former Yugoslavia.[4]

In particular, Badiou noted that Western “ethical ideology” splits humanity into two, “On the side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene,” posing an incisive question, “And why does this splitting always assign the same roles to the same sides?” Instead of considering the barbarity of a situation in terms of the ethical ideology of human rights, Badiou argued that “in fact we are always dealing with a political situation, one that calls for a political thought-practice, one that is peopled by its own authentic actors.”[5]

Badiou’s more specifically political perspective on the Balkans will serve us well later as a critical contrast to Žižek’s perspective. But for now, let us note that Žižek’s essay in From Myth to Symptom takes up Badiou’s basic approach in order to demonstrate that the Kosovo invasion in 1999 was also drenched in the depoliticised, self-congratulatory ideology of an imperial humanitarianism that viewed the Kosovo Albanians as helpless victim-objects and the West as the benevolent saviour-subject.

From this, a correct, if very general, conclusion follows: that the pressing political task for Kosovo Albanians today is to cast off their object victimhood in order to become self-determining subjects. But if this laudable goal is to be achieved, seeing through the variously deceptive modes of thinking that characterise Western neo-imperial ideology will be essential. From Myth to Symptom seeks to critique several of these modes.

We shall concentrate on what is, for our purposes, the most relevant one, a mode of neo-imperial thinking which Žižek and Hamza call “ethno-centric reasoning”, and which they assail for “de-politicizing and culturaliz[ing]”[6] the Kosovo case by ethnicising it. This line of reasoning sees Kosovo as a ‘problem’ rooted, above all, in the allegedly age-old ethnic conflict between two peoples who know no better, the ‘primitive’, ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilised’ Albanians and Serbs. In this way, deeper economic and political problems are conveniently pushed aside in favour of a relentlessly depoliticised focus on ethnicity as the mother of all problems.

Arrogant and patronising as it already is, this logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” allows Western neo-colonial liberals to draw ever more arrogant and patronising conclusions about their role in Kosovo. For if Albanians and Serbs are, on this view, so ‘untrained’ in the ways and means of living together, it follows that they need to be ‘trained’ in the art of doing so, by Western professionals who do know better. Hence the obsessively shrill demands for multiethnic tolerance that issue like a mantra from the chattering orifices of neo-colonial bureaucratic and military personnel alike.

At the core of all this lies a “latent” racism. In his essay, Hamza recalls the infamous billboard issued by KFOR (NATO’s force in Kosovo) showing a cat and a dog hugging, accompanied by the message, “If they can do it, why can’t you?”[7] What is more racist than to depict Albanians and Serbs as animals? And what better illustrates the invasive, neo-colonial wish to ‘domesticate’ object peoples than to portray them as household pets that need to be ‘trained’ by their masters? Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that the latent racism of today’s neo-colonial multiethnicist is, in fact, a liberal update on the patent racism of yesterday’s colonial grandee who decreed “Blacks and Dogs Prohibited”.

For those familiar with his writings more generally, this approach to Kosovo “tak[es] a cue from Žižek[‘s]”[8] parallel critique of liberal multiculturalism in the West, an ideology that promotes respect for, and institutionalisation of, various forms of identity, such as ethnicity. For Žižek, however, liberal multiculturalism is the ideology of today’s multinational capital, which plies its trade across the globe in diverse cultures it must ‘respect’ if it is to ply effectively.[9]

In this way, the preoccupation with issues of identity signals multiculturalism’s deep complicity with the logic of multinational capital and diverts attention away from what should be key for the Left, the economic and political struggle against this logic. Thus, in Kosovo, Hamza notes, “Multi-ethnicity, a Balkanian version of ‘multi-culturalism’, imposed by the West, is the very notion by which the real political and economic problems are being covered up.”[10]

In similar vein, Žižek has argued that, despite appearances to the contrary, Western multiculturalism is, in fact, a form of veiled racism, a racism betrayed both by the patronising distance its advocates show to the very ethnic groups they purport to ‘respect’, as well as by the swift intolerance ethnic groups face when they raise issues that transgress the safe limits of celebrating their ‘exotic’ customs.

It is the “repressed racism”[11] of the Western multiculturalist at home that then becomes the “latent” but less disguised racism of the neo-imperial multiethnicist abroad, in the Balkans. One does not have to agree in full with Žižek’s analysis of multiculturalism to see that there are certainly parallels here worth drawing.

All in all, then, the critique of neo-imperial multiethnicism we find in From Myth to Symptom deserves to be commended; it exposes, for all to see, the racist core of an imperialism that wears a deceptively liberal, multiethnic mask.

Žižek: A concrete alternative?

How, though, should the Left respond? In line with Badiou’s determination to see politics rather than human rights, Žižek and Hamza counter-argue that we need to break with “ethno-centric reasoning” and strive to reinterpret the Kosovo case as “a well-defined political struggle”.[12]

This is certainly, on the face of it, promising. For the Left has long argued that what used to be more commonly called ‘the national question’ should, first and foremost, be viewed as a political question, as the result of imperialist and nationalist politics. For progress to be made, therefore, an altogether different politics, that is, an anti-imperialist and internationalist politics has to be employed.

Nevertheless, the promise of this counter-argument appears abstract. For when we leaf through From Myth to Symptom for suggestions as to how we might, concretely speaking, go about getting beyond “ethno-centric reasoning”, there is precious little on offer.

Certainly, Žižek argues that we need to “build TRANSNATIONAL political movements and institutions strong enough to seriously constraint [sic] the unlimited rule of capital”.[13] And he concludes his essay by proposing that we should “WITHDRAW into passivity, to refuse to participate”, in a Gandhian-style plea for non-cooperation, though again, quite what this might mean, practically speaking, is left unexplored.[14]

But the broader and deeper problem with these suggestions is that they are more an avoidance of “ethno-centric reasoning” than a direct challenge to it.

Indeed, besides Žižek’s proposition that Serbia should renounce its claim on Kosovo (which, as we shall see, is not quite what Žižek actually thinks),[15] there is little in From Myth to Symptom to indicate how the Balkan Left should try to address – concretely and directly rather than abstractly and indirectly – the questions of imperialism and nationalism as such. In fact, it is difficult to see how the kind of transnational anti-capitalist movements Žižek argues we need to build can be built and sustained without, sooner or later, addressing these questions in politically direct and concrete terms.

Perhaps this problem can be forgiven in a self-admittedly philosophical-political text; or perhaps not, as Žižek can be ‘brutally’ concrete when he wants to be, as we shall see. But perhaps this problem is related to another, rather deeper problem, and a revealing one at that.

Žižek: Whatever happened to partition?

Žižek’s critique of “ethno-centric reasoning” in neo-imperial ‘multiethnic’ guise is surely flawed for one conspicuous and compelling reason: it is a thoroughly one-sided analysis of how imperialism has operated in the Balkans.

For it is clearly the case that imperialism has also been party to, and guarantor of, a form of ‘partition-lite’, that is, a division of territory on ethnic grounds that has nevertheless stopped short of full-scale partition. Indeed, this is what we saw in 1995 with the ethnic division of Bosnia, but its survival as a ‘unified’ state. And this is what we saw last year with the ethnic division of Kosovo between Albanians and Serbs, but its survival as a ‘unified’ state.

In fact, the practice of ethnic partition and the ideology of multiethnicity are but two sides of the same counterfeit coin, both of them, in their own ways, rooted in the deeper logic of “ethno-centric reasoning”. Partition, because it says that different ethnic groups do not know how to live together and so need territorial boundaries of a sort to keep them apart; multiethnicity, because it says that since these different ethnic groups do not know how to live together, they need to be ‘trained’ to do so. In both cases, therefore, ethnicity is taken to be the central problem.

What brings the two sides of this coin together is, from an imperialist point of view, the purely administrative and apolitical business of ‘conflict management’, that is, the ways and means of ‘managing’ otherwise ‘bloodthirsty’ ethnic groups. As Badiou has bluntly described, in the contemporary world, “the word ‘management’ obliterates the word ‘politics’”.[16] ‘Management’ is the domestic word; soaring high aboard US bombers, ‘conflict management’ is the imperialist phrase it becomes.

Thus, in the Balkans, ‘conflict management’ strives to obliterate from view not just the day-to-day political reality of neo-colonial domination in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also the strategic geopolitics of US-led NATO and EU expansion into Eastern Europe with which imperialist intervention in our region has been inextricably intertwined. In this way, we can begin to appreciate how, in the neo-imperial mindset, this depoliticised notion of ‘conflict management’ goes hand in hand with the equally depoliticised logic of “ethno-centric reasoning”.

But the practice of partition is also relevant for another key reason, for nationalism’s heart beats relentlessly to the tune of “ethno-centric reasoning” and, as a result, a certain meeting of minds between imperialism and nationalism on the basis of this common mode of reasoning becomes possible, in the right circumstances.

Indeed, in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, imperialists and nationalists (whether of the Albanian, Bosniak, Croatian, or Serbian variety) have tacitly agreed on the underlying logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” according to which the practice of partition has proceeded, even if they have bitterly disagreed about the crude matter of who gets what.

And if some nationalists (typically, Albanians and Bosniaks, with more to lose) have, at times, shown a certain reluctance to go down the road to partition, US-led insistence has quickly muffled dissent, ensuring that once reluctant nationalists join more willing nationalists (that is, the Serbs and Croats) in the treacherous game of bargaining over the terms of partition in order to secure advantage for their own side.

A properly rounded critique of imperialism is therefore impossible without a critique of this interrelationship between imperialism and nationalism in the Balkans, past and present.

There are some hints of this in From Myth to Symptom. In their Introduction, for example, Žižek and Hamza point in Kosovo to the “local comprador bourgeoisie, who [sic] serves as a local and hence, as a junior partner of the neo-imperial administration”.[17] These hints, however, are of a very general kind.

More promising, and also more concrete, is Hamza’s critical reference in his essay to the “partition of [Kosovo] on ethnic premises” which, he notes, is commonly derided as the “Bosnianisation of Kosovo”.[18] Here Hamza opposes the practice of partition; by contrast, Žižek is studiously silent on the matter. Nevertheless, despite Hamza’s comments, it is notable that there is in From Myth to Symptom no systematic critique of the practice of partition as a specific mode of “ethno-centric reasoning” to parallel the systematic critique of neo-colonial ‘multiethnicism’ we do find there.

Is it possible to explain this striking failure to address the practice of ethnic partition? It is, but to do so we need to turn to Žižek’s practical-political proposals to see what he thinks of this practice. And when we do, we find Žižek appealing to, and concretely applying, the very logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” that he otherwise appears so determined to critique.

For not only does Žižek agree with and support the practice of ethnic partition, he wants to take it much further.

(To be continued)


source: reuters
source: reuters

[1] Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: the absent centre of political ontology, London and New York, Verso, 1999, p.4 (our italics)

[2] Slavoj Žižek & Agon Hamza, From Myth to Symptom: the case of Kosovo, Prishtinë: Kolektivi Materializmi Dialektik, 2013. Žižek’s essay, ‘NATO as the Left Hand of God?’, is an expanded version of an article originally written in 1999 and, besides other material, also includes content from another article written that year, ‘Against the Double Blackmail’, which is discussed later. Hamza’s essay is titled ‘Beyond Independence’.

[3] Ibid., p.13

[4] Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London and New York, Verso, 2012, originally published in French in 1993.

[5] Ibid., p.13

[6] From Myth to Symptom, op. cit., p.13

[7] Ibid., p.89. This example is one Žižek points to in his Living in the End Times, London and New York, Verso, 2010, and in his Kosovo Interview discussed later.

[8] Ibid., p.13

[9] See Žižek’s ‘Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism’ New Left Review I/225 September-October 1997.

[10] Ibid., p.88

[11] The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? London and New York, Verso, 2000, p.6

[12] Ibid., p.29

[13] Ibid., p.44 (Žižek’s capitals)

[14] Ibid., p.71 (Žižek’s capitals)

[15] Žižek writes that “…the sine qua non of an authentic act in Serbia today would be precisely to RENOUNCE the claim to Kosovo…” Ibid., p.39 (Žižek’s capitals). We agree, but we cannot see how this sits well with Žižek’s advocacy of the ethnic partition of Kosovo with Serbia, discussed later.

[16] St Paul: the foundation of universalism, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003, p.12

 [17] From Myth to Symptom, op.cit., p.13

[18] Ibid., pp.101-102. See also Hamza’s ‘On the Kosovo-Serbia Agreement’, 02.07.2013, available at Hamza argues that with this Agreement, which formalised ‘partition-lite’ in Kosovo, the West violated its own multiethnic principles. He suggests this could lead to the division of the country and border changes in the region which, unlike Žižek, he views negatively. However, Hamza then reaffirms the tenor of From Myth to Symptom by arguing that “the struggle against multi-ethnicity” should still be a “top priority” in Kosovo. This is somewhat confusing; one senses here a failure to fully appreciate that ‘multiethnicity’ and ethnic partition are, as we have argued above, two sides of the same neo-imperial ‘conflict management’ coin.

By Dragan Plavsic

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (London 2003).”

Comments are closed.