Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The State of the Intellectual Left?

... is shocking if this video is anything to go by. I say this as a person who considers himself part of the secular Left.

Slavoj Žižek is supposed to be some influential figure on the Left and “uses examples from popular culture to explain the theory of Jacques Lacan and uses Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy and Marxist economic criticism to interpret and speak extensively on immediately current social phenomena, including the current ongoing global financial crisis.” Well, that is enough for alarm bells to ring, to my mind. I smell intellectual nonsense already, of the sort comparable to the charlatanry of Postmodernism. We do not require the idiocy of “Lacanian psychoanalysis” to know something is seriously wrong with modern economics.

According to this video, the “great man” Žižek went to speak to the Occupy Wall Street protesters (one can read his ramblings here).

However, he told them he had no substantive advice for them at all. Instead, he told them (wait for it): “not to fall in love with themselves.”

The Left can do better than buffoons like this.


  1. It's a huge problem. There are too many who are prepared to back crumbs from the table rather than pushing for wholesale change at the restaurant.

    Aggregate demand boosts needs direct spending in a manner that automatically adjusts rapidly to changing circumstances.

  2. I'm not sure what you find objectionable about Zizek's bit, here. Whether you think it's warranted, that line is not unreasonable; it's just an exhortation to keep eyes on what lies beyond the movement, and not to lapse into viewing it as the end in itself.

    Incidentally, what are your specific problems with Lacan's work?

    I get that you've got a hate-on for Derrida and all, but I wish the discussion could go further than a periodic restatement to that effect.

  3. Lacan?

    Lacan was a self proclaimed Freudian. I am sure you are aware that the verdict of modern psychology on Freud is that this theories are garbage. Yet this man Lacan was using Freudianism in his theories.

    You can read the relevant parts of A. Sokal and J. Bricmont. 1998. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science (Profile, London) for Lacan's misuse of mathematics and science.

    Sokal and Bricmont on mathematics:

    ... although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His 'definition' of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish. p. 21.

    I could give you more examples, but my opinion is best summed by Richard Dawkins:

    "We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don't know anything about."


  4. "it's just an exhortation to keep eyes on what lies beyond the movement, and not to lapse into viewing it as the end in itself. "

    Well, that is not my main objection to him: as I have said above, he tells us he has no substantive advice for Occupy Wall Street protesters.

    Compare Zizek with a real Leftist intellectual like Chomsky.

  5. Richard Wolff is a great marxist, as is Chris Dillow although he's only a blogger.

  6. Lord Keynes, what do you think about Chomsky's defense of Mao and Pol Pot regimes?

  7. I am sure you are aware that the verdict of modern psychology on Freud is that this theories are garbage.

    I am aware that some have said so. I am not aware of any such thing as the entire modern, somehow-suddenly-monolithic edifice of psychology rejecting Freud. The implication of a full rejection of Freud would be to essentially deny a role for the subconscious mind.

    More worryingly, you seem to be accepting the idea that it is wrong based on the fact it is marginalized. If such arguments are now suitable to defend any other entrenched orthodoxy, then you've effectively undone your entire blog.

    I think it's unfair to base your critique of Lacan on his nonstandard usage of terms appropriated from outside of his discipline, for two reasons: first, it's not an uncommon practice, especially in philosophy, and more especially in French philosophy. Given the Académie française's governing of the language, it's not as trivial as in English or German to coin or compound words, and more circumlocution becomes necessary (which is, incidentally, why I've always found German philosophers to be easier to read). Second, it doesn't really address any point actually being made; that is to say, it's superficial. A cheap shot, essentially.

    For a decent essay-length introduction to his ideas, I'd recommend this piece by Professor Stephen Ross, of the University of Victoria.

    Lastly, re: Zizek, I am quite comfortable with someone who is willing to cop to having no advice at a given point in time. Pointing out what is wrong is valuable in and of itself, even absent an alternative system for a better way forward. I daresay I am much more comfortable with people who can admit that they don't have the solution than people who cannot.

    (As it happens, I have also observed Chomsky to have professed to having no easy answer to certain social issues now and then, such as the frequent lack of cohesion and leadership in leftist movements, etc. Doesn't mean he had nothing to contribute.)

  8. "Lord Keynes, what do you think about Chomsky's defense of Mao and Pol Pot regimes?"

    Where exactly did he defend Mao? Care to provide chapter and verse citations?

    I am aware of the charge that he defended Pol Pot's crimes: it's mostly derived from misinterpreting statements in the book After the Cataclysm (1979), where he and Edward Herman showed igorance of the extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, in passages like this:

    "These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from American bombing in Laos). We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered."

    You can no doubt condemn them for not accepting the evidence for the extent of the atrocities, genocide and crimes under Khmer Rouge. That is certainly a blot on Chomsky's record.

    But where exactly in the book do they engage in a "defense of ... [the] Pol Pot regime"? They clearly (1) acknowledge "extraordinary brutality on both sides" in the civil war, (2) reports of atrocities, (3) that Cambodia suffered a "torment" and (4) state that "We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments".

    Furthermore, in all subsequent statements from Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge, he makes it clear that the regime was guilty of mass murder and genocide. He has even said that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 that ended Pol Pot's genocide might be defended as a humanitarian intervention:

    "In that period, perhaps the most compelling example of [humanitarian intervention to try to mitigate catastrophe] ... is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's atrocities, which were then peaking. Vietnam pleaded the right of self-defense against armed attack, one of the few post-Charter examples when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime (Democratic Kampuchea, DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam in border areas. The US reaction is instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of Asia for their outrageous violation of international law. They were harshly punished for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's slaughters, first by a (US-backed) Chinese invasion, then by US imposition of extremely harsh sanctions. The US recognized the expelled DK as the official government of Cambodia, because of its "continuity" with the Pol Pot regime, the State Department explained. Not too subtly, the US supported the Khmer Rouge in its continuing attacks in Cambodia."


    Does that sound like a "defense of the Pol Pot regime" to you?

  9. "More worryingly, you seem to be accepting the idea that it is wrong based on the fact it is marginalized.

    Actually, no I am not. I regard it as wrong because I find postmodernism, poststructuralism, and Freudianism all deeply flawed.

  10. I regard it as wrong because I find postmodernism, poststructuralism, and Freudianism all deeply flawed.

    That's not as informative a sentence as you think it is. Consider:

    "I find progressivism, existentialism and Keynesianism all deeply flawed."

    It makes you want to ask a question or two, right? Here are some examples:

    Are you saying every idea encapsulated by each of those categories is flawed? Or just some of the ideas? Which ones? Can the other ideas still be useful without reference to those allegedly flawed ones?

    I'm not asking you to prepare an essay or anything; it just seems like a subject about which you have pretty strong opinions that have sparked my curiosity.

  11. "Are you saying every idea encapsulated by each of those categories is flawed? Or just some of the ideas?

    My view of postmodernism/poststructuralism is esentially that of Chomsky:

    "I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish”"

    The true ideas expressed in these postmodern writings tend to be trivial. There is much that is plainly false (including
    fundamnetal ideas) or just utter gibberish.

  12. Lord Keynes,

    Great find. This sort of thing is precisely why the Left is constantly ridiculed by not only right-wingers but also moderates and your everyday Joe who rolls his eyes when he hears all sorts of pretentious gibberish coming from “Lefties.”

    The Right has its share if pseudo-intellectual junk, but at least right-wingers have the sense to drape it in common sense, “bar stool” language that resonates with many people.

    The Left needs to understand the importance of public relations. Whether they like it or not, image and perception are very important.

  13. Chomsky and Cambodia is complicated. What he was doing was comparing the media reaction to Cambodia with the media reaction to East Timor, which he says in relative terms had a higher level of atrocities than in Cambodia. The US was perhaps concerned that the Portuguese empire would lead to Russian influence or independence. So it was often covered in the media, until Indonesia invaded it with US support. When the Portuguese announced that independence would be granted to the colonies in April, 1974, the small elite of Timor formed three political parties: UDT, FRETILIN, and APODETI... The UDT was made up of Catholic leaders and had a lack of positive policies, was associated with the "ancien régime," and was reluctant to support full independence. This led many of the people to switch to FRETILIN, which was the largest party by 1975. (Jolliffe) The UDT and FRETILIN formed a coalition but it quickly fell apart and ended in a failed coup by the UDT. The violence in the region tended to be overemphasized by the Indonesians which had a monopoly on information (Hill, p.12). This led to a complete erosion of the UDT, and prior to the Kupang meeting before the attempted coup UDT President Lopes da Cruz said: "We are realists. If we want to be independent we must follow the Indonesian political line. Otherwise it is independence for a week or a month...."

    The brief interlude of semi-independence was reported favorably by Austrian journalists.

    "The Fretilin administration was surprisingly effective in re-establishing law and order, and in restoring essential services to the main towns. By mid-October, Dili was functioning more or less normally... The Fretilin administration had many shortcomings, but it clearly enjoyed wide-spread support from the population, including many hitherto UDT supporters."

    see The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. 1, pages 133-143.


  14. On December 7th, 1975, the Indonesians invaded. East Timorese women were taken to Dili for the Indonesian soldiers, babies and children were killed, and any intellectual or suspected supporter of Fretilin were immediately killed in the "receiving centers" (i.e. a place for those who had already surrendered). Australian journalists were slain. "The journalists screamed, "Australians, Australians!" An Indonesian leader told others to tie the journalists up, then he told them to use the knife and kill them. The knives are like daggers, on the best. Afterwards they were burnt. They were killed inside a house with knives and afterwards burned with petrol." "Also I believe it because in Dili we had already experienced this cruel behavior." (Testimony of "Leong," from Telling: East Timor, Personal Testimonies

    Atrocities were quite bad: "He cites a February 1976 estimate by an Indonesian client in Timor "that some sixty thousand persons had been killed since the outbreak of the civil war in August" -- recall that some 2,000 to 3,000 had been killed during the civil war, the remainder since the Indonesian invasion in December -- "10 percent of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union in the Second World War." (Chomsky Reader, page 308.)

    The United States backed the Indonesian invasion all the way, and provided up to ninety percent of the arms. Ford and Kissinger visited Jakarta and instructed them to delay the invasion until after they left, and the invasion took place right after they left. The Carter administration also increased arms sales to Indonesians when they actually started to run out of them in 1978.

    "When he landed at Hawaii, reporters asked Mr. Ford for comment on the invasion of Timor. He smiled and said: "We'll talk about that later..." [UPI-December 8, 1975] Henry Kissinger, traveling with Ford, had already given his reactions. He "told newsmen in Jakarta that the United States would not recognize the Fretilin-declared republic and 'the United States understands Indonesia's postion on the question'."[Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1975] (The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. 1, page 156.)

  15. The mainstream media, specifically the New York Times, paid very little attention to East Timor, even though atrocities were going on at the same time.

    The New York Times Index shows from 1975 to 1979 shows Timor has 70 column inches while Cambodia has a whopping 1,175 column inches (note that these are index listings, which means they represent far more column inches in actual stories). When atrocities reached their peak in 1978, with estimates ranging at about 200,000 people killed, the coverage of East Timor dropped to zero in the United States and Canada (which also made money from war profiteering, as well as Holland, etc.).

    The UN called for sanctions and other things in East Timor. Chomsky testified at the UN, and the Colombia Journalism Review suggested he do an article on the US media and Cambodia. He suggested the case of Timor instead, which he considered to be more important in the sense that the facts coming out might end US involvement. His request was denied, on the grounds that Timor was too obscure. (Toward a New cold War, p.471, note 3.) The journalism that did get through, such as by the student research and the work of Arnold Kohen, did help in some sense of getting international humanitarian aid in 1979-1980 to people who were starving to death under the Indonesian siege at the rate of thousands a month.

    In regards to Cambodia, he points out that between 1973-1975 there was a comparable atrocity for which the United States was responsible for. He takes issue with the staged photographs, the automatic assumption of 2,000,000 killed and claims of the Khmer Rouge boasting of having killed 2,000,000. Books on the subject were titled "Murder in a Gentle Land" and so on.


  16. Chomsky divides Cambodia into "phases":

    Phase I: From 1969 through April 1975, U.S. bombing at a historically unprecedented level and a civil war sustained by the United States left the country in utter ruins. Though Congress legislated an end to the bombing in August 1973, U.S. government participating in the ongoing slaughter continued until the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975.

    Phase II: From April 1975 through 1978 Cambodia was subjected to the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea, DK), overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1979.

    Phase III: Vietnam installed the Heng Samrin regime in power in Cambodia, but the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) coalition, based primarily on the Khmer Rouge, maintained international recognition apart from the Soviet bloc. Reconstructed with the aid of China and the United States on the Thai-Cambodia border and in Thai bases, the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the only effective DK military force, continue to carry out activities in Cambodia of a sort called "terrorist" when a friendly government is the target.

    If you go to the Yale Cambodia Genocide Project online, and click on US involvement, you can see the bombings of inner-Cambodia and what Chomsky is talking about:


    Specifically pay attention to:

    "1. Kenton Clymer, The United States and Cambodia, 1870-1969: From Curiosity to Confrontation (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); and vol. II, The United States and Cambodia, 1969-2000: A Troubled Relationship (Routledge, 2004).

    2. "The US Bombardment of Cambodia, 1969-1973," by Ben Kiernan, Vietnam Generation, 1: 1, Winter 1989, pp. 4-41. "Bombs over Cambodia" (Walrus magazine, Oct. 2006); “Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 26-4-10,June 28, 2010."

    and also #3. A very good resource. The YCGP also puts the death toll at 1.7 million I believe, about a third of the population, and not 2 million. Certainly not half the population as is claimed in the Black Book.

    "The United States has much to answer for here, not only in terms of human lives and massive material destruction; the rigidity and nastiness of the un-Cambodian-like fellows in black who run this country now, or what's left of it, are as much a product of this wholesale American bombing which has hardened and honed their minds as they are a product of Marx or Mao... The war damage here, as everywhere else we saw, is total. Not a bridge standing, hardly a house. I am told most villagers have spent the war years living semi-permanently underground in earth bunkers to escape the bombing... The entire countryside has been churned up by American B-52 bomb craters, whole towns and villages razed. So far I have not seen one intact pagoda. (Sunday times (London), may 11, 1985.)

    If something like that happened to your country, you may turn to extremes too.


  17. Sihanouk was essentially a moderate who tried to hold off peasant uprisings of the left and attempted to hold off the right as well. His neutrality was unappreciated by the United States. Attacks by US and Saigon army forces against villages and border posts intensified in the 1960s, causing hundreds of casualties a year. Vietnamese peasants and guerrillas fled for refuge to Cambodia after the murderous U.S. military operations in South Vietnam in 1967, leading the US to say Cambodia was under encroachment by communists. Prince Sihanouk had a press conference on March 28 in which he denied reports that he didn't oppose U.S. bombings of communist targets in his country. He appealed to the international press: "I appeal to you to publicize abroad this very clear stand of Cambodia -- that is, I will in any case oppose all bombings on Cambodian territory under whatever pretext."

    Going back to the numbers, the CIA was counted deaths from the result of bombings from the US itself as part of the Khmer Rouge deaths, and a misjudgment of postwar population, and also politically motivated assessments.

    Furthermore, some journalists even acknowledged Chomsky's corrections:

    "Noam Chomsky's corrections have caused me great distress. By pointing out serious errors in citation, he calls into question not only my respect for texts and the truth, but also the cause I was trying to defend. I particularly regret the misleading attributions mentioned above and I should have checked more accurately the figures on victims, figures deriving from sources that are, moreover, questionable. My reading of Ponchaud's book was hasty, emotionally intense, too quick in selecting polemic points. But if I must plead guilty in handling the details of my review, I would plead innocent concerning its fundamental argument. " (Cambodia: Corrections".)

    "Or perhaps, we may add, whether the victims of My Lai numbered in the hundreds, as reported, or tens of thousands, or whether the civilians murdered in Operation SPEEDY EXPRESS numbered 5,000 or 500,000, if a factor of 100 is relatively insignificant? If facts are so unimportant, then why bother to present alleged facts at all?

    --The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume II, page 149.


    As for Žižek, I agree that a lot of what he says is just complex sociological mumbo-jumbo, much like a lot of economics.

    The left needs more people exposing the corruption of imperialism (Grandin, Chalmers Johnson, Chomsky, etc.) and using truth, and it needs to provide coherent, concrete alternatives to capitalism if that is what the left wants, instead of post-modernism etc.

    Anyway, here is a rundown of Chomsky and Cambodia:

    It tends to be more critical of Chomsky, but admits that the claim that Chomsky was some staunch defender of Pol Pot is false.


  18. John,

    Thank you for your comments. I strongly endorse the idea that there is a great deal of absurd, pretentious nonsense coming from certain sectors of the left: it alienates people who should be supporters of progressive economics.


  19. Here is a list of economists that support Ocuppy Wall Street,movement at http://econ4.org/statement-on-ows

    If you’re an economist and would like to add your name to this statement, please send an email by clicking here (info@econ4.org).