Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Slavoj Zizek on Ukraine: musings on culture and the Internet

Slovinian academic, Slavoj Zizek published a typically brilliant piece of work in the London Review of Books about the crisis in Ukraine. "Barbarism with a Human Face," 8 May, 2014. LRB

Everyone can read it and rejoice in the historical knowledge Zizek brings to the discussion: especially the history of Lenin versus Stalin. More importantly, the analysis offers a picture of the drivers of the current situation, where the expansion of Russia into Ukraine is, according to Zizek, following a crypto-Stalinist model of  a unified Russia ("Socialism in one country revisited," perhaps?).

Zizek offers a mountain of evidence about the Leninist program of cultural independence for the regions that Stalin undid. Unfortunately, Zizek forgets the messy domain of culture.

Sure it may be preferable for Ukraine to be connected with progressive, liberal (that is "tolerant") Europe, rather than conservative, illiberal Slavic life. Every emancipated person still enjoying the benefits of the Enlightenment movement celebrates the wonders of human dignity against the eastern methods of culture, says this line of argument. (And one with which I agree). That hardly resolves the culture question, which is about a counter hegemonic move by many people in the Ukraine to align themselves with Russia because that is the culture with which they feel comfortable. Surely, a Leninist like Zizek should support such a claim?    

Add to the cloudy cultural mix the way the Internet generates "ideological grooming," and it is no surprise that political positions in conflicts like Ukraine and many others around the world harden in seconds, like lead poured out of a furnace. The theory is that the singularity of voices on the Internet consolidates opinion, especially when only one opinion is read or watched over and over. Thus culture becomes ideology by any other name - values are elaborated, reinforced, Balkanised in anti-liberal ways.      

Consequently, the news that the Russian Government has launched an Internet register for users, suggests that the uprisings in Ukraine have an Internet component.Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web with Bloggers Law

The report by the New York Times May 7, was about censorship of the web.

"The idea that the Internet was at best controlled anarchy and beyond any one nation’s control is fading globally amid determined attempts by more and more governments to tame the web. If innovations like Twitter were hailed as recently as the Arab uprisings as the new public square, governments like those in China, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and now Russia are making it clear that they can deploy their tanks on virtual squares, too."

There is strong American bias in this report - that is, the implicit claim that free speech in America can be applied universally. There is nothing wrong with this Enlightenment approach, except that it is given a preferential treatment in the discussion, as if everyone knows and supports free speech, as an abstract objective, regardless of how it collides with political realities. This default position, is part of the cultural calculation as well.

As it turns out, the New York Times article is about censorship, which in the countries mentioned, is not about what Americans imagine to be free speech, but the more challenging matter, anti-government activity organized through the Internet. This is the case in China, which has a remarkably liberal policy to on-line media and communication, just as long as it is not political.

Consider a counter US example: Americans organizing anti-American activities which are considered terrorist acts-in-planning, have been blown to smithereens by drones. Those people have been blown up because other people working in institutions of the US Government read their emails and listen to their speeches verbally attacking the US. This surveillance leads to maximum use of deadly force by the US Government, without judicial due process - "extrajudicial killing." It has even been discussed in relation to the use of drones on American soil against Americans! Rand Paul debatesThis link between surveillance of digital communication and killing has been a controversial matter now for several years and presents an approach that is not in accordance with the popular US belief that everyone has speech rights. Congressional debate

Russia has a tradition - contrary to many Western approaches - that government can be authoritarian in its practices. From the Tsars to Stalin to President Putin. This is Russian culture. It is not Enlightenment culture, as preached or practised in the west, but something quite different. (This is why Zizek quotes Lenin on the vast amount of "spadework" needed to bring Russia into Western Europe.)

Would it be possible to say that US Government surveillance of citizens is Puritan culture revisited, an approach that predates Enlightenment?

The relationship between Zizek's Leninist history, the Russian Internet register and US approaches to free speech are to be found in the messy stuff of culture, to which there are few clear answers except the need for tolerance of many cultures. But that hardly helps anything.