Curated by Alejandra Seeber

The Real of Violence, Cynicism, and the “Right of Distress”
Slavoj Zizek

Anne-Lise Coste

1 The Cynic’s Naivety

The cynicism of those in power is today often so direct and open that there seems to be no need for the critique of ideology: why should we lose time and engage in arduous “symptomal reading,” discerning gaps and repressions in the public discourse of those in power, when this discourse more or less openly and shamelessly admits its particular interests? There are nonetheless multiple problems with this thesis. However, such a cynical notion of society in which those in power brutally admit what they are doing is by far not sufficient: precisely when they openly and “realistically” admit that it is ultimately all about power, money, influence, or whatsoever, they err to the extreme, their realism without illusions is the very form of their blindness. What they fatefully underestimate is the efficiency of illusions which structure and sustain their ruthless power games or financial speculations. At the beginning of Hitler’s rule, it was the big capitalist cynics who told themselves “let’s allow Hitler to take over and get us rid of the Left, and then we’ll get rid of him.” The financial crisis of 2008 was not brought about by the cynical bankers who acted upon the “greed is good” principle, not by blinded idealists. Therein resides the limit of Sloterdijk’s old formula of cynical reason “they know what they are doing, and they are nonetheless doing it”: they are blind for the illusions inherent to the brutal “realist” stance.

Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” [1] The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they all the time generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. What they were effectively doing was to establish the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very “inner” royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism – the royalists

deceived themselves concerning the fact of their united rule. They did not comprehend that if each of their factions, regarded separately, by itself, was royalist, the product of their chemical combination had necessarily to be republican /…/ Thus we find these royalists in the beginning believing in an immediate restoration, later preserving the republican form with foaming rage and deadly invective against it on their lips, and finally confessing that they can endure each other only in the republic and postponing the restoration indefinitely /die Restauration aufs Unbestimmte vertagen/. The enjoyment of the united rule /der Genuß der vereinigten Herrschaft/ itself strengthened each of the two factions, and made each of them still more unable and unwilling to subordinate itself to the other, that is, to restore the monarchy.[2]

Marx describes here a precise case of perverted libidinal economy: there is a Goal (restoration of the monarchy) which embers of the group experience as their true goal, but which, for tactical reasons, has to be publicly disavowed; however, what brings enjoyment are not multiple ways of obscenely making fun of the ideology they have to follow publicly (rage and invectives again republicanism), but the very indefinite postponed of the realization of their official Goal (which allows them to rule united). Recall how it is when, in the private sphere, I am unhappily married, I mock my wife all the time, declaring my intention to abandon here for my mistress whom I really love, and while I get small pleasures from invectives against my wife, the enjoyment that sustains me is generated by the indefinite postponement of really leaving my wife for my mistress. And, back to politics, were today’s Party of Order not the Us Republicans during the time of Ronald Reagan? Their orleanists were new tech liberal capitalists, and their legitimists tea Party fundamentalists – they hated each other, but they knew they can only rule together, so each of them endlessly postponed the measures they really care about (ban on abortion, etc.). This is the formula of today’s cynical politics: its true dupes are the cynics themselves who are not aware that their truth is in what they are mocking, not in their hidden belief. As such, cynicism is a perverted attitude: it transposes onto its other (non-cynical dupes) its own division. This is why, as Freud pointed out, the perverse activity is not an open display of the unconscious, but its greatest obfuscation.

There is one thing about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, which cannot but struck the eye of all observers: how utterly wrong were all his predictions. When news reached the West about the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, he immediately accepted the new regime (which ignominiously collapsed three days later) as a fact; etc.etc. – in short, when Socialist regimes were already a living dead, he was counting on a long-term pact with them. What this example perfectly demonstrates is the limitation of the cynical attitude: cynics are les non-dupes who errent; what they fail to recognize is the symbolic efficiency of the illusions, the way they regulate activity which generates social reality. The position of cynicism is that of wisdom – the paradigmatic cynic tells you privately, in a confidential low-key voice: “But don’t you get it that it is all really about… /money, power, sex/, that all high principles and values are just empty phrases which count for nothing?” In this sense, philosophers effectively “believe in the power of ideas,” they believe that “ideas rule the world,” cynics are fully justified in accusing them of this sin – however, what the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom. It is the philosophers who are the true realists: they are well aware that the cynical position is impossible and inconsistent, that cynics effectively follow the principle they publicly mock. Stalin was a cynic if there ever was one – but precisely as such, he sincerely believed in Communism.

2 Demystifying Violence

Such a critical distance towards cynicism also enables us to demystify the problem of violence, rejecting simplistic claims that the XXth century Communism used too much excessive murderous violence, and that we should be careful not to fall into this trap again. As a fact, this is, of course, terrifyingly true, – but such a direct focus on violence obfuscates the underlying question: what was wrong in the XXth century Communist project as such, which immanent weakness of this project pushed Communist to resort the Communists (not only those) in power to unrestrained violence? In other words, it is not enough to say that Communists “neglected the problem of violence”: it was a deeper socio-political failure which pushed them to violence. (The same goes for the notion that Communists “neglected democracy”: their overall project of social transformation enforced on them this “neglect.”)

There is violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process, but what kind of violence? Let me clarify this point with the detour through my critics who, when they are forced to admit that my statement »Hitler wasn’t violent enough« is not meant as a call for even more terrifying massive killing, tend to turn around their reproach: I just use provocative language in order to make a commonsense non-interesting point. Here is what one of them wrote apropos my claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler:

Žižek is here using language in a way that is designed to be provocative and to confuse people. He doesn’t actually mean that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler /…/ What he means to do instead is to alter the typical understanding of the word “violent” so that Gandhi’s nonviolent means of protest against the British will be considered more violent than Hitler’s incredibly violent attempts at world domination and genocide. Violence, for Žižek in this particular instance, actually means that which causes massive social upheaval. In that way, he consider Gandhi to be more violent than Hitler. But this, like so much of what Žižek writes, is actual nothing new or interesting or surprising. And that’s why he writes it in the provocative, confusing, and bizarre manner that he chooses instead of a straightforward manner. If he would have written that Gandhi accomplished more through non-violence that aimed at systemic change than Hitler accomplished through violent means, we would all agree … but we would also all know that there is nothing profound in such a statement. Instead, Žižek attempts to shock us and, in doing so, he covers up the completely humdrum conclusion about Gandhi and Hitler that everyone already believed to be true before they read Žižek.«[3]

In short, I try to sell the common thesis that Gandhi aimed at changing the system, not destroying people, but since this is a commonplace, I formulate it more provocatively, weirdly expanding the meaning of the word »violence« to include institutional changes. So why call Gandhi’s attempts to undermine the British state in India »more violent« than Hitler’s mass killings? To draw attention to the fundamental violence that sustains a »normal« functioning of the state (Benjamin called it »mythic violence«), and the no les fundamental violence that sustains every attempt to undermine the functioning of the state (Benjamin’s »divine violence«).[4] This is why the reaction of the state power to those who endanger it is so brutal, and why, in its very brutality, this reaction is precisely »reactive,« protective. So, far from eccentricity, the extension of the notion of violence is based on a key theoretical insight, and it is the limitation of violence to its directly-visible physical aspect which, far from being »normal,« relies on an ideological distortion. This is also why the reproach that I am fascinated by some ultra-radical violence with comparison to which Hitler and Khmer Rouge »didn’t go far enough« misses the point which is not to go further in this type of violence but to change the entire terrain. It is difficult to be really violent, to perform an act that violently disturbs the basic parameters of social life. When Bertolt Brecht saw a Japanese mask of an evil demon, he wrote how its swollen veins and hideous grimaces ‘all betake / what an exhausting effort it takes / To be evil.’ The same holds for violence which has any effect on the system. The Chinese Cultural Revolution serves as a lesson here: destroying old monuments proved not to be a true negation of the past. Rather it was an impotent passage a l’acte, an acting out which bore witness to the failure to get rid of the past. There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the final result of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is the current unmatched explosion of capitalist dynamics in China: a profound structural homology exists between Maoist permanent self-revolutionizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of State structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism. One is tempted to paraphrase Brecht again here:  ‘What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?’: what were the violent and destructive outbursts of a Red Guardist caught in the Cultural Revolution compared to the true Cultural Revolution, the permanent dissolution of all life-forms which capitalist reproduction dictates?

3 The “Right of Distress”

Our conclusion should thus not be simply that people have the right to a violent overthrow of the existing legal order – one should be more precise here: the conflict is inherent to the sphere of the law, i.e., the right to a revolution is an uncanny legal principle that overrides other such principles. Hegel pointed the way here in his account of the “right of distress (Notrecht)”[5]:

§ 127 The particularity of the interests of the natural will, taken in their entirety as a single whole, is personal existence or life. In extreme danger and in conflict with the rightful property of someone else, this life may claim (as a right, not a mercy) a right of distress /Notrecht/, because in such a situation there is on the one hand an infinite injury to a man’s existence and the consequent loss of rights altogether, and on the other hand only an injury to a single restricted embodiment of freedom, and this implies a recognition both of right as such and also of the injured man’s capacity for rights, because the injury affects only this property of his.

Remark: The right of distress is the basis of beneficium competentiaewhereby a debtor is allowed to retain of his tools, farming implements, clothes, or, in short, of his resources, i.e. of his creditor’s property, so much as is regarded as indispensable if he is to continue to support life – to support it, of course, on his own social level.

Addition: Life as the sum of ends has a right against abstract right. If for example it is only by stealing bread that the wolf can be kept from the door, the action is of course an encroachment on someone’s property, but it would be wrong to treat this action as an ordinary theft. To refuse to allow a man in jeopardy of his life to take such steps for self-preservation would be to stigmatize him as without rights, and since he would be deprived of his life, his freedom would be annulled altogether. /…/

§ 128 This distress reveals the finitude and therefore the contingency of both right and welfare of right as the abstract embodiment of freedom without embodying the particular person, and of welfare as the sphere of the particular will without the universality of right.

Hegel does not talk here about humanitarian considerations which should temper our legalistic zeal (if an impoverished father steals bread to feed his starving child, we should show mercy and understanding even if he broke the law…), but about a basic legal right, a right which is as a right superior to other particular legal rights. In other words, we are not dealing simply with the conflict between the demands of life and the constraints of the legal system of rights, but with a right (to life) that overcomes all formal rights, i.e., with a conflict inherent to the sphere of rights, a conflict which is unavoidable and necessary insofar as it serves as an indication of the finitude, inconsistency, and “abstract” character of the system of legal rights as such. “To refuse to allow a man in jeopardy of his life to take such steps for self-preservation /like stealing the food necessary for his survival/ would be to stigmatize him as without rights“– so, again, the point is not that the punishment for justified stealing would deprive the subject of his life, but that it would exclude him from the domain of rights, i.e., that it would reduce him to bare life outside the domain of law, of the legal order. In other words, this refusal deprives the subject of his very right to have rights. Furthermore, the quoted Remark applies this logic to the situation of a debtor, claiming that he should be allowed to retain of his resources so much as is regarded as indispensable if he is to continue with his life not just at the level of bare survival, but “on his own social level” – a claim that is today fully relevant with regard to the situation of the impoverished majority in the indebted states like Greece. However, the key question here is: can we universalize this “right of distress,” extending it to an entire social class and its acts against the property of another class? Although Hegel does not directly address this question, a positive answer imposes itself from Hegel’s description of “rabble” as a group/class whose exclusion from the domain of social recognition is systematic: “§ 244, Addition: Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another.” In such a situation in which a whole class of people is systematically pushed beneath the level of dignified survival, to refuse to allow them to take “steps for self-preservation” (which, in this case, can only mean the open rebellion against the established legal order) is to stigmatize them as without rights.


[1] See Karl Marx, “Class Struggles in France,“ Collected Works, Vol. 10, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978, p. 95.
[2] Op.cit., ibid..
[3] https://lazersilberstein.tumblr.com/post/26499132966/according-to-slavoj-zizek-no-one-understands-slavoj-zizek.
[4] There is a homologous procedure in our language. In the domain of politics, one often uses (ironically) the passive form of an active verb – say, when a politician who is forced to »voluntarily« step down, one comments on it that he was »stepped down.« (In China, during the Cultural Revolution, one even used the neutral form – like »struggle« – in an artificial passive or active version; when a cadre accused of revisionism was submitted to a session of »ideological struggle,« it was said that he was »struggled,« or that the revolutionary group was »struggling« him (here, the intransitive verb was changed into a transitive one: we not only struggle, we struggle someone).) Such distortions of »normal« grammar adequately expressed the underlying logic; consequently, instead of rejecting them as violent distortions of normal use of language, we should praise them as disclosures of the violence that underlies this normal use.
[5] I owe this reference to Hegel’s Notrecht to Costas Douzinas who developed it in his intervention “The Right to Revolution?” at the Hegel-colloquium The Actuality of the Absolute organized by the Birkbeck School of Law in London, May 10-12 2013. Passages from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right are quoted from www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/prconten.htm‎.

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