Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Žižek review

– how the big hairy Marxist would change the world

The leftwing intellectual with rock-star popularity argues that Trump vs Clinton, and Brexit vs Remain are mere sideshows

Friday 28 April 2017 02.30 EDT Last modified on Friday 28 April 2017 19.10 EDT

Life is, despite all the advances of medical science, still way too short to spend any time reading theoretical gibberish concocted by superannuated Marxists – theory that purports to still further stretch this ideological corpse like Procrustes on the rack of contemporary events. Fortunate Guardian-reading bourgeois liberals that we are, however, God – or the Self-Moving Absolute – has sent us Slavoj Žižek instead. Žižek demands to be taken seriously: he produces thousands of wildly and densely written pages that bear all the hallmarks of a scholar who has ingurgitated the western canon with the sole intent of firing it at the very bastions of power.

A political gadfly, who ran for office in his native Slovenia, Žižek has at least leant on the barricades – if not, so far as we know, while actually mixing a Molotov cocktail – and believes in the idea of himself as a revolutionary activist sufficiently to subtitle his latest book Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously, while quoting in its pages Gandhi’s famous maxim: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

But The Courage of Hopelessness is also a pratfall staged at the end of Barack Obama’s underwhelming multicultural road show; for, inasmuch as he demands to be taken seriously, Žižek does so with his trousers down, and in the guise of a farceur. Yes! Life’s too short to read superannuated Marxists, especially those whose theoretical toolkit deploys the left-handed dialectical spanner and the right-handed Freudian screwdriver (with some “Lacanian” modifications) at one and the same time. At least it would be, if it weren’t for the jokes – and the comic timing.

It’s surely as much for his Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, and his wide and eclectic cultural references – in this new book he ranges from obscure Chinese science-fiction novels to Schubert’s Winterreise and back again – that Žižek has become the darling of what’s left of the left in British academia; because what he actually has to say, once the hurly-burly of theorising (and witticising) is done, is both remarkably simple and delightfully impractical – if, that is, you follow Papa Karl, and take seriously the idea that the whole point of philosophy is to change the world. Indeed, reading The Courage of Hopelessness, I was all too often reminded of the old joke about economics: “That’s all very well in practice – but will it work in theory?”

Following his 2013 work Less Than Nothing, a 1,000-page-plus summation of the Žižekian worldview in the guise of a Hegelian excursus, The Courage of Hopelessness sets out to apply his contorted perspective in real time: this is indeed philosophising à pied: and Žižek certainly makes like he really wants us to abandon the last vestiges of our discredited value system, and march with him (and Bernie Sanders) towards some yet-to-be-constructed barricades. Surveying the left’s annus horribilis of 2016, Žižek recalls the aftermath of the October revolution, and Lenin’s gathering conviction – once it became clear a Europe-wide revolution wouldn’t take place – that, while the idea of building socialism in one country was “nonsense”, nevertheless: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilisation in a different way from that of the west European countries?”

That silly old sausage Stalin’s problem was that he hoped for too much – hence the Terror, the Gulag, and all the rest of the murderousness; while, according to Žižek, the lesson of 20th-century communism “is that we have to gather the strength to fully assume the hopelessness”. I confess, I’m not sure I understand what Žižek means by this in relation to practical contemporary politics – but my suspicion is that his message is directed to a very small audience indeed: namely the sort of self-hating liberal humanists who buy his books and attend his lectures. It’s these folk, presumably, who can be expected to form the vanguard of the knowledge-working proletariat that will enact the Žižekian revolution – it’s these peons who find themselves trapped in the tunnel of history, and who must be adjured by their master to accept that “the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice”, while “the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching”.

In this minatory respect, at least, Žižek has strong affinities with a contemporary philosopher to whom he’s otherwise diametrically opposed: John Gray. In a review of Less Than Nothing for the New York Times Book Review, Gray lambasted Žižek for his obfuscation and his sophomoric appeals to violence. According to Gray, Žižek “insists that revolutionary violence has intrinsic value as a symbolic expression of rebellion – a position that has no parallel in either Marx or Lenin”. Gray sees Žižek’s intellectual forefather as being, rather, Georges Sorel, who “argued that communism was a utopian myth – but a myth that had value in inspiring a morally regenerative revolt against the corruption of bourgeois society”.

It’s this revolt Žižek seems always to be urging on his – undoubtedly for the most part corrupt and bourgeois – readership: it’s us who feel hopeless in the face of what Žižek identifies as the four principal “faces” of the immanent contradiction in global capitalism: fundamentalist jihad; geopolitical tensions; the “new radical emancipatory movements” in Greece and Spain; and the refugee crisis. But our sense of hopelessness is purely a function of our own false consciousness: once we accept the specious nature of the great “choices” we were faced with in 2016 – Trump vs Clinton; Remain vs Brexit; Grexit vs the EU bailout – we will accept Stalin’s position (in respect of “deviations” from Bolshevism), that “they’re both worse”.

It’s because of our “misperception of radical politics” that we get caught on the horns of dilemmas – burkini or bared breasts? Assad or Isis? – that are really pseudo-conflicts. Presumably, once we’ve finished The Courage of Hopelessness this misperception will be dispelled, and we will join in fully radicalising the as yet “gentle” Syriza, Bernie Sanders’s disappointed followers and, who knows, possibly the rump of the Labour Party remaining under Jeremy Corbyn, although Žižek has little to say about Britain as a distinct political culture.

Which surprises me. I said above that it was probably his humour (he can be a very witty writer indeed) that had gained Žižek such a following in the English-speaking world, this, together with his obvious erudition, and application of various Marxian and Freudian heuristics, which, let’s face it, are always good for a laugh. But in truth, for all his huffing and puffing here and elsewhere about the US, Žižek’s ideas have far less traction there than they do in Britain, while his media presence is marginal at best. It’s the same in continental Europe – an International Journal of Žižek Studies exists, but its luminaries seem to be principally British. Indeed, it’s only in British academia, so far as I’m aware, that scholars still range themselves beneath standards bearing the names of the generation of French theorists whose ideas form the obfuscatory seedbed of Žižek’s lively imagination; thus we have Althusserians, Derrideans, Deleuzians and, gulp, Lacanians – while to the French themselves such affiliations are at best ridiculous.

For my own part, while having a vague sense of him looming on the cultural margins, it wasn’t until Žižek came to speak at the university where I teach that I fully appreciated what an intellectual rock star he is: there was no lecture room big enough to contain those who wanted to hear him, so the event was held in the sports hall, with the seats arranged horizontally along the 10 lanes of the 100-metre running track. They were all filled – that’s a kilometre of Lacanians! All of whom remained rapt while Žižek spoke – a word stream at once turbulent and turgid, from which I managed to extract the following key points: 1. I’m a big hairy Marxist-Leninist; 2. I believe in the emancipatory force of revolutionary violence; and 3. I really do.

At the time (five years ago) I was a little flummoxed as to what the audience was getting out of this, beyond the slightly dirty thrill of being in the presence of a real, live communist revolutionary. My colleagues are just as hamstrung by the privatisation of higher education as the rest of British academia, busily cutting their ragged cloth to fit the neoliberal paradigm, and looking for the most part about as revolutionary as the Net-a-Porter shoppers we undoubtedly are.

Still, now as much as then, we must be set to rights: and once the neurofibrillary tangle of Žižek’s dialectics is cleared away there is a viable critique of the left-liberal response to our current situation discernible in The Courage of Hopelessness. Žižek paints a portrait of pampered, self-indulgent bleeding-hearts, who dither over what is to be done while indulging in febrile clicktivism and agonising over the provision of gender-neutral toilets. His discussion of LGBT+ and the spell cast by identitarian politics on the left generally amounts to this coarse – yet amusing – summation: we’re fiddling with ourselves while Rome burns. And Žižek cares about Rome, cares about the western logos in all its self-moving absolutism: he’s dismissive of postcolonial perspectives, and semi-develops arguments about the emergent “creative commons” and the internet of things that suggest he sees in the web-world itself the emergence of new – hence revolutionary – means of production.

In his essay, Gray is roundly dismissive of Žižek’s philosophic credentials – both as a Marxist, and as an epistemologist. But I do discern the lineaments of a viable theory connecting what we may know to what we can do in Žižek’s thought. The only problem is that the “revolution” remains a completely void category: a mere repository for many millions of individual actes gratuits. Gray further suggests that the entire Žižek phenomenon is a function of a late capitalism that thrives on novelty – in theory as much as consumer goods; and that therefore Žižek’s high profile is entirely down to the system he himself excoriates. Gray also implicitly tasks Žižek with a sort of criminal irresponsibility: inciting his jaded readers and listeners to a senseless violence they’ve only ever witnessed in HBO miniseries. For Gray, Žižek – because of, not despite, all his frenzied attempts to distance himself from us Guardian-reading bourgeois liberals – represents just another iteration of the post-Enlightenment delusion of “scientifically” political “progress”. Yet what these two representative thinkers of our era really share is a deep and abiding pessimism – some might say nihilism.

I said above that Žižek can be a very witty writer indeed – but, as a good Freudian (or Lacanian), he knows well there really are no such things as jokes. I’m meant to be in conversation with Žižek at a suitably large venue in London soon, and the nice man who is organising the gig, when he learned I would be reviewing The Courage of Hopelessness, emailed me rather timorously hoping I wouldn’t be too negative about the book.

Many of Žižek’s jokes aren’t really his own, but rather those told by the victims of various nasty regimes – in The Courage of Hopelessness he retells one that was current during the Soviet era, concerning a Russian peasant under the Mongol occupation, who’s forced to hold his overlord’s testicles aloft while the warrior rapes the peasant’s wife, but seditiously allows them to drag in the dust. The peasant then accords this a great victory – while his violated wife sobs. The joke is meant to illustrate the impotence of Soviet dissidents, who merely “dusted Stalin’s balls” – and by extension the impotence of late night TV satirists who are merely dusting Trump’s balls; and by further extension impotent Guardian-reading liberals such as ourselves. Well, I wonder if Žižek is humorous enough to come and debate the revolutionary potency of hopelessness with me – or if he’s only seriously interested in having his testicles held aloft by the hands that otherwise feed him.

• To order The Courage of Hopelessness for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Intel Vets Voice Doubts on Syrian Crisis

April 26, 2017

Two dozen former U.S. intelligence professionals are urging the American people to demand clear evidence that the Syrian government was behind the April 4 chemical incident before President Trump dives deeper into another war.


From: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

Subject: Mattis ‘No Doubt’ Stance on Alleged Syrian CW Smacks of Politicized Intelligence

Donald Trump’s new Secretary of Defense, retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, during a recent trip to Israel, commented on the issue of Syria’s retention and use of chemical weapons in violation of its obligations to dispose of the totality of its declared chemical weapons capability in accordance with the provisions of both the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“There can be no doubt,” Secretary Mattis said during a April 21, 2017 joint news conference with his Israeli counterpart, Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman, “in the international community’s mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all.” To the contrary, Mattis noted, “I can say authoritatively they have retained some.”

Lieberman joined Mattis in his assessment, noting that Israel had “100 percent information that [the] Assad regime used chemical weapons against [Syrian] rebels.”

Both Mattis and Lieberman seemed to be channeling assessments offered to reporters two days prior, on April 19, 2017, by anonymous Israeli defense officials that the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack on the Syrian village of Khan Shaykhun was ordered by Syrian military commanders, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s personal knowledge, and that Syria retained a stock of “between one and three tons” of chemical weapons.

The Israeli intelligence followed on the heels of an April 13, 2017 speech given by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that, once information had come in about a chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, the CIA had been able to “develop several hypothesis around that, and then to begin to develop fact patterns which either supported or suggested that the hypothesis wasn’t right.” The CIA, Pompeo said, was “in relatively short order able to deliver to [President Trump] a high-confidence assessment that, in fact, it was the Syrian regime that had launched chemical strikes against its own people in [Khan Shaykhun.]”

The speed in which this assessment was made is of some concern. Both Director Pompeo, during his CSIS remarks, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, during comments to the press on April 6, 2017, note that President Trump turned to the intelligence community early on in the crisis to understand better “the circumstances of the attack and who was responsible.” McMaster indicated that the U.S. Intelligence Community, working with allied partners, was able to determine with “a very high degree of confidence” where the attack originated.

Both McMaster and Pompeo spoke of the importance of open source imagery in confirming that a chemical attack had taken place, along with evidence collected from the victims themselves – presumably blood samples – that confirmed the type of agent that was used in the attack. This initial assessment drove the decision to use military force – McMaster goes on to discuss a series of National Security Council meetings where military options were discussed and decided upon; the discussion about the intelligence underpinning the decision to strike Syria was over.

The danger of this rush toward an intelligence decision by Director Pompeo and National Security Advisor McMaster is that once the President and his top national security advisors have endorsed an intelligence-based conclusion, and authorized military action based upon that conclusion, it becomes virtually impossible for that conclusion to change. Intelligence assessments from that point forward will embrace facts that sustain this conclusion, and reject those that don’t; it is the definition of politicized intelligence, even if those involved disagree.

A similar “no doubt” moment had occurred nearly 15 years ago when, in August 2002, Vice President Cheney delivered a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney declared. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” The message Cheney was sending to the Intelligence Community was clear: Saddam Hussein had WMD; there was no need to answer that question anymore.

The CIA vehemently denies that either Vice President Cheney or anyone at the White House put pressure on its analysts to alter their assessments. This may very well be true, but if it is, then the record of certainty – and arrogance – that existed in the mindset of senior intelligence managers and analysts only further erodes public confidence in the assessments produced by the CIA, especially when, as is the case with Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction – the agency was found so lacking. Stuart Cohen, a veteran CIA intelligence analyst who served as the acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, oversaw the production of the 2002 Iraq National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to make case for Iraq possessing WMD that was used to justify war.

According to Mr. Cohen, he had four National Intelligence Officers with “over 100 years’ collective work experience on weapons of mass destruction issues” backed up by hundreds of analysts with “thousands of man-years invested in studying these issues.”

On the basis of this commitment of talent alone, Mr. Cohen assessed that “no reasonable person could have viewed the totality of the information that the Intelligence Community had at its disposal … and reached any conclusion or alternative views that were profoundly different from those that we reached,” namely that – judged with high confidence – “Iraq had chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of the 150 kilometer limit imposed by the UN Security Council.”

Two facts emerge from this expression of intellectual hubris. First, the U.S. Intelligence Community was, in fact, wrong in its estimate on Iraq’s WMD capability, throwing into question the standards used to assign “high confidence” ratings to official assessments. Second, the “reasonable person” standard cited by Cohen must be reassessed, perhaps based upon a benchmark derived from a history of analytical accuracy rather than time spent behind a desk.

The major lesson learned here, however, is that the U.S. Intelligence Community, and in particular the CIA, more often than not hides behind self-generated platitudes (“high confidence”, “reasonable person”) to disguise a process of intelligence analysis that has long ago been subordinated to domestic politics.

It is important to point out the fact that Israel, too, was wrong about Iraq’s WMD. According to Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli Intelligence Officer, Israeli intelligence seriously overplayed the threat posed by Iraqi WMD in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War, including a 2002 briefing to NATO provided by Efraim Halevy, who at the time headed the Israeli Mossad, or intelligence service, that Israel had “clear indications” that Iraq had reconstituted its WMD programs after U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

The Israeli intelligence assessments on Iraq, Mr. Brom concluded, were most likely colored by political considerations, such as the desire for regime change in Iraq. In this light, neither the presence of Avigdor Leiberman, nor the anonymous background briefings provided by Israel about Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, should be used to provide any credence to Secretary Mattis’s embrace of the “no doubt” standard when it comes to Syria’s alleged possession of chemical weapons.

The intelligence data that has been used to back up the allegations of Syrian chemical weapons use has been far from conclusive. Allusions to intercepted Syrian communications have been offered as “proof”, but the Iraq experience – in particular former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s unfortunate experience before the U.N. Security Council – show how easily such intelligence can be misunderstood and misused.

Inconsistencies in the publicly available imagery which the White House (and CIA) have so heavily relied upon have raised legitimate questions about the veracity of any conclusions drawn from these sources (and begs the question as to where the CIA’s own Open Source Intelligence Center was in this episode.) The blood samples used to back up claims of the presence of nerve agent among the victims was collected void of any verifiable chain of custody, making their sourcing impossible to verify, and as such invalidates any conclusions based upon their analysis.

In the end, the conclusions CIA Director Pompeo provided to the President was driven by a fundamental rethinking of the CIA’s analysts when it came to Syria and chemical weapons that took place in 2014. Initial CIA assessments in the aftermath of the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons seemed to support the Syrian government’s stance that it had declared the totality of its holding of chemical weapons, and had turned everything over to the OPCW for disposal. However, in 2014, OPCW inspectors had detected traces of Sarin and VX nerve agent precursors at sites where the Syrians had indicated no chemical weapons activity had taken place; other samples showed the presence of weaponized Sarin nerve agent.

The Syrian explanation that the samples detected were caused by cross-contamination brought on by the emergency evacuation of chemical precursors and equipment used to handle chemical weapons necessitated by the ongoing Civil War was not accepted by the inspectors, and this doubt made its way into the minds of the CIA analysts, who closely followed the work of the OPCW inspectors in Syria.

One would think that the CIA would operate using the adage of “once bitten, twice shy” when assessing inspector-driven doubt; U.N. inspectors in Iraq, driven by a combination of the positive sampling combined with unverifiable Iraqi explanations, created an atmosphere of doubt about the veracity of Iraqi declarations that all chemical weapons had been destroyed. The CIA embraced the U.N. inspectors’ conclusions, and discounted the Iraqi version of events; as it turned out, Iraq was telling the truth.

While the jury is still out about whether or not Syria is, like Iraq, telling the truth, or whether the suspicions of inspectors are well founded, one thing is clear: a reasonable person would do well to withhold final judgment until all the facts are in. (Note: The U.S. proclivity for endorsing the findings of U.N. inspectors appears not to include the Khan Shaykhun attack; while both Syria and Russia have asked the OPCW to conduct a thorough investigation of the April 4, 2017 incident, the OPCW has been blocked from doing so by the United States and its allies.)

CIA Director Pompeo’s job is not to make policy – the intelligence his agency provides simply informs policy. It is not known if the U.S. Intelligence Community will be producing a formal National Intelligence Estimate addressing the Syrian chemical weapons issue, although the fact that the United States has undertaken military action under the premise that these weapons exist more than underscores the need for such a document, especially in light of repeated threats made by the Trump administration that follow-on strikes might be necessary.

Making policy is, however, the job of Secretary of Defense Mattis. At the end of the day, Secretary of Defense Mattis will need to make his own mind up as to the veracity of any intelligence used to justify military action. Mattis’s new job requires that he does more than simply advise the President on military options; he needs to ensure that the employment of these options is justified by the facts.

In the case of Syria, the “no doubt” standard Mattis has employed does not meet the “reasonable man” standard. Given the consequences that are attached to his every word, Secretary Mattis would be well advised not to commit to a “no doubt” standard until there is, literally, no doubt.

For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

William Binney, Technical Director, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)

Marshall Carter-Tripp, Foreign Service Officer (ret) and former Office Division Director in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research

Thomas Drake, former Senior Executive, NSA

Bogdan Dzakovic, Former Team Leader of Federal Air Marshals and Red Team, FAA Security, (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan (associate VIPS)

Larry C Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)

Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF (Ret.); ex-Master SERE Instructor for Strategic Reconnaissance Operations (NSA/DIA) and Special Mission Units (JSOC)

Brady Kiesling, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, ret. (Associate VIPS)

Karen Kwiatkowski, former Lt. Col., US Air Force (ret.), at Office of Secretary of Defense watching the manufacture of lies on Iraq, 2001-2003

Lisa Ling, TSgt USAF (ret.)

Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Edward Loomis, NSA, Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)

David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Near East, CIA and National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Torin Nelson, former Intelligence Officer/Interrogator (GG-12) HQ, Department of the Army

Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.)

Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.)

Scott Ritter, former MAJ., USMC, former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq

Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colonel (USA, ret.), Distinguished Visiting Professor, College of William and Mary (associate VIPS)

Sarah G. Wilton, Intelligence Officer, DIA (ret.); Commander, US Naval Reserve (ret.)

Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)

Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret.); Foreign Service Officer (resigned)