“Asian values” or the monstrosity of capitalism

In an article published in November 2011 in Al Jazeera, Slavoj Zizek and Harum Scarum, Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University in no uncertain terms lets us know that he does not like the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He is less convincing, however, when he tells us the reasons why he does not like Zizek. He finds plenty of clues but no arguments to substantiate his allegations. What are the allegations against Zizek? The primary allegation is that Zizek is an orientalist, just like Kant and Levinas were before him. Dabashi thinks this acusation is credible because in an interview given to Al Jazeera in English, Zizek makes the following remarks about capitalism and democracy:


“I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values? I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy … What I’m afraid of is, with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don’t share the hope of my liberal friends – give them ten years [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration – no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over.”

Dabashi read this passage as confirming an asymmetrical relation of inequality and inferiority between Asian values, capitalism and the lack of democracy in Asia. The marriage between Asian values and capitalism can only result in an authoritarian society. The determinant factor in this marriage is Asian values, not capitalism. Because of the privileged position that the Asian values enjoy in relation to capitalism, Dabashi understands Zizek to be saying that capitalism is good in the West because it flowers in democracy, but when “it assumes “Asian values” it divorces that virtue and becomes a promiscuous monster”. He reads this as a straightforward affirmation of Zizek’s alleged orientalist view of the superiority of the western values.

Dabashi’s interpretation could not be more mistaken. It is selective and tendentious. One thing that cannot but strike the eye is how Zizek juxtaposes the two modes of capitalism: the Anglo-Saxon model – the Euro-American model – and the Chinese model (the Asian model). What does this juxtaposition mean? One simple thing: that capitalism whether Western or Eastern is the problem. The argument is not about Asian or Western values. The argument is about the fact that in whatever local mode capitalism is embedded it is bound to reproduce the same symptoms and inequalities which have become the defining marks of its global hegemony. The idea here is not to downgrade Asian values and upgrade the Western ones: the idea is that no matter how these values are played out in everyday life capitalism has a systematic logic which will ruthlessly employ them to its own advantage. Democracy is not an exception to the rule; it is not the end of history. He seeks to destroy the illusion that possibly if capitalism was embedded in a different values-configuration it will transform into something positive. The determinant factor in this triadic relation is not values but capitalism.

Whatever the import and the meaning of the Asian values referred to in here is, it is obvious that Zizek is using rather loosely the notion, but he does not single out the Asian values as the negative counter-part of the positive Western values. There is no warrant for the conclusion that once capitalism is divorced from the Western environment it turns into a promiscuous monster. The point is that capitalism is a monster; regardless of in what environment it is planted.

Having misunderstood the relation between Asian values and capitalism in Zizek, Dabashi also misunderstands Zizek’s remarks about relations of capitalism and democracy. The point of Zizek’s remarks about democracy that that was the only good argument about capitalism, that it sooner or later generated democracy, is that it is no longer true, neither in Asia nor in Europe. Nothing in the quote suggests that he is “cherry-picking democracy as the only offspring of capitalism” from among “all the other sorts of diseases coterminous with capitalism”. The message is loud and clear: capitalism’s uncontrollable mad dance is going to undermine democracy in the West too. It has become global and (institutional) democracy is obviously not the right political mechanism to keep it under control. Capitalism will undermine democracy.

Another way to state the same basic argument is: is Zizek wrong in what he says about capitalism with Asian values? Has capitalism generated democracy in China? It is a matter of factual evidence, not of ideological slandering, that China and Singapore are not democracies, yet they are capitalist. So what is wrong with being candid about this? Whether this is fortunate or unfortunate is another matter. There is nothing inherent in Asian values which prohibits the institutionalization of democracy there: it is a matter of historical progress and of political understanding of their respective traditions that have led to certain political system being implemented and not another. Nor is there any inherent reason embedded in the Western thought or history that made the West democratic. Zizek’s point, as I stated in the previous paragraph, is simply that global capitalism, not Asian values, will preclude the rise of democracy in Asia and will precipitate its downfall in the West. One would look in vain in Zizek’s oeuvre for anything resembling a line of reasoning as the one attributed to him by Dabashi in here. Rather, Zizek has been highly critical of how the West has perceived and devalued other traditions and has disavowed the political origins of its own political system presenting it as a natural outcome of the history of its being.

Dabashi’s manifest ambition to discredit Zizek leads him to a search for predecessors in philosophy, and he randomly chooses two among thousands: Kant and Levinas. Failing to appreciate the specific differences between their philosophical orientations, he makes them all bedfellows. Shortcomings of this approach, however, are too obvious to be ignored: Dabashi has to prove more than a simple common denominator for the relation to hold. He has to show the missing link between Zizek and these philosophers. But this cannot be done, certainly not with Levinas, because there is no such link. Their philosophies, their understandings of politics, their intellectual trajectories are vastly different that it makes no sense at all to subsume them under one concept or treat them as if they were ideological comrades. Operating with such generalizations can only lead to judgments that obfuscate real differences, such as the difference between a friend and an enemy. This is particularly baffling because not providing us with this missing link weakens his case and this has repercussions for the way he handles the double task that he has taken upon himself: that of a police scrutinizing and combating western philosophers for any sign of orientalism and that of a lawyer of the Eastern traditions defending them from the vicious orientalist attacks.

And, finally, in a crucial passage where he tries to restore the supposedly stolen-lost honor of the Arab-Muslim world, Dabashi provides the ultimate proof of Zizek’s orientalist complicity:

“When people from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another cry “people demand the overthrow of the regime”, they mean more than just their political regime. They also mean the regime of knowledge that does not see from pogroms to the Holocaust as equally embedded in “Western values”, does not see Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain, Totalitarianism in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe (Zizek’s own backyard), horrid racism across the European history, and all other sorts of diseases spreading from one end of Europe to another as coterminous with capitalism while married to the West – and cherry picks democracy as their only offspring, and when aterritorial capitalism wreaks havoc like a bubonic plague around the globe he looks for an flu strain he calls “Asian values”.

It is not only Zizek or the Western philosophy which stands accused; it is the whole Western civilization “across the European history”. One cannot get more of an ahistorical view and perspective on the West than this one. Orientalism becomes an all-encompassing and total-izing conception that it is inherently difficult to exclude anyone from falling under its prescriptions because it is premised upon the assumption of a closure of a regime of knowledge. The problem with this view is that generalities of this kind make concrete and principled debates pointless. It explains nothing concrete but manages to cause a lot of confusion and disorientation. Dabashi fails to prove that Zizek is an orientalist in any straightforward sense but he gives us a view of an eternal recurrence of the same in the West.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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