The Betrayal of the Left
At the end of David Fincher's 1999 film, Fight Club, the unnamed narrator (played by Edward Norton) dispatches his alter ego, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and then watches as the buildings around him burst into flames, fulfilling his and his alter ego's desire to destroy modern civilisation. But in the Chinese version released earlier this year, the ending was replaced with an English-language title card that explained, "The police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to a lunatic asylum to receive psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012."
Why would the Chinese authorities change the ending of a film that is highly critical of Western liberal society, disqualifying its critical political stance as an expression of madness? The reason is simple: For China's leaders, defending established power is more important than advancing a particular ideological agenda.
Recall that in mid-October 2019, the Chinese media launched a propaganda campaign claiming that, as CNN puts it, "demonstrations in Europe and South America are the direct result of Western tolerance of Hong Kong unrest," the implication being that protesters in Chile and Spain were taking their cues from those in Hong Kong. As is often the case, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was discreetly promoting a sense of solidarity among all who hold power and face a rebellious or unhappy populace. Western and Chinese leaders, the CPC seemed to be saying, ultimately have the same basic interest – transcending ideological and geopolitical tensions – in maintaining political quiescence.
Now consider recent developments in the US. On June 18, Texas Republicans declared that President Joe Biden "was not legitimately elected," echoing similar statements by other Republicans around the country. The GOP's rejection of Biden's legitimacy amounts to a rejection of America's democratic system. The party increasingly has advocated raw power over government by consent.
Consider this fact alongside the American public's growing fatigue over the Ukraine war, and a dark prospect emerges: What if Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, wins the 2024 presidential election? In addition to cracking down on dissent and political opposition at home, he might also enter a pact with Russia, abandoning the Ukrainians in the same way that he did the Kurds in Syria. After all, Trump has never been reluctant to stand in solidarity with the world's autocrats.
During Ukraine's 2014 Maidan uprising, a leaked recording of a telephone call captured a senior US State Department official, Victoria Nuland, saying to the US ambassador to Ukraine, "F*** the EU." Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pursuing precisely that objective, supporting Brexit, Catalonian separatism, and far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy.
The anti-European axis that unites Putin with certain trends in the US is one of the most dangerous elements in today's politics. If African, Asian, and Latin American governments follow their old anti-European instincts and lean towards Russia, we will have entered a sad new world in which those in power stand in lockstep solidarity with each other. In this world, what would happen to the marginalised and oppressed victims of unaccountable power, whom the left traditionally has defended?
Sadly, some Western leftists, such as film director Oliver Stone, have long parroted the Kremlin's claim that Maidan was a US-orchestrated putsch against a democratically elected government. This is plainly false. The protests that began on November 21, 2013, in Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), may have been chaotic, featuring a variety of political tendencies and foreign interference, but there is no doubt that they were an authentic popular revolt.
During the uprising, Maidan became a huge protest camp, occupied by thousands of demonstrators and protected by makeshift barricades. It had kitchens, first-aid posts, and broadcasting facilities, as well as stages for speeches, lectures, debates, and performances. It was the furthest thing from a "Nazi" putsch that one can imagine. Indeed, the events in Maidan were of a piece with the Arab Spring and similar uprisings in Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Belarus. While the Belarusian protests of 2020-21 were brutally crushed, the demonstrators can be reproached only for being too naive in their pro-Europeanism; they ignored the divisions and antagonisms that cut across Europe today.
By contrast, the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol most certainly was not an "American Maidan." There is growing evidence to show that it was largely orchestrated ahead of time, and that Trump – then the most powerful man in the country – more or less knew what was in store for that day. Still, immediately following the insurrection, before all the details were known, some of my leftist friends channelled a sense of loss. "The wrong people are taking over the seat of power," they lamented. "We should be doing it!"
It is worth revisiting what Putin said on February 21, 2022. After claiming that Ukraine was created by Lenin, he went on to remark that the Bolsheviks' "grateful progeny" in Ukraine had "overturned monuments to Lenin. They call it decommunisation. You want decommunisation? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunisation would mean for Ukraine." With that, Putin launched his "special military operation."
Putin's logic is clear: since Ukraine is (supposedly) a Communist creation, true decommunisation requires that Ukraine be eliminated. But "decommunisation" also conjures an agenda that aims to erase the last traces of the welfare state – a central pillar of the left's legacy. We, therefore, must pity all the Western "leftists" who have emerged as apologists for Putin. They are like the "anti-imperialist" pacifists who claimed, in 1940, that the Nazi blitz across Europe should not be resisted.
For years, Russian and Chinese leaders have panicked whenever a popular rebellion has exploded somewhere in their sphere of influence. As a rule, they interpret such events as plots – their term for them is "colour revolutions" – instigated by the West. China's regime is now at least honest enough to admit that there is deep dissatisfaction around the world. Its answer is to appeal to the shared sense of insecurity that many in positions of power feel. The left's response, by contrast, should be to maintain solidarity with those who resist aggressive, arbitrary power, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere. Otherwise, well, we all know how that movie ends.
Dr Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author of Heaven in Disorder.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)