Are the War’s By-Products in Fact the Primary Intentions?


In this exhilarating, frustrating pamphlet-disguised-as-book, the Lacanian-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek gleefully points out that the proliferation of arguments for the Iraq war resembles the denials, concessions, and excuses in the joke about the borrowed, broken kettle: (1) I never borrowed the kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you intact; (3) the kettle was broken when I got it from you. The giveaway was that there were “too many” reasons for war—WMDs, Al Qaeda connections, democracy. So the disavowed reasons became almost embarrassingly obvious: oil, U.S. hegemony. Zizek also makes (he admits) “slightly paranoid” speculations about darker motivations. What if the supposed by-products of the war on terror are really, unconsciously, the primary intentions: the urge to legitimize torture, to repress “whatever remains of [the U.S.’s] emancipatory potential,” to alienate Europe (an economic competitor), even to neuter the Seattle/Genoa anti-capitalist movement?

While Zizek’s psychoanalytic method is devastating and rollicking good fun, many of his conclusions are familiar. “Who are you to do this?” he asks of the U.S. in Iraq, reciting the standard list of hypocrisies. And, because the rules of war seem to have been rewritten (or scrapped): “The true victims of the war are not the Iraqis, they are elsewhere!” Would Zizek still say this now, as hundreds of Iraqis continue to die in suicide/car bombings—and since things have gone so badly that the U.S. would (hopefully) think thrice before ever launching another unilateral “preventive” war?

Zizek is most radical—and ridiculous?—in the unwieldy appendixes. Politics has dissolved into “opportunistic pragmatism” passively navigating the allegedly “anonymous Fate” of global capital. Zizek remains a utopian. The left should not fight to regulate the excesses of the market, he says, but should “do nothing.” Only in this way can we “remain open to a revolutionary opportunity.”