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Zizek: NATO, The Left hand of God? (by way of lbo-talk, tbyfield)

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Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 11:20:43 -0400
From: t byfield <>
Subject: Zizek: NATO, The Left hand of God? (by way of mpollak, tbyfield)

Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 09:41:44 -0400 (EDT)
From: (lbo-talk-digest)
Subject: lbo-talk-digest V1 #1574

lbo-talk-digest        Tuesday, June 29 1999        Volume 01 : Number 1574

In this issue:

   Zizek Zeit (in English)
   Re: Zizek Zeit (in English)


Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 04:27:39 -0400 (EDT)
From: Michael Pollak <>
Subject: Zizek Zeit (in English)

NATO, the Left Hand of God?

On the Self Deception of the West, or

Why the Conflict in the Balkans Will Not Come to an End Anytime Soon

by Slavoj Zizek

NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia is over.  It is therefore time to ask what
the meaning of this war war.  What were its ideological and political

Not long ago, Vaclev Havel maintained (in an essay titled "Kosovo and the
End of the Nation State") that the bombing of Yugoslavia, for which there
was no UN mandate, "placed human rights above the rights of states. . . .
But this did not come into being in some irresponsible way, as an act or
aggression or in contempt of international law.  On the contrary.  It
happened about of respect for rights, for rights that stand above those
which are protected by the sovereignty of states.  The Alliance acted out
of respect for human rights, in a way commanded not only by conscience but
by the relevant documents of international law."  This "higher law" has
its "deepest roots outside the perceptible world."  "While the state is
the work of man, man is the work of God."  In other words: NATO can
violate international law because it is acting as the immediate instrument
of God's "higher law."  If that's not religious fundamentalism, the
concept has no meaning.

Havel's statement is a great example of what Ulrich Beck back in April
called "military humanism" or "military pacifism" (in a feuilleton in the
_Sueddeutscher Zeitung_).  The problem is not so much one of Orwellian
oxymora like the famous "War is Peace."  (In my opinion the term
"pacificism" was never meant seriously.  When people buck up and are
honest with themselves, the paradox of military pacificism disappears.)  
[Translators note: "pacifism" has a broader meaning in German than it does
in English -- it includes roughly everything we would think of as
"anti-war sentiment" or "anti-war movement." So a free translation of
"military pacificism" would be roughly "war by people that have always
said they were against it."  But Beck's phrase is kind of famous, so let's
leave it.] The problem is also not that the targets of the bombing weren't
chosen on entirely moral grounds.  The real problem is that a purely
humanitarian, purely ethical justification for NATO's intervention
completely depoliticizes it.  NATO has shied away from a clearly defined
political solution.  Its intervention has been cloaked and justified
exclusively in the depoliticized language of universal human rights.  In
this context, men and women are no longer political subjects, but helpless
victims, robbed of all political identity and reduced to their naked
suffering.  In my opinion, this idealist subject-victim is an ideological
construct of NATO.

Not only NATO, But Also Nostalgics on the Left, Misunderstand the Causes
of the War

Today we can see that the paradox of the bombing of Yugoslavia is not the
one that Western pacifists have been complaining about -- that NATO set
off the very ethnic cleansing that it was supposed to be preventing.  No,
the ideology of victimization is the real problem: it's perfectly fine to
help the helpless Albanians against the Serbian monsters, but under no
circumstances must they be permitted to throw off this helplessness, to
get a hold on themselves as a sovereign and independent political subject
- -- a subject that doesn't need the kindly shelter of NATO's
"protectorate."  No, they have to stay victims.  The strategy of NATO is
thus perverse in the precise Freudian sense of the word:  The other will
stay protected so long as it remains the victim.

But it's not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict.  So has its
opponents on the pseudo-Left.  For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played
out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito's Yugoslavia.  It acted out
the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and
authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war.  Even so
sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that
all sides are equally guilty.  There were ethnic cleansers on all sides,
he says, among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians.  "Serbian
nationalism is worthless.  But in what respect is it worse than the
others?  It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more
weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more
opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . Certainly, Milosevic is
a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or
Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the
side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the
stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the

It seems to me that this represents a leftist yearning for Yugoslavia
lost.  The irony is that this nostalgia considers the Serbia of Slobovan
Milosevic to be the successor of that dream state -- i.e., exactly the
force that so effectively killed that old Yugoslavia.  The one political
creation that represented the positive heritage of Titoist Yugoslavia --
its much prized multicultural tolerance -- was "Muslim" Bosnia.  One could
even say that Serbian aggression against Bosnia was aimed at those that
clung despairingly to Tito's legacy, to the idea of "brotherhood and
unity."  It's no wonder that the brilliant commander of the "Muslim" army,
General Rasim Delic was an ethnic Serb.  It's no wonder that throughout
the 90's, "Muslim" Bosnia was the only place in the former Yugoslavia
where Tito's portrait still hung on the walls of official waiting rooms.

Threatened by Serbian nationalism, even Slovenian and Croatian nationalism
preserved a respect for Titos Yugoslavia, in any case for its fundamental
principle, that of the federation of equal constituent states with full
sovereignty, including the right to secede.  Whoever overlooks that,
whoever reduces the war in Bosnia to a civil war between various "ethnic
groups," is already on the side of the Serbs.  Because in no way was the
difference between Milosevic and other national leaders only quantitative.  
No, Yugoslavia was not hovering on the edge, betrayed equally by all
national "secessionists."  Its dissolution was much more a dialectical
process.  Those that "deserted" Yugoslavia were reacting to Serbian
nationalism -- that is, to those power groups that were endeavoring to
liquidate Tito's legacy.  Thus the worst anti-Serbian nationalist stands
closer to Tito's legacy than the present Belgrade regime, which maintains
itself, in the face of all "secessionists," as the legitimate and legal
successor of the former Yugoslavia.

It Was Serbian Aggression Alone, and Not Ethnic Conflict, That Set off the

It must be remembered above all that Tito constructed his federation in
conscious opposition to pre-war Yugoslavia, which was based on the
hegemony of the Serbs as the "founders of unity."  The Serbs were at that
time the only state-building nation.  After the Second World War, Tito
wanted to replace this Serb-dominated Yugoslavia with a federal one, a
free association of equal and sovereign states that would even have the
right of secession.  Milosevic's grab for power was in contrast the
attempt to rebuild pre-war Yugoslavia, and with it the hegemony of the
Serbs.  The various "secessionists" were reacting against this attempt at
restoration.  Their demands were anchored firmly in the principles of
Tito's Yugoslavia.

All that yakking popular on the Left about the Ustasche symbols in
Tudjman's Croatia doesn't change in the slightest that Serbian aggression
against Bosnia in 1992 did not spring out of a conflict between ethnic
groups.  It was purely and simply the attack of Serb-dominated pre-war
Yugoslavia against Tito's post-war Yugoslavia.

Looking back, one has to say that in the debate over NATO's bombing both
sides were wrong.  Not that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  On
the contrary, both sides, the supporters as much as the opponents of the
bombing, were simply wrong.  Both try attempt to take a universal,
neutral, and ultimately false standpoint.  The supporters of the bombing
make their stand on depoliticized human rights.  Their opponents describe
the post-Yugoslavian war as an ethnic struggle in which all sides are
equally guilty.  But both sides miss the political essence of the
post-Yugoslavian conflict.  And that is why the conflict continues to
smolder under the ashes.  The imposed NATO peace has certainly dammed it
up for a while.  But it hasn't extinguished it.

The Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek teaches in

Michael Pollak................New York