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How to Justify a Crisis

Leading progressive intellectuals are using their influence to disparage refugees and excuse elites.

Syrian refugees waiting for a train in Vienna last month. Josh Zakary / Flickr

As Europe’s asylum crisis intensified last month, prominent liberal opinion pages — the London Review of Books, Le Monde, Canada’s Globe and Mail — featured contributions from some of today’s leading thinkers. Slavoj Žižek, Jürgen Habermas, and Peter Singer all offered their analysis of what must be done, and by whom, to relieve the refugee emergency.

These interventions are rich in lessons about how the “responsibility of intellectuals,” to use Chomsky’s formulation, is currently being discharged — or not. Indeed, for all the philosophers’ fame, their contributions impress only by the banality of their prescriptions.

Žižek said that “Europe must reassert its commitment to provide for the dignified treatment of the refugees.” “National sovereignty,” he believes, “will have to be radically redefined and new methods of global co-operation and decision-making devised.” Habermas called on France and Germany “to show Europe has a hard core able to act and to take the initiative.” Singer noted that “affluent countries should be giving much more support to less affluent countries that are supporting large numbers of refugees.”

At no stage does the analysis go beyond what is already uncontroversial for large sections of the Western public. What does distinguish the interventions is the ideological work they do in obscuring the underlying causes and stakes of the refugee crisis. Any genuine attempt to understand the politics of asylum in 2015 has to take into account the role of Western, including European, interventions in the Middle East — and the willing concessions to racist nationalism by mainstream parties throughout Europe.

These considerations are, however, largely absent from the philosophers’ reasoning. Instead, all three thinkers attribute the current crisis of European asylum principally to the supposed racism and backwardness of the public. Only Žižek takes the West’s role in precipitating the flood of refugees seriously — an analysis soon vitiated by his call for “a new kind of international military and economic intervention” that would do the same things that France did in Libya or the US in Iraq, only better. One thinks of the EU’s plan to militarily destroy “smuggler boats.”

In a caricature of intellectual disdain for less developed minds, Singer bemoans “our species’ lamentable xenophobic tendencies” and cites “the surge in popularity of far-right extremist political parties in Europe” as evidence of the irremediable backwardness of its population. He willfully looks past the pro-refugee mobilizations across Europe and the popular alternative they embody: a progressive politics around refugee rights. He even stoops to demeaning asylum seekers, writing of “well-coached migrant[s] seeking a better life in a more affluent country.”

Singer has no patience for open-border advocates, seeing in them unwitting accomplices of the “smugglers.” (That closed borders create the conditions in which “smugglers” thrive is apparently lost on him.) Singer’s solution? The West should pay off less affluent countries to keep out refugees.

Habermas, for his part, believes that European public opinion is shifting in favor of asylum-seekers — but he attributes this not to any deeper solidarity, but to a patient campaign of public education by political elites.

He laments that the “resolute political elite” personified by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande may “fail to face up to the present challenge through discouragement, or through lack of support from their respective media and population — sometimes also because of the petty calculations and spinelessness of political parties in the face of the population’s laziness, selfishness, and lack of a long view.” Where Singer sees the general public as condemned to xenophobia by its DNA, Habermas sees it as unwilling to learn the enlightened lessons of its elite classes.

Žižek weaves these strands of elitism and bigotry together. In a deft nod to a sham egalitarianism, he finds nationalist populism preferable to humanitarian calls for open borders from the “liberal left.” He believes that the West needs to learn how to intervene militarily in a way “that avoids the neocolonial traps of the recent past.”

While “refugees should be assured of their safety . . . it should also be made clear to them that they must accept the destination allocated to them by European authorities, and that they will have to respect the laws and social norms of European states.” “Such rules,” he declares, “privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.”

These sentiments are couched in anti-capitalist rhetoric — Žižek recommends “communism” as the fundamental solution to the crisis. But his radical gloss fails to conceal the reactionary nonsense he is promoting.

It should be obvious to Žižek that the West can’t intervene militarily in a way that avoids the “neocolonial traps of the recent past.” Refugees, for their part, aren’t wayfarers on someone else’s soil, present only under sufferance and, as such, the objects of “hospitality.” Regardless of the customs they bring with them, they should enjoy the same rights as the members of the diverse communities that make up Europe — a pluralism entirely ignored in Žižek’s astonishing reference to a unique “Western European way of life.”

That these distinguished, supposedly progressive academics voice humanitarian trivialities is hardly surprising. What is more interesting is how Singer, Habermas, and Žižek also endorse an elitist vision of politics — the enlightened political class versus a racist and ignorant population — and, while appearing to oppose the xenophobic and anti-migrant positions of the European right, effectively underwrite them.

Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and Nigel Farage — to say nothing of Nicolas Sarkozy or David Cameron — will find plenty of ideological support in the trio’s declarations about the populace’s xenophobia, the impossibility of open borders, or the voting public’s need to be put under the tutelage of “resolute elites.” It is these chauvinistic and antidemocratic recommendations, and not the liberal banalities in which they are cocooned, that constitute the articles’ most insidious political ingredient.

The Spokespeople

As the West’s elites reverse one progressive legacy after another, and meticulously pilot their increasingly educated societies into ecological ruination, the role of institutionalized thought deserves scrutiny. Žižek, Habermas, and Singer are all professional philosophers and thus products of the university. So what can their contributions tell us about the distinctive role academia plays in structuring opinion?

Defenders of a liberal education — including many professional intellectuals — often stress its capacity to nourish a critical orientation, especially for those studying the humanities. Even with a prudent skepticism about academia’s ability to act as an agent of progressive change, it’s hard not to feel real sympathy for this ideal.

But the danger that the institutionalization of critical analysis carries with it should not be neglected. This danger is that the argumentative moves and the supposedly critical habits of mind associated with the academic industry may play an unsuspected role in legitimating the forms of domination which sustain contemporary capitalist societies.

How might this be the case? Philosophy and the other humanities disciplines are, as fields, notoriously open: the arguments that can be sustained in them depend on the individual preferences and imagination of the participants.

What counts as a viable argument in philosophy, literary studies, or history is contested, and positions come and go with the winds of intellectual fashion. This means that participants’ own choices play a large role in shaping the “knowledge” that the discipline produces, and the authority its proponents enjoy as spokespeople of official rationality.

For students, the humanities’ discretionary character is obvious from day one. In learning to theorize about the human world and in continually being invited to elaborate new generalizations about it — in “always making an issue and a question out of everything,” as Thomas Piketty has put it — students quickly discover that intellectual success in this sphere is largely the result of the individual thinker’s force of will.

For all the emphasis on intellectual rigor and seriousness, and all the insistence on the need to complexify universal categories, thought becomes an expression of individual sensibility — originality, determination, talent — in which the contingencies of the world and its complex interactions of power are subordinated to the authority of abstractions selected and controlled on a highly discretionary basis by a caste of experts laying claim to authoritative rationality.

The deployment of general categories to capture specific details of the world — the subsumption of a “particular” under a “universal” — is the basic move of intellectual analysis, whether in philosophy, linguistics, or cultural studies.

From their very first year in philosophy and other humanities, students are encouraged, without apprenticeship, to truck in universal categories — subjectivity, ethics, the unconscious, justice, cinema — and to use these categories to impose order on the variety of the world. Universalizing categories persist as study becomes more advanced: students of Habermas discuss “communicative action;” Singer has an online course called “effective altruism,” and an entire section of The Žižek Reader is labeled “woman.”

This leveling of the concrete diversity of life into the fixity of the abstract realm is an act of symbolic force that can only be justified if it is disciplined by an emancipatory purpose. Žižek, Habermas, and Singer’s choice to analyze the refugee crisis through the specific categories they have adopted shows that this isn’t always the case, even among thinkers usually seen as leftists.

Žižek’s fantasy that refugees pose a threat to the “Western” “way of life” that may be remedied by better kinds of military and economic “intervention” abroad is the clearest illustration of how the categories in which analysis is conducted can open the door to reaction.

The same pattern asserts itself, more subtly, in Singer and Habermas. Singer could simply accept the overwhelming evidence that the current movement of people from the Middle East is triggered by nothing other than war — but his reference to “economic migrants” functions to discredit refugees, just as his references to genetically coded xenophobia discredit the general public. Similarly, Habermas’s categories — political elites’ pro-refugee “resolve” being undermined by the public’s “selfishness” — fail to correctly interpret the dynamics of power at work in “advanced” societies.

What we see here is more than just further evidence of well-known intellectual pathologies such as contempt for the public and quiescence before the established institutions of power. The abusive use of reason evident in the three philosophers is a possibility intrinsic to institutionalized intellectual analysis.

Once they leave the realm of reflection, professional intellectuals’ audiences soon find that the discretionary theoretical authority they’ve learned to accept at university prefigures the discretionary and thoroughly material authority they are subjected to in the outside world. This is the authority they confront as essentially disenfranchised citizens of capitalist states, or as job-seekers in increasingly vicious employment markets.

Just as humanities students find themselves subjected to an intellectual discipline that is ultimately an expression of their professors’ values and preferences, so too will they find themselves subjected to unjustifiable material discipline as participants in the confrontation between labor and capital, and governmental discipline in the structures of political representation in which they are caught up.

As members of the privileged middle classes of the West, humanities graduates will also, of course, often wield an arbitrary authority themselves. The hegemonic manipulation of conceptual power in the world of ideas translates easily into the hegemonic manipulation of real power in the world of things: write a philosophy paper today; tomorrow, get a job in business and finance, management, or marketing, sales and advertising (the most common professions for philosophy graduates in 2010).

The simultaneously sclerotic and feverish bureaucracies which many Western universities have now become illustrate in miniature the world of arbitrary and illegitimate power that professional thinkers can breathe into being when given the chance.

Anti-Democratic Thought

Žižek, Singer, and Habermas’s interventions on refugee politics reveal something central to the nature of intellectualism: a “dialectic of enlightenment” that makes thought, including self-styled progressive thought, not just a potential source of dissent to market rationality, but a covert apologetics and ideological preparation for it.

Defenses of higher education from both liberal and progressive standpoints often operate with an implicit premise: that the qualities of mind fostered by study are intrinsically emancipatory or democratic. This is, of course, mistaken.

Through their role in accustoming students to the exercise of arbitrary intellectual power, the habits of mind developed by higher education — analysis, reasoning, criticism — can function just as much as a means of reinforcement for existing and unjustified norms, as tools of collective emancipation from them.

As Žižek, Singer, and Habermas’s interventions demonstrate, intellectual authority can easily barricade the real strongholds of power and mystify its operations. For anyone who wants to put analysis to the service of fundamental social change, diagnosing and preventing this transformation of critique into intellectualism should be among the many responsibilities of “intellectuals” today.