Understanding Everyday Struggles: a Critical Analysis of Slavoj Žižek’s Theories Regarding Power & Violence

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Table of Contents

  • Žižek’s Outline of Violence & Social Systems
  • Major Agents of Change
  • Divine Violence & Justification
  • Conclusion

On September 11th, 2001, three airplanes were hijacked in the United States airspace; two were directed to hit the World Trade Center Towers and the other collided into the Pentagon. From an average citizen’s perspective, these attacks were unexpected and brash – anger induced and impulsive. Slavoj Žižek would argue that these attacks could’ve been foreseen – that they were merely the summation of violence underlying in our systems and social structures (2008). Harry van der Linden’s review of Žižek’s Violence (2008) praises certain aspects of Žižek’s theories but also suggests numerous areas for reflection (2012). Žižek does an excellent job of describing the relationship between violence and social systems whilst calling into question the roles of major developmental agents, however his considerations of divine violence coupled with his justification of violence as a reaction is concerning and should be analyzed further.

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Žižek’s Outline of Violence & Social Systems

Power and violence are not easily defined; they are varying constructs that take on different meanings depending on the beliefs of the beholder. For Slavoj Žižek (2008), power and violence are deeply interconnected through our social systems and violence can be further classified according to the visibility of the acting agent and root cause of the issue. Therefore, violence belongs to one of two major categories: subjective violence or objective violence. Subjective violence is visible and seen as a perturbation of the norm. There is an obvious agent for whom the violent act can be linked to and a clear recognition of the offenders and victims. Subjectively violent acts can include anything from terrorist attacks, to mass shootings, to bank robberies. Objective violence, on the other hand, has no clearly identifiable agent and is submissively embedded in social structures. It is a violence for which we as a whole are responsible. We are not simply innocent bystanders but villains in a greater story. Žižek (2008) goes on further to split objective violence into symbolic and systemic types of violence. Symbolic violence is entangled in our language and vocabulary. It is through our references, metaphors, and other spoken connections that we are inconspicuously assigning deeper meanings to the things surrounding us. Fitness boot camps have been taken to mean rigorous physical training but on a more subvert level, this use of language is normalizing militarization and, indirectly, violence. Systemic violence covers all of the issues arising from socioeconomic and political systems and the ways in which they are structured in society. While social structures may appear to be smoothly functioning, the biases and faults in the system are often overlooked. A rich man would not question the means by which he receives his fortune; complaints about the system are typically only from those of whom the system has not benefitted. Systemic violence arises from the unfair distributions of the class structure.

Žižek is praised for his classifications of violence and the details in which he recognizes that subjective violence has socioeconomic and political roots. Furthermore, a strong argument is held that subjective and objective violence are directly related. This is one of the key aspects of Žižek’s entire argument. The acts of subjective violence may appear to be impulsive and unusual, but a deeper look would point out the foundation of objective violence behind all of the actions. A clear relationship between the types of violence and the social systems which cause them are overtly outlined and alluded to throughout the book.

Major Agents of Change

One of the main caveats of Žižek’s theories of violence is that we must be aware of dominant agents of change in society – particularly those in which he refers to as liberal communists. This is another strong argument that Žižek makes that regarding the ties between power and violence. He defines liberal communists as those who favour capitalism but also pursue progressive goals. Current prominent examples include Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, the co-creator of Facebook. All of these men are highly influential and prosperous, and their respective companies are some of the largest in the world. Their philanthropic events are seen as good on the surface but when considering the boost of company image and publicity that is received, the legitimacy of selflessness can be called into question. They come off as good guys – and Žižek (2006) admits that they are genuinely caring people – but there is a certain danger towards them. These liberal communists are trying to solve the world’s problems but before they can give, they must take. Bill Gates, for example, has donated billions of dollars into his foundations to combat issues from malaria to the American education system. Van der Linden (2012) praises the comparison of the functionings of capitalism as results of systemic violence. He states that the media often overlook the everyday socioeconomic harms done unto people and focus too much attention on public, violent crimes for which they will gather the greater attention. Žižek (2008) calls for us to be cautious and wary of the seemingly good deeds arising from these liberal communists. The charity is recognized as a disguise, shrewdly masking the underlying economic exploitation. In Žižek’s words, liberal communists often “give away with one hand what they first took with the other” (2006).

Divine Violence & Justification

Regarding Use of Violence In the last chapter of Violence, Žižek touches upon the ideas of divine violence and supernatural intervention. Divine violence is seen as an unexpected act that distorts the status quo. It is justice that occurs beyond human law and is disruptive of the current system rather than supporting its ways. It is terror with political purposes without direct political goals; violent undertakings so radical that they can’t help but rattle the state of affairs. It can be argued that the usage of divine violence is both harmful to the offenders and the offended. Under Žižek’s definitions, the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt can be seen as divine intervention, however the event was simply the result of a cumulation of social causes. Divine violence cannot be used as retribution because it is directed at all culpable persons, regardless of if they pose any threat. Revolution as retribution is troubling because the force utilized may not always be appropriate for the context and terms in which they are in. Van der Linden (2012) also argues that revolutionary violence should only be utilized against those who seek to use force to uphold old regimes. Žižek also believes that in order to influence social systems, violence is required, and the more entrenched the structure is, the more violence is needed to change it. The idea of violence as a necessity in transforming society makes revolutionary violence too easy to justify as self-defence. Although Žižek is correct in the judgement that subjective violence has political and economic causes, there is a concrete lack of explanation as to why this could not be defined without including invisible systemic violence. It would be more comprehendible if Žižek simply stated that certain exploitations are a root cause of violence than to classify them all as systemic. It would be better to redefine these notions as “inherent and common to certain social arrangements” than to lump them with systemic forms of violence. Žižek’s work shows his clear support for revolutionary terror and violence. His belief that the actions of Mahatma Gandhi were more violent than Joseph Stalin due to Gandhi being more disruptive to the status quo is concerning and should be analyzed further.


Žižek ends the introduction in Violence with “sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (2008). Between his critiques of current socioeconomic and political systems to the ways in which violence is both overt and subvert, Žižek calls his readers to do nothing – to step back from the false urgency of the present (2008). Critchley (2008) relates Žižek’s inaction to an obsessional fantasy. Žižek is paralyzed and afraid of the changes to come in the system – he sits back to critique others while contributing minimal to the discourse that he defines. Throughout his book, the role of violence in social systems and the powers of popular agents are both well defined, but Žižek’s view of divine violence being justified as defence is troubling. Even though Žižek does not act upon his thoughts, his unwavering support for revolutionary violence outweighs his concise interpretations of power, discourse, and structural terror. While there is much knowledge to take away from Žižek’s theories of violence, one must be wary of his prejudice against capitalist structures and bias for justifying violence as necessary.

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