In Defense of Slavoj Zizek

tragedy farceThe journalistic cliché portrays Slavoj Zizek as the “Elvis of cultural theory.” That’s not quite accurate. Considering the man’s well-documented love of film, I’d submit that Zizek is more accurately described as the Werner Herzog of theory. Like the mad genius of German cinema, Zizek constantly pushes against the limits of his field, subverting academic conventions and throwing theoretical curveballs with aplomb. Like Herzog’s most memorable subjects, Zizek is fascinated with humanity in the grip of utopian visions and irrational fixations. Aguirre went mad in search of El Dorado, Fitzcarraldo risked everything in his failed attempt to bring great opera to the depths of the Amazonian jungle, and Timothy Treadwell died while living out his crackpot fantasy of peaceful coexistence between human beings and grizzly bears. For Zizek, the dreamworld of capitalist ideology falls in the same category. It’s also not too difficult to envision Zizek as a character in one of Herzog’s films. Sometimes it seems as if his program of undermining liberal-democratic-capitalist ideological hegemony and reviving the idea of collective action in pursuit of large goals is the theoretical equivalent of dragging a steamship over a mountain.

One more parallel: Herzog is about to release a new film, and Zizek just published a new book. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce is more or less a condensed restatement of his arguments from In Defense of Lost Causes with some commentary on the financial crisis and other recent events thrown into the mix. Zizek been all over the place lately, speaking before crowdsgiving interviews, and writing newspaper editorials to promote the book and his take on the state of the world. As always, Zizek is frustrating, entertaining, opaque, and illuminating, often at the same time. What does the man have to say to us today?

Leaving out a number of sometimes bewildering details (we’re talking about Zizek here after all), here are the basic outlines. For him, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing financial crisis are signs that the liberal-democratic capitalist order thought to be eternal after the fall of the Soviet empire is slowly making its exit from the stage of history. This development, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as a positive development for the anti-capitalist left. The left itself will be the main victim of the crisis, as it has been exposed as incapable of presenting an alternative to the system in a moment in which it was highly vulnerable to a serious challenge. Instead, something like Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine will prevail, and the system will become stronger than ever while morphing gradually but unmistakably toward a form that combines China’s capitalist authoritarianism, Berlusconi’s populist buffoonery, and officially sanctioned libertarianism in private life. Politics will be hollowed out and rendered meaningless. If we have any hope of avoiding such a bleak fate, we must drastically alter the ideological background of society so that the spirit that animated the great emancipatory movements of the past can be revived in a new form suitable to the conditions of 21st century life. Considering the magnitude of the problems we face, if we fail to do so the train of history will drive us all off a cliff.

That’s a pretty depressing forecast, but to my mind he’s more or less on the mark here – to those who disagree, I give you a hearty Bronx cheer. Once we get down to specfics, however, Zizek’s recent pronouncements are a decidedly mixed bag. Since there’s no way I could possibly try to address all of his arguments while keeping this piece relatively short, let’s look at a few examples.

Obama, healthcare reform, and the ideological struggle

Zizek publicly expressed support for Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency last year, and in contrast to many American radicals he still sees Obama as a positive force in the battle against neoliberal ideology. “His greatest achievement up to now is that, in his refined, non-provocative way, he has introduced into public speech topics which had hitherto been de facto unsayable…many of Obama’s acts as president also already point in this direction (his educational and healthcare plans, his overtures to Cuba and other ‘rogue states,’ for example). For Zizek, the battle over healthcare reform gets at “the very core of the ruling ideology. The real core of the anti-Obama campaign is freedom of choice…If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of a blow will be made against the freedom of choice ideology, it will be a great victory worth having fought for.”

It seems to me that Zizek is a bit too taken with Obama’s beautiful rhetoric to have a clear view of the ideological background or the policy implications of the healthcare debate. Instead of breaking from the ideology of “freedom of choice,” hasn’t Obama chosen to situate his efforts within that category? He and his supporters portray their proposals as a means of offering Americans even more choice within the healthcare market, and have done little to challenge the idea that healthcare is a commodity that should be provided through the market. Besides, it looks likely that if successful, whatever kind of “reform” that ultimately prevails will ensure the continuance of our for-profit insurance system while doing little to make healthcare more affordable for most people. The possible failure of healthcare reform could strengthen the ideology of choice instead of dealing it a powerful blow.

"Capitalism with a human face”

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s clear the bloom has come off the rose of free-market, neoliberal capitalism. According to a recent poll, a solid majority of the world’s population wants increased government regulation of business, greater income redistribution, and possibly some government ownership of key industries. In short, it seems as if the financial crisis has revived the ideological appeal of social democracy – capitalism with a human face.

But is it possible to attain the traditional goals of social democracy under current conditions? Zizek is skeptical: “the problem lies in the ‘utopian’ premise that it is possible to achieve [social democracy] within the coordinates of global capitalism. What if the particular malfunctionings of capitalism…are not accidental disturbances but are rather structurally necessary?” I’m open to this line of reasoning (the social democratic model went through a deep structural crisis in the 1970s, after all), but in a time when being a forthright social democrat is practically a revolutionary stance, I’m not sure how we might go about constructing a more radical alternative, which for Zizek still goes by the name of communism – “a name for the difficult task of breaking out of the confines of the market-and-state framework.” Gee, that would be great, but I’m at a loss for how this could be ever be achieved. Readers, if you’ve got the answer to this enduring riddle of history, please don’t hold back! Until then, I’ll keep paying my DSA dues.

Zizek and the liberals

It’s no secret that Zizek’s got a bone to pick with liberals, who for their part have no problem returning the favor. To them, Zizek is a crypto-totalitarian who’d like nothing more than to bring back the guillotine, forced collectivization, show trials, and firing squads.

Zizek certainly does speak positively of certain aspects of previous revolutionary movements gone awry, but it’s clear that the image of Zizek-as-totalitarian is a caricature. As he says, “one should resist the cynical temptation of reducing [the freedoms afforded by liberal democracy] to a mere illusion,” a position that he denounces as “Stalinist hypocrisy.” He even proposes an alliance with “honest liberals” to protect “what was precious in the liberal democratic legacy” to avoid the hollowing out of politics that he fears is on the historical horizon. I think he’s right about this, I can’t see how this proposal squares with his advocacy of breaking out of the market-state framework, or his palpable disgust with the limitations of liberal democracy generally. But I suppose that at times one needs to suspend the need for coherence while reading Zizek.

Against “Progress”

When William F. Buckley launched National Review in the 1950s, he did so under the motto “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop!” Interestingly enough, Zizek seems to say the same thing when he argues that the role of radicals is to “stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice…this is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement…pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress.”

As a somewhat cranky pessimist with of a soft spot for Christopher Lasch, I’m rather sympathetic with this criticism of the left’s historically automatic self-identification as a force of Progress. I’ve never been very comfortable with “progressive” as a political moniker, and I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the traditional Marxist argument that capitalism represents a historically necessary phase of human development. Scientific and technological progress has given humanity the potential to destroy itself many times over, and as Horkheimer and Adorno pointed out decades ago, Progress has given us not just the cure for polio but Auschwitz as well. I’m not entirely sure how such skepticism of Progress can usefully inform a 21st century politics, but it’s good to see someone take a swipe at such a deep seated assumption on the left.

Zizek certainly has his limitations. He’s often prone to making ideological missteps, and his flights of Lacanian fancy can be frustratingly mystifying. But it’s pretty invigorating to engage with a theorist willing to take risks in challenging not just the seemingly natural hegemony of liberal-democratic-capitalist ideology, but deeply held articles of faith on the left as well. If Slavoj Zizek didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.

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