World according to Zizek

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

Slavoj Zizek delivering his lecture at Kochi Life 2010.-PHOTOGRAPH: VIPIN CHANDRAN

Slavoj Zizek delivering his lecture at Kochi Life 2010.-PHOTOGRAPH: VIPIN CHANDRAN

IT seems he has a habit of saying it, ever so casually, when you least expect him to Now, dont misunderstand me, but I am trying to provoke you or Now I will calmly wait for you to counter-attack. But, to be fair, eventually, he took a swipe at the mike only once, despite all the well-known grimaces, contortions, gesticulations, and invocations before it during the 130 minutes of his highly engaging talk in pure Slovenian English before a fascinated audience in Kochi on January 9.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian-born philosopher and cultural theorist who is often described as an intellectual rock star and the Wests most controversial philosopher, was the biggest draw at Kochi Life 2010, an inaugural international festival of letters organised by the Kochi Arts and Letters Foundation with a theme that was just right for him, especially: Whither Left?

There were several distinguished speakers before him at the event on related subjects on the Left, among them philosopher Akeel Bilgrami on Value, Agency and Alienation; Professor Gopal Guru, who spoke revealingly on the relationship between the Left and Dalits in India; Professor Prabhat Patnaik on the vanishing of the spectre of socialism as an alternative to capitalism and the dangers of its replacement by reformism; social activist Gail Omvedt on Caste and Reconstruction of the Left; and Professor Javeed Alam on Life after Secularism.

But it was Zizek, who was on the last leg of his first tour of India, who stole the show. He told his new audience in Left-ruled Kerala, Dont be afraid, Im on your side. More than ever we need communism. But lets look, nonetheless, at this defeat of the Left.

Zizek said that one of the sure signs of capitalisms ideological triumph today was the disappearance of the very term capitalism and the dangerous temptation of the anti-globalisation movements to transform a critique of capitalism (which ought to be centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work participation and profit extraction, and so on) into a critique of imperialism.

By doing this, by personalising the enemy thus by talking about American imperialism, for example, instead of capitalism, he said, you sustain a very dangerous dream the potentially reactionary dream of ultra-modernity that the Americans or the West Europeans did it their way, this liberal, exploitative, individualist capitalism, but, surely, we can do it in a different way, without the problems, the quarrels, struggles and wars generated by it.

Now I am sceptical about this, because, we know what such ultra-modernity produced in Europe, throughout, or at least in the first half of the 20th century: fascism. Fascism is precisely a project of ultra-modernity.

Every now and then during his talk, Zizek reassured his audience that he was not a crazy radical leftist who dreams. I am not saying, let us reject capitalism. I am aware of the constellation we are in. But what I am saying is that we should be aware that the antagonisms, or contradictions, to use an old Marxist term, are not in the wrong application or in any local culturally conditioned version of capitalism, but in capitalism as such. So today we have different versions of capitalism, capitalism with Asian values, Latin American or Italian capitalism and so on. But by just changing the forum from the West you do not get rid of capitalist antagonisms as such. The problem is not there.

So in what sense was he calling it a defeat of the Left? In the sense that when I was young, most of us were dreaming about the so-called socialism with a human face, without the Stalinist distortion and so on. But it seems to me as if, most of us today, even those who proclaim to be leftists, are really dreaming only about global capitalism with a human face... the same [capitalist] system, but one with a little less racism, sexism and so on.

He said there was a whole spectrum of versions of the Lefts reaction to this historical defeat in the world today, all which he found very suspicious. For example, he said, some leftists say, Okay, capitalism won, now let us play within its rules, or, Yes, capitalism won and is here for some time to stay, so lets withdraw and wait, but, you know, wait with the pleasure of knowing that you do not really risk anything. Some, he said, accept the futility of all struggles in the current context or claim that the crisis is not only because of capitalism, but that it is a deeper, metaphysically grounded one; some suggest organising local communities and gradually undermining power without directly attacking it. Some want the Left to merely open up to the whole multiplicity of struggles taking place around us. Yet another section maintains that in this era of post-industrial capitalism, where the shift is more and more towards intellectual work and so on, the communist vision is closer than ever to realisation. Or, according to them, we are there already, but we just dont know it.

Zizek cautioned his audience that it was important not to claim that the above examples are some wrong versions or deviations. [The question is] deviations from what? I dont see today any convincing global vision... I will put it in old Stalinist terms here, we have all the deviations, revisions, but we do not know what the main party line is.

So what is his message? Is it that capitalism is here to stay and that it has an incredible capacity to return from every catastrophe even stronger?

Precisely not, he said. You know, recently we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But one should know that people did not want what they got. Lets look at the most triumphant case: Poland. If you look at what the workers of the Solidarity trade union wanted, to put it in a very naive and empirical sense, we see they had wanted some kind of solidarity, some kind of justice, they wanted to lead their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased, they wanted to lead a life of simple honesty and sincerity, a life without the prevailing cynical hypocrisy and so on. Some observers have noticed that what they had wanted was in some paradoxical way close to the official ideology itself, at least if we read it literally. But then people were disappointed. How are we to read this disappointment?

Ultimately what Zizek was driving at was that liberal capitalism was a failure and, to our peril it was, in most places, leading to the rise of fundamentalist nationalism. It is very popular in many East European countries today to claim that Western capitalism is no better than communism, that they are both the same side of the same decadence and that we should return to our proud national traditions and so on. And as the death of the communist Left in 1989 and of its twin, the social democratic Left, in the 20 years that followed, indicate, he said, we are approaching an era where the only organised, large political force that successfully gives voice to this discontent and uneasiness with liberal capitalism is the fundamentalist, racist nationalism. And that is an incredibly sad and dangerous phenomenon.

According to Zizek the only way to break out of all this was, as he suggested at the beginning of his lecture invoking Lenin, to begin from the beginning. It is a standard thing to say how 1989 meant the end of utopias. It is over now, and they say capitalism is the only thing that functions. But I think if there is a meaning to the September 11 attacks and the global financial crisis it is that the Fukuyama utopia is dying. My point is that we may all laugh at Fukuyamas End of History [the notion that liberal democracy together with market economy represents the ultimate evolutionary direction for modern societies], but know secretly that a large majority of our leftists today are Fukuyama leftists. Nobody even talks today about the problems we were all talking about 30-40 years ago: Is capitalism here to stay? Or will there be another society? Is the state here to stay? It is as if these basic things are here to stay.... You cannot even imagine a change of capitalism.

Zizek said, therefore, the crucial question we all face today is: If capitalism is here to stay, will it be possible for capitalism even if it is a bit transformed to contain, if not resolve, its contradictions, complexities and antagonisms? Or are we facing today problems and antagonisms that will prevent the indefinite production or reproduction of capitalism?

We could list many problems, but the most important among them, Zizek argued, were the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of the institutions of private property in relation to the so-called intellectual labour, the socio-ethical issues created by the new techno-scientific developments, especially bio-genetics very serious antagonisms that cannot be solved within the liberal capitalist framework.

But what has all this to do with communism? According to Zizek it is here that we need to return to the old Marxist idea of enclosure of the commons, commons in the sense of what should be protected out there as our substance, something that belongs to all of us. Ecology deals with external nature, air, water and so on, which should be there for all of us. Biogenetics deals with the commons of our inner nature like genetic identity, inheritance and so on. And intellectual property deals with our symbolic commons. These commons were increasingly being privatised at the expense of the proletarianised majority.

In all these three areas we can identify a terrifying, forthcoming proletarian position.... But I feel these three fields of struggles are not enough. We need a fourth crucial struggle, the struggle against new inner divisions, new walls, which are emerging all round us. The reality in various countries is that globalisation means stronger divisions between those who are in and those who are out, different forms of exclusion and so on within communities. That is why I claim that if you do not link the other three struggles in ecology, biogenetics, intellectual property to this struggle of inner separation, divisions, exclusions, then you solve nothing. The key task for the Left is to establish a chain of all these struggles.

Where do I see the difference between the classical Marxist notion on working class proletarianism and our position? Marx had the right intuition, but I think he missed the point when he developed the idea of what he called general intellect. It is the idea that with the development of productive forces, knowledge becomes more and more the key factor of production. Marx develops this vision of how ones knowledge will become very important and capitalism will simply have to disintegrate, because knowledge will become the main source of value. What Marx did not take into account is the possibility of re-privatising this knowledge. This is why Bill Gates is the richest man on Earth.

Zizek said he was in agreement with economists who claim that today capitalism is, in a way, paradoxically, and up to a point, returning from profit to rent. I do not think you can play the old Marxist game of extra profits, extra exploitation here.... I think in the intellectual property [context] it is an important thing to say that, after all, Bill Gates does not exploit his workers very much. But why do we pay him so much for using his program? because he privatised part of our intellectual commons. In order to be able to participate in social space, to communicate with each other, we have to go through his property, as it were. We have to pay him a rent for his quasi-monopoly situation.

Zizek asserts that it is a little bit ironic that for Marx, oil is not a source of value, taking into account how much we have to pay for it. But the point is the price we pay for Bill Gates programs or natural resources like oil has nothing much to do with the work or money spent to produce these commodities. The way the price of Microsoft Windows goes up is not because Bill Gates says, Oh! Now I have to pay more for my programmers, so Ill raise the price. Similarly, when oil prices go up, it is not that production costs have gone up and so you have to charge extra profits. It is the rent.

This leads to a very difficult and dangerous situation where it is not that we no longer have the working class, but that too many divisions are created within it, Zizek said. The three main classes that are systematically generated by todays capitalism are the intellectual labourers, the old manual working class and then simply, the outcasts, those who have to be displaced to get access to mining and so on.

What is more interesting and the most dangerous development is that each of these three classes has more and more sub-classes, with their own life, world, ideology and so on. For example, at least in the developed West, you can immediately identify a member of the intellectual class by the food they eat; they dont eat hamburgers, they eat this disgusting healthy food, you know, a slice of salmon with two carrots and so on while they are also more open, liberal, promiscuous, postmodern, they also like fake Buddhism, fake Orientalism.... The traditional working class is more conservative, religious usually with old family values and so on. Then you have the outcasts. It is crucial to take into account these divisions, because the entire ideological machine today thrives on keeping these three parts apart, which is why they promote all these cultural walls.

This is why Zizek claims that there is only one Utopia today, and it is to believe that things will go on without change indefinitely, the way they are. I do not think liberal capitalism will go on indefinitely. The choice is either a gradual change of liberal capitalism into a more authoritarian capitalism... Or, what I claim is that the future will be either socialist or communist. But by socialism I mean a kind of authoritarian, fascist in a way, organisation of society, for example with ecological control, control of immigrants and so on through which and other such means capitalism will try to contain its contradictions. Already there are clear signs of developed Western democracies getting depoliticised, effectively more authoritarian. So, I say, more and more, there will be chance for radical politics. The proof is precisely in what people claim as a counter-argument: the rise of religious fundamentalism.

The struggles today are all between permissive liberal capitalism and religious fundamentalism and Zizek said that the first step for the radical Left is to see that this is not so much a false division as an imminent conflict of capitalism where both sides co-depend on each other. It is capitalism itself through its dynamics that generates fundamentalism... as it was clearly the case in Afghanistan, once perhaps, the most secular Muslim country but today the ultimate fundamentalist country, and, even, within the U.S., in Kansas, once the most progressive regions in the U.S. but now its most fundamentalist Christian Bible-belt state.

The problem with this struggle between liberalism, permissiveness and so on and fundamentalism is that a third term is missing there, Radical Left, which alone, Zizek said, can guarantee in the long term that we still have our freedoms, the freedom of choice, womens rights, and so on, and without which clearly we are going to witness a more authoritarian capitalism.

It was not very clear what practical steps Zizek was suggesting for the Radical Left and the world, but, indeed, he had his caustic comments and words of caution for the Left too. We no longer can have this old Marxist view, what we call the train of history, that history is on our side or that we work for the historical tendency and so on. I think I am a pessimist here. History brings an open position, if anything. If left to itself, the system will move rather towards some kind of a new catastrophic authoritarianism or whatever. I claim that we cannot count on any divine agency, even in the Stalinist sense of claiming that we are just instruments of historical necessity. There is no necessity guaranteeing anything, he said.

The Left cannot therefore have this comfortable attitude of waiting for others to do their job or continue being a Left of excuses, as it had been in the West in the last 20 years. We have to be the change we are looking for. Nobody will do it if we do not do it ourselves and the liberals who today suspect us of totalitarianism will see their own freedom being taken away from them [if we are not there], he said.

Rousseau, the philosopher, once said all friendly philosophers like to sympathise with the Mongols because this allows them to ignore the poor at their own doorstep. Likewise, [West European] leftist intellectuals always love an authentic revolution which happens somewhere far away Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, you name it because it lets them be a radical, keep their hearts warm and full of empathy, while in their own country they can continue to play the very same academic games and keep their careers safe.... These games have to stop.... And the Left has to skip the apologetic attitude of the past two decades. We do not have to be ashamed. It is our time again! he said.

The problem with a riveting Zizek lecture is that the audience may need to be reminded by him now and then that he talks too much for them to realise it and for him to go on for another hour or more with his theoretical spin, his provocative and entertaining anecdotes and, well, his obscene jokes. It was a grand finale to the new initiative, Kochi Life 2010, planned as an annual event and meant as a regular platform where thinking goes public. Indeed, Zizek said he liked it so much that he would return certainly like that old uncle of yours whom you throw out through the front door but then he comes back through the window.

* * *

OFTEN called the Elvis of Cultural Theory, Slavoj Zizek is a leftist philosopher, psycho-analyst and cultural theorist and the author of more than 50 books, including, most recently, First as Tragedy and then as Farce. In 1990 he campaigned unsuccessfully to be President of Slovenia, the first Yugoslav republic to hold a free election. He is currently International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London.

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