Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek, 2010
Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian professor, who still calls himself a small ‘c’ communist. Slovenia was at one time part of Yugoslavia until it was vivisected by German and US imperialism in the 90s during their war on Serbia. Living in a former central European workers state could lead to invaluable insights relevant to Marxism. That life combined the real experience of a non-commodity economy with the flaws of bureaucracy. You’d think Zizek would have a great storehouse of information to draw on. However, you’d be hard-put to find any of that concrete experience here. Because, if you assert these are ‘end times’ then we must know to which direction we are going – to barbarism or into something more humane. And that recent experience seems relevant.
Zizek himself was a critic of Titoism, and ran for president of Yugoslavia on the platform of the “Liberal Democratic” party in 1990. It is unknown what the character of this organization was. However, there is very little in this book about his experiences. He mentions how the Slovenian Communists, at the end of their rule, tried to please everyone - because even they knew their rule was undemocratic. He understood that the CP made every concession to capitalism that they could, except the essential one – giving up the power of the Party. He thinks China at present is doing precisely that – a sort of massive New Economic Policy that still retains power in the hands of the Party.
I think the reason Zizek does not use his own actual history is because Zizek is basically a film/philosophy professor – actually a professor at several different universities – those in Ljubljana and London. He has given renewed intellectual credibility to Marxism – and not just the warmed-over, tired kind, but Leninism as well. He has even spoken of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ without wincing. Zizek quotes at one point Lenin worrying about what would happen to the Bolsheviks if they lost their attempt at Revolution. Trotsky responded by saying he was more worried about what would happen if they succeeded. Zizek contrasts this discussion of the ‘revolutionary act’ with the petit-bourgeois socialists who would put revolution to a vote. Revolution, in toto, is actually the most democratic event in human history, involving at it does far more than a passive visit to the ballot box. Zizek, like Lukacs, knew that human intervention and even human viewing actually changes history … and reality.
Zizek’s wide-ranging classical European intelligence and erudition, his humorous and sharp analysis, and his shaggy-dog hipster ambience have given Marxism something of a shot in the arm – at least with some youth and the mainstream Euro media. In the US he is relatively unknown - certainly not a new Marcuse in reputation as yet.
However, for those Marxists trying to find some new meat on the bone, it is a struggle just to distill some jewels from the heaps of verbiage. Zizek veers between archaic Freudian/Lacanian ‘psycho-analysis’ to traditional Marxism, to the categories of Hegel’s big “Other,” to de-constructionist film criticism, and back – all in one article. It is Attention Deficit Disorder philosophy. If you were wondering what ‘Living in End Times’ means, it seems to mean that we do not fulfill our promises. It actually means publishing various short academic pieces into a book length volume, and mostly ignoring your topic – the 4 horseman of the capitalist apocalypse which you mention in your introduction. One of his four horseman – the “biogenic revolution’ – does not even have an index entry. Instead, just pick a title that might sell books.
Zizek is really a philosopher – which to him means an ‘idea generator’ - and not primarily a social activist or a Marxist revolutionary. And indeed, the reason anyone reads Zizek is because we activists and humble thinkers seek these ‘new’ ideas - but alas, it is in vain. I will renew my call for anyone to state one idea Zizek has that will help the proletarian revolutionary movement in some significant way, and not merely enrich the discussion at a philosophy seminar. A good Slovenian beer, or even 6, is yours, as well as a bottle of “Leninade,” if you can come up with one. I certainly hope you can.
For instance, Freud. In the U.S. actual Freudian psycho-analysis is limited to monied narcissists in New York city. Years-long talk therapy is not covered by health plans. Precise Freudian diagnoses and methods – the Oeidipus and Electra complexes, oral/anal/genital stages of development, dream analysis, id/ego/superego, Freudian ‘slips,’ etc. all have become categories of marginal or no psychoanalytic value among practicing workers in the field. The more general value of unconscious emotions and sexual repression as it affects our thinking HAS been absorbed into modern thought and psycho-analytic training. Freud himself actually discovered child abuse, but because he could not believe that proper Viennese men would sexually abuse their daughters, he called it female ‘hysteria’ and the Electra complex. This is because Freud’s conclusions were not based on general scientific tests, but anecdotal cases brought to him by happenstance. And even an analysis of this small sample was saturated with the culture of the time.
German Communist Party member Wilhelm Reich actually did make a valuable contribution to revolutionary thinking with his “Mass Psychology of Fascism,” which showed how some of the roots of fascist thinking were in sexual repression. This work does owe a debt to Freud. Dealing with fascists, reactionaries or conservatives cannot be through a strictly ‘logical’ discussion, as anyone will tell you. Nor can recruiting youth, or most anyone to a revolutionary movement and society. However, most of Zizek’s references to Freud fall flat, or seem like strained analogies of the sexually obsessed. At which point, after several seemingly innocuous mentions of sexuality and little boys, I have to ask, what is this?
Or Hegel. Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as other Marxists, distilled the most progressive aspects of Hegelianism many years ago. The dialectic is the great gift that Hegel gave to philosophic thought. So for the life of me I can’t understand why someone would re-till these fields again – unless, indeed, there is something actually new here. Again, see my offer, above.
I saw Zizek on a recent DVD of 12 recent philosophers called “The Examined Life” – wandering around a garbage dump talking about environmentalism. He ended the meditation by saying that man should “increase” his alienation to nature. In this book, Zizek mentions the straw man of ‘zero waste’ to remind us that we must appreciate that the ‘aesthetic attitude of the radical ecologist’ is ‘to accept waste.’ Ok, how kinky!
Yet Zizek is clearly a Marxist environmentalist, as this book also shows. At one point, he discusses the natural age we live in as the “Anthropocene” – an era in which the natural world is materially affected by human activity. Human activity has become like the tides, or volcanic eruptions, or earthquakes, or solar flares. So how would ‘increasing’ alienation to nature actually help the environment? Isn’t the real problem that society and capital are already thoroughly alienated from the environment? And isn’t that what Marx himself said? Marx actually discussed recycling London’s shit, which should send any Freudian into an anal-baiting tizzy. Which makes one wonder if Zizek says some things just for provocation. Sort of like biting the head off of a bat. In another take on wobbling, he sounds for all the world like a Christian socialist in this book in several chapters, then reasserts his strong atheism. Some socialists at the turn of the century in the U.S. combined Christian and socialist themes, and were immensely popular. Is this what Zizek is trying to get at? We will never know.
He delights in being contrarian and counter-intuitive. At one point he accuses Venezuela of exploiting other countries through high oil prices - thus cleverly smashing a leftist shibboleth. What an idea generator, he! However, the fact that Venezuelan oil was formerly owned by various imperialist oil concerns, exploiting Venezuela’s resources and labor, certainly fits anyone’s definition of economic imperialism. The fact that Venezuela has seized the oil fields and put them under public ownership, and then gone the next step and actually used the proceeds to help the poor is a great gain. Does the Venezuelan nation still ‘exploit’ the buyer of Cities Service gas? Of course - but I would rather be exploited by the Venezuelan nation than by British Petroleum – and so would Zizek. Marxists know that exploitation will not completely end until we have a world economy based on use-values. .
Zizek is still an exponent of revolution and the proletariat – even though he understands the reduced role of physical work in advanced capitalist society. This point raises significant issues for the Marxist revolutionary movement in the advanced capitalist countries, and really demands much study, because it disappears the traditional commodity-producing proletariat, making products with absolute use-values. At one point he speaks of the ‘hegemonic role’ of “intellectual / immaterial labor’ in late capitalism. Now professors tend to understand the reduced role of physical work in advanced capitalist societies intuitively. However, Zizek has nothing to say about the out-sourcing of physical/blue-collar work to second and third world economies. Could you make the same claim about China, the still fastest growing economy in the world? Of course not. So this insight – which is not that uncommon – actually HIDES the actual displacement of manual labor in a world division of labor. It works to give an anti-working class sparkle to his thinking – even though that is not his intention.
I have distilled a grab-bag of nuggets that Zizek has dug up – some quite interesting:
1. Haiti. Zizek points out that the heroic revolution by black slaves in Haiti against colonialism and slavery lead by Toussaint L’Overture was punished by France for 125 years. France only established diplomatic relations with Haiti in 1825, and in response, Haiti had to pay reparations to France for expropriating the slave plantations until 1947, consuming a great part of the Haitian national budget, and permanently under-developing Haiti. This is a crime of historic proportions that is greater than the recent earthquake – because it is man-made.
2. He, like Sam Harris, reminds the white hipsters that the Zen Buddhists backed the Emperor and the Japanese role in World War II. No detachment there.
3. In comparing the atomizing ‘cash’ nexus with ‘potlach,’ Zizek shows the superiority of the latter in creating human and social bonds. A transaction consisting of presenting a credit card over a minute in time is far more distancing than people trading services or goods, and which happen over a period of time. A human debt is created, but not one solely economic.
4. Zizek praises various historians like Bryan Ward-Perkins, who studied ancient Rome. Perkins pointed out that history is not just a gradual transformation towards the ‘good,’ as the positivist liberals believe. Instead, real history is replete with periods of stagnation, back-sliding, regression and collapse within and between various societies. Trotsky’s phrase ‘Socialism or barbarism’ puts it quite succinctly.
5. As a Marxist, Zizek pokes at the liberals who always talk about racism and sexism, not class. He quotes Walter Benn Michaels: “Why do American liberals carry on about racism and sexism when they should be worrying about capitalism?” Zizek points out that “they carry on … in order to avoid doing so about capitalism.”
6. Zizek compares upper middle-class Dutch gays and poor Muslim immigrants, who view the former as privileged. He feels any discussion of Muslim ‘anti-homosexual’ attitudes in the Netherlands has to include this dimension, or it is inadequate.
7. Zizek, like Minqi Li, also suspects capital is unable to create a stable world political order.
8. Zizek believes that “a resuscitation of a critique of political economy is the sine qua non of contemporary communist politics.” He points to Moishe Postpone who analyzes the present after the collapse of the Communist regimes in 1990 as one of the leaders in this regard. And he is right – the collapse of the worker’s states is one of the key scientific events that need to be studied to rebuild a new communist movement.
9. The perfect capitalist product would be a “pure signifier” – “a brand name alone.”
10. The capitalist health industry treats our life, including death, as a “stressful experience to be cured.”
11. Zizek thinks that the “Left’s only original economic idea of the last few decades” is “basic citizen income.” Basically it is a rent paid to any citizen of a country as a floor of income. He praises Brazil for passing such a law in 2004 guaranteeing a minimum income for all Brazilians – which goes beyond the ‘minimum wage,’ which requires working.
12. Eric Satie, the experimental classical composer, was a member of the French Communist Party’s Central Committee in the early 1920s. Both John Cage and Frank Zappa were great admirers of Satie.
July 26, 2010