The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek may be the most controversial thinker alive: on the right, he’s commonly derided as a buffoonish Communist, one described by the popular conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple as an “Ideal Fraud” who hopes for the resurrection of Stalin and ample gulags in which to intern and torture his abundant number of enemies; on the left, he’s amassed many, if not most of those enemies despite his frequent protestations of leftism and his oft-repeated love for Lenin.
Take Adam Kirsch: in a 2008 article in The New Republic, headlined “The Deadly Jester,” he called Žižek “the most despicable philosopher in the West.” Not harsh enough? In 2012, Noam Chomsky accused him of “posturing,” the worst possible crime for a philosopher, which the well-respected linguist and political commentator described as “using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever.” For good measure, Chomsky also said that Žižek’s so-called theories never go “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old.”
To some extent, both Kirsch and Chomsky are following up in a long tradition of mistrust between philosophers on both sides of the English Channel. For centuries, there’s been a deep divide, between English-speaking thinkers fond of calling it as they saw it and obscure continental thinkers who frequently preferred to twist words and phrases beyond rational comprehension, often because of esoteric traditions little known outside of their own nations. For years, English philosophers such as Locke pitted themselves against Frenchmen like Descartes, later Germans like Heidegger and, in the period following World War II, a new French-led attack of the existentialists and the postmoderns. Jacques Lacan, the late philosopher and psychoanalyst who Žižek identifies as his master, was one of those, and Chomsky is old enough to have met him. His verdict:
“I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.”
Still, audiences everywhere love Žižek, laugh at his Soviet jokes, and forgive him his habit of never properly responding to any question, no matter how aptly put.
There are good reasons for this. For starters, contra Kirsch and Chomsky, Žižek has emerged as the world’s leading critic of capitalism. Let others rail against greed. In the London Review of Books, in 2012, Žižek went to the root of many of the problems in today’s economy: the divide between the entrepreneur ideal beloved by free market theorists, a la Ayn Rand, which in real life only exists in some parts of high tech industry, and on the other hand the well-connected fat-cat reality that permeates every other industry. The key of this thesis is simple: entrepreneurs rarely own any companies these days, as the majority of shareholders are anonymous pension and investment funds, as well as humble retail investors; the new capitalist upper class is not an entrepreneurial class but a managerial class that owns few if any shares in the company that provides these managers with company chauffeurs and jets, huge bonuses rain or shine, free VIP tickets to sports events and luxurious offices with phalanxes of devoted servants.
Let others compare this class to Marie Antoinette’s 18th century friends. Žižek compares them to the Soviet Union’s upper class. In his talks, he frequently notes that the USSR provided the first model of the developed “post-property” society where the people/the shareholders/the taxpayers own the means of production, a “late capitalism” in which the ruling class is defined by direct access to the informational or administrative means of social power and control and to other material and social privileges: the point will never again be to have ownership of companies, but to run them, a privilege which will is acquired not by property, but by other means, notably an education in the oligarchy’s proper breeding grounds, be that the Lenin school or Harvard, and connections.
Since everyone can’t be boss, Žižek borrows from Lacan’s readings of Freud to explain how we got to the point in which we are: the old bourgeoisie becomes middle-ranking salaried management and appropriates whatever surplus value is left, a measure that is not a concession from rulers signifying that they are valuable or needed, but a social mechanism of contention. The upper class needs the middle class to act as a cushion from the frustrations of the lower class. And the—to keep using Žižek’s much-beloved Marxist lingo—”lumpen-proletarians” are left at the bottom, but not simmering in frustration. This is because modern education and political systems in developed economies act as a conduit for some measure of social mobility; and if the reason for this social mobility, why some red necks become rock stars and why some grocers’ children end up as prime minister, but no others of apparently similar or superior capacity, is pure, unadorned randomness. Like one of those lotteries-plus-death-match deciding which teenager becomes a top-notch warrior in young adult novels and movies such as The Hunger Games. As Žižek wrote in the 2012 essay:
“The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.”
The problem in developed societies, Žižek argues, comes not from brilliant low-borns whose aspirations are frustrated, plotting revolution in blogs. The problem comes from the majority composed by the not-so brilliant. There are no evil cabals working so that modern societies won’t become true meritocracies. Modern societies function this way out of self-preservation: if they were to become true meritocracies, they would be destroyed by those who would be told, bluntly, that they are not good enough for the finer things in life.
This a key line of thought running through Žižek’s abundant writings and pronouncements. Humans don’t need conspiracies to act, minds self-organize themselves without the need for explicit instruction; in fact, explicit instruction often leads to exactly the opposite act that was intended, as Freud showed.
The explanation of why this is the case can be made with complex references to the super-ego and the sub-conscious. Or it may be done, as Žižek himself prefers, in controversial fashion and with reference to everyday fears and fantasies. Many of us dislike being in balconies, because we suffer a strong urge to jump and kill ourselves—or so we think. Freud, and others after him, explained that the fantasy of jumping from the balcony is not a wish, but a fear: the subconscious has a strong incentive in playing that particular movie in your brain—you jump, you fly briefly, you smash yourself against the ground—so you understand what would happen if you jump. The subconscious is telling you: this is what happens when you do that, you idiot. Those early hominids that didn’t have this mental mechanism and were humanly curious jumped from cliffs, and removed themselves from our ancestors’ tree.
It’s in this light that the Freud/Žižek idea about rape fantasies is presented by Žižek. He claims that some men or women have fantasies in which they are raped. I don’t know of any research that backs up the argument, but his point is mostly a theoretical one; for the sake of argument, let’s accept that such is the case, let’s contemplate the case of a man or woman who has a fantasy of being raped. This, Žižek contends, doesn’t mean that he or she would be fulfilled and happy in case of an actual rape, his or her fantasies having been realized. On the contrary, he says, this man or woman who has fantasies of rape would be even more traumatized than another who doesn’t have such fantasies, his or her worst fears having come true.
“If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do not want or desire happiness” is a favourite Žižek dictum. People are haunted by dark, super-ego fantasies that they think they might want to see realized, that they believe would make them happy; but they don’t, because that’s not the function of fantasies. One may get used to them, but one has to see the brain’s early warning system for what it is. We mistake anticipation for desire.
Žižek likes to tell about a common fantasy of philandering husbands: that of leaving one’s wife for one’s mistress (Žižek, who has been married three times, including a fashion model in the lot, should know). It’s true that, in the mind of the philanderer, this fantasy often looks appealing, what with the mistress looking in so many ways a more appealing companion. But, as he warns, many who have acted on this fantasy know they should have looked harder into the movie playing in their brains.
At this point, the Marxist philosopher coincides with Jorge Luis Borges. During World War II, the ultraconservative Argentine writer but devoted anti-Nazi observed that pro-Nazi Argentines were heady about possible global rule by Hitler in the darkest days of the war, even though they—who might be insufficiently Aryan, or liable to be euthanized, or untrained for goose-stepping—were uncertain that it would be in their own personal interest. Many might be even suspect, with good reason, that they would be among the first victims of the conquering Nazis.
That’s why Žižek wants you to be wary of your own ideas, to question your own judgement repeatedly. He wants you to know how you know that you want what you want; he quotes the riddle spelled out by former U.S. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld of Iraq War fame—rarely forgetting to call him a “distinguished philosopher,” to the delight of audiences all over—when he warned about the “unknown unknowns” that U.S. experts faced after the invasion while looking for weapons of mass destruction they might not know that they didn’t know about. Žižek never fails to add his own follow-up: that the super-ego might be described as the depository of the “unknown knowns,” the things the philandering husband understands before he leaves his wife, and prefers to ignore or set aside because the message is not one he wants to hear, or that he’s even unable to hear.
It’s no wonder that in a popular, six-minute video Žižek made for the Big Think series of short advice by famous thinkers, the world’s most prominent promoter of Marxism, revolution and loathing of capitalism had this message for would-be anti-globalization protesters: “Don’t act. Just think.” In the context of Žižek Freudianism and Lacanism, his wariness of quick revolutionary short cuts is less startling than many fellow leftists believe. Žižek warns that movements such as Occupy Wall Street are not only ineffective, but tiresome: instead of devoting one’s time to life’s pleasures and study, one spends long hours debating first principles and then multiple motions on what kind of recycled toilet paper will be used in the collectivist paradise; or, in Freudian parlance, enacting useless super-ego fantasies. In a particularly brilliant twist, Žižek uses the same rationale to support state-run healthcare systems and Obamacare, in the mind of many conservatives the most obnoxious piece of legislation ever enacted in the U.S. Look, Žižek argues, I don’t want so spend much of my life wondering about which health plan gives me the best bang for my buck, and then filling out forms to get simple procedures done. I just want to go to the doctor when I feel sick, just like one does in (many) European countries, and then go back home.
This is why he dislikes Western enthusiasm for Third-World revolutionaries, who often display such a knack for turning one’s darkest fantasies into reality: evil bankers are hanged, scheming oligarchs are thrown in jail; and then one finds out that the economy of, say, Cuba or Venezuela, was better run by the old guard than the revolutionaries of a supposedly pure heart that came after them. Žižek is supportive of the radical-left European populists like Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos—in so many ways a means of expression for a populace that feels cheated by the bureaucratic, centralized, elite-driven European Union project—but his support is lukewarm: he suspects the socialist utopia may be the cliff you’re not supposed to jump from.
Žižek often says his Communism is based on a very basic, elemental understanding of the Commons. In an increasingly overpopulated world, with millions and millions living in a co-dependence that has only been increased by globalization, ignoring threats to ecology and shared goods such as clean air and the climate is just foolish, or at best empty ideological posturing.
This is a very potent argument for collectivism, and one that leaves plenty of room for tinkering round the margins; it also dispenses with the weakest, old-style socialist notions of Communism as a first step towards a classless, anarchic society and the like. I was reminded of this argument not long ago, when talking to a young Communist man who had volunteered to spend months in Ukraine fighting with pro-Russian militias, hoping to set off a spark that would bring back some sort of new Soviet Union. Back in his native Spain, he asked me if Americans could ever understand what Communism means, what it really stands for; I told him about a country I know better, and resembles America in some aspects: in Australia, where I used to live, the notion of Communism is tremendously distant for many. Even in the eastern seaboard, one travels for twenty miles between one town and another, and there’s nothing in the middle. In many places, if your car breaks down, you better be ready to handle the case yourself. Self-reliance is a not a theoretical virtue, it’s a necessity for many farmers in isolated lands where your closest neighbor may not be there for you when you really need it.
Big, wealthy, warm-climate countries that have been re-settled by immigrant populations produce a culture of independence, of disgust for the big capital city where the know-nothing bureaucrats think they can plan everything with big government projects. It’s no wonder that the U.S., for so much of its history such a country, developed a natural rejection of Communism, that now—the empty Wild West all but a thing of the past, the population topping 300 million—is gradually giving way to more acceptance of centralized planning, social-democratic style. Australia is not there yet, but Australia has nothing like the cultural and political influence the U.S. has over the rest of the world.
Despite Obamacare, Žižek expresses some puzzlement at the way the U.S. is carefully making its way towards collectivism. Beyond the already-cited idea of the new Fed-planned economy as a refreshed version of the old technocratic ethos of the Soviet Union, he worries that political correctness, that particularly American way to instil proper progressive morality in the populace, hides a more sinister form of tyranny: one in which the subject is talked into being his own monitor and informer; if you are a parent, ask yourself, when you tell your kids they should go visit their grandmother because she will so happy to see them—indicating that they should feel guilty if they deprive her of such a basic, simple pleasure; and that it’s up to them to deliver and digest that guilt to themselves, not the innocent parent with his harmless suggestion—isn’t that smarter, but also psychologically more cruel and punishing that the flat, old-style order expected from an earlier age parent: “just go see your grandmother because I say so”?
He sees many of the U.S. cultural norms, often transmitted to the rest of the world via dominant U.S. media and Hollywood, as springing from his dubious fountain. In his book “On belief”, one of his many in recent years, Žižek laments the “postmodern” (his scare quotes) elevation of the victim, at the other extreme of the guilt continuum, to supreme social status: those previously in the receiving end of history become the new masters of guilt, the ones who can direct and assign blame at will; this some may find reasonable, even laudable, but not Žižek: he finds it leads to “every contact with another human (being) experienced as a potential threat — if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me.” If being victim provides one with supreme PC power, becoming one is thus a worthy aspiration, much like marrying upwards in a Jane Austen novel.
He notes this logic of victimization is today universalized, with a growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry to calls for slavery reparations. All of this leads to the victim’s permanent, accepted loss of agency, since the only active role in victimization is that of the victimizer; in addition, the victim-victimizer relationship is not really challenged, but brought into social acceptance by a power shift benefiting the victim; but, even when recipient of reparations, the victim remains in a subjugated role, which is thus unhealthily perpetuated ad infinitum in exchange—so to speak—for a modest fee, and society just goes on functioning as before, weighed by the additional cost of this bribery and the erosion of victimhood’s earlier potential for social change:
“This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.”
In his recent book “Event,” Žižek goes even further, as he casts a wider net that essentially makes wishful victimhood not just a widespread social infirmity, but the basis of much of the West’s political discourse in the postcolonial era. Speaking about modern efforts to increase aid for poorer countries and bomb evil dictators out of their corrupt palaces in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere before spending yet more money in the hope of turning these countries into something closer to Denmark or Switzerland, he compares them with Nicolas Malebranche’s excoriation of the saintly figures who secretly want the others to suffer—in order to be in a position to help them; he then notes that “it is much more satisfying to sacrifice oneself for the poor victim that to enable the other to lose the status of a victim, and perhaps become even more successful than ourselves.”
He follows this up with a Palestinian joke about Mary Magdalene—Žižek, as he gets older, is getting fonder of Christianity, and now openly describes himself as an “atheist Christian”—and her meeting with Christ; seeing a vagina for the first time, the terrorized Lord uses his godly superpowers to heal and shut her terrible wound. “So beware of people too intent on healing other people’s wounds. What if one enjoys one’s wound?” In the same way, he notes the metaphorical urge of many in the West to heal the wound of colonialism, and wonders who in India would be happy to return to a sub-continent untouched by English law, English public works and the English language, calling an erasure of colonialism that would imply a full recovery of the status quo ante a “nightmare” – “if today’s Indians were to find themselves in pre-colonial reality,” he adds, “they would undoubtedly utter the same terrified scream as Mary Magdalene.”
This kind of statement often gets Žižek in trouble with fellow progressives, many of whom see collective rights based on the righting of previous wrongs—a switch from victimhood to a positive legal/social discrimination for African-Americans, gays, transgender, former colonial subjects—as the cornerstone of modern Left politics, particularly in the U.S. Combined with Žižek’s unfashionable liking for Christianity and its most famous reactionary thinker, GK Chesterton, and the well-known, much misinterpreted remark in which he claimed that “Hitler didn’t go far enough” (meaning that his supposedly national-socialism was certainly national, but not socialism since it embraced upper-class control of the means of production), the obvious question has been raised: should Žižek, the former dissident against the Socialist regime of Yugoslavia who finds a bright side of Western colonialism, best described as some sort of a fascist or right-wing reactionary?
His own response here is simple: the big difference between what we often jointly describe as the “totalitarian” regimes of the 20th century, Žižek famously wrote in 2005, is in the clapping. Go watch any Fascist leader, in their old tapes from the 1930s and 1940s: they deliver their speeches, and then wait for the raucous applause; watch the Communists: after their speech, as their masses applaud, they applaud themselves too.
Fascists, as epitomized by the Nazis, are untroubled by the human need for acceptance. They don’t try to prove to outsiders that their cause is just: it’s their cause, it’s just for them. That’s all that matters. Nazism, and fascism as a whole, has no real need of ethics; or at least no need of any sort of universal ethics. Writing about Lenin, Žižek recalls Hans Hotter’s outstanding 1942 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise, noting that “it’s easy to imagine German officers and soldiers listening to this recording in the Stalingrad trenches,” as the lyrics go:
“If the snow flies in my face, I shake it off again/When my heart speaks in my breast,/I sing loudly and gaily./I don’t hear what it says to me,/I have no ears to listen;/I don’t feel when it laments,/Complaining is for fools./ Happy through the world along/ Facing wind and weather!/If there’s no God upon the earth,/Then we ourselves are Gods!”
Communists can never present themselves as their own gods. The Communist must argue that there is no god. Or, if there must be one so that people have their opium, it’s Mankind as a whole, not a particular group. In the previously cited 2005 essay, Žižek goes on thus:
“The difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. The reason is clear. Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes.”
Žižek, being Žižek, can’t avoid a joking reference to close his argument: he refers to Ernst Lubitsch’s movie To Be or Not to Be, in which Hitler responds to the “Heil Hitler” salute by raising his hand and saying “Hail myself”–in reality, a misstep on Lubitsch’s part, since it was Stalin who effectively hailed himself when he applauded his own speeches, and insisted on having Gulag prisoners send him congratulatory telegrams for his birthdays.
One wonders about the color of the writing in those, though. In another oft-cited Žižek joke, originally from the former German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Before he moves there, he tells his friend they will set up a color code for the ink used in the letters he will send them, out of concern about censors reading their correspondence: if the letter is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s all true; if written in red ink, it’s false, an esoteric communication that they must understand as the opposite of reality. When the friends get the first letter, written in blue ink, it describes how everything is wonderful in Siberia, with well-supplied stores, great housing and pretty girls galore; but, the worker adds, “the only thing unavailable is red ink.”