OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS a handful of Marxist and semi-Marxist intellectuals have achieved an unlikely measure of fame among the disaffected young. In the wake of the so-called War on Terror and the near-collapse of the international financial system, men and women such as Antonio Negri, Naomi Klein and Alain Badiou have crisscrossed the globe addressing rapturous student audiences. Their message is sometimes obscure but on one thing they all agree: international capitalism cannot meet the needs of ordinary people and has to be overthrown or at least radically reformed. Together they have helped to effect one of the most surprising intellectual shifts in modern history. Until recently it was widely believed that the politics of anti-capitalism were dead. Nowadays a significant (though still relatively small) fraction of the world’s youth are about as opposed to the free market as it is possible to be.
In many respects the most interesting of the new celebrity Marxists is the Croatian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), whose recent visit to India has done a lot to boost his profile in Asia. Bulky, bearded and preternaturally intense, Žižek is on the faculty of the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School in Switzerland; he also holds a number of visiting professorships in universities throughout Europe and the USA. His reputation as a critical thinker rests on his ingenious, suggestive and fearsomely intricate attempt to fuse the Marxist theory of ideology with the ideas of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The theory in question, which draws in particular on Lacan’s notion of the Real, is shown off to best effect in the early text, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and has now served as the foundation for more than 40 books. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce addresses the world crisis that began with the events of 11 September 2001, and deepened immeasurably with the onset of recession in 2007. Easily Žižek’s most accessible work—readily understandable even without a knowledge of Lacan—it has already become cult reading in universities across the planet. So what does it tell us about its author’s habits of thought? Is Žižek a salubrious influence on our young radicals or is he not?
First As Tragedy… is largely concerned with two aspects of the world crisis, each of which gets a lengthy chapter to itself. The first is the future of neoliberalism, now that the dreadful consequences of free-market dogma have begun to hit home. Žižek has no time for the thoughtless optimism of many of his comrades on the Left. Noting that utopian ideologies like neoliberalism tend to gain in strength at the very moment when their weaknesses are most exposed, he rejects the idea that the world recession necessarily creates the conditions for a new political dawn. There is no reason why the future should belong to the Left. It is just as likely that the heirs of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush will press ahead with the privatising, globalising and deregulating agenda that has already done such damage.
The undiminished power of the New Right raises an obvious question: why do all the rest of us put up with it? It is here that Žižek’s argument is at its most characteristic. His implied claim is that the defenders of globalisation have appropriated one of Marxism’s most powerful ideas and twisted it to their own advantage. To put it crudely, Marxists have always argued that capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’ operate independently of the people who run the system. The ruling elite can be as benevolent as it likes but its intentions are of absolutely no importance. What really matters are the impersonal laws of market exchange which force the bosses—usually against their will—to cut wages, close factories, degrade the labour process and despoil the environment. Žižek’s point is that arguments such as these are now being used to create sympathy for the ruling class. Faced with the challenge of explaining away the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the savants of the free market claim that the bankers, politicians and businessmen who brought us to our present pass had no choice but to act as they did. The likes of Alan Greenspan, Silvio Berlusconi and Hank Paulson are portrayed as eminently decent men undone by an implacable fate. No one is guilty of anything.
Žižek’s argument is all of a piece with the theory of ideology outlined in his other writings. In terms of left-wing thought it is also intriguingly unorthodox. According to the ‘traditional’ understanding of ideology—one that was first developed by Marx and Engels as long ago as the 1840s—capitalist society seeks to justify its existence by telling beautiful lies about itself. Incapable in practice of creating a decent life for more than a tiny minority of people, it wins the support of the masses by passing itself off as a bastion of affluence, freedom and progress. Žižek doesn’t reject the Marxist orthodoxy out of hand but he does add an important new dimension to it. Recognising that ideologies such as neoliberalism still function in the traditional style, he nevertheless points out that modern culture is pervaded through and through by a sort of calculated cynicism. These days (or so Žižek argues) it is common for capitalism’s spokesmen to ‘come clean’ about the system’s weaknesses, openly admitting that things are bad but insisting that any attempt to change society will only result in something worse. Weary resignation replaces glittering deceit as the main means of political persuasion. When the architects of the slump are passed off as the hapless victims of market conditions, ideology does its work not by peddling beguiling fantasies but by reconciling us to our unenviable lot.
Žižek’s pessimism about the prospects for change is by no means absolute. Having surveyed the infernally sophisticated means by which the elite holds on to its power, he devotes the second half of First as Tragedy… to a discussion of what his friend Alain Badiou calls the ‘communist hypothesis.’ His basic proposition is bracingly (and to some people outrageously) simple: The only rational response to the economic crisis is to work for the revival of the international communist movement. Here too his argument represents an interesting advance on orthodox Marxism. While stressing the importance of class struggle, he insists that clashes between workers and their employers are not enough in themselves to bring about a revolution. In practie it is only possible to foment change when tensions over wages, working conditions and the like are amplified by other forms of social and political crisis.
In one of the most illuminating passages in his book, Žižek claims that there are four such crises whose potential to undermine the global capitalist order is in the process of coming to a head. Perhaps the most urgent of them is the crisis of ‘external nature,’ which threatens the planet with wholesale ecological collapse. Another is the ‘creation of new forms of apartheid’ which allows the privileged to shelter from the destitute behind walls, gates and barbed-wire fences. Slightly more obscure are the crises of ‘internal nature’ and the ‘cultural commons.’ The first of these, rooted in recent developments in biogenetics, holds out the unnerving prospect that science will soon transform humanity’s biological nature beyond all recognition. The second pertains to the headlong decline of world society’s infrastructure and encompasses everything from ‘cognitive capital’ through to the health, transport and economic systems. Žižek’s point is that all these crises have the potential to turn people against the idea of private property. Confronted by the prospect of polluted seas, artificial bodies and crumbling schools, many of us will come to feel—or at least could come to feel—that society’s problems cannot be left to the whims of private enterprise. This is the opportunity that a renewed communist movement must seek to exploit.
ZIŽEK IS FULLY AWARE that communists face an uphill struggle in their efforts to rebuild their political credibility. The last 40 pages of First As Tragedy… examine some of the most intractable problems ahead of them. Especially compelling is a brilliant disquisition on the relationship between the progressive projects in the advanced and developing worlds. Žižek’s starting point is the unembarrassed recognition that communism has always been a universalist ideal. Like liberalism and other Enlightenment ideologies before it (but unlike the forms of radicalism associated with the ‘New Social Movements’), it insists on its ability to liberate the whole of humanity and not just a particular section of it. And therein lies a problem. Although universalism is one of the communist movement’s most inspiring features, its force has often been blunted by a certain condescension towards the peoples of the Third World. To put it brutally (as Žižek himself does):
Western radicals frequently behave as if Asians, Africans and Latin Americans
are somehow less worthy of liberation than their white-skinned counterparts in the West. Just as the Enlightenment liberals of the 18th century preached the virtues
of liberty, equality and fraternity but turned a blind eye to colonial oppression, so the communists of the 20th century regarded the First World as the real locus of revolutionary politics. Racism persisted even among those who specifically disavowed it.
Žižek believes that the best antidote to Western pseudo-universalism is the authentic universalism of those to whom the West condescends. It is only when the peoples of the developing world embrace revolutionary ideals and build their own radical movements (often in opposition to Western power) that the pampered radicals of the First World are reminded of their responsibilities to humanity as a whole. The most powerful example from history (at least in Žižek’s opinion) is the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), which forced the Jacobin government in Paris to make good on its Enlightenment ideals and abolish slavery in one of France’s most notorious colonies. Žižek has high hopes that the gathering revolution in Iran will play a similar role in the present century. Identifying the Ahmadinejad regime for what it is—a sordid Islamofascist tyranny—he argues that Iran’s young dissidents are motivated primarily by egalitarian and democratic ideals. Their goal is to overthrow the theocracy and at last realise the ‘popular dreams’ for which their left-wing compatriots gave their lives in the revolution of 1979. If they succeed in transforming Iran, they will go a long way towards revitalising the political culture of the West.
Only the most irritable apologist for globalisation would deny that First As Tragedy, Then As Farce is vintage Žižek. Witty, theoretically supple and original, it proves once again that its author ranks alongside Perry Anderson, Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm as one of contemporary Marxism’s most compelling public intellectuals. Yet there are aspects of Žižek’s recent work which leave an increasingly bitter aftertaste. For one thing, his most celebrated stylistic mannerisms are beginning to get the better of him. Žižek has always been wildly eclectic in his range of references but these days his erudition tends to obscure rather than clarify his message. A representative passage from First As Tragedy… contains allusions to Oriana Fallaci, Kung Fu Panda, Niels Bohr, Silvio Berlusconi and the Marx Brothers in the same paragraph. The impression this creates is less one of superhuman omniscience than of a bad case of Attention Deficit Disorder. It is as if Žižek has taken to skimming the morning’s newspapers and extracting gobbets of information at random, heedless of the fact that his readers are not yet so postmodern that they prefer surreal chaos to disciplined exposition. His passion for counterintuitive statements is also getting a little wearing. If Žižek wishes to challenge conventional thinking, there are better (and less self-regarding) ways of doing it than by homing in on popular clichés and pointlessly demolishing them.
Beyond these stylistic irritations lie deeper problems of politics. First As Tragedy… is one of the few books in which Žižek gives us some idea of what he means by communism. This makes its undercurrent of revolutionary sectarianism all the more regrettable. The big problem with Žižek’s approach to practical politics is summed up by his rather arch observation that “…communism is to be opposed to socialism, which, in place of the egalitarian collective, offers an organic community.” What this passage implies, stripped of its wilfully imprecise terminology, is that nothing poses a bigger threat to the revival of communism than the success of other forms of left-wing politics. If politicians from the socialist or social-democratic Left introduce significant reforms of the neoliberal order, they run the risk of resuscitating capitalism by softening opposition to its worst excesses. Radical reformism should thus be regarded as the enemy of communist virtue, or so Žižek tells us. The logical conclusion is that communists should withhold all support from the non-communist Left, reject the call for immediate reforms of the system and confine themselves to making an uncompromising case for revolution.
It is a classic case of a very clever person holding an utterly unconvincing opinion— something which (as George Orwell famously pointed out) is sadly endemic to the intellectual Left. There is no doubt that the more uncompromising forms of revolutionary politics can sometimes flourish in societies lacking settled democratic traditions. The Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions (to name but three) would not have occurred if this were not the case. But the situation in the world’s liberal democracies is very different. The thoughtful electorates of Europe, the USA and India are no more likely to embrace communism on faith than they are to beat the drum for fascism. In the long run they will only shift towards an anti-capitalist position if they are given hard evidence that left-wing policies work in the short term. It is conceivable that the progressive though not revolutionary policies of the CPI(M) in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura will one day persuade the people of those states that full-blown communism is worth a try. It is not conceivable that any party could achieve success in a mature democracy simply by bellowing, “Revolution now!” Communists who turn their backs on the world of everyday politics are destined to remain on the sidelines until the earth freezes beneath them.
The young radicals who sit at the feet of Slavoj Žižek can only benefit from doing so. Their understanding of the cultural, ideological and political dimensions of neoliberalism will be enormously enhanced by reading books like First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. Nevertheless, one trusts that they will steer clear of their master’s rather impractical idea of how humanity’s problems can be solved.
Philip Bounds is a historian, journalist and critic. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Wales and has specialised in the history of ideas. His books include Orwell and Marxism, British Communism and the Politics of Literature and Cultural Studies. He lives in Swansea in the UK.