zizek’s “first as tragedy, then as farce”

This book, if Zizek has his way, will be “the beginning of the beginning of the end.” Zizek moves in a new direction from his previous works, though his analysis of ideology is, as ever, spectacular. The new direction is one of apocalyptic fatalism, in which he evokes the concept of capital D Destiny in relation to “the idea of communism.” It is this new direction which undermines his otherwise pertinent and scathing analysis of 9/11, the global credit crunch, and the ideological movements that produced the “tragic” and “comic” events of this decade.

The main victim of the book is Francis Fukuyama’s idea, “the end of history.” Zizek writes,

It thus seems that Fukuyama’s utopia of the 1990’s had to die twice, since the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of global market capitalism; if the 2008 financial meltdown has a historical meaning then, it is as a sign of the end of the economic face of Fukuyama’s dream (5).

The American empire, but not only the American empire, Zizek argues, is an empire of extremely refined cynicism, “an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we do not ‘really believe’ in our ideology – in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practise it” (3). Indeed, this work is also a meditation on belief, beliefs, and believing in a world where there is no big other to guarantee that our lives and actions are meaningful because we are living in

The first socio-economic order which do-totalizes meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global “capitalist world view,” no “capitalist civilization” proper; the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu and Buddhist) (25).

Consequently, we must not expect or relegate to the communist idea any of our own utopian desires that, somehow, an authentic communism will provide history with a meaning or offer us some kind of salvation.

The question of meaning is crucial in Zizek’s examination of capitalism today. This is precisely why resistance to capitalism (i.e. anti-capitalism) finds expression today in “Islamo-fascist” regimes, places where liberalism and democracy do not thrive. The problem with radical Islamic anti-capitalism is their agenda is anti-enlightenment (no women’s rights, no voting, no gay marriage, etc. – but no capitalism either!). What we have been seeing, in addition to the fundamentalist resistance to capital, is the emergence of “a ’socially responsible’ eco-capitalism … leaving these very capitalist relations intact” (34-5, italics his).

This “socialist-capitalism” is already operative in many parts of Asia, especially china. After the Berlin wall fell, and communism was officially dead, the remaining communist nations adopted (some form of) socialism:

Today, communism is to be opposed to socialism, which, in place of the egalitarian collective, offers an organic community (Nazism was national socialism, not national communism) … socialism is no longer to be conceived as the infamous ‘lower phase’ of communism, it is its true competitor, the greatest threat to it (95-6).

Now that democracy is haunting us after its second death, the choice, zizek says, is between authoritarian-socialist-capitalism (e.g. America, Italy, china, Iran, Russia, etc.) and communism proper.

In America, the bailout plan is “a ‘socialist’ measure whose primary aim is not to help the poor, but the rich, not those who borrow, but those who lend … socialism is bad – except when it serves to stabilize capitalism” (13). (See also, the dot com bubble.) This is a sign of America becoming more European, whereas Europeans are adopting an approach closer to the American dream: “we do, admittedly, live with a ridiculous nostalgia for glory (the glory of history and culture), but they live with the ridiculous illusion of performance” (Baudrillard, Cool Memories 5, p. 82). Berlusconi is doing to Italy today what the Bush years did to the United States, albeit in a more comical and methodical way; Berlusconi “is our own big kung fu panda … Berlusconi is what he appears to be, this appearance nonetheless remains deceptive” (51). The emergence of “capitalism with Asian values” will replace the liberal-democratic model of capital, which has recently been reduced to “a gesture meant to be refused” (135).

The only viable alternative is to put all of our (ideological-libidinal) eggs in the idea of communism. So, what does it mean “to practice communism” today? The true practice of a communist movement is not “asking the obvious question ‘is the idea of communism still pertinent today, can it still be used as a tool of analysis and political practise?'” (6). Rather, any who consider themselves communists “should ask the opposite question: ‘how does our predicament today look from the perspective of the communist idea?'” (6).

Our “predicament” is cultural (imaginary), economical (real), and political (symbolic). The cultural predicament is the question of “identity” and its role in “identity politics.” its ability to produce “difference” is seen in the escalating levels of nationalism, fanatic religiosity, and terrorism (school shooters, una-bombers, etc). It is also used “to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts” (40). In order to combat the damage identity politics is capable of, zizek proposes that we adopt an “ethics of subtraction,” in which the private and particular nature of an individual is ignored in light of what he does (resorting to an “inner life” to justify criminal activity, for example). Zizek proposes the following:

Kant’s distinction between the public and private uses of reason can be of great help here; the key problem with forms of so-called “identity politics” is that they focus on “private” identities – the ultimate horizon is that of the tolerance and intermingling of such identities, and every universality, every feature that cuts across the entire field, is rejected as oppressive (44, see also the current debate on James Cameron’s film, avatar).

Economically, today’s predicament lies in Marx’s notions of production, property, and value. Marx did not anticipate anything like modern technological modes of production or how the idea of property would change along with those modes. “Intellectual property” introduces new territories for capitalism to colonize. The idea of “profiting” off of “intellectual property” or “immaterial work” is

The kind of work which directly produces social relations, one should not forget what this means within a commodity economy: namely, that new domains, hitherto excluded from the market, are now commodified … exploitation in the classical Marxist sense is no longer possible, which is why it has to be enforced more and more by direct legal measures, that is, by non-economic means … by the “becoming-rent of the profit” (145).

Value is no longer to be conceived only in (Marxist) terms of exchange, surplus, or use in the “postmodern phase” of capitalism. The determining factor of value in a commodity is the property of culture that the commodity confers upon the consumer. Cultural values are sought “to get the experience provided by them, we consume them in order to render our lives pleasurable and meaningful” (52), and their ability to include one in the participation of a “socially conscious consumerism,” which effectively masks economic exploitation and cynical political disengagement (instead of acting politically, I will buy this fair trade coffee, thereby doing my part). J.G. Ballard’s novel, Kingdom Come, set in a British suburb, is emblematic: with the lack of any political choice, the members of the community have resorted to brand loyalty – their politics comes in the form of designer products, anti-immigration populism, and soccer riots.

Today, instead of freedom and rights, we have “permissions masked as rights” (59) and a “society of choice” instead of freedom. Politics, as a procedure, is simply not as effective at mobilizing people as are commodities in a market economy. The political predicament is the status of the proletariat as such. Enmeshed in postmodern capitalism and cultural identity politics, two questions arise: where are we to locate the proletariat? And how are we to characterize the situation we are all facing to the extent that we are all, ultimately, the proletariat? Zizek answers that

The present conjuncture compels us to radicalize it [the proletariat] to an existential level well beyond Marx’s imagination. We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject, a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito (92).

The obstacle to realizing this notion of the proletariat is

The guise of the “three main classes” in today’s developed societies, which are precisely not classes but three fractions of the working class: intellectual laborers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts … each fraction with its own “way of life” and ideology: the enlightened hedonism and liberal multiculturalism of the intellectual class; the populist fundamentalism of the old working class; more extreme and singular forms of the outcast … the gradual disintegration of social life proper, of a public space in which all three fractions could meet, and “identity” politics in all its forms is a supplement for this loss. Identity politics acquires a specific form within each fraction: multicultural identity politics among the intellectual class; regressive populist fundamentalism among the working class; semi-illegal groupings (criminal gangs, religious sects, etc.) among the outcasts. What they all share is recourse to a particular identity as a substitute for the missing universal public space (147).

The actual “universal public space” is the market economy, whereas politics is the enclosure of private interests from which the proletariat is excluded: “we are forced to live as if we were free ” (10, italics his, he quoted John Gray’s Straw Dogs). Zizek cites the example of Haiti as an example of our own situation:

Its slave plantations (mostly sugarcane) were not a remainder of premodern societies, but models of efficient capitalist production; the discipline to which slaves were submitted served as an example for the discipline to which wage-laborers were later submitted in capitalist metropolises. After the abolition of slavery, the new black Haiti government imposed “agrarian militarism” – in order not to disturb the production of sugarcane for export, ex-slaves were obliged to continue working at their plantations under the same owners, only now as technically “free” wage-laborers … this slavery in equality appeared in Haiti in its most radical form … the legal-ideological matrix of freedom-equality is not a mere “mask” concealing exploitation-domination, but the very form in which the latter is exercised (124-5, italics his).

So it is thus that politics, specifically liberal-democratic states, collude with capitalism and its agents to protect their interests, which means excluding the proletarian from the commons of the natural environment (natural resources), except in the form of a finished, branded product. Also, the proletariat’s environment, which is also common, is being poisoned by corporations who have state permission to pollute (carbon credit). Today, the state’s role is to exclude any who are not already members of the state; it is the role of communism to include any and all whom the state does not recognize, “those who are here are from here” (119).

Zizek’s solution to these problems is certainly radical, and is in strict opposition to “the academic leftists who expect a theoretician to tell them what to do … they await the answer from a theoretician” (88). The thing to do, and here is where zizek has the author’s full agreement and support, is

To stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice. (Communism is thus not the light at the end of the tunnel, that is, the happy final outcome of a long and arduous struggle – if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel rather that of another train approaching us at full speed.) 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. An act of ‘divine violence’ would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of historical progress (149, italics his).

However, Zizek resorts to the idea of “destiny” in order to realize the project of communism. He also evokes the concept of an “inevitable catastrophe” (either biological, ecological, environmental, and / or technological), which we must accept as our destiny and mobilize against. Although his thesis on this topic, “at its most radical, freedom is the freedom to change one’s Destiny” (151), is interesting – it seems too apocalyptic, too fatalistic, to really be a solution to today’s dilemma.


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