Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek

For a philosopher who claims to eschew the carnivalesque, Slavoj Žižek creates quite a circus wherever he goes. After his concluding remarks as host of a recent conference in New York called Communism: A New Beginning?, the Marxist thinker, whose marriage of pop culture and theory has made him possibly the most famous Slovenian ever, was immediately mobbed by admirers. Like a rock star, he headed for the back door, leading me through a meandering underground passageway before we emerged to the streets of Manhattan. As we made our way to a nearby café, he collected a new entourage around him — mostly autograph-seekers and undergraduate fanboys grilling him for term-paper advice. He obliged the autograph-hunters, asked that aspiring intellectuals email him with specific questions, and initially insulted a man who wanted a photograph, saying “One idiot more!” The man withdrew his request with polite apologies, and a strange tug of war ensued as Žižek then insisted on being photographed.

Žižek seems to thrive on contradiction. As we spoke, he veered from one stream of thought to another in his famously thick accent. Although he claimed at one point to prefer solitude, he delighted in making attention-drawing remarks — proclaiming with impish glee, for example, that Gandhi was technically more violent than Hitler, or advising me to tell panhandlers, “Yes I have some change. Fuck off!”

Žižek at Occupy Wall Street. Image courtesy of Sarahana/Impose Magazine
The week before, he had spoken at Occupy Wall Street, where he championed the movement and told a cheering crowd, “We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.” When we reached the café, I asked him about the experience, the prospects for the Occupy movement, and the new beginning he was pondering for communism:

1. When you visited Zuccotti Park, what did you think of the Occupy Wall Street protesters? What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

It’s difficult to answer this question because I was tired, I had to work a lot, so I literally came there three minutes before I did it. I instantly disappeared. You know, this may be part of my character, but that’s how I function. There is a certain cliché about communists or radicals. They usually say, you like humanity in abstract, but you don’t like concrete people. You are even ready to kill them for humanity. Okay, fuck it. If this is it, then I am definitely a totalitarian. I like humanity, maybe great works of art, but the majority of the people I don’t like. I like to be alone. For example, you have seen it today, how my first reaction was just to disappear. I like so much to be alone. I just have a couple of friends.

So again also for theoretical reasons, I don’t think that mingling with them, whatever, would have brought any special, deep insight. I would probably have heard just these stupidities — “We want justice, ooh, one percent has so much money, blah blah blah.”

I do [sense] a readiness to question the fundamentals of the system. Even with radical liberal leftists, it was [formerly] within the existing system: less racism, more freedom to women, abortion, divorce. The basic insight I see is that clearly for the first time, the underlying perception there is a flaw in the system as such. It’s not just the question of making the system better.

2. The title of the conference you’ve just hosted is “Communism: A New Beginning?” I wonder if communism isn’t a devalued brand. Why not find a new word for it?

I’m well aware of this. The PR, public relations problem. Many friends are telling me, “Listen, we agree with everything, but why use this terrible term, which has such a horrifying connotation — gulag, whatever, no?” My reason is that, first, in the radical tradition, millenarian movements [were] egalitarian revolts, and I would like to keep fidelity to that tradition.

My second reason is that it’s still the best among the least worst. The least bad. Because all others concede too much to hegemonic field. You say socialism? Socialism is harmless. Everybody today is a socialist, you know? It just needs some vague solidarity. It doesn’t have this more radical egalitarianism. Every fascist can be said to be socialist, you know. Democracy, my god. Everyone refers to that word. It’s meaningless. Justice, fuck it. Which justice?

And the last, paradoxical reason. Yes, horrible things were done in the name of communism, but it’s good to have a name to remind you of that. It’s good to be aware of the dangers. I claim that with all the anticommunism, we don’t really even have a good theory of how this mega-catastrophe called Stalinism could have happened. What went wrong? I don’t like those easy philosophical generalizations in the style of Karl Popper, who’s a Plato-totalitarian-whatever, and then Rousseau or whoever. My problem with liberal anticommunist historians is that if anything they are not critical enough [of the] Stalinist regime. Their explanation is typically liberal. They reduce it to bad people who wanted money, power, whatever.

Did you see the film that I always mention? The German one who got Oscar? Life of Others? Not severe enough, I claim. We have a bad minister who wants to have the wife of the writer, so he [gets] the Stasi to follow the writer, to get something from him to get rid of him to have fully the wife. But this still reduces Communist terror surveillance to a single bad guy with some private pathology, as if beneath every evil here is some evil person who wants money, power, sex, whatever. What the film doesn’t confront is that even if there were no corrupted minister, even if all Stasi agents were relatively honest, we would have exactly the same observation, control, and so on. Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.

Robert Conquest, [Simon Sebag] Montefiore, they try to emphasize how Stalin was bad, that one was bad, that one was bad. That’s too simple. The system was such that even good people break down. [The most tragic example] is, when Stalin ordered forced collectivization, late twenties, thousands of honest communists volunteered to go to the countryside and convince farmers to join, and it turned very violent, shooting. This is true tragedy, I think.

So no, my problem is that we don’t even have a good critique of communism.

3. You wrote that the only surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is that it was considered a surprise. Why do you think these warnings and protests keep failing?

This is proof of how ideology is a lie. I don’t always agree with him, but the Nobel Prize guy, Paul Krugman, I quote him. He made a very intelligent comment. A journalist asked him, “Now that we know, Paul, the mistakes that we were doing before, allowing banks these crazy credit schemes, do you think if we were to know all this twenty, thirty years ago that we would have done it in a different way?” He said, “No, exactly the same. It wouldn’t have mattered.”

That’s a very deep insight, you know? This is the power of ideology. You may know it, but you don’t take it seriously. You nonetheless act in that way. I’m very much a pessimist here. I really believe in the material deficiency of ideology.

4. Why do you think people are unable to transcend ideology and effect change?

Here I have a very traditional Marxist answer. Ideology is not only ideas. Ideology is something which structures our daily practices. Ideology is not that you think money is something mystical; ideology is in how you deal with money everyday. Legal ideology is that even if you don’t trust the legal, you use it, you rely on it. In the Wittgensteinian sense, it’s a form of life. I even develop often that today in our cynical times, for an ideology to function, it doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not. In a way, you have not to take it too seriously.

This is of course maybe my own weird experience because when I was young in Communist Yugoslavia, we had an extreme form of this. I witnessed how the regime experienced as the greatest threat when people took the regime’s own ideology too seriously.

5. You were critical of some of the slogans used by protesters in 2008 — “Save Main Street, Not Wall Street” for example. During Occupy Wall Street, people say, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Is there a better slogan to be had?

The problem is that if you mobilize against the bad financial system you fall into a certain ideological trap, the fascist trap. This is the basic fascist idea: we have the truly productive strata — workers, industrial capitalists — and then we have the bad Jewish bankers who exploit them. The problem is not to fight Wall Street. The problem is, why does the system need Wall Street to function? I totally understand Obama and all of those in 2008 who, although they knew all the manipulations that the banks did, they nonetheless voted for the first mega-sum of $750 billion. If Wall Street collapses, then Main Street collapses. That’s how the system works.

6. So what should the protesters be asking for?

Just two things. On the one hand, at this point more important than asking is to think, to organize, to lay down the foundations for some kind of a network so that this will not just be a kind of magic explosion that disappears. And point two, the way to start to think about doing something is to select some very specific issues — the model should be the health-care bill — which in a way are very realistic.

It’s often terrifying to read right-wing Republican attacks on Obama’s health-care reform. It was watered down through clear material force of ideology. Nonetheless, I like the debate because it showed us how our notion of freedom is totally penetrated, controlled by a certain ideology.

One of the strategies [for doing] something concrete is to pick very carefully issues for which you fight, and then try to organize a popular movement. Which have two features: First, they are realistic. But at the same time, [they have] dramatic points which are extremely penetrated by ideology. So things which are absolutely possible but are unacceptable for ideology frame — like healthcare, universal healthcare — this is, I think, maybe the thing to do at this point, apart from laying the foundations, getting ready.

Even with banks — okay this is not [a recommendation] for the people, it’s for the system — the irony is that those countries where the state controls the movement of money in the banks can do very well in capitalist terms. Look at China, Singapore, and so on. There, money transfers, especially international transfers, are all tightly controlled by the banks. I remember how when they started to play this game twenty years around ago, I remember The Economist said, “This is suicide, it will be a catastrophe.” It wasn’t. The result is that in the 2008 crisis, 2009 crisis, Singapore had record growth of 15 percent. China, India, and so on. Okay, things are more complex here, because they have different conditions, but nonetheless you can see how countries which have a more flexible approach towards state intervention are doing very well.

One of the good results of this crisis is that neo-liberalism, for reasonable people, is dead. We are becoming aware not only that it doesn’t work but that, let’s be clear, there never even was neoliberalism. Like, what neoliberalism? Already with Reagan, Bush, the state is growing stronger and stronger, intervening all the time. I really think it’s a total misperception that we live in some kind of a wild capitalist neoliberal universe. No.

I think this is the first thing maybe that we should do. To note how we are already entering a new type of organized capitalism which is no longer liberal capitalism, and which more and more relies on strong state interventions.

Sorry, I have, now, I slowly getting to collapse. You want something to conclude or whatever?

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