Interview conducted by Haseeb Ahmed with Chris Cutrone. Excerpts only. The whole interview is well worth reading and deals especially with the failed legacy of the left.
“Haseeb Ahmed: Are we currently—after Tahrir Square and the eruption of the Occupy movement—living through a renaissance of the Left? If so, what is the historical legacy that stands in need of reconsideration?
Slavoj Žižek: I would say my answer is very cautious. Conditionally: Yes. That is to say, the way I read all these events, totally spontaneous as they are, is that, although people try, for example, to read the Tahrir Square events as the simple demand for democracy, nonetheless there is a deeper systemic dissatisfaction. What I see as a hopeful sign is that these are no longer simple, one-issue protests against this or that. There is some vague awareness that there is another fault in the system as such. By this I mean precisely the capitalist system. And, point two, that the standard representative multi-party political democracy is not a form through which we can deal with the problems. The problem today is that we have a lot of “anti-capitalism,” indeed an overload of anti-capitalism, but it is an ethical anti-capitalism. In the media, everywhere one finds stories about how this company is exploiting people someplace and ruining the environment, or this bank is ruining hardworking people’s funds. All of these are moralistic critiques of distortions. This is not enough. The anti-capitalism of the popular media remains at the level of something to be resolved within the established structure: through investigative journalism, democratic reforms, and the like. But I see in all of this the vague instinct that something more is at stake. The battle now, as for the capitalists themselves, is over who will appropriate it.
Events happen, and then you have the crucial battle to decide what an event means. I think that precisely these events, like Occupy Wall Street, are crucial because, on the one hand, they demonstrate that the problem is capitalism as such. This was the big issue in the 20th century, but somehow disappeared in the last decades from the traditional left, where the focus became specific issues such as racism and sexism. But this problem is still here. At the same time, I claim that nonetheless old answers no longer work. This is why, what critics and sympathizers notice, there is a lack of concrete proposals, what to do. Apart from abstract things, like with Spain’s Indignados, against people serving money instead of money serving people. But every fascist would subscribe to this.
What it reminds us is the fact that, as my friend Alain Badiou puts it, the 20th century is over. Not only state socialism and the social-democratic welfare state, but also, I would add, the deepest hope of the utopian left, “horizontal organization,” local communities, direct democracy, self-organization—all this, I don’t think it works. So, again, it is a big challenge. The old problem is back, but it is clearer than ever that the old answers are not up to the challenge. It is a great challenge. If you look at predominant ways the modest liberal left is conceptualizing problems, for instance, in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, you can see that all this doesn’t work to recuperate this negative energy.
What surprises me is that there is so much energy. I thought that maybe it would stop. But look at how it is exploding all around the United States. Even Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans join them. This is the big news. There is an incredibly serious, great degree of rage and dissatisfaction that clearly doesn’t fit the established channels to resolve problems within the traditional scope of economic protests. It’s a wonderful, crucial moment. It’s a negative gesture. My slogan is, “No dialogue!” at this point. Let’s not get caught into this dialectic of dialogue with the enemy. No. It is too early. Not in the sense of, “We won’t talk, we’ll just kill you.” But, rather, if we talk now, we have to use some language, but this will be the language of the enemy. We need time to construct our own new language, time to formulate.
if you look at critical issues such as ecology it is clear that this will not be able to be addressed according to what we call the Fukuyama thesis of liberal democratic capitalism as the end of history. But I don’t believe in some local self-organized community utopia. We—in the bombastic sense, humanity—will need the massive large-scale power of corporations, to move millions of people.
HA: How does this point to the commodity form of labor?
SŽ: All I’m saying is that some large-scale authority will need to be established. It is the only solution in today’s complex world. The problem, of course, is how to do it. Beyond a certain quantitative scope, democracy in the traditional sense no longer works. It’s meaningless to say, “Let’s have universal elections.” Five billion people vote? It will be like Star Wars and the Galactic Republic.
You know, Ayn Rand was right: Money is the strongest means or instrument for freedom. She means this: We exchange only if both parties want it. At least formally, both sides of the exchange get something. Without money, direct means of domination will need to be restored. Of course, I don’t accept her premise: either the rule of money, or direct domination. Nonetheless, isn’t there a correct point? One can criticize money as an alienated form. But how can we actually organize complex social interaction outside money without direct domination? In other words, isn’t the tragedy of 20th century Stalinism that precisely they tried to suspend, not money, but the market, and what was the result? The re-assertion of brutal direct domination.
I’m not an optimist. I think where we are now is extremely dangerous. I think we are moving towards a much more authoritarian global apartheid society. Traditionally, for Marx, the ideal form of exploitation was through formal legal freedom. In ideal capitalist conditions there is equal, free exchange. But, more and more, capitalism can no longer sustain this. It can no longer afford freedom and equality. In the Giorgio Agamben way, some will become homo sacer. New forms of apartheid are appearing. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, while really naïve, has the idea that we are controlled, but there are larger and larger populations outside the control of the state: according to Davis, over one billion people already live in slums. I don’t mean only poverty. The state authority already treats these as internal zones that are left wild, wild spaces. Politically, it is as if wide spaces remain really murky. I see a tremendous problem here. What is my idea of the future? Can this go on? Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is half-comedy, shows this: it is half-totalitarianism, but also hedonism. A totalitarian regime, but with private pleasure. Berlusconi comes close to this: Groucho Marx in power. Also, in China, at the level of private life, no one cares about your private perversions, but just don’t mess with politics. It is no longer the typical fascist mobilization.
Anti-immigration, for instance, is not fascism. Fascism is not returning. No. This isn’t thinking in concepts but rather vague associations. This is post-ideology. Traditional fascism was ultra-ideology. Today’s predominant ideology is a Western Buddhist capitalism of, “Realize who you are.” It is permissive private hedonism with political totalitarianism.
The big task today is to avoid this, what Lacan called, with a beautiful term, the “narcissism of the lost cause.” You know, “We lost, but how beautifully we lost.” You fall in love with your own defeat, and, even worse, make of defeat a sign of authenticity. “We lost because life is cruel, but look at how beautiful it was,” etc. No. The same holds for ’68: We should find a way for Marxism or communist revolution to be something other than a detour between one and another stage of capitalism. This is the lesson of the 20th century. The lessons are only negative: We learn what not to do. This is very important. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see positive lessons. I am an honest pessimist.
But, if we do nothing, it will be even a greater radical catastrophe. The true utopia is that things can go on indefinitely as they are. The crisis of 2008 made it seem like it was merely a lack of regulation and corrupted individuals. No, the crisis is different. Today we are approaching dangerous times. We cannot rely on any tradition. Left tradition has a tendency, when it takes power, to turn into brutal domination.