Slavoj Zizek: Welcome to interesting times!

The really practical statesman does not fit himself to existing conditions, he denounces the conditions as unfit. (G. K. Chesterton, “The Man Who Thinks Backwards”[1])

In China, so they say, if you really hate someone, the curse to fling at them is: “May you live in interesting times!” Historically, the “interesting times” have been periods of unrest, war and struggles for power in which millions of innocents suffered the consequences. Today, we are clearly approaching a new epoch of interesting times. After decades of the Welfare State, when financial cuts were limited to short periods and sustained by a promise that things would soon return to normal, we are entering a new period in which the economic crisis has become permanent, simply a way of life. Furthermore, today, crises occur at both extremes of economic life, not at the core of the productive process: ecology (natural externality) and pure financial speculation. This is why it is crucial to avoid the simple common sense solution “we have to get rid of speculators, introduce order there, and real production will go on” – the lesson of capitalism is that “unreal” speculations are the real here; if we squash them, the reality of production suffers.

 

What is also crucial here is to look at the systemic risks of today’s capitalism rather than playing the undignified game of passing the blame and making the culprits (i.e. the big companies) pay the full price for the damage they have caused. Unfortunately, during the last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama’s condemnation of the three involved companies (BP, Transocean, and Halliburton) was equally risible in its own way. On June 8, 2010, in a (justified) outburst against BP, Obama said regarding the oil spill: “It’s BP’s problem.” The press, predictably, reacted with “No, it’s Obama’s problem now!” Both were clearly wrong: while Obama was pursuing the legalistic logic of indemnization totally inappropriate to the scale of the catastrophe, the press were focusing only on how the disaster would hurt Obama’s standing, maybe fatally undermining his chances for re-election. However, the claim that the disaster had become Obama’s problem misses the crucial underlying fact that it is indicative of a much larger problem, a problem for us all, as something which potentially shatters our commons, the natural fundamentals of our way of life. It is a problem for all of us, and nobody will resolve it for us. What is ridiculously naïve here is the idea that a private company, no matter how wealthy, could be capable of paying for the entire damage caused by a serious ecological catastrophe—it would be like demanding from the Nazis that they cover the full price of the Holocaust.

 

The search for the guilty party who should be made legally responsible for the damage is part of our legalistic frame of mind—people can (and do) sue fast food chains as if they were responsible for the clients’ obesity, and ideas circulate about slavery reparations, arguing that compensation is long overdue. This reductio ad absurdum makes it clear what is fundamentally wrong with this logic: it is not too radical, but rather insufficiently radical. The true challenge is not to collect compensation from those responsible, but to change the situation so that they will no longer be in a position to cause damage (or be pushed into activity which causes damage). What makes the focus on BP absurd is the fact that the same accident could well have happened to another company. The true culprit is not BP (although, to avoid any misunderstanding, it should be most severely punished), but the demand which pushes us towards oil production irrespective of environmental concerns. So we should start to ask basic questions about our way of life—to mobilize the public use of reason. The lesson of such ecological catastrophes is that neither the market nor the state will do the job. While market mechanisms may work up to a certain level to contain ecological damage, serious large-scale ecological catastrophes are simply out of their reach—any pseudo-scientific statistic talk about “sustainable risks” is ridiculous here.

 

Another sign for the impotence of both state and market to solve the problems of our times was the imminent financial collapse of the Greek state. During May 2010, large demonstrations in Athens and elsewhere in Greece exploded into violence after the government announced the austerity measures it will have to adopt in order to meet the EU’s conditions for the bailout needed to avoid the bankruptcy of the state. Two stories stood out during these events: the predominant Western European establishment story derided the Greeks as a corrupt, inefficient, free-spending and lazy people used to living off EU support, while the Greek Left saw the austerity measures a yet another attempt by international financial capital to dismantle the last vestiges of the Welfare State and subordinate the Greek state to its own dictates. While both stories contain a grain of truth, they are both fundamentally false. The European establishment story obscures the fact that the massive loan given to Greece will be used to repay the country’s debt to the big European banks: the true aim of the measure is to support the banks since, if the Greek state goes bankrupt, they will be seriously affected. The Leftist story bears witness yet again to the misery of the contemporary Left: there is no positive content to its protest, merely a generalized refusal to compromise in defense of the existing Welfare State.

 

The de-politicized naturalization of the crisis

And yet everyone knows that the Greek state will never and cannot ever repay the debt—in a strange gesture of collective make-believe, everyone ignores the obvious nonsense of the financial projection on which the loan is based. The irony is that the measure may nonetheless succeed in its immediate goal of stabilizing the Euro: what matters in contemporary capitalism is that agents act upon their putative beliefs about future prospects, regardless of whether they really believe in those prospects or take them seriously. This fictionalization goes hand in hand with its apparent opposite: the de-politicized naturalization of the crisis and the proposed regulatory measures. These measures are not presented as decisions grounded in political choices, but as necessities imposed by a neutral economic logic—if we want to stabilize our economy, we simply have to swallow the bitter pill. However, here again one should not miss the grain of truth in this argument: if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then such measures are indeed necessary—the true utopia is not a radical change of the present system, but the idea that one can maintain a Welfare State within that system.

 

This full naturalization (or self-erasure) of ideology imposes upon us a sad but unavoidable conclusion with regard the contemporary global social dynamic: today, it is capitalism which is properly revolutionary. From technology to ideology, it has changed our entire landscape over the last few decades, while conservatives as well as social democrats have for the most part simply reacted to these changes, desperately trying to hold onto old gains. In such a constellation, the very idea of a radical social transformation may appear to us as an impossible dream. The term “impossible” however, should make us stop and think. Today, the possible and the impossible are distributed in a strange way, both simultaneously exploding into an excess. On the one hand, in the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology, the impossible is becoming increasingly possible (or so we are told): “nothing is impossible”, we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions; entire archives of music, films, and TV series are available for downloading; space travel is available to everyone (with the money…); we can enhance our physical and psychic abilities through interventions into the genome, right up to the techno-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into a software program transferable from one piece of hardware to another… On the other hand, especially in the domain of socio-economic relations, our era sees itself as having reached the age of maturity in which, with the collapse of the Communist states, humanity has abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality (read: of capitalist socio-economic reality) with all its attendant impossibilities: You cannot … engage in collective political acts (which necessarily end in totalitarian terror), or cling to the old Welfare State (it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis), or isolate yourself from the global market, and so on. (In its ideological version, ecology also adds its own list of impossibilities, in terms of so-called threshold values—no more global warming than two degrees Celsius, etc.—based on “expert opinions”).[2] Such is life in the post-political era of the naturalized economy: political decisions are as a rule presented as matters of pure economic necessity—when austerity measures are imposed, we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done.

 

However, even if the general de-politicization of the economy is a crucial point here, the problem is deeper than it may appear: contemporary capitalism tends to generate situations in which rapid and large-scale interventions are needed, but the problem is that the parliamentary-democratic institutional framework does not easily allow for such interventions. Sudden financial crises, ecological catastrophes, major reorientations of the economy, all call for a body with the full authority to react quickly with the appropriate counter-measures, by-passing the niceties of interminable democratic negotiation. Recall the financial meltdown of 2008: what the much-praised “bi-partisan” response in the US effectively meant was that democracy was de facto suspended. There was no time to engage in the proper democratic procedures, and those who opposed the plan in the US Congress were quickly made to march in step with the majority. Bush, McCain, and Obama all speedily got together, explaining for the benefit of the confused that we were in a state of emergency, and things simply had to be done fast…

Likewise, the Chinese model of an extra-legal body able to impose such solutions is, in this sense, not just a way for the Communist Party to maintain control; it also fulfills a basic need of contemporary capitalism.[3] But China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers, and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.

 

The need to re-invent (the idea of) communism

            “The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself

in order to become master, not knowing that it is only a

fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.”

(Franz Kafka)

 

These disturbing questions, which we might prefer to ignore, point towards the need to re-invent communism. How, though, to even approach this task in view of the great failure of the communist project which was the defining feature of the twentieth century? Where and how did things go wrong?

 

If the most dynamic of today’s capitalists are the Communists in power in China, is this not the ultimate sign of the global triumph of capitalism? Another sign of that triumph is the fact that the ruling ideology can afford to tolerate what appears to be the most ruthless criticism: books, newspaper investigations and TV reports abound on the companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, on the bankers who continue to receive fat bonuses while their institutions are saved by public money, on sweatshops where children are forced to work long hours, and so on. Ruthless as these denunciations may appear, what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework itself. The goal—explicitly stated or otherwise—is to democratize capitalism, to extend democratic control into the economy, through media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, tougher regulations, police investigations, etc. But the democratic institutional framework of the (bourgeois) state remains the sacred cow that even the most radical forms of “ethical anti-capitalism” (the World Social Forum, the altermondialiste movement) do not dare challenge.[4]

 

Here Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps more than ever: for Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper (Does a country have free elections? Are its judges independent? Is its press free from hidden pressures? Does it respect human rights?). Rather, the key to actual freedom resides in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family. Here the change required is not political reform but a transformation of the social relations of production—which entails precisely revolutionary class struggle rather than democratic elections or any other “political” measure in the narrow sense of the term. We do not vote on who owns what, or about relations in the factory, and so on—such matters remain outside the sphere of the political, and it is illusory to expect that one will effectively change things by “extending” democracy into the economic sphere (by, say, reorganizing the banks to place them under popular control). Radical changes in this domain need to be made outside the sphere of legal “rights.” In “democratic” procedures (which, of course, can have a positive role to play), no matter how radical our anti-capitalism, solutions are sought solely through those democratic mechanisms which themselves form part of the apparatuses of the “bourgeois” state that guarantees the undisturbed reproduction of capital. In this precise sense, Badiou was right to claim that today the name of the ultimate enemy is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything similar, but democracy itself. It is the “democratic illusion,” the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as providing the only framework for all possible change, which prevents any radical transformation of capitalist relations.

 

Questioning the sacred cow of democracy is even more urgent, if one comes to today’s political spaces in both Western and Eastern Europe which bear signs of a long-term reorganization of their usual coordinates. Until recently, that space was in general dominated by two main parties: a Right-of-centre party (Christian-Democratic, liberal-conservative, People’s Party, etc.) and a Left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic, etc.), supplemented by smaller parties addressing a narrower electorate (ecologists, liberals, etc.). What is now progressively emerging is a space occupied by, on the one hand, a party standing for global capitalism as such (usually with a degree of tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities, etc.), and, on the other, an increasingly strong anti-immigrant populist party (accompanied on its fringes by explicitly racist and neo-fascist groups). The exemplary case here is Poland: with the disappearance of the ex-Communists, the main parties are now the “anti-ideological” centrist liberal party of the Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the conservative Christian party of the Kaczynski brothers. Or take the example of the Tea Party movement in the US, as the American version of this Rightist populism, which is gradually emerging as the only true opposition to the liberal consensus. In Italy, Berlusconi is proof that even this ultimate opposition is not insurmountable: his Forza Italia is both the party of global capitalism and of the populist anti-immigrant tendency. In the de-politicized sphere of post-ideological administration, the only way to mobilize the electorate is to stir up fear (of immigrants, of the neighbor). To quote Gaspar Miklos Tamas, we are thus again slowly approaching a scenario in which “there is no one between the Tsar and Lenin”, i.e., in which a complex situation is reduced to a simple basic choice: community or collective, socialism or communism? Or, to put it in the well-known terms from 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the fraternal help of the radical Left.

Why the Idea and Why Communism?

 

The Left is facing the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing “natural” in the present crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously acknowledging that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, violating its rules will indeed cause economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, facilitated by global market conditions (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is not the result of an evil plot by capitalists, but an urgency imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse. For this reason, what is now required is not a moralizing critique of capitalism, but the full re-affirmation of the Idea of communism.

 

The Idea of communism, as elaborated by Badiou, remains a Kantian regulative idea lacking any mediation with historical reality. Badiou emphatically rejects any such mediation as a regression to an historicist evolutionism which betrays the purity of the Idea, reducing it to a positive order of Being (the Revolution conceived as a moment of the positive historical process). This Kantian mode of reference effectively allows us to characterize Badiou’s deployment of the “communist hypothesis” as a Kritik des reinen Kommunismus. As such, it invites us to repeat the passage from Kant to Hegel—to re-conceive the Idea of communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization. The Idea that “makes itself what it is” is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself.

 

Why, then, the Idea of communism? For three reasons, which echo the Lacanian triad of the I-S-R: at the Imaginary level, because it is necessary to maintain continuity with the long tradition of radical millenarian and egalitarian rebellions; at the Symbolic level, because we need to determine the precise conditions under which, in each historical epoch, the space for communism may be opened up; finally, at the level of the Real, because we must assume the harshness of what Badiou calls the eternal communist invariants (egalitarian justice, voluntarism, terror, “trust in the people”). Such an Idea of communism is clearly opposed to socialism, which is precisely not an Idea, but a vague communitarian notion applicable to all kinds of organic social bonds, from spiritualized ideas of solidarity (“we are all part of the same body”) right up to fascist corporatism. The Really Existing Socialist states were precisely that: positively existing states, whereas communism is in its very notion anti-statist.

 

Our task is thus to remain faithful to this eternal Idea of communism: to the egalitarian spirit kept alive over thousands of years in revolts and utopian dreams, in radical movements from Spartacus to Thomas Müntzer, including within the great religions (Buddhism versus Hinduism, Daoism or Legalism versus Confucianism, etc.). The problem is how to avoid the choice between radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, and the retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana). It is here that the originality of Western thought becomes clear, particularly in its three great historical ruptures: Greek philosophy’s break with the mythical universe; Christianity’s break with the pagan universe; and modern democracy’s break with traditional authority. In each case, the egalitarian spirit is transposed into a new positive order (limited, but nonetheless actual).

 

“Now is the time for monsters”

Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the epoch which began with the First World War is the well-known phrase attributed to Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Were Fascism and Stalinism not the twin monsters of the twentieth century, the one emerging out of the old world’s desperate attempts to survive, the other out of a misbegotten endeavor to build a new one? And what about the monsters we are engendering now, propelled by techno-gnostic dreams of a biogenetically controlled society? All the consequences should be drawn from this paradox: perhaps there is no direct passage to the New, at least not in the way we imagined it, and monsters emerge necessarily emerge in any attempt to force that passage.

 

One of the signs of a new rise of this monstrosity is that the ruling clases seems less and less able to rule, even in their own interests. It’s not only postmodern capitalism which is clearly running out of control and producing new monsters on its way. The US policy is definitely approaching a stage of madness, and not only in internal policy where the Tea Party proposes to fight the national debt by lowering taxes, i.e., by raising the debt (one cannoy but recall here Stalin’s well known thesis that, in the Soviet Union, the state is withering away through the strengthening of its organs, especially its organs of police repression). In foreign policy also, the spread of Western Judeo-Christian values is organized by setting conditions not for the protection, but for the expulsion of Christians. Like in Iraq there were approximately one million Christians lived under Saddam, leading exactly the same lives as other Iraqi subjects, until something weird happened to Iraqi Christians, a true catastrophy: A Christian army occupied (or liberated, if you want) Iraq, dissolved Iraq’s secular army and thus left the streets open to the Muslim fundamentalist militias to terrorize each other and the Christians. This is definitely not a clash of civilization, but a true dialogue and cooperation between the US and the Muslim fundamentalists.[5]

 

Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classical twentieth-century predicament in which the Left knew what it had to do (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), but simply had to wait patiently for the opportunity to offer itself. Today, we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss of the New in totally inappropriate situations; we have to be aware of the hard problem of defining the new order any revolution will have to establish after its success. But when inaction is not an option, we have to take the risk. In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.

 

Communism is today not the name of a solution, but the name of a problem: the problem of commons in all its dimensions – the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problema of our biogenetic commons, the problema of our cultural commons (“intelectual property”), and, last but not least, directly the problema of commons as the universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution, it will have to solve this problem.

 


[1] Available online at www.catholic-forum.com

[2] I owe this idea to Alenka Zupančič.

[3]  Did President Lula of Brazil not find himself in a similar predicament? His administration was often accused of corruption, and the real basis of this accusation was that, in order to enforce key decisions, he had to bribe the small parties on which his parliamentary majority depended.

[4] I owe this idea to Saroi Giri.

[5] I rely here on the analysis of  Ervin Hladnik-Milharcic, Ljubljana.