Review: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce


Stop apologising! says Slavoj Žižek. In a stern, “stop whimpering and pull yourself together” lecture to the Left, the Slovenian critical theorist proclaims the era of liberal- democrat moralistic blackmail over. No longer should the idea of communism be off limits. It’s the other side’s turn to apologise.

The role of the Left today, says Žižek, is merely to slightly get on the nerves of those in power. It convinces but still loses and is then especially good at explaining the reasons for its own failure. “In our societies, critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power, whereas the real point is to castrate them,” as he delicately puts it.

But as a psychoanalyst like Žižek is doubtless aware, those who never look like winning may actually be far happier losing. Of at least playing a subordinate role, harrying the corporate and state powers, but never wishing to really upset the apple cart. As he says, whatever their labels, most people, (and most of the Left), today are Fukuyamean, “accepting liberal-democratic capitalism as the finally found formula of the best possible society, such that all one and do is to try and make it more just, more tolerant.”

Then why seek an alternative to capitalism? Is this quest not, as Žižek asks, “an exemplary case of the narcissism of the lost cause”? His answer is that, at the point of the almost total ideological naturalisation of capitalism, when few even dare to think utopian thoughts, liberal capitalism is revealing itself to be the most utopian ideology of all. “While liberalism presents itself as anti-utopianism embodied, and the triumph of neo- liberalism as a sign that have left behind the utopian projects responsible for the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century, it is now becoming clear that the true utopian epoch was that of the happy Clintonite ‘90s, with its belief that we had reached the ‘end of history.’”

Global warming, the food crisis caused by the globalisation of agriculture and looming shortages in the water supply are all escalating problems caused by an ever-growing and commodifying world economic system. The standard forms of state intervention can’t deal with them, says Žižek, and the likely future is a new era of apartheid in which a small part of the world has an abundance of food, water and energy and is shielded from a chaotic outside of starvation and permanent war.

Thus “communism is once again at the gates”. Communism, to Žižek, is not an ideal but merely a rational response to the antagonisms generated by capitalism.

What exactly does Žižek mean by communism? It’s not exactly easy to say. “The failure of communist state-party politics is above all and primarily the failure of anti-statal politics, of the endeavour to break out of the constraints of the state, to replace statal forms of organization with direct non-representative forms of self- organization,” he says, rather absurdly.

So we can pin the blame for Stalinism on the direct democracy of the Petrograd Soviet then? He does produce a great critique of representative democracy. Ordinary citizens are like a king in a constitutional monarchy – their function is merely to sign off measures enacted by the executive – but the pretence must be maintained they really make the decisions. What Žižek proposes instead is making the state “work in non-statal mode”, a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, based on “new forms of popular participation”. Despite Žižek’s pledge to “begin from the beginning”, this looks very much the familiar terrain of his undisguised Leninism. He also wants to have his cake and eat it. He defends bourgeois “formal” freedoms against the historic Marxist claim that they are mere illusions – but then advocates revolutionary terror. So we can look forward to a terror that respects civil liberties?

This “communism” is not inevitable. In fact, Žižek believes our most likely political future in the West is an authoritarian capitalism, prefigured by rulers like Berlusconi in Italy and Lee Quan Yew in Singapore. In a complete reversal of traditional Marxism, Žižek says the “train of history” is against the radical emancipatory left. The only hope is to interrupt the trajectory towards authoritarianism and ecological disaster at certain weak points or crises in the system.

We can no longer rely on the working class to be the bearer of this emancipatory project. In fact, Žižek categorises the working class or, more properly, “the people” into three sections, each with its own “way of life”. Intellectual workers, characterised by “enlightened hedonism” and multiculturalism, the traditional working class, in hoc to populist or racist ideologies and illegals or the underclass, hostile to society as such. “The old cry, ‘Proletarians, unite!’ is more pertinent than ever,” says Žižek. Yes, but under what kind of political programme or vision will they unite? Žižek doesn’t say.
He does ponder why, in the US for example, farmers and blue collar workers become populist conservatives and “vote themselves into economic ruin”. “It is clearly not good enough to claim that the primitive lower classes have been so brainwashed by the ideological apparatus that they are not or are no longer able to identify their true interests,” he says. Indeed, but he offers no plausible explanation for why the chickens are walking freely into the slaughterhouse.

He does say that resistance against immigrants on part of local working classes in western countries is “not wholly unjustifiably” based on the perception of the immigrant as a new kind of strike breaker and ally of capital. “How to convince the workers opposing these immigrants that they are fighting the wrong battle, and how to propose a feasible form of alternative politics?” he then asks. Answers on a postcard please because no sooner than posing the 64 million dollar question, he wanders off onto another topic. In vain will you find substantial answers to the questions Žižek poses. He is a philosophical butterfly, fluttering between different subjects, without really settling on any.

It is strange that, after beginning the book with an exhortation to the Left to muster an “icy determination” to think, Žižek ends it with a plea to try and alter the path of historical development, to avert the coming catastrophe, out of pure voluntarism (another nod to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin) Don’t think, just will! As this book demonstrates, objectively speaking, there is an overwhelming need for a revolutionary change of course. Why, subjectively speaking, enough people will devote themselves to the long and arduous task of making that change Žižek doesn’t tell us.

— Mat Little 


First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 2009, 168 pages