Proud Thug No More?
Zizek on the coming Totalitarianism
Demanding the Impossible
By Slavoj Zizek
Polity Press, 2013
Review by Jennifer Ruth
Žižek’s latest book is Demanding the Impossible. Each of the 34 chapters consists of one answer to a question in an extensive interview. The welcome surprise of these remarks is that it seems Žižek has finally accepted a seat around the table of antitotalitarian leftists. Whereas the cover of In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) featured a guillotine dripping blood, and his buddy Alain Badiou’s Philosophy for Militants (2012) boasts a red handgun on its cover, a smart red megaphone adorns Demanding the Impossible. Words over weapons? Žižek appears to no longer find anything redemptive about totalitarian terror and its “divine violence.” He does continue to invoke (Badiou’s) “event” which remakes the past by changing the future and which does carry with it the violence of rupture, but in general he takes a different tone here. “The lesson of politics is that you cannot distinguish between means and ends (goals),” he tells us; “We all know that this was the big contradiction of Stalinism. They wanted communist freedom but the way they went about it achieved the opposite.” Furthermore, we learn that if we don’t act fast to save the best of the liberal legacy (freedom) within some new political-economic formation, we’re in for another ugly ride. “We are moving toward a much more authoritarian global apartheid society,” he warns.
For all the bluster of works like In Defense of Lost Causes and the effort put into Verso editions of dictators’ writings, it turns out that Žižek may be more Georges Danton than Maximilien de Robespierre. This is good news. Danton was warm-blooded and semi-principled. Danton tried to put the brakes on the Committee of Public Safety’s Reign of Terror. For this, Robespierre sent him to the National Razor, and while being led to his death, Danton exclaimed: “I leave it all in a frightful welter. Not a man of them has an idea of government.” I kept thinking, while reading Demanding the Impossible, that a more apt title would have been A Frightful Welter! The Mess the Left Left, because Žižek does not demand the impossible in this book, but rather the long overdue. He asks the left to figure out what went wrong, revolution after revolution. “With all the horrors of the twentieth century, the liberals’ account is insufficient. It remains for the left to explain this,” he says.
In the past, Žižek enjoyed quoting Robespierre’s sarcastic response when confronted with the cartloads of bloody heads: “Did you want a Revolution without a Revolution?” Here the favored quote—repeated three times—comes from Walter Benjamin and makes a quite different point: “Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.” Hannah Arendt said that revolutionaries do not create the conditions of revolution; they see revolution lying in the street and they pick it up. Žižek says, Yes, the revolutionaries take it and run, but they invariably fumble, and that’s when the fascists pick it up. “What I’m interested in is the day after [the revolution],” he says. “Out of this enthusiastic moment that makes us feel free, how will this be translated into a new institutional order? What will this order be?”
We get Žižek’s well-rehearsed comparison of the political liberal to the person ordering a decaffeinated latte at Starbucks, but the beauty of Demanding the Impossible is that these mini-rants seem more like what he does on auto-pilot and not what he really cares about or believes. “The point,” he says, “is not to criticize democracy in the sense that we need an authoritarian regime. The key is to ask questions about the representative democracy we have today: is it still able to capture the social discontent or formulate the relevant public demands?” Indeed, if Sweden could stay Sweden, he tells us at one point, we might all attend the occasional protest and chat about it afterwards in a café—even if that café is a Starbucks. That would be fine, because social democracy’s marriage to capitalism can be healthy when the money flows. “But the point is that, unfortunately, because of economic necessities, this social democratic system is approaching its end,” he explains. As China demonstrates, capitalism can always divorce democracy and give us the worst of all worlds: staggering economic inequality with zero political freedoms or legal protections. We’re moving towards a depoliticized order that encourages increasingly socialized (as in Instagrammed) lives shed of any saving infrastructure of mutual obligations.
In Žižek’s new book, Robespierre’s “Did you want a Revolution without a Revolution?” is no longer favored.
When Žižek’s warnings come without the gratuitous jabs at liberalism or democracy, they ring loud and clear: “If a new secular left does not emerge—I don’t mean ‘revolutionary’ in the sense of killing people but I mean revolutionary left in the sense of certain radical measures which could safeguard, as we would like to see it, the liberal legacy—we will find ourselves reaching what in Europe we ironically call ‘capitalism with Asian values’—which means, totalitarian capitalism.” And these moments when China arises in the conversation are perhaps the most interesting of the book. “We need to ask new, and for the traditional left, unpleasant questions,” he says; “Doesn’t this mean that maybe we should accept that the US is not always automatically the bad guy? We talk about America being an economic neocolonialist state, but what about Chinese neocolonialism? . . . It is obvious that China is now a mega economic colonial power in Africa.”
Later, he says, “I claim the real result of the Cultural Revolution is the capitalism that they now have.” Many would agree. When traveling in China recently, a friend there told me that one popular saying is “Mao made us free, but Deng fed us.” The twisted smile accompanying the saying left no room for doubt that the “Mao made us free” part was highly ironic. We will give up the utopian illusion of freedom and equality if we can be spared famine and societal chaos. This is a sad state of affairs, and Žižek is right to point out how the Cultural Revolution laid the groundwork for a cynical brand of authoritarian capitalism.
Stuart Hall once said that the left needs to explain, rather than explain away, the communist-totalitarian catastrophes. In Defending the Impossible, Žižek modifies his position such that he’s now perfectly compatible with Hall, and he might even be willing to sit next to an erstwhile enemy like Hannah Arendt. In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (2001), Žižek dismissed Arendt as a Cold-War hack, but he sounds more like Arendt sometimes in this book than he does himself. As if channeling On Revolution, for example, Zizek laments the public’s lack of access to political life in the modern world. “I see this problem of exclusion,” he says, “which is not about the old capitalist division between worker and capitalist but about who is allowed to participate in public life.”
Arendt on liberalism: “Its failure may already be counted among the historical facts of our century.”
As Žižek does here, Arendt understood that the liberal social-democratic model was weak in the face of other forces. In 1951, Arendt saw the writing on the wall for liberalism. “Liberalism, the only ideology that ever tried to articulate and interpret the genuinely sound elements of free societies, has demonstrated its inability to resist totalitarianism so often that its failure may already be counted among the historical facts of our century,” she wrote in an essay entitled “The Eggs Speak Up.”
Liberalism is liable to dissolve altogether when it lacks the focused threat of totalitarianism as opposed to the out-of-focus threat “capitalism with Asian values” now represents. After 1989, we’ve lacked a galvanizing oppositional principle. This could be an opportunity for reinvention, but it’s also a particularly vulnerable moment for values like justice, equality, and freedom. “The left is really not aware of what 1990 meant,” Žižek says; “It was that all models—the state-communist, the social-democratic model, also this immediate democracy model—have failed. So we should really start to think again.” Interestingly, the drumbeat for thinking again in Defending the Impossible is not the Marxist’s equality, but the democrat’s freedom. About the Arab Spring, Žižek says:
What affected me tremendously, not only looking at the general picture of Tahrir Square, but also listening to the interviews of protestors and participants, is how cheap and irrelevant this talk about multiculturalism becomes. There we all were fighting against tyrants; they wanted dignity and freedom and immediately found solidarity with each other. . . It’s a struggle for freedom and freedom is universal.
Just as socialism is no remedy for capitalism, capitalism cannot be a remedy or an alternative for socialism. The contest is never simply over an economic system. . . For the rest, it has to do with the political question: It has to do with what kind of state one wants to have, what kind of constitution, what kind of legislation, what sort of safeguards for the freedom of the spoken and printed word; that is, it has to do with what our innocent children in the West call ‘bourgeois freedom’. . . There is no such thing; freedom is freedom.
Jennifer Ruth is the author of Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. She recently reviewed Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.