Slavoj Zizek. Photograph: Rex Features
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The unbearable lightness of Slavoj Žižek’s communism

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously - review.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously
Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 142pp, £7.99

Marxism has always been, since the first collaborations of Marx and Engels, a thoroughgoing critique of capitalist society from the standpoint of a far less developed concept of socialism or communism. In this sense, its premise is a utopian conclusion never yet demonstrated – namely, that there can be a better form of modern society, based on a different regime of property, than one dominated by the accumulation of private capital. No one can in fairness require a detailed picture of this future condition but the vision has to enjoy some minimum plausibility. Otherwise, only a description of capitalism can be offered and some suggestions for reform but no fundamental critique.

Since the 1970s – and especially since 1991 – perhaps the greatest challenge for Marxism has been to keep alive the belief in the possibility of a superior future society. The belief was trampled almost to extinction by miscarried Third World revolutions, capitalist transformation in China, the capitulations of European socialist parties, Soviet collapse and the ostensible triumph of liberal capitalism.

The scepticism that replaced it was twofold. The would-be revolutionary left seemed to possess neither a serious strategy for the conquest of power nor a programme to implement, should power be won. In this context, the maximalism of the left at its high-water marks could only ebb into a kind of survivalist minimalism. The pith of minimalism lay in the alter-globalisation slogan: “Another world is possible.” Its most eloquent expression may have been Fredric Jameson’s book on Utopia, Archaeologies of the Future (2005), which sought to preserve the concept of a break with capitalism in conditions under which neither the bridge across the chasm nor the institutions lying on the other side could be imagined.

These are the reduced circumstances in which the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been, for at least the past dozen years or so, the world’s best-known Marxist thinker. With gra­phomaniacal productivity and postmodern range, Žižek writes mainly about contemporary ideology and culture in the broad sense that covers everything from an animated Hollywood blockbuster such as Kung Fu Panda to the forbidding ontology of Alain Badiou. Corrugated with dialectical reversals and seeming at times to consist exclusively of digressions, Žižek’s writing is often described, with some justice, as elusive. Even so, his basic analysis of the end-of-history ideology that swept the world after 1991 has been simple enough.

Žižek ventriloquised the mindset in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), one of his many entertaining, funny and shamelessly repetitive books: “Capitalism is a system which has no philosophical pretensions . . . The only thing it says is: ‘Well, this functions.’ And if people want to live better, it is preferable to use this mechanism, because it functions.” As he went on to argue in his own voice, “The very notion of capitalism as a neutral social mechanism is ideology (even utopian ideology) at its purest.” In fact, neoliberal “post-ideology” resembled nothing so much as a caricature of Marxist historical determinism. It merely substituted liberal capitalism for communism in claiming that here we beheld the final form of human society, as legitimated by science – in this case, socio­biology and neoclassical economics – and as certified on the proving ground of history.

Such a view was often declared after the cold war in a triumphalist spirit. Lately, with the outbreak, still uncontained, of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, it has persisted in a more resigned key. In his latest book, Žižek quotes David Simon, creator, in the television epic The Wire, of as damning a portrait of class-riven America as any Marxist could wish for: “I accept that [capitalism] is the only viable way to generate wealth on a wide scale.”

Žižek not only rejects this nearly unanimous conclusion but discerns in unexpected places – whether in the chauvinist eruptions of the political right or the low-grade commercial output of US cinema – the abiding wish, however disfigured and denied, for a “radical emancipatory politics”. In recent years, Žižek’s name for such a politics has been simply “communism”. He has carried out this dual operation – against the supposed necessity of capitalism, in favour of the renewed possibility of com­munism – by invoking a remarkable roster of thinkers. Hegelian in philosophy, Marxist in economics, Leninist in politics and an exponent of Jacques Lacan’s particularly baroque strain of psychoanalysis, Žižek combined these ways of thinking at a time when all of them separately, let alone together, had fallen into disrepute. He knew the reaction this courted, as can be seen in a line from In Defence of Lost Causes (2008): “What should have been dead, disposed of, thoroughly discredited, is returning with a vengeance.” Nor did this foul-mouthed wise guy, with an eastern bloc accent out of Central Casting, baiting his detractors with talk of “good old Soviet times” and plucking at his black T-shirt with Tourettic insistence, make himself much more presentable to conventional opinion as a personality.

For many fellow leftists, it has been both a winning performance and a vexing one. Žižek isn’t exactly to blame for his press, much less for the failure of the media to pay similar attention to other left-wing thinkers. Even so, his intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed. A ruthless criticism of capitalism, it turned out, could still be contemplated outside the academy – but only on condition that it appear as the work of a jester or provocateur. In this way, the figure of Žižek seemed to represent, encouragingly, the lifting of the post-cold-war embargo on radical thought and at the same time, discouragingly, its reimposition.

A similar ambiguity attaches to The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, a brief consideration of several of the revolts and convulsions of 2011, from the Arab spring and Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre in Norway to the London riots and Occupy Wall Street in the US. Did last year’s dreams, with their conscious or unconscious emancipatory content, pose a danger to contemporary capitalism or mainly to the dreamers themselves? In other words, did they prefigure a revolutionary challenge to the system or merely demonstrate that such an awakening remains all but inconceivable?

The book begins with Zizek’s general presentation of a capitalism marked by “the long-term trend of shifting from profits to rents”, “the much stronger structural role of unemployment” and the rise of a ruling class defined more by high salaries than direct capital income. Only the last of these features, however, is integrated into Žižek’s explanation of political rebellion: some but not all protesters are recent graduates angry that a college degree no longer assures them a good salary. More relevant to the rest of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously is Žižek’s contention that capitalism can’t be reformed. He disdains the idea, characteristic of “the archetypal left-liberal European moron”, that we need “a new political party that will return to the good old principles” and “regulate the banks and control financial excesses, guarantee free universal health care and education, etc, etc”.

He proceeds to examine last year’s rebellions not chronologically but in order, it seems, of increasing approximation to his own politics. For Žižek, the xenophobic Breivik’s intellectual error (not to speak of his obvious moral catastrophe) is to misunderstand his own ideology: genuine fidelity to Europe’s heritage of Christian universalism would seek to redeem, for Muslim immigrants as well as all others, the “legacy of radical and universal emancipation”.

Next, Žižek discusses the London riots. These illustrate not an inversion of universalism but a post-ideology devoid of transpersonal meaning; looters were, like other capitalist subjects, merely grabbing what they could. “One danger,” Žižek writes, “is that religion will come to fill this void and restore meaning.”

Precisely this danger has already been realised in much of the Muslim world. Yet, in Žižek’s account, the popular overthrow of Arab autocracies, even when couched in Islamist terms, contained a “radically emancipatory core” to which the secular left should remain “unconditionally faithful”.

Finally, in a chapter that revises a talk given before the Occupy encampment in Lower Man­hattan, Žižek explains something of what he takes radical emancipation to mean. He praises Occupy for “two basic insights”. The first is that the principal political problem is capitalism “as such, not any particular corrupt form of it”. The second is that “the contemporary form of representative multiparty democracy” can’t address the problem; therefore, “Democracy has to reinvented.” My sense, as a participant in several Occupy demonstrations and one of last’s years affiliated “working groups”, is that disenchantment with representative democracy, at least in its Ame­rican travesty, does pervade the movement. The belief that capitalism can and should be surmounted, on the other hand, is hardly unknown among Occupiers but doesn’t seem general either.

Žižek sees in various popular discontents the chauvinist misprision, the consumerist absence, the communalist disguise or the anti-capitalist incipience of his own politics. Radical politics at its most basic consists of two elements: strategy and programme or how to get power and what to do with it. Žižek’s programme is straightforward: the replacement of capitalism by communism. It’s not necessary to disclaim this ambition, however, to see that his concept of capitalism is inadequately specified and his notion of communism barely articulated at all.

In his brief against reformism, Žižek scorns the idea that capitalism can be regulated “so that it serves the larger goals of global welfare and justice . . . accepting that markets have their own demands which should be respected”. This suggests that he has confused the existence of markets with that of capitalism. The same goes for Žižek’s rudimentary positive notion of communism. In Living in the End Times (2010), he describes a future society in which the “exchange of products” would give way to “a direct social exchange of activities”. This seems to imply that individuals would no longer come by goods and services through market exchange but instead in some immediate, “social” way, obviating the use of money.

Markets long predate capitalism. Capitalism is better understood as designating a society that subordinates all processes – notably the metabolism between humanity and nature, the production and distribution of goods and services and the function and composition of government – to the private accumulation of capital. As for communism, perhaps it goes without saying, since Žižek doesn’t say so, that it means eliminating private capital on any large scale and realising the Marxist goal of common ownership of the means of production. Yet would productive enterprises be owned by those who worked for them or by society at large – or somehow jointly between the two groups? Žižek doesn’t ask, let alone answer, such questions.

Imagine, in any case, a society whose productive assets are, in one way or another, the property, as Marx said, of “the associated producers”. Such a society might also entail, let’s say, strict depletion quotas for both renewable and non-renewable natural resources; welfare guarantees not only for workers but for people too young, old or ill to work; and democratic bodies, from the level of the enterprise and locality up to that of the state, wherever it hadn’t withered away. These institutions might or might not be complemented by the market. For now, however, to rule markets out of any desirable future while saying next to nothing else about its institutional complexion is to reproduce the intellectual blockage that Žižek and others ascribe to a capitalism that simply can’t imagine how another kind of society might “function”.

In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, even the “direct exchange of activities” has vanished. Here Žižek counsels refusing capitalism from the point of view of “a communism absconditus” without worldly instantiation or conceptual content. He defends this featureless vision by warning, with compact incoherence, against “the temptation of determinist planning”: determinism refers to inevitability, while planning implies voluntarism. Yet it requires no creed of either historical predestination or revolutionary infallibility to hazard an idea, presumably subject to revision both before and after the rupture with capitalism, of a better society. Whether such a hypothesis is called communist is a secondary question; as the poet (and revolutionary) John Milton put it in another context: “The meaning, not the name I call.” At the moment, Žižek’s communism is a heavy name very light on meaning.

His strategic notions, meanwhile, are various and incompatible. At times, as in his advice to Occupy, he seems to advocate the accomplishment of revolution through democracy, though he rejects parliamentary democracy for a “reinvented” kind otherwise undescribed. More often he favours a sort of Leninist quietism, according to which “those who refuse to change anything are effectively the agents of true change”: withdrawal from the system will speed its collapse. Yet he allows that: “A strategically well-placed, precise, ‘moderate’ demand can trigger a global transformation.” The options at least display Žižek’s dialectical facility. Apparent passivity can be the highest form of activity; then again, moderation can have immoderate effects.

Despite this last caveat, Žižek is most often an enemy of reform. However, the experience of western societies since the Second World War suggests that the old opposition between reformism and revolution is no longer useful. The heyday of the welfare state was accompanied, after all, by far more worker and student radicalisation than the era of neoliberalism that followed it, which demoralised radicals and reformers alike.

Projects of reform, in other words, have tended to nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa. In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well pave, rather than bar, the way to a new society, not to mention relieving some of the human misery to be endured before the advent of the communist millennium. If, on the other hand, the system were to prove incapable of incorporating any serious reforms, this would demonstrate the need for revolution that Žižek merely asserts.

This perspective, in which reform and revolution are allied, can no doubt be intelligently contested. But the time is past for the left to content itself with the blank proposition that another world is possible. What traits, other than its otherness, would such a world possess? As liberal capitalism saps its ecological foundations, defaults on its economic promises and forfeits its political legitimacy, another world is becoming inevitable. Which one do we want? And can we make this one into that one before it’s too late?

Žižek’s work at its best has shown why those questions have been so difficult even to formulate in “the desert of post-ideology”. His latest book, however, does not interrupt the prospect of the lone and level sands.

Benjamin Kunkel is a founding co-editor of n+1 and the author of a novel, “Indecision” (Picador, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special