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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Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same

Gilmore Girls is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons are crucial in exploring those themes.

If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold / All you have to do is call my name / And I’ll be there. The Gilmore Girls theme, a special version of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” featuring extra vocals from her daughter, plays each episode over images of autumnal New England foliage, and always reminded me of another song on Tapestry, “You’ve Got a Friend”. Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there.

“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer” and “Fall” are the episodes that make up Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Netflix’s revival of the Noughties TV series. Fans won’t be at all surprised to see Netflix lean on the four seasons to organise the new show, a fundamental principle of the original series. This integral structure remains even as they dispense with other structures of the previous seven seasons, instead of the original 22-episode year, there are just four episodes used to narrate the Gilmores’ 2016, and each one has ballooned from 45 minutes to 90. And that familiar opening? Gone.

MISS PATTY: And flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter… and leaves! Where are my leaves? I got pumpkins, I got Pilgrims, I got no leaves.

Until 2016, every episode of Gilmore Girls included the same opening credits, with shots of red and gold leaves, a Connecticut town in the throes of autumn. So, those leafy fall shots would appear at least once an episode, even though the show’s picture-perfect town, Stars Hollow, would spend each series transitioning in and out of each of the four seasons. Of course, Stars Hollow is not a real place under the influence of real changes in the weather: it’s filmed on the perpetually sunny Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles. And New England is so inextricably associated with autumn splendour, Stars Hollow so relentlessly idyllic, you might have expected the makes of Gilmore Girls to suspend Stars Hollow in a perennial fall, with Rory and Lorelai clutching hot coffees as they tread autumn leaves underfoot all year round. (It might make thematic sense, too: Gilmore Girls’ narrative of a precocious 16-year-old, brimming with brains and potential, slowly failing to achieve her own impossible goals fits both with the season’s connotations of academic beginnings and promise, and with its longer-standing cultural affiliation with maturity, pensive reflection and wistfulness.)

DARREN: Stars Hollow is charming. The last time we drove through there, there was a pumpkin patch.
LORELAI: Sounds like us.
DARREN: In March.
LORELAI: Oh, that would be the year the pumpkins arrived late.

The idea of Stars Hollow in perpetual autumn even comes up in a few episodes. Pumpkins arrive in March, autumnal events continue until the very end of November. Fall decorations are seemingly mandatory for local businesses.  But while every Gilmore Girls viewer can immediately conjure an image of Stars Hollow in fall, so too will they have an equally memorable selection of images of the town in winter, spring, and summer. No season goes unmarked. In fact, in the hyperreal utopia of Stars Hollow, seasons are exaggerated and picturesque: an overabundance of harvest vegetables, fluffy snow, budding blossoms, or falling leaves.

LORELAI: Grass is just not this green — not outside of Pleasantville, it isn’t.
CHRISTOPHER: So, what exactly are you saying?
LORELAI: I’m suggesting they brought in sod.
CHRISTOPHER: You suspect sod.
LORELAI: Yes, or spray paint. Maybe they spray-painted the grass when they spray-painted these trees, ‘cause, I mean, there’s autumnal foliage and then there’s autumnal foliage. It’s over the top, people.

But the seasonal obsession is more than just a way to emphasise the perfection of Stars Hollow. It’s an organising principle for the show’s structure, action and themes.

***

When Kelly Bishop (the actor who plays the most senior Gilmore girl, Emily) received the script for Gilmore Girls, she was stunned by the sheer weight of it. “I kept flicking it over, and looking at the thickness of it,” she told EW. “It was too thick to be a sitcom.” Gilmore Girls, consisting of hour-long episodes that make little sense out of order, but with its emphasis on witty dialogue over dramatic plotlines, hovers in a strange space between sitcom and drama.

Sitcoms are, by definition, situational — they often rely on characters thrown together in a confined space, be it the family living room, friends flatsharing or colleagues in a shitty office space. Comedy is often drawn from the familiarity of the specific surroundings: as a result, fans of The Simpsons or Friends or The Office could accurately draw floor-plans of the shows’ unchanging sets. So, too, could you draw a map of Stars Hollow, if you’ve seen enough episodes (trust me, I’ve done it). The action of a sitcom is often suspended in time and space: episodes end back where they began, the next opening as though nothing of note has happened since. Dramas, though, tend to thrive on progression of both character and plot; casts moving inexorably forward through time and space.

LORELAI: God, the town looks beautiful.
LUKE: Same as always.
LORELAI: No, it’s always different this time of year. It’s magical.
LUKE: If you say so, sure. Oh look, there’s the magical plumbing supply store where I bought a magical float for my toilet last week.
LORELAI: You disappoint me.
LUKE: Oh look. There’s the magical Luke’s Diner, right underneath the apartment that Jess magically lit by leaving every stinkin’ light on.

So, for Gilmore Girls to straddle both these genres, Stars Hollow must hold most of the show’s action and the majority of its ensemble cast, while still allowing the passing year to make its mark on the town. The seasons allow this. Much of this work is done in the background, as the set design changes from episode to episode, but characters are also constantly remarking on the changes in the town with each passing month, as Lorelai does when snow envelops the square.

The result is not just a keen sense of place, but of a place moving through time.

***

TAYLOR: Every other store in town has fall decorations.
LUKE: Hoorah for the mob mentality.
TAYLOR: We’re talking a few streamers and a paper turkey. How’s it gonna hurt to have a paper turkey?
LUKE: No turkey, no squash, no pumpkins. Nothing colored orange.
TAYLOR: OK, you don’t like orange. That’s fine. Autumn has many varied hues to toy with. This is the Autumn Festival. Your shop is right across the street from the Horn of Plenty! You’re smack dab in the middle of everything. You have to decorate.
LUKE: I don’t have to do anything but serve food.
TAYLOR: We’re talking about the spirit of fall!
LUKE: You know where you can stick the spirit of fall?

Gilmore Girls, with its principle cast of family members, and its sprawling ensemble cast of Stars Hollow residents, is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons similarly become an important device for exploring those themes.

Small rural communities have long organised themselves around the seasons. Stars Hollow is no different — except in the ridiculous extent of its embrace of all things seasonal. Each season of Gilmore Girls is organised around the constant onslaught of annual festivals: the End of Summer Madness Festival that, well, ends summer, the Teen Hayride, the 24-Hour Dance Marathon the Autumn Festival complete with Cornucopia Can Drive and Horn of Plenty, November’s Old Muddy River Bridge Knitathon, the commemorations of the Battle of Stars Hollow, the Winter Carnival, the Snowman-Building Contest, the Christmas Procession, January’s Founders’ Firelight Festival, the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, Groundhog Day, St Patrick’s Day, the Purim festival, a whole host of springtime weddings and engagement parties, the springtime Movie Night in the Square, the annual Easter Egg Hunt, the Hay Bale Maze at the Spring Fling Festival, and the Festival of Living Pictures are just selection of the events honoured in Stars Hollow.

LORELAI: Oh, hey! Turn out the lights.
LUKE: For what? It’s not the real procession, it’s just the rehearsal.
LORELAI: So, it’s pretty.
LUKE: And why do they need to rehearse it? It’s the same thing every year.
LORELAI: Come on Luke, please. It’s hard to imagine living somewhere else isn’t it?

These aren’t just background quirks, lending us an increased sense of familiarity with the town as we’re told over and over that these events unfold in the same, strange way every single year. They’re linchpins which hold key plot events in place. Both Jess and Dean tell Rory they love her, with less than positive consequences, during the supposedly romantic Founder’s Firelight Festivals. Rory’s romantic relationship with Jess speeds up when he bids on her basket at the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, which is also where Sookie and Jackson become engaged. Her relationship with Dean ends (the second time) in spectacular fashion at the Dance Marathon. Luke begins his romantic relationship with Lorelai when dancing with her amidst springtime decorations in the town square at Liz and TJ’s wedding. The list goes on.

The result is that the lives of our main characters, the lives of the smaller Stars Hollow characters, and small-town seasonal events are all inextricably linked to the same calendar. Particularly in the early seasons, every significant relationship, for both Rory and Lorelai, becomes rooted in the community of Stars Hollow. Public acts of citizenship and private expressions of love overlap. To live in Stars Hollow is to live every aspect of your life communally, communing with others, and with nature itself.

LORELAI: Do you know that the best things in my life have happened when it snowed?
RORY: Why, yes, I do.
LORELAI: My best birthday.
RORY: Your first kiss.
LORELAI: Your first steps. They all happened when it snowed.

***

The seasonal structure of the show also brings with it a sense of inevitability, as, in the midst of these reliable annual ceremonies, Gilmore Girls explores ideas of inheritance across the generations. In the grand houses of Emily and Richard’s world (and Lorelai, Christopher and Logan’s youths) inheritance both metaphorical and literal is an encouraged part of family life: but it feels forced and uncomfortable, restricting individuality in favour of decorum and reputation. In Stars Hollow, inheritance functions in a different, but no less crucial, way: more subtle and natural, as constant and eternal as the circles of life. For children who grow up with their parents in Stars Hollow, inheritance seems predestined, even if it didn’t seem so to the characters it affects.  

Many characters are surprised by what they inherit from their parents: Luke never expected to care so much for his father’s old hardware store, Lane is shocked to discover that after years of aching to break out of her mother’s conservative ideals, she’s not comfortable with having sex before marriage. Jess never thought he would pick up a book on intimacy from his uncle Luke, let alone read it sincerely, nor to learn so much valuable advice from him about communication in relationships.

LUKE: You do not want to grow up to be like your mom.
RORY: Sorry, too late.

Of course, that sense of inescapable legacies is taken to extremes in Rory and Lorelai’s relationship: in the very first episode, Lorelai exclaims to her daughter, “After all, you’re me!” While Rory at 16  is, in some ways, a vision of everything Lorelai at 16 was not (responsible, excited by her education, chaste, keeping a constant, serious eye on her future), as the series unfolds, that changes, as Rory becomes more impulsive, reckless and romantic. Viewers are relentlessly confronted by parallels between Rory and Lorelai’s romantic choices: Christopher is to Lorelai as Logan is to Rory, Luke is to Lorelai as Jess is to Rory. Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same.

LORELAI: He kind of looks like Christopher.
LUKE: The grocery kid?
LORELAI: Yeah. He looks like Christopher.
LUKE: And Christopher is Rory’s dad?
LORELAI: The hair, the build, something about the eyes. He reminds me of Christopher.
LUKE: Well that’s not too surprising.
LORELAI: You’re going to quote Freud to me? ’Cause I’ll push you in front of a moving car. This talk was going so well.
LUKE: You and Rory are a lot alike. It’s not surprising you would have similar tastes in men.

It is an inexorable, unavoidable logic, then, that sees Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a show with more interest in the unfolding seasons and the passage of time than ever, that sees Rory finally become her mother. The show’s much-anticipated final four words (“Mom,” “Yeah?” “I’m pregnant”) see Rory at 32, the same age as her mother when the series began, in a similar position to her mother at 16: single, pregnant, unfocused in her career. Some found it frustratingly obvious and pessimistic, others found it optimistic and apt. I’d sum it up in the same way Lorelai comments on her repeating circumstances with her own mother: with a grimly ironic toast “to the circle of life”.

But however you feel about the ending, Gilmore Girls has pulled off one impressive feat. As Lorelai and Rory sit together in the bandstand, and the show cuts to black, it doesn’t feel like the show has ended at all. The fictional landscape of Stars Hollow has a life that extends beyond the screen, as inevitable as the seasons themselves.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.