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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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster