The unbearable lightness of Slavoj Žižek’s communism

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously - review.

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek. Photograph: Rex Features

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)