The superstar messiah of the New Left

"Don't underestimate how far ideology has penetrated our daily lives," says Slavoj Žižek.

Speaking at Cadogan Hall on Friday, the self-proclaimed "radical leftist" philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a remarkably ebullient lecture on pessimism. The Marxist intellectual sought to convince his audience in Knightsbridge that "ideology is still alive and kicking" and that history has not ended.

This year has seen a serious academic reappraisal of Marx, with Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm both publishing books on the continuing relevance of capitalism's fiercest opponent. Introduced to the 500-strong audience as "The superstar messiah of the New Left", Žižek was received with reverence. No-one was there by mistake.

A consummate performer, Žižek treated the crowd to a series of entertaining anecdotes, using references to popular culture to show how ideology is sewn throughout the fabric of our lives. "The film Black Swan", he said, "resuscitates one of the most unpleasant myths of anti-femininity. If as a woman you are to follow your career path, you will pay the price of death." Laughter rumbled through the auditorium, but Žižek was serious. "Do not concede to the enemy too much."

His analysis of contemporary ideological trends emphasises our ability to accept profound contradictions in society. What he terms the "fetishist function of ideology", the focus on a singular component of life, is explanation for our ideological delusions. Žižek cites the managers of big businesses in the US who take Buddhist meditation classes in their lunch break, before playing the stock market in the afternoon. The fetish is the delusional belief in one's "good" inner-self, despite the evidence of one's actions. "This", he said, "explains why and how most of us believe scientists, that something catastrophic is going to happen, but we are not prepared to act upon it."

Žižek is at his most urgent in his denunciation of capitalism and the dangers of allowing market forces into diverse areas of society. "We are living in a strange time, when public space for debate is becoming more privatised . . . The education and legal systems are the hegemonic organisations as the state presents itself more and more as a market oriented operation," he said. "Just as in voting we are consumers looking for the best deals."

Reflecting on the decline of sex in Hollywood movies, Žižek atttributes it to the perception of love as a dangerous ungovernable force that doesn't sit comfortably in the market. "We want love without drama." And he believes we are being sold it.

Nevertheless, "change is in the air," he said. "Greece, Spain, here a little bit." Many in the audience shifted uneasily. "It's wonderful. Spain depressed me though. Making demands of democracy from above rather than saying 'we will do it.' We live in hopeful times, but very dangerous times... But it's not the revolution, it is the day after. The left does not have one idea."

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game