In an era of stagnant productivity, Slavoj Žižek is a notable outlier. Since 1972, the Slovenian philosopher – and self-described “complicated Marxist” – has published more than 80 books and essay collections, including Living in the End Times, Opera’s Second Death, Organs without Bodies and, most recently, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity.
I am reminded of Stalin’s apocryphal quip on Soviet arms production: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” A poster of the dictator accompanied by the slogan “welcome to welfare” – hangs semi-ironically in Žižek’s apartment in Ljubljana.
When I meet Žižek – dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and faded jeans – in central London, he explains: “You know what made it possible? It’s not a joke: communist oppression.” In 1971, having accepted a job as an assistant researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s oldest and largest university, he was denied academic tenure after the Yugoslav authorities deemed his Master’s thesis to be “non-Marxist”.
Žižek was then unemployed from 1973-77 (“I survived through translations”) before eventually becoming a researcher at the university’s Institute for Sociology and Philosophy. “I’m still there…I’m completely free, I do nothing specifically for them, all they want from me is a list of publications. Without this last moment of communist oppression, what would I have been? An unknown, shitty professor in a small department.”
He is certainly known: the 69-year-old “Elvis of cultural theory” is the subject of a 2005 film Žižek! and a peer-reviewed academic periodical, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. But though he is lionised by some as a brilliant iconoclast – whose work fuses Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian idealism and pop culture – he is derided by others as a charlatan.
Interviewing Žižek is like trying to catch a writhing eel – his mind is destined to dart in unexpected directions (one monologue encompasses Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, “how to go further than Mandela without becoming Mugabe”, Lenin’s “Last Testament” and Jim Carrey’s The Mask). Like Oscar Wilde, whom he admires, Žižek is serious about frivolous things and frivolous about serious ones. “The left is in a very tragic situation,” he tells me in his resonant accent. “The new capitalist organic intellectuals – people like Bill Gates – even they say capitalism has its limits, we will have to find something new… But does the left really have an alternative vision? What they mostly talk about is global capitalism with a human face.”
For Žižek, social democracy is insufficient, but it is perilous to prescribe a fixed alternative. “We have to reject whatever remains in Marxism of historic teleology… Socialist revolution produces its own mess, it goes wrong. I’m globally a pessimist but what gives me hope is precisely this catastrophic situation. Because in such catastrophic situations you have to be creative, you have to improvise. That’s why I don’t trust leftists who have these simple solutions.”
I ask if he is attracted by the notion of “luxury communism”: an automated economy in which humans are sustained by a state-funded universal basic income. “Don’t underestimate envy,” Žižek says. “Ayn Rand saw one thing very clearly: if you abolish money, it’s very difficult not to restore direct, interpersonal relations of domination. We saw this through the Soviet Union – they had money under Stalin but it wasn’t crucial; what was crucial were the perks you got as a writer, access to luxury homes and so on.
“How will relations among us be regulated? Who will have power? Don’t give me this stupid shit about self-organisation of the people, I don’t believe in it.” (Žižek last year delivered a lecture entitled “a plea for bureaucratic socialism”.)
Žižek was most recently excoriated by liberals for his endorsement of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But when I press him on Trump’s misdemeanours, he is defiant. “The chance of intervening militarily against Syria and North Korea would have been much higher under Hillary Clinton… Are we aware that there wouldn’t be this democratic socialism in the US without Trump? I’m horrified at Trump but through him a crack appeared in the liberal centrist hegemony.”
Žižek does not, however, take a similarly optimistic view of Brexit. “I don’t think we can fight global capitalism through stronger nation states. Here I sympathise with [Yanis] Varoufakis.” He adds: “Even if this Europe goes to hell, transnational bodies like this are the only thing that works.”
What of Žižek’s own health? During appearances last year his face was semi-paralysed, leading to fears that he had suffered a stroke. This was, he explains, the result of nerve inflammation, before raising his T-shirt to show me where doctors removed a cancerous tumour from his liver. Having endured a season in hell, to quote Arthur Rimbaud, Žižek is at ease again.
He credits writing with saving him from a premature death. “I remember when I was in a great crisis 30 years ago, some love affair went wrong [Žižek has been married three times], I was really on the edge of suicide. Writing performed the same role as psychoanalysis. How can I kill myself if I have to finish a new book and a text and so on?”
Slavoj Žižek wants to live, but not happily. “I’m against happiness – happiness is for wimps,” he remarks at the close of our conversation. “I want to be traumatised to work.”
This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown