Žižek and the retraining of the Left

(The original Finnish version was published in the online newspaper Uutiskynnys on 5 December 2009.)

It’s quiet in the music hall of Helsinki’s Old Student House in the last morning of November. However, some reporters and photographers step in one by one. They represent a rather large variety of media. Some of them are glancing at the two books that shall be officially published in this press conference. It’s actually difficult to find a free seat when professor Slavoj Žižek, who has just flown to Finland, finally enters the room.

Both Žižek’s way of talking and his outfit attract attention. This 60-year-old Slovenian man is known at least as a philosopher, cultural theorist, psychoanalysist and a former Presidential candidate. While lecturing, he gives an eccentric impression by wearing leisure clothes and flailing his arms almost all the time. Even if Žižek hates writing and attempts to avoid it, he has written more than 40 books. Today is the publication day of two books that consist of Finnish translations of his writings. Politiikkaa, idiootti! (in English: Politics, You Idiot!) is a compilation of short pamphlets, whereas Pehmeä vallankumous (in English: Soft Revolution) is a more comprehensive mix of politics, art and psychoanalysis.

During the press conference Žižek wants to talk about the recent economic crisis and the world’s political development, but he changes the subject once every five minutes. Some Hitchcock movies and the re-evaluation of basic human values are discussed in succession. When a reporter asks a question, Žižek’s answer goes so far from the original subject that everybody laughs when Žižek says: ”Well, did I answer your question?” Then again, his primary message is crystal clear: Žižek, who promotes communism, wants to warn the different groups of the Left about the risks of their current development, and to show the Left the path it should take. That is to say, Žižek is trying to give the Left the tools for self-retraining. In the 21st century Žižek has become a world-famous thinker. It’s probably recommendable for anyone – not just the communists – to take a look at his opinions on the problems that the Left faces, and on the global economic policy of the future.

Žižek begins with a few observations on the past. He underlines the horrors of Stalinism and hopes that in the future we will have a better understanding of its theoretical substance and the reasons why it rose. Žižek prefers Marx’s way of thinking but isn’t afraid of criticizing Marx either. The old Marxist theories can’t, for instance, explain the richness of Bill Gates and other billionaires like him. It’s rather ironic (but also believable) that Žižek had to leave the University of Ljubljana in the 1970s because his diploma work was considered too anti-Marxist. He is not your average communist: he instructs the Left to accept the USA as ”the global police force of the world”, he denounces the proposed idea of basic income guarantee which many communists find dear, and so on.

In his speech Žižek focuses on criticizing the belief in the continuous durability of global capitalism instead of attacking capitalism directly. Societal structures can be compared to notable artists whose works get closer and closer to one single apex and don’t offer anything new after reaching it. ”That’s what happened to Sibelius after he finished Tapiola”, Žižek points out. He believes that liberal capitalism has now reached its dead end and the political Left is reacting too slowly. Some groups of the Left want to hold on to the core of the current economical system and just give it ”a friendly human face”, i.e. an easy user interface. Whatever that means. Žižek finds it more probable that the world is heading towards authoritarian capitalism. But even if Žižek is famous for presenting things in a pointed way, he doesn’t claim that today’s society is going to fall rapidly. Societal transitions are more likely to happen in small stages, and regardless of the pace of these changes the most important thing to acknowledge here is that history has not ended. Francis Fukuyama’s theory has failed.

Authoritarian capitalism, under which democracy is practiced just to make the system look better, is already reality in China which is a nominally communist country. Žižek sees many problems in China’s recent actions and calls special attention to China’s neocolonialism in Africa. On the other hand, Žižek considers China’s one-child policy a partial success. China is economically surpassing the West by playing the Western finance game with its own rules that are derived from the collective way of thinking. In the West we are discussing things like genetic engineering and stem cell research, while the Chinese people are faster to start the developing and commercializing. In a nutshell, the Western liberalism leads to rigidity, whereas the Chinese collectivism makes the country dynamic. Some experts believe that China will eventually become a liberal country in which individualism flourishes, but Žižek isn’t convinced at all. The pressure for changes is small because of a number of reasons, one of them being that China doesn’t take the Western criticism over her human rights situation seriously. Žižek refers to information he has received from his Chinese friends and says that the Chinese government is far more worried about such things as the workers’ willingness to found trade unions.

Žižek moves from China to Italy where right-wing groups have organized street patrols in the recent years. These unarmed patrols consist of concerned citizens who want to maintain safety in the streets. The status of the volunteer patrols has lately become more official, but when it comes to authority, they are still far behind the actual police forces. Most of the Left, as well as the influential State of the Vatican City has criticized the safety patrols because one of the reasons they were founded is that the immigrants commit a proportionately large number of crimes. Žižek simply agrees with the critics and ignores the realities that have created the demand for these patrols.

In the West Žižek’s attention gets also drawn to media and cinema. While watching TV news, we can first hear about the violent death of a big group of civilians in some battlefield. After that we may see video clips of one little child who somehow survived. The child steals the spotlight from the actual piece of news and is portrayed as the symbol of hope, humanity and survival. This phenomenon is distinctive to the USA. Žižek thinks that reportages like this, as well as the Hollywood catastrophe films in which the hero survives and everybody else dies, provide us with the belief that when a crisis occurs, some people just can’t be saved. In Hollywood the death of the majority is represented as an inevitable and natural part of huge turmoils. More generally speaking: by analyzing today’s movies one can detect what kind of ideas and values they are trying to indoctrinate in the society.

It’s no surprise that Žižek wants to say a few words about nationalism, too. He claims that the reason why European nationalist parties have seen a growth in popularity is that nowadays people aren’t interested in political ideologies and this situation creates an ideological vacuum. Žižek talks about nationalism as if it wasn’t an ideology. According to him, those political groups that wouldn’t exist without modern technology are another ”filler” in the vacuum. In Finland the most notable example of these groups is Piraattipuolue (Pirate Party). Drawing a parallel between those who support nationalism and those who support immaterial rights seems rather far-fetched.

As Žižek’s long monologue is reaching its end, he takes the listeners to a higher level of abstraction and underlines how important it is to analyze all politics critically. Rotten societal systems can be defended even if nobody actually believes in their vitality. For the supporters it is enough to believe that other people around them are convinced of the upsides of the system. Žižek tells a story of a scientist who gets visited by a friend of his. The visitor notices that there is a horseshoe hanging on the wall as a talisman. Surprised, he asks the scientist: ”You don’t actually believe that a horseshoe brings good luck, do you?” The scientist answers: ”Not at all, but I’ve been told that it works even if I don’t believe it.”

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Kategoria(t): 2009, English, Uutiskynnys Avainsana(t): , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Lisää kestolinkki kirjanmerkkeihisi.

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