“The system has lost its self evidence, its automatic legitimacy and now the field is open.” Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek, popular and renowned Slovenian political philosopher often cited by the Occupy Wall Street movement, is an outspoken critic of both capitalism and communism. In an excellent interview with Al Jazeera, Slavoj Zizek describes how the current crises gripping the world financial system coupled with the spectre of terrorism and permanent states of emergency are leaving the field open for a fundamental re-evaluation of the international system. Al Jazeera begins their discussion with Zizek by focusing on the London Riots that transpired this summer.
Zizek states the rioters had no demands but rather they were just purely violent in a fashion partly driven by consumerism. Zizek declares that 20th century communism, starting with high hopes and ending in a nightmare, was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Zizek argues that communism is different from fascism because fascists suggested horrible things to achieve their ends while communists did not declare the need for such horrible actions to achieve their ends but perpetrated them nonetheless with equal or greater brutality.
“The only true utopia to me is that things can continue to go on the way they are.” Slavoj Zizek
What effective form or type of system could replace the capitalist democratic system that we have now? In explaining one of the central problems of communism, Zizek quotes Ayn Rand, someone who he despises, and her novel Atlas Shrugged, “Money is in a way a sense of liberty. Money means we can do it peacefully, I pay you, you sell it to me only if you want to, but without money there has to be some sort of brutal extortion.” Does Ayn Rand have a point? Communism wanted to abolish money or the material differences between people but by eliminating this the communists fostered a system of brutality, an economic system that was exploitative and regressive. Zizek is opposed to violence, but supports what he calls ‘true violence’ and cites examples such as the protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square because they wanted the whole system to stop functioning.
Zizek calls true violence the attempt to stop the functioning of a system in its entirety, like Gandhi’s rejection of the British Raj. He cites the Republic of Congo as an example of a failed state that is violence we do not notice because it is a part of the international system that supports the regime through economic transactions thus normalizing the violence there by giving it a means of perpetuating itself materially. This argument is akin to those made by Thomas Pogge in his World Poverty and Human Rights.
Next Al Jazeera asks Zizek about Israel and Palestine. Is there an ideological approach to a problem like that of Israel and Palestine? What does ideology mean, Zizek asks rhetorically? For Zizek ideology is something that effuses everyday life. He is troubled by the absence of ideology in modern life and calls it spiritualized hedonism because of the increasing emphasis on the special qualities of the individual. Communism advocated the submission of the individual to collective goals while Christianity asks for the submission of the individual to the church but what does the modern world’s fascination with the individual entail? Problems of racism and sexism are automatically translated into ideology but Zizek thinks that they are rather structural critiques that have been twisted into an ideology of tolerance which neither achieves anything nor changes anything. He cites Martin Luther King’s movement as not one asking for social tolerance of African Americans but rather as one asking for a change in the systematic exploitation and limited social mobility of African Americans. Zizek sees tolerance as a distortion of MLK’s central cause: effecting real change for African Americans from a material and structural perspective, not a mere acceptance of their presence.
Moving on to a discussion of the media and its distortion of the worldview in the West, Zizek cites a Maoist rebellion in India that he says has troops numbering one million people but which receives scant attention in the western media. What does Europe want, Al Jazeera asks concerning the European Union? They cannot decide. On one hand, Zizek describes, there is the technocratic European Union coupled with nationalistic, anti-immigrant movements within the states that comprise it. He’s a pessimist with regard to Europe and cites the E.U.’s rejection of Turkey. He notes the nonviolence at a recent gay pride parade in Istanbul while a similar parade in Zagreb in Croatia had to have heavy security and Croatia is a member of the E.U. Zizek fears the ‘protectors’ of the Europe more than he fears the Muslim immigrants. He cites Anders Breivik and the incident in Norway. Zizek claims this is the basic, underlying ideology of the Christians in the west like Glenn Beck – those who have taken it upon themselves to crusade in preservation of something but in the process end up corrupting it and denigrating it. Zizek does not see a coherent movement or unifying force on the left but he does think that the current events are reason for modest optimism.
In discussing a reevaluation of the current economic system Zizek discusses what he calls China’s authoritarian capitalism. Who will fill the void if the current system collapses? Some disturbing changes are recent shifts from the threat of possible war with communism to permanent states of emergency with the rise of terrorism. He fears a new type of authoritarian society and cites the historical importance of what is happening in China. He notes that in other Asian countries like South Korea military dictatorships have transitioned into liberal democracies but he does not hold such optimism for this occurring in China. China has recently doubled its budget for internal security and it is one of the only countries in the world that spends more on internal security than its military. Zizek also argues that the euro zone crisis will spread from Greece to Italy, Spain and the rest of Europe. Zizek wonders who will appropriate this energy of protest that will surely emanate from these momentous events.
“I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values?
I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy…
What I’m afraid of is with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don’t share the hope of my liberal friends – give them ten years, [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration – no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over.” Slavoj Zizek