Slavoj Žižek

Jeremy Jennings dissects the work of the fashionable left-wing philosopher, who believes that Lenin, Stalin and Mao were too soft

Academia Communism Overrated Philosophy Politics Social Affairs

Try as one might, it is difficult to avoid the Slovenian-born philosopher Slavoj Žižek. If you miss the 30 or more books he has published since 1989, there are scores of articles, book reviews in the London Review of Books and the New Statesman and even the occasional interview in the Guardian. Failing this you can watch the film Žižek! – where, from beneath his bed sheets, he discourses upon the nature of philosophy. There is also the three-part TV documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, from which we learn that The Sound of Music is not really a film about kindly Austrians escaping from the Nazis but rather an everyday tale of honest Fascists resisting a decadent Jewish cosmopolitan takeover. Somewhat improbably, Žižek has been the subject of an art installation and there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. He has been called “The Elvis of Cultural Theory”, attaining the status of an Academic Rock Star, filling lecture hall after lecture hall. In the words of fellow-Marxist Terry Eagleton, Žižek is less a philosopher than a phenomenon. He is undoubtedly very clever, very engaging and very, very funny.

There is much to admire about Slavoj Žižek. He spent his early adult years as a dissident in the former Yugoslavia, suffering at the hands of the authorities. He refuses to play the conventional role of the leftist intellectual. He cannot abide orthodoxy, preferring the role of gadfly to prophet, jester to sage. He is hostile to postmodernism (describing himself as a “card-carrying Lacanian”) and despises the politics of multiculturalism for its reduction of all questions to problems of toleration and difference. He is rude to vegetarians and has no sympathy for humanitarians like Bill Gates, intent on solving the world’s ills through charity.

So where is the problem? Look no further than the two books Žižek has published this year: Violence and In Defense of Lost Causes. Žižek believes that the age of ideologies is not over and that the idea of global emancipation is not dead. The liberal consensus just wants us to think that it is. The ambition, in his words, is to forge a new egalitarian and emancipatory politics and to find new sites of resistance to a capitalist order based upon systematic inequality, exploitation and injustice. Where are these to be found? Drawing upon the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Žižek conjures up the category of “divine violence” as a form of pure violence that serves no purpose except as an expression of opposition to injustice in the world. Those annihilated by divine violence, he tells us, are “fully and completely guilty”. Next, he imagines that divine violence has been instantiated (although often with “deplorable” outcomes) in the revolutionary politics of terror associated with Jacobinism, Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism. Each has its “redemptive moment”. Remarkably, Žižek’s suggestion is that if these revolutionary movements failed, it was not because they were too extreme but because they were not radical enough. He then conjectures that the Left of today has become ashamed of the Jacobin legacy of revolutionary terror, in part because, in his paraphrase of Robespierre, it wants a revolution without a revolution, a revolution which respects social rules and existing norms, a decaffeinated revolution.

The challenge for Žižek, then, is to reinvent what he describes as emancipatory or egalitarian terror in order that it might be deployed in today’s circumstances. What would this look like? We get a clue from the critical remarks directed against Danton’s efforts to turn Jacobin revolutionary terror into “statist violence”. Žižek’s preference is for “the direct ‘divine’ violence of the sans-culottes, of the people themselves”. The same sentiment was repeated in a recent article in the New Statesman, where he expressed his admiration for the radical politics of Haiti’s Lavalas movement and its leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Here is a movement that is “exemplary of principled heroism”. He also endorsed Aristide’s failure to condemn acts of popular violence against the people’s enemies.

However, in Žižek’s view, there is more to egalitarian terror than the eruption of the mob into violence. It amounts to a radical upheaval of basic social relations and the imposition of a new order on quotidian reality. It is at the very end of In Defense of Lost Causes, when he holds out the prospect of impending ecological catastrophe, that Žižek most clearly sketches the chilling vision of what he takes to be an emancipatory politics of “revolutionary-democratic terror”. First would be a strict egalitarian justice: the same norms of per capita energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and so on, would be imposed on everyone. Next would be terror, including “ruthless punishment”, severe limitations on liberal freedoms, and technological control of “prospective” law-breakers. Third would be recourse to voluntarism in the form of “large-scale collective decisions” running counter to the logic of capitalism. Finally, all this would be combined with trust in the people, the wager that the vast majority of people would support these “severe measures” and would be “ready to participate in their enforcement”. Such would be egalitarian-revolutionary terror. It amounts to a reinvented version of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Slavoj Žižek might tell good jokes but this is not one of them. He might be a jester but some people take him very seriously.