A look at one of the most renowned anti-capitalist philosophers in today’s time - Slavoj Zizek.
Rubin Mathias, Writer
Artwork by Prishi Jain
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher who has been termed “The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West” by The New Republic and America magazines . He has become famous for addressing issues of modern relevance, combining philosophy with popular culture and humor. His films, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012) illustrate the links between cinema, psychoanalysis and ideology using movies like Titanic and Star Wars. His trademark rhetorical style stems from German playwright Bertolt Brecht's idea of crude thinking which refers to direct and concise expression.
Žižek was an academic in 1980s Yugoslavia and a major critic of the communist establishment with his magazine columns. He joined the Committee on the Protection of Human Rights for the democratization movement in Slovenia. In the first democratic elections of Slovenia in 1990, he failed to secure a seat in the collective presidency by a narrow margin. Since then he has been a visiting professor at universities around the world and lending his voice to causes like Occupy Wall Street, the release of Julian Assange, and the erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong among others.
The context of Žižek’s philosophy starts from the fall of the Soviet Union when George H.W. Bush said that ideological wars had ended in a post-ideological age, a sentiment echoed by Tony Blair and Francis Fukuyama. Žižek asserts that on the contrary, the dominant capitalist ideology has become entrenched in popular thinking. He shows this by resolving collectivist politics with psychoanalysis.
The crux of his commentary lies around the idea of ideology defined by Marx as a set of false ideas that keep people from seeing the reality of their exploitation. To explain this concept Žižek uses the analogy of glasses borrowed from the 1988 science-fiction horror film They Live, where the ruling class are aliens. The wearing of the glasses shows the reality of subliminal messaging in mass media to obey, consume, procreate, and avoid critical thought.
Traditionally, individuals on the left have believed that if people simply ‘knew the truth’ about capitalism, racism, sexism etc, they would rise up. People are under a sort of ‘false consciousness’. Žižek argues that it isn't just false consciousness. On the contrary, people accept an enlightened false consciousness with an ironic distaste but partake in it the same way they do in junk food, bad relationships, dead-end jobs, which Žižek terms as cynical ideology. He gives an example of the delinquent gang in West Side Story being aware of their disadvantaged social background leading them to a life of gang conflicts as viewed by the larger legal system. However, they mock the idea and continue on. The cause of this is something Žižek terms “sublime objects of ideology”. These are all pervasive entities/constructs with certain ideological and physical manifestations which define our larger actions, consciously and subconsciously. Examples of such sublime objects would be the Constitution, the Party, the King, the Middle Class, etc. These objects of ideology exist and define the limits of reality and our socio-economic lives. Politically, this is manifested in individuals believing that public institutions are inconsequential in true change. In The Dark Knight, certain untruths have to be maintained to maintain the social order. Such cynicism is the triumph of neoliberalism, for its claim of "there is no alternative" short-circuits the traditional procedure of ideology critique.
This leads to paradoxes present in the seemingly clear ideological myths. The peaceful religion Japanese Zen was used by the samurai class and encouraged by monks as a numbing mechanism to their conscience against war and violence which also continued in 20th century Japan. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy seems to have universal quality which makes it a preferred choice of song for Nazi Germany, extreme right-wing Rhodesia, Maoist China, to its current usage as an anthem for the European Union. In modern day China, the official CCP history book has removed the chapter on worker agitations in 1920s Shanghai, which reflects the irony of workers movements being essentially banned there.
This collusion between ethical responsibility and consumerism manifests itself in a sort of disease of charity which are not long-term answers and prevent a major upheaval of society.
A lot of Žižek’s commentary lies in analyzing what went wrong with the communist states. The dogmatic devotion to an ideal justifies atrocities committed in both the erstwhile Marxist-Leninist societies and the supposed liberal democracies. The leader serves the purpose of the historical progression towards communism or democracy. The mythical people, even though killed or tortured, are just not individuals. The leader is an instrument of the movement. The leader is actually likeable as an individual who loves small children and cats or eats burgers with you at your local joint but he’s acting for the movement. Also, the best left-wing analyses tend to be analyses of failures. Examples of these include Soviet suppression of the communist Czechoslovakian rebellion. Žižek’s case is that the devastation of the changes turned into the very thing that later supported a legend held by the political left - that had the changes proceeded, a sort of social and political heaven would have followed. This permits fantasies of what might have occurred in the event that they had succeeded. Either Czechoslovakia would have turned into an ordinary liberal capitalist state or the usual fate of reformist communists, the communist in power would be obliged to set a certain limit. ‘Okay, you've had your fun and freedom, enough of that, now we define the limits again.’ The paradox is that Soviet intervention saved the dream of the possibility of another communism.
Similarly, the nature of capitalism is a constant crisis. When capitalism was faced with the ethical threat of ecology, it was swallowed in and commodified. An example being a Starbucks coffee justifying its price by donating a portion to a certain socio-ecological cause. This collusion between ethical responsibility and consumerism manifests itself in a sort of disease of charity which are not long-term answers and prevent a major upheaval of society. This is manifested in the Hollywood obsessions of apocalyptic scenarios ending the earth. It is easier to imagine an apocalyptic end of human life like asteroids hitting the earth, than a change in the economy.
Another observation that Žižek makes is that the dissolution of the traditional authority-figure in western liberal societies has led to a supposed tolerance and choice which hides a strong order. You need to consume, eat, shop, look good and healthy, etc. and if you don’t, you are an unfortunate individual. The pressure to be more actually makes people deeply unhappy. Žižek shows this in the story of two fathers requesting their kid to visit their grandmother on a Sunday evening. The first authoritative father tells his child that he doesn’t care how he feels and he must visit his grandmother. The second seemingly open-minded father says to his child: “You know how much your grandma adores you, regardless you should visit her only if you feel so.” In the first case the stakes of the order are clear: the authoritative law can be obeyed or stood up to. However, in the second case this free decision hides a much stronger order. This is a case where a stronger directive is hidden behind the supposed free tolerant choice.
His critics note that his confusing rhetoric, while being entertaining, lacks the particular advancement of a concrete plan of action. Žižek’s aversion to this could be explained in his usual commentary on the aftermath of mass protest movements which he highlights in the statement “What do we do in the morning after the revolution?”
Žižek pushes us and a generation of skeptics to remove our glasses and stop eating from the trash can of ideology
In his latest book Pandemic, Žižek argues that various measures that would have been unacceptable have been carried out. This includes government push for the manufacturing of ventilators and masks. The idea of a universal basic income which was only being discussed has now been implemented in some form in the US. He cites the example of nationalization of the railways in the UK. The life changing nature of the pandemic is bound to cause a seismic shift towards reorganisation of the economy constantly violating market principles towards capital circulation.
Žižek pushes us and a generation of skeptics to remove our glasses and stop eating from the trash can of ideology, be aware of large scale prohibitions in society, and realise the paradoxical nature of regulations and pleasure, making the public less vulnerable to ideology or the global cultural industry.