Žižek & Peterson Debate – Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism (transcript of opening statement)

Below is the transcript of Zizek’s introductory statement.

First, a brief introductory remark. I cannot but notice the irony of how Peterson and I, the participants in this duel of the century, are both marginalised by the official academic community. I am supposed to defend here the left, liberal line against neo-conservatives. Really? Most of the attacks on me are now precisely from left liberals. Just remember the outcry against my critique of LGBT+ ideology, and I’m sure that if the leading figures were to be asked if I were fit to stand for them, they would turn in their graves even if they are still alive.

So, let me begin by bringing together the three notions from the title – Happiness, Communism, Capitalism in one exemplary case – China today. China in the last decades is arguably the greatest economic success story in human history. Hundreds of millions raised from poverty into middle class existence. How did China achieve it? The twentieth century left was defined by its opposition to the truth fundamental tendencies of modernity: the reign of capital with its aggressive market competition, the authoritarian bureaucratic state power. Today’s China combines these two features in its extreme form – strong, totalitarian state, state-wide capitalist dynamics. And – it’s important to note – they do it on behalf of the majority of people. They don’t mention communism to legitimise their rule, they prefer the old Confucian notion of a harmonious society. But, are the Chinese any happier for all that? Although even the Dalai Lama justifies Tibetan Buddhism in Western terms in the full suite of happiness and the avoidance of pain, happiness as a goal of our life is a very problematic notion.

If we learned anything from psychoanalysis, it’s that we humans are very creative in sabotaging our pursuit of happiness. Happiness is a confused notion, basically it relies on the subject’s inability or unreadiness to fully confront the consequences of his / her / their desire. In our daily lives, we pretend to desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately the worst thing that can happen is to get what we officially desire. So, I agree that human life of freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness, no matter how much we spiritualise it, or in the effort to actualise our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival. However, I would like to add here a couple of qualifications.

First, since we live in a modern era, we cannot simply refer to an unquestionable authority to confer a mission or task on us. Modernity means that yes, we should carry the burden, but the main burden is freedom itself. We are responsible for our burdens. Not only are we not allowed cheap excuses for not doing our duty, duty itself should not serve as an excuse. We are never just instruments of some higher cause. Once traditional authority loses its substantial power, it is not possible to return to it. All such returns are today a post-modern fake. Does Donald Trump stand for traditional values? No – his conservatism is a post-modern performance, a gigantic ego trip. In this sense of playing with traditional values of mixing references to them with open obscenities, Trump is the ultimate post-modern president. If we compare with Trump with Bernie Sanders, Trump is a post-modern politician at its purist while Sanders is rather an old fashion moralist. Conservative thinkers claim that the origin of our crisis is the loss of our reliance on some transcendent divinity. If we are left to ourselves, if everything is historically conditioned and relative, then there is nothing preventing us from indulging in our lowest tendencies. But is this really the lesson to be learned from mob killing, looting and burning on behalf of religion? It is often claimed that true or not that religion makes some otherwise bad people do good things. From today’s experience, we should rather speak to Steven Weinberg’s claim that while without religion good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things. More than a century ago in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism – if god doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosophy André Glucksmann applied Dostoyevsky’s critique of godless nihilism to September 11 and the title of his book, ‘Dostoyevsky in Manhattan’ suggests that he couldn’t have been more wrong. The lesson of today’s terrorism is that if there is a god then everything – even blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders – is permitted to those who claim to act directly on behalf of god. The same goes also from godless, Stalinist Communists – they are the ultimate proof of it. Everything was permitted to them as they perceived themselves as direct instrument of their divinity – of historical necessity, as progress towards communism. That’s the big of ideologies – how to make good, decent people do horrible things.

Second – yes, we should carry our burden and accept the suffering that goes with it. But, a danger lurks here, that of a subtly reversal: don’t fall in love – that’s my position – with your suffering. Never presume that your suffering is in itself proof of your authenticity. A renunciation of pleasure can easily turn in pleasure of renunciation itself. For example, an example not from neo-conservatives. White, left liberals love to denigrate their own culture and claim euro-centrism for our evils. But, it is instantly clear how this self-denigration brings a profit of its own. Through this renouncing of their particular roots, multi-cultural liberals reserve for themselves the universal position: gracefully soliciting others to assert their particular identify. White, multi-culturalist liberals embody the lie of identity politics.

Next point. Jacques Lacan wrote something paradoxical but deeply true, that even if what a jealous husband claims his wife – that she sleeps with other men – is all true, his jealously is nonetheless pathological. The pathological element is the husbands need for jealousy as the only way for him to sustain his identity. Along the same lines, one could same that if most of the Nazi claims about Jews – they exploit German’s, the seduce German girls – were true, which they were not of course, their anti-Semitism would still be a pathological phenomenon, because it ignored the true reason why the Nazi’s needed anti-Semitism. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic whole of harmonic collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms. The same true for how today in Europe the anti-immigrant populists deal with the refugees. The cause of problems which are, I claim, immanent to today’s global capitalism, is projected onto an external intruder. Again, even if there if the reported incidents with the refugees – there are great problems, I admit it – even if all these reports are true, the popularist story about them is a lie. With anti-Semitism, we are approaching the topic of telling stories. Hitler was one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. In the 1920s many Germans experienced their situation as a confused mess. They didn’t understand what is happening to them with military defeat, economic crisis, what they perceived as moral decay, and so on. Hitler provided a story, a plot, which was precisely that of a Jewish plot: ‘we are in this mess because of the Jews’.

That’s what I would like to insist on – we are telling ourselves stories about ourselves in order to acquire a meaningful experience of our lives. However, this is not enough. One of the most stupid wisdoms – and they’re mostly stupid – is ‘An enemy is just a story whose story you have not heard’. Really? Are you also ready to affirm that Hitler was our enemy because his story was not heard? The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, in order to account for what we are doing is – and this is what I call ideology – fundamentally a lie. The truth lies outside in what we do. In a similar way, the Alt-Right obsession with cultural Marxism expresses the rejection to confront that phenomenon they criticise as the attack of the cultural Marxist plot – moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism, and so on – are the outcomes of the immanent dynamic of capitalist societies. I would like to refer to a classic – Daniel Bell, Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism – written back in 1976, where the author argues that the unbounded drive of modern capitalism undermines the moral foundations of the original protestant ethics. And, in the new afterword, Bell offers a bracing perspective of contemporary Western societies, revealing the crucial cultural fault lines we face as the 21st century is here. The turn towards culture as a key component of capitalist reproduction and concurrent to it the commodification of cultural life itself are I think crucial moments of capitalism expanded reproduction. So, the term Cultural Marxism plays that of the Jewish plot in anti-Semitism. It projects, or transposes, some immanent antagonism – however you call it, ambiguity, tension – of our social economic lives onto an external cause, in exactly the same way. Now, let me give you a more problematic example – in exactly the same way, liberal critics of Trump and alt-right never seriously ask how our liberal society could give birth to Trump. In this sense, the image of Donald Trump is also a fetish, the last thing a liberal sees before confronting actual social tensions. Hegel’s motto – ‘Evil resides in the gaze which sees evil everywhere’ – fully applies here. The very liberal gaze with demonizes Trump is also evil because it ignores how its own failures opened up the space for Trump’s type of patriotic populism.

Next point – one should stop blaming hedonist egotism for our woes. The true opposite of egotist self-love is not altruism – a concern for the common good – but envy, resentment, which makes me act against my own interests. This is why as many perspicuous philosophers clearly saw, evil is profoundly spiritual, in some sense more spiritual than goodness. This is why egalitarianism itself should never be accepted at its face value. It can well secretly invert the standard renunciation accomplished to benefit others. Egalitarianism often de facto means, ‘I am ready to renounce something so that others will also not have it’. This is I think – now comes the problematic part for some of you maybe – the problem with political correctness. What appears as its excesses – its regulatory zeal – is I think an impotent reaction that masks the reality of a defeat. My hero is here a black lady, Tarana Burke, who created the #MeToo campaign more than a decade ago. She observed in a recent critical note that in the years since the movement began it deployed an unwavering obsession with the perpetrators. MeToo is all too often a genuine protest filtered through resentment. Should we then drop egalitarianism? No. Equality can also mean – and that’s the equality I advocate – creating the space for as many as possible individuals to develop their different potentials. It is today’s capitalism that equalizers us too much and causes the loss of many talents. So, what about the balance equality and hierarchy? Did we really move too much in the direction of equality? Is there, in today’s United States, really too much equality? I think a simple overview of the situation points in the opposite direction. Far from pushing us too far, the Left is gradually losing its ground already for decades. Its trademarks – universal health care, free education, and so on – are continually diminished. Look at Bernie Sanders program. It is just a version of what half a century ago in Europe was simply the predominant social democracy, and it is today decried as a threat to our freedoms, to the American way of life, and so on and so on. I can see no threat to free creativity in this program – on the contrary, I saw health care and education and so on as enabling me to focus my life on important creative issues. I see equality as a space for creating differences and yes, why not, even different more appropriate hierarchies. Furthermore, I find it very hard to ground todays inequalities as they are documented for example by Piketty in his book to ground todays inequalities in different competencies. Competencies for what? In totalitarian states, competencies are determined politically. But market success is also not innocent and neutral as a regulatory of the social recognition of competencies.

Let me now briefly deal with in a friendly way I claim with what became known – sorry for the irony – as the lobster topic. I’m far from a simple social constructionism here. I deeply appreciate evolutionary talk. Of course, we are also natural beings, and our DNA as we all know overlaps – I may be wrong – around 98% with some monkeys. This means something, but nature I think – we should never forget this – is not a stable hierarchical system but full of improvisations. It develops like French cuisine. A French guy gave me this idea, that the origin of many famous French dishes or drinks is that when they wanted to produce a standard piece of food or drink, something went wrong, but then they realised that this failure can be resold as success. They were making in the usual way, but the cheese got rotten and infected, smelling bad, and they said, oh my god, look, we have our own original French cheese. Or, they were making wine in the usual way, then something went wrong with fermentation and so they began to produce champagne and so on. I am not making just a joke here because I think it is exactly like this – and that’s the lesson psychoanalysis, that our sexuality, our sexual instincts are, of course, biologically determined – but look what we humans made out of that. They are not limited to the mating season. They can develop into a permanent obsession sustained by obstacles that demand to be overcome – in short, into a properly metaphysical passion that preserves the biologically rhythm, like endlessly prolonging satisfaction in courtly love, engaging in different perversions and so on and so on. So, it’s still ‘yes’, biologically conditioned sexuality, but it is – if I may use this term – transfunctionalised, it becomes a moment of a different cultural logic. And I claim the same goes for tradition. T. S. Eliot, the great conservative, wrote, quote – ‘what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the work of art which preceded it. The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past’ – end of quote. What does this mean? Let me mention the change enacted by Christianity. It’s not just that in spite of all our natural and cultural differences the same divine sparks dwells in everyone. But this divine spark enables us to create what Christian’s call ‘holy ghost’ or ‘holy spirit’ – a community which hierarchic family values are at some level, at least, abolished. Remember Paul’s words from Galatians – ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female in Christ’. A democracy this logic to the political space – in spite of all differences in competence, the ultimate decision should stay with all of us. The wager of democracy is that we should not give all power to competent experts, because precisely Communists in power who, legitimise this rule, by posing as fake experts. And, incidentally I’m far from believing in ordinary people’s wisdom. We often need a master figure to push us out an inertia and, I’m not afraid to say, that forces us to be free. Freedom and responsibility hurt – they require an effort, and the highest function of an authentic master is to literally to awake in us to our freedom. We are spontaneously really free. Furthermore, I think that social power and authority cannot be directly grounded in competence. In our human universe, power, in the sense of exerting authority, is something much more mysterious, even irrational. Kierkegaard, mine and everybody’s favourite theologist, wrote – ‘If a child says he will obey his father because his father is a competent and good guy, this is an affront to father’s authority’. And here applies the same logic to Christ himself. Christ was justified by the fact of being God’s son not by his competencies or capacities, as Kierkegaard put it – ‘Every good student of theology can put things better than Christ’. If there is no such authority in nature, lobster’s may have hierarchy, undoubtedly, but the main guy among them does not have authority in this sense. Again, the wager of democracy is that – and that’s the subtle thing – not against competence and so on, but that political power and competence or expertise should be kept apart. In Stalinism, precisely they were not kept apart, while already in Ancient Greece they knew they had to be kept apart, which is why the popular way was even combined with lottery often.

So, where does Communism, just to conclude, where does Communism enter here? Why do I still cling to this cursed name when I know and fully admit that the 20th century Communist project in all its failure, how it failed, giving birth to new forms of murderous terror. Capitalism won, but today – and that’s my claim, we can debate about it – the question is, does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms that prevent its indefinite reproduction. I think there are such antagonisms. The threat of ecological catastrophe, the consequence of new techno-scientific developments, especially in biogenetics, and new forms of apartheid. All these antagonisms concern what Marx called ‘commons’ – the shared substance of our social being. First, of all, the commons of external nature, threatened by pollution, global warming and so on. Now, let me be precise here – I’m well aware uncertain analysis and projections are in this domain. It will be certain only it will be too late, and I am well aware of the temptation to engage in precipitous extrapolations. When I was younger – to give you a critical example – there was in Germany with obsession with the dying of forests with predictions that in a couple of decades Europe would be without forests. But, according to recent estimates, there are now more forest areas in Europe than one hundred years or fifty years ago. But there is nonetheless the prospect of a catastrophe here. Scientific data seems, to me at least, abundant enough. And we should act in a large scale, collective way. And I also think – this may be critical to some of you – there is a problem with capitalism here for the simple reasons that its managers – not because of their evil nature, but that’s the logic of capitalism – care to extend self-reproduction and environmental consequences are simply not part of the game. This is again not a moral reproach. Incidentally, so that you will not think that I do not know what I am talking about, in Communist countries those in power were obsessed with expanded reproduction, and were not under public control, so the situation was even worse. So, how to act? First by admitting we are in a deep mess. There is no simple democratic solution here. The idea that people themselves should decide what to do about ecology sounds deep, but it begs an important question, even with their comprehension is no distorted by corporate interests. What qualifies them to pass a judgement in such a delicate matter? Plus, the radical measures advocated by some ecologists can themselves trigger new catastrophes. Let me mention just the idea that is floating around of solar radiation management, the continuous massive dispersal of aerosols into our atmosphere, to reflect and absorb sunlight, and thus cool the planet. Can we even imagine how the fragile balance of our earth functions and in what unpredictable ways geo-engineering can disturb it? In such times of urgency, when we know we have to act but don’t know how to act, thinking is needed. Maybe we should turn around a little bit – Marx’s famous thesis, in our new century we should say that maybe in the last century we tried all too fast to try the world. The time has come to step back and interpret it.

The second threat, the commons of internal nature. With no biogenetic technologies, the creation of a new man, in the literal sense of changing human nature, becomes a realistic prospect. I mean primarily so called popularly neural-link, the direct link between our brain and digital machines, and then brains among themselves. This I think is the true game changed. The digitalisation of our brains opens up unheard of new possibilities of control. Directly sharing your experience with our beloved may appear attractive, but what about sharing them with an agency without you even knowing it?

Finally, the common space of humanity itself. We live in one and the same world which is more and more interconnected. But, nonetheless, deeply divided. So, how to react to this? The first and sadly predominate reaction is the one of protected self-enclosure – ‘The world out there is in a mess, let’s protect ourselves by all sorts of walls’. It seems that our countries are run relatively well, but is the mess the so-called rogue countries find themselves in not connected to how we interact with them? Take what is perhaps the ultimate rogue state – Congo. Warlords who rule provinces there are always dealing with Western companies, selling them minerals – where would our computers be without coltan from Congo? And what about foreign interventions in Iraq and Syria, or by our proxies like Saudi Arabia in Yemen? Here refugees are created. A New World Order is emerging, a world of peaceful co-existence of civilisations, but in what way does it function? Forced marriages and homophobia is ok, just as long as they are limited to another country which is otherwise fully included in the world market. This is how refugees are created. The second reaction is global capitalism with a human face – think about socially responsible corporate figures like Bill Gates and George Soros. They passionately support LGBT, they advocate charities and so on. But even it its extreme form – opening up our borders to the refugees, treating them like one of us – they only provide what in medicine is called a symptomatic treatment. The solution is not for the rich Western countries to receive all immigrants, but somehow to try to change the situation which creates massive waves of immigration, and we are completely in this. Is such a change a utopia? No. The true utopia is that we can survive without such a change. So, here I think – I know it’s provocative to call this a plea for communism, I do it a little bit to provoke things – but what is needed is nonetheless in all these fears I claim – ecology, digital control, unity of the world – a capitalist market which does great things, I admit it, has to be somehow limited, regulated and so on. Before you say, ‘it’s a utopia’, I will tell you – just think about in what way the market already functions today. I always thought that neoliberalism is a fake term. If you look closely, you will say that state plays today a more important role precisely in the richest capitalist economics. So, you know the market is already limited but not in the right way, to put it naively.

So, a pessimist conclusion, what will happen? In spite of protests here and there, we will probably continue to slide towards some kind of apocalypse, awaiting large catastrophes to awaken us. So, I don’t accept any cheap optimism. When somebody tries to convince me, ‘in spite of all these problems, there is a light at the end of the tunnel’, my instant reply is, ‘Yes, and it’s another train coming towards us’.

Thank you very much.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *