Question: What relationship, if any, do you think your work has to the mainstream, normative, liberal political philosophy done in English and American universities?
Zizek: I noticed something — maybe I’m just generalising this; I don’t know to what extent this is a rule– I noticed how many of the people who consider themselves to be more radical than the liberal standard, the left-liberal standard, most of them do not work in political philosophy properly but, as it were, hide themselves as literary critics or philosophers. It’s as if it’s an excess which requires you to change genre. Another tendency of these “radicals” is moralization connected with legalization. It’s a certain pose in which they want to deliver the message that they are really more radical. But this excess of radicality only concretely articulates itself in some kind of a general moralistic outrage — “what are we doing to immigrants?!” I think they often tend to be a little bit hypocritical. I always read the liberal anti-communists, liberal leftists – they’re interesting, one can learn from them. I read a wonderful essay by Orwell from 1938. There he has a wonderful analysis of the typical leftist liberal. He says they ask for a change, but they do it in a hypocritical way: they ask for a change but it’s almost as if to make sure that no real change will happen.
Don’t you suspect a little bit that there’s something of this in today’s typical radical liberal – in today’s anti-immigrant campaign for instance? The standard idea is to say, like my friend Alain Badiou in France, “those who are here are from here”. That is to say, no check for roots, open to all of them. Legalize everything. The problem is that they know very well that this radical opening will never happen. So it’s very easy to have a radical position which costs you nothing and for the price of nothing it gives you some kind of moral superiority. It also enables them to avoid the truly difficult questions. For example, my conflict with my radical leftist friends is when they want total openness and so on. I say to them, are you aware that anti-immigrant are mostly spontaneous, lower working-class attitudes? They talk as if some big imperialist power centre decides to be against immigrants. No! If anything, capital is more liberal about immigrants. So, I think this is not a good thing – I think of all these theorists, like Giddens and Held, who are left-wing, but left within the establishment …
Question: Arendt thought political participation was an intrinsic good didn’t she?
Zizek: The problem I have with her is that she dismissed the economy as the space of truth, so to speak. For her, the economy was just utilitarian stuff. The authentic big politics doesn’t happen there for her. But we need what Marx called a political economy. You know the basic Marxist insight that politics is not just politics – politics is in the economy. We should rehabilitate this. Isn’t this becoming clear? And here’s somewhere else where I don’t agree with many leftists: you know this Toni Negri mantra – “Empire”, nation states no longer matter and so on. It’s crazy. If there is a lesson from so-called postmodern, post-68 capitalism, it’s that the regulatory role of the state is getting stronger. So much for this stupid story, the state disappearing etc. Not true! More and more if you want to have a company today, you have to be so deeply entwined with the state apparatus.
This is was the point of my big fight with Simon Critchley. I think it’s too easy to play this moralistic game – state power is corrupted, so let’s withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power. Here, I’m an old Hegelian. I hate the position of “beautiful soul”, which is: “”I remain outside, in a safe place; I don’t want to dirty my hands.” In this ironic sense, I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. That’s what I miss in today’s left. When you get power, if you can, grab it, even if it is a desperate situation. Do whatever is possible. This is why I supported – ok, my support doesn’t mean anything, but as a public gesture- Obama. I think the battle that he is fighting now for healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The real core of the anti-Obama campaign is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is how freedom of choice is something beautiful, but works only against a very thick background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. This is the problem. As I like to emphasise here in the States, there are freedoms of choice which I am glad to renounce. I like to do a parallel between healthcare and water and electricity. Yes, you can say I don’t have a choice in choosing my water provider. It’s imposed by where I live. But, my god, I gladly renounce this choice. I prefer to have some basic choices made by society – water, electricity, and some elementary healthcare. This precisely opens up the choice, opens up the freedom for other choices. Another important thing, and here I agree with that great British sceptic, John Gray (I don’t agree with his conclusions), who says today we are forced to live “as if” we are free. We are all the time bombarded choices -and he’s not making the old, boring Marxist point that these are inessential choices. No, the point is rather that you are obliged to choose without even having the background qualification to make the choice.
My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of a blow will made against this freedom of choice ideology, it will be a great victory worth having fought for.
Question: Let’s talk about the left’s response to the financial crisis. The left has consoled itself with the idea that this crisis is some grand ideological opportunity. Whereas you write that the main victim of the crisis will not be capitalism but the left itself.
Zizek: Yes. In the long term, it will work as yet another shock therapy, in the Naomi Klein sense. A kind of shattering of the system which, in the long run, will help make capitalism leaner and meaner. The battle is not lost in advance, however. In the US, for example, what is important is to make acceptable the idea of large, collective actions. We should make this idea acceptable. I’m not saying everything is lost. It’s an open battle. Let’s not be seduced by the simple idea that this is a crisis and we can use this opportunity to impose our agenda. When the economy is in crisis, the first reaction of the people is to cling to their fundamental principles. So you get this renewed social-demoractic welfarism in the US – Krugman, Stiglitz etc. But at the same time, there was an explosion of interest in Ayn Rand. So, it’s a battle and we should be aware that battles are always difficult. The only serious true serious proposal that we know about is, on the one hand this Krugman-Stiglitz leftist Keynesianism, and on the other this idea, popularised in Europe and latin America, of basic income. I like it as an idea but I think it’s too much of an ideological utopia. For structural reasons, it can’t work. It’s the last desperate attempt to make capitalism work for socialist ends. The guy who developed it, Robert Van Parijs,1 openly says that this is the only way to legitimise capitalism. Apart from these two, I don’t see anything else.
Question: Van Parijs is associated, as you know, with analytical Marxism. And I was wondering what you make of that strain of Marxist theory?
Zizek: I know some British guys and I had a debate with them. It’s the same problem with John Rawls. Rawls himself, when he was confronted with his critics, admitted one thing: that his model of distributive justice, the difference principle etc, works on one fateful condition: that there is no resentment. That is to say, given the way we are libidinally structured in modern societies, envy and resentment are crucial. Rawls doesn’t take into account the irrationality of envy. Capitalism takes much better of it. Although these analytical Marxists want to be “no-bullshit” analysts, the ultimate image of human being it is based on is way too naïve and utopian. I don’t think the socialist project can be reduced to this. But nonetheless I claim that in capitalist relations today, envy is crucial. Never underestimate the power of envy. This is a psychoanalytic insight.
Question: I want to ask you finally about what you follow Alain Badiou in calling the “Communist Hypothesis”. You say that the great barrier to the realisation of that hypothesis being the problem of agency. Do you see a new revolutionary agent actor on the horizon?
Zizek: No, no. But let me clearly define to you the limits of my communism. My problem with Badious is that he totally dismisses the economy as a site of political struggle. The only real question for me is very simple: was Fukuyama right or not? That is to say, do we have today antagonisms which, in the long term, can be resolved or at least coped with within the liberal-democratic, capitalist frame. This is the question. The way I see it, unfortunately, is that all the problems that we have -ecological catastrophe, problems of intellectual property and so on- can be solved within the liberal-capitalist framework. This era is slowly coming to an end. The problem for me is that if we don’t want to end up in some kind of neo-authoritarian society, in which we’ll have all our private freedoms (you can have sex with animals and so on), but in which the social space will be depoliticized and much more authoritarian – here we should make a pact with liberals. Only a more fundamental questioning of our society can save us. It’s clear that we are approaching some kind of apocalyptic zero-point. So, no, I don’t see any immediate agent. I see tendencies of proletarianization. By proletarianization I mean people being reduced almost to a kind of Cartesian zero-level – you are a free agent but deprived of substance. Then it’s a question of coalitions, how to do it. My unconditional insight is that we will be pushed into a situation where we will have to make a choice: either we do something or we are slowly approaching a society I’m not sure I’d like to live in.
[Extract. Appeared in New Statesman, on October 29th 2009.]