Amy Goodman: Our next guest has been called “the Elvis of cultural theory,” widely considered to be one of Europe’s leading intellectuals. Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, cultural theorist. Born in Slovenia, he has written more than fifty books, speaks to sold-out audiences around the world. In 1990, he campaigned unsuccessfully to be president of Slovenia, the first Yugoslav republic to hold a free election.
He’s in New York right now to give a lecture tonight called “Resist, Attack, Undermine: Where Are We Forty Years After ’68?” The event opens this year’s Left Forum. Slavoj Žižek joins us here in the firehouse studio.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
Slavoj Žižek: Thank you very much. I am honored to be here.
Amy Goodman: When I asked you specifically how to pronounce your name, you said you’re nervous about people who pronounce it correctly.
Slavoj Žižek: Yes, because I —- no, but this is more a private trauma, like I don’t like to see myself. Whenever I see myself, like there on the screen, I’m tempted to adopt the position of an observer and ask myself, if I were to have a daughter, I would never allow that guy to take me to a movie theater. So -—
Amy Goodman: But you also said you would be concerned if it was pronounced exactly, that perhaps that person came from the police.
Slavoj Žižek: Yeah. Effectively, yeah, because only they really know. You know, this is at least my East European myth, that police are the ones who know.
Amy Goodman: This is a radio and a television and an internet show, broadcasting all at the same time. We showed, during Charlie Haden’s music break, coverage of Prague in ’68. This had an enormous influence on you. For an audience who would not even know what those two connections are — Prague ’68 — explain what happened. And where were you?
Slavoj Žižek: It’s like, by chance, I was very young at that point. I was in Prague. But OK, so that we don’t lose time — there is something really tragic about Prague ’68, namely — let’s be very frank, and it’s something very hard to swallow for a leftist. What if the Soviet intervention was a blessing in disguise? It saved the myth that if the Soviets were not to intervene, there would have been some flowering authentic democratic socialism and so on. I’m a little bit more of a pessimist there. I think that the Soviets — it’s a very sad lesson — by their intervention, saved the myth. Imagine no Soviet intervention. In that ideological constellation, it would have been either, sooner or later, just joining the West or, nonetheless, at a certain point, the government is still in power, would have to put the brakes. It’s always the same story. It’s the same in — now you see my conservative, skeptical leftist side.
It’s the same in China, Tiananmen. I will tell you something horrible. Imagine the Communists in power giving way to the demonstrators. I claim — it’s very sad things to say, but if Tiananmen demonstrations were to succeed, like the Communist Party allowing for true democratic reforms and so on, it would have been probably a chaos in China. No, I’m not saying now that we should opt for dictatorship or some kind of a strong arm as the only solution; just let’s not dwell in safe illusions.
I think all too often today’s left falls into this play, which is why they like to lose. And I think this is the original sin of the left, from the very beginning. I — and I still consider myself, I’m sorry to tell you, a Marxist and a Communist, but I couldn’t help noticing how all the best Marxist analyses are always analyses of a failure. They have this incredible — like, why did Paris Commune go wrong? Trotskyites. Why did the October Revolution go wrong? And so on. You know, this deep satisfaction — OK, we screwed it up, but we can give the best theory why it had to happen. I mean, this is what my title, the title of tonight’s talk, implicitly refers to, this comfortable position of resistance. Don’t mess with power. This is today’s slogan of the left. Don’t play with power. Power corrupts you. Resist, resist, withdraw and resist from a safe moralistic position. I found this very sad.
Amy Goodman: The second part of the topic, “Resist, Attack, Undermine: Where Are We Forty Years After ’68?” Talk about what you see as the pivotal moments in ‘68 and where we are in relation to them now.
Slavoj Žižek: It’s a very nice question. Why? Because precisely a propos ’68, I think, we can see how — I will use consciously — an outward ideological struggle is still going on. Struggle for what? ’68, it’s the same as right here, one or two weeks ago, a wonderful commentary on Martin Luther King, how every child knows here “I Have a Dream.” Almost nobody knows what was that dream. It wasn’t just racial equality. Martin Luther King moved way to the left later. That’s obliterated.
It’s the same with ’68. If you ask people today, what will you get? Ooh, that wonderful explosion of creativity, anti-bureaucratic, sexual liberation, and so on. That’s, for me, precisely the least interesting part of ’68. That’s the ’68 which was perfectly integrated into today’s ideology, self-expression and so on. So if you want to draw the line, one line from ’68, it is what, for me, as an old-fashioned guy who likes erotics but with love, is the nightmare. Today’s legacy of that ’68 is alive. And, you know, they have in California, and now it’s spreading to Europe, a terrible thing called masturbatathon. People gather, you masturbate publicly, you’re not allowed to touch the other, and, of course, each one has to pay some money, which goes to politically correct causes and so on. And the idea, it’s like self-expression: you are alone, but in a crowd. This kind of — this is what I don’t like.
But there is another ’68, where people — about which people don’t want to talk. The crucial moment, I remember, it went — something incredibly happened: students, thousands of them, demonstrating, establishing a link with workers. People tend to forget that France was in a general strike, that this wasn’t just a student demonstration. Everybody would have swallowed that. So that legacy of ’68 is worth saving. So it’s not simple nostalgia. If we indulge a simple nostalgia for ’68, it means sexual revolution and all that, so I will tell to those guys, “Go to masturbatathon. Leave me alone.” No? What — ’68 was a dream, and it failed, a dream of the possibility of these student protests reaching a wider audience.
Of course, the game is over. My dream is not “Let’s do it today in that way.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe there will be a working-class movement which will join with students. But there are still domains today, where what? Let me ask you briefly — sorry, answer you briefly. What’s the serious question today? I mean, it’s fashionable to make fun of Fukuyama now, “Ooh, that idiot who thought history is over.” But aren’t we all today de facto, even the leftists — what would be the adverb — Fukuyamaists? Basically, we believe — nobody asks the question, “Will capitalism stay? Will States stay?” We basically accept the frame.
Liberal democracy — as you know, in the old days, we were saying we want socialism with a human face. Today’s left effectively offers global capitalism with a human face, more tolerance, more rights and so on. So the question is, is this enough or not? Here I remain a Marxist: I think not. I see a series of, to use this ridiculous old-fashioned term, contradictions, or I would have said antagonisms, tensions, from ecology, intellectual copyrights, new slumps excluded, where I think in the long term the global capitalist system will not be able to cope with these tensions. Here is the true legacy of ’68.
Amy Goodman: And now we’re in 2008, and right here in this country, in the midst of this presidential race. I don’t know how long you’ve been in the United States right now, but you are —
Slavoj Žižek: No, but I follow you [inaudible]. It’s the talk of the world. This may amuse you. It’s going to — when I was asked by a academic journal to say if I were to hold the power for one day as president, what — and I would have kind of absolute power to introduce a law, what law that would have been? My immediate answer was not as some humanist suggested, since United States at least thinks they are a global empire, so let every adult in the world be allowed to vote; my advice would be the opposite one: let’s everybody in the world, except US citizens, be allowed to vote and elect the American government. I think it would have been much better for you, even, because we all outside the United States would project our desires into how you should be. I think it would have been better, so that only non-Americans vote for —- I know this is a nightmare from Pat Buchanan or somebody like that, but -—
Amy Goodman: And who do you think would win?
Slavoj Žižek: I think there would have been like left of Barack, if I may put it this way, no? It would have been probably not. But going seriously, no, of course, I am — my god, it’s stupid to say — for Barack and so on. But I see a tragedy here, because like let’s say he wins. What will he do? The tragedy of today’s left is what? It’s always the same story. Lula in Brazil, Mandela even. The good guy wins, we are enthusiastic, then you have around two years usually of period of grace, and then you have really to decide — do you play with global capitalism, or do you want to mess with it?
With this, I am not saying it doesn’t matter. Barack Obama can do things. There are many important gestures, like Guantanamo, stop with these waterboarding jokes, open relations with Cuba, recognize this would be incredibly important, recognize the Hague international tribunal. I will tell you from my European perspective, this was perceived in Europe as the worst, let’s say, ethical, political catastrophe of the United States. First they push for international court, then they sabotage it. People ask today, why are such crazy nationalists in Serbia? I’ll tell you. I spoke with them. They told me, first, United States push — they are still — sorry, I will be very brief —- putting pressure on us, deliver Milosevic, Karadzic, all the criminals to Hague. Then, the same people, time and -—
Amy Goodman: Ten seconds.
Slavoj Žižek: Yeah. And sign the non-extradition treaty. So you are digging your own grave.
Amy Goodman: Slavoj Žižek, I have to break right now, but we’re going to continue our discussion, and we will broadcast this this week, part two. Slavoj Žižek is our guest, leading European intellectual, speaking at the CUNY Grad Center tonight. Part two of our discussion in the next few days.
[Appeared on Democracy Now! on March 11th 2008.]