Why There Are No Viable Political Alternatives to Unbridled Capitalism

[Transcript below video.]

Zizek: 'In Europe we didn't yet fully accept the fact that the 20th century is over.' Click To TweetI still believe in the saying of this old Frankfurt School fellow traveler Marxist Walter Benjamin who said that behind every rise of fascism there is a failed revolution. I think that even if we strategically, I’m not sure about it, accept this term Islam0-fascism for Islamic fundamentalists, this so called Islamic fundamentalism is strictly relative with the disintegration of secular Islamic left, which was pretty strong in the ’50s, ’60s and so on, but then began to disintegrate. So I think we shouldn’t be too fascinated with this phenomenon. We should rather ask what happened with the left. I think this phenomenon of right wing populism are strictly the obverse of something that did not happen. They didn’t just happen, they happened because something else didn’t happen. Because the left didn’t provide a proper answer. And that’s for me the true tragedy today. On the one hand we are entering a period, and we are already in this period for almost ten years, where rage, discontent are exploding everywhere, even in our Western countries. Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Europe, the demonstrations in France, Greece and so on. On the other hand it is as if the left, even if it succeeds in, sometimes not always, in recapturing the energy of this rage cannot really offer a new political model that would be not only seductive enough to mobilize millions of people, but even in itself it doesn’t have enough consistency.

What I’m saying is this, in Europe we didn’t yet fully accept the fact that the 20th century is over. By this I mean the following: the 20th century left, which had basically three strands / orientations – Stalinist communism, that’s over. Not only it’s over, in a beautiful irony where ex-communists are still in power they are mostly the most efficient agents of the most ruthless new liberal global capitalism. Do you know what I mean? If you want to be a successful capitalist today don’t go to Western Europe, go to China where every Chinese will tell you the main function, almost, of the communist party is to prevent the formation of an independent working movement trade unions to keep workers under control. Vietnam the same story and so on. So, old Stalinism is no longer operative. Unfortunately because of the change economic situation and so on, also we don’t have new social democracy. Social democracy in the sense of the old welfare state, it simply belongs to another era. It would have to be radically reinvented, it didn’t happen. Which is why, unfortunately, some even right wing analysts who claim that social democracy where it still exists is today the greatest conservative force. In a way tragically they are right because almost all the struggles of social democracy today is to keep the old rights, you know, ‘no they will not take from us, I don’t know, health insurance’ or whatever. Like to stick to the rights which were gained 30/40 years ago. Now of course I absolutely sympathize with it, but so many things are happening. Can you even imagine how our lives at all levels were revolutionized through digitalization, through new forms of science, new forms of liberal capitalism? I don’t think that a simple return to old social democratic welfare state can work.

Then we have a third orientation subterranean one, which still is popular among some people. This idea of rejecting big state representation mechanism, political parties, state power and to opt for local democracy, transparent local communities managing their affairs. I also think that we have to drop this last dream. It doesn’t work. It’s good when it happens, but if nothing else, today’s problems are global problems in a much more radical sense. Think about what is happening with capitalism. I know works which are popular at least in Europe Jeremiah Rifkin, Paul Mason, this idea which I find wonderfully attractive, although I think they’re simply fighting a little bit too much. Namely what is happening today with digitalization, biogenetics and so on, is almost a new beautiful example of the most orthodox Marxism, you know, when they say with the development of productive forces a new situation emerges where old relations production no longer can cope with … isn’t this happening today? Everybody knows even, the how is that guy called from Tesla boss Elon Musk or what, he said recently private property will no longer work. We will have to introduce some kind of citizens general income plus government will have to pay for it. So everybody knows that, at least the way we know it the model of capitalism is reaching its limits. On the one hand with so-called cooperative commons, free circulation and so on, it’s over. The market economy is approaching its limit. Of course, there are attempts, even very successful, to re-privatize, re-take over again these commons. For example, Internet, ideal place of commons, we all communicate and so on, but you know you have Facebook controlling private communication, if you want to buy books and so on all this it’s controlled intellectual exchanges by Amazon.com, just name them, software controlled by Microsoft and so on. But nonetheless, it’s clear that capitalism is approaching a limit.

Okay, but I don’t believe in this simplistic answer where they say oh this is this self-organization without central power and so on and so on. No, I think the big task today is precisely to reinvent large-scale, very strong social political agents / structures with strong authority. Just think, for example, about biogenetics. Tremendous things are happening today. We really are on the edge of creating a new man like reconstructing through biogenetic interventions our genetics and so on. Who will control this? Should these be privatized and so on? Intellectual property, everybody knows it’s a mess, it’s ridiculous how big companies try to control it. Ecology, it’s no longer this individualist approach which is very intelligently supported, I hope you noted this, by big companies and state apparatuses, the way to divest us or redirect us from really approaching the big problems by addressing us as individuals, responsible individuals – like let’s say, simply by situation, you criticize big companies for polluting environment and a typical ideologist today would tell you, ‘But what did you do? Who are you to criticize it? Did you recycle all your Coke cans? Did you put all newspaper aside?’ and so on and so on… And this works wonderful. It redirects your attention to yourself and then it makes you feel guilty. At the same time it offers you an easy way out, redirect, buy organic food and so on and you can go on living the way you are.

So back to the main points so I don’t lose myself, it’s clear that we are approaching different levels a critical moment. And … But the left, and this should be the natural terrain traditionally of the left. The left was thriving in such critical moments. Now, let’s be frank, it doesn’t have a solution. Let me give you a metaphor that I always like to use for this. I hope our viewers have seen a movie I think about ten years ago it was popular V for Vendetta (video, book). I will not go into the story. The point is that at the end there is a revolution in England, imagine England, the crowd breaks through the police barrier penetrates the British Parliament; the people take over and the end of the film. My idea is that, sorry for this vulgar expression but it expresses precisely how I feel, I would like to see – I would sell my mother into slavery to see a movie called V for Vendetta Part II. Okay guys, people took over. What would they have done a day later? How would they re-organize the power? The same stage how would they restructure the power?

This gap becomes like you could have touched it. It becomes so obvious with SYRIZA government, big populous , they want referendum. No. A day later as you know, literally almost a day later, they capitulated; they make a deal with the European Union. Now for me it’s too easy to criticize them traitors; they betrayed it. What could they have done? Give me – except from these empty phrases of we need more true democracy; people’s voice should be heard, what does this mean? This is nonsense. Here I disagree softly with my otherwise good friend I admire him, Yannis Varoufakis, with his idea of DiEM democratize Europe. I always am telling him: let’s take these two cases how they dealt with the European Union, I mean the Greek state and immigrants. But if the European Union were to be more transparent in the sense of democratically controlled, but in the simple sense of more acting in accordance to the will of the majority, refugees would have been treated in a much worse way. A big majority today in Europe, of people, I wouldn’t say how big majority, but clearly a majority are against any new immigrants and so on. In this sense I write this about in the book how this was a very simple but efficient right wing criticism of Angela Merkel, ‘where is her sense of democracy?’ She invited one million immigrants to enter Germany. Who legitimized her in doing this? I am on her side but in a very precise sense. I think we should take this very painful lesson, the majority is not automatically right. Now, I’m not saying there should be a communist party which is always right. I’m just saying that a certain dose of healthy mistrust of, not democracy as such, but will of the majority is for me totally legitimate. People quite often are not right. And I think Angela Merkel did something that great politicians do. You enforce a measure, knowing that the majority is against it, hoping that if you have enough time to enforce this measure, retroactively through its success it will become acceptable to the majority, but you have to take the risk.

Zizek: 'the ultimate cause of all this populism is that the left doesn't have a model' Click To TweetSo, back to my big problem, I think that the ultimate cause of all this populism and so on is the simple fact that we live in an era of great dissatisfaction rage and so on, but the left doesn’t have a model. It’s all empty phrases – ‘people should decide more through democracy,’ blah, blah, blah. But what does it mean? Like, what to do? How to re-organize the state? Because the big problem is this one, of course. It’s still the old Fukuyama problem I claim. You know Francis Fukuyama, have forgotten today, and I don’t agree with him, but he was onto something. In what sense? Even today the majority of the politicians, even the leftists, are Fukuyamaists – in what sense? They think that liberal democratic capitalism is the ultimate form and all we can do is to render it better, you know, more health service, more tolerance whatever you want, more welfare. But the basic model is accepted. No one is asking the questions that people were asking 40/50 years ago – like is capitalism the ultimate answer? Can we imagine social organization beyond state and so on and so on? So that’s for me the big problem: is this let’s call it enlightened social democratic Fukuyamaism, like what Tony Blair stood for in the United Kingdom? Is this enough or is something more radical needed? I think it is, not that I believe in any communist revolution or whatever, but simply I think that the problems we are facing cannot be resolved at this level. So, that’s my sad prediction. Either a new form of the left will be reinvented, or, here is my simple but I love it answer, or look at Hollywood, I always trust Hollywood. Hollywood is warning us all the time Hunger Games, Elysium and so on. That’s the society we are approaching. Twenty percent of people live in the privileged zone, the majority is out. That’s the future.

[Appeared on Big Think on November 27th 2016. Transcript adapted by Ippolit Belinski.]