Leftist intellectuals basically fall into two camps. There are those who believe that the challenge we face is the existence of certain structures (the IMF, the US, the media, capitalism, etc.) and that avidly denouncing these structures is the key to our liberation. And then there are the more interesting intellectuals who insist that at least as important are problems internal to the Left. Slavoj Zizek is among the latter. Over the last fifteen years, his prominence in global intellectual life has steadily ascended. However, it has never been clear how much attention is paid to his work by people on the political Left, as opposed to the artists, professors, and grad students who cluster around the word “theory.” He writes from a sometimes obscure Lacanian perspective, and while Lacan has been very important to the theory crowd, it can’t be said that many left tendencies pay him much mind.
Zizek’s latest book, In Defense of Lost Causes, is among his most forthrightly political interventions. The “lost causes” he seeks to defend include the seizure of state power, the radical transformation of the world, and the use of the concept of “truth” in politics. His nemeses throughout the book are those liberal and anarchist intellectuals who suggest such goals are totalitarian, self-defeating, out-dated, etc. They instead propose multiple sites of resistance or “autonomy,” peppering the state with unrealistic demands, and generally adopting a permanently oppositional stance that takes for granted the persistence of those very structures they condemn (or reform so as to reinforce in the case of many liberals).
At the very least, reading In Defense of Lost Causes will likely sharpen the thinking of leftists sympathetically inclined to its perspective. It is also likely to provoke and frustrate; it is practically impossible to agree with everything Zizek says, since he sometimes contradicts himself from chapter and chapter. Furthermore, the work has a tendency to turn vague at key moments. Fairly typical in this sense is his chapter critiquing the political engagements of Foucault and Heidegger. Both based their commitments on far-reaching critiques of modernity: Heidegger, on the grounds that modern life had reduced humans to machines, Foucault, in opposition to the ever-encroaching micro-power of the modern state. The former joined the Nazi party, while the latter embraced the Iranian revolution. These examples are used by some as warnings about the perils of intellectuals engaging with politics. Rather than align oneself with such dangerous forces, intellectuals should either retreat into aestheticism or pursue safe causes like human rights. Zizek, on the other hand, defends their willingness to make political choices. He instead faults the choices they made. He claims that rather than being done in by radicalism, they were not radical enough. Although the Nazis employed some anti-modernist rhetoric, they were not interested in dramatically transforming German society in ways which would have addressed the phenomenon Heidegger called attention to. Foucault, on the other hand, conflated the event of the Iranian revolution, during which utopian efforts to remake social relations emerged, with the consolidation of the clerical regime in its aftermath. The audacity of Zizek’s position is deflated, however, by the fact that he never specifies what a sufficiently radical politics would have looked like in either circumstance.
This is the case elsewhere as well in a book where the argument that x was ultimately insufficiently radical is often made. The reader is left to wonder what exactly a more radical politics would consist of. A joke Zizek deploys at one point, that the Left is like that patient who sees a doctor who tells him that what he really needs to do is to see a good doctor, could as easily be turned against Zizek himself. Now that we know our politics are insufficiently radical, what exactly are we supposed to do? I thought this “not-radical-enough” critique was most effective in a throwaway line aimed at the “politically correct” forces in the US academy. There it surely was the case that fierce rhetoric obscured the modesty of changes actually being proposed — a few hires from a particular group, revisions to curricula or reading lists, a new vocabulary of public life. . . . For all the fiery denunciations of racism, sexism, etc., discussion of how to revise work, the state, economic life, and other core structures of society was foreclosed from the start. I was less clear about why Zizek felt that Stalinism and the Maoist cultural revolution also disguised their lack of radicalism through the extremity of their violence, particularly since he (correctly, I think) dismisses the dream of workers’ councils as a phantasmic double of Stalinism that no more survived 1989 than traditional communist parties.
Zizek critiques Simon Critchley for advocating a “infinitely demanding” politics, that is, trying to overload the state with desires it cannot fulfill. Since the demands clearly exceed the capacity of the state, the state can respond: it is commendable that the radical exists, that s/he acts as the conscience of the state, too bad these things can’t be achieved in the real world. . . . Zizek advocates the opposite: focused demands that the state must respond to. It is thus all the more striking that he is so vague about what those demands are. The same is true of his claim that it is often a small, incremental change that turns out to trigger far-reaching transformations (his examples include the US civil rights movement and Gorbachev’s Perestroika) while leaders who loudly proclaim the sweeping nature of their changes may actually reinforce the status quo. He doesn’t specify any relevant incremental changes to adopt today, although I was left wondering if Obama’s (now receding) promise that he would talk to the leader of Iran was not such an incremental change that might set off larger effects than anticipated. In an essay on populism, Zizek welcomes the no vote on the EU constitution. Notwithstanding the way this was often portrayed as a product of the fear of the future among much of the French population, Zizek instead identifies the fear in this context as being that of the ruling technocrats, stunned by the prospect of the possible return of political conflict. Yet he seems no clearer than the French (or European) Left as to what the content of that politics would be.
In the final essay, Zizek offers a surprisingly coherent picture of the current world and prospects for change. His analysis revolves around four factors: the slum dwellers, the new innovations of biogenetics, the environmental crisis, and the question of intellectual property. The slum dwellers (and he is thinking globally here) are, like Marx’s proletariat, “freed” from old ties and possessions and also exist in a state of not-so-benign neglect in relation to the states that rule them. The states have more or less abandoned any promise to improve their lot and regulate them only to a limited extent. Zizek identifies awakening the slum dwellers as the principal political task of the 21st century. He raises the possibility of an alliance between the slum dwellers and the progressive portion of the “new class” (media, health, technology, and other “knowledge” workers). As for questions posed by the new politics of biogenetics, he opposes any effort to simply call them to a halt to preserve conventional notions of humanity and nature. Instead, philosophical categories such as authenticity need to be rethought in light of the remarkable mutability of life that the technologies allow. The environmental crisis is the spectre that now haunts the world system, and he urges that the Left intervene so that it is not used as an excuse to preserve the current hierarchy of rich and poor countries by slowing the growth of India and China. Intellectual property poses the potential of a closure of the commons and the monopolization of knowledge by a handful of individuals. For Zizek, these vectors — two indicating the excluded (slum dwellers, environmental crisis), two the included (intellectual property, biogenetics), two referencing nature (biogenetics, environmental crisis), two the social (slum dwellers, intellectual property) — provide the terrain on which the left can intervene in the near future.
This picture helps illuminate aspects of the present situation, but I was surprised that someone willing to defend Marxist orthodoxy on some points would neglect some of the ways that tradition might clarify the present. Particularly striking is the absence of the “old-fashioned” working class and the concept of capitalist crisis. The old-fashioned working class consists of those whose work is regulated through legal contracts and who, typically, manage to escape the slums, but not by much. This is a huge portion of the workforce, now a little more in services and a little less in manufacturing than they used to be, but still quite relevant to the shape of future political battles. Surely the working class is at least as relevant as the “new class” as possible allies of the slum dwellers? Secondly, there is the question of a properly “capitalist” crisis. Zizek seems to have left the field of crisis entirely to the environment. Yet the concept of a crisis of capitalism remains relevant. Without going too far into sometimes scholastic debates, crisis theorists have often emphasized two points. One is underconsumption, where workers’ pay is kept down so low that they have few resources to purchase goods, thus frustrating efforts to sell stuff; and the other is overproduction, where profitable lines of industry tend to attract too many competitors, thus driving prices — and profits — down. Both remain relevant today. The underconsumption crisis has been provisionally resolved by making the US the consumer of last resort, through the extension of a seemingly endless line of credit. But the end of that line is now in sight. Meanwhile overproduction looms as numerous semi-peripheral states (China, Brazil, Russia, etc.) increase their exports. The capitalist crisis will likely intersect with the environmental crisis because declining profits make environmentally ill-advised investments more attractive (and increase pressure to frustrate state regulators). Recall the dust bowl that occurred in the US during the great depression. Similarly, capitalists will likely try to tighten intellectual property laws to assure profits and accelerate the production of biogenetic innovations, for better or worse, as they try to revive their profit rates.
Ultimately one does not read Zizek for a completely coherent, easily summarized vision of the world. He is instead at his best when he is provoking his readers to questions the clichés that make up our worldview — particularly those that issue from the Left. Zizek at one point invokes “Rumsfeld epistemology,” so named after the former Defense Secretary’s infamous statement about “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” Zizek notes that Rumsfeld forgot to mention unknown knowns, i.e. those beliefs which shape our views without our knowing they do. After reading this book, it is hard to shake the view that the unknown knowns for the current world Left include the conviction that nothing much can really be done to change the world and that the Left is fearful and uncertain about making the kinds of sacrifices or wielding the power that would be necessary to really change things. Is this not the case?
Steven Sherman maintains the website <lefteyeonbooks.org>.