This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why The Handmaid’s Tale is “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch the full event here.
Read the full transcript
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Before you begin, one thing. Let me express my admiration for Tyler. I am a strange Communist like Marx, who said that one can learn more from a conservative like Balzac than from all progressives about economy. I think that our only true partners, the true leftists today, are modest, intelligent, honest skeptics. Conservatives.
This morning, he provided the best — I’m grateful for it — the best definition of myself. He told me that he considers me a moderate conservative Communist. My gratitude to you. Thank you.
TYLER COWEN: I would like to pursue this theme. Thank you for your remarks. The assigned topic was “why I am still a Communist.” I think, in fact, what you argued was “why I am no longer a Communist,” and you can be thought of as favoring a kind of social democracy with more effort directed at climate change. But before we get to psychoanalyzing you, let me start with a simple factual question.
COWEN: You cite China as the biggest success story of Communism. But is it so successful? It has, right now, the per capita income pretty much exactly equal to Mexico — not so impressive.
COWEN: If you look at capitalist Taiwan, it has the per capita income of France, single-payer health insurance, gay marriage. It’s a complete liberal democracy. Life there is very nice. Furthermore, the last 30 years, the air in Taiwan has become much cleaner, and the air in China has become much dirtier.
So why isn’t China the failure, Taiwan the success? And yes, it’s a vote for capitalism, not Communism.
ŽIŽEK: Yeah, you’re really asking me that question. Okay.
COWEN: Yes. That’s your question.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, okay, okay. No, no, first, if you compare China 50 years ago, the difference is still absolutely shocking. Look at Shanghai, Beijing today, and so on. Second point, forget about per capita. Compare prices and so on, and you will see that today’s China — the standard of living of middle classes, at least in the developed part. Numbers at this level don’t tell a lot. But at one point, I agree with you, that in the long term, this whatever we call it, Chinese authoritarian capitalism or whatever we call it, will not work, I think.
COWEN: And China has put over a million people in concentration camps. Their labor force is already shrinking. Rate of growth is falling. So you are, in fact, a moderate right, pro-Taiwan Communist. Yes?
ŽIŽEK: No, but . . . Okay, can I briefly answer you very honestly?
ŽIŽEK: I see all your points. I agree with them, but my point is this one, nonetheless, and now I want to ask you, if I may, a question.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, I know we exaggerate, and I’m well aware of . . . I emphasized it, do you remember? How easy it is to fall into this fascination by catastrophic prospect. Do you remember? No, you are not old enough. I am. Some of you must. Around 30, 40 years ago, most of Europe, especially Germany —
COWEN: I remember very well.
ŽIŽEK: — was obsessed by Waldsterben — the dying of forests.
COWEN: Yeah, I lived in Germany then.
ŽIŽEK: And I remember the cover of Spiegel—they demonstrated exactly with statistics that 40, 50 years after that time — today — Europe will be without forests. I’m sad to tell you, but according to some statistics, today there are more forests in the world than in any point in last 100 years, so I’m over-aware of this fascination of catastrophe. Nonetheless, I think — and you can deny it; I will not — when we Communists take over, you will go to Gulag but for different reasons.
COWEN: Where will you go?
ŽIŽEK: You know why I’m glad to talk with him? In today’s politically correct climate, in typical Western academic institution, you cannot talk like that, you know? I nonetheless see these threats, and I could go on indefinitely, like digital control and so on. Things are serious there — the extent to which we are manipulated already, and so on.
Ecology, immigration, and did you notice? I’m not a simple humanitarian there. I just don’t share this simple optimism — open our hearts, and what? All the poor will move to Europe and whatever. Very simple question. I will try to cut myself short. These three domains that I outlined — I think, at least in long term, they need a more radical . . . something will have to happen.
Probably you don’t agree. Do you see them as serious threats? Are you still a Fukuyama-ist, in the sense of we just make a system function a little bit better? I am skeptical there.
COWEN: The threats you mentioned, I see all as serious, but ecology — keep in mind, the Communist nations were the worst polluters —
ŽIŽEK: The worst.
COWEN: — and still are.
COWEN: Surveillance — the worst culprits, China, right? Not a fully Communist nation, but nonetheless, surveillance is worst in China. If you’re worried about genetic engineering and the reshaping of mankind, biggest offender is likely to be China, not the capitalist West.
ŽIŽEK: I even know — it may surprise you — the exact data. I was shown by a friend in suburb of Shanghai, already clinics . . . I will not lose too much time. This will interest you.
ŽIŽEK: I met years ago, in Frankfurt Book Fair, one high guy from Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he gave me, printed in English, the short program, programmatic note. And it says — it shocked me, literally — “The goal of biogenetics in China is to regulate physical and psychic health of the Chinese nation.” They are directly doing it. What I only don’t like is, don’t just evoke China as this ultimate horror. We are basically doing the same, I think.
COWEN: Let me now get to my theory of you. There’s an old interview I read with you, and I found this passage quite striking — and sympathetic, I should add. “The movies I watch are often old Stalinist movies. The songs that I listen to are old Communist songs . . . I fully admit it, but it is also my pleasure.”
Now, also, you’re from Slovenia, you’re from the Balkans. That part of the world has not developed ideally. There are far-right parties in many places. There’s been war. The Balkans are still a disappointment.
So there’s a negative outlook on the world you’re from, and I view your attachment to the Communist label as a kind of nostalgia, like the old Stalinist songs, which you don’t actually think are better than Beethoven. But it’s something like the old East German women who love their Spreewald pickles, the old cars, the Trabis.
And the Communist label, for you — it’s like your Spreewald pickles. It’s like the Trabi. Why not just cast it aside and live free? Why be so tied to your own nostalgia? That’s my question.
ŽIŽEK: Okay. My counterquestion is that obviously what I read today around . . . Nonetheless, I’m more of a pessimist. You see, we’re coming back to this basic dilemma.
COWEN: You need this nostalgia, right? Why not free yourself by jettisoning the nostalgia and take the next step? If I were your therapist, this is what I would be asking you to do.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, okay. Let’s go on. I don’t want to lose your time, but what really fascinates me in Stalinism is, if you look at it closely, how fascinated Stalinism was by America. For example, do you know, that’s why I like Soviet cinemas — the absolute model of Soviet cinema was Hollywood.
They had desperate plans in the ’30s to build on Crimea their own version of Hollywood. How they imitated Hollywood and so on and so on. I claim that even explicitly, when Stalin was asked, around 1930, his definition of a Bolshevik, he said, “The one which combines ration, dedication to a sacred cause, with American pragmatism, efficiency,” and so on, and so on.
But behind this what you call nostalgia is, for me, nonetheless much more pragmatic, if you want it. I’m the first to admit — maybe we share your opinion here — that’s my criticism, one of the criticisms of Frankfurt School, is they always repeat, “Look at Habermas, at his work.” He began publishing in early ’50s. Read all his work, and I don’t think you will even guess from his published texts that there is something like Communism in East Germany.
Frankfurt School, in a strange way, almost totally . . . I know there is Marcuse’s book Soviet Marxism, but it’s very specific. And you know what makes it so strange? The central thesis of late Frankfurt School is dialectic of enlightenment. Horrors of 20th century — fascism, Stalinism — are not simply regressions to some dark past. They are deployment of a certain totalitarian — whatever we call them — potentials in the project of modernity itself.
Okay. But isn’t Stalinism a much more traumatic example of this than fascism? With fascism, things are relatively simple, I think. It’s a model of conservative revolution and so on and so on. But Bolshevism, which tried to do a radical emancipation and it turned into a traumatic . . . Even today, we don’t have a good theory of Stalinism. That’s what bothers me, not any return to it.
I will give you — as a proof that it’s not, in this sense, nostalgia — I will give you another example. I have such a memory. I always tell my friends jokes about life in the army. I served in the mid ’70s in Yugoslav army. It was a nightmare, I know, but what fascinated me was, never did I learn so much about ideology and my politically correct fremdung.
For example, I wonder if some of you know . . . You don’t have here anymore military service in Norway. But basically, on the one hand, Yugoslav army was, as all armies probably, absolutely homophobic. You were gay, you were beaten by fellow soldiers every night, discreetly, before being thrown out.
But at the same time, corruption, absolutely corruption. The entire life was totally penetrated by homosexual innuendos, and so on. In my unit, we didn’t say, “Good morning”; we say, “I’ll smoke your prick.” “Thanks, and after, I finish with yours.” So you live these oldest paradoxes.
What fascinates me about ideology is — and this is where Communism interests me — is how — this is why Yugoslavia, which was a relatively liberal Communism, interests me. Do you know that in Yugoslavia it wasn’t that we have our own ideology, self-managed socialism.
I mean this literally. Slovenia was a small country. We knew everybody else. Nomenklatura —
COWEN: This is sounding like more nostalgia to me. Army tales, we talked about smoking the prick, right?
ŽIŽEK: Okay, but, but, but the lesson I learned there — I don’t care if you call it nostalgia — the lesson — and I will tell you where I see real nostalgia today — the lesson, for me, is how an ideology can function, not only even if you don’t believe in it, but it is prohibited to believe in it.
This was the beautiful paradox of ex-Yugoslavia. I had two friends who were in the central committee of the Slovene Party. They lost their job. You know why? Because they were stupid and took the ruling ideology too seriously.
But you know who are for me — change of topic, but along the same line — the true nostalgics today? That’s why I don’t like the novel — this will again hurt some of you — Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. This is, for me, true nostalgia. It’s what Fredric Jameson called “nostalgia for the present.”
It paints this horrible near future. It doesn’t raise the crucial question. But she’s still too fascinated by our permissive societies, and so on and so on. Sorry, go on.
COWEN: These are side issues. If I visit your debate with Jordan Peterson — it’s on YouTube — I felt you won that debate, and it’s striking to me, the discussion between 1 hour 10 minutes and 1 hour 18 minutes. In that part of the discussion, you say that you calling yourself a Communist is a bit of a provocation.
But now, I’d like to draw a comparison. Take the writer who just won the Nobel Prize in literature, Peter Handke, right?
COWEN: Sometimes called an Austrian, but he’s ethnic Slovene.
ŽIŽEK: Half — mother.
COWEN: He has sympathized with the Serbian atrocities.
COWEN: And you are hard on him, correctly so. You don’t give him the space of that being a provocation. He is so close to your world that you apply a more absolutist moral standard, and you want him to jettison his Serbian nostalgia. And I am submitting that Communism —
ŽIŽEK: But I have no nostalgia. For what do I have nostalgia?
COWEN: The attachment to the label “Communist.” You can do everything you want without that word, without the concept, without having to apologize for the history.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, let’s go step by step. Handke —
COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.
ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?
COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.
ŽIŽEK: Let’s go step by step. First, Handke — my criticism of him was very specific.
COWEN: And correct.
ŽIŽEK: Before he got involved in what he got involved in, I didn’t like the game he played. For example, I remember his texts from 30 years ago, 40, before war, where he said in Austria everything is commodified. You go to a store, every brand of milk has a name. You cross the border to poor Slovenia, it just has milk with no brand name and so on.
And what I hate is . . . We should agree even here.
COWEN: We do.
ŽIŽEK: What I call — borrowing the term of my friend, another Austrian philosopher, Robert Pfaller — inter-passive authenticity. You want to keep your good life in the West, but you like to be authentic through others.
This is why we were very good. He was proud to refer to us Slovenes, Handke, insofar as we were the modest poor Communists. The moment we wanted our own state, join European Union, we betrayed his dream. That’s why — maybe you know — in the text, I quote this wonderful saying by Gilles Deleuze, “Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtez foutu.”
“If you are caught in another’s dream . . .” And that’s for me — we should agree here — the big problem of Western academic left. They’re always searching for another place where things really happen. When I was young, it was Cuba. Then it was, a decade ago, Chavez, Venezuela, and so on and so on.
No! Nothing great happens elsewhere, and so on. And to my Serb friends, I declared that they will see, if they succeed too well, he will betray them also. They will disappoint him. This is what annoys me with Handke, if you ask me.
But listen, talking about nostalgia — I’m sorry to tell you, but I’m not saying I was a great dissident. But now, I will say something arrogant: if there are not some great dissidents from Eastern Europe here, then probably I can venture a hypothesis that I did more for the disappearance of East European Communism than any of you in this room.
I was, for five years, unemployed. I had to survive through parents and so on and so on. So I was there when it was needed. And I’m even a little bit proud to say that the role I played at that time is that — when you said we have problems, right-wing politicking, yes, we also do, but Slovenia is the only post-Yugoslav country where nationalists never took over. That, we did.
I was at that time — it will shock you — member of a party called Liberal Democratic Party, and we did it. But you know what? For me, again, I return to that —
COWEN: I appreciate what you’ve done for your country —
ŽIŽEK: Okay, but please ask me that question —
COWEN: — but I feel my case is becoming stronger.
ŽIŽEK: How will we deal with ecology? You really think that with market, a little bit of debt, it can be dealt —
COWEN: No, we need much more than that.
ŽIŽEK: We need more.
COWEN: We don’t know what to do.
ŽIŽEK: I called it more Communism. You know why? People, idiots tell me — not you —
COWEN: Other idiots.
ŽIŽEK: — “Why don’t you call it socialism?” Everybody is a socialist today. Bill Gates says he’s a socialist, and so on. It’s meaningless. Socialism basically means today you care for society. Hitler cared for society. I don’t care; I just want to signal that, as you nicely said now, something a little bit more radical will be needed. That’s all I’m saying.
“Why don’t you call it socialism?” Everybody is a socialist today. Bill Gates says he’s a socialist, and so on. It’s meaningless. Socialism basically means today you care for society. Hitler cared for society. I don’t care; I just want to signal that, as you nicely said now, something a little bit more radical will be needed. That’s all I’m saying.
.COWEN: Sometimes, I love your books. I’ve read more than half of them, which is a lot —
ŽIŽEK: Crazy, madman, madman. Your Gulag sentence is redoubled now.
COWEN: But one thing I crave is to, one day, just see you writing about a question like the electric tram in Bergen — should it go through a tunnel or not?
COWEN: And you would not be allowed to mention Fukuyama, you couldn’t use the C-word — capitalism, or Communism. And just analyze that question. Or look at a municipal bus system in Denmark somewhere. Those, to me, are in some ways the more real questions.
ŽIŽEK: Here, maybe we have a misunderstanding because I will tell you why not this. This may surprise you, the answer.
ŽIŽEK: This was the point when, in my short speech — short! [laughs] — when I said I despise . . . For me, the model of catastrophe today . . . My friends, they cried, “Syntagma Square! We were there, one million people. We were all crying. Wonderful.”
I say, “Eff off.” What interests me — I hope we agree here — is what happens two months later —
ŽIŽEK: I’m all for this pragmatic, concrete problems. I’m not waiting for a big revolution. I just am — now this may surprise you — for somebody who may sound so bombastic and pretentious like me, strange as it will sound, but I don’t know everything. [laughs]
I’m immediately thinking in literal terms what to do. So many factors. I don’t know enough. I like these totally empirical, totally concrete, empirical problems. I like paradoxes. For example, would you agree . . . Very briefly, maybe you found this in one of my books.
I’m not quoting this as an argument for anti-capitalism. I don’t know that, but there are some group experiments which fascinate me, which proves that you cannot reduce some forms of solidarity to money. A Jewish friend from Israel told me this. They had a kindergarten there, and —
COWEN: This story is apocryphal. People have tried to follow up on the kindergarten-in-Israel story. It’s probably not true.
ŽIŽEK: Are we talking about when they made pay even less?
COWEN: Yes. We’re not sure this is true. I’ve looked into this.
COWEN: It’s possibly true. It cannot be confirmed. But I accept the point. Sometimes, when everything has a price, people lose solidarity.
ŽIŽEK: The point is that I believe it’s surprisingly . . . When I talk about Communism and so on, my God, I’ve written texts from it, and now I go on into it . . .
For me, Communism is just, as I emphasized, the name of a problem. It’s not a solution. I will say something that will shock you. I’m well aware — some of my Communist friends admitted it — even if we imagine something similar to Communism, the mega problem will be envy, and so on.
Who is one of the great guys? My God, the one who conducted theory according to leftist mythology. Not Pinochet. The economist, free market, who advised Pinochet according —
ŽIŽEK: No. No, no, no, the big guy.
AUDIENCE: Friedman, Friedman.
COWEN: He only visited once or twice. He had very little to do with it.
ŽIŽEK: That was not my point, but one of those guys, when reproached with the fact, “But capitalism is unjust. You work harshly, you fail, your neighbors . . .” He said, “But that’s why capitalism works. Because,” he said, “your pride survives intact.”
Let’s say we are two guys. We live in a just society, and if there is no luck in injustice, this means if you are richer than me, I have to admit that I’m more stupid than you, but capitalist injustice is a very elegant argument.
COWEN: Communism is easy in a way. You always have an excuse, right?
COWEN: The system screwed you over —
ŽIŽEK: That’s why —
COWEN: — and you’re always right.
ŽIŽEK: Now I will ask you — this is my big argument against happiness. Do you agree, if you’re now like my Stasi observer, you have your list?
ŽIŽEK: You remember when I argue about happiness, against?
ŽIŽEK: I take as an example, and I was there — I talked with people — Husák’s Czechoslovakia in the ’70s. Material needs were basically satisfied. Nobody was doing that, and as you said, you always had an excuse. There was too much rain or drought. Communists screwed it up.
Then — very important — you had a nearby country, West Germany, which was the ideal other, but it was not too far away, and so on. That’s why I’m against happiness. Happiness means no responsibility, relatively comfortable life because already after Khrushchev, basically, with Brézhnev — you must know this.
Communists in power made a pact with population. They admitted, “We will never reach the West.” But the message was, “You leave us political power. We leave you your private niche where you can enjoy your life.” And so on, and so on.
I think that Khrushchev was paradoxically — don’t you agree — the last guy who somehow, paradoxically . . . He was sincere in that — you must know it — United Nations speech where he —
COWEN: Of course.
ŽIŽEK: The last epoch, where the ruling nomenklatura half still believed in Communism. After that, it’s a totally different logic of emancipation. Some of the Communists in power — I love this in Yugoslavia — even refer to Marcuse, Frankfurt School. They said, “But you know, in the West, you have commodification, alienation. Here, you can take it easy, it’s more poor.” And so on, and so on. Sorry, I talk too much.
COWEN: Let me praise you some more.
ŽIŽEK: No, no.
COWEN: Yes. All your books I’ve read — one of my favorite things in the books is how much humor you have. And in person, whether speaking or over breakfast —
ŽIŽEK: For this, I will share your cell in Gulag program.
COWEN: Your humor, which is based on insight rather than Henny Youngman–type jokes, is phenomenally good. But here’s what strikes me. You have the humor of a right-winger, of a right-wing moderate.
If you think of today’s left, it is increasingly humorless. You’re not allowed to talk about so many things. On gender, your views are much more right-wing than left-wing.
ŽIŽEK: That’s debatable. I don’t —
COWEN: The left wing is moving. When I sit down with my right-wing friends and they joke around, their jokes are, in broad terms, like yours. Left-wing humor is about politics.
ŽIŽEK: My answer to this, not critical of you, it’s a very simple one. My answer to this is, that’s why politically correct leftists are doing all possible to get Trump reelected, if you ask me. A little bit more years on this, and we will be where we are. But let me add, as a sign of friendship to you —
ŽIŽEK: — another bad-taste humor about you. You are my friend. I like you, so when we Communists take over —
COWEN: Yes. [laughs]
ŽIŽEK: Nonetheless, because you’re objectively guilty, you go to Gulag.
ŽIŽEK: But as a special favor to you, you know what you got on Saturdays in Gulag? On Sunday? Some kind of disgusting soup, entrails, half-rotten fishes, and —
ŽIŽEK: — potato.
COWEN: Maybe some bread in it.
ŽIŽEK: Don’t exaggerate.
ŽIŽEK: I will call from my Moscow center.
ŽIŽEK: And isn’t it nice? You will get two plates of that soup.
COWEN: Do you agree you have an increasingly right-wing sense of humor, and that if we’re going to be true Freudians—
ŽIŽEK: Why are you calling it right wing?
COWEN: You’re willing to make fun of, your sense of irony.
ŽIŽEK: When I was young, this was left-wing humor.
COWEN: It is no longer left-wing humor; the world has moved on.
ŽIŽEK: Then so much worst for the Left.
COWEN: Perhaps for the worst. Okay, we’re making progress.
COWEN: You are indeed the moderate right Communist, nostalgia-run state Communist who is maybe almost ready to abandon that final bit of the nostalgia.
ŽIŽEK: Don’t count on that too much —
ŽIŽEK: — because I still think that the crisis will hit us. I see signs. Here it comes, my pessimism. I think that the situation today with new right wing, blah, blah, blah. And here, as we already talked about it, I am very open.
For example, do they exist here? Not. We talked about it — so-called incels, involuntary celibates. Usually, they are decried as the worst women-hating Fascists. No. They do something, I think, almost tragic. They try to turn their failure — and already this is politically incorrect to state today — “You cannot address a woman, almost it’s prohibited saying she is beautiful.”
You cannot say to a man, “You are not attractive enough. You cannot get any woman.” But that’s their experience, and I admire how, without any imminent violence, they turn this into a wonderful performance, especially clowncels and so on. It’s a wonderful way to survive a pretty terrifying predicament. And I don’t buy that they are automatically neofascists.
Concerning feminism — my reproach to #MeToo is not they are too radical, but it’s an upper-middle-class fake. They don’t really . . . American feminism should first do — I hope we agree here — a little bit of a good old-fashioned Stalinist — you will say again nostalgia — self-criticism.
There are so many things of American feminism. Do you know, for example, they supported American invasion of Iraq, that it will help women? Well, we know today that the situation of women today in Iraq is much worse than under Saddam. Saddam was a brutal despot, but relatively secular.
This is what bothers me. Second problem. You will again say I’m conservative here. Fuck it, I don’t care. The problem with political correctness is, for me, that questions which are questions of not manners in a superficial sense, but of customs . . .
Here I am, as you know, a Hegelian. Hegel always emphasized the bases that hold society together are unwritten rules, customs, and so on. Political correctness tries too much to legalize it. You know, you are allowed to call this name.
For example, let me give you a provocative example to provoke you. Once I problematize . . . How is it called? This idea of consent, even bureaucratic consent — you have to state it on a selfie, sign before mutual agreement. And they say, “Oh, so I think we can rape women. We don’t need consent.”
They totally misread me on the opposite. I just claim consent in itself is good, better than nothing, but it doesn’t solve the problem. There is so much pressure, violence which can survive the form of consent. Even if there is a formal consent, sexual exploitation can go on, and so on and so on.
My problem with LGBT+ is if I’m attacking them. No! The problem I see there — I wonder if you agree — is this one. I have a problem with identity politics. The problem is that the idea of predominant . . . there are many LGBT+ who are extremely good theorist persons. But the predominant view is the one of this one. I simplify it: there is some kind of multiplicity of gender positions flourishing. It’s almost the Maoist version — let the 100 flowers blossom, let 100 books, gender bi-sex, tri-sex.
And then evil patriarchy comes, imposes the binary division. “Let’s get rid of this.” And some of them even establish at least 30, 35 positions. My God! And then they say Freud is outdated. If there is anything to learn from Freud, it’s that sexuality is in itself antagonist, traumatic, safety domains, and so on and so on.
That’s my first point. What bothers me in LGBT+ . . . it’s as if, if we get rid of social pressure, we get some kind of happy sexuality. The first presupposition that’s at doubt here is because you do what you desire. My God, didn’t they read Freud? How do you know that you really desire what you think that you desire? There are all these ambiguities here.
My second problem, and that’s the theoretical one . . . Let’s move into Hegel a little bit. Maybe you know my line.
LGBT+ . . . it’s all about “plus,” no? Because the ordinary LGBT theories are, for me, too British empiricist. Plus is, for them, simply, “Maybe we don’t yet know all identities. Let’s leave it open. Maybe there will be other gender identities. We will include them.” No, if I go this . . .
I forgot her name, I’m sorry, from an Australian LGBT theorist — very intelligent lady — who wrote to me, “But, what if plus itself is the subjective position? You can be a plus in the sense of, you know, at a distance, doubting.”
And I think this is feminine position at its stronger. “I will go to absolutely everyday level.” That’s why the most provocative woman’s answer is, “Why do you love me?” Because there is no answer to this question. The moment you answer it, it’s not true love, by definition. If I tell you why I love you, then it becomes matter of . . . You know? So what I’m saying is that I just try to complicate things.
COWEN: Why not move to Singapore?
COWEN: It’s a wonderful country. And if you ask which nation has the quality of government and the thoughtfulness and the long-time horizon to actually deal with ecological problems, are they not near or at the top of the list? Therefore, you and I can join hands in embracing Singapore and presenting it to the world?
ŽIŽEK: You know what? Here, I may be too Marxist, but —
COWEN: I think it may be a pretty good case.
ŽIŽEK: Isn’t it that Singapore, nonetheless, enjoys its role as a structural . . . an exception? I don’t think you can expand Singapore to Indonesia. Already, with Malaysia, there are problems, and so on, and so on.
COWEN: Well, every country is different, but clearly Singapore has more —
ŽIŽEK: No, no, it’s stronger there because I read somewhere that Singapore port is even, at some point, it was the busiest port in the world, which means they are kind of a nodal point for the countries around them.
COWEN: Of course.
ŽIŽEK: Second thing, maybe I have here too much liberal sensitivity, but nonetheless, it’s a kind of . . . The way I would define Singapore — you may disagree — it’s fascism with a human face, a very human face. It’s consensual and so on, but there are so strict limits, even at the everyday ridiculous level.
For example, I was there with my son, who wanted some chewing gum. We went to a store, and they laughed at me. “Are you crazy? You have to go to pharmacy.” We went to a pharmacy. They said, “Okay, where do you have doctor’s prescription?” I said, “No, I’m — ”
COWEN: This is fine. This is not fascism. Singapore did that because too many people were leaving the chewing gum on the subway doors, and it was creating a problem. Maybe they overreacted. If your criticism of Singapore is that the chewing gum —
ŽIŽEK: No, no, what I’m saying —
COWEN: I’d say, “Come join me at the food stalls.” Right?
ŽIŽEK: Where, in Singapore?
COWEN: Yeah, I know where all the best ones are. Jump on board, forget the Communist thing. The nostalgia can be for Singapore 13 years ago, which in some ways was less crowded, right? It’s a better nostalgia.
ŽIŽEK: No, but again, don’t you see where my Communism comes? Seriously. It’s not where you think . . . I don’t think there is any link with me clinging to the name Communism and my nostalgia. Those times, I’m well aware, were more or less a nightmare.
Listen, one reason against nostalgia is that I was jobless, although — you may know this joke — something wonderful happened. When people asked me, “Which was the key factor for your relative success in the West?” I told them, “Communist oppression.” I applied for a job when I finish my postdoctoral studies in 1973, and this was the harsh line. I couldn’t get the job, and then I was for a couple of years unemployed. I was looking for contacts in the West.
Without Communist oppression, I would still be now an unknown professor in shitty city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. As far —
COWEN: Sometimes you remind me of Laibach, the Slovenian rock group.
ŽIŽEK: They’re my friends. My God, I’m with them from late ’80s —
COWEN: Of course, yes.
ŽIŽEK: — and now, things get complicated there. You know why? Because many leftists who support them are nonetheless afraid.
COWEN: Of course.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, they are staging totalitarian rituals. What if some people will take it seriously? And so on.
COWEN: Once they were asked, “Are you a Fascist?” And one of them said, “I am a Fascist like Hitler was a painter.” What answer is that? I don’t know.
COWEN: But why can’t they just say, “I’m not a Fascist?” And then you could say, “I’m not a Communist.” And you and Laibach — we could all meet in the food stalls of Singapore, Taiwan, have a nice time. Right? Work on better batteries so solar power can really save us. We could have the government subsidize better battery technology. I know it’s not all we need to do, but . . . And then think about that electric tram, and the tunnel, diesel from the cruise ship in the harbor —
ŽIŽEK: No, no, I wanted to say another unsettling thing. I can tell you, from my personal contact with Laibach —
ŽIŽEK: — they don’t mean it as an ironic spectacle. They are very serious in their harsh line. That’s what I like about them. They are not, “Don’t be afraid, we are not really totalitarians, is just one big social game.” And so on, and so on.
But at a certain point, I didn’t want to join them because they wanted me, you probably know, two years ago, when they went to —
COWEN: North Korea.
ŽIŽEK: North Korea. No, it will be too much.
COWEN: Sure, of course.
ŽIŽEK: I didn’t want to do —
COWEN: Too Communist for you.
ŽIŽEK: Yeah. No, but nonetheless, you know what was so interesting with Laibach? Here you have the complexity of ideological process. All this fear — will they be manipulated by radical right? And so on. They never were. Whenever they are popular, it’s never the Right . . .
I know what the right-wingers, at least in Europe, are listening to. It’s not the German version of Laibach. There was some influence. Do you know Rammstein, the group?
ŽIŽEK: “Links.” They are Left, and it’s a beautiful Right thing to do for the Left to appropriate this horrible totalitarian-sounding stuff, and so on, and so on.
The right-wingers that I know — they think beautiful romantic songs, apolitical usually, and so on, and so on. I get your point, of course, when you said, “Something more will be needed.” Eff you. What more? Tell me.
You say, “No, no, no.” I know ecology and so on, digital control. Have you any idea what more will be needed? What do you think, that ecological party will be elected? I hope so, maybe.
COWEN: I was told that Bergen has 20 percent electric cars. I don’t know what Bergen did to get that, but many parts of the world could learn from whatever has been done here. And we’re at 20. Let’s work for 60, right?
ŽIŽEK: Yeah, but on the other hand, my only, not criticism of Norway is that . . . You have oil, gas, and so on. I would like to learn from Norway, but I would like even more if you give me your natural resources.
COWEN: To earn from the oil and then divest from fossil fuels is, to my eye, a bit strange.
ŽIŽEK: I have one argument for you here. The good thing about Singapore is that they have no natural resources, no?
COWEN: Well, they do a lot of refining there, so —
ŽIŽEK: Refining, yes, but no —
COWEN: Not that I’m aware of.
ŽIŽEK: But what made it? Is it kind of one incidental conjunction? That’s what I would have maybe said about Singapore, of this Chinese proclivity to hard work and English legislation, or what? There must have been some unique combination there.
COWEN: Keep in mind, the Chinese themselves felt, at first, that the Chinese who went to Singapore were the losers who were not doing well in China, the poorly educated peasants. But the Singaporean government thought, “Let’s invest in human capital.”
ŽIŽEK: When? Which government? Are you talking about —
COWEN: Lee Kuan Yew.
ŽIŽEK: Lee Kuan Yew.
COWEN: And it worked, for the most part.
ŽIŽEK: But what’s, then, your problem with China? Because do you know? You must know this, that at the beginning, for history forums, Deng Xiaoping came to Singapore. Everybody, everywhere there — they showed and said Singapore should be a model for —
COWEN: It is time for China to liberalize. I don’t see them doing that. They seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
ŽIŽEK: Here, now, we touch the true problem. Sorry, now I’m not losing time. You know where I am a pessimist? Some of my liberal friends tell me, “Oh, China achieved so much. With full political liberalization, they would have achieved even more.” I doubt it.
COWEN: We don’t know the counterfactual. Speaking of counterfactuals —
ŽIŽEK: I love them.
COWEN: I have a question for you about Donald Trump.
COWEN: You initially said, “Well, if Trump wins, it could be good because it will revitalize the Left.”
ŽIŽEK: He did. He did it.
COWEN: There was another article where people asked you, “Do you really mean it?” And you said, maybe a year ago, “Yes.” But I look at the Democratic race. Front-runner number one is Joseph Biden, aged, I think, 77.
COWEN: He was vice president for eight years, Mayor Pete is now [at the time] number two because he took a moderate stance.
ŽIŽEK: Sorry, who is —
COWEN: Mayor Pete. Buttigieg.
ŽIŽEK: I’m so sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce that name.
COWEN: I’m not sure I do either, but he’s a mayor from South Bend, Indiana.
COWEN: To me a perfectly fine candidate. The Democratic conservatives are in the ascendancy, and where the Democrats have gone hard left is identity politics, and that’s exactly the thing you hate. So why has it been good that we had four years of Trump, maybe eight years of Trump?
ŽIŽEK: Okay, we don’t have time to do it, but let me be specific. The Democrats who go for identity politics — already Hillary tried this against Donald Trump.
COWEN: Yes, and now it’s much more radical.
ŽIŽEK: No, against Bernie Sanders.
ŽIŽEK: That’s why I admire Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said something very ingenious — you must have read it — who said recently, endorsing Bernie Sanders, “I endorse him, not in spite of him being an old white man, but because.”
Her idea was this one: Bernie Sanders can get us . . . Center Democrats are obsessed — if you go too much to the left, we lose these centrist votes, and so on. Trump did exactly the opposite. I think the target of the Democratic Party should be those impoverished, white, half-unemployed workers who otherwise would have voted for Trump, not those middle-of-the-road, and so on, and so on.
Trump is a genius here, how he broke all the rules and so on because do you remember how often in his campaign, when he said something, I know, preposterous, horrible, liberal press said, “Oh, Trump just shot himself, and he’s over.” And so on.
No! It’s not over. Trump proved that sometimes the only way to a majority is through extremes. It’s not always that center works.
COWEN: But I worry here there’s a parallel — your views and pronouncements on Trump and on Communism. In the case of Trump, you think, “Well, I can say this. I have a vision that it will work out in a particular way. The Democratic Left will be revitalized.” But what we’ve gotten is the worst of the Left: the identity politics.
ŽIŽEK: But it was. They may lose, but it was revitalized.
COWEN: The moderates are on the rise.
And then there’s a sense of “Well, I can attach myself to Communism. I have a particular theory that will work out some way. It will tell us we always need more when it comes to ecology.” But that, to me, seems like the Trump prediction.
We know from the work of Philip Tetlock, it’s just very hard to predict the future, so why not stand up —
ŽIŽEK: I’m the first to agree —
COWEN: — directly for just the right values? Take Greta Thunberg. I don’t agree with everything she says, but her core message is correct. She’s unambiguous; she’s to the point.
COWEN: It’s not ironic.
COWEN: It’s not some complicated theory.
ŽIŽEK: She’s a contemporary Communist for me, fully. You know why?
COWEN: She’s not a Communist.
ŽIŽEK: No, but you know what? I know. You know what I like about her?
COWEN: You’ll be telling me Magnus Carlsen is a Communist next.
ŽIŽEK: You know what I like about Greta Thunberg? First, you remember, some media in Europe tried to blame her parents. “They are manipulating her.” My answer was, “I hope they do. I hope.” Why shouldn’t we, the Left, also manipulate?
But what I like is precisely . . . I didn’t like her at the beginning, you remember, when she played that innocent girl who is telling us that the emperor is naked. But did you notice how, in the last year, she has this almost a little bit of diabolic, aggressive smile. I like the mean Greta Thunberg. I don’t like the good, innocent girl.
But what I like is precisely . . . I didn’t like her at the beginning, you remember, when she played that innocent girl who is telling us that the emperor is naked. But did you notice how, in the last year, she has this almost a little bit of diabolic, aggressive smile. I like the mean Greta Thunberg. I don’t like the good, innocent girl.
I also refer to her as this . . . For me, she is deeply feminine, but not the usual notion of femininity promoted by the media today — holistic dialogue. No, no, no, she’s quite dogmatic, insistent. That’s what we need today, and I don’t need anything more. Okay, we can debate the name, but I think that what she’s doing is definitely Communist today for me.
Greta Thunberg, Assange, and so on. Incidentally, do you know the story? I must repeat it to you. I hope all of you don’t know it. When I visited him two weeks ago in prison, it’s wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. I’m sorry if some of you know it. I was sitting close to him like this, in open space at the table. A friend brought me a cup of coffee, plastic cover. I took the cover off and drank some coffee and put coffee back on the table.
In two seconds, literally, a guard was there, very gentle, soft, no terror. Just said, “Please, sir, put the plastic cover back on the coffee.” I asked afterwards — I didn’t want to cause problems there — “Why?”
They told me, “You were sitting opposite Assange, an evil man.” It was for my own good, they told me. They wanted to block the possibility that evil man like Assange will grab the boiling coffee and throw it into my face, and so on.
No, but I think, okay, these are my heroes today.
COWEN: You like alternate scenarios, right?
ŽIŽEK: No, there is no alternate here. Greta Thunberg exists —
COWEN: I’d like for you to tell us — what’s the alternate scenario where you write books which are not so much pastiche, not so much bringing together of disparate elements, but you’ve become a kind of realistic non-Hegelian preacher almost, like Greta Thunberg, return somewhat to your Catholic roots, embrace your right moderate side, retire in Singapore, and go gallivanting off with me —
ŽIŽEK: If I will . . . No —
COWEN: — to the food stalls, where you share your sense of humor with my right-wing friends.
ŽIŽEK: First, first —
COWEN: What does that alternative scenario look like?
ŽIŽEK: Don’t mention Singapore. Its equator is too hot for me. If I retire — and I’m not lying to you now — two, three times I’ve written about it. I want to retire to the part of Norway which is not even Norway. I’m not kidding. I wrote about it. It’s my ideal place — Longyearbyen, Svalbard Island.
ŽIŽEK: That’s my ideal place. It’s half empty, nothing there, and it’s very good prospects for survival, because you know the joke — it’s prohibited to die there because —
COWEN: But the last question —
ŽIŽEK: No, no, but quite seriously.
COWEN: — the alternate scenario where you evolve in this manner, with your right-wing sense of humor. What does that look like?
ŽIŽEK: Why do you call it right-wing?
COWEN: What has to happen?
ŽIŽEK: It’s the humor of my youth, my God.
COWEN: Yes, thank you. What has to happen for that scenario to come about? I’m not saying it will happen, but what does that science-fiction world look like? What would you have to see in the world?
ŽIŽEK: No, no, I’m not trying to make cheap propaganda for myself, but I did try to practice this — you know what, one of my books, which was not full failure, but close to a failure, my rewriting of Antigone. Did you read that book?
COWEN: No, I have not read that book.
ŽIŽEK: Ah, I love that one. You know what I did? I took its precisely alternate scenario. I took — and you will not like the third version — I took Antigone, but you should like it because it’s very pragmatic.
I took first its pure alternate logic, like Kieślowski’s film and that Run Lola Run, and so on. First, I took the story you have in Sophocles, which incidentally is not the original story. The original Greek myth is totally different.
Okay, you know what happens. I will not repeat then. Then, at the moment of her big conflict in the middle play with Creon, I play alternate reality. She wins. Creon says, “Okay, you are right. Let’s allow the burial.” In my scenario, what happens is that, if Creon suspected there is again a revolt, again the traitor, the whole of Thebes, the city, is in ruins.
At the end of the second version, she walks desperate in the city and cries like that famous hit line of Antigone, “I was created for love, not war.” And the chorus answers her, “Fuck you, bitch, but it’s what you created.”
Then comes the third version —
COWEN: Last word is for you, but you have 38 seconds, so you summarize.
ŽIŽEK: Okay, yeah. The third version that you will like, I hope, is while Creon and Antigone are fighting, the chorus steps over, said, “You are both traitors, ruining the city. You should both be liquidated.” And they establish a kind of Jacobin terror, and they’re both liquidated. Nobody likes this. I don’t care.
COWEN: Slavoj, thank you very much.
ŽIŽEK: Thank you.
But don’t you suspect me — I still have zero seconds — but don’t you suspect me? Don’t you trust me? That fear that now I’m talking soft, but if I get too close to power, you will see the Stalinist side of me. You don’t suspect me of really being a bad guy. You trust me.
COWEN: No, I don’t. I think your attachment and almost obsession with plenitude and being generative —
ŽIŽEK: What plenitude?
COWEN: Of ideas.
ŽIŽEK: Oh, yeah, of ideas. Yeah, yeah.
COWEN: The sense in which you are generative, which is a personality feature and a temperament and neurological in you, that that so overwhelms whatever oppressive tendencies you might have, that if you were appointed dictator of whatever, you would just go off and write more books, and you can’t help it.
And I admire this, I am in some ways similar.
ŽIŽEK: I will tell you a story, very brief one. Don’t be afraid, no time. That’s what I like, and even I hope you will like this. My favorite passage in Marx is — maybe you know it — 1870 Paris Commune, there was a dream that maybe there will be European revolution. And Marx wrote a letter to Engels — I love him for that — where he says, “Oh, my God, they want a revolution now, but I haven’t yet finished The Capital. Not now, I have to finish my book.” That’s the true spirit that I —
COWEN: Exactly, and that’s why I trust you.
COWEN: Now, we have a method for questions. There will be questions from the floor and questions from Twitter. Your questions from the floor are to be questions, not statements, not proclamations, not political platforms. We are here to hear this man, so I will cut you off if it is not a proper question.
But, before we get to that, we have four questions on video, at least one of which is too long. I’m told they’re friends, your friends, but you need more enemies, perhaps.
ŽIŽEK: Absolutely, I’m still here.
COWEN: But first, we start with those questions. Let’s get to those and then questions from the floor. The microphones will come around, and it will all be managed efficiently because this is Bergen, Norway.
Questions from the video — first video, please.
ADRIAN JOHNSTON: My line of questioning for Slavoj has to do with the Marxist critique of political economy. First, in relation to Marx’s historical materialism, do you think there have been any major changes in the basic relations between economic infrastructure and more-than economic superstructure and capitalism between the mid-19th century and today? Has the role or weight of the economy in shaping social history altered over this period?
Second, if you were to rewrite Marx’s critical rendition of economics for the 21st century, what components of it would you prioritize updating, revising, scrapping, or replacing? What would be some of the distinctive features of your own contemporary critique of political economy?
ŽIŽEK: They are all my friends. I know who will be, so I will . . . On the other hand, these are difficult theoretical questions. We need another two hours. I will just say that yes, I agree with — I cannot go into it now — with Adrian’s point, how the relationship between ideology, economic infrastructural change, and so on, and so on.
But all I can do now is point out what he knows and both of us know, that already in Marx — and that’s one of the critical points, that we need to read Marx — what I really admire in Marx, because it’s not what you idiots — not you personally — but the thing is his theory of commodity fetishism.
It’s not simply, “We believe in fetishists.” No! Marx’s theory is that we bourgeois subjects, in our actual life, we are usually pragmatic Anglo-Saxon utilitarians. The fetishist inversion is in how we act our reality structure.
Marx has a wonderful theory where it’s not this Enlightenment vision — we dream illusions; the other thing is real life. No! We can be very . . . To repeat a joke that I’m sure you all know, but it renders perfectly the point — that story that I always repeat: Niels Bohr and the horseshoe.
Niels Bohr had a horseshoe at his country house across the entrance door, superstitious item, and a friend asked me, “Why do you have it there? Aren’t you a scientist? Do you believe in it?” You know what’s Niels Bohr’s answer, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I have it there because I was told that it works, even if you don’t believe in it.”
That’s how ideology works today. At this level, the extent — and maybe you would agree with this — the lesson of Marx is that that’s why, interestingly enough, commodity fetishism — he never calls it ideology because it’s something very strange — it is a system of belief and so on, but objectifies central part of infrastructure itself. Along those lines, I would say we have to go further than Marx, and so on, and so on.
COWEN: Second video question, please.
JODI DEAN: My question is about Communism. Along with Alain Badiou, you are one of the philosophers who reinvigorated the philosophical discussion of the idea of Communism with a series of books and conferences and events. So I’m wondering about your thinking about that project and the potential for Communism now.
Mostly, thinking about your editions of collective works of Lenin, different volumes that you’ve produced with Lenin’s works, and in some of your events, also your event with Jordan Peterson.
And so, my sense is that, for the most part, you work within the Communist tradition, in addition to Hegel and Lacan, but yet sometimes it seems like your position is that every part of the 20th century experience has to be erased, has to be forgotten, has to be overcome, that we go back to the beginning, and we don’t need to use anything that we learned in the 20th century.
And other times, it seems like you’re precisely actually learning from the 20th century and using some of the writings of Lenin and the achievements and the examples from European history in the 20th century.
So I’m hoping that you might clarify how you see the potential for Communist politics today — not just Communist philosophy, but Communist politics today, what kind of organizational forums you think it requires, and whether or not there really is a potential in the Communist movement. Maybe another way to say this is, how do you imagine the end of capitalism?
ŽIŽEK: Again, another two-hour-answer question. First, I didn’t — my God, I’m not crazy — I didn’t edit collected works of Lenin. I haven’t read them, never. What interested me is Lenin, at the very precise moment, what fascinates me in Lenin — and I said this in both of my introductions to some texts — that first, Lenin’s time is over.
I don’t play the boring Trotskyite game of this crazy dream: “Oh, if only Lenin were to survive two years longer, he would have made it back to beat Trotsky. Stalin would be sidestepped,” and so on. No! The deadlock was there from the beginning.
What interests me in Lenin — and maybe that’s what we need today — is this totally pragmatic voluntarist spirit. Isn’t it clear that in 1917, it was a total mess? Lenin often didn’t know what to do. Some even liberal Communists praised his state and revolution, but what he says there is something that he immediately abandoned then. What interests me is, especially Lenin in ’21, ’22 — and this was the big failure of the October Revolution. They want the civil war.
And then, it would have been my moment, “Okay, now it’s everyday life, invent new forums if you can.” They failed, but Lenin was at least the one who said openly, “Our situation is totally desperate; we don’t have any formula.”
He didn’t have any trust in the future. He saw this total openness. That’s what fascinates me, but I’m not preaching in any sense the return to it, so my idea — unfortunately, I’m here maybe a little bit more — let’s call it pessimist.
Incidentally, in this metaphor of returning to zero level, I quote Lenin, who wrote in ’21, ’22, a wonderful text, where he said nothing worked. Then he said, “It’s not that we should stabilize our achievements, but we should return to the zero level, begin from nowhere.”
And quoting that, but also you mentioned the horrible . . . the fact that the only livable Communism today — Communism in the formal sense, the Chinese one — means ecological problems, more digital control and so on, and so on.
We have to begin in some sense from the zero. Lenin already did this, not just as a good direction. If you are a dogmatic Marxist, you can show that Lenin totally overturned Marx. In this sense, Lenin was not the one of the fidelity to Marx. He pretended to be, but you know how religious revolutions also work. All great revolution proclaims itself return to origins. Martin Luther, the greatest original — “Oh, we just want to return to the original Bible.” And so on.
So, no. I think, again, that we have to, with all objective study and so on, see the good, bad sides. But the 20th-century Communism was ultimately a failure, an absolute failure.
COWEN: Third video question, please.
PAUL TAYLOR: Hi, Slavoj, Paul Taylor here. Hope life’s treating you well. My question relates to the role of academics as independent critical thinkers. In my experience within the UK sector at least, academics over the years, when confronted with a growing bureaucracy, growing commercialism, have behaved like lemming-type creatures or quislings, to use a couple of references your Norwegian audience will be familiar with.
Given Brexit’s recent example, there’s very little genuine debate over all the complicated topics around leaving the EU — or not leaving, as the case may be. And there’s a level of conformity and groupthink that reminds me of the movie Stepford Wives, if that rings a bell with you.
So my question to you is, you’ve experienced Yugoslav Communist system, and you’ve experienced something of the UK academic system. Which of those environments do you think is most conducive to genuine critical, engaged intellectuals? Thanks.
ŽIŽEK: It’s a very nice question, and again, you will accuse me of nostalgia, but I will say in the last decade, 1980s, Yugoslavia was better. You know why? There was not yet a total economic fiasco, and that was the beauty.
From 1980 at least, maybe ’82, the ruling nomenklatura were already preparing for the fiasco, so actually, I think that some of the governments in different republics were pretty good. You know why? Because they knew they don’t have democratic legitimacy. So they tried to do, to learn some legitimacy.
For example, a very sad story in mid-’80s — ’86, ’87 — a gay organization formed itself in Slovenia. Immediately, a delegate from central committee came there. “Yes, you are progressive. We are for them. Do you want financial support?” And so on, and so on.
Then we got democracy in 1990. The first thing that the city, town council, whatever, dominated by conservatives, is abolish all help to this gay organization. So in some paradoxical sense, it was a golden era. I would say the second half, but I don’t have any illusions.
It’s not that Communists were good, but Communists in power knew they were fighting for survival. This is, incidentally, also how I read the explosion of nationalism. Milošević got this.
Communist nomenklatura had a problem. Democracy is coming — how to regain some type of democratic legitimacy without canceling themselves as nomenklatura. The answer, obviously, was paint yourself as defender of national interest and so on, nationalism and so on.
On the other hand, I must say, what makes me so depressed — United States are big enough, are not the worst, but especially UK — I don’t know how it is here — this pragmatic turn of philosophy has to serve concrete social needs.
Labour Party, more than Thatcher, began this in England. My friend philosophers are telling me, “You got Labour representatives coming to university philosophy department and say, ‘We will give you more money, but we will just make it if you get some money from private companies.’”
But what I like about today’s academia — I think this is certainly not a traditional leftist idea — that what’s good about academia is precisely that it’s a space with no concrete attachment to any needs of society. You can go crazy, you can freely debate, and so on, and so on.
And this is more and more difficult today, even in Germany, they are telling me. My good friend, conservative but bright, Peter Sloterdijk — he told me to get more money — you know what he likes to do? Business weekends. Years ago, he went for a weekend to Volkswagen top managers and explained to them this bullshit. “What’s going on today? Postmodernity, the situation,” and so on, and got — I didn’t ask.
So, what I’m saying is that this reminds me in an uncanny way to the worst years in ex-Yugoslavia, ’70s, of the Communist oppression. This focus on also human sciences has to work for society. Experts solve problems.
No! We don’t need that today. We need precisely academia, humanities in their useless character. Also, in sciences — if you look closely, isn’t it that practically all big inventions, as far as I can judge, emerged either in a totally contingent, external way, usually some military contract, or as a private hobby, and so on?
So, what I advise you if you are here at the university is, don’t believe in this mantra of “You are here, bourgeois, spending money, hard-earned workers’ money. Be more useful.”
No! What’s great about university is they are not useful in the immediate sense. That’s what we should expect from you, academics. All great things, again, to use the guy whom you mentioned this morning, Jon Elster —
COWEN: Yes, Norwegian.
ŽIŽEK: — He had a wonderful term years ago of states which are a necessary byproduct. It just comes. You cannot plan it. Academia should be a place for this.
COWEN: Last video question, please.
REBECCA COMAY: Hi, Slavoj. From Australia, I send my greetings. You’ve often spoken critically of the Hölderlin paradigm — where the danger lies, there grows the saving power, the idea that disaster harbors seeds of its own. Overcoming a catastrophe provides both the negative index and even the opportunity for redemption.
It’s a model of historical catastrophe or crisis that’s often associated with the kind of dialectical salvage along pseudo-Hegelian lines, I’m saying pseudo-Hegelian because you’ve done so much to argue that Hegel himself resists this kind of negative eschatology.
But you’ve often suggested that Marx falls prey to this way of thinking. One of your criticisms of his paradigm is that it exaggerates or misconstrues the exceptionality of the present, and misunderstands the nature of the crisis. And of crisis, specifically, it underestimates the capacity of capitalism to absorb and feed on its own crises. Can we still hold to the idea of capitalism as being its own grave digger?
Can you elaborate your critique of the Hölderlin paradigm in light of the present, when we can see the danger, the ravaging effects of global capitalism all around us, to the extent that maybe danger itself is not the word we can use any longer, and where previous models of crises seem not to hold, specifically?
And here’s my question: is there a concept of revolution in the present context that does not fall prey to this paradigm?
ŽIŽEK: Again, it’s a mega difficult question. Just to explain to you what she, Rebecca Comay . . . incidentally, here I’m a sincere, not politically correct feminist. I’m organizing next October in New York a big Hegel conference. The majority will be women, and I already brutally apologize to people. “No, no, I’m not politically correct feminist. It’s simply that the best Hegelian stuff is come from women today.”
So okay, Hölderlin paradigm — you know this passage from Hölderlin, Patmos, all the time quoted by Heidegger: “Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst / Das Rettende auch. Where the danger is the greatest, the point of salvation is also near,” and so on.
And this is a model for the usual revolutionary thinking, even in Marx — proletariat, zero-level exploitation, poverty. But there is a chance that you turn around into salvation. I’m here Hegelian, if you ask me.
I much more believe — and I will not go into it now; it’s another half an hour — how do I apply this to what I was telling about catastrophes, apocalypses, and so on. The post-apocalyptic vision — Hegel’s problem is exactly the opposite one.
The big attempt at liberation happened — French Revolution, and for Hegel — I don’t totally agree with him, but nonetheless — it turned wrong, Jacobin terror, and so on. So what went wrong? Hegel is not a crazy optimist: “As bad as things are, you should see a chance for the better.”
No! Hegel’s basic insight is exactly the opposite one. No matter how good an idea or a project is, we can be sure that it will turn wrong somehow. And I think what Hegel did to French Revolution, we should do to 20th-century Communism.
First, we have to still — we disagree here maybe — I still see some tremendous utopian emancipatory potential, but it went terribly wrong with Stalinism and so on. And we shouldn’t play these cheap games — just corrupted Stalin or even . . .
Did you notice how Marxists are often even racist here? They put the blame on Russia is too close to Asia, so it’s Asiatic barbarism which is responsible for it. No! If things went wrong, and we have to begin thinking from this, what’s then the solution? Simply return to more modest previous model of society — this is my vision today. Yes, we are approaching a crisis, but we cannot simply revitalize the 20th-century Communism. We should rethink it radically.
I’m again a Hegelian pessimist here. Hegel is, for me, a thinker of deep distrust. Hegelian dogma is everything turns wrong. This whole delicate Hegelian theory of repetition — only the second time to do it again. You have to do it again. Maybe you have a chance the second time if you learn the lessons of the first time.
And, I think that’s what we need today — this much more modest spirit. Don’t wait for a big revolution. It already happened, and it got screwed up.
COWEN: We now take questions from the floor. I will call on you, and please wait for the mic. This way you can be captured on YouTube.
ŽIŽEK: I love you. You are deeply a good Stalinist.
COWEN: [laughs] I am, yes.
ŽIŽEK: Yeah, yeah, fuck democracy. You want order here.
COWEN: In the front here. There’s two people with hands up, and we’ll do them in sequence, these two.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m Jesse Tomalty from the philosophy department here at the University of Bergen. Now, you came here today to tell us that you are still a Communist. That’s not an affirmation, that’s a reaffirmation.
So my questions are two I’ve got. The first is, what has prompted this reaffirmation of your commitment to Communism? And the second question is, has your commitment to Communism evolved over the years, and if so, how?
ŽIŽEK: I think I implicitly — maybe I failed — answered this in my whatever you call it, bombastic word, speech, talk, or whatever. The big dilemma for me is this one. It’s still, again, as I said, the Fukuyama dilemma.
We are confronting a series of problems today, among them not only global migrations, the new forms of dominations based on digital universe, ecology, and so on, and so on.
Is the existing liberal democratic capitalist system strong enough to cope with these problems or not? And my answer is, unfortunately, no. I’m not saying now that this means anything. “Go, let’s reinvent. Let’s return to 20th-century Communism.”
I totally agree with you that all these problems reappear, only now we are discovering all the ecological catastrophes. Go to East Germany. Whole areas are there totally contaminated. Go to parts of the Soviet Union, which are even now prohibited, and so on, and so on.
But, to put it very simply, I was never naively pro-Communist. My diploma work — this was early ’70s, late ’60s — was rejected by university — these were still Communist times — as not Marxist.
This may surprise many of you, but you know that I began as a Heideggerian. My first book was on Heidegger and language in Slovene. Today, I would settle accounts with the book in Nazi style — burn it, you know.
But what I’m saying is that this is, to put it in very simplistic commonsense terms, this is my . . . That’s why I’m so distrustful about this usual liberal optimism. Of course, all my sympathy goes with, for example, refugees, but don’t turn it into a humanitarian problem. But not in this politically correct way. Western people from developed countries like to blame themselves. “Yeah, yeah, whatever happens in third world, it’s colonialism. We are guilty.” And so on.
No, we are not responsible because what one should never forget . . . Here, I’m still — I’m sorry to disappoint you — staunchly pro-European Enlightenment tradition. Even political correctness itself is, I think, a misdirected application of something that is part of European tradition of Enlightenment. You cannot even, I think, imagine something like political correctness outside the Western tradition.
Here, I’m still — I’m sorry to disappoint you — staunchly pro-European Enlightenment tradition. Even political correctness itself is, I think, a misdirected application of something that is part of European tradition of Enlightenment. You cannot even, I think, imagine something like political correctness outside the Western tradition.
It’s not that once I was a traditional, authentic Communist, but I was very lucky in Yugoslavia. You know why? Because I don’t have any illusions about ex-Yugoslavia. I’m not nostalgic, but you know what was our luck? From early ’60s, borders were maybe for literally 20 dissidents, but other side were completely open.
As a student, late ’60s, I was going once at least every two months, if not more often, by plane or by train to London, Paris, or Munich to buy books, and so on. So for us, in ex-Yugoslavia, the end of Communism was not this traumatic experience — “Oh, my God, now we know what it is.”
No! We were there all the time, going to the West. No illusions, and maybe this was my luck, that I had no illusions about Yugoslav Communism. I didn’t buy the stupidity of some Western Communists: “Yugoslavia is different; it was an authentic democratic Communism.”
But borders were open, so I also didn’t have great illusions about the West. And it goes to my honor — check it up. It appeared in ’88, ’89 in New Left Review — a short text of mine, “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead,” a reference to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, where it was clear to me that I predicted there, explicitly, that East European post-Communism will take this nationalist, fundamentalist turn, and so on, and so on.
So, again, it’s not that I ever was a traditional Marxist because you know what was my formative experience? I remember, when I was young student, the big conflict in Slovenia was between Marxist Frankfurt School and Heideggerians.
Heideggerians, more dissidents; Frankfurt School, official Marxist. Then, the big French wave exploded, so-called structuralism, poststructuralism. And both sides — dissidents and the party officials — used the same language attacking it. That’s what made my identity.
The French experience — I’m sorry if I disappointed you — but again, my point is this one: simply that we are approaching problems, catastrophic potentials, and it will not be able to deal with it within the liberal democratic capitalist system. That’s my foundation, very simple one. Yes.
COWEN: Directly in front of her, then in the front row over here. And we’ll need to compress the answers a bit to get through.
ŽIŽEK: I’m sorry, I’m very sorry, yes. I will go into my Buddhist mode, this bullshit, like “clap with one hand, listen to my silence,” or whatever. Please, sorry.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I think we can agree that the idea of a stateless Communist society is kind of stupid, so could we apply the Idiot King — you talked about this in theocracies, where it becomes tyranny when the experts get in charge.
ŽIŽEK: That’s the worst, yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes. That’s the worst. I agree with that. So we need an Idiot King to be on the top, with an expert making the decisions under him. Could that solution be in a Communist society? And what would it look like?
ŽIŽEK: Up to a point, yes. Very good question. I would refer here to my Japanese friend — very intelligent. Read him. His books are translated — most of them — into English. Kojin Karatani. Okay, it’s provocative what he . . .
But he said somewhere, “The passage from bourgeois to proletarian democracy,” I quote him, “is the passage from voting to lottery.” You know, that there must be a dimension of lottery, chance, and so on to prevent expert rule.
I believe that in every — whatever we call it — more authentic democracy and so on, an element of chance is needed. And that’s why, from Ancient Greece to Venice, which was not exactly democratic, but nonetheless, they were also obsessed with lottery.
How do you call the boss? Doge.
COWEN: Yes, Doge.
ŽIŽEK: Yes. How was he selected? An incredibly —
COWEN: A nine-step process, very complicated.
ŽIŽEK: Incredibly complex, but it was a mixture of checking the person — that he’s not corrupted — with lottery, with luck. No?
On the other hand, he’s not yours, but you were once their colony — I mean Denmark. No? Kierkegaard also was well aware of this, you know. I read in a biography of — how to pronounce it correctly? Kierkegaard, okay. We in the corrupted West say Kierkegaard. I read in a biography he once was called by the king and like, “What lessons should I learn?” He expected some deep theological, philosophical wisdom. No, you must learn how to be polite, how to say polite platitudes, and so on, and so on.
I believe in empty manners. All our humanity is based on empty manners, and this is what absolutely fascinates me. I’ve written a lot about it. I call them sincere hypocrisies. For example, I don’t know how you do this here, but in my country, let’s say — I’m sorry, it’s my old story, some of you may know it — let’s say you are a millionaire, I’m a poor guy.
You invite me to dinner, to a restaurant. The bill arrives. In my country, it’s absolutely crucial to go through this empty ritual. At the end, the bill arrives. We both know that you will pay, but I have to insist a little bit, “No, let’s at least share it.”
COWEN: But not too much.
ŽIŽEK: Not too much, yes, because in my ultimate evil, once I did this to a friend of mine. It was very evil. He insisted, “Let me pay.” And I said, “Okay, pay.”
ŽIŽEK: And he was totally desperate. He had to claim, “Oh, I forgot my credit card.” But what I’m saying, isn’t this something wonderful? This specific human communication.
You make an offer, a gesture, which is expected to be rejected, but nonetheless, it has to be made. All our communication is like this. Like you walk on the street, you stumble upon a friend, and you tell him, “Oh, uh, nice to see you. How are you doing?”
Usually, this is a total lie. You are thinking, “Why didn’t I see him five minutes, five seconds before to cross . . . ?” And for this we need — I’m answering your question, I’m not lost — for this we need idiots. There is no civilization without this idiocy.
COWEN: Two final questions. One here, one on Twitter. Thirty-second answers only.
ŽIŽEK: Middle-class opportunist. You want to combine Left and Right, you know.
COWEN: Yes. Question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Gisle Selnes of the department of comparative literature. I had prepared a complex question concerning the orientables of your last book —
ŽIŽEK: Oh, my God, I like this, yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But I took the message from the moderators. I’ll just keep this short and very concrete. The signs of a Communist future — you mentioned two names at least: Greta Thunberg and Julian Assange.
So I would like to ask you very specifically, how do you believe that the hearing about the extradition of Assange will turn out at the end of February? And how do you think the outcome would affect that sign of a possible Communist future?
COWEN: Thirty-second answer.
ŽIŽEK: A very difficult question because — I hope Julian doesn’t have a TV, cannot watch it, no — because I’m more of a pessimist. We are trying to do what can be done, organize things here and there, but the entire establishment is against him, and so on, and so on.
But nonetheless, there are good signs here and there. Even Kevin Rudd, the previous Australian prime minister, turned against extradition. So, if you ask me about his concrete fate, I will do . . . But what can I do? All possible.
I’m a pessimist. I think we should just hope that at least the aftereffect will be.
COWEN: A Twitter question. Super-quick 30-second answer.
Norway too suffers from the stigmatization of Communists. And even though the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, with far-right parties in parliament, workers are reluctant to turn to the left. How can we best turn the proletariat towards our cause?
Thirty seconds, please.
ŽIŽEK: First, you say poor are getting poorer, rich are getting richer, but you know, Norway is still an ideal for many of us, if I may say this. This I got from my good friend, Varoufakis, who said, “Everybody protests austerity, but for us, or you in the developed West, austerity means, ‘Oh, my God, purchasing power fell half a percent.’ Austerity is what happens in Greece, where it fell 30 percent.”
What I would say is, again, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez formula . . . I’m totally, again, for all this new identity movement — not identity, but feminism and so on, gay rights and so on.
But don’t fall into this gap of cultural politics. Find a link with the majority because poor are getting poorer, and so on, and so on. Is there a political party talking for them? But not in this traditional Marxist way. It doesn’t work.
But because so many in United States, politically correct people — you can see that their political correctness quite often has a secret class bias. They don’t say it, but the politically incorrect are the poor, primitive people, working class, and so on, and so on.
It’s a much more complex situation, and I will say now something that you will like, but for this you will get to Gulag for that. The problem is much bigger one. Does the Left . . . I was there in Occupied Wall Street, and I was asking them, “What do you want? Do you have a project?”
Many of them just have a vague idea of less corruption; big banks are corrupted. What do you want? Are you a Fukuyamaist? A little bit more efficient system. Do you want all social democratic welfare? Do you want old-style Communism?
And I will be very critical, leftists. I’m the first one to admit that the Left doesn’t have — I’m not talking about legalistic details, but a general vision of a future society.
COWEN: Slavoj —
ŽIŽEK: I don’t see. Do you see —
COWEN: Thank you very much.
COWEN: And thank you all for coming.
ŽIŽEK: You see him, how evil he is. He interrupted me exactly at this pessimist point.
COWEN: Yes. [laughs]
ŽIŽEK: And then, he stifled and brutally, with his Fascist boots, oppressed the good message that I wanted to finish it. Thank you very much.
COWEN: Thank you.