Looking for Optimism, Finding Pessimism: On Salon’s Recent Interview of Slavoj Zizek and his Turn to Harsh Realism

Slavoj ZIZEK, a philosopher

Slavoj ZIZEK, a philosopher

Salon.com recently interviewed Slavoj Zizek.   The most eye-opening aspect of the interview was the clash between optimism and pessimism from start to finish. Reading the interview it is apparent that the interviewer, Michael Schulson, believed Zizek would, in line with some of his thinking, give an optimistic forecast of the current political situation and the options for the left. But what he received was the opposite. I want to touch on – and parse – a few of these questions and answers because it shows us that Zizek’s hopes and dreams are not idealistic. They are contingent on this or that event which he sees as a possibility for change. Today, he sees little possibility for any. At this moment in history, Zizek thinks the left should be pessimistic and melancholic.  Here he seems to be drawing on a cynical approach to the current scene.

At the beginning of the interview, Zizek is asked about when the “authentic emancipatory process,” which he discusses in his latest book Trouble in Paradise: From the End of Paradise to the End of Capitalism. Schulson asks about “where” it is going to come from (America, Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, etc). Zizek answers, in the most pessimistic manner:

Maybe it will not come. I’m very clear about this, and rather a pessimist.

It is fascinating to hear this from Zizek because he is always on the trail of the possibility of revolution. He seldom speaks this way.

Rather, Zizek argues, quite to the contrary of Marx, that it may not happen at all. The revolution is NOT inevitable. Even after (or if) everything falls apart capitalism may not destroy itself as Marx believed.  History is unpredictable.

I don’t see any historical guarantee that some big revolutionary event will happen. The only thing I’m certain of is that if nothing happens, we are slowly approaching — well, if not a global catastrophe, then a very sad society. Much more authoritarian, with new inner apartheids clearly divided into those who are in and those who are out.

When the interviewer presses him on the “where” question of where the “revolution” will begin, Zizek, uninspired by this question halfheartedly suggests that maybe students in Europe:

It’s not a specific place. I see potential spaces of tensions. For example, you have literally hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of students in Europe who are doing their studies. And they’re well aware that they don’t even have a chance of getting a job.

Zizek also doesn’t see a moment in the refuge crisis. And this is odd because one of his mentors, Hannah Arendt, saw the refugee crisis in the early 20th century as a grand opportunity for the left:

Then I think more and more, this problem of Europe — should there be a wall? Should those outside Europe — immigrants, refugees — be allowed to enter Europe? I’m not a utopian here. I’m not a stupid leftist liberal who is saying, “Oh, you know, horror, people are drowning in the Mediterranean from Africa, we should open our gates to them.” No, that’s stupidity. If Europe totally opens its borders, you would have in half a year a populist anti-immigrant revolution. I’m just saying this problem will grow — those who are in, those who are out.

In the face of this Schulson tries to be optimistic (is he playing what Zizek would call the “stupid leftist liberal card”?):

There does seem to be a kind of upheaval underway —

In response, Zizek reiterates:

— I don’t have too high hopes. Like those old, stupid, pseudo-Marxists who claim, “We see the beginning, we just have to wait. The crowds, masses will organize themselves.” No, you can’t beat global capitalism in this old-fashioned way.

Schulson pushes Zizek to the point where Zizek says what he likes – namely, “rules” for the world regarding certain unethical practices. However, Zizek doesn’t think this is going to happen. And in this we see a big breach between a wish list and a realistic assessment of its possibility.

But it doesn’t end here. Schulson, exited about Bernie Sanders and the possibility of a revolution on America asks Zizek what he thinks. But Zizek, once again, deflate the interviewer’s hopes:

Of course I sympathize with him. But I’m a pessimist here. Okay, he can play a positive role, blah, blah, blah. But I don’t see the beginning of something that will amount to a real, serious change. Maybe one has to begin with small things. For example, as I always emphasize also in my book, I still have some sympathy for Obama. I don’t buy that leftist stuff, you know, Obama betrayed the Left. What did they expect, that Obama will introduce communism into the United States, or what? But what I like about Obama, which for me is a good operation, you remember, universal healthcare. He touched a very important point of American ideology.

Zizek goes on to say that President Obama is not, in his view, “revolutionary.” Obama’s challenge to ideology is stifled by what Zizek calls his “betrayal” of the left. But the interview swerves toward Zizek’s reflections on the possibility that we are in a “post-secular” era. In Zizek’s view, there is neither an erasure of religion or a new resurgence. What we have is religion with a consumerist font. More importantly, in a Marxist sense, he sees any resurgence of religion as a response to a lack of political involvement:

I don’t believe in this post-secular era. I think that the sacred which is returning today is part of our postmodern, individualist, hedonist universe. I mean, look at American TV preachers. They are pure creatures of modern performance. It’s ridiculous. Whatever it is, it’s not religion. The naïve critics of religion — Richard Dawkins, all of them, they are way too naïve. They are not really describing what is happening here. It’s not authentic religion. It’s part of our consumerist culture. On the other hand, it’s clear that these type of religious revivals are a reaction to what we can call post-politics, the end of traditional politics. You no longer have communal meetings, you no longer have these elementary forms of authentic political life. And I think that religion is entering as an ersatz supplement for politics. And it’s really true, if we identify politics with antagonism, passionate taking sides, combative attitude and so on and so on.

The interviewer, in an interesting final turn, takes on the topic of violence. Zizek’s response to the question of violence, however, shows us a turn toward a tragic and pessimistic view of reality that Zizek garners from religion and from Hobbes. Contrary to Marx who sees evil vis-à-vis an economic system, he sees human nature as violent and evil. But the only answer to a war of “all against all” is Communism.

It is everywhere. It is everywhere. The world is hell. My vision, basically, in religious terms — though I’m atheist, of course — is some kind of Protestant view of the fallen world. It’s all one big horror. I despise Leftists who think, you know, violence is just an effect of social alienation, blah, blah, blah; once we will get communism, people will live in harmony. No, human nature is absolutely evil and maybe with a better organization of society we could control it a little bit.

Strangely enough, with this declaration, Zizek shares not only a lot with religious thought but with conservative thinkers like Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss.   And this, to be sure, goes contrary to much of the left-leaning utopian thinking and idealism that has been lingua franca in the past…and is still…as the Salon interviewer shows us…today.

Where will the revolution begin? Zizek’s answer: Who knows if it will let alone where it will?

What does this mean about Zizek’s view of the left and its future? Must the left become more pessimistic and realistic if it is to survive and not be seen – as Zizek suggests throughout the interview – as “stupid?” Is the belief that a revolution is “possible” – today – shortsighted?   Must the left see the world as “hell” and humans as violent before anything can be possible?

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