Despite everything, Slavoj Žižek still believes the Idea of communism is the most appropriate for our end times of crises and monsters.
The Left today faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing “natural” in the present crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously acknowledging that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, violating its rules will indeed cause economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, facilitated by global market conditions (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is not the result of an evil plot by capitalists, but an urgency imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse. For this reason, what is now required is not a moralizing critique of capitalism, but the full re-affirmation of the Idea of communism.
The idea of communism, as elaborated by Alain Badiou, remains a Kantian regulative idea lacking any mediation with historical reality. Badiou emphatically rejects any such mediation as a regression to an historicist evolutionism which betrays the purity of the Idea, reducing it to a positive order of Being (the Revolution conceived as a moment of the positive historical process). This Kantian mode of reference effectively allows us to characterize Badiou’s deployment of the “communist hypothesis” as a Kritik der reinen Kommunismus. As such, it invites us to repeat the passage from Kant to Hegel—to re-conceive the Idea of communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization. The Idea that “makes itself what it is” is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself. Recall Hegel’s infamous “idealist” formula according to which Spirit is its own result, the product of itself. Such statements usually provoke sarcastic “materialist” comments (“so it is not actual people who think and realize ideas, but Spirit itself, which, like Baron Munchausen, pulls itself up by its own hair”). But consider, for example, a religious Idea which catches the spirit of the masses and becomes a major historical force? In a way, is this not a case of an Idea actualizing itself, becoming a “product of itself”? Does it not, in a kind of closed loop, motivate people to fight for it and to realize it? What the notion of the Idea as a product of itself makes visible is thus not a process of idealist self-engendering, but the materialist fact that an Idea exists only in and through the activity of the individuals engaged with it and motivated by it. What we have here is emphatically not the kind of historicist/evolutionist position that Badiou rejects, but something much more radical: an insight into how historical reality itself is not a positive order, but a “not-all” which points towards its own future. It is this inclusion of the future as the gap in the present order that renders the latter “not-all,” ontologically incomplete, and thus explodes the self-enclosure of the historicist/ evolutionary process. In short, it is this gap which enables us to distinguish historicity proper from historicism.
Why, then, the Idea of communism? For three reasons, which echo the Lacanian triad of the I-S-R: at the Imaginary level, because it is necessary to maintain continuity with the long tradition of radical millenarian and egalitarian rebellions; at the Symbolic level, because we need to determine the precise conditions under which, in each historical epoch, the space for communism may be opened up; finally, at the level of the Real, because we must assume the harshness of what Badiou calls the eternal communist invariants (egalitarian justice, voluntarism, terror, “trust in the people”). Such an Idea of communism is clearly opposed to socialism, which is precisely not an Idea, but a vague communitarian notion applicable to all kinds of organic social bonds, from spiritualized ideas of solidarity (“we are all part of the same body”) right up to fascist corporatism. The Really Existing Socialist states were precisely that: positively existing states, whereas communism is in its very notion anti-statist.
We can well imagine a democratic procedure maintaining the same gap on account of the irreducible moment of contingency in every electoral result: far from being a limitation, the fact that elections do not pretend to select the most qualified person is what protects them from the totalitarian temptation (which is why, as was already clear to the Ancient Greeks, choosing rulers by lot is the most democratic form of selection). That is to say, as Lefort has again demonstrated, the achievement of democracy is to turn what for traditional authoritarian power is the moment of greatest crisis—the moment of transition from one master to another, the panic-inducing instant at which “the throne is empty”—into the very source of its strength: democratic elections thus represent the passage through that zero-point at which the complex network of social links is dissolved into a purely quantitative multiplicity of individuals whose votes are mechanically counted. The moment of terror, of the dissolution of all hierarchical links, is thereby re-enacted and transformed into the foundation of a new and stable political order.
Measured by his own standards of what a rational state should be, Hegel was thus perhaps wrong to fear universal democratic suffrage (see his nervous rejection of the English Reform Bill in 1832). It is precisely democracy (universal suffrage) which, much more appropriately than Hegel’s own State of estates, performs the “magic” trick of converting radical negativity into a new political order: in democracy, the negativity of terror (the destruction of everyone who pretends to identify with the place of power) is aufgehoben and turned into the positive form of the democratic procedure.
The question today, now that we know the limitations of that formal procedure, is whether we can imagine a step further in this process whereby egalitarian negativity reverts into a new positive order. We should look for traces of such an order in different domains, including in scientific communities. The way the CERN [acronym for what is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research] community functions is indicative here: in an almost utopian manner, individual efforts are undertaken in a collective non-hierarchical spirit, and dedication to the scientific cause (to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang) far outweighs any material considerations. But are such traces, no matter how sublime, merely that—marginal traces?
In his intervention at the 2010 Marxism conference in London (organized by the Socialist Workers’s Party), Alex Callinicos evoked his dream of a future communist society in which there would be museums of capitalism, displaying to the public the artifacts of this irrational and inhuman social formation. The unintended irony of this dream is that today, the only museums of this kind are museums of Communism, displaying its horrors. So, again, what to do in such a situation? Two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no immediate European revolution, and that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?”
Is this not the predicament of the Morales government in Bolivia, of the (former) Aristide government in Haiti, of the Maoist government in Nepal? They came to power through “fair” democratic elections, rather than insurrection, but having gained power, they exerted it in a way which was (partially, at least) “non-statist”: directly mobilizing their grassroots supporters, bypassing the Party-State network. Their situation is “objectively” hopeless: the whole drift of history is against them, they cannot rely on any “objective tendencies” pushing in their direction, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. Nevertheless, does this not give them a unique freedom? (And are we—the contemporary Left—not in exactly the same situation?) It is tempting to apply here the old distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom for”: does their freedom from History (with its laws and objective tendencies) not sustain their freedom for creative experimenting? In their activity, they can rely only on the collective will of their supporters.
According to Badiou, “The model of the centralized party made possible a new form of power that was nothing less than the power of the party itself. We are now at what I call a ‘distance from the State.’ This is first of all because the question of power is no longer ‘immediate’: nowhere does a ‘taking power’ in the insurrectional sense seem possible today.” But does this not rely on an all too simple alternative? What about heroically assuming whatever power may be available—in the full awareness that the “objective conditions” are not “mature” enough for radical change—and, against the grain, do what one can?
Let us return to the situation in Greece in the summer of 2010, when popular discontent brought about the delegitimization of the entire political class and the country approached a power vacuum. Had there been any chance for the Left to take over state power, what could it have done in such a situation of “complete hopelessness”? Of course (if we may permit ourselves this personification), the capitalist system would have gleefully allowed the Left to take over, if only to ensure that Greece ended up in a state of economic chaos, which would then serve as a severe lesson to others. Nevertheless, despite such dangers, wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation (in the case of Greece: renegotiating the debt, mobilizing European solidarity and popular support for its predicament). The tragedy of politics is that there will never be a “good” moment to seize power: the opportunity will always offer itself at the worst possible moment (characterized by economic fiasco, ecological catastrophe, civil unrest, etc.), when the ruling political class has lost its legitimacy and the fascist-populist threat lurks in the background. For example, the Scandinavian countries, while continuing to maintain high levels of social equality and a powerful Welfare State, also score very well on global competitiveness: proof that “generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves,” writes Göran Therborn in “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” “but can also be highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives.”
Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the epoch which began with the First World War is the well-known phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Were Fascism and Stalinism not the twin monsters of the twentieth century, the one emerging out of the old world’s desperate attempts to survive, the other out of a misbegotten endeavor to build a new one? And what about the monsters we are engendering now, propelled by techno-gnostic dreams of a biogenetically controlled society? All the consequences should be drawn from this paradox: perhaps there is no direct passage to the New, at least not in the way we imagined it, and monsters necessarily emerge in any attempt to force that passage.
One sign of a new rise of this monstrosity is that the ruling classes seem less and less able to rule, even in their own interests. Take the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Over the last two millennia, they have survived a series of calamities, from the end of the Roman Empire through defeat in crusades, the decolonization of the Arab countries, the Khomeini revolution in Iran, etc.—with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, the main U.S. ally in this region, where there are no autochthonous Christians. In Iraq, there were approximately one million of them under Saddam, leading exactly the same lives as other Iraqi subjects, with one of them, Tariq Aziz, even occupying the high post of foreign minister and becoming Saddam’s confidante. But then, something weird happened to Iraqi Christians, a true catastrophe—a Christian army occupied (or liberated, if you want) Iraq.
The Christian occupation army dissolved the secular Iraqi army and thus left the streets open to Muslim fundamentalist militias to terrorize both each other and the Christians. No wonder roughly half of Iraq’s Christians soon left the country, preferring even the terrorist-supporting Syria to a liberated Iraq under Christian military control. In 2010, things took a turn for the worse. Tariq Aziz, who had survived the previous trials, was condemned by a Shia court to death by hanging for his “persecution of Muslim parties” (i.e., his fight against Muslim fundamentalism) under Saddam. Bomb attacks on Christians and their churches followed one after the other, leaving dozens dead, so that finally, in early November 2010, the Baghdad archbishop Athanasios Dawood appealed to his flock to leave Iraq: “Christians have to leave the beloved country of our ancestors and escape the intended ethnic cleansing. This is still better than getting killed one after the other.” And to dot the “i,” as it were, that same month it was reported that al Maliki had been confirmed as Iraqi prime minister thanks to Iranian support. So the result of the U.S. intervention is that Iran, the prime agent of the axis of Evil, is edging closer to dominating Iraq politically.
U.S. policy is thus definitively approaching a stage of madness, and not only in terms of domestic policy (as the Tea Party proposes to fight the national debt by lowering taxes, i.e., by raising the debt—one cannot but recall here Stalin’s well-known thesis that, in the Soviet Union, the state was withering away through the strengthening of its organs, especially its organs of police repression). In foreign policy also, the spread of Western Judeo-Christian values is organized by creating conditions which lead to the expulsion of Christians (who, maybe, could move to Iran…). This is definitely not a clash of civilizations, but a true dialogue and cooperation between the U.S. and the Muslim fundamentalists.
Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classical twentieth-century predicament in which the Left knew what it had to do (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), but simply had to wait patiently for the opportunity to offer itself. Today, we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss of the New in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the New just in order to maintain what was good in the Old (education, healthcare, etc.). The journal in which Gramsci published his writings in the early 1920s was called L’Ordine nuovo (The New Order)—a title which was later appropriated by the extreme Right. Rather than seeing this later appropriation as revealing the “truth” of Gramsci’s use of the title—abandoning it as running counter to the rebellious freedom of an authentic Left—we should return to it as an index of the hard problem of defining the new order any revolution will have to establish after its success. In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
Communism is today not the name of a solution but the name of a problem: the problem of the commons in all its dimensions—the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (“intellectual property”), and, last but not least, the problem of the commons as that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution might be, it will have to solve this problem.
This article was adapted from the afterword to the new paperback edition of Living in the End Times, out from Verso Books this month.
Living in the End Times
by Slavoj Žižek
Zizek analyzes the end of the world at the hands of the “four riders of the apocalypse.”
The underlying premise of the book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its four riders of the apocalypse are the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, the imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property, the forthcoming struggle for raw materials, food and water), and the explosions of social divisions and exclusions.
Society’s first reaction is ideological denial, then explosions of anger at the injustices of the new world order, attempts at bargaining, and when this fails, depression and withdrawal set in. Finally, after passing through this zero-point we no longer perceive it as a threat, but as the chance for a new beginning. or, as Mao Zedong might have put it, “There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.”
Žižek traces out in detail these five stances, makes a plea for a return to the Marxian critique of political economy, and sniffs out the first signs of a budding communist culture in all its diverse forms—in utopias that range from Kafka’s community of mice to the collective of freak outcasts in the TV series Heroes.