Talking to Fictions – The People & Beyond (Ricardo Sanin Interviews Slavoj Zizek)

by | 2 Jul 2009

zizekRicardo Sanin: Do “the people” still carry any emancipatory potential?

Slavoj Zizek: Yes – recent events in Iran display this potential. The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

This is why one should compare the events in Iran to the US intervention in Iraq: Iran provided a case of genuine assertion of the popular will against the foreign imposition of democracy in Iraq. In other words, Iran shows how it should have been done in Iraq. And this is also why the events in Iran may be read as a comment on the platitude of Obama’s Kairo speech which focused on the dialogue of religions: no, we don’t need the dialogue of religions (or civilizations), we need a link of solidarity between those who struggle for justice in Muslim countries and those who participate in the same struggle elsewhere. In other words, we need a politicization which strengthens the struggle here, there, and everywhere.

One should draw here a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Ayatollah Khamenei will lose whatever remained of his status of a principled spiritual leader elevated above the fray of power struggles and appear as what he is – just one among the opportunistic politicians. But whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads.

RS: — Following Hitchcock and Cinema, what do you regard to be today’s political McGuffin?

SZ: Democracy and human rights. It’s the ultimate empty signifier, a pretext for whatever political goals.

RS: — Recently, when asked by the “Financial Times”, about the financial crisis and if the crisis heralded the revolution?  You answered “No, no, no. I am an extremely modest Marxist; I am not a catastrophic person. I am not saying that revolution is round the corner. I am fully aware that any old-style communist solution is out.” Where do you deem an answer may be?

SZ: When, in 1922, after winning the Civil War against all odds, the Bolsheviks had to retreat into NEP (the “New Economic Policy” of allowing a much wider scope of market economy and private property), Lenin wrote a short text “On Ascending a High Mountain.” He uses the simile of a climber who has to retreat back to the valley from his first attempt to reach a new mountain peak in order to describe what a retreat means in a revolutionary process, i.e., how does one retreat without opportunistically betraying one’s fidelity to the Cause. After enumerating the achievements and the failures of the Soviet state, Lenin concludes: “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).” This is Lenin at his Beckettian best, echoing the line from Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” His conclusion – “to begin from the beginning over and over again” – makes it clear that he is not talking merely of slowing down the progress and fortifying what was already achieved, but precisely of descending back to the starting point: one should “begin from the beginning,” not from where one succeeded in ascending in the previous effort. In Kierkegaard’s terms, a revolutionary process is not a gradual progress, but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning again and again… and this, exactly, is where gradual progress, but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning again and again… and this, exactly, is where we are today, after the “obscure disaster” of 1989, the definitive end of the epoch which began with the October Revolution. One should therefore reject the continuity with what Left meant in the last two centuries. Although sublime moments like the Jacobin climax of the French Revolution and the October Revolution will forever remain a key part of our memory, that story is over, everything should be re-thought, one should begin from the zero-point.

One has to locate in our historical reality antagonisms which make Communism a practical urgency. The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms which prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophy, the inappropriateness of private property for the so-called “intellectual property,” the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in bio-genetics), and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums. There is a qualitative difference between the last feature, the gap that separates the Excluded from the Included, and the other three, which designate the domains of what Hardt and Negri call “commons,” the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act which should also be resisted with violent means, if necessary:

– the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of “cognitive” capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc. (if Bill Gates were to be allowed monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual would have literally owned the software texture of our basic network of communication);

– the commons of external nature threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and natural habitat itself);

– the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity) – with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realist prospect.

What all these struggles share is the awareness of the destructive potentials, up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself, if the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons is allowed a free run. It is this reference to “commons” which justifies the resuscitation of the notion of Communism: it enables us to see the progressing “enclosure” of the commons as a process of proletarization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance. Today’s historical situation not only does not compel us to drop the notion of proletariat, of the proletarian position; on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level well beyond Marx’s imagination. We need a more radical notion of proletarian subject, a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.

RS: — Is liberalism the home of democracy?

SZ: No – all features we identify today with liberal democracy and freedom (trade unions, universal vote, free universal education, freedom of the press, etc.) were won through a long difficult struggle of the lower classes throughout the 19th century, they were far from a »natural« consequence of capitalist relations. Recall the list of demands with which The Communist Manifesto concludes: most of them, with the exception of the abolition of private property of the means of production, are today widely accepted in »bourgeois« democracies – as the result of the popular struggles. Another ignored fact: today, the equality between Whites and Blacks is celebrated as part of the American Dream, perceived as a self-evident politico-ethical axiom – however, in the 1920s and 1930s, the US Communists were the only political force which argued for complete equality between the races. Those who advocate the natural link between capitalism and democracy cheat in the same way the Catholic Church is cheating, when it presents itself as the »natural« advocate of democracy and human rights against the threat of totalitarianism – as if the Church did not accept democracy only at the end of the 19th century, and even this with teeth clenched, as a desperate compromise, making it clear that it prefers monarchy, and that this is a concession to new times.

RS: — Is Capitalism here to stay? Does it depend on liberalism?

SZ: One of today’s signs of history tells that capitalism does not depend on political liberalism. Peter Sloterdijk (definitely not one of us, but also not a complete idiot) remarked that if there is a person to whom they will build monuments hundred years from now, it is Lee Quan Yew, the Singapore leader who invented and realized the so-called “capitalism with Asian values.” The virus of this authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Before setting in motion his reforms, Deng Hsiao-Ping visited Singapore and expressly praised it as a model all of China should follow. This change has a world-historical meaning: till now, capitalism seems inextricably linked with democracy – there were, of course, from time to time recourses to direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (recall just the cases of South Korea and Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism is broken.

Faced with today’s explosion of capitalism in China, analysts often ask when political democracy as the »natural« political accompaniment of capitalism will enforce itself. However, a closer analysis quickly dispells this hope – what if the promised democratic second stage that follows the authoritarian valley of tears will never arrive? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about today’s China: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a remainder of our past, the repetition of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, went on from 16th to 18th century, but a sign of future. What if »the vicious combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market« (Trotski’s old characterization of the tsarist Russia) will prove itself to be economically more efficient than our liberal capitalism? What if it signals that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer a condition and mobile of economic development, but its obstacle?

RS: — The intricate bewilderment of today´s global politics, the invention of “Terrorism” as a legal category, the “slums”, new forms of colonization and conflict, etc. does it mean the need of abandoning Marx´s class analysis?

SZ: No, one just ha to critically renovate it. I agree with those who claim that today, the exploitation has more and more the form of rent: post-industrial capitalism is characterized by the “becoming-rent of the profit.” And this is why direct authority is needed: it is needed to impose the (arbitrary) legal conditions for extracting rent, conditions which are no longer “spontaneously” generated by market. Perhaps, therein resides the fundamental »contradiction« of today’s »postmodern« capitalism: while its logic is de-regulatory, »anti-statal,« nomadic/deterritorializing, etc., its key tendency of the »becoming-rent-of-the-profit« signals the strengthening role of the State whose (not only) regulatory function is more and more all-present. Dynamic de-territorialization coexists with and relies on more and more authoritarian interventions of the state and its legal and other apparatuses. What one can discern at the horizon of our historical becoming is thus a society in which personal libertarianism and hedonism co-exist with (and are sustained by) a complex web of regulatory state mechanisms. Far from disappearing, the State is strengthening today.

In other words, when, due to the crucial role of the “general intellect” (knowledge and social cooperation) in the creation of wealth, forms of wealth are more and more “out of all proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production,” the result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual relative transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labor force into rent appropriated by the privatization of the “general intellect.” Let us take the case of Bill Gates: how did he become the richest man in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of the products Microsoft is selling (one can even argue that Microsoft is paying its intellectual workers a relatively high salary), i.e., Gates’s wealth is not the result of his success in producing good software for lower prices than his competitors, or in higher “exploitation” of his hired intellectual workers. If this were to be the case, Microsoft would have gone bankrupt long ago: people would have massively chosen programs like Linux which are free and, according to specialists, of better quality than Microsoft programs. Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft imposed itself as an almost universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field, a kind of direct embodiment of the “general intellect.” Gates became the richest man in a couple of decades through appropriating the rent for allowing millions of intellectual workers to participate in the form of the “general intellect” that he privatized and controls. Is it true, then, that today’s intellectual workers are no longer separated from the objective conditions of their labor (they own their PC, etc.), which is Marx’s description of the capitalist “alienation”? Yes, but more fundamentally NO: they are cut off from the social field of their work, from “general intellect” – this one is mediated by private capital.

And the same goes for natural resources: their exploitation is one of the great sources of rent today, accompanied by the permanent struggle for who will get this rent, the Third World people or Western corporations. (The supreme irony is that, in order to explain the difference between labour force – which, in its use, produces surplus-value over its own value – and other commodities – which just consume their value in their use and thus involve no exploitation -, Marx mentions as the example of an “ordinary” commodity oil, the very commodity which is today a source of extraordinary “profits”…) Here also, it is meaningless to link the rises and falls of the price of oil to the rising or falling production costs or the price of the exploited labor – production costs are negligible, the price we pay for oil is a rent we pay to the owners of this resource because of its scarcity and limited supply.

It is as if the three components of the production process – intellectual programming and marketing, material production, the providing of material resources – are more and more autonomized, emerging as three separate spheres. In its social consequences, this separation appears in the guise of the “three main classes” of today’s developed societies, which are precisely NOT classes but three factions of the working class: intellectual laborers, the old manual working class, the outcasts (unemployed, those living in slums and other interstices of the public space). The working class is thus split into three, each part with its own “way of life” and ideology: the enlightened hedonism and liberal multiculturalism of the intellectual class, the populist fundamentalism of the working class, more extreme singular forms of the outcast faction. In Hegelese, this triad is clearly the triad of the universal (intellectual faction), particular (manual workers), and singular (outcasts). The outcome of this process is the gradual disintegration of social life proper, of a public space in which all three factions could meet – and the “identity”-politics in all its forms is a supplement for the loss of the social space proper. This identity-politics acquires a specific form in each of the three factions: post-modern multicultural identity politics in the intellectual class, regressive populist fundamentalism in the working class, half-illegal initiatic groups (criminal gangs, religious sects, etc.) among the outcasts. What they all share is particular identity as the substitute for the universal public space.

The proletariat is thus divided into three, each part played against each other: intellectual laborers full of cultural prejudices against the “redneck” workers, who display populist hatred of intellectuals and outcasts, who are antagonistic to society as such. The old call “Proletarians, unite!” is thus more actual than ever: in the new conditions of the “post-industrial” capitalism, the unity of the three factions of the working class IS already their victory.

RS: — With the explosion of the economical crisis, even hardcore capitalists as “the Financial times” are looking over their shoulder towards Marx, Do you believe Marx´s analysis of commodity-fetishism and exchange value can still hit the hammer on the nail?

SZ: It does – more than ever. What Marx discovered with his problematic of the “commodity fetishism” is a phantasmagoria/illusion which cannot be simply dismissed as a secondary reflexion, because it is operative in the very heart of the “real production process.” Note the very beginning of the subchapter on commodity fetishism in Capital:

“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Marx does not claim, in the usual “Marxist” way of The German Ideology, that critical analysis should demonstrate how a commodity – what appears a mysterious theological entity – emerged out of the “ordinary” real-life process; he claims, on the contrary, that the task of critical analysis is to unearth the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” in what appears at first sight just an ordinary object. Commodity fetishism (our belief that commodities are magic objects, endowed with an inherent metaphysical power) is not located in our mind, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself. (Note also the strict homology with Lacan’s notion of fantasy as constitutive of every “real” sexual act: for Lacan, our “normal” sexual act precisely IS an act of “masturbation with a real partner,” i.e., in it, we do not relate to the real Other, but to the Other reduced to a fantasy-object – we desire the Other insofar as s/he fits the fantasy-coordinates which structure our desire.) The circle is thereby closed: if Marx started with the premise that the critique of religion is the beginning of all critique, and then went on to the critique of philosophy, of state, etc., ending with the critique of political economy, this last critique brought him back to the starting point, to the “religious”-metaphysical moment at work in the very heart of the most “earthly” economic activity.

This is also the predominant status of beliefs today, in our era that claims for itself the title “post-ideological.” Niels Bohr, who already gave the right answer to Einstein’s „God doesn’t play dice“ („Don’t tell God what to do!“), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works in ideology: seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to what Bohr snapped back: „I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!“ Perhaps, this is why we talk so much about culture today, why “culture” is emerging as the central life-world category. With regard to religion, we no longer „really believe,“ we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the „life-style“ of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules „out of respect for tradition,“ etc.). „I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture“ effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the displaced belief characteristic of our times. What is a cultural life-style if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? “Culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without taking them quite seriously – is this not the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture? It is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as „barbarians,“ as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture – they dare to take seriously their beliefs?

RS: — Can politics be sublime in a post-ideological era?

SZ: The general tendency is rather towards the ridicule. The figure of Berlusconi is here crucial, since today’s Italy is effectively a klind of experimental lab of our future. If our political scene is split between permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement is to unite the two, to be both at the same time. It is arguably this combination which makes him unbeatable, at least in the near future: the remains of the Italian »Left« now resignedly accept him as Fate. This silent acceptance of Berlusconi as Fate is perhaps the saddest aspect of his reign: his democracy is a democracy of those who as it were win by default, who rule through cynical demoralization.

What makes Berlusconi as a political phenomenon so interesting is the fact that he, the most powerful politician in his country, acts more and more shamelessly: he not only ignores or politically neutralizes legal investigations into his criminal activity to boost his private business interests, he is also systematically undermining the basic dignity of the head of a state. The dignitety of classical politics is grounded in its elevation above the play of particular interests in the civil society: politics is “alienated” from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of egotist interests that characterize the  bourgeois. Berlusconi effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits state power as the means for the protection of his economic interests, and who washes the dirty laundry of his private marriage conflicts in the style of a vulgar reality show in front of the millions watching it on their TV screens.The last genuinely tragic US president was Richard Nixon – as the two outstanding films about him (Oliver Stone’s Nixon and the recent Frost/Nixon) demonstrate, he was a crook, but a crook who fell victim to the gap between his ideal ambitions and the reality of his acts, and thus experienced an authentic tragic downfall. Already with Ronald Reagan (and Carlos Menem in Argentina), a different figure of the president entered the stage, a »teflon« president whom one is tempted to characterize as post-Oedipal: a »postmodern« president who is no longer even expected to stick consistently to his electoral program, which makes him impervious to factual criticism (recall how Reagan’s popularity went up after every public appearance, when journalists enumerated his mistakes). This new figure of the president mixes (what appears as) spontaneously-naive outbursts with the most ruthless manipulation.

The wager of Berlusconi’s indecent vulgarities is, of course, that the people will identify with him insofar as he enacts the magnified mythic image of the average Italian: I am one of you, a little bit corrupted, in trouble with the law, I get in trouble with my wife because other women attract me… Even his grandiose enactment of a great noble politician, il cavalliere, is more like a ridiculously-operatic poor man’s dream of greatness. And yet, this appearance of »an ordinary men like all of us« should not deceive us: beneath the clownish mask there is a state power which functions with ruthless efficiency. Even if Berlusconi is a clown without dignity, we should therefore not laugh at him too much – perhaps, by doing this, we are already playing his game. His laughter is more like the obscene-crazy laughter of the superhero’s enemy from the movies on Batman or Spiderman – to get an idea of his rule, one should imagine something like the Joker from Batman in power. The problem is that the technocratic economic administration combined with a clownish facade does not suffice to do the job: something more is needed, fear – and here enters Berlusconi’s two-headed dragon: immigrants and “Communists” (Berlusconi’s generic name for anyone who attacks him, inclusive of the British right-of-center liberal The Economist).

RS: — You have insisted that multiculturalism and many movements involved in saving the planet from catastrophe don’t address the truly acute political problems of the world. What are they missing?

SZ: Well, they are missing the truly acute political problems of the world by way of translating them into cultural problems. In short, they are ideological.

What is ideology? When we are dealing with a problem which is undoubtedly a real one, the ideological designation-perception introduces its invisible mystification. Say, tolerance designates a real problem – I am as a rule asked, when I oppose it: »But how can you be for intolerance towards foreigners, for antifeminism, for homophobia?« Therein resides the catch: of course I am not against it, but what I am against is the (today’s automatic) perception of racism as a problem of tolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer lies in the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the ‘culturalization of politics’. Political differences – differences conditioned by political inequality or economic exploitation – are naturalized and neutralized into ‘cultural’ differences, that is into different ‘ways of life’ which are something given, something that cannot be overcome. They can only be ‘tolerated’. This demands a response in the terms Walter Benjamin offers: from culturalization of politics to politicization of culture. The cause of this culturalization is the retreat, the failure of direct political solutions such as the Welfare State or various socialist projects: “tolerance” is their post-political ersatz. “Ideology” is, in this precise sense, a notion which, while designating a real problem, blurs a crucial line of separation.

RS: — What is your position towards populism?

SZ: Every construction of and action on behalf of people as a political subject is not eo ipso populism. In the same way that Laclau likes to emphasize how Society doesn’t exist, the People also doesn’t exist, and the problem with populism is that, within its horizon, people does exist – the People’s existence is guaranteed by its constitutive exception, by the externalization of the Enemy into a positive intruder/obstacle. The formula of the truly democratic reference to the people should thus be a paraphrase of Kant’s definition of beauty as Zweckmaessigkeit ohne Zweck: the popular without the People, i.e., the popular cut through, thwarted, by a constitutive antagonism which prevents it to acquire the full substantial identity of a People. That’s why populism, far from standing for the political as such, always involves a minimal de-politicization, “naturalization,” of the political.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry “I do not know what is going on, I just have enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” – an impatient outburst, a refusal to patiently understand, the exasperation at the complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind and explains it all is needed. Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishist dimension of populism. That is to say, although, at a purely formal level, fetish involves a gesture of transference (on the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the subject supposed to know): what fetish gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here fully appropriate, the ultimate difference between the true radical-emancipatory politics and the populist politics is that the authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing, its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, a reaction to disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by way of invoking the fear of the corrupt intruder.

RS: — In Plague of Fantasies why do  you argue that today’s political discontent, that reaches from religious fundamentalism to the resurgence of racism in the first world, are not archaic remnants of, or protests against traditional authoritarian structures, but the pathological effects of new forms of social organization?

SZ: What phenomena like Taliban demonstrate is that Walter Benjamin’s old thesis “every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution” not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al Qaida – yes, but what does all this mean? It can also be read as an indication of how Fascism literally replaces (takes the place of) the Leftist revolution: its rise is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called (by some people) “Islamo-Fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 30 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? Where did this secular tradition disappear? In Europe, exactly the same goes for Bosnia: back in the 1970s and 1980s, Bosnia and Herzegovina was (multi)culturally the most interesting and alive of all Yugoslav republics, with an internationally-recognized cinema school and a unique style of rock music; in today’s Bosnia, there are effectively strong fundamentalist forces (like the Muslim fundamentalist crowd which brutally attacked the gay parade in Sarajevo in September 2008). The main reason of this regression is the desperate situation of Muslim Bosnians in the 1992-1995 war, when they were basically abandoned by the Western powers to the Serb guns. (And, as Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas, the US homegrown version of Afghanistan: the very state which was till the 1970s the bedrock of radical Leftist populism, is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism – does this not confirm again Benjamin’s thesis that every Fascism is an index of a failed revolution?)

RS: — The return to paradise, to a wholesome and pure nature is impossible, there is a totalitarian “stain” in all this environmental movements, that seek such return, could you tell us what that stain is?

SZ: It is precisely within the domain of ecology that one can draw the line that separates the emancipatory politics from the politics of fear at its purest. The by far predominant version of ecology is the ecology of fear, fear of a catastrophy – human-made or natural – that may deeply perturb, destroy even, the human civilization, fear that pushes us to plan measures that would protect our safety. This ecology of fear has all the chances of developing into the predominant form of ideology of global capitalism, a new opium for the masses replacing the declining religion: it takes over the old religion’s fundamental function, that of putting on an unquestionable authority which can impose limits. The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite beings embedded in a bio-sphere which vastly transgresses our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately Sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a Mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate. While we cannot gain full mastery over our bio-sphere, it is unfortunately in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophy.

It is this distrust which makes ecology the ideal candidate for hegemonic ideology, since it echoes the anti-totalitarian post-political distrust of large collective acts. Consequently, the first lesson to be drawn is the one repeatedly made by Stephen Jay Gould: the utter contingency of our existence. There is no Evolution: catastrophes, broken equilibriums, are part of natural history; at numerous points in the past, life could have turned into an entirely different direction. The main source of our energy (oil) is the result of a past catastrophy of unimaginable dimensions. Along these lines, “terror” means accepting the fact of the utter groundlessness of our existence: there is no firm foundation, a place of retreat, on which one can safely count. It means fully accepting that “nature doesn’t exist,” i.e., fully consummating the gap that separates the life-world notion of nature and the scientific notion of natural reality: “nature” qua the domain of balanced reproduction, of organic deployment into which humanity intervenes with its hubris, brutally throwing off the rails its circular motion, is man’s fantasy; nature is already in itself “second nature,” its balance is always secondary, an attempt to negotiate a “habit” that would restore some order after catastrophic interruptions. The lesson to be fully endorsed is thus that of an environmental scientist who came to the result that, while one cannot be sure what the ultimate result of humanity’s interventions into geo-sphere will be, one thing is sure: if humanity were to stop abruptly its immense industrial activity and let nature on Earth take its balanced course, the result would have been a total breakdown, an imaginable catastrophy. “Nature” on Earth is already to such an extent “adapted” to human interventions, the human “pollutions” are already to such an extent included into the shaky and fragile balance of the “natural” reproduction on Earth, that its cessation would cause a catastrophic imbalance. This is what it means that humanity has nowhere to retreat: not only “there is no big Other” (self-contained symbolic order as the ultimate guarantee of Meaning); there is also no Nature qua balanced order of self-reproduction whose homeostasis is disturbed, thrown off the rails, by the imbalanced human interventions. Not only the big Other is “barred,” Nature is also barred.

RS: —Why should radical democracy not be “radical”?

SZ: I think it should rather not be democratic – if, by democracy, we understand the regulated electoral procedures, etc. Walter Lippmann, the icon of American journalism in the XXth century, played a key role in the self-understanding of the US democracy. Although politically progressive (advocating a fair policy towards Soviet Union, etc.), he proposed a theory of the public media which has a chilling truth effect. He coined the term Manufacturing Consent, later rendered famous by Chomsky – but Lippmann intended it in a positive way. In Public Opinion (1922), he wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the challenge – he saw the public as Plato did, a great beast or a bewildered herd – floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.” So the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality” – this elite class is to act as a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omni-competent citizen”. This is how our democracies function – with our consent: there is no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is an obvious fact; the mystery is that, knowing it, we play the game. We act as if we are free and freely deciding, silently not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction (inscribed into the very form of our free speech) tells us what to do and think. As Marx knew it long ago, the secret is in the form itself.

In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king – but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? Trotsky was thus right in his basic reproach to parliamentary democracy, which is not that it gives too much power to uneducated masses, but, paradoxically, that it passivizes the masses too much, leaving the initiative to the apparatus of state power (in contrast to the „soviets“ in which the working classes directly mobilize themselves and exert power). What we call “crisis of democracy” does therefore not occur when people stop believing in their own power, but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signaling that “the (true) throne is empty,” that the decision is now really theirs. There is thus in “free elections” always a minimal aspect of politeness: those in power politely pretend that they do not really hold power, and ask us to freely decide if we want to give them power – in a way which mirrors the logic of a gesture meant to be refused.

Or, to put it in the terms of Will: representative democracy in its very notion involves a passivization of the popular Will, its transformation into non-willing – willing is transferred onto the agent which re-presents the people and wills on its account. When one is accused of undermining democracy, one’s answer should thus be a paraphrase of the reply to the similar reproach (that Communists are undermining family, property, freedom, etc.) in The Communist Manifesto: the ruling order itself is already undermining them. In the same way that (market) freedom is unfreedom for those selling their working force, in the same way family is undermined by the bourgeois family as legalized prostitution, democracy is undermined by its parliamentary form with its concomitant passivization of the large majority, as well as the growing executive privileges implied by the spreading logic of emergency state.

Badiou proposed a distinction between two types (or, rather, levels) of corruption in democracy: the de facto empirical corruption, and the corruption that pertains to the very form of democracy with its reduction of politics to the negotiation of private interests. This gap becomes visible in the (rare, true) cases of an honest “democratic” politician who, while fighting empirical corruption, nonetheless sustains the formal space of corruption. (There is, of course, also the opposite case of the empirically corrupted politician who acts on behalf of the dictatorship of Virtue.) In the Benjaminian terms of the distinction between constituted and constituent violence, one could say that we are dealing with the distinction between the “constituted” corruption (empirical cases of breaking the laws) and the “constituent” corruption of the very democratic form of government. At the empirical level, of course, the multi-party liberal democracy “represents” – mirrors, registers, measures – the quantitative dispersal of different opinions of the people, what they think about the proposed programs of the parties and about their candidates, etc.; however, prior to this empirical level and in a much more radical “transcendental” sense, the multi-party liberal democracy “represents” – instantiates – a certain vision of society, politics, and the role of the individuals in it. Multi-party liberal democracy “represents” a very precise vision of social life in which politics is organized in parties which compete through elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus, etc.etc. One should always be aware that this “transcendental frame” is never neutral – it privileges certain values and practices. This non-neutrality becomes palpable in the moments of crisis or indifference, when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people effectively want or think – this inability is signaled by anomalous phenomena like the UK elections of 2005: in spite of the growing unpopularity of Tony Blair (he was regularly voted the most unpopular person in the UK), there was no way for this discontent with Blair to find a politically effective expression. Something was obviously very wrong here – it was not that people “did not know what they wanted,” but, rather, that cynical resignation prevented them to act upon it, so that the result was the weird gap between what people thought and how they acted (voted). – It was already Plato who, in his critique of democracy, was fully aware of this second corruption; and this critique is also clearly discernible in the Jacobin privileging of Virtue: in democracy in the sense of the representation of and the negotiation between the plurality of private interests, there is no place for Virtue. This is why, in proletarian revolution, democracy has to be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

There is no reason to despise democratic elections; the point is only to insist that there are not per se an indication of Truth – as a rule, they tend to reflect the predominant doxa determined by the hegemonic ideology. Let us take an example which surely is not problematic: France in 1940. Even Jacques Duclos, the second man of the French Communist Party, admitted in a private conversation that if, at that point in time, free elections were to be held in France, Marshal Petain would have won with 90% of the votes. When de Gaulle, in his historic act, refused to acknowledge the capitulation to Germans and continued to resist, he claimed that it is only he, not the Vichy regime, who speaks on behalf of the true France (on behalf of true France as such, not only on behalf of the “majority of the French”!), what he was saying was deeply true even if it was “democratically” not only without legitimization, but clearly opposed to the opinion of the majority of the French people… There can be democratic elections which enact an event of Truth – the election in which, against the sceptic-cynical inertia – the majority momentarily “awakens” and votes against the hegemonic ideological opinion; however, the very exceptional status of such a surprising electoral result proves that elections as such are not a medium of Truth.

RS: — You have confessed that one of your guilty pleasures is “The sound of music”. What member of the Von Trapp family would you be?

SZ: I think my pleasure is here really a guilty one – this film should be burned publicly. Why? We should relate the film to Josef Fritzl, the Austrian monster who had her daughter imprisoned for a quarter of century and, after thousands of rapes, had many children with her.

Freud’s idea of the “primordial father (Urvater)” which he developed in his Totem and Taboo, is usually met with ridicule – and justly so, if we take it as a realist anthropological hypothesis arguing that, at the very dawn of humanity, the “ape-men” lived in groups dominated by the all-powerful father who kept all women for his own exclusive sexual (ab)use, and that, after the sons gathered and rebelled, killing the father, the dead father returned to haunt them as a totemic figure of symbolic authority, giving rise to guilt-feeling and imposing the prohibition of incest. What if, however, we read the duality of the “normal” father and the primordial father of the unlimited access to incestuous enjoyment not as a fact of the earliest history of humanity, but as a libidinal fact, a fact of “psychic reality,” which accompanies as an obscene shadow the “normal” paternal authority, prospering in the dark underground of unconscious fantasies? This obscene underground is discernible through its effects – in myths, dreams, slips of tongue, symptoms… and, sometimes, it enforces its direct perverse realization (Freud noted that perverts realize what hysterics only fantasize about). Does the very architectural arrangement of the Fritzl house – the “normal” ground and upper floors supported (literally and libidinally) by the underground windowless enclosed space of total domination and unlimited jouissance – not materialize the “normal” family space redoubled by the secret domain of the obscene “primordial father”? Fritzl created in his cellar his own utopia, a private paradise in which, as he told his lawyer, he spent hours on end watching TV and playing with the youngsters while Elisabeth prepared dinner. In this self-enclosed space, even the language the inhabitants shared was not the common one, but a kind of private language: it is reported that the two sons Stefan and Felix communicate in a bizarre dialect, with some of their sounds “animal-like.” The case of Fritzl thus validates Lacan’s pun on perversion as pere-version, version of the father – it is crucial to note how the underground secret apartment complex materializes a very precise idelogico-libidinal fantasy, the extreme version of father-domination-pleasure? One of the mottos of the May ’68 was “all power to fantasy” – and, in this sense, Fritzl is also a child of ’68, ruthlessly realizing his fantasy.

Fritzl’s own “psychological” explanation (that Elisabeth reminded him of his mother, a tyrannical matriarch) is, of course, a ridiculous example of a common sense imitating Freudian jargon. One should avoid here the trap of putting the blame on patriarchal authority as such, seeing in Fritzl’s monstrosity the ultimate consequence of the paternal Law, as well as the opposite trap of putting the blame on the disintegration of the paternal Law. Such an attitude is neither a component of “normal” paternal authority (the measure of its success is precisely the ability to set the child free, to let him/her go into the outer world) nor a sign of its failure (in the sense that the void of the “normal” paternal authority is supplemented, filled in, by the ferocious figure of the all-powerful “primordial father”), but, one can say, both simultaneously: a dimension which, under “normal” circumstances, remains virtual, was actualized in the Fritzl case.

The attempts to blame Austrian particularity commit the same ideological error as those who dream of an “alternate modernity” to the predominant liberal-capitalist one: by way of shifting the blame upon contingent particular Austrian circumstances, they want to keep clear and innocent paternity as such, i.e., they refuse to see the potential for such acts in the very notion of paternal authority. And, incidentally, it is rather comic to see critical analysts blaming for the Fritzl affair the Austrian sense of orderliness and maintaining appearances, of turning a blind eye and refusing to take a closer look even when we obviously can see that something must be wrong, and, simultaneously, hinting at the Austrian dark Nazi past – does one not usually associate with Nazism rather the opposite stance, that of “totalitarian” spying on neighbors in order to detect any subversive activity and denounce it to police? (Turning the blind eye on what one doesn’t want to see was, of course, part of the Nazi universe, but at a different level: pretending not to know about horrible crimes committed by the state, like the killing of the Jews. What is needed here is a more precise analysis of different types of turning a blind eye: one should not put under the same category the attitude of pretending not to notice the holocaust activities, and the fundamental politeness of pretending not to note when our neighbor looks really bad or inadvertently commits some embarrassing act.)

This, of course, does not mean that any debate about the “Austrian” character of the Fritzl crime should be rejected: one should just be aware that the excessive violence of the “primordial father” assumes in every particular culture specific fantasmatic features. With regard to Austria, instead of the miserable attempts to blame for Josef’s terrible crime the Austrian Nazi past or the Austrian excessive sense of orderliness and respectability, one should rather link the figure of Fritzl to a much more respectful Austrian myth, that of the von Trapp family immortalized in The Sound of Music: another family living in their secluded castle, under the father’s benevolent military authority which protects them from the evil Nazi outside, with generations strangely mixed (the Sister Maria, like Elisabeth, a generation between father and children…) The aspect of kitsch is relevant here: The Sound of Music is the ultimate kitsch phenomenon, and what Fritzl created in his basement also displays features of a kitsch family life realized: the happy family getting ready for diner, with the father watching TV with children while mother is preparing the food… However, one should not forget that the kitsch imagery we are dealing with here are not Austrian but belong to Hollywood and, more generally, Western popular culture: Austria in The Sound of Music is not the Austrian’s Austria, but the mythic Hollywood image of Austria – the paradox is here that it is as if, in the last decades, Austrians themselves started to “play Austrians,” i.e., identified with the Hollywood image of their own country.

This parallel can be extended to include the Fritzl-version of some of the most famous scenes from The Sound of Music. One can imagine the frightened children gathered around mother Elisabeth, in fear of the storm of the forthcoming father’s arrival, and mother calming them down by a song about some of “some of their favorite things” they should focus their minds on, from the toys brought by father to their most popular TV show… Or what about an upstairs reception in the Fritzl villa to which the underground children were exceptionally invited, and then, when the time for bed comes, the children performing for the assembled guests the obscene song “Aufwiedersehen, Goodbye” and departing one after the other… Really, in the Fritzl house, the basement, if not the hills, was alive with the sound of music.

RS: — Can there be emancipation in religion?

SZ: More than a century ago, in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.” The lesson of today’s terrorism is, on the contrary, that if there is a God, then everything, even blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders, is permitted to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of His will, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies our violation of any “merely human” constraints and considerations. The “godless” Stalinist Communists are the ultimate proof of it: everything was permitted to them since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress towards Communism. Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things; from today’s experience, one should rather stick to Steven Weinreich’s claim that, while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.

This, however, is only one side of the story. Today’s (post)political thought is caught into the space determined by two poles: ethics and jurisprudence. On the one hand, politics – in its liberal-tolerant as well as in its “fundamentalist” version – is conceived as the realization of ethical stances (on human rights, abortion, freedom…) which preexist politics; on the other hand (and in a complementary way), it is formulated in the language of jurisprudence (how to find the proper balance between the rights of individuals and community rights, etc.). It is here that the reference to religion can play the positive role of resuscitating the proper dimension of the political, of re-politicizing politics: it can enable the political agents to break out of the ethico-legal entanglement. The old syntagm “theologico-political” acquires new relevance here: it is not only that every politics is grounded in a “theological” view of reality, it is also that every theology is inherently political, an ideology of new collective space (like, in early Christianity, the communities of believers as a new form of collectivity, or the umma in early Islam). Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, one can say that what we need today is a theologico-political suspension of the legal-ethical.

The god that we get here is rather like the god from the good old Bolshevik joke about an able Communist propagandist who, after his death, finds himself in Hell, where he quickly convinces the guards to let him go out and to Heaven. When the Devil notices his absence, he quickly pays a visit to god, demanding that he returns to Hell what belongs to the Devil. However, immediately after the Devil starts to address god: “My Lord…,” god interrupts him: “First, I am not Lord but a comrade. Second, are you crazy talking to fictions – I don’t exist! And third, be short, otherwise I’ll miss my Party cell meeting!” This is the god today’s radical Left needs: a god who wholly “became man” – a comrade among us, crucified together with two social outcasts -, and who not only “doesn’t exist” but also himself knows this, accepting his erasure, entirely passing over into the love that binds members of the Holy Ghost (the Party, the emancipatory collective). Catholicism is often designated as a compromise between “pure” Christianity and paganism – but which is then Christianity at the level of its notion? Protestantism? One should make here a step further: the only Christianity at the level of its notion, i.e., which draws all the consequences from its basic event – the death of god -, is atheism.


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