Zizek organizes each chapter along the famous psychological responses to a crisis: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, and depression. In between each chapter is an interlude which applies the current insights to numerous cultural phenomena. This review won’t analyze each chapter if only because it is hard to follow Zizek’s argument at times: he has some excellent thoughts which he is incapable of extending for more than a few pages. Secondly, I don’t understand what he is saying in a lot of places.
Premise: the global capitalist system* is about to fall because, in good Hegelian fashion, it is predicated on the contradiction(s) of Liberalism. There is a contradiction between market liberalism and political liberalism. The market liberals of today want family values, less government, and maintain the traditions of society (at least in America’s case). However, we must face the cultural contradiction of capitalism: the progress of capitalism, which necessitates a consumer culture, undermines the values which render capitalism possible (pp. 35-37).
Second contradiction: there is in liberalism a tension between private freedoms and the public mechanisms which control society. This is more obvious in the case of left-wing democrats. They want a society that allows individual freedoms, yet end up encroaching on individual freedoms in the name of tolerance, multiculturalism, etc.
The contradictions of liberalism demonstrate why Hegel was such a brilliant observer of the problems of modernity (even if we demur with his conclusions). Zizek writes,
traditionally, each form of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other: liberal multiculturalist advocates of tolerance as a rule resist economic liberalism and try to protect the individual from unencumbered market forces, while market liberals as a rule advocate family values, and so on. We thus get the double paradox of the traditional Rightist supporting the market economy while rejecting the culture and mores that economy engenders, and his counterpoint, the Leftist, resisting the market while enthusiastically supporting the culture it engenders (p. 37).
This is Hegelian deconstruction of a false ideology at its best: demonstrate something is false by exposing the contradiction upon which it is built. However, like Hegel, Zizek shows that the advocate of liberalism cannot escape his plight because one Liberal cannot fully reject the “other” liberal. I suppose this is what Hegel meant in the “identify of identity and difference.”
Of course, I temper my praise somewhat. Most of Zizek’s theological conclusions, as well as morality, are suspect elsewhere.
If the First Act demonstrated the failure of capitalism and liberal democracy (praise be to thee, O Christ!),Act Three evaluates the problems in the many forms of Marxism. Ultimately, he examines the value-theory debate from many different Hegelian perspectives, offering an interesting take of Substance as that which is already lost but in whose loss reconciliation is possible.
His take on the Hegelian “Substance” as loss-in-giving reminds the Christian reader of the long-neglected doctrine of Kenosis. Following, he offers his own way out of the socialist-capitalist dilemma: a basic income society which gives away everything except the capitalist machine (236). This is interesting, but it doesn’t fully get away from the problem of the welfare mom staying home to watch Oprah while still getting full benefits. I am not convinced Zizek has gotten away from the standard market rebuttal: you get more of what you subsidize (laziness).
Zizek analyzes a lot of moments in the past fifty years that outwardly look like triumphs for socialism and Leftism (’68, the Obama presidency, etc.), but ended up strengthening the liberal-capitalist status quo. Zizek’s question in this chapter is how to overthrow the current system in a way that utilizes all of the anger of the “proletariat” without resorting to the violence that is so common to Leftism.
Similar to his critique of social liberalism in the first chapter, he is aware of potential problems in his analysis: does not Leftism negate many (all?) of our freedoms? Zizek mentions Sarah Palin’s “death-panel” objections to Obamacare. While I demur at Palin as much as the next person, Zizek mentioned but never answered Palin’s challenge: given limited resources (and hyper-incompetency) by the State that will necessarily follow Obamacare, which means that there will be limitations to these benefits, the government then will have to decide. Leftists might not like this reductio, but they still have to answer it.
The larger point is that Zizek makes a distinction between formal freedoms and actual freedoms: formal freedom is the freedom to choose within a set of coordinates while actual freedom is freedom on the more normal sense of the word (358). Zizek wants to negate the latter. We have freedom to choose between various sets of government-sponsored solutions. He does have a response to Palin: Obamacare can work because look at Scandinavia. Here’s why that is an inappropriate analogy: Scandinavian countries have good diets, a highly-literate populace, a homogenous population, and a strong work-force—qualities that are severely lacking in America.
Will it Work?
Will Zizek’s appeal to embrace a modified form of Communism that seeks to utilizes the passions of the Left without the violence of the Left? True, Occupy Wall-Street has since taken place, but the police and security have had little trouble dealing with the unwashed hippies who are just standing around. It does not seem like Zizek’s Leftism can be accomplished without violence. At this point, obviously, I am in full disagreement with Zizek.
The book is quite interesting and we should welcome is penetrating analysis of liberalism and capitalism. The book does suffer from a wandering argument and the conclusion either doesn’t go far enough or it goes too far.
*I’m willing to entertain the idea what we call capitalism today is not what Adam Smith had in mind
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