Reviewed by Sean Ledwith
At the end of 2016, numerous pundits noted the widespread perception that the previous twelve months had witnessed a concatenation of seemingly disastrous events: the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, brutal ISIS attacks on Paris and Nice, and the deaths of creative icons such as Prince, David Bowie and George Michael. At the end of the following year, Jeremiahs among the commentariat were highlighting Trump threatening to launch nuclear war against North Korea, the faltering progress of Brexit and another tranche of celebrity deaths. Slavoj Zizek’s latest book, The Courage of Hopelessness, poses the question of what should be an appropriate Marxist response to these eschatological outpourings.
Of course, Zizek rightly reminds us that there are even more formidable structural and systemic cracks in the global system of late capitalism that threaten humanity more seriously than any of the above: ‘all particular dangers-global warming, dying of the oceans etc.-are aspects of a derailment of the entire life reproduction system on earth [sic]’ (xix). Zizek‘s recommendation for a strategic response from the left is characteristically idiosyncratic and counter-intuitive. He suggests we accept the probability that the capitalist system is locked into a terminal trajectory that will ultimately destroy the human race; but at the same time, we summon up a willingness to fight on, recognising that the emancipatory project is unlikely to prevail. He contends that: ‘true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching as from the opposite direction’ (xii).
Zizek progresses to assess a number of the fundamental geopolitical fault lines developing in the 21st century. The book has the form of a collection of loosely connected essays, as opposed to a coherent and logical explication of a viewpoint, and alludes to a kaleidoscopic range of contemporary incidents and controversies. Reading Zizek here is the literary equivalent of channel-hopping, with a disorientating sequence of stories plucked from the headlines in a manner that often undermines the thread of his argument (in so far as there is one). The Charlie Hebdo attack, a drag queen winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, a suicidal German airline pilot, the Kardashians and many others jostle for attention.
His ‘Post-Marxist’ persona entails that Zizek often lands some effective punches on the absurdities and contortions of the global elite as they tighten their grip on power amid the unravelling crises. There is a stinging attack on the ‘hypocritical falsity’ of Western leaders who, holding hands, joined a demonstration of solidarity in Paris shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015 (138). There is a powerful critique of the ongoing charade of the Chinese ruling class that pays lip service to the ideals of communism, while simultaneously constructing a neoliberal state as rapacious as anything in the West. Zizek compares them to the alien invaders from a contemporary science-fiction novel: ‘the Communist Party is itself this last wave of counter-revolution and the communist cadre fighting for the party are the executioners of this last wave of capitalism, like the trained children in The 5th Wave’ (104).
Just as often, however, Zizek’s political radar is poorly calibrated and he engages in polemics that would not look out of place in the pages of The Daily Mail. There is an extensive assault on the rise of transgender politics in the West, which Zizek essentially regards as a middle-class indulgence. He pours scorn on the campaigns in the US for gender-neutral bathrooms: ‘If they so proudly insist on their trans-, beyond all classification, why do they display such an urgent demand for a proper place?’ (207). The Kurdish female fighters of the PKK are dismissed as ‘butch lesbians…displaying their dildos (masculine guns) in order to impress the figure of their Zionist-secular big Other’ (202).
There is a particularly poorly timed excoriation of the #MeToo movement, which exploded into global consciousness last year and put endemic sexism front and centre of public debate. Zizek contends ‘that this higher visibility is profoundly ambiguous: it signals the fact that feminist awareness has penetrated general culture, but it also neutralises the impact of violence against women, rendering it tolerable and standardized’ (200). Despite his self-proclaimed Hegelian credentials, Zizek is guilty in these instances are being insufficiently dialectical. His overall critique of these forms of resistance is that they are inadequately informed by class analysis and rely primarily on identity politics.
A genuine Hegelian approach to these expressions, however, would accept that the potential for such co-optation is real; and yet so is the potential for such political expressions to be part of a unified assault on the elite. Zizek’s insinuation that transgender politics and feminism are peripheral to the socialist project overlooks the reality that for many activists today these ideologies are their paths towards a Marxist understanding; particularly when the latter remains contaminated in the eyes of many by the shadow of Stalinism.
Another focus is the ambiguous legacy of the Syriza government that came to power in Greece three years ago. How does a radical movement in 21st century Europe make the transition from its origin as a coalition of street protestors and outlier revolutionary groups, to an organisation that is elected to power and therefore has to run the apparatus of the state in a capitalist society? In the author’s words, from 2015, ‘Syriza engaged in a Herculean labour of enacting the shift from syntagm to paradigm, in the long and patient work of translating the energy of rebellion into concrete measures that would change the everyday life of the people’ (58). Zizek notes the decisive moment for this project of left reformism came in its first year in power when Syriza presented the Greek people with a referendum of whether to accept the conditions of the latest EU bailout plan. A healthy majority of voters gave the government a mandate to reject the diktat from Brussels and to hold out for a better deal. Alexis Tsipras and his ministers passed over the opportunity and subsequently Syriza has presided over a regime of austerity as punitive as anything recommended by its right-wing predecessors.
The Greek left now finds itself polarised between two main strategic responses: either accept the pragmatism of Tsipras that a leftist government is always preferable even if it is implementing a neoliberal agenda; or abandon the Syriza model and re-build from the bottom up a new socialist organisation with a clear goal of confrontation with the forces of the elite at home and abroad. Referring to two of the leading personalities in the debate, Zizek observes that: ‘while they both agree that Syriza’s surrender to EU pressure was a traumatic defeat, Kouvelakis rejects it as an unacceptable betrayal while Douzinas sees it as an enforced retreat that could be deftly exploited to lay the foundations of a new radical politics’ (45).
Although Zizek correctly identifies these two positions as the essential choice facing the Greek left, he refuses to explicitly endorse one or the other. He concludes his analysis of the Syriza scenario by implicitly supporting the agenda of Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic former finance minister who left the government following the capitulation to Brussels. Varoufakis proposed continued membership of the Eurozone but with a commitment to undermine the neoliberal framework from within. According to Zizek, ‘this would have been an authentic act, an act of disturbing the lines of separation that define the possibilities of a situation and intervening in the European system from within, enforcing a change in its rules’ (84).
The author does not elaborate on why we should believe that such an attempt would have ended any differently from previous left reformist governments that sought to change the system from within. Memories of Pinochet’s Chile have faded from the collective consciousness of the Western left but the tragic example of an elected socialist leader dying with a machine gun in his hand should be a salutary lesson that is never forgotten. Both Varoufakis and Zizek underestimate the ruthlessness of the global elite to drown leftist politicians in blood if necessary. Even this year we have witnessed the polished and urbane leaders of the EU conspicuously silent as the Spanish police cracked the skulls of Catalans trying to vote in a referendum on independence.
Apart from the ongoing debacle in Greece, the other aspect of EU policy that has sparked controversy in radical discourse has been the fallout from the 2016 Brexit referendum. Like most on the left, Zizek, interprets the outcome in a largely negative manner. The Leave vote, he argues, was compromised mainly of ‘right wing patriots, popular nationalists fuelled by the fear of immigrants, mixed with desperate working class rage … is such a mixture of patriotic racism with the rage of ordinary people not the ideal ground for a new form of fascism?’ (243). Once more, Zizek’s deployment of dialectics is undercooked. Rather than a ‘new form of fascism’, since the referendum the UK has witnessed the implosion of UKIP and the exponential expansion of the Labour Party to become the biggest political party in Western Europe
A truly dialectical analysis of the Leave vote would acknowledge the racist rhetoric of the debate on both sides (including Cameron’s stigmatisation of Turkey as part of the Remain campaign). However, the predominance of the Leave vote in working class and deindustrialised zones of the UK should alert everyone on the left to the necessity of recognising it, at least in part, as the articulation of an anti-capitalist and anti-establishment mentality among those left behind by the ravages of decades of neoliberalism.
Zizek is nearer the mark in his analysis of the Trump phenomenon in the US. He rightly condemns Democrat Party insiders who ridicule both the new President and those who voted for him, and who overlook the manner in which Obama and his putative successor paved the way for the electoral earthquake of 2016. Hillary Clinton ‘did not lose because she moved too much to the left but precisely because she was too centrist and in this way failed to capture the anti-establishment revolt that sustained both Trump and Sanders’ (263). The lesson of both the Brexit and Trump shockwaves should be that the neoliberal consensus of the fin-de-siècle has been shattered by the unfolding impact of the 2008 crash. The inspiring Corbyn and Sanders surges also indicate that, as an alternative, we do not need to resort to the ‘courage of hopelessness’ as recommended by the author. These developments are part of growing evidence that young people across Western Europe and North America now look upon the idea of socialism more favourably than recent generations. They are the best reason to believe the light at the end of the tunnel is something more hopeful than Zizek’s oncoming train of aloof pessimism.
28 March 2018