The key to reading Slavoj Žižek is not to take him too seriously. His writing can be difficult to follow at the best of times. His thoughts trail across the page like a series of intellectual paroxysms. For the uninitiated, this apparent chaos can be alarming, giving the impression that Žižek is actually a charlatan. Beneath all his idiosyncrasies and highfalutin allusions to Hegel, Lacan, and so on and so on, perhaps there is simply no there there. That is certainly the opinion of Noam Chomsky, who describes Žižek’s work as “theoretical posturing which has no content”. Chomsky misses the point. For Žižek, the chaos is deliberate. Madness is the method. Understanding this is the first step to properly critiquing Žižek’s work.
Pick up any Žižek text, and you will find no shortage of paradoxes, juxtapositions, and jokes. Heaven in Disorder (2021) is no exception. As I said, these juxtapositions have a point. Žižek’s aim is to puncture our everyday mode of thought, which, by default, is a mode of thinking that tends to reinforce the status quo. By exposing contradiction through the use of seemingly absurd comparisons, we are forced to confront our reality anew. One such example has been lingering on my mind for weeks now. Žižek reminds us that the immediate catalyst for the Hong Kong student protests was opposition to a proposed extradition treaty which would allow those accused of crimes (read: oppose the Chinese Communist Party) to be extradited to mainland China. Such mass opposition highlights Hong Kong’s defence of its own legal system. Compare that with the request that the United Kingdom extradite Julian Assange to the United States to face trial for exposing war crimes. The UK government, and by and large the British population, have acquiesced. Žižek concludes: “…the United Kingdom is more subservient to the United States than Hong Kong is to China”.
Is this literally true? No, not really. Of course the UK is far more of a sovereign entity than Hong Kong, which has and continues to have serious disagreements with the United States. Still, the fact that this comparison appears even remotely legitimate forces us to confront the absurdity of our current position. Why is there not more opposition to the United States’ request, even if only on the grounds of state sovereignty? As an Australian, it strikes me how our government has simply left one of our own out to wither away in solitary confinement, aided by the silence of the Australian media. And yet how easily we praise those brave Hong Kong protestors for defending their legal sovereignty. Again, Žižek’s aim is not to literally say that the United Kingdom is an American vassal state, but to prompt us to think: whose interests does such lopsided attention serve?
Heaven in Disorder (2021) contains many such examples which cause a momentary rupture in the dominant ideology. To linger on them all would be a disservice. Instead, we should say something about the underlying purpose of the book, which is suggested by its title. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it seemed that the riddle of human history had been solved: humanity was progressively hurtling towards universal rule by liberal democratic capitalism. This would be the final destination in humankind’s socio-political development. Such was Francis Fukuyama’s infamous ‘end of history’ thesis. The benefit of this analysis was that it provided a coherent, overarching framework for interpreting political affairs. Events could be understood as either hurting or helping liberalism’s inevitable expansion. Thus, while events on Earth might be in disorder (terrorism, recessions, civil wars, etc.), our ideology (heaven) provided an orderly reference point. This is what Chairman Mao meant he said: “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.” Although China faced great upheavals, the situation was excellent because they provided the opportunity to implement a Communist revolution. Žižek’s point is that today, our ruling ideology is no longer capable of providing order and meaning to political events. There is great disagreement on where human history is headed. Our crisis is one of ideology: how do we interpret political events in the twenty-first century? Heaven itself is in disorder.
This is an astute analysis. In many ways, our political language maps poorly onto current realities. We are stuck within the philosophical coordinates provided by the European Enlightenment. We know that this is insufficient, but we cannot seem to break through into something new. This echoes Gramsci’s famous observation that our “crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Today, morbid symptoms abound. Climate change, rising inequality, rising ethno-nationalism, a war in Europe and geopolitical tensions in Asia, all these threaten to completely upend liberal democratic capitalism. Still, most proposed solutions exist within the liberal-democratic-capitalist framework: tax this, deregulate that, rebuild the welfare state, and so on. This is ironic, given that today’s problems were largely caused by contradictions within liberal capitalism itself. To take one popular example, the drive for constant growth that undergirds capitalism has caused human populations to expand into animal habitats, increasing the risk of ‘zoonotic spill over’, the spreading of diseases from animals to humans. Our inability to move beyond the current way of doing things is having disastrous consequences.
So what does Žižek say we should do about all of this? Can order return to heaven? Counterintuitively – or perhaps not, if you are familiar with dialectics – Žižek demands that the Left take liberalism more seriously than liberals do. Here Žižek admits that Marxism and Communism are themselves sublimations of the Enlightenment ideal: they are emancipatory politics taken to their logical extremity. This is why Žižek is such an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders. Sanders-style ‘democratic socialism’ is really just reheated social democracy. Its moral force rests upon the profoundly liberal ideal that every individual has inherent worth and dignity. For Žižek, the only way past liberal capitalism is through it. At first, this might sound absurd, but there is more than a grain of truth to Žižek’s approach. In Australia, I am fond of saying “there is nothing liberal about the Liberal party”. One could broaden this and say: there is nothing liberal about Really-Existing-Liberal-Democracies. Freedom of speech, the right to vote, privacy, checks and balances on executive power, all these things are under assault across the West, paradoxically in the name of freedom. Is the goal of the Left to uphold these principles, in the hope that liberalism’s ideals will enable it to transcend itself? Žižek would not want us to make a prediction, for his entire philosophical system rests on the idea that the future is radically open-ended. It will be true if we make it true.
Overall, Žižek’s analysis takes us to roaring theoretical heights, only to land back where most of us began. Fittingly, his final chapter is entitled “Why I Am Still a Communist”. In terms of solutions, it appears there is nothing new under heaven.
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