Apparently, Slavoj Žižek likes to talk. That is the conclusion to which any interviewer would surely come. With only a few questions posed, he happily charges between topics that he wants to address – whether or not they are related to those questions – on the back of powerful trains of thought and not insubstantial charisma. It is not hard to see why the Slovenian Marxist has such a following, even though Marxism perhaps no longer has the sheen of glamour it once did. To begin, I ask him whether the ‘culture war’ is a continuation of class struggle, and the first of these trains starts:
“No. Okay, I will be more precise. It is, but in a displaced, mystified form. In the same sense that antisemitism, let’s be fair, is a continuation of class struggle. Because the figure of the Jew – the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew – condenses precisely the extremes of both classes. Jews [according to anti-Semites] are speculating, lazy – but at the same time they smell bad, they work too hard and so on. So, it definitely is, but in a mystified, displaced way.” An interesting thought, but apparently there isn’t time to explain what the analogue in contemporary political discourse is (perhaps the opposing figures of the old white racist man and the snowflake on campus also have classist connotations?), because Žižek has already moved onto explaining his problem with contemporary forms of leftist populism.
“It [is] a beautiful formula, and [the anti-austerity party] Podemos in Spain especially practice it in a certain way. As their leader [Pablo] Iglesias once said – he used the ‘F’ word, not me – ‘F**k Marxism, Ideology, Socialism, Capitalism! There are ordinary people out there with their problems, their anxieties, their desires. Let’s get in contact with them, let’s listen to them.’ Sorry, I don’t believe in this. I think – and it’s a very tragic thing – I think the problems we are facing today are not problems which can be so easily coordinated with the experiences, crises and so on of ordinary people.”
He illustrates this point with the environment. While ordinary people “feel it when it’s hot or whatever”, the consensus of approaching climate catastrophe is based predominantly on pieces of scientific evidence “which to most of us, let’s be frank, don’t mean anything.” Not that Žižek denies climate change. “I’m just saying that I’m […] no longer this traditional Marxist who thinks we have a big problem today and that this problem can be resolved by mobilizing the gut feeling of ordinary people.”
I try to push him on whether this is a failure of Marxism, but barely get through half my sentence before Žižek’s arms go up, and he exclaims: “Why failure?” Not leaving space for a response, he moves on to “the great intellectual figure who was here [at the Cambridge Union] a week ago, Jordan Peterson – he uses the term ‘cultural Marxism’ – which is, I think, total nonsense. This ‘political correctness’, blah blah blah, this is not Marxism […] If I may use – consciously to provoke – old-fashioned, hardline, almost Stalinist Marxist terms, this is a typical petty bourgeois moralizing as a defense against true political, economic, social radicalization.” This kind of denunciation of the social left is perhaps why he makes period off-hand remarks about being lynched, and why he claims to have fallen from favour in America, though he makes no direct attack on students or young people, common targets for critics of identity politics.
Žižek, of course, has quite a substantial following, but his political alignment sets him apart from the wave of popular figures, including Peterson, representing what might simplistically be termed the YouTube Right. I wonder if charisma is inherently politicized? “I would say that I’m not afraid of personal charismatic authorities. They are obviously needed. Let’s not dismiss the figure of an authentic master. An authentic master is not the one like Stalinists, who giv[e] the orders, know better than you what you want. When we are caught in our daily lives, we are in an inertia, and the master is simply the one who kicks us […] As it were, the message of a true master is: ‘You can do it better, you can change.’ That’s all the master does. Later when you do it, I am always sympathetic to the idea that then you chop off the head of the master…” Perhaps sensitivity is not, after all, what won him his fans.
Neither, apparently, is respect for easy answers. I ask if he is an optimist, and he starts off: “No – ah – I am an optimist because of my pessimism.” This thought, which surely needs clarification, is immediately interrupted by another one: “But another thing. You know what for me is the danger? We don’t have only these alt-right new masters. Did you notice a strange thing lately – the appearance of a very weird, let’s call it a new corporate organic intellectual – Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos – they even think capitalism has reached its limits. They are for me almost more dangerous because they are the intelligent capitalists who see clearly that capitalism the way we have it cannot survive. But the model they are proposing is, as it were, capitalism without capitalism. But again, don’t forget about this phenomenon which is tragic: the left has no idea about how to really move beyond capitalism.” He then refers back to my original question: “So again, I am [an] optimist, because, you know, we are in a very dangerous situation.”
By ‘dangerous situation’ he doesn’t just mean the lack of a clear leftist alternative to capitalism; rather, he segues to an even more alarmist topic: “Are we aware that the big powers are seriously preparing for a new war? What is China doing, Russia, not to mention the United States? They of course claim they will never begin it, but they are all preparing for it, that’s why for the situation now, [fascism before World War II] is not a good analogy – it’s the decades before World War I. Nobody thought war [was] possible, we had, in Europe at least, fifty years of incredible progress and so on and we know what kind of absolute shock the war, the explosion was.”
A strange way for an optimist to talk, perhaps. Seemingly profound and entertaining insights aplenty come from the mouth of ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’, but given that the number of his published books is approaching the hundred mark, perhaps it is not surprising that he cannot explain his view of the world, with its underlying synthesis of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory, in a few short minutes. Or perhaps he just knows how to captivate better than anyone.