The Day After: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Žižek and Robert Eikmeyer
In the conversation that follows, Robert Eikmeyer sits down with Slavoj Žižek to discuss biopolitics, democracy as fetish, globalization as fate, principled opportunism, efficiency of masks, liberal communism, multitude, Vladimir Lenin, and the legacy of Karl Marx. This interview is excerpted from a German translation to be published in Jonathan Meese/Slavoj Žižek: Ernteschach dem Dämon, edited by Robert Eikmeyer for Christoph Keller Editions & JRP|Ringier, Zurich, 2007.
Robert Eikmeyer – In your essays on Lenin, you claim that between February and October of 1917 Russia was the most democratic country in Europe. Perhaps this is why Lenin insisted that revolution was necessary.
Slavoj Žižek – I think that Lenin was correct in thinking that it could not last. It was magical between February and October of that year. But it was clear that sooner or later it was going to come to an end. For me, this is what defines a truly revolutionary situation. In a reformist situation you have to be realist. You can’t have it all. You fight for what you can. But sometimes the situation is such that you have to aim at more even to save the little bit of what you have. And I think that was true for Russia in 1917. It was a truly revolutionary situation.
Eikmeyer – In many of your books you mention the paradox of forced choice. My understanding of this is that the so-called freedom of choice reflects the fact that we are unable to choose. Is your idea that Western capitalist democracy is unable to achieve liberty and justice?
Žižek – Here we have to be more precise. I am very much against this reductive Marxist criticism of formal democratic choices that do not in reality constitute any choice. Jacques Rancière has shown us that, in principle, Marx was correct. The reality of human rights is not as neutral as we might think. In fact, they have covertly privileged man and his property. So to say that this universality of human rights—a standard Ideologiekritik—is actually a mask that privileges particular interests. Rancière acknowledges that human rights are a mask. But let’s not forget that the mask is never only a mask. A mask has an efficiency of its own and can create a certain dialectic that can produce new possibilities.
We can look at the examples of the Women’s Rights Movement and the Haitian Revolution when women and blacks asked, “Why not us” The Haitian Revolution couldn’t have happened without the French Revolution. My friend Peter Hallward is writing a book about the Haitian Revolution. This event is really a weltgeschichtliches phenomenon. According to Susan Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution was a model reference for [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel when he was writing Herrschaft und Knechtschaft. Hegel was reading reports in the French press about Haiti.
While socialism may criticize the false democracy of human rights, the very space for this criticism was opened up by bourgeois democracy. To make freedom informal, you must first proclaim a formal principle of freedom.
I would like to organize a colloquium on the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat. Why dictatorship? For me, the issue is not dictatorship versus democracy. Rather, it has more to do with the need to be aware of how every democracy has a dictatorial aspect. The logic of power and the state apparatus has its own inertia. Another point is that we may democratically have a dialogue, but there is often violence in the background. It doesn’t matter how open the field is. For me to democratically acknowledge you, I need to enforce upon you a certain field consisting of rules and regulations. We need to be aware that underneath every partial political struggle is a much more radical struggle at work. It’s not a struggle of who will win within the field, but rather who will determine the field.
I know that it’s problematic to use the term proletariat today, but it stands for the idea that the ultimate emancipatory subjects are those who are members of a community or state but who don’t have a determinate place or identity within it. I think that all radical emancipatory projects must speak from this position of an unprivileged element that is somehow supposed to stand in for universality. This is the opposite of today’s biopolitics or this post-political regulation of life that respects difference. People think I’m crazy when I say that today we have a choice between democratic biopolitics or the dictatorship of the proletariat. I think that democratic biopolitics can be genuinely democratic, but the whole space is that of a democratically tolerant apartheid where each group has its own way of living. Here, the radical emancipatory universal impetus is threatened.
There was an opening during the years before and after the Iranian Revolution when even the Ayatollah Khomeini made reference to the proletariat. He didn’t want to say “working class” or “masses” so he resuscitated an older word meaning “those who are oppressed and downtrodden.” I think that we need to accept this notion of biopolitics as the fundamental coordinate of today’s politics. Biopolitics includes the brutal forms of regimentation that exist in our world as well as the desire to prevent human suffering. The old leftist paradigms of the communist and social democratic welfare states is lost. What came after that—what I ironically call liberal communism—doesn’t cover everything. A more radical emancipatory leftist way of thinking and acting needs to be reinvented. And this is what one should struggle for today.
Eikmeyer – You have referred to democracy as the master signifier of today’s global capitalism.
Žižek – My source is always Hollywood. Isn’t it paradoxical how even Hollywood films can afford to be anti-capitalist? Think about the standard conspiracy thrillers in Hollywood featuring some bad mega-corporation. The ideology of these films is that our societies are open enough for us to strike back. Have you seen United 93 (2006)? It’s about the hijacked plane that gets grounded by its passengers. The film gives you this hope that you can strike back. A leftist critic wrote something very ingenious. He suggested that something should have been done to make this film really shattering. He said keep the same story but without the redemptive moment when they strike back. In this way, we would be confronted with the true despair of the situation.
Democracy has been used as an ultimate reference. I’m referring to this on a deeper level than the standard idea that Americans are imposing their form of democracy. And here I’m even much more cynical and open than some of my leftist friends who have accused me of being pro-American and who automatically believe that whatever the United States does is bad. I’m talking about the way that democracy imposes itself today as this master signifier organizing the whole. This prevents us from seeing our true constraints and limitations. It gives us a false hope. The point is not to blame democracy, but to show how democracy functions today.
Globalization started to speak the language of fate when socialism and the welfare state were abandoned and disintegrated as alternatives in the early 1990s. Our only options were to either accommodate it or resist it. If you resist it you pay the price—you’re excluded. You go bankrupt, or whatever.
Eikmeyer – Why have you suggested that it is necessary to subvert Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach and his notion that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”?
Žižek – It’s important to be specific. Do you know who gave me this idea? Marx. In 1870, Marx wrote a very worried letter to Engels. The Paris Commune looked like a utopian prospect at this time and some thought that the European revolution was around the corner. In his letter, Marx states, “But wait a minute. I haven’t yet finished Capital. Can’t they wait?” This is the Marx that I like: “Fuck revolution, I want to finish my book.” We should learn from Marx and his idea to give more time to theory. This discourse of urgency is more and more predomiant today. Even rhetorically I find it disgusting. I hate attending lectures where some social critic says something like, “Are you aware that for every word that you used in your speech, ten children died of hunger in Africa?” or “Do you know that for every sentence that you uttered, a women was brutally raped in this country?” I’m deeply suspicious of this pseudo-sense of urgency. I think it’s the same as “act, so that you don’t have to think.”
Today, more than ever, we need time to think. This doesn’t mean that we don’t protest or do what’s possible. But let’s not behave as if everything is clear. “We just need to act.” But do what? Act how? Here I’m deeply skeptical. I don’t think we even have a really convincing theory of where we are today. We have these traditional theories that are either liberal theories asserting that “globalism is just capitalism doing better” or Marxist theories claiming that “it’s just the same thing going on.” Then we have these post-theories and theorists who are suggesting that something new is happening. Yet, I don’t think that we even know where we are. New forms are clearly taking shape. We only have to look at the situation in China today, where a new sub-species of capitalism has emerged.
I think that this discourse of urgency is not only unsubversive in relation to capitalism, but it fits in perfectly with what I mockingly refer to as Liberalkommunismus. Late capitalist humanitarians like George Soros and Bill Gates have contributed to this discourse of aid. I have argued that the United States should intervene. I don’t want to support the United States with this. But when critics of America—including Alain Badiou—continue to talk about diminishing suffering, what do they want? We have horrible examples of human suffering in Africa. I understand that there are those situations where the suffering is so terrible that help is accepted even if it comes from the devil. What interests me is not this simplistically moralistic opposition to United States, but the properly tragic dimension of it as an example.
There is also the war in Iraq. Let’s imagine George W. Bush being arrested and tried in a 1930s Stalinist trial. The charges against him would be clear. While Iraq was once a kind of an obstacle against Iran, the former is now more or less being politically delivered to the latter. The only conclusion for a good Vyshinsky-type prosecutor would be that Bush is an Iranian agent.
I’m not just moralistically attacking the United States. I’m just saying how Americans will pay the price for what is going on in Iraq. I agree with those liberals and some intelligent conservatives who claim that, in the long term, Bush represents a catastrophe for the United States—even for the interest of capital. I think that Al Gore would have been a much better president in serving the interests of the ruling class [laughs].
I think that we should criticize the Right without adopting a cheap moralism of the Left that simply masks impotence. Saying, “let’s stick to our principles,” can be the lowest form of opportunism. It indicates that you are not really ready to confront the new. Something really new is emerging today. It’s still capitalism, but what kind of capitalism I don’t agree with the details of Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s analysis. I think that it’s more a literary theory of anti-capitalism. And I think that it’s totally unworkable. Their multitude politics are approaching a deadlock. No wonder Negri is doing some crazy things. Now he likes to praise the emancipatory potentials of late digital speculative capitalism. When he was being interviewed in Brazil, he said that the most advanced capitalism is practically already communism. His idea was that we should join it and at a certain moment shift it a little. I don’t agree with this.
But there are two good things that Hardt and Negri are doing. First, we finally have a theory which, at least in a limited way, is a theory related to some kind of large-scale political movement. This is something to celebrate after two or three decades of the hegemony of the late Frankfurt School and the French deconstructionists. There was a certain kind of Marxism that was always at its best when things went wrong, resulting in a perfect Marxist theory of why things went so wrong. This is the first thing. The second thing is that Hardt and Negri are aware that today’s capitalism is something new. They call it “empire.” I don’t agree with their solutions. I don’t even agree with the way they formulate the problems. But at least they’re dealing with the right problems and the prospect of some kind of collective subjectivity, and collective action.
Eikmeyer – Maybe the situation here is similar to that one of Lenin in 1917 in that we are also approching a deadlock. For example, today’s capitalism is already a multitude capitalism.
Žižek – People ask me, “But what’s wrong today?” We may have a relatively prosperous liberal democracy, but every day I read all about torture and apartheid. Both are signs of our time. I am pessimistic. Even with the current freedoms that we enjoy, the system will have to curtail them further. Some claim that I exaggerate but I think that a couple of things will have to happen. The first is that the United States will have to renounce its goal to spread democracy. I think that the truth of globalization is that the more commodities circulate, the more populations will be prevented to circulate. The problem is not that we want more. And the problem is that it will be either more or much less. I don’t think that the present model of democracy, with its relative levels of freedom, can survive for very long.
Eikmeyer – But capitalism has this tremendous regenerative power. Don’t you think that it’s unstoppable?
Žižek – Here I remain an old fashioned Marxist in that I think the inner tensions of capitalism are approaching a point of explosion. I have a whole series of reasons for this. Not all of them have to do with ecology. I don’t think that this external shock theory works like the secret hope of some ecologists.
Eikmeyer – No, it’s more that capitalism will solve these ecological problems.
Žižek – Let’s imagine a mega-catastrophe: Europe is slowly being covered by water and we are forced to move to the North Pole. My prediction is that this will be turned into an extremely productive new field of capitalist investments. I don’t believe in the theory of external shock. What interests me more are these problems. This is today’s dogma. The property is not so much the property of material means of production but knowledge, patents, and intellectual property. But for me the very form of property is approaching its limits. I simply think that capitalist ideology will no longer work at that point. Even if there are signs of limitation, it is a sobering step to say that capitalism is indestructible. To admit this is at least the first step towards getting rid of this simplistic and moralistic reliance on the old Marxist hope that capitalism will just ruin itself. What greater proof is there than China? If there was an attempt to really go to the end, it was Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And that’s now its objective result. It is the most explosive and thriving capitalist economy that you can imagine now.
Eikmeyer – In the end, I think we should talk about the alternatives to capitalism. The present situation in the EU is similar to the days of the Communist Manifesto. There is a holy alliance that fears the ghost of an alternative. How would this alternative look today? You describe democracy as a fetish to cover up or blur the current social hierarchy. The alternative is not communism, is it?
Žižek – Names are open here. I’m even ready to call it communism. But what does it mean? I’m ready to strategically stick to the word “communism” but mostly for negative reasons. I want to signal the necessity of a more radical step. Sometimes you have to adopt a position, not for what it is in itself, but to create an open space that exists only as a negative option. This is why I have written about progressive Eurocentrism. Today we have two global models: American-style capitalism and Asian-style capitalism. I don’t want to live in a world where these are the only choices. So Europe interests me more in a negative way. I don’t have such a great trust in underdeveloped countries. I think that many of them desire to enter some kind of exploitative symbiosis with the super developed countries. I think that if something new emerges, it will be from post-industrial countries that were once the centre of industrial production but are now still living in the shadows. I am thinking of the ones that haven’t yet found a way to fit into the newly emerging global constellation. This is for me the interesting thing about Europe. Obviously, with the way globalization is progressing at the moment, Europe is the loser. But I think that all historical progress goes like this. The loser has to be reinvented in order to redefine the global coordinates.
Democracy today works like a fetish that prevents us from seeing something. In this sense, democracy does not need to be rejected but questioned instead. What does democracy mean? How does it function today? It’s crucial to somehow confront and question this pseudo-postmodern ideology of “emerging properties” and “spontaneous self-organization.” It is more than obvious that this functions as ideology. But this is only one side of it. The other side is the unheard-of strengthening of state apparatuses. The United States has emerged as an extremely strong organized state apparatus which is engaged in a very global project of war and terror. It is necessary for us to break this pseudo-postmodern spell of self-organization and instead rehabilitate the logic of large collective actions. Why not even collective discipline? I think we are all too infected with this postmodern liberal ideology that posits collective discipline as proto-fascist.
My only optimism comes from my pessimism. What I am saying is that capitalism is generating tensions and catastrophic potentials within its own field. It will not be able to maintain control indefinitely. As a result, we will be forced to act in a utopian way. True utopia is not: “Oh, we’re doing well but why don’t we dream of doing even better” For me, true utopia is born out of being in a totally desperate situation where you simply cannot survive within the existing coordinates and it becomes a matter of survival to invent something new. I think that we will be forced into this. But, of course, that’s no guarantee that the result will be positive.
I think that another crucial thing for the Left is to overcome this fascination with the revolutionary event. Here I am referring to this idea of the event as being a carnivalesque liberation that takes places before things go back to normal. What interests me more and more is the day after. The only measure of the greatness of the event is how it succeeds in structuring everyday life.
For me, the truly interesting part is where failure takes place. The real battle was after the October Revolution when the most elementary rituals of everyday life had to be reinvented. But again, I think the situation is very dark. It cannot go on indefinitely. There will be explosion, but hopefully this will push us into something.
About the Authors
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek was politically active in the alternative movement in Slovenia during the 1980s and a presidential candidate in 1990. He has published numerous books including, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (Verso, 2004) and The Parallax View (MIT, 2006).
Robert Eikmeyer is a writer, curator, and media-artist based in Pforzheim, Germany.