Why Slavoj Žižek is a communist, kind of

We know he is on the left, but why? And how left is left anyhow?

Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
  • Slavoj Žižek is perhaps the world's best known Marxist.
  • He has frequently argued for the replacement of capitalism with a new system.
  • His suggestions for what we do about capitalism are milder than you'd think though.

Slavoj Žižek has been called "The most dangerous philosopher in the West" and a "Superstar Communist." His critiques of capitalism are scathing, the portraits of Stalin in the den unsettling, and his decision to choose to sell out to Abercrombie and Fitch rather than a tenure board entertaining.

Žižek is open about his leftist tendencies, and the above examples show how he frequently demonstrates them. But why is he a commie? Most people on his side quit after 1989. What gives?

​Why ​Zizek is Red​

Once a member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until he left in protest against it along with many other intellectuals, he continues to support the political left, oppose capitalism, and position himself as the most famous communist in the West long after the fall of the USSR and Red Yugoslavia.

His critiques of capitalism have been laid out in several books, lectures, films, and interviews. He opposes capitalism for several reasons, but above all is a very Hegelian and Marxist line of thinking; that capitalism if full of contradictions which will catch up with it someday, and we ought to replace it before that happens.

Of course, these contradictions will cause it to collapse at some point anyway; or so the argument goes. Don't take my word for it, he explained it himself:

"Today's left effectively offers global capitalism with a human face, more tolerance, more rights and so on. So the question is, is this enough or not? Here I remain a Marxist: I think not. I see a series of, to use this ridiculous old-fashioned term, contradictions, or I would have said antagonisms, tensions, from ecology, intellectual copyrights, new slumps excluded, where I think in the long term the global capitalist system will not be able to cope with these tensions."

He has also appealed to other common rationales for supporting the political left, including the idea that neo-liberalism will lead to fascism over time as it decays, that the exploitative nature of capitalism is unjust, and a genuine fear of the rise of a new "authoritarian capitalism" if the left doesn't act.

How exactly his leftist worldview manifests itself in political terms is difficult to pin down. While he is often called a communist, he dubbed himself a "radical leftist" a few years back and added that he was only a "conditional" communist. During his recent debate with Jordan Peterson, he claimed not to be a communist at all while still defending Marx.

He has also admitted to doing some of what he does for the joy of provocation. Those images of Stalin he keeps in his house are the best example. How much of a "commie" he is can be debated, though his dedication to the basic ideas of the left is beyond dispute.

He is a Marxist, isn't he? Or is that just to rile us up too?

As is everything with Žižek, this is a matter of some debate.

That critique mentioned above of capitalism is a fundamentally Marxist one. He continues to write articles critiquing modern society using Marxism in one breath while pointing out flaws in Marxist thought in another. A the end of the day, he is working within a Marxist context and using terms, like ideology, in a distinctly Marxist sense.

If that doesn't make one a Marxist, I don't know what does.

The objections to the idea that he is a Marxist tend to come from those more dedicated to the ideological line than he is. In a Jacobin article, Žižek was critiqued for his "bourgeois pessimism" and for calling himself a Marxist without also calling for more radical change. Similar criticisms can be found elsewhere.

So, what would he have us do right now then? Hang the last capitalist with the robes of the last priest?

Despite his love of a provocative statement and left-wing views, the positions he calls for us to take right now are quite mild. In the above Big Think interview, he even goes so far as to admit that the left doesn't have a great idea of what to do the day after it wins and suggests we should all go back to the drawing board.

He further clarified his position by saying, "I may still be a kind of a Marxist but I'm very realistic, I don't have these dreams of revolutions around the corner." It seems he wants us to replace capitalism but not before we figure out what to do next.

His activities are both confusing and can be seen as following this rationale. In 1990, he ran for the Presidency of Slovenia as a member of the then-powerful Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a social liberal party in the middle of the political spectrum. This action becomes stranger when you look at his claim that that liberalism would decay into fascism over time we mentioned.

He also endorsed Trump, though that was in hopes he would serve as a wake up call for the American left.

More recently, in his "debate" with Jordan Peterson, Žižek surprised more than a few people by not so much defending Marxism, which was his designated stance at the start of the debate, but by advocating for a better-regulated capitalism. His famous lack of consistency is on full display when he says capitalism needs to be better regulated while defending the Marxist line, but there is a method in his madness when he at once calls for us to take the limited step reform before moving into uncharted revolutionary waters.

He also calls for us to examine our "ideology." Using the term in a Marxist sense, he refers to the unspoken assumptions we make about the world, society, and our place in it that help to maintain the social, political, and economic systems around us. Žižek argues that as an ideology, liberal capitalism is so entrenched, so pervasive, so thoroughly accepted that most people are incapable of even imagining another system; they just think the current model is "natural" or "the only way."

He rejects this, and demands that you question everything. In the end, isn't that what a good thinker should do?

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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