- 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?