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Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of[…]

Slavoj ZizekCapitalism is . . . and this, almost I’m tempted to say is what is great about it, although I’m very critical of it . . . Capitalism is more an ethical/religious category for me.  It’s not true when people attack capitalists as egotists.  “They don't care.”  No!  An ideal capitalist is someone who is ready, again, to stake his life, to risk everything just so that production grows, profit grows, capital circulates.  His personal or her happiness is totally subordinated to this.  This is what I think Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt School companion, thinker, had in mind when he said capitalism is a form of religion.  You cannot explain, account for, a figure of a passionate capitalist, obsessed with expanded circulation, with rise of his company, in terms of personal happiness.

I am, of course, fundamentally anti-capitalist.  But let’s not have any illusions here.  No.  What shocks me is that most of the critics of today’s capitalism feel even embarrassed, that's my experience, when you confront them with a simple question, “Okay, we heard your story . . . protest horrible, big banks depriving us of billions, hundreds, thousands of billions of common people's money. . . . Okay, but what do you really want?  What should replace the system?”  And then you get one big confusion. You get either a general moralistic answer, like “People shouldn't serve money.  Money should serve people.”  Well, frankly, Hitler would have agreed with it, especially because he would say, “When people serve money, money’s controlled by Jews,” and so on, no?  So either this or some kind of a Keynesian social democracy, or a simple moralistic critique, and so on and so on.  So, you know, it’s easy to be just formally anti-capitalist, but what does it really mean?  It’s totally open.  

This is why, as I always repeat, with all my sympathy for Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s result was . . . I call it a Bartleby lesson.  Bartleby, of course, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, you know, who always answered his favorite “I would prefer not to” . . . The message of Occupy Wall Street is, I would prefer not to play the existing game.  There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the existing forms of institutionalized democracy are not strong enough to deal with problems.  Beyond this, they don't have an answer and neither do I.  For me, Occupy Wall Street is just a signal.  It’s like clearing the table.  Time to start thinking.

The other thing, you know, it’s a little bit boring to listen to this mantra of “Capitalism is in its last stage.”  When this mantra started, if you read early critics of capitalism, I’m not kidding, a couple of decades before French Revolution, in late eighteenth century.  No, the miracle of capitalism is that it’s rotting in decay, but the more it’s rotting, the more it thrives.  So, let’s confront that serious problem here. 

Also, let’s not remember--and I’m saying this as some kind of a communist--that the twentieth century alternatives to capitalism and market miserably failed. . . . Like, okay, in Soviet Union they did try to get rid of the predominance of money market economy.  The price they paid was a return to violent direct master and servant, direct domination, like you no longer will even formally flee.  You had to obey orders, a new authoritarian society. . . . And this is a serious problem: how to abolish market without regressing again into relations of servitude and domination.

My advice would be--because I don't have simple answers--two things: (a) precisely to start thinking.  Don't get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure.  Do something. Let’s do it, and so on.  So, no, the time is to think.  I even provoked some of the leftist friends when I told them that if the famous Marxist formula was, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is to change it” . . . thesis 11 on Feuerbach. . . that maybe today we should say, “In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly.  The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.” 

Second thing, I’m not saying people are suffering, enduring horrible things, that we should just sit and think, but we should be very careful what we do.  Here, let me give you a surprising example.  I think that, okay, it’s so fashionable today to be disappointed at President Obama, of course, but sometimes I’m a little bit shocked by this disappointment because what did the people expect, that he will introduce socialism in United States or what?  But for example, the ongoing universal health care debate is an important one.  This is a great thing.  Why?  Because, on the one hand, this debate which taxes the very roots of ordinary American ideology, you know, freedom of choice, states wants to take freedom from us and so on.  I think this freedom of choice that Republicans attacking Obama are using, its pure ideology.  But at the same time, universal health care is not some crazy, radically leftist notion.  It’s something that exists all around and functions basically relatively well--Canada, most of Western European countries. 

So the beauty is to select a topic which touches the fundamentals of our ideology, but at the same time, we cannot be accused of promoting an impossible agenda--like abolish all private property or what.  No, it’s something that can be done and is done relatively successfully and so on.  So that would be my idea, to carefully select issues like this where we do stir up public debate but we cannot be accused of being utopians in the bad sense of the term.


Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd