Philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that our current brand of global capitalism is quickly outgrowing democracy and that a divorce between the two is inevitable. This leads to an array of social and geopolitical concerns regarding the public commons. These problems include but are not limited to ecology, biogenetics, finance, neo-apartheid, crisis management, intellectual property rights, and personal freedom. Žižek touches on all these topics and more in this epic delivery of political and social theory.
Slavoj Zizek: Well people often ask me how can you be so stupid and still proclaim yourself a communist. What do you mean by this? Well, I have always to emphasize that first I am well aware that let’s call it like this – the twentieth century’s over. Which means all not only communists solution but all the big leftist projects of the twentieth century failed. Not only did Stalinist communism although there its failure is much more paradoxical. Most of the countries where communists are still in power like China, Vietnam – their communists in power appear to be the most efficient managers of a very wildly productive capitalism. So okay, that one failed. I think that also and here I in a very respectful way disagree with your – by your I mean American neo-Keynesian leftists, Krugman, Stiglitz and so on. I also think that this Keynesian welfare state model is passé. In the conditions of today’s global economy it no longer works. For the welfare state to work you need a strong nation state which can impose a certain fiscal politics and so on and so on. When you have global market it doesn’t work. And the third point which is most problematic for my friends, the third leftist vision which is deep in the heart of all leftists that I know – this idea of critically rejecting alienated representative democracy and arguing for local grass root democracy where it’s not that you just delegate to the others. Your representatives to act for you, but people immediately engage in locally managing their affairs and so on.
I think this is a nice idea as far as it goes but it’s not the solution. It’s a very limited one. And if I may be really evil here I frankly I wouldn’t like to live in a stupid society where I would have to be all the time engaged in local communitarian politics and so on and so on. My idea is to live in a society where some invisible alienated machinery takes care of things so that I can do whatever I want – watch movies, read and write philosophical books and so on. But so I’m well aware that in all its versions radical left projects of the twentieth century came to an end and for one decade maybe we were all Fukuyamaists for the nineties. By Fukuyamaism I mean the idea that basically we found if not the best formula at least the least bad formula. Liberal democratic capitalism with elements of rebel state and so on and so on. And even the left played this game. You know we were fighting for less racism, women’s right, gay rights, whatever tolerance. But basically we accepted the system. I think and even Fukuyama himself is no longer a Fukuyamaist as I know that if there is a lesson of September 11 if other event is that no we don’t have the answer. That not only is liberal democratic capitalism not the universal model and is just a time of slow historical progress for it to be accepted everywhere. But again try now in Singapore and other examples of very successful economies today demonstrate that this, let’s call it ironically eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism it’s coming to an end.
What we are more and more getting today is a capitalism which is brutally efficient but it no longer needs democracy for its functioning. That’s my first point. My second point is that the problems that we are confronting today we can list them in different ways but my point is they are all problems of commons. For example, ecology it’s clearly a problem of commons. Nature our natural environment is our commons, something which shouldn’t be privatized because it belongs to all of us. It’s as it were the background or literally the ground of our being. And it’s clear for me that here we need to reinvent not local democracy but on the contrary also large scale solutions. The problem today is not local communitarian democracy. The problem today is how it regulates trends worldwide. Because even here I almost admire the – if I may use this old fashioned Marxist terms the ruling ideology, no. Like turning the cards upon us and making us individually guilty like did you separate all diet Coke cans. Did you separate all the newspapers and so on. I mean I find it ridiculous how not only are we made responsible. Instead of blaming not some person but the system as such how to reorganize our lives. But this solution also allows us an easy way out. Then as if you recycle, you buy green products and so on and you feel well, you did your duty.
And another example that I use again and again – Starbucks coffee and others. I think it’s something very ingenious that capitalists there. You know when you enter a Starbucks place they always tell you, you know, we take care of nature, five percent of our profits go for Guatemalan rainforest, for Somalian children, whatever. I think this is ingenious that when we are consumerists we feel bad. Oh my God, I’m just a consumerist. People are starving there. We are ruining Mother Earth. But here the message is our coffee is a little bit more expensive but the ideological price to do something for Mother Earth is included into it, you know. I even – that would be my idea, Starbucks you know, how they bring your bill when you pay check and then it says that – how do they call it this additional federal tax or whatever so much. I would love to have it where they would put it, you know, three percent for helping Mother Earth included, five percent for Guatemala orphans included. And it makes you feel good and so on. So what I’m saying is that, for example, this is one example of endangered commons where I’m not underestimating capitalism here. Of course one should use all capitalists and market tools like higher taxes for polluters and all of that.
But you cannot control in this way real ecological catastrophes. Imagine Fukushima which happened an earthquake and all that in Japan. Now it would be a couple of years ago. Imagine the same thing just some – it’s quite realistic act of imagining – just some two, three times stronger which means that probably the whole northern third of Japan would have to be evacuated. How to confront this? Who will do it and so on and so on. We need a solution here and the problem is the commons. Next point. Finances. Everyone knows that some type of regulation is needed otherwise the way banks function today it’s simply even from the standpoint of let’s call it naively rational capitalism. It no longer works. Another thing – so called intellectual property. Jeremy Rifkin pointed out how we are already almost approaching there a kind of a weird communism. I don’t know how it is here with you but in my part of Europe, DVDs are disappearing. You download everything. It’s – I think – okay this is one phenomenon but I think that generally there is something in so called intellectual property, knowledge and so on which is communist in its very nature in the sense that it resists being constrained by private profit. It tends to circulate freely.
So again how to solve this problem? I don’t think that capitalism will succeed in privatizing intellectual property. Next point biogenetics. Are we aware what is happening today? I mean I don’t want to exaggerate and I’m not a panic monger. I’m not saying tomorrow we will be robots. I’m just saying that two things are happening which are more and more reality. A, that and this is something so tremendously important philosophically. Direct contact between the inside of our brain, our thoughts, and outside like we all know, for example, that today still at a very primitive level but we can directly wire our brain so that machine can read it direct – and, for example, Stephen Hawking no longer will have needed his finger. Now he was functioning with the finger just moving it a little bit. You think forward, your wheelchair moves forward and so on. Of course one of the problems here is that if it goes outside you just think about it, it happens, it also goes inside the other way around. So all this prospect of the biogenetically changing your properties directly wiring your mind and so on. How will this be used for social control? And, for example, when I visited China five years ago I got in a conversation with some big shot from their Academy of Biogenetics. I mean biogenetic department of their Academy of Sciences. And he gave me the program of goals of biogenetics in China. A kind of a programmatic text which pretty much terrified me.
It opens up the text with something like the goal of biogenetics in the People’s Republic of China is to regulate the physical and the psychic welfare of Chinese people. My God, what does that mean? Now I’m not here a conservative guy who is in panic. No, it’s a new field. Who knows but we have to be aware of the problem and it cannot be decided on the market. We need new forms of global control and regulation. And the last thing, new forms of apartheid. That’s the ultimate irony for me. Berlin Wall fell down, now new walls are emerging all around. The United States, Mexico. West Bank, Israel occupied territories to even the south of Spain how to isolate Europe from Africa and so on and so on. I think the paradox of today’s global capitalism is that on the one hand it’s global, free flow of capital but the free movement of people is more and more controlled and more and more we get new forms of apartheid. Full cities and those immigrants half excluded and so on. These are all problems we are confronting today. And the big question is can we cope with these problems within the liberal democratic capitalist frame. I’m a pessimist here. I don’t see – I’m really a pessimist because I don’t see a clear solution here. I’m certainly not an idiot who claims oh, a new Leninist party or whatever, will regulate it. No, that game is over. But I claim just two things.
A, all these problems are problems of commons. Biogenetics – our genetic inheritance is our humanity’s genetic commons with new forms of apartheid we are talking simply about commons as the common social space and so these are all problems of commons and how to confront them, how to deal with them because, you know, the paradox here is that on the one hand we are already getting elements aspects of communism like again with all the downloading and so on. New forms of circulation of knowledge even of commodities which no longer follow the market model. On the other hand I’m well aware that all this also brings out new problems which is why as I always repeat it, I support Julian Assange WikiLeaks. But not in the usual anti-American way. I always emphasize this. WikiLeaks should not be used for cheap anti-Americanism. Why not? Because there is a point in those who say that imagine someone like Chelsea Manning in China. There would not be a trial. She would just disappear probably together with the entire family or whatever. So why nonetheless we should also talk about United States even if the control is much worse in China, Russia and so on.
Because there is one problem and I can tell you I was in China and Russia. There people are well aware of the limitation of their freedom. Nobody in China has the illusion that they are actually free. You have local freedoms of choice, you know. You can do sexually whatever you want. You can more or less read books that you want. You can find a job if you find it of course that you want. But the general social network no democracy there also with us is getting worse and worse but that’s another point. What I want to say is that the importance of WikiLeaks for United States is that how here in the United States we can – our lives can also be controlled and regulated but without us being aware of it. We still experience ourselves as fully free. And this is for me the most dangerous unfreedom. The unfreedom which is not even aware of itself as unfreedom. Unfreedom which is experienced as freedom.
Another point here is we all know what is going on now is something incredible. TISA, T – I – S – A and other negotiations which are incredibly important. They will regulate markets, exchange of data and so on neo-liberal lines so that they will radically define the basic coordinates of our economic lives even more. But the point is we don’t – these negotiations are all done in secret. So, you see, this is for me the problem of freedom today. Yes, we have freedom at the level of freedom of choice. You buy this, you buy that, you travel here, you travel there, whatever. But for me freedom has to be more. Actual freedom has to also be the freedom to regulate the very basic coordinates of your life. You have a choice between this and that but how is the entire field which offers you these choices and not other choices – how is it structured? At that level we get more and more secret agreements, we get less and less freedom. So freedom is a big problem today but it’s the struggle for what we understand with freedom.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton