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Monday, Jan. 11, 2010

Should We Bring Back Communism?

Slavoj Zizek: Unfashionable thoughts from a fashionable philosopher

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TheChronicle of Higher Education hailed Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek as the “Elvis of cultural theory” for his status as one of the most famous philosophers currently living. He is certainly one of the most fashionable, perhaps in part due to his method of illustrating philosophy and psychoanalysis with examples from pop culture—as witnessed in the captions he wrote for the 2003 Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Zizek’s latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (Verso), contains many of the same allusions, but this time on a subject more immediate than that of his earlier work: a call to revive communism and make it work as it was intended.

Zizek begins his book with a warning: Any reader who would not even consider this notion is advised not to continue reading. The title of the book is a reworking of a Hegel quote by Marx, “that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. [Hegel] forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Zizek gives this quote context for his book with the explanation that the “utopia of the 1990s had to die twice, since the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of global market capitalism.”

His comments on the methods used to mend the situation are insightful. Zizek notes that the warnings of World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters should have been heeded. He writes of how the bankruptcy of GM would benefit its CEOs but would “break the backbone of one of the last strong unions in the United States, leaving thousands with lower wages and thousands of others with lower retirement incomes… allow[ing] the free market to operate with brutal force… This is how the impossible becomes possible: what was hitherto considered unthinkable within the horizon of the established standards of decent working conditions now becomes acceptable.”

Zizek makes much of the current class situation, which he groups into three categories: intellectual laborers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts. He uses his favorite mode of argument, dialectics, by routinely showing events to be their opposite—as in the instance where he mentions that “the contemporary radical-populist Right strangely reminds us of the old radical-populist Left” and actually works against its own interest when throwing “tea parties,” since many of those attending would benefit from higher taxes for the wealthy and lower taxes for the working class. At the same time, he critiques the choices of liberals when they fashionably support mega-corporations like Starbucks and Whole Foods that do not allow unionizing.

While I do not foresee Zizek taking up the revolution himself, I believe he practices what he preaches. In other words, “the revolution of everyday life.”

Of course, he isn't above taking a job from Abercrombie & Fitch, but maybe he perceives it as his exploitation of them. He ends the book with the claim that old leftists who were anti-communist for most of their lives wish to return to the fold,comparing them to those who wish to convert to Christianity on their deathbeds. It is a fitting analogy, since both Christianity and communism might work if they were practiced as intended. He writes, “We have spent our lives rebelling vainly against what, deep within us, we knew all the time to be the truth.” Unlike most of us, Zizek has directly experienced communism, so perhaps we might listen.

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