Slavoj Žižek recently proclaimed that ‘only a strong dose of the left can protect liberal freedoms’. At a moment like this, such a clear statement of the importance of radical left-wing ideas and of activity inspired by the Socialist tradition has of course to be welcomed. Žižek has become a hugely influential figure over the last few years. His work reaches a readership far beyond that usually achieved by often very lengthy books dealing with the ideological form and content of subjectivity, Marxist cultural analysis and the urgent need for radical political transformation. He writes prolifically, speaks to overflowing auditoriums worldwide and is the star of at least two films dedicated to his work. It is clearly a good thing to have left-wing ideas achieving such wide circulation.
His new book ‘Living in the End Times’ deals principally with our collective response to the various forms of armageddon that we are faced with. He applies psychoanalytical concepts and ideas borrowed from thinkers such as Hegel to look at the origins of denial of the consequences of the economic and ecological crises that threaten to assail the globe and the possibility and probability of radical transformation. Along the way he takes in subjects as diverse as the children’s movie Kung Fu Panda, environmentalism as a new opium of the people, the case of Josef Fritzl, and glimpses of a utopian society in the work of Franz Kafka, producing his usual dazzling succession of highly entertaining and inspiring insights, along with a few frustrating and puzzling diversions on the way.
His work can sometimes be very hard to follow, given that in employing concepts from the work of Jacques Lacan it often echoes his endlessly elliptical and self-reflexive style; this is mixed with the eternal negations of Hegelian thought. A complete understanding of Žižek’s work would demand an indepth familiarity not only with those two thinkers, but also Marx, Kant, Heidegger, Lukacs, Adorno, Althusser, Marx, Freud, and many more, not to mention Wagner and the Bible. In the process of using (his often very idiosyncratic version of) those works to identify deadlocks in contemporary ideology, he encounters deadlocks in his own thinking, which he often neatly sidesteps by shifting the focus from political analysis to psychoanalysis to philosophy, using the tools of each to interrogate assumptions in the others. Put simply, he has a habit of changing the subject when it becomes clear that his argument is leading nowhere, but so captivating is his manner of doing so it can easily blind the reader to the inconsistencies of his arguments.
How useful is Žižek’s work to non-academic Marxist revolutionaries? He is keen to stress that he is a Marxist, but caution is called for; after all, Derrida and Baudrillard also allegedly defended the Marxist tradtion of thought, and Žižek himself has made it clear that none of his pronouncements are to be taken at face value. Echoing Alain Badiou’s notion of the messianic revolutionary (but entirely unpredictable) event, he often leans in the direction of Maoism. He also tends towards arguments of an ultraleftist variety; for example it is difficult to tell when he is being serious, joking or merely being provocative when he says that the protests against the Iraq war were counterproductive and served to legitimise it. Outside of an academic context such an argument would immediately be dismissed as ultraleftism, and the consistent tone of pessimism which characterises his work finds an appreciative audience among those keen on radical ideas but unwilling to engage in radical action. It contains a great deal of often vague exhortations to overthrow liberal capitalism but with no suggestion as to the means of doing so. At times he does seem to embrace the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, and at other times dismisses them out of hand and disparages the notion of building a revolutionary organisation along twentieth century lines. In a similar way he explores the radical core of Christian thought, but is very keen to stress his atheist credentials. As for his occasional embrace of certain aspects of Stalinist terror, he most often seems to be joking, which even the most cursory knowledge of psychoanalysis would recognise as a sign that he has an uncomfortable relation with Stalinism. The same can be said for his talk of the need for revolutionary terror in some form, echoing the Maoist cultural revolution.
Žižek has explained that his notion of the role of the philosopher is not to answer questions but to show that the wrong questions are being asked. Nevertheless, many people look to him for answers. His most consistent answer is: wait, think. His books can therefore be enlightening and inspiring but there is nothing that tells what to do, rather a confusing guide to what *not* to do. Also, as Ian Parker points out in his critical guide to Žižek’s thinking, there are clear limits to the use of the concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis, concepts intended to be applied in the process of individual analysis, as a strategy for radical political transformation. Žižek’s works provides an invaluable tool in the struggle to interpret the world; in terms of our understanding of the task of how to change it, we need to look elsewhere.