Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek on social unrest, fall of communism, and Miloš Forman films

Slavoj Žižek, photo: Mariusz Kubik, CC 3.0 license

The Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek has been described as the most dangerous philosopher in the West. He criticizes global capitalism and warns of the dangers it presents for today’s democracy. Slavoj Žižek recently arrived in Prague to launch a Czech translation of his latest book, entitled First Tragedy Then Farce. Czech Radio’s Petr Dudek spoke to Slavoj Žižek during his Prague visit, and first asked him about his view of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US.

Slavoj Žižek,  photo: Mariusz Kubik,  CC 3.0 license
“I don’t idealize that movement. It’s clear that the young people, and not only them, are more or less confused. They don’t have any clear idea. But what’s important for me is that for the first time, there is a large movement that raises the crucial question about the system itself. It’s not only about corrupt companies that pollute the environment, cheating banks, and so on. The question is clearly what to do with the system as such. Or, as even some sociologists admit, there is a widening gap between our institutionalized democratic system, and what goes on in the economy which is escaping any democratic control.”

When we talk about 1989 and November 17, we saw it here as the end of the totalitarian state and a return of democracy. In your book, you refer to the events of 1989 as an ‘obscure catastrophe’ – is it the right term?

“No, no. Let me be very clear here. In my own country, I participated in those events. I have no nostalgia for 20th century communism. That’s why I ironically refer to Lenin who wrote a nice text about defeat. He said, ‘It’s like climbing a mountain: if you’re stuck, you have to go down to the very beginning and start anew’. This is what the left has to do today. While I fully sympathize with your Velvet Revolution, the problem is this gap. People expected something – justice, solidarity, freedom, dignity – but of course we didn’t get it. We can now read this gap in two ways: the official way says this is simply a question of maturity; people expected too much and now we have to learn what capitalism is. But the fact that even people in developed countries are now more and more dissatisfied suggests there is something wrong with global capitalism. And this maybe allows us to say that the fight of the Velvet Revolution goes on, it’s not over.

Wall Street protesters in Los Angeles,  photo: CTK
“When people accuse me of communist nostalgia, I say, ‘no, look at the example of China’. Isn’t that a wonderfully ironic reply to Fukuyama? Capitalism won but it looks today as if the best managers of capitalism are communists, much more efficient than Western liberal democrats. And that’s what worries me.”

In your speech on Wall Street last month, you asked some questions that you didn’t answer, for instance ‘What global organization can replace capitalism?’ Do you have an answer?

“No, I don’t. All I know is that all the answers of the 20th century, not only the two big answers – communism and welfare social democracy – but also the leftist dream of direct democracy, soviets, councils, local self-organizations, don’t work either. All I’m saying is that we will be pushed to do something. When people tell me, ‘you are dreaming’, I say, ‘no, the true dream is that things can go on indefinitely in the way they are now’. If we can sustain the dream that the Scandinavian welfare state can gradually expand to the entire world, I’d be the first to say, ‘who needs a communist revolution?’ Unfortunately, there are signs on the wall – ecology, apartheid, new forms of exclusion, and even problems like biogenetics, and so on.”

So you don’t have an answer about what could replace capitalism but you are convinced that there is an urgency to ask this question, that it should be replaced…

“Not that it should be because the alternative then is a new authoritarian era. I don’t like to use the term fascism because that’s something very specific. But did you notice what kind of answer to the crisis was approved in Greece and Italy a couple of days ago? Purely apolitical, technocratic governments. That’s a very sad sign of how our societies are getting de-politicized. This will be a vision of a new authoritarian system in which democracy might even survive as the forum.”

Do you think an authoritarian system would be led by technocrats like Mario Monti?

“This combined with security people, terrorist threats and so on, and of course all the freedoms in the private sphere.”

But not for the general public…

“Up to a point. You can have your sexual perversities, gay marriages, all that is ok. But the problem will be the control of the population. What makes me a pessimist is that I think less and less that capitalism itself can afford universal democracy. For example, when people ask why I’m against global capitalism, I say, “if you want to talk about capitalism, don’t just focus on developed countries’. Let’s talk about Congo which is a nightmare on Earth. The state does not function. But Congo is not excluded; it’s fully included in the capitalist system. This is what we should ask: ‘what is the dynamic of global capitalism so that in order for us to have good lives, some countries have to be treated like Congo.”

Turning back to Italy, Spain, Ireland, and so on –what do you think about the European integration in view of the spreading debt crisis?

“I have always defined myself as leftist Euro-centrist.”

Does that mean that you keep your fingers crossed for the EU?

“Absolutely. I agree with what some Social Democrats or old leftists are advocating, such as Daniel Kohn-Bendit, Joshka Fischer – the United States of Europe.“

Václav Klaus
So where did we make a mistake in integrating Europe?

“I think the mistake is not in what your president, Václav Klaus, claims if I understand him correctly. By the way, you know who your president is – the guy in front of whom it’s not safe to leave your pen. He claims Europe is too strong but Europe was not conceived as a strong enough entity. We now have two alternate visions of Europe. The Europe of a purely technocratic union of the Brussels type, or a conservative counter-attack with stronger national identities and so on. I think that what opened up the space for this anti-immigrant populist nationalist trend is precisely that Europe was defined by those in power in too purely technocratic terms.

“Europe should not only be economy; it should also embody a certain radical emancipatory potential. As I like to say, the big choice of today is, to put it bluntly, either Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism, or what we poetically call capitalism with Asian values which means authoritarian capitalism. Frankly, I wouldn’t like to live in the world where this is the only choice. In Europe, weak as it is, maybe there is still hope that something new, some new vision of a society neither neoliberal nor authoritarian, will emerge.”

Reading your articles or listening to your speeches, it is hard not to notice that you often refer to film. Why do movies inspire you so much?

“I’m more and more convinced that if you want to get a direct grasp of where we stand today ideologically, it’s in the movies and Hollywood. There you get today’s ideology in a clearer, more distilled form than in reality itself.”

But you easily say that what you see in the cinema is an illusion, isn’t it?

“We would have to talk about cinematic fiction. For me, truth has the structure of an illusion. There’s nothing mystical in what I say. For example, let’s say that I have certain secret desires, and I’m afraid to talk about them openly. In a story, however, it will appear only as fiction rather than confession. If it’s not attributed to you, it’s much easier to tell the truth. And I claim that cinematic fiction works like this. You get everything, and precisely not in serious dramas. My favourite examples are Kung Fu Panda, or those horrible films of last year, like King’s Speech.”

Do you like any Czech or Czechoslovak film directors?

“Are you kidding? Although I admire Hollywood, they are a great example of how the West can destroy you. I’m talking of course about Miloš Forman. My absolutely favourite movies are still his three films A Blonde in Love, Peter and Pavla, and Firemen’s Ball. This is the work of a genius. I also like his first American film, Taking Off, because he tried to read the American middle class through Czech glasses. It’s the same universe and it works wonderfully.”

But it didn’t work in the US; I think it did very poorly commercially there…

'Taking Off'
“Yes. I don’t like Amadeus, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But it’s not just Forman, it was the same with Krzysztof Kieślowski. Even though they were made under horrible oppression of Jaruzelski, his films from the 1980s like The Decalogue, Blind Chance, and so on, are better than those soft pornographic films which he basically made, and I’ll be very cynical here, to seduce some of the beautiful actresses like Juliet Binoche.

“Even with no nostalgia for the communist regime, this is maybe the greatest tragedy of the fall of communism. In those oppressive regimes, there were was nonetheless something that solicited true art. People then wrongly thought, ‘now we have freedom and all the oppressed spirituality will explode’. But it didn’t.”