Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek on Capitalism and the 'Farcical' Financial Crisis

28 Oct 2009

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Dubbed by the National Review as "the most dangerous political philosopher in the West" and the New York Times as "the Elvis of cultural theory," Slovenian philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Zizek has written over fifty books on philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, history and political theory. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek analyzes how the United States has moved from the tragedy of 9/11 to what he calls the farce of the financial meltdown.

Zizek is interviewed by Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. The transcript below is provided courtesy of Democracy Now.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Zizek's latest offering, also excerpted in the October issue of Harper's Magazine, opens with the words, quote, "The only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was unpredictable." He goes on to recall how the demonstrations against the IMF and the World Bank over the past decade all protested the ways in which banks were playing with money and warned of an impending crash. They were met with tear gas and mass arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: The message, he writes, was, quote, "loud and clear, and the police were used to literally stifle the truth." 

Well, Slavoj Zizek addressed a full house at Cooper Union here in New York City on Wednesday night and joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: Thanks very much. It's my pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. Relate the protest to the—

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: You are even better than Fox News, which I usually watch. More amusing.

AMY GOODMAN: Relate the protests to the meltdown and why—how it was predictable.

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: No, what interests me is, for example, Paul—sorry, Paul Krugman said basically the same thing, which tells us a lot about how ideology works today. He said, what if we make a mental experiment, and all the leading bank people, managers and so on, were to know how it would end two years ago? He said, let’s not delude ourselves; there would have been no change. They would have acted in exactly the same way. 

This brings me, as a psychoanalyst, into the play, because I think this makes us aware as to what extent our everyday dealing is controlled by what in psychoanalysis we call the mechanism of fetishist disavowal. "Je sais bien, mais quand même…" "I know very well, but…" You know, we can know very well the possible catastrophic consequences, but somehow you trust the market, you think things will somehow work out, and so on and so on. It’s absolutely crucial to analyze this, not only in economy, but generally. This is the focus of my work: how beliefs function today. What do we mean when we say that someone believes? 

So that I don't get lost, let me tell you a wonderful story, which is my favorite story. I quote it also in the book. You know Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, quantum physics guy. You know, once he was visited in his country house by a friend who saw above the entrance a horseshoe, you know, in Europe, the superstitious item allegedly preventing evil spirits to enter the house. And the friend, also a scientist, asked him, "But listen, do you really believe in this?" Niels Bohr said, "Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I’m a scientist." Then the friend asked him, "But why do you have it there?" You know what Niels Borh answered? He said, "I don’t believe in it, but I have it there, horseshoe, because I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.

That’s ideology today. We don't believe in democracy—nobody. You make fun of it and so on, but somehow we act as if it works. It's a very strange situation, because there are—some of us old enough still remember them, old days when the public face of power was dignity, belief. And privately you mocked it, you made fun, and so on, no? Now we are, I think, approaching a very strange state, where the public face of power is becoming more and more openly indecent, obscene. Look at Sarkozy in France. Look at Berlusconi in Italy, who is systematically undermining, for over five years now, the minimum of dignity of the state power. I mean, you are again and again surprised how is this possible. You know, after those sex scandals, two weeks ago, his lawyer, Berlusconi’s lawyer, made a public official statement, where he said that the claims that Berlusconi is impotent are lies and that Mr. Berlusconi is ready to prove this in court. Now, how? How—what did he mean? You know, there is a level of obscenity, but this shouldn't deceive us. We really live in cynical times, not just in this cheap sense they don't take themselves seriously, but in the sense that—how should I put it?—the ironic self-undermining, making fun of yourself, is in a strange way part of the game. It's as if the system can function even if it makes fun of itself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I'd like to ask you, you say you are also critical of the progressive or the left response here. You say in your article in Harper's, "There is a real possibility that the primary victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone." Could you elaborate?

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: I am a radical leftist. I like to call myself, in a very conditional way, a communist even. But I think one should, as a leftist, really concede the amount of the defeat of the left in the last twenty years. That's the sine qua non condition of a possible review. So, yes, apart from very sympathetic things suggested by people like Stiglitz, Krugman, which are basically a return to Keynesian welfare state, and apart from some interesting—but I don’t think they are the solution—economic ideas, like the basic income or so-called renta básica in Brazil, basic rent, which is a utopia of its own, I think, I sometimes, apart from this, have a strange paranoiac idea that maybe this crisis was manufactured so that people will see that even if there is a crisis, the left really doesn’t have a global answer.

I see—what worries me is two things about the left. First, it's more and more legalistic moralization. You know, it's kind of a pure form of protest against injustice. Then the only thing you can do is legal forums and so on. In this sense, many of the ex-leftists are getting depoliticized. They no longer ask the truly basic questions. Like even now, all the outcry was, "Oh, those bank profiteers," and so on. I totally agree with what we just heard. But don't you think that the truth is a little bit more complex, in the sense of—you know much more about this than me, but the way I see it is that one of the roots of the present crisis is not just greed. It's that after the digital bubble at the beginning of our millennium, the idea was how to keep prosperity, how to keep economy alive. And it was, as far as I remember, even a little bit of a really bipartisan decision: let's make it easier in real estate, and so on, to keep it moving. So, you know, there is a structural problem beneath all this psychological topic of the greedy bankers, which is, that's how capitalism works, my God, which is why even concerning our beloved model—Bernard Madoff, no?—I didn’t like it how they focused on him. Wait a minute. He was just the radical version of where the system is pushing you. Now, I'm not saying—I'm not crazy—"which is why we need to nationalize all banks and introduce immediately socialist dictatorship" or what. What I'm just saying is, let's not get rid of the problem by too easily making it into a psychological problem. You know, you can be an evil guy, but there must be very precise institutional, economic, and so on, coordinates, background, which allows you to do what you do. 

The second thing, I also didn't like the cry shared by left and right-wing populists of "help the Main Street, not the Wall Street." Well, sorry, but those bank managers who emphasized, in capitalism there is no Main Street without Wall Street. In today's industry, because of the competition and immense investment into new inventions and so on, without large accessibility, availability of credits, there is no prosperous Main Street. So this is a false choice. So, again, with all respect for the left and so on, I think we should avoid quick moralization, if we mean it seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, "Is the bailout then really a 'socialist' measure? If it is, it takes a peculiar form: a 'socialist' measure whose primary aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend."

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: Yeah. I mean, this is my whole thesis, that capitalism always was socialism for those who are on the top. This is the basic paradox of it, no?

Read the rest of this interview on the Democracy Now website.

To watch part two of this interview, please click here.

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