“Neoliberalism is in Crisis” | by Slavoj Zizek

by Nov 20, 2011All Articles

Philosopher and Critical theorist Slavoj Zizek, says he’s not an optimist when it comes to Europe and the broad political and ideological struggle in the continent and the world. But he salutes the demonstration of the British workers and the awackening “of some kind of authentic left” as the only hope in defense of the European values. Greek Left Review met Slavoj Zizek and prof. Costas Douzinas at Birkbeck college in the center of London on Saturday morning. While according to the Guardian 400.000 workers were marching towards Hyde Park, Slavoj Zizek emphasized that social mobilization and the emergence of European solidarity amorng workers is the only way to break out of the vicious cycle that neoliberal technocrats and religious fundamentalists are driving the continent.

GLR: Today we’re witnessing in Britain the largest march since the Iraqi war. After a year of unrest in many European countries an image of possible solidarity appears. Is there anything to be gained by European solidarity and is this solidarity even possible? What is the European project about today?

SZ. Το paraphrase this quote from May 68: It’s not possible, but it’s necessary. If by saying Europe we mean what is worth fighting for like egalitarian legacy, the idea of solidarity, welfare state and so on, then, maybe it’s the only thing that can give us, some hope. Europe, not only, cannot realize its project but it cannot even see what this project is. What makes me happy in this protest today is that it gives me the pleasure to correct my previous analysis which was that today in Europe you only have two choices: On the one hand the pro-capitalist liberal parties which can at the same time be progressive in issues like human rights, abortion and so on and on the other – the only moment of true passionate politics – right-wing anti-immigrant formations. My claim is that this would be a dead end if these were the only choices. It’s a great hope for Europe that some kind of radical or authentic left is awakening.

GLR While Europe is reviving and rediscovering radicalism we have revolts all over the Middle East. How can we link this huge insurrection and revolution wave in Africa to what is happening in Europe?
SZ. Obviously the “standard”, what we call the neoliberal ideological model is coming to a crisis. For me these two are kind of supplementary phenomena. Capitalism is coming into crisis in Europe, but not only. What happened in Egypt was both authentically democratic but also a call for economic justice. Yet, what I find extremely interesting is that the Egyptians and other Africans are demonstrating something much more important. Although, our official dream in the west was the silent presupposition of the western democracy, we secretly did not really want others to become like us. Until now the standard racist reaction of western Europeans was that, we would love Arabs to become democratic, but hey… they are primitive. The only way you can arouse the crowds there is either by religious fundamentalism, or anti-Semitic nationalism. So, now we get exactly what we wished for: A secular uprising, that in some cases even lifts religious divisions (Copts and Muslims are praying together in Egypt). But the result for us, is anxiety, instead of joy. “Where is this going to lead”? Not only we have a proof that all the distrust to the Arab democratic potential is false, but what is more important is that it proves that democracy is universal, it’s not our own. We desperately try to read out of the events that they want, what we want. These events are authentically democratic but they are also a call for economic justice.

Now, we need to rethink even old events, like the Khomeini revolution in Iran. It’s now clear that the Khomeini revolution was not simply a fundamentalist takeover. We should remember that for over one year and a half there was a hard internal struggle, which allowed the fundamentalist clerics to take over. The Khomeini revolution was also an emancipatrory explosion, which is now returning through the green movement and Musavi. This is the most precious lesson: We need to break out of this cycle where our choices are either pro-western liberals or religious fundamentalism and here we come to the crucial point. Why do we focus on Libya now? Because it allows the re-normalization of the crisis. It fits in our standard western clichés. Qaddafi is a crazy leader, one of the axes of terror and so on. Here we know where we stand. We can translate this to the old anti-fundamentalism struggle and therefore the media can pass silent through what is happening at the same time in Bahrain where Saudi army is directly intervening into another country in order to crash the same as in Egypt democratic struggle. Where is Obama in this case, where are the western leaders? My only hope is that this procedure will go to the end. And the name of the end is clear. Saudi Arabia.

CD. I should probably add that this idea of re-normalization has also another part and that is that Libya gave the western powers the ability to go back to this idea of the nineties of humanitarian interventions, which had declined due to the catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, what Sarkozy, Cameron and a little less maybe Obama, tell us is that we’re there to save civilians. That kind of cosmopolitan rhetoric can now reorganize or re structure the ideological field around the image of the west as a humanitarian power.

GLR. But the popular movement is facing its limits when bombs are falling and people die. How should we address this problem?
SZ. In Libya the situation is objectively mixed. I don’t think we have a clear-cut case. I have no sympathy for Qaddafi, but nonetheless I don’t think that what is happening in Libya is the same as in Egypt or elsewhere. We cannot say it’s simply and only about a bad tyrant opposed by the people. There are all sorts of tensions there like tribal relations and this is why the west loves it. The west liked that same phenomenon in the ex Yugoslavia as well. It was not politics, but tribes fighting each other. The only thing we can do, is simply ignore, side step Libya. For me what is going on now in Egypt is much more important. As I always emphasize, they are beautiful – we all cry. But these enthusiastic moments are in a way cheap.. What will happen now? How will this spirit of the revolution be institutionalized?

CD. We’re moving from constituents to constitutive powers

SZ. It would be very sad if Egypt only becomes a slightly more pro western, pro liberal capitalist society. It’s important to see now how trade unions are formed, how students organize themselves and so on. The true battle is going on now. And in regards to the whole area I find crucial what is happening to Saudi Arabia and the rich Emirates. It’s where you get the western hypocrisy and contradiction at its absolutely purest – the obvious paradox. US are worried about human rights and proclaiming Iran as the evil. I’m sorry but if you’re worried about women’s rights in the Middle East, Iran is a paradise compared to Saudi Arabia. Even Ahmadinejad named one or two feminine ministers. Friends told me that men are idiots there. If you go to a ministry even if the minister is a man you have to work with a woman in order to get your job done. In all of the emirates you have a neo-serfdom if not slavery with so many poor immigrant workers from Philippines… I think it’s crucial to bring these developments in front and sharpen the contradictions.

GLR. A theoretical question: There were articles in the leftist greek newspapers and websites endorsing the idea that anyone who is lacanian cannot support the idea of the revolution on the basis of this famous discussion of Lacan with the students of May 1968. Is a Lacanian position necessarily non-revolutionary? Can there even be a revolutionary policy in the Lacanian field?

I will not say the opposite. It is definitely not necessarily revolutionary. Here’s what I was claiming: In the confusion of today’s ideological contradictions, how does it happen and in our permissive societies we get to have more regulations and anxiety? We get sexual freedom, which means that half of us are impotent and frigid and so on. To even understand this you need something like the Lacanian theory. Off course I violently disagree with that statement if you read it like a kind of liberal wisdom (you wanted to play with the revolution so you’re going to get another master). I don’t read Lacan as a limitation, part of this nouvelle philosophie anticommuniste (which suggests that gulag follows the revolution). But nonetheless, this was the problem of 20th century communist revolutions.

There is a moment of truth for us. What will come after, how do we effectively avoid a new terror? I think the question is totally legitimate. What I’m saying is something more. Lacan is clearly inconsistent, often with himself. The big question today -and the left stilldoesn’t have a good answer – is what goes on ideologically. I think you cannot understand all the paradoxes today without psychoanalysis. Are we aware in what strange societies we live? I always love to mention this example. In the previous UK elections there was a show in BBC, on who was the most hated politician and Tony Blair came first. One week later he won the elections. This worries me. There’s a level of social frustration, which is simply not captured by simply parliamentary vote. I’m not against democracy. In the socialist times we liked to say “don’t bullshit me with ideals. Look at how socialism really is”. Let’s be honest and do the same today. Let’s see really what parliamentary democracy captures and what not. Precisely if you like democracy and you’re passionately attached to it you should worry about it. Does it function effectively? Does it capture the social discontent? We should search for solutions. See what’s happening in Latin America. In some cases the solution they give is to combine representative democracy (the model of Lula or Morales) with social movements. Isn’t it obvious that democracy is turning more and more to an empty ritual? If we even vote, we don’t know what we vote for. Look at NAFTA, one of the crucial economic agreements. Nobody was asked. Even in the congress they were more or less blackmailed to do it, nobody read the 5000 pages of the agreement. You in Greece are in the same position. Specialists are giving you their special opinion in a way you cannot judge. “Sorry people, these are the facts”. Up to a point they’re true – they’re not simply lying. If you are into the current system, it’s true. But it’s time to start questioning: Is the system our ultimate horizon? And then, even these experts, often cheat. Are they really honest?

I remember the late 90’s and the big economic crisis in south East Asia. These greater liberal economists here attacked Mahathir Mohamed because he suggested the Malaysian government to take over of all the bank transactions in the country. It worked triumphantly. Even in the existing space, the rules are not fixed in the way neo-liberal ideologists are trying to convince us. By the same time, Schroeder sacked Lafontaine who wanted to do the same in Germany. Forget about this idea -that even Toni Negri buys too much- of the disappearing state and the appearance of the global empire. The state is more and more important.

GLR. Are we watching the insistence of Neoliberals to impose an end to history?

SZ. It’s a bit more complicated than this. It’s easy to make fun of Fukuyama about the end of history. But I would argue that 90% of today’s leftists are effectively Fukuyamaists. Or, maybe, at least until a couple of years ago. They don’t ask the big questions. The alternate models are not clear. Even the most radical rhetoric in Porto Allegre or Seattle is basically moralistic. Is there a positive model? It’s very easy to play the card of local movements and local self-organization. This is not the model. I don’t believe in this Negrian dream that the multitude will somehow take over. We have to accept the need of some kind of regulatory apparatuses. Not only the standard dreams of social democracy and state socialism but even this dream of soviet councils, immediate local democracy has also reach its limits.

GLR How will we organize resistance in a bigger scale? And how would you characterize what the guardian calls the freedom flue?
SZ. I’m not a pessimist but I don’t think we know as much as we think we know. I don’t think we have what Frederick Jameson would have called cognitive mapping. Some leftists think we know what is going on today with new capitalism and neoliberals, we just don’t know how to mobilize people. I think we don’t even really know what is going on. In the short term I’m not an optimist. I cannot give you a recipe on what to do. All I know and on this I stand is that we will be pushed to do something, if not we will approach a new authoritarian society. This is the moment when utopias emerge. You invent utopias when you’re in deep shit and cannot do otherwise. You especially in Greece are pushed now to find ideas for popular control, the functioning of state and so on. The way they try now in Bolivia. This is my almost tragic position. I agree with you but I don’t take it as an argument to justify that therefore we should continue to live the way we do now. If we do that, I wouldn’t like to live in such a society. I think we have clear signs that we are approaching some kind of new liberal capitalism with new forms of apartheid where private freedoms will remain. You will be able to individually express any way you want but social mobilization will be less and less. We can no longer have this old Marxist confidence that we know where history is going. History is going into an abyss.

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