The Slovene philosopher – heavy headed, thickly bearded, grey t-shirted, amply paunched and skinny-armed – was already holding court before the mics were turned on. As he walked into the auditorium at the Emmanuel Centre, he jabbed at a tatty handful of A4 pages with his pen, gesticulating wildly and not allowing his interlocutor, the journalist Gary Younge, a word in edgeways.
The tone for the evening was set.
What did not match the tone was the setting. The Emmanuel Centre is a strange and strangely pious Hall to host an iconoclast.
HEAL THE SICK * CLEANSE THE LEPERS
RAISE THE DEAD * CAST OUT DEVILS (Matt 10:8)
…proclaims the sign on the wall on the way in. But how can such an edifice react, when the lepers shun the Healer’s hand, & invite the Devil in?
Žižek wears that iconoclast’s t-shirt well. He is happy to irritate the assumptions of the left even while holding radically socialist positions. This gave his talk a welcome edge, when it could have been so much preaching to the converted at a Guardian-hosted event in London. A running theme of his address was simple scorn for “upper middle-class élitism leftism”; asked about Bernie Sanders, he said that one of the things he appreciates most about Sanders’ approach is Sanders’ willingness to listen to and engage in dialogue with blue-collar and low-income voters who may hold politically incorrect views. This related to his view that the left patronises the poor, including refugees and citizens of the third world, by acting as though they are all individually saintly and not responsible for their actions. Poverty is not ennobling: we should not be surprised if some refugees are monstrous. Another crowd-displeasing moment was a call for a centralised European military – although admittedly one for the purpose of processing the flow of refugees through Turkey and into Europe.
Younge made very few intrusions into Žižek’s speech, and I saw Žižek cop some criticism for dominating the event afterwards – the event was billed as ‘in conversation’ – but I got the impression that Younge was perfectly happy to play the ‘vanishing mediator’ – Žižek’s term for the role which Europe should now play, as it comes to recognise that the ‘torch of universalism’ is no longer its to carry.
So-called European values, he said, are mostly bullshit, and direct application of them to the 3rd world is simply cultural colonialism – you cannot simply export your values. But there is a particular legacy amongst those things called ‘European Values’ which can and should be extended universally. Žižek’s championing of the egalitarian strain in European thinking depends upon a non-relativist belief that some ideologies are, when all the baggage is stripped off, better than others. Malcolm X, Žižek said, is his greatest hero; and Malcolm X wasn’t tempted by any claims that ‘black culture must return to its roots’; he was happy to advocate a fight for equality and rights for black people; whatever the antecedents of that struggle might be.
I won’t attempt to regurgitate everything that Žižek said here. I think the Guardian usually re-release these things as podcasts a few weeks later, so that’s worth keeping an eye out for and I can certainly send my notes to anyone who’s interested. I’ll focus instead on two standout quotes, which I scribbled down verbatim in my notebook on the night.
One: “Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt are emerging as a new axis”
I notice that I am not the only one to have picked up on this quotation; a Google news search for Žižek today brings up two major Russian news outlets – RT and Pravda – running with this as a headline. They may be quoting somewhere else where Žižek has said (almost) the same thing, or I may have missed the end of the sentence, although I don’t think I did. Whatever the cause, RT and Pravda have quoted the line, not as ‘axis’, but as ‘axis of evil’.
This ‘axis’, said Žižek, has no intention of getting rid of ISIS, or it would have done so long ago. Yes, ISIS was catalysed by the US/British invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of September 11 2001 (itself a decision which was not founded on its alleged/official geopolitical motivation; if it had been, there would have been far more scrutiny on US ally Saudi Arabia, and less on Saddam Hussein. Žižek also cited western feminism as an ideology which was duplicitously co-opted to justify this invasion; women’s rights in Iraq were cited as a reason for regime change there. However, Žižek claims that Saddam Hussein’s treatment of women was not in fact one of the most egregious aspects of his dictatorship; as a secular dictator seeking to educate his populace (including his female populace), Saddam actually threatened women’s right far less than some of the religiously motivated ideologies which might seek to replace him). But if the Turk-Saudi ‘axis’ of 2015-16 were genuine in their allegiance to the West in defeating ISIS, then they have the military capacity to have destroyed ISIS in a heartbeat long ago.
Žižek did not elucidate what the motivations of this ‘new axis’ are in great detail (although ‘money, power and continued existence’ would seem a predictable and failsafe summary), except to briefly discuss the nature of Erdoğan’s premiership in Turkey. Erdoğan, Žižek said, seeks to legitimise his rule by comparing himself to the glorious Turkish/Ottoman Empires of the past. But this is false: Erdoğan is the product of a ‘modernising’ nationalist current which rose on explicit disavowal of the secular, intellectual and diplomatic traditions which Ancient Turkey contained. This is why destruction of the Kurds, both militarily and electorally, is fundamental to Erdoğan’s survival. The Kurds, said Žižek, are ‘a miracle’: they are the most atheist ethnic group in contemporary Turkey, and if Erdoğan were not so bent on their destruction then their tolerant ideology could provide an existential threat to the antiquations of religious-fanaticist rule in Turkey.
Two: “I am ready to sell my mother into slavery to see V for Vendetta part 2! What happens AFTER the populist ecstatic movement takes over from the élite?”
Being in London, Žižek chose V for Vendetta as one of his usual selection of eclectic examples. Here he refers to the conclusion of the film (the one which spawned the “anonymous” masks now associated with keyboard warriors who regard weed legalisation as the pressing issue of our time), where a noticeably Marx-flavoured people’s revolution throws off the oppressive autocracy which keeps them down. What happens the next morning? asked Žižek. And of course this is not a new critique of revolutionary Marxism.
Younge made a rare interjection here with a salient point: in the aftermath of ecstatic ‘moments’ such as Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Sanders’ packed out rallies across America, the rise of Podemos in Span, or the election of Syriza in Greece, new electoral and ideological space is opened. This is essentially the same concept as the ‘Overton Window‘ which, quoting Owen Jones, I think I’ve cited in this blog before. The idea for a leftist optimist (or rightwing pessimist) is that even if Sanders isn’t elected, even if Syriza ultimately fail, etc, the political mainstream has become more amenable to their ideas. The rise of Margaret Thatcher in the wake of freemarket thinktanks proposing previously unthinkable levels of deregulation can be seen as a right-wing iteration of the same phenomenon. Younge backed up his point with a remarkable statistic: 43% of Democrat voters in Iowa, USA, recently told a poll that they identify as ‘socialists’. Younge pointed out in the Guardian recently that he has no idea what to compare this statistic to; before Sanders, it’s not a question which pollsters in the US would have thought to ask. New ground has been broken, even if it’s just a little furrow next to the sod already turned.
Žižek responded to this in two ways. To me they seem contradictory, but both are interesting. Firstly, he agreed, pointing out the way that Obama has made quasi-socialised healthcare into a viable political platform in America. Žižek credited this to Obama’s willingness to deviate only slightly from mainstream acceptability; by making a small demand which triggers a further process, he is creating a ‘morning after’ which is slightly brighter than the morning before. This progress, Žižek said, could not have been achieved had Obama’s electoral platform been more optimistic; more threatening to the neoliberal infrastructure. “Today,” Žižek said, “to directly aim at the big revolution is Utopianism. It is a threat to no-one”. He illustrated this with further reference to Bernie Sanders; if Sanders were actually elected president, he would no doubt be fairly moderate and reasonable. But even a moderate socialist US president would be too much of a threat for international capital, which would organise a catastrophe to discredit him. The EU’s treatment of Greece under Syriza is the obvious antecedent.
Žižek’s second response was almost diametrically – he would presumably prefer dialectically – opposed. “We need to discover big, hugely ambitious ways of thinking,” he claimed. Central to this more Utopian argument was an intriguing aside, which I feel like I rarely hear in leftist journalism (work on postcapitalism – the post-work economy and basic income provision – is in some ways an exception): that we need to keep coming up with new ideas. We know our principles, but we do not have to continue to apply them in the ways that have been tried before. “We do not yet have the big answer how to organise a socialist economy,” Žižek admitted with candour. “But we have to find a way or we are facing catastrophe. Markets cannot solve our problems; we cannot take Blair’s 3rd way and just accept that socialism hasn’t worked yet so we should settle for a moderate social democracy.”
We are in a situation like the build-up to the First World War, he said. We deny that there will be another world war, but we are preparing for it all the time. Global capital is sustained by nationalism and factionalism and the very conditions which create ISIS and Boko Haram. And if the ways to replace or improve this global system – the negative effects of which we in the West are largely isolated from (after all it is constructed to benefit us) – have failed or are unfeasible, then we need new ideas. We cannot assume that all of the political infrastructures which we have tried, are all of the political infrastructures which we might try.
Slavoj Žižek told some more jokes and took some more questions and the evening ended with this affable, scruffy Slovene making amused conversation with a long book-signing queue. I left the Emmanuel Centre with my head (already becoming unused to sitting in a lecture and taking notes, clearly) slightly hurting, but pleased to have witnessed a mind of some genuine originality in action. There are problems which, whilst they persist in the world, it is good to be confronted with, to be forced to consider.