Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From “Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek”



2. The title of the conference you’ve just hosted is “Communism: A New Beginning?” I wonder if communism isn’t a devalued brand. Why not find a new word for it?

I’m well aware of this. The PR, public relations problem. Many friends are telling me, “Listen, we agree with everything, but why use this terrible term, which has such a horrifying connotation — gulag, whatever, no?” My reason is that, first, in the radical tradition, millenarian movements [were] egalitarian revolts, and I would like to keep fidelity to that tradition.

My second reason is that it’s still the best among the least worst. The least bad. Because all others concede too much to hegemonic field. You say socialism? Socialism is harmless. Everybody today is a socialist, you know? It just needs some vague solidarity. It doesn’t have this more radical egalitarianism. Every fascist can be said to be socialist, you know. Democracy, my god. Everyone refers to that word. It’s meaningless. Justice, fuck it. Which justice?

And the last, paradoxical reason. Yes, horrible things were done in the name of communism, but it’s good to have a name to remind you of that. It’s good to be aware of the dangers. I claim that with all the anticommunism, we don’t really even have a good theory of how this mega-catastrophe called Stalinism could have happened. What went wrong? I don’t like those easy philosophical generalizations in the style of Karl Popper, who’s a Plato-totalitarian-whatever, and then Rousseau or whoever. My problem with liberal anticommunist historians is that if anything they are not critical enough [of the] Stalinist regime. Their explanation is typically liberal. They reduce it to bad people who wanted money, power, whatever.

Did you see the film that I always mention? The German one who got Oscar? Life of Others? Not severe enough, I claim. We have a bad minister who wants to have the wife of the writer, so he [gets] the Stasi to follow the writer, to get something from him to get rid of him to have fully the wife. But this still reduces Communist terror surveillance to a single bad guy with some private pathology, as if beneath every evil here is some evil person who wants money, power, sex, whatever. What the film doesn’t confront is that even if there were no corrupted minister, even if all Stasi agents were relatively honest, we would have exactly the same observation, control, and so on. Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.

Robert Conquest, [Simon Sebag] Montefiore, they try to emphasize how Stalin was bad, that one was bad, that one was bad. That’s too simple. The system was such that even good people break down. [The most tragic example] is, when Stalin ordered forced collectivization, late twenties, thousands of honest communists volunteered to go to the countryside and convince farmers to join, and it turned very violent, shooting. This is true tragedy, I think.

So no, my problem is that we don’t even have a good critique of communism.


6. So what should the protesters be asking for?

Just two things. On the one hand, at this point more important than asking is to think, to organize, to lay down the foundations for some kind of a network so that this will not just be a kind of magic explosion that disappears. And point two, the way to start to think about doing something is to select some very specific issues — the model should be the health-care bill — which in a way are very realistic.

It’s often terrifying to read right-wing Republican attacks on Obama’s health-care reform. It was watered down through clear material force of ideology. Nonetheless, I like the debate because it showed us how our notion of freedom is totally penetrated, controlled by a certain ideology.

One of the strategies [for doing] something concrete is to pick very carefully issues for which you fight, and then try to organize a popular movement. Which have two features: First, they are realistic. But at the same time, [they have] dramatic points which are extremely penetrated by ideology. So things which are absolutely possible but are unacceptable for ideology frame — like healthcare, universal healthcare — this is, I think, maybe the thing to do at this point, apart from laying the foundations, getting ready.

Even with banks — okay this is not [a recommendation] for the people, it’s for the system — the irony is that those countries where the state controls the movement of money in the banks can do very well in capitalist terms. Look at China, Singapore, and so on. There, money transfers, especially international transfers, are all tightly controlled by the banks. I remember how when they started to play this game twenty years around ago, I remember The Economist said, “This is suicide, it will be a catastrophe.” It wasn’t. The result is that in the 2008 crisis, 2009 crisis, Singapore had record growth of 15 percent. China, India, and so on. Okay, things are more complex here, because they have different conditions, but nonetheless you can see how countries which have a more flexible approach towards state intervention are doing very well.

One of the good results of this crisis is that neo-liberalism, for reasonable people, is dead. We are becoming aware not only that it doesn’t work but that, let’s be clear, there never even was neoliberalism. Like, what neoliberalism? Already with Reagan, Bush, the state is growing stronger and stronger, intervening all the time. I really think it’s a total misperception that we live in some kind of a wild capitalist neoliberal universe. No.

I think this is the first thing maybe that we should do. To note how we are already entering a new type of organized capitalism which is no longer liberal capitalism, and which more and more relies on strong state interventions.


Friday, November 11, 2011

“Lacanian Axioms: Psychoanalysis and Politics”


Starts: Feb 09, 2012 06:00 PM

Finishes: Mar 15, 2012 08:30 PM

Location: Birkbeck, University of London

Event description

World renowned scholar, Slavoj Žižek, teaches for the first time in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. His module, Lacanian Axioms: Psychoanalysis and Politics, is open to students on the MA Psychosocial Studies and the MA Psychoanalysis, History and Culture.

The Silent Voice of a New Beginning

Event Date: 20 November 2011

Clore Lecture Theatre B01
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

Slavoj Žižek
The Silent Voice of a New Beginning

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Direct Democracy is an Illusion (Start at 1:53)

Birkbeck, Summer 2012


London Critical Theory Summer School 2012

11th June - 22nd June

The 2012 London Critical Theory Summer School will take place at Birkbeck from 11th June - 22nd June. This unique opportunity is for graduate students and academics to follow a course of study and to foster exchange and debate. It will consist of at least 6 modules over the two weeks, each convened by one of the participating academics. This course does not offer transfer of credits.

Participating Academics will include:

Etienne Balibar

Wendy Brown

Drucilla Cornell

Costas Douzinas

Stephen Frosh

Esther Leslie

Gayatri Spivak

Slavoj Žižek

The Conversation: Slavoj Žižek

Posted by Smiley and West on November 4, 2011 at 10:03am in The Conversation

Audio of interview:


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From the Afterword to Platonov's Soul and Other Stories

Soul and Other Stories, by Andrey Platonov
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Katia Grigoruk, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman
New York Review Books

From the Afterword, by John Berger

from p. 310: "The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls--walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens."

from p. 312: "The world today is suffering from another form of modern poverty. No need to quote the figures; they are widely known and repeating them only makes another wall of statistics. More than half the world population live with less than $2 a day. Local cultures, with their partial remedies--both physical and spiritual--for some of life's afflictions, are being systematically destroyed or attacked. The new technology and means of communication, the free-market economy, productive abundance, parliamentary democracy, are failing, so far as the poor are concerned, to keep any of their promises beyond that of the supply of certain cheap consumerist goods, which the poor can buy when they steal."

from p. 313: "Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity."

from p. 317: "The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.
The questions are not yet asked because to do so requires words and concepts which ring true, and those currently being used to name events have been rendered meaningless: Democracy, Liberty, Productivity, etc.
With new concepts the questions will soon be posed, for history involves precisely such a process of questioning. Soon? Within a generation.
Meanwhile, the answers abound in the multitudes; multiple ingenuities for getting by, their refusal of frontiers, their search for holes in the walls, their adoration of children, their readiness when necessary to become martyrs, their belief in continuity, their recurring acknowledgment that life's gifts are small and priceless."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

From “The Soul of Man under Socialism”


Oscar Wilde 1891

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.

Under Socialism all this will, of course, be altered. There will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings. The security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the state of the weather. If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging. Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse.

Upon the other hand, Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community. It will, in fact, give Life its proper basis and its proper environment. But for the full development of Life to its highest mode of perfection, something more is needed. What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first. At present, in consequence of the existence of private property, a great many people are enabled to develop a certain very limited amount of Individualism. They are either under no necessity to work for their living, or are enabled to choose the sphere of activity that is really congenial to them, and gives them pleasure. These are the poets, the philosophers, the men of science, the men of culture – in a word, the real men, the men who have realised themselves, and in whom all Humanity gains a partial realisation. Upon the other hand, there are a great many people who, having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life. From their collective force Humanity gains much in material prosperity. But it is only the material result that it gains, and the man who is poor is in himself absolutely of no importance. He is merely the infinitesimal atom of a force that, so far from regarding him, crushes him: indeed, prefers him crushed, as in that case he is far more obedient.

Of course, it might be said that the Individualism generated under conditions of private property is not always, or even as a rule, of a fine or wonderful type, and that the poor, if they have not culture and charm, have still many virtues. Both these statements would be quite true. The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising, and that is, of course, one of the reasons why Socialism wants to get rid of the institution. In fact, property is really a nuisance. Some years ago people went about the country saying that property has duties. They said it so often and so tediously that, at last, the Church has begun to say it. One hears it now from every pulpit. It is perfectly true. Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. It involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother. If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it. The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute. Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No: a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious, is probably a real personality, and has much in him. He is at any rate a healthy protest. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realise some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A New Kind of Communism

In the late 90s, political theorists, economists and politicians were talking confidently about the “end of history” and the undisputed triumph of liberal "democratic" capitalism. Communism was written off as dead and buried.

But after 9/11, the GFC, the Arab Spring, and the protests spreading over Europe, the ideological gloss of capitalism may be beginning to fade. If the alternative is Putin's muscular Tsarism or China's authoritarian capitalism, then renovating the idea of communism may matter profoundly. For philosophical rock star and brilliant iconoclast Slavoj Zizek, it is something that we should demand, no matter how impossible it seems. The only true utopia today is that things can go on indefinitely the way they are.

In a star turn at the 2011 Festival of Dangerous Ideas to a packed house at the Sydney Opera House, Zizek kept going until there was no time left for questions. His talk was titled “Let us be realists and demand the impossible: Communism”. It was chaired by festival co-curator Ann Mossop.


"Freedom in the Clouds" audio