Here are reviews of two books by Slavoj Zizek. “Refugees” (2016) is much more social commentary than philosophy concerning as it does a more specific “current event”, the matter of Middle Eastern and North African refugees in Europe. Beginning in earnest a few years ago now, the issue has passed from most American headlines. But this social phenomenon remains pressing for all the peoples involved and may grow again to numbers well beyond the capacity of European (not to mention American) governments to process and absorb. Written only a year earlier, “Trouble in Paradise” (2015), is commentary on a wider (but still present) phenomenon, global capitalism (mostly since the collapse of the Soviet Union), and what hope there is that something better can be brought to political and economic fruition before ecological catastrophe kills us all. Hint: I do not hold out much hope and I do not believe Zizek does either.
Zizek analyzes both the “human condition” and the inconsistencies inherent in global capitalism. He says in effect “something must change or we are headed for disaster”, but I get the sense that he knows full well that disaster will be the outcome no matter what happens in the near to medium term. In the first review below I take note of Zizek’s reliance (over much I think) on abstract cultural artifacts, namely fiction represented in contemporary literature and film. I only want to note here that this is not a problem only here in this book, but I suppose in Zizek’s style, for I remember it from his earlier “Living in End Times” reveiwed here.
Zizek’s atheism also gets in his way alas. It is one thing to critique the “institutional church” in social, political, and economic dimensions. But throwing the baby (God) out with the bath water (institutional religion) cannot help but further distort his picture of history as a whole. Since the literature he chooses as foundation for examining the human condition as such is also either atheist or non-committal on the subject, the distortion (if there happens to be a God) is self-reinforcing. But it is also the case that this literature reflects the real culture of the present day in which most people are functional atheists. People, the majority of people on Earth, claim to believe in God, but the God they believe in is often limited, fickle, inconsistent, and intolerant, sometimes even justifying horrific evil. Zizek’s analysis of religion is mostly wrong, but by analyzing this mistaken notion of God he does achieve genuine insight into the nature of real people and history because that is the God in which they believe. Alas for both him and us, those insights do not give us a lot of confidence that things will ever get better any time soon.
I still enjoy reading Zizek, but I find so many problematic issues in his views. His style and sense of (sometimes twisted) humor are on full display in this, something of a reprise of his “Living in End Times”, but much less heavy on the triumverate of Hegel, Lacan, and Badiou. All three appear of course along with many others, philosophers, novelists, film makers, and so on. His hammer falls squarely on Capitalism generally, and global Capitalism in particular. The book’s over-arching subject is the socio-political-economic situation of our present world. Zizek’s scholarship is as broad here as always.
It isn’t possible to say “there is no truth” in Zizek’s analysis. Published in 2015 he makes a statement that proves to be a prescient prophecy in his own terms: “…if moderate liberal forces continue to ignore the radical Left, they will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist wave”. Isn’t this exactly what happened in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S? Once she gained her party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton more or less ignored her primary opponent’s positions along with his substantial base who, while not radical, were to the political left of her. Sanders’ supporters are here exactly in the position of the “ignored left” of which Zizek speaks. As a result, a large cohort of Bernie’s supporters in critical states simply did not vote and effectively cost Clinton the election.
Having established that Capitalism is a part of the problem Zizek calls for something else, but what? He would like, I think, to see a more egalitarian world, something of a more level playing field economically at least, but in the first half of his book he recognizes that the inclusive forces that initiate a true “emancipatory movement” (Zizek is careful to distinguish these from purposeless violence, though they can and perhaps must [Zizek’s opinion] have a violence of their own) are never the forces that ultimately take power if the movement succeeds in its initial aim; ridding themselves of an unjust regime in the aegis of some particular master.
If nothing else history teaches us that some less inclusive (often out-rightly intolerant) agency, whether of the left or right, has always got the edge in the in-between time, when the government has collapsed but nothing yet has crystallized in its place. Zizek cites numerous examples of this process. Zizek well knows that today, with more than seven billion people on Earth, any transition, even leading to a better outcome eventually (something highly unlikely in itself), would if globalized, precipitate the death of billions! He also knows that this fate likely awaits us anyway as ecological catastrophe catches up with us eventually. Perhaps that is the ultimate fountain of Zizek’s inclination to an “any movement having some genuine aim is better than nothing” position.
But while there is truth in Zizek’s analysis, it is distorted, in my opinion, by his reliance on art, particularly literature and film (along with a few jokes) to support his over all view of human nature. Fiction is wonderful for highlighting particular characteristics of the human condition, for contrasting them to a real environment that otherwise might swamp them out. But their very value in this regard is also a liability because they accomplish their mission precisely by distorting reality.
I think it is unfortunate also that Zizek uses the word ‘violence’ as ambiguously as he does. In an appendix, among many other things, he mentions this and addresses one of his critics. I would take a different tack. Earlier in the book he uses the Christian notion of ‘agape’ as an example of violence because it aims at precipitating the destruction of the existing (speaking of Biblical times) order. An atheist by reputation and declaration, Zizek cannot but have a distorted view of theology. A true “emancipative act” need not be violent in the normal sense of that term. Christian emancipation in the proper sense has nothing to do with the politico-economic order as such (be it Biblical Rome or modern global Capitalism). In the Christian sense, agape is “beyond the law” (among the senses of violence he seems to mean) because it goes farther than the law being more just, more fair; an act that would be approved by the law.
Zizek is surely right that anything that is aimed at the politico-economic order, if successful, will surely precipitate violence of the literal kind as it collapses, but that is a distinction, the violence (or lack of violence) of the act versus the violence it precipitates elsewhere, he seems not to recognize. Was the violence of the Jacobins who commandeered the French Revolution greater than the violence the European system visited on countless peasants for hundreds of years? Perhaps not, but the same cannot be automatically said today of violence perpetrated by left or right in relation to the overall impact of global Capitalism. For one thing, in the 18th century there were fewer people in all of Europe than live today in any one of its countries.
In this book, Zizek has a decision to make. Global Capitalism is a fact and seven-and-a-half billion people on Earth is also a fact. Zizek insists that no amount of “adjustments to the present system” can over-come its inherent contradictions. True as this is, he surely sees that such adjustments can extend the life of the inconsistent system precisely by, perhaps periodically, ameliorating excessively wide discrepancies. He describes such adjustments. If he understood the distorting nature of his reliance on fiction to provide his archetypes, he might realize that “adjustment” constitutes a more ethical course under the circumstances than even a successful emancipatory event. In the end the most pressing issue is the future ecological catastrophe. While Capitalism is certainly a contributor, there doesn’t seem to be any likely outcome of an “emancipatory event” that would halt the slide to that disaster anyway. Perhaps I am even more of a pessimist than Zizek?
Think of this little book as “applied Zizek”. It isn’t philosophy, it is social commentary and Zizek is one of today’s premier social commentators. Having written this book, Zizek has been accused by the left of being a fascist ideologue, and by the right of being an old-style communist ideologue. I have never taken him to be either and I read his little book to see for myself.
Zizek is here a “discerner of nuance” of every sort: sociopolitical, geopolitical, historical, environmental, economic, psychological, ethical ideological, and so on. His subject is the European refugee crisis spawned by ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, though he brings to the subject plenty of historical material demonstrating exactly the sort behavior (good and bad, even outrightly evil) seen in all parties to the present matter. This includes the refugees themselves, but also the governments and peoples of nations who are parties in the conflicts, and of course the corrosive effects of the present economic order. No one calls a spade a spade like Zizek, and it seems precisely his point in this book to note that there are spades everywhere, on every side, in the present context and none of them is without precedent in the history of the last few centuries. He draws his examples from every peoples on every continent, and this is how he opens himself to be a target of every side.
So what is to be done now, and in particular by Europe? Here Zizek seems to despair of an answer. Perhaps anything (to the right? To the left?) is better than nothing, anything that advances some vision. But he is well aware that no vision will actually come out as intended, and he spends time examining what must be done as concerns so much of the violent behavior of refugees that has no vision but the destruction of their own present environment. He concedes that much of what is being done (police raids, information gathering, and such) must to some extent be done, but he tries to discern the productive from the counter productive. His most concrete recommendation is to militarize, literally give to the army, the job of gathering refugees in temporary camps near to their points of origin, seeing to their registration, and then to safe passage into Europe. The military is expert at large scale organization, this a logical suggestion, but then what?
Ironically, as this was published in 2016, Zizek seems to assume that the nations of the European Union will each take their share of refugees! This is not taking place now in 2017 and the reasons it is not are all fully anticipated in Zizek’s analysis from politics, economics, racism, and the mindless violence of SOME individuals! Zizek sees both the rationale behind the backlash, and feels the ethical weight (on Europe) of at least some measure of responsibility. Is that not the attitude Christians are supposed to take? Can ethics and political will ever be genuinely reconciled; especially “on the ground”?
Even this is not the end of the matter, as bad as the situation can yet become as goes Europe (and by extension the United States) with refugees fleeing wars in which all these parties (including other Arab powers who take no refugees) have a part, reasonable projections for the future of our globe portend an even greater world-wide refugee crisis in the offing spawned by environmental disaster, political fragmentation, anti-globalism, and the inevitable economic dislocations that will follow from these. Is capitalism and globalism (including the colonialism of the last few centuries) largely to blame for all this? You bet! But Zizek also knows that it is too late simply to abandon their present manifestations wholesale! It is in calling attention to all this nuance that he makes himself a target for everyone. And the book can also be read as a kind of plea. Zizek fully admits that he does not know of a “solution” that is politically acceptable, economically feasible, and ethically justifiable all at the same time. But he pleads of those who have the power to do this to prepare some plan for that inevitable future.
If you aren’t afraid of seeing all the spades called out, including perhaps one or two that you might presently hold, and if you can stomach the answer that there may not be a realistic answer, a future in which millions don’t die, this will be a good book for you.