As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.
I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (ocean warming, acidification, other knock-on effects) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (heavy metals, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.
Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything. In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.
Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.
The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.
Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.
Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water! Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.
In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.
Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!
Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.
Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?
The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.
To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.
This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will exhaust us economically long before that. So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.
The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia
Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.
What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!
By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.
The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.
I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.
Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.
There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.
I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!
There remains one more thing to be said. Zizek tells us many times that there is no “right time” for revolution. Revolutions happen when circumstances come together to make the collapse of a present regime possible given the ardor, number, and organization of the revolutionaries. If the regime is strong enough it will not collapse and instead will break the revolution. But with or without a revolution the present day world-order, however anarchic it is, will shortly collapse for economic reasons without anyone having to do anything in particular to bring it about. Perhaps Zizek and I will not live to witness this event, but I wonder, as must he, if the Left will be ready to take advantage of it when it happens?
Having written this commentary I stumbled on this book: “The Geography of Risk” by Gilbert Gaul. My commentary is here with a link to the book putting numbers to my claims above.
Other books I’ve reviewed by Slavoj Zizek
[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.
In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.
The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.
Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.
Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!
Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.
No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.