Trouble in Paradise

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Left wing philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s latest book, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, combines his usual blend of cultural analysis, jokes, philosophy and commentary.

In the author’s words, he jumps from “our debt-driven economy to the struggle for the control of cyberspace, from the impasses of the Arab Spring to the futility of anti-Eurocentrism, and from the superego-pressure of ideology to the ambiguous role of violence in our struggles”.

The results are hit and miss. The jokes are definitely misses, designed more to shock than to make people laugh. Žižek makes some valuable insights on current issues facing the left. In his discussion of Ukraine, for example, he sees the Maidan protests that erupted last year as being motivated by ordinary people’s anger at corruption, inequality and repression.

He points out that the left’s task is not to choose one oligarchy over another or to choose between rival imperialist states — Russia or the US and European Union. On the Egyptian Revolution, Žižek writes that revolutions tend to go through stages of initial unity of “the people” against the regime before a process of differentiation occurs along political and class lines.

He attacks the idea that this battle is between Islamists and secular liberals, highlighting the fact that it is really a class struggle of those who want to realise the revolution’s demands for social justice.
With the current erosion of democratic rights the radical left are the staunchest fighters to defend previous gains — as Žižek puts it, the liberals need the communists.

On a more general level, he largely reflects ideas within academia, though often critically. He sees the agents of social change as the “extended proletariat”. Žižek then subdivides the proletariat to include “workers, the unemployed and the unemployable, the ‘precariat’, the ‘cognitariat’, illegal immigrants, slum dwellers, ‘rogue states’ excluded from ‘civilised’ space”.

The terms “precariat and “cognitariat” appear without explanation, while the Marxist idea that labour power is the source of profit is not explored. Žižek delivers a mixed message on the Leninist tradition.
He states, “We should shamelessly reassert the idea of a vanguard; when one part of a progressive movement assumes leadership and mobilises other parts.”

We should try to win leadership rather than assume it, but it is still a helpful defence of leadership in a time when horizontalism (leaderless movements) dominates much of the anti-capitalist thought. On the question of the state, Žižek adopts French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou’s concept of keeping a “distance” from it, rather than overthrowing it.

There is a useful critique of Italian Marxist sociologist Antonio Negri’s overly optimistic theory that communism is “nearly there” based on the current workings of capitalism. A more problematic aspect of the book is Žižek’s notion of a “pro-Muslim left”. The author has previously adopted a crude counterpoising of class to forms of oppression and tends to see struggles against oppression as accommodating to the system.

Trouble in Paradise divides the world between liberal capitalism and fundamentalism. The left, he argues, should support neither. Unfortunately this leaves many activists counterpoising the brutality of the global system to those who react to it — even if it is in a distorted way.

This chimes with his earlier statements on the Rotherham child sexual exploitation cases, as well as the Roma community in Eastern Europe. These read like the worst liberal commentators.

In an article for the Guardian newspaper Žižek lambasts the “left” for “the worst of political correctness” by not blaming Muslim culture for the abuse of young women in the city. Overall the book engages in a wide critique of capitalism. The author’s writing style will entertain some and put off others.

His combination of classic Marxist insights and current anti-capitalist thought means he has an audience among those people who want to understand and ultimately get rid of the system. He concludes that unless the radical left steps up to the mark we will be plunged into “a new Dark Age”, and with “ethnic and religious passions exploding, and Enlightenment values receding”. Despite his poor jokes we have to take Žižek seriously.