Slavoj Žižek on Obama, Bernie, sex and democracy: "That's the reality of global capitalism. Everyone is violating the rules"

Salon exclusive q-and-a: "When voters really do have a choice, it’s usually perceived as a crisis of democracy"

Published October 11, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (Verso/Borut Peterlin)
(Verso/Borut Peterlin)

As academic disciplines become more specialized, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek flirts with the line between relic and rebel. His interests are unabashedly broad — from Hegel to psychoanalysis to film and pop culture. And his topics are unapologetically grand: the future of global capitalism; the nature of ideology; the experience of reality.

Žižek has written more than 60 books, and starred in a number of documentaries. In “Trouble in Paradise” — recently released in the United States —  Žižek searches out ways to “think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives.” His principal subject is the melding of capitalism with various forms of authoritarianism — and the kinds of discontent that may emerge from within that melding. In typical Žižek style, the book also includes an exegesis of “The Dark Knight Rises,” extended meditations on North Korea and dozens of jokes.

I reached Žižek by phone at his home in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Over the course of two conversations, we spoke about Bernie Sanders, televangelists and why Žižek wants to move to Alaska.

 In “Trouble in Paradise,” you're talking about revolution — about an “authentic emancipatory process.” Where is this going to come from?

 Maybe it will not come. I'm very clear about this, and rather a pessimist.


I don't see any historical guarantee that some big revolutionary event will happen. The only thing I'm certain of is that if nothing happens, we are slowly approaching — well, if not a global catastrophe, then a very sad society. Much more authoritarian, with new inner apartheids clearly divided into those who are in and those who are out.

Okay, maybe I should have asked, where would this change come from, if it were to emerge?

It’s not a specific place. I see potential spaces of tensions. For example, you have literally hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of students in Europe who are doing their studies. And they're well aware that they don't even have a chance of getting a job.

So this is one stratum. Then I think more and more, this problem of Europe — should there be a wall? Should those outside Europe — immigrants, refugees — be allowed to enter Europe? I'm not a utopian here. I'm not a stupid leftist liberal who is saying, “Oh, you know, horror, people are drowning in the Mediterranean from Africa, we should open our gates to them.” No, that's stupidity. If Europe totally opens its borders, you would have in half a year a populist anti-immigrant revolution. I'm just saying this problem will grow — those who are in, those who are out.

There does seem to be a kind of upheaval underway —

— I don't have too high hopes. Like those old, stupid, pseudo-Marxists who claim, “We see the beginning, we just have to wait. The crowds, masses will organize themselves.” No, you can't beat global capitalism in this old-fashioned way.

You talk about this idea of “capitalism with Asian values,” which challenges the old idea that capitalism and democracy are the only possible partners.

It’s not only this, that we will get more states like China and Singapore, and so on — that is to say, authoritarian capitalism. I think that even in the West where we do have some kind of democracy — and I do acknowledge it’s a real achievement, definitely better than some dictatorial regime — it’s becoming more and more relevant.

That's for me — I'm very naïve here — the importance of all these agreements, TiSA and so on. These are agreements which will determine the basic coordinates of our economic and social life, flux of capital money, flux of information for decades to come. And it’s done in secret; nobody controls it. You know, this is where we are moving. The big decisions are done in top secret. They are not even debated. And what are politicians doing? They're fighting cultural wars, [while] real big economic decisions are simply made by experts in shadows, and so on and so on.

Do you think there are cases where voters have genuine options?

My ironic remark would be here that when voters really do have a choice, it’s usually perceived as a crisis of democracy.


For example, Greek voters had a kind of a choice at least, in voting for Syriza or against. That's why everyone was in a panic.

In Europe, comments along these lines are more and more open. I think I quoted somewhere a comment in the “Financial Times” where a guy says something like, “Europe's biggest problems are voters.” Like they don't really understand the necessity of certain decisions, and so on. If this is true, this means that democracy, that how shall I put it? It means that we are basically returning to pre-democratic times, in the sense of majority cannot be trusted.

We live really in an era of ideology. Neoliberalism, it’s a myth. The role of state apparatuses, state interventions in economy — they are more and more important. I saw a report on the state of Mali in Central Africa. They produce excellent cotton, and the price, of course, is low. They cannot make or break through — why not? Because United States, in subsidizing their own cotton farmers producing cotton, spends more money for helping their cotton farmers than the entire state budget of Mali.

I read a wonderful interview on CNN, years ago, with Mali's Finance Minister, who said, “Please, we don't need any socialist help. Give the market a chance. Don't unfairly support your farmers, and Mali is saved economically.” And it was incredible, how the United States Ambassador in Mali answered this. She said, “It’s not as simple as that, there is also corruption, Mali, blah, blah, blah.” [The ambassador] was totally bullshitting. But I think that's the reality of global capitalism. Everyone is violating the rules.

Or everyone is talking about one set of rules, but actually following another.

You have certain rules, but you are never really expected to follow those rules, you know. There are rules which you are expected to violate. And, a situation that interests me even more — there are not only things which are prohibited, but you are expected silently to do it, nonetheless.

It’s very culturally specific up to the everyday level. For example, let's say you're a rich guy, and I'm a poor guy. I invite you out to dinner. In Europe at least, it’s custom that when the bill arrives, although we both know that I will pay, you have to pretend, “No, no, let me pay,” and so on. We have to go through this performance, although we absolutely both know exactly what will happen, that I will pay.

This seems like a basic premise in a lot of ethnographic research.

Let me tell you another horror story. Don't you have, now, in the United States this madness with “yes means yes”? The idea is that when two people, if they want to have sex, it’s not enough if there is no no. There must be an affirmative “yes.” And even then, okay, a little bit ironically, they have those contract papers, or you take a photo, or whatever.

The point is not just to make fun of this, but this is exactly not how sexual seduction works. A little bit of a chauvinist example: You are seducing a lady. She would like to do it. But if you ask her openly, “Okay, can I fuck you now?” it would be too humiliating for her. Now I'm not saying this means that we can rape, or whatever. I'm just saying that things are much more subtle here.

I don't think that's quite what those rules and guidelines are intended to … okay, I see what you're saying. We have this implicit back-and-forth.

No, no, no — let me be specific here. I'm extremely brutal against rape, sexual exploitation and so on. I'm just saying that flirting, seduction and all this is structured in such a way that it precisely resists this clear translation into explicit rules.

And that’s what happens in the cotton trade between Mali and the United States, yes? Instead of the United States explicitly saying, “We're going to use protectionist trade policies and screw you over,” there’s a delicate back-and-forth through which this power relationship gets expressed.

In contrast to sex, in a market economy, we should push a little bit more towards explicit rules. If you play that game in [the] economy, it simply means you ignore certain very brutal power relations.

For the first time in decades, the United States has a competitive socialist candidate for president. Do you think Bernie Sanders is providing a genuine critique of the economic and political system?

Of course I sympathize with him. But I'm a pessimist here. Okay, he can play a positive role, blah, blah, blah. But I don't see the beginning of something that will amount to a real, serious change. Maybe one has to begin with small things. For example, as I always emphasize also in my book, I still have some sympathy for Obama. I don't buy that leftist stuff, you know, Obama betrayed the Left. What did they expect, that Obama will introduce communism into the United States, or what? But what I like about Obama, which for me is a good operation, you remember, universal healthcare. He touched a very important point of American ideology.

Which was what?

Obviously, because certain Republicans even wanted to bring him to the Supreme Court. What I'm saying is that this is how we should proceed. Don't say “big revolution.” You just select some specific point which in itself may appear a very modest one. It’s nothing special. You cannot accuse Obama of communism, my god. Canada has [universal healthcare], most of Western Europe has it. But in American conditions, this means, obviously, something quite strong. And I think this is what we should be doing today. Not dream about big revolution, or whatever, but pick out the dramatic points of each system.

It’s interesting that you present Obamacare as this revolutionary thing.

Not as a revolutionary thing. But as something which is insupportable, too strong for the predominant American form of ideology. That's all I'm saying. I don't like to use this big word “revolution.”

How do you distinguish between different approaches to social challenges? You see Obama’s healthcare plan as a challenge to a certain American ideology. But, in the book, you critique healthcare-oriented social organizations like the Gates Foundation.

I don't believe in this model of society where the solution will be for the very rich people to spend half of their earnings. The problem is that first, they get all the money in the system, in the sense that they profit tremendously, and then they repay the debt. I simply don't think charity and welfare is the solution.

The problem with charity is that it’s part of general ideology today. Instead of asking systematic questions like “What's wrong with our system?” you go into personal responsibility. For me, the unsurpassable model of what is false in charity is still the first big one: Carnegie, of Carnegie Hall. On the one hand, yes, he did everything, building cultural home, concerts, etc., but on the other hand, he employed hundreds of Pinkerton detectives in Texas to beat workers to break trade unions. That's the model for me, you know. First, you extremely brutally beat the workers, and then you offer them a concert.

Incidentally, you know who wrote — I forgot his name, the son of Warren Buffet…

Who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times a couple years ago, criticizing philanthropy.

I'm not saying these are bad people. Of course, it’s better that they do this than some nonsense or whatever with their money. I'm just saying that this is not the solution.

It’s the same, you know, with ecology. I hate this personal responsibility approach, where each of us is made to feel guilty personally. “Did you recycle all your bins, did you put all the paper aside, blah, blah?” As if, don't ask big questions, but look at yourself — what did you do to save our earth?

The real problems are not here. And, on the other hand, you are also offering an easy way out. Like, “Okay, I'll recycle all this stuff, I'll buy organic food, and then I did whatever I can and I have the right to feel good.” No, the question is much more systemic.

I feel like you're in the business of disenchantment. When I read your work, I wonder if this is what it felt like, a hundred years ago, to pick up a piece of strident atheist literature.


Is there that kinship? I mean, are you working toward a particular kind of disenchantment with these systems?

Sorry, I don't get it. Are you asking me about this general idea that we are entering so-called post-secular era?

I’m just being incoherent. Let’s talk about the post-secular era.

I am radically opposed to this. I don't believe in this post-secular era. I think that the sacred which is returning today is part of our postmodern, individualist, hedonist universe. I mean, look at American TV preachers. They are pure creatures of modern performance. It’s ridiculous. Whatever it is, it’s not religion.

The naïve critics of religion — Richard Dawkins, all of them, they are way too naïve. They are not really describing what is happening here. It’s not authentic religion. It’s part of our consumerist culture. On the other hand, it’s clear that these type of religious revivals are a reaction to what we can call post-politics, the end of traditional politics. You no longer have communal meetings, you no longer have these elementary forms of authentic political life. And I think that religion is entering as an ersatz supplement for politics. And it’s really true, if we identify politics with antagonism, passionate taking sides, combative attitude and so on and so on.

What is “authentic religion,” exactly?

It’s not authentic in the sense of some higher value. It’s authentic in the simple sense that at its own level, it functions the way it says it functions. For example, authentic political struggle in Germany in the ’30s was Hitler, Communists, Social Democrats and so on and so on.

So authentic politics pays attention to the fundamentals, or to basic struggles, as opposed to bureaucratic details —

Yeah, but not in some deep mythical sense. For example, let's go to fundamentalists. They're not authentic, in the sense that they attack this modern permissive hedonist culture. It’s a big show, blah, blah. They reproduce in the most vulgar form [that which] they are attacking. Their religious show, it’s a mega ego-trip. It’s for me a form of public amusement. This is what makes this nonauthentic.

Do authentic politics always gravitate toward violence?

This is a very open, problematic question that always gets me into trouble. It is violent in the sense that yes, it’s basically a conflict — it’s a utopia to think that it can be resolved simply through argumentation, negotiations, and so on. It’s really a scene where similarly passionate people take sides. I don't believe in some sort of simple ethics of communication. But this doesn't mean we should slaughter each other.

We always identify violence with how things are when things change. Demonstrations, explosions, and so on. But we should also be very attentive to violence that goes on so that things can stay the way they are. Violence which is part of the normal healthy production of our societies. There is violence going on. So it’s a little bit false to see violence only when it explodes.

 [We are speaking during a heat wave in Slovenia, and Žižek’s wife will not use air conditioning.]

I'm sorry, but you got me now in this heat-wave confused condition. My god, I hate heat so much. I like it cold. I'm thinking of moving somewhere, not even to Canada, but Alaska, or, I don't know, Iceland, northern Norway, whatever.

It gets pretty hot in Alaska, actually.

But not Sarah Palin country. More to the north.

Well, there's this ideal of the philosopher in the wilderness, right? On the edges of civilization, looking in.

No, no, no, I was always skeptical about this image. Although usually they were not so stupid. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, all those guys, you know? So-called American Transcendentalists. They were not just this Transcendental-peace-nature. They actively supported John Brown.

That’s true.

But generally, I think those that preach this live with nature and so on and so on — these are usually the dangerous, violent guys. I almost think — okay, this may almost sound racist — that civilizations which had this idea of calm inner lives, small rituals, and so on, are usually the most brutal civilizations. I love Japan. But what always disturbed me is some of the features in Japanese, and also in Chinese, everyday life, which is usually taken as their gentleness, and so on. Let's take bonsai trees. How do you grow them? You underfeed and torture them terribly. For me, when you have this superficial gentleness, it’s just a screen, calm reflection. Look for extreme brutality beneath it.

You can see violence everywhere, though, can’t you?

It is everywhere. It is everywhere. The world is hell. My vision, basically, in religious terms — though I'm atheist, of course — is some kind of Protestant view of the fallen world. It’s all one big horror. I despise Leftists who think, you know, violence is just an effect of social alienation, blah, blah, blah; once we will get communism, people will live in harmony. No, human nature is absolutely evil and maybe with a better organization of society we could control it a little bit.

You've been more pessimistic in these conversations than I expected after reading “Trouble in Paradise.

I don't believe in progress. Let's take the Marxist utopia at its most radical. Yes, we will somehow manage to overcome capitalism, there will be a new society of — of what? How do we know there will not be even some other type of greater horrors there, and so on? I absolutely try to disassociate social emancipation and so on, from any of these ideas, from some kind of harmonious society of collaboration, of peace, and so on and so on.

So people are just evil? Is that —

Not evil. What is evil? It wouldn't fit. You know this American constitutional formula, right? Pursuit of happiness.


I think of the great theorist of social paradoxes, Paul Watzlawick. He wrote a book called “Pursuit of Unhappiness.” I literally believe in this. I think that we humans are masters in how to sabotage our happiness. We want to be maybe almost happy, but not really happy. We don't really want what we desire. That's the basic lesson of psychoanalysis.

By Michael Schulson

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