Zizek calls for reexamination of capitalism

Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and former Slovenian presidential candidate, spoke about the ethical dimensions of capitalism at a YPU event Tuesday.
Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and former Slovenian presidential candidate, spoke about the ethical dimensions of capitalism at a YPU event Tuesday. Photo by Anisha Suterwala.

Philosopher and former Slovenian presidential candidate Slavoj Žižek explained his concerns with the current state of capitalism Tuesday night.

In Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall room 114 packed with Yale undergraduates and prospective freshmen, Žižek and members of the Yale Political Union debated whether capitalism is the “opiate of the masses.” Žižek argued that capitalism and democracy are no longer synonymous — since nations like China and Singapore are developing capitalist economies but are not democratic governments — and that capitalist systems should be reexamined. While he offered no clear revision of what capitalism should look like, Žižek maintained that people need to consider how the system could radically change from its current state.

“I am afraid that this eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism is slowly coming to an end,” he said. “We have to reinvent capitalism.”

Žižek emphasized that an inability to assess capitalism critically and to consider radical changes to the system have repeatedly caused Western nations to advocate ineffective solutions to the challenges they face. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Žižek noted, has argued that even if people had known in the early 2000s that their actions would cause a recession to strike in 2008, they would not have acted differently because of an inability to redefine the capitalist mindset.

He cited the European Union’s proposed plans to stabilize Greece’s economy as another example.

“Everyone knows these plans are total bulls—,” Žižek said. “They won’t work, and everyone knows this, but nonetheless we pretend to believe.”

Žižek said few members of Western societies can imagine a shift in the deeply entrenched capitalist mindset, one he said people accept and practice without questioning. But he said the most important step for people of Western countries to take today is to “start being engaged in radical dreams” rather than resisting change.

“We can imagine the end of the earth, or the end of the world — that’s all very easy to imagine,” he said. “But to imagine a small change in capitalism, in the market, is impossible for us.”

The Chinese government, on the other hand, introduced a law in April 2011 that prohibited artistic works that involved alternate universes or time travel, Žižek said. He described the law as an attempt to discourage Chinese citizens from imagining how their lives could change, but he added that the law and the government’s concern also demonstrated that the Chinese people are “still at least able to dream.”

Žižek attributed part of the failure to question capitalism to the extensive influence of powerful government officials. For example, he said Congress was at first strongly against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a $787 billion stimulus package intended to stimulate jobs and spur the economy, but that President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, among others, persuaded Congress to pass the act.

Žižek cautioned against creating atmospheres in which individuals can wield disproportionate influence, which he said skews democratic processes and damages the capitalist system.

“It’s so easy to blame people. The problem is not people like Bernie Madoff — there were always people like that,” Žižek said. “It was the social context that allowed him to do what he did that was the problem.”

Four students interviewed said they thought Žižek was a dynamic speaker who expressed his concerns with capitalism persuasively and succinctly.

“I think he really shook people’s understandings about the structures that affect their lives and called on us to ask more radical questions, which maybe had a tint of irony on Bulldog Days at an esteemed Ivy League school, but was important to say and hear nevertheless,” said Elias Kleinbock ’14, a member of the Party of the Left.

Three prospective freshmen said they were similarly impressed by Žižek’s speech. Zach Plyam ’16 said Žižek kept his discussion “light-hearted” while making important points about redefining the capitalist system.

Žižek ran for president of Slovenia in its first free elections in 1990.


  • Catherine08

    Oh, for the good old days of Marshall Tito!

    • ldffly

      Wasn’t he just a great, fun loving guy? Oh well. Those were the days!

  • RebelYale00

    It is funny (funny hmmm, not funny ha-ha) that people always equate democracy with capitalism. Why? Capitalism is easier to attack than democracy. With its dark and sinister corporate leaders trying to control the world, capitalism is just evil.… Great mention was made of China and Chinese capitalism in the article. Please read some history: China has always been this way. From emperors to military dictators to communist madmen one thing has always remained the same: China has never been a democracy. What would you suggest to replace capitalism? Communism? We all know how well communism and democracy work together, don’t we.

  • icouce

    Why is it assumed that it’s capitalism that needs reexamining and not democracy? I expect that a precocious bunch of Yalies will know that the founding fathers were less than sanguine regarding democracy; that the checks and balances we have been undermining for some time were expressly designed to mitigate the foreseeable consequences of populism (when did populism stop being a dirty word?)

    Arguably, it is democracy that has been fetishized to provide cover for statist economic policies the world over. That is, government economic intervention, which in turn undermines the workings of the free market, whose consequences are then disingenuously blamed on the workings of free markets. The biggest lie of the last 30 year has to be that the American economy has been “deregulated” and all the economic ills we face can be traced to this deregulation.

    One would be hard pressed to find anyone at any level of government ready to let any private, or particularly, any public project proceed without first conducting an environmental impact study. Yet, these same people give not a moment’s consideration to the economic impact of their best laid plans. Perhaps it is democracy’s hand in regulating without regard to impact that needs reexamination.

  • icouce

    You’re parents are paying top dollar so that a failed leftwing politician from a foreign country can come a tell you, for a fee no doubt, what’s wrong with yours. I guess distinguishing irony is not a priority in the Yale curriculum.

    Perhaps the Yale Political Union would like to schedule time for Raúl Castro to school us on freedom of the press and economic reorganization in a multi-party system.

    • anonanonanon

      And your parents never taught you grammar! To think!

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