Slavoj Žižek: Leftist, paradox, WTF?


Q. What did you think of speaking at the Yale Political Union tonight, using their format, which is not the kind of lecture you’re usually used to?

A. No, no, let’s not idealize this form. Of course it’s all posturing and like one-, two-sentence phrases. It’s like I said, I meant this seriously at the end. I don’t look at this event as a way to really convince someone. It’s just to clarify the differences, to disturb people a little bit. You know, maybe one of them will start to think, maybe some of us became a little more aware of what the inquisitions or impositions are. At this level it works. Otherwise it’s, of course, a spectacle.

Q. But do you think we’ll become fully aware at any point? Will we ever have all the answers? There were many contradictions in everyone’s arguments tonight.

A. Yeah, yeah, but you have to accept them. I don’t think we are in a stage generally to have clear answers. Fuck it, I don’t know what the answers are.

Q. But without the answers, should we act to make change? Or do we have to just keep thinking and worrying?

A. Uh, we have to start thinking, I think, and this may sound very anti-Marxist, but I think thinking even may be more important than acting today, because you know, I don’t believe in this, you know, “People are inventive, you start to act.” No you don’t, we really don’t know what to do. It’s really tragic; I wasn’t bluffing what I was telling there. For example, when I was in Greece, you asked them, “What do you want?” They are totally perplexed. I simply ask. The guy here [at the debate], at least gave me a clear answer: Scandinavian social democracy. The tragedies that I endure almost every month — I mean it’s falling apart all around.

Q. But could we consider thinking to be a form of acting? So for instance, the Occupy movement, what they’re doing right now doesn’t seem to be like much, but they’re doing a lot of thinking.

A. This is why instead of all the fashionable criticism of President Obama, by the leftists, I mean, you know, some leftists wrote as if they expected Obama to bring socialism here or something. No, he still did a great thing with the whole universal health care debate. We should engage in acts like this. You know why? For two reasons.

First, it is something which is clearly visible. He didn’t propose some crazy radical measure. Universal health care, more or less, works in Canada and many European countries, so you cannot say he’s planning some Leninist utopia. It can be done within the capitalist system.

Point two, which explains the reactions. It obviously did touch some very neural core, some nervous part of American common ideology — depriving customers of the freedom of choice. This is an excellent topic for engagement. Again, you do something which really confronts us with the limitations of most elementary everyday ideology, but again at the same time, it is visible. You are not bullshitting. He didn’t propose — I don’t know, “communism,” — you know what I mean.

So I would say that we should start thinking, but at the same time —

And this is what my example of Scandinavia or even in Latin America [from the debate] — I agree with those who say Lula in Brazil was much more interesting than Chavez because nonetheless, the existing capitalism is not one big monolithic system, and we just have to sit down and wait and it falls apart. It is a space where a number of things can be done here or there. You know, because if you look at all big social changes, they don’t usually happen so that someone decides that we will now do the big thing. You start to do something small, a small conflict, and all of a sudden it triggers — so we just have to do this and that, and maybe at some point, something will happen and so on.

And on the other hand, I hate this elitist leftist who hates ordinary people. You know, when they told me, “You know, people are so ideologically manipulated.” Well, I tell them, “What do you mean by this?” Like, if I were to be an ordinary American citizen, do you think for whom I should vote? Do you think I would have voted for that communist party of United States, the sort of crazy ex-Maoist kind? Of course the people don’t vote [for the left] because they feel that the left really doesn’t have a serious program. I mean you can see this tragically today in Europe. In Spain, in Greece, and so on and so on.

Q. So is part of the problem with the left having no new ideas and they need to start thinking more?

A. No, but you know what, because then people can tell me, “Okay, why do you even expect people from the left to do it?” No, all I’m saying is — and here is where my pessimism comes from — if we do nothing, we will be in deep shit — ecologically, socially. So it may well be possible that nothing will happen, that somehow the system will survive. But then I won’t like to live in a society that pretty much 20, 30 years from now — because remember, I’m not talking about 200 years from now, I’m talking about 20, 30 years.

You can see it in Europe, for example, it was so tragic, you remember, it was a republic here in Greece, but when the crisis began — two, three months, ago, the previous prime minister proposed a national referendum, and whole Europe was horrified. The message was clear, we need now a technocratic government, don’t mess with democracy and so on and so on. And I really think, and right here I am not a leftist paranoid. Okay, I’m not saying that some secret capitalist power center decides the end of democracy. No, it’s the spontaneous logic of the system which leads more and more to what some people in Europe call a post-political society, where economy is left to the experts and we’re allowed to debate these topics like gay rights and abortion, which are important, but it’s not where money, where things are decided, so now almost the only passionate politics is cultural politics. Other things are left to, and I think really that the tragedy today–I will say something horrible — is that you know this Marxist dream, there’s this secret elite capitalist ruling, it would be good if there were such elite, I think —

Q. It would make it easy.

A. Yeah! There are signs that the ruling class is really losing its ability to rule properly. I mean, there are really signs of confusion. And so on and so on. It’s very tragic. And it’s also clear in Europe. They’re just reacting to the crisis, no, maybe they know.

For example, China is now in total panic, as you maybe know. They are just getting ready for some — because they got something, the Chinese communists, that you know, when people say the wonderful things about them, how they lifted 160 million people out of hunger, they don’t get it. Revolutions do not emerge when things are really bad. Revolutions emerge when things start to get better and then people want more and are disappointed, which is why — the Communists in China know this — and again, they are just getting ready for some mega mega disturbances. They’re strengthening incredibly the army, the internal security, special police units, and so on and so on. So I really think that like there are difficult times ahead. Who knows what will happen?

Q. Okay, so given that you are very pessimistic about the future, how do —

A. Not very!

Q. Okay, just a little bit, but —

A. Let me give you a paradoxical answer. For the same reasons, I am optimistic and pessimistic. It is the same when — you know, Mao had this wonderful saying, “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

There is a general crisis. Not economic, but in various areas — no one really knows. These are dangerous times, but at the same time, opportunities. It’s again paradoxical — I am an optimist, for the very same reasons I am a pessimist. Or my dogma is that things cannot go on the way — OK they can five, 10 years, and so on.

But we see what’s happening in Europe. Maybe it’ll explode, it’s horrible. And on the one hand, this Greek bankruptcy, on the other hand, the incredible explosion of violent anti-immigrant and other racism, and homophobia, it’s really really horrible. And which is why I was not just licking the ass of the Americans [during the debate, he mentioned America still has a chance]. I really meant it that, we lost every right to be our country — the way Europe is regressing. You know what I mean by regression?

For me, I am always for dogmatism. For example, the measure of emancipation for me is that certain things — you simply cannot speak, talk like that. And I like this! Today in developed, liberal countries, you cannot argue, “Women really like to be raped.” If you do this, you are simply perceived as an idiot or whatever, and this is good! This should be dogmatic here. I would worry very much to live in a country where all the time I would have to argue that women shouldn’t be raped, you know? And at this level, you will have a regression in Europe. There are racist and other statements which 20 years, ago, even 10, were simply unthinkable to hear them in public. The dirty private secrets — now you can talk like that in public, which worries me very much.

I mean that’s so many dilemmas here. We really need to start thinking here. We really live in dangerous times. Great hopes, but deep shit, which is why sometimes I’m a pessimist. You see the Von Trier movie, “Melancholia”? After I saw it, I said, “Maybe, I would agree with the heroine, maybe this is a good thing.” It’s beautiful, it’s a little sentimental, but I always love the end of the world. Maybe we are a shit humanity.

Q. Thank you for coming and disturbing Yale a little bit, do you have any parting thoughts?

A. Do whatever you want, manipulate me, change the order. Did you see this movie, it’s kind of a nice leftist documentary, “The Thin Blue Line,” about some fake case of mistrial or misjudgment, where the district attorney says, “It takes an average prosecutor to have a guilty guy convicted, but only a really good prosecutor can have an innocent guy convicted.” So you know, the average journalist can reproduce what I said. It takes a really good journalist, without falsifying me, just by mixing words, to make me say the opposite of what I said. I expect nothing less than this.