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.