First as Tragedy, then as Farce

9781844674282

I love Zizek. I love how he has no Sacred Cows; no sacred concepts, no infallible leaders. He’s a man with no wool over his eyes. He’s great at zapping major events – like the 2008 Meltdown – with a proverbial x-ray and really explaining the results to the reader.

This is more than just an academic, liberal-european explanation for the Meltdown and blaming it on a scary monster called “Capitalism”. This is much more. The action takes place on a much higher level; Zizek isn’t backing any particular horse. The result is a short book that has long consequences.

The title is based on Marx’s observation that events in history “happen twice, once as…” What this means in its simplest form is that there is the actual event and then there is the interpretation and results of that event, essentially forming two separate events that somehow must be labeled the same thing.

This book is about the Death of Liberalism encapsulated by 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq, and the Meltdown. Keep in mind, again, that Zizek has pretty much no illusions and thus is not interested in playing “unbiased” like we are used from newspapers and academic books and such. He assumes that since you are reading the book, you are already some strip of “liberal”. But this expresses itself perhaps best in the term “tough love'” most of the book is a critique of liberalism and democracy. Conservatives and considered too stupid to be even considered. This is a good thing; it saves time.

When Zizek talks about the death of liberalism, he is referring to the social democratic capitalist world order that “triumphed” in the ’90s with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This conception is usually marked by Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, where he proclaims that humanity has found the perfect formula for social, economic and political success and as such, represents the effective “end of history”; from now on, all countries will be social democratic and capitalist.

Zizek is speaking at a level where the differences between say a Democratic and Republican president are practically nil; it’s the difference between Pepsi and Coke. In this view, Democratic presidents are viewed as a greater threat to human progress because they accomplish the “structural readjustments (i.e. raise the minimum wage) that allows the exploitative capitalist system to continue. They are the bigger threat because they are more acceptable. The American Empire is still the American Empire under Bush and Obama; they pursed nearly identical policies, yet Obama did it with a “human face” and restored much confidence in the Empire.

This book I found to very insightful but also truly amazing for one simple reason. Zizek is probably one a handful of people that propose communism as a realistic option. And this book is all about laying the conceptual groundwork for a return of communism as a viable option, not a punchline.

I should probably explain because I know that things like “socialism”, “Marxism”, and “communism” are dirty words. Communism conjures images of cubist statues, gray apartment blocks, propaganda, and totalitarian gulags. This is Stalinism, and while there is an argument that runs that an attempt to from a utopian society is sure to turn into a totalitarian nightmare. To Zizek, this is not communism. True communism represents an ideal world of cooperation (as opposed to domination or exploitation), a world of reason (as opposed to emotion) and just all around sanity.

The argument that goes “its utopian and will lead to terror/totalitarianism” ignores the reality that the whole “free market/ laissez-faire/neo-liberal” doctrine is hopelessly utopian itself. The US itself, our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights – all this is utopian, for the record. If communism is accused of attempting to make the State control everything and own everyone, then neo-liberals have blinded themselves to how much capitalism needs state intervention, be it from welfare programs to police to military interventions to bailouts to continue to function. Capitalism is on constant life support provided by the State.

Communism, because it is a dirty word, has been split up into different ideas which seek to accomplish similar things. Ideas like “steady state economics” or any sort of ecological standpoint imply a communist stance because it seeks a world where human reason truly makes the decisions, not the profit motive.

An essential book that probably too few people will read. Zizek is fantastic at showing the logical flaws or illusions in the reasoning of various arguments and perspectives. Yes, he does revert to Hegelese on occasion, and sections that trudge through obscure philosophical language and concepts, but ninety percent is brilliant.

A must read if you want to understand today’s world.

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