Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?

9781844677139-did-somebody-say-totalitarianism-ne-f2cb085357aca8ae53f4741493260b0e

No, this is not a post about Donald Trump.

Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is another great book by Slavoj Zizek. Having read several of Zizek’s books, I found this one to be one of the more accessible. One of the major charms of Zizek is his ruthless – no shibboleths or unmentionable taboos or sacred principals or courses of actions – honestly. He has no Program in a concrete political sense, and that combined with his extremely keen political, social and psychological insight make his reading absolutely riveting and enlightening, not to mention downright refreshing.

A downside to that, is that Zizek lacks what traditional academics would call discipline and organisation; Zizek hops from idea to idea; is method is closer to a poets rather than “science”. It is often hard -especially for someone like me who is not totally versed in some of the intellectual traditions that Zizek commands – to decide exactly where Zizek stands. There are many devastatingly accurate insights and critiques of anyone and anything, but at the end, Zizek almost never counsels any action or suggestions some sort of opinion. In this book, it is the danger of cyberspace; the say it threatens our reality and our freedom that clearly emerge as a true treat. Zizek counsels a movement towards ‘strongly socialising’ the internet, that is, insuring that it is a space of freedom administered by the community, rather than a profit/control system by a few large companies and governments.

This book – as the title implies – deals with the theme of totalitarianism. Not so much as a historical event, or as an ideology, but the role the very concept of ‘totalitarianism’ plays in our own political and social discourse. This much more than a clunky philosophical tome, this is punchy and very, very relevant.

In a nutshell, totalitarianism is a rather vague term that is employed as a form of argument; a sort of intimidation.  “Antioxidant” is the metaphor Zizek deploys to describe its use in discourse. And ultimately – most importantly – its use is to “stifle of any Leftist radical alternative”. A pedestrian example taken from a comment in response to an op/ed in The Guardian reads: “the ridiculous, undemocratic and dangerous reliance on One Charismatic Personality to somehow Change the World and Save the Day without said Millennials having to raise a finger other than to vote is both ludicrous and betrays a sort of naive belief in the Strong Leaders characteristic of authoritarian regimes.” This is in reference to Millennial support for Bernie Sanders (apparently regarded as the ‘One Charismatic Personality’). Progressive voters are either spoiled children or crypto-Stalinists, craving an Authoritarian Regime. Obviously this commenter’s statement is ridiculous, but the sentiment is incredibly widespread.

There is a lot to unpack here. Zizek does not deny the historical totalitarianisms, traditionally Naizism and Stalinism (though the tern was first used to describe Mussolini’s Italy) their horror. However, he artfully uses them as examples to illuminate his larger points. For example: the waves of Stalinist Terror come to a culmination in 1937. This was a period where the arrests where not just widespread, they reached to every level of society; historians of this period talk in terms of the Communist Party “committing suicide”. This represented a frantic attempt by Stalin and his inner clique to regain control of the Terror itself; analogous to Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. The supreme irony was that the head of the Soviet secret police was himself executed for the truth: the arrest and execution of thousands of innocent communists. For Zizek, this represents a sort of ‘return of the repressed’, the idea being that the Terror works as a kind of symbolic repetition, the point where the betrayal of the utopian origins of the regime by Stalin is both disguised and renewed. It’s fascinating to see a historical event viewed from so many different angles. This is how history should be taught in schools; comprehensive and in depth.

Zizek deploys Lacanian psychoanalysis. But it seems unfair to read Zizek in this light. Complex historical events, the poignancy of a movie scene, even offhand but telling comments are fodder for Zizek’s brilliant commentary. It is hard to pin down exactly where the “reality” ends and the psychology begins and vice versa. But perhaps this is exactly the point.

A great must read.

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4 thoughts on “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?

    • Great question. It’s very different. Our standard or typical view of totalitarianism largely stems from the writings of Hannah Arendt, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism. It sees these movements as a sort of attempt to escape reality through rapid commitment to an abstract idea. It’s so fanatical that all boundaries of reason or fact are deliberately transgressed. Thus totalitarianism is a modern evil; hell on earth. Zizek sees this perspective as deeply compromised; more of an ideological tool of liberal/capitalist democratic ideology rather than a valid way to analyse or understand Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

      Zizek’s view is a lot more nuanced. He grew up in a formerly Soviet Slovenia; what Zizek referee to as “actually existing Socialism”. While in no way condoning Stalinism or Hitlerism; his focus rather is on how we talk and think about these historical phenomenon and how we use it as our own ideology. Zizek, for example, would insist that despite the readily apparent evils and shortcomings of Soviet Russia, they none-the-less held open a radically utopian vision that despite how betrayed it was, was still there. The Soviets valued the sacredness of work as a social value; we treat labor essentially as a sort of crime to be hidden (Third World sweatshops, underpaid labourers, etc).

      Zizek is interested in poking holes in our ideology; what we take for granted, rather than trying to modify our concept of totalitarianism. He did not say this explicitly in the book, but I’m fairly confident Zizek would say that our multicultural/neoliberal/capitalist society is no less “totalitarian”.

      Personally, I think that Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Stalinism and Hitlerism is largely correct. I also feel like Zizek is correct in showing how “totalitarianism” is used in our own rhetoric and value systems; they are not mutually exclusive. Thanks for your comment.

      • Hmm, so while Arendt outline of totalitarianism is correct, Zizek essentially wants to touch up certain portions inside of that outline, help us to realize our less than thought out assumptions are likely inaccurate or at least less than full bodied?

  1. Right. He’s not actually interested in Arendt or the absolute truth value of our academic understanding of totalitarianism. His point is that we use the concept of totalitarianism as a socio-political rhetorical weapon that has little to do with Nazis or Soviets.

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