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Slavoj Zizek: The global capitalist order is approaching a crisis again, and the vanished radical legacy has to be resuscitated

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

Slavoj Zizek: The global capitalist order is approaching a crisis again, and the vanished radical legacy has to be resuscitated
The rise of rightist populism across Eastern Europe has formed what I call a new axis of evil – and it needs to be confronted and defeated.

Thirty-two years after the fall of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, nationalist conservative populism is returning there with a vengeance: the recent turn of Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and some other post-socialist countries – I call them a new axis of evil – into a conservative-illiberal direction worries us all. How could have things turned so wrong? Maybe, we are paying the price now for something that vanished from our view after socialism was replaced by capitalist democracy. What vanished was not socialism but things that mediated the passage from socialism to capitalist democracy.  

“Vanishing mediator,” a term introduced decades ago by Fredric Jameson, designates a specific feature in the process of a passage from the old order to a new order: when the old order is disintegrating, unexpected things happen, not just horrors mentioned by Gramsci but also bright utopian projects and practices. Once the new order is established, a new narrative arises and, within this new ideological space, mediators disappear from view.

Here is an example. In his Immaterialism, Graham Harman quotes a perspicuous remark on the 1960s: “You have to remember that the 1960s really happened in the 1970s.” His comment: “An object somehow exists ‘even more’ in the stage following its initial heyday. The marijuana smoking, free love, and internal violence of the dramatic American 1960s were in some ways even better exemplified by the campy and tasteless 1970s.”

If, however, one takes a closer look at the passage from the 1960s to the 1970s, one can easily see the key difference: in the 1960s, the spirit of permissiveness, sexual liberation, counter-culture and drugs was part of a utopian political protest movement, while in the 1970s, this spirit was deprived of its political content and fully integrated into the hegemonic culture and ideology. Although one should definitely raise the question of the limitation of the spirit of the 1960s which rendered this integration so easy, the repression of the political dimension remains a key feature of the popular culture of the 1970s. This dimension was the “vanishing mediator” which later disappeared from view.

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The reason I mention all this is that the passage to capitalism in East European socialist countries was also not a direct transition: between the Socialist order and the new order, liberal-capitalist and/or nationalist-conservative, there were many vanishing mediators the new power was trying to erase from memory. I witnessed this process when Yugoslavia fell apart. To avoid any misunderstanding, I have no nostalgia for Yugoslavia: the war that ravaged it from 1991 to 1995 was its truth, the moment when all antagonisms of the Yugoslav project exploded. Yugoslavia died in 1985 when Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia and broke the fragile balance that kept it working. 

In the last years of Yugoslavia, communists in power knew they were lost, so they desperately tried to find a way to survive as a political force during the passage to democracy. Some did it by mobilizing nationalist passions, others tolerated and even supported new democratic processes. In Slovenia, communists in power showed understanding for punk music, including Laibach, and for the gay movement… (Incidentally, they financed a gay periodical and after the free elections, this money was canceled – the newly elected conservative city council of Ljubljana judged that being gay is not a culture but a way of life which doesn’t need to be supported.)

At a more general level, when people protested against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, what the large majority had in mind was not capitalism. They wanted social security, solidarity, a rough kind of justice; they wanted the freedom to live their lives outside of state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simple honesty and sincerity, liberated from primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy... in short, the vague ideals that led the protesters were, to a large extent, taken from socialist ideology itself. And, as we learned from Sigmund Freud, what is repressed returns in a distorted form. In Europe, the socialism repressed in the dissident imaginary returned in the guise of right-wing populism.

Although, as to their positive content, the communist regimes were a failure, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing socialism itself. When dissidents like Vaclav Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by communism itself – which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the “really existing capitalism” does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle. 

At a recent reception in Poland, a nouveau riche capitalist congratulated Adam Michnik for being a doubly successful capitalist (he helped destroy socialism, plus he heads a highly profitable publishing empire); deeply embarrassed, Michnik replied: “I am not a capitalist; I am a socialist who is unable to forgive socialism that it did not work.”

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Why mention these vanishing mediators today? In his interpretation of the fall of East European communism, Jurgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate left Fukuyamist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best one possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, we should not challenge its basic premises. 

This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-communist future. As he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just “rectifying” or “catch-up” (nachholende) revolutions; their aim being to enable those societies to gain what the Western Europeans already possessed; in other words, to return to the West European normality.

However, the “gilets jaunes” protests in Spain and other similar protests today are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody the weird reversal that characterizes today’s global situation. The old antagonism between “ordinary people” and financial-capitalist elites is back with a vengeance, with “ordinary people” erupting in protest against the elites, who are accused of being blind to their suffering and demands.

However, what is new is that the populist Right has proved to be much more adept in channeling these eruptions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the gilets jaunes: “Tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge” — all that moves (makes unrest) is not red. Today’s populist Right participates in a long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist. 

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Here, then, is the paradox we have to confront: the populist disappointment at liberal democracy is proof that 1989 was not just a catch-up revolution, that it aimed at more than the liberal-capitalist normality. Freud spoke about Unbehagen in der Kultur, the discontent or unease in culture; today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the ongoing new wave of protests bears witness of a kind of Unbehagen in liberal capitalism, and the key question is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it? Therein resides the big task of the left. This discontent is not something new. I’ve written about it more than 30 years ago in “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead” (a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale), which was published in New Left Review back in 1990 - may I quote myself?:

“The dark side of the processes current in Eastern Europe is thus the gradual retreat of the liberal-democratic tendency in the face of the growth of corporate national populism with all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism. The swiftness of this process has been surprising: today, we find anti-Semitism in East Germany (where one attributes to Jews the lack of food, and to Vietnamese the lack of bicycles) and in Hungary and in Romania (where the persecution of the Hungarian minority also continues). Even in Poland we can perceive signs of a split within Solidarity: the rise of a nationalist-populist faction that imputes to the ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ (the old regime’s codeword for Jews) the failure of the recent government’s measures.”

This dark side is now re-emerging forcefully, and its effects are felt in the rightist rewriting of history: first, the socialist aspect of the struggle against communism (remember that Solidarnosc was a workers trade union!) disappears, and then even the liberal aspect disappears so that a new story emerges in which the only true opposition is the one between communist legacy and the Christian-national legacy – or, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it: “There are no liberals, only communists with university degrees.”

On July 7, 2021, Orban bought a page in the Austrian daily Die Presse to publish his views on Europe. His main points were: Brussels’ bureaucracy acts as a “superstate” which only protects its own ideological and institutional goals – nobody authorized Brussels to do it. We should renounce the goal of greater unity because the coming decade will bring new challenges and dangers, and Europeans need to be protected from “massive migrations and pandemics.” 

This couple is a false one: immigrants and pandemic didn’t invade us from outside, for both we are responsible. Without the US intervention in Iraq etc., there would have been much fewer immigrants; without global capitalism, there would have been no pandemic; plus it is precisely immigrant crises and pandemics which necessitate stronger European unity. 

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The new rightist populism aims at destroying the European emancipatory legacy: its Europe is a Europe of nation-states bent on preserving their particular identity – when a couple of years ago, Steve Bannon visited France, he finished a speech there with: “America first, vive la France!” Vive la France, viva Italia, long live Germany… but not Europe.

Does this mean that we should put all our forces into resuscitating liberal democracy? No: in some sense Orban is right, the rise of new populism is a symptom of what was wrong with the liberal-democratic capitalism which was praised by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (Fukuyama now supports Bernie Sanders). In order to save what is worth saving in liberal democracy, we have to move to the left, to what Orban and his companions perceive as “communism.” How can this be?

Today in Europe, we are not dealing with three positions – populist right, liberal center, left – within the same universal political arch which reaches from the right to the left: each of the three positions implies its own vision of the universal political space. For a liberal, left and right are the two extremes that threaten our freedoms; if any of them predominates, authoritarianism wins – that’s why European liberals see in what Orban is now doing in Hungary (his fierce anti-communism), the continuation of the same methods as those of communists in power. 

For the left, rightist populism is, of course, worse than tolerant liberalism, but it perceives the rise of rightist populism as a symptom of what went wrong in liberalism, so if we want to get rid of rightist populism, we should radically change liberal capitalism itself which is now morphing into neo-feudal corporate rule. The new populist right exploits the fully justified complaints of ordinary people against the reign of big corporations and banks which cover up their ruthless exploitation, domination, and new forms of control over our lives with fake politically correct justice.

For the new populist right, multiculturalism, MeToo, LGBT+, etc., are just a continuation of communist totalitarianism, sometimes worse than communism itself – Brussels is the center of “cultural Marxism.” The alt-right obsession with cultural Marxism signals its rejection to confront the fact that the phenomena they criticize as the effects of the cultural Marxist plot (moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism, etc.) are the outcome of the immanent dynamic of late capitalism itself. 

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In his The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell described how the unbounded drive of modern capitalism undermines the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic that ushered in capitalism itself. In a new afterword, Bell offers a bracing perspective on contemporary Western society, from the end of the Cold War to the rise and fall of postmodernism, revealing the crucial cultural fault lines we face as the 21st century continues. 

The turn towards culture as a key component of capitalist reproduction, and, concomitant to it, the commodification of cultural life itself, enables capital’s expanded reproduction. Just think about today’s explosion of art biennales (Venice, Kassel…): although they usually present themselves as a form of resistance towards global capitalism and its commodification of everything, they are, in their mode of organization, the ultimate form of art as a moment of capitalist self-reproduction.

Now we see why we should remember vanishing mediators: today the global capitalist order is approaching a crisis again, and the vanished radical legacy will have to be resuscitated.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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