Zizek and the communist horizon

Communism is not an eternal set of rules, but a movement that “has to be reinvented in each new historical situation”.

Slavoj Zizek outlined four powerful "antagonisms" that could prevent capitalism's "indefinite reproduction" [Getty]

Around two weeks ago, Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi devoted a whole article on my piece – “Zizek and the role of the philosopher” – accusing it of considering philosophy an exclusive property of Europe; in other words, of Eurocentrism. Apparently, I forgot to mention non-European contemporary philosophers even though I refer to important thinkers in “Brazil, Australia and China”.

While I could certainly have taken the time to mention someone as Gayatri Spivak or Kojin Karatani, two important Indian and Japanese philosophers, I found particularly interesting how the author’s accusations rely not only on another European philosopher (Gramsci), but most of all on a crude distinction between European and non-European philosophers. Isn’t this distinction also a Eurocentric prejudice the author is ignoring?

The point is not that Spivak and Karatani should also be considered European thinkers because their thought depends on European classics (Derrida, Kant and Marx), but rather what sort of ideology lies behind such distinction? Perhaps, even Zizek would agree that it must be one similar to Eurocentrism since the author asks how this “non-European thinking” could reach a “self-consciousness and evident universality” which is precisely what he considers oppressive of Eurocentrism.

Nonetheless, if praising Zizek – an author who does not only rely on Spivak and Karatani’s philosophy, but also on non-European thought – is considered Eurocentric, I wonder what will happen now that I will praise his communism?

As I’ve said before, ideology plays an important part in Slavoj Zizek’s philosophical system, but communism is the key to understanding its essence – that is how he disrupts our neo-liberal democratic existences.

Communism does not only disclose the Slovenian thinker’s political position and predictions for the future, but also the hermeneutic nature of his thought – in other words, the existential engagement of dialectical materialism in real life.

After all, his comment on Marx’s call to change the world (“philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”) is not only similar to Heidegger’s, but also an actual invitation to interpret as he recently told Big Think: “In the 20th century, we have tried to change the world too quickly, the time has come to interpret it again, start thinking.”

As we can imagine, Zizek’s call to interpret is related to the “truth” politics that deals with which is never objective, but rather subjective, partial and engaged.

This is why anyone satisfied with “mere descriptions of the state of things,” Zizek explains, “no matter how accurate, [will] fail to generate emancipatory effects” which are necessary now that our “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point”.

But which choices do we have now, have we reached this zero-point and why should our horizon be communist? 

The future of communism

If there are so many philosophers today who follow the Slovenian thinker’s communist positions, it’s not only because of capitalism’s existential threats (ecological pollution, labour exploitation and military conflicts), but also given the historical failure of the Soviet Union. Its dissolution in 1989 did not dismiss the idea of communism, but rather disclosed its unrealised potentiality; potentialities that must be endorsed in order to modify the “coordinates of what appears as possible and give birth to something new”. 

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Slavoj Zizek

This is why communism is not an eternal set of rules that are present in every epoch of history to be applied rapidly, but simply a movement that “has to be reinvented in each new historical situation”. But in order to do this, we must first acknowledge that Francis Fukuyama was right to declare the “end of history” – in other words, how capitalism has been naturalised and incorporated in different political realities as those of the EU, the US or also Asia where it has already lost those few democratic assurances which used to render it bearable.

In this scenario, according to the Slovenian thinker, we have two options: either proceed “humanising or resisting capitalism” (conservation of its matrix of profit-orientation in such a way as to support the remains of social welfare) regardless the system is approaching apocalyptic zero-point, or use the same antagonism in order to reactivate communism.

While its clear most of our politicians (in particular liberal-democrats as Obama or Hollande) have chosen the first option, Zizek suggest we must imagine at least what the second alternative would look like. But what are these antagonisms which indicate we are actually living in the end of times?

As Zizek explained in the first of a series of successful international conferences on communism, there are four powerful antagonisms that could prevent capitalism’s indefinite reproduction:

  1. “The looming threat of ecological catastrophe.”
  2. “The inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property’.”
  3. “The socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics).”
  4. “New forms of apartheid, new walls and slums.”

While all four points are equally important, it is crucial to point out the significance of the last (the excluded, discharged and weak of the slums) because it represents not only the new position of the “proletarian”, but also the main reference “that justifies the term communism”. In this condition, the issue is not how to include the excluded within the liberal-democratic framework, but rather how to change framework. Although Zizek is not a supporter of Hugo Chavez (as some of us) it is important to note what he says about his social operation:

This is why, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that what Hugo Chavez has begun doing in Venezuela differs markedly from the standard liberal form of inclusion: Chavez is not including the excluded in a pre-existing liberal-democratic framework; he is, on the contrary, taking the “excluded” dwellers of favelas as his base and then reorganising political space and political forms of organisation so that the latter will “fit” the excluded. Pedantic and abstract as it may appear, this difference – between “bourgeois democracy” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” – is crucial (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009).

A lesson to learn

As we can see, from the beginning of the new century, Zizek has been examining those recent political events which are indirectly forming our communist horizon. While the tragic events of 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2008 rendered vulnerable the global capitalist system we relied upon, the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protesters in the West render visible “fragments of a utopian future” which are worth following and enacting. 

“Communism does not only disclose the Slovenian thinker’s political position and predictions for the future, but also the hermeneutic nature of his thought.”

The most important lesson to be drawn from all these events for Zizek is not simply how in “contrast to the situation in 1945, the world does not need the US; it is the US that needs the rest of the world”, but rather how capitalism cannot reproduce itself indefinitely.

In 2013, the effects of the four antagonisms mentioned above are predicted to intensify regardless that Obama has been re-elected or the ECB has been given more authority over financial institutions. But why are these fragments supposed to be “communist”?

Although the Occupy Wall Street protesters are not communist in the traditional meaning of the word, that is, as an eternal set of rules, Zizek believes they are as a “movement” who “care about the commons – the commons of nature, of knowledge – which are threatened by the system”, that is, the first three antagonisms of capitalism mentioned above.

This is why making “the state itself work in a non-statal mode” and replacing “statal forms of organisation with ‘direct’ non-representative forms of self-organisation” (as Chavez and the protesters have done) paradoxically prevents capitalism’s indefinite reproduction and at the same time creates a communist horizon.

Though “communism” as a movement that “has to be reinvented” seems a “heavy name very light on meaning” as some critics of Zizek said, it cannot aspire to higher meaning because its “future is not objective; it will come to be only through the subjective engagement that sustains it”.

While the hermeneutic nature of the Slovenian philosopher’s communism seems exaggerated, it is worth following considering its ability to disrupt the future

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.