Like a thief: Slavoj Žižek and the illusions of hope

Alex Colville, Horse and Train

To be contemporary is to respond to the appeal that the darkness of the epoch makes to us. In the expanding Universe, the space that separates us from the furthest galaxies is growing at such speed that the light of their stars could never reach us. To perceive, amidst the darkness, this light that tries to reach us but cannot – that is what it is to be contemporary. The present is the most difficult thing for us to live. Because an origin, I repeat, is not confined to the past: it is a whirlwind, in Benjamin’s very fine image, a chasm in the present. And we are drawn into this abyss. That is why the present is, par excellence, the thing that is left unlived. 

Giorgio Agamben (Verso Interview)

With political and theoretical differences aside (Leninism, reifications of History, etc.) we share, in translation, a short essay by Slavoj Žižek, originally published in Le nouveau magazine littéraire (Nº 1, January 2018).

One of the great contributions of American culture to dialectical thought is a series of more or less vulgar doctor jokes, of the type, “there is good news and there is bad news”.  For example: “The bad news is that you have terminal cancer and you will die within a month.  The good news is that we also discovered that you have Alzheimer’s, and you will have forgotten the bad news once you get home.”  Perhaps we should have the same approach with regards to radical politics.  After so much “bad news” – after having seen so much hope brutally crushed in the space of radical action, torn between the two extreme cases of Maduro and Tsipras -, one would be tempted to affirm that no action of this kind had a chance to succeed, that it was condemned from the beginning, that all hope for any real and effective change for the better was but an illusion.  Rather than looking to oppose to this signs of “good news”, we should learn to distinguish the good news contained in the bad, by considering it from another point of view.  Consider the automation of production that frightens so many, as it diminishes the need for labour and contributes to mass unemployment.  But why fear this possibility?  Doesn’t this open up the possibility of a new society in which all of us will have to work less?  On what kind of society will we embark upon if the good news is automatically transformed into bad?

If Marx provided an unsurpassed analysis of the way in which capitalism perpetuates itself, his mistake consisted of counting on its final collapse and in not understanding that it emerges stronger from every crisis.  As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck described, Marxism correctly saw the “final crisis” of capitalism, into which we have entered today, but this crisis is only a prolonged process of decadence and disintegration, without a Hegelian overcoming in sight, without any agent to give a positive turn to this decadence and convert it into a superior level of social organisation.

The paradox of our situation is the following: while the resistances to globalised capitalism fail again and always to arrest its rise, they remain strangely disconnected from the numerous manifestations that nonetheless signal the progressive disintegration of capitalism.  It is as if two tendencies (resistance and self-destruction) advanced on two different planes and could not meet, such that we end up with futile protests parallel to self-destruction, without finding the means to have these two converge in a coordinated action with the aim of an emancipatory overcoming of capitalism.  How did we get here?  While the greater part of the Left tries desperately to protect the old rights of workers against the assaults of globalised capitalism, it is almost exclusively the most “progressive” of the capitalists themselves (from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg) who speak of post-capitalism, as if the very goal of the passage from capitalism as we know it to a new post-capitalist order was annexed by capitalism …

How then can a radical social transformation be brought about? Certainly not in the manner of a triumphal victory or even as the result of one of these catastrophes amply debated and announced in the media, but “like a thief in the night”: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.  For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.” (The First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, 5:2-3)  Is this not already the situation of our own societies, obsessed precisely by “peace and safety”?  The same holds for psychoanalytic cure, where the resolution comes always “like a thief in the night”, as an unexpected by-product, and not as the realisation of an expressly formulated project.  The order of capitalist globalisation is a concrete totality capable of countering all attempts at subversion, and the anti-capitalist struggle can only be effective if it takes into account these counter-measures, if it transforms into weapons the very instruments of its defeat.  If one waits for the right moment when a smooth transition will be possible, then it will never arrive; history never offers us a clear opportunity.  One has to take risks and to intervene even if the goal to be attained appears (and is, in a certain sense) unreachable.  Only from such interventions can the situation be modified, to render the impossible possible, and in a totally unpredictable way.  Lenin can be enlightening here.  Two years before his death, when it becomes clear to him that there will not be a revolution at the European level, he writes: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilisation in a different way from that of the west European countries?”

Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that “thought is the courage of hopelessness” – a particularly pertinent intuition in relation to the historical moment that we are living, where even the most pessimistic diagnoses often conclude by an allusion to the proverbial light that would await us at the end of the tunnel.  True courage lies not in imaging an alternative, but in accepting the consequences of the fact that there is no easily identifiable alternative.  The dream of alternatives is a sign of theoretical cowardliness; it functions as a fetish that impedes us from thinking through our impasse.  In short, true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is only the light of another train running in the opposite direction.

One thing is nevertheless certain: the ultimate utopia, today, consists of thinking that if we do nothing and simply look to maintain prudently the existing order, the world will continue as it is.

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2 Responses to Like a thief: Slavoj Žižek and the illusions of hope

  1. Pingback: Like a thief: Slavoj Žižek and the illusions of hope | Anti Government

  2. eric d. meyer says:

    Why is it that Zizek and Agamben, when discussing the (im)possibility of ‘a radical social transformation’ in the existent state of things, suddenly resort to the most starry-eyed, mystified religious metaphors—Agamben’s ‘messianic event,’ Zizek’s ‘thief in the night’—which make it appear (pace Marx!) as if ‘radical social change’ were some crypto-mystical, supernatural force, like the Second Coming of Jesus Christ or the Birth of the Future Buddha, that swoops in on us like a whirlwind, without our self-conscious actions or subjective agency in actually making political change happen? When, in fact, ‘radical social transformation’ is, of course, as Marx always said, always and only made by sweating breathing living human beings, working within and against the increasingly all-encompassing system we all inhabit, through the slow, steady work of changing the political-economic system, changing the laws, changing society—what used to be called ‘building the new society within the shell of the old’—day by day, piece by piece, moment by moment. Which, after all, is the only way political change can take place, isn’t it?

    There may be, of course, also breathtaking moments of sudden breakthrough, when an abrupt dialectical reversal in the world-historical process of political change takes place, and we might wake up tomorrow in a different world … But even then, the difference between a catastrophic collapse of the system which brings only a descent into terror and violence, chaos and anarchy, and a stunning breakthrough into a whole new world, hinges upon whether those caught up in the whirlwind of change have prepared to bring a whole new world into existence and are able to turn the moment to their advantage, or whether, instead, the most brutal, violent terrorist elements seize power in the resultant power-vaccuum and rule by violence and terror over the clueless, unprepared masses, in a fascist or communist (or democratic?) totalitarian state that crushes political change by sheer military police force. Which is exactly what has happened in most so-called revolutions, whether left-wing or right-wing, especially over the past few centuries…

    Just two contemporary examples. The current Iranian protests against the Ali Khameni/Rhohani regime might have been set off by hard-liners provoking discontent against the moderately reformist Rohani, or by CIA/Mossad attempts to provoke another Arab Spring, with its disastrous aftermaths. Or they might have simply been touched off by the poverty, misery, and oppression of the unemployed masses and students who see no future in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if those protestors had a specific program of political-economic change, with specific demands against the government, and specific ideas about how to implement them, and were able to act together with self-discipline to pressure the government to support their demands, they would stand a much better chance of success than they currently appear to have in actually bringing about progressive change in the Islamic Republic, simply by smashing windows and burning storefronts and throwing rocks at cops. And also a much better chance of surviving the backlash when the conservative supporters of the Ali Khameni/Rohani regime take to the streets to crush the protests, as now appears to be happening…

    The Catalonian independentistas, by contrast, have clearly demonstrated that they are capable of mobilizing the electorate, winning elections, forming a government, and creating a semi-autonomous regional system that will both respond to the desires for revolutionary change (Catalonian independence), while still carrying out the necessary business of creating a workable economy, providing jobs, and ensuring a reasonable security against criminal violence or terrorist attacks, without crushing the civil and human rights and freedom of expression of its citizens and subjects. And the Catalonian independistas just might be able to stand up aganist the Spanish government, if Spain decides to carry out its threats to implement a ‘state of exception’ or ‘state of emergency’ and rule by sovereign diktat over Catalonia. For these reasons, I’d say the Catalonian independence movement has a pretty good chance of making political change, while I’m afraid the Iranian protest movements are likely to collapse into self-destructive anarchy, despite (or maybe because of?…) the support of Western democracies, the UN Security Council, and President Donald J. Trump.

    So all I’m saying, in a few words, is: If we’d forget, for a moment, about ‘the ultimate utopias’ and ‘the messianic events,’ and pay attention to the everyday business of changing the political-economic system, changing the laws, and maybe also changing our minds, along with them, we’d stand a far better chance of bringing about a ‘radical social transformation’—or, heck, just a few beneficial political-economic changes—in the existent (admittedly often bleak…) state of things, than if we keep waiting for Agamben’s ‘messianic event’ or Zizek’s ‘radical social transformation’ to happen. And, after having fed the hungry and housed the homeless and cleaned up the streets and stopped drug-cartels from pushing meth to high-school kids and so on, maybe then we could get on with the ‘radical social transformation’ that Agamben and Zizek want, without, it appears, having many specific suggestions of how to bring it about…

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