Despite everything, Slavoj Žižek still believes the Idea of communism is the most appropriate for our end times of crises and monsters.
Photograph via Flickr by Pat Joyce
The Left today faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing “natural” in the present crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously acknowledging that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, violating its rules will indeed cause economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, facilitated by global market conditions (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is not the result of an evil plot by capitalists, but an urgency imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse. For this reason, what is now required is not a moralizing critique of capitalism, but the full re-affirmation of the Idea of communism.
The idea of communism, as elaborated by Alain Badiou, remains a Kantian regulative idea lacking any mediation with historical reality. Badiou emphatically rejects any such mediation as a regression to an historicist evolutionism which betrays the purity of the Idea, reducing it to a positive order of Being (the Revolution conceived as a moment of the positive historical process). This Kantian mode of reference effectively allows us to characterize Badiou’s deployment of the “communist hypothesis” as a Kritik der reinen Kommunismus. As such, it invites us to repeat the passage from Kant to Hegel—to re-conceive the Idea of communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization. The Idea that “makes itself what it is” is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself. Recall Hegel’s infamous “idealist” formula according to which Spirit is its own result, the product of itself. Such statements usually provoke sarcastic “materialist” comments (“so it is not actual people who think and realize ideas, but Spirit itself, which, like Baron Munchausen, pulls itself up by its own hair”). But consider, for example, a religious Idea which catches the spirit of the masses and becomes a major historical force? In a way, is this not a case of an Idea actualizing itself, becoming a “product of itself”? Does it not, in a kind of closed loop, motivate people to fight for it and to realize it? What the notion of the Idea as a product of itself makes visible is thus not a process of idealist self-engendering, but the materialist fact that an Idea exists only in and through the activity of the individuals engaged with it and motivated by it. What we have here is emphatically not the kind of historicist/evolutionist position that Badiou rejects, but something much more radical: an insight into how historical reality itself is not a positive order, but a “not-all” which points towards its own future. It is this inclusion of the future as the gap in the present order that renders the latter “not-all,” ontologically incomplete, and thus explodes the self-enclosure of the historicist/ evolutionary process. In short, it is this gap which enables us to distinguish historicity proper from historicism.
Why, then, the Idea of communism? For three reasons, which echo the Lacanian triad of the I-S-R: at the Imaginary level, because it is necessary to maintain continuity with the long tradition of radical millenarian and egalitarian rebellions; at the Symbolic level, because we need to determine the precise conditions under which, in each historical epoch, the space for communism may be opened up; finally, at the level of the Real, because we must assume the harshness of what Badiou calls the eternal communist invariants (egalitarian justice, voluntarism, terror, “trust in the people”). Such an Idea of communism is clearly opposed to socialism, which is precisely not an Idea, but a vague communitarian notion applicable to all kinds of organic social bonds, from spiritualized ideas of solidarity (“we are all part of the same body”) right up to fascist corporatism. The Really Existing Socialist states were precisely that: positively existing states, whereas communism is in its very notion anti-statist.
The problem is how to avoid radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, or retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana).
Where does this eternal communist Idea come from? Is it part of human nature, or, as Habermasians propose, an ethical premise (of equality or reciprocal recognition) inscribed into the universal symbolic order? Its eternal character cannot, after all, be accounted for by specific historical conditions. The key to resolving this problem is to focus on that against which the communist Idea rebels: namely, the hierarchical social body whose ideology was first formulated in great sacred texts such as The Book of Manu. As was demonstrated by Louis Dumont in his Homo hierarchicus, social hierarchy is always inconsistent; that is, its very structure relies on a paradoxical reversal (the higher sphere is, of course, higher than the lower, but, within the lower order, the lower is higher than the higher) on account of which the social hierarchy can never fully encompass all its elements. It is this constitutive inconsistency that gives birth to what Rancière calls “the part of no-part,” that singular element which remains out of place in the hierarchical order, and, as such, functions as a singular universal, giving body to the universality of the society in question. The communist Idea, then, is the eternal demand co-substantial with this element that lacks its proper place in the social hierarchy (“we are nothing, and we want to be all”).
Our task is thus to remain faithful to this eternal Idea of communism: to the egalitarian spirit kept alive over thousands of years in revolts and utopian dreams, in radical movements from Spartacus to Thomas Müntzer, including within the great religions (Buddhism versus Hinduism, Daoism or Legalism versus Confucianism, etc.). The problem is how to avoid the choice between radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, and the retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana). It is here that the originality of Western thought becomes clear, particularly in its three great historical ruptures: Greek philosophy’s break with the mythical universe; Christianity’s break with the pagan universe; and modern democracy’s break with traditional authority. In each case, the egalitarian spirit is transposed into a new positive order (limited, but nonetheless actual).
The democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities.
In short, the wager of Western thought is that radical negativity (whose first and immediate expression is egalitarian terror) is not condemned to being expressed in short ecstatic outbursts after which things are returned to normal. On the contrary, radical negativity, as the undermining of every traditional hierarchy, has the potential to articulate itself in a positive order within which it acquires the stability of a new form of life. Such is the meaning of the Holy Spirit in Christianity: faith can not only be expressed in, but also exists as, the collective of believers. And this faith is itself based on “terror,” as indicated by Christ’s insistence that he brings a sword, not peace, that whoever does not hate his father and mother is not a true follower, and so on. The content of this terror thus involves the rejection of all traditional hierarchical and community ties, with the wager that a different collective link is possible—an egalitarian bond between believers connected by agape as political love.
Democracy itself provides another example of such an egalitarian link based on terror. As Claude Lefort notes, the democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities. This is why, before democracy can enter the stage, terror has to do its work, forever dissociating the place of power from any natural or directly qualified pretender: the gap between this place and those who temporarily occupy it must be maintained at all costs. This is also why Hegel’s deduction of the monarchy can be given a democratic supplement: Hegel insists on the monarch as the “irrational” (i.e., contingent) head of state precisely in order to keep the summit of state power apart from the expertise embodied in the state bureaucracy. While the bureaucrats are chosen on account of their abilities and qualifications, the king is the king by birth—that is, ultimately, he is chosen by lot, on account of natural contingency. The danger Hegel was trying to avoid here exploded a century later in Stalinist bureaucracy, which was precisely the rule of (Communist) experts: Stalin is not a figure of a master, but the one who “really knows,” an expert in all imaginable fields, from economy to linguistics, from biology to philosophy.
We can well imagine a democratic procedure maintaining the same gap on account of the irreducible moment of contingency in every electoral result: far from being a limitation, the fact that elections do not pretend to select the most qualified person is what protects them from the totalitarian temptation (which is why, as was already clear to the Ancient Greeks, choosing rulers by lot is the most democratic form of selection). That is to say, as Lefort has again demonstrated, the achievement of democracy is to turn what for traditional authoritarian power is the moment of greatest crisis—the moment of transition from one master to another, the panic-inducing instant at which “the throne is empty”—into the very source of its strength: democratic elections thus represent the passage through that zero-point at which the complex network of social links is dissolved into a purely quantitative multiplicity of individuals whose votes are mechanically counted. The moment of terror, of the dissolution of all hierarchical links, is thereby re-enacted and transformed into the foundation of a new and stable political order.
Measured by his own standards of what a rational state should be, Hegel was thus perhaps wrong to fear universal democratic suffrage (see his nervous rejection of the English Reform Bill in 1832). It is precisely democracy (universal suffrage) which, much more appropriately than Hegel’s own State of estates, performs the “magic” trick of converting radical negativity into a new political order: in democracy, the negativity of terror (the destruction of everyone who pretends to identify with the place of power) is aufgehoben and turned into the positive form of the democratic procedure.
The question today, now that we know the limitations of that formal procedure, is whether we can imagine a step further in this process whereby egalitarian negativity reverts into a new positive order. We should look for traces of such an order in different domains, including in scientific communities. The way the CERN [acronym for what is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research] community functions is indicative here: in an almost utopian manner, individual efforts are undertaken in a collective non-hierarchical spirit, and dedication to the scientific cause (to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang) far outweighs any material considerations. But are such traces, no matter how sublime, merely that—marginal traces?
In his intervention at the 2010 Marxism conference in London (organized by the Socialist Workers’s Party), Alex Callinicos evoked his dream of a future communist society in which there would be museums of capitalism, displaying to the public the artifacts of this irrational and inhuman social formation. The unintended irony of this dream is that today, the only museums of this kind are museums of Communism, displaying its horrors. So, again, what to do in such a situation? Two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no immediate European revolution, and that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote: “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 civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?”
Is this not the predicament of the Morales government in Bolivia, of the (former) Aristide government in Haiti, of the Maoist government in Nepal? They came to power through “fair” democratic elections, rather than insurrection, but having gained power, they exerted it in a way which was (partially, at least) “non-statist”: directly mobilizing their grassroots supporters, bypassing the Party-State network. Their situation is “objectively” hopeless: the whole drift of history is against them, they cannot rely on any “objective tendencies” pushing in their direction, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. Nevertheless, does this not give them a unique freedom? (And are we—the contemporary Left—not in exactly the same situation?) It is tempting to apply here the old distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom for”: does their freedom from History (with its laws and objective tendencies) not sustain their freedom for creative experimenting? In their activity, they can rely only on the collective will of their supporters.
Wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation.
According to Badiou, “The model of the centralized party made possible a new form of power that was nothing less than the power of the party itself. We are now at what I call a ‘distance from the State.’ This is first of all because the question of power is no longer ‘immediate’: nowhere does a ‘taking power’ in the insurrectional sense seem possible today.” But does this not rely on an all too simple alternative? What about heroically assuming whatever power may be available—in the full awareness that the “objective conditions” are not “mature” enough for radical change—and, against the grain, do what one can?
Let us return to the situation in Greece in the summer of 2010, when popular discontent brought about the delegitimization of the entire political class and the country approached a power vacuum. Had there been any chance for the Left to take over state power, what could it have done in such a situation of “complete hopelessness”? Of course (if we may permit ourselves this personification), the capitalist system would have gleefully allowed the Left to take over, if only to ensure that Greece ended up in a state of economic chaos, which would then serve as a severe lesson to others. Nevertheless, despite such dangers, wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation (in the case of Greece: renegotiating the debt, mobilizing European solidarity and popular support for its predicament). The tragedy of politics is that there will never be a “good” moment to seize power: the opportunity will always offer itself at the worst possible moment (characterized by economic fiasco, ecological catastrophe, civil unrest, etc.), when the ruling political class has lost its legitimacy and the fascist-populist threat lurks in the background. For example, the Scandinavian countries, while continuing to maintain high levels of social equality and a powerful Welfare State, also score very well on global competitiveness: proof that “generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves,” writes Göran Therborn in “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” “but can also be highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives.”
Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the epoch which began with the First World War is the well-known phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Were Fascism and Stalinism not the twin monsters of the twentieth century, the one emerging out of the old world’s desperate attempts to survive, the other out of a misbegotten endeavor to build a new one? And what about the monsters we are engendering now, propelled by techno-gnostic dreams of a biogenetically controlled society? All the consequences should be drawn from this paradox: perhaps there is no direct passage to the New, at least not in the way we imagined it, and monsters necessarily emerge in any attempt to force that passage.
One sign of a new rise of this monstrosity is that the ruling classes seem less and less able to rule, even in their own interests. Take the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Over the last two millennia, they have survived a series of calamities, from the end of the Roman Empire through defeat in crusades, the decolonization of the Arab countries, the Khomeini revolution in Iran, etc.—with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, the main U.S. ally in this region, where there are no autochthonous Christians. In Iraq, there were approximately one million of them under Saddam, leading exactly the same lives as other Iraqi subjects, with one of them, Tariq Aziz, even occupying the high post of foreign minister and becoming Saddam’s confidante. But then, something weird happened to Iraqi Christians, a true catastrophe—a Christian army occupied (or liberated, if you want) Iraq.
The Christian occupation army dissolved the secular Iraqi army and thus left the streets open to Muslim fundamentalist militias to terrorize both each other and the Christians. No wonder roughly half of Iraq’s Christians soon left the country, preferring even the terrorist-supporting Syria to a liberated Iraq under Christian military control. In 2010, things took a turn for the worse. Tariq Aziz, who had survived the previous trials, was condemned by a Shia court to death by hanging for his “persecution of Muslim parties” (i.e., his fight against Muslim fundamentalism) under Saddam. Bomb attacks on Christians and their churches followed one after the other, leaving dozens dead, so that finally, in early November 2010, the Baghdad archbishop Athanasios Dawood appealed to his flock to leave Iraq: “Christians have to leave the beloved country of our ancestors and escape the intended ethnic cleansing. This is still better than getting killed one after the other.” And to dot the “i,” as it were, that same month it was reported that al Maliki had been confirmed as Iraqi prime minister thanks to Iranian support. So the result of the U.S. intervention is that Iran, the prime agent of the axis of Evil, is edging closer to dominating Iraq politically.
In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
U.S. policy is thus definitively approaching a stage of madness, and not only in terms of domestic policy (as the Tea Party proposes to fight the national debt by lowering taxes, i.e., by raising the debt—one cannot but recall here Stalin’s well-known thesis that, in the Soviet Union, the state was withering away through the strengthening of its organs, especially its organs of police repression). In foreign policy also, the spread of Western Judeo-Christian values is organized by creating conditions which lead to the expulsion of Christians (who, maybe, could move to Iran ). This is definitely not a clash of civilizations, but a true dialogue and cooperation between the U.S. and the Muslim fundamentalists.
Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classical twentieth-century predicament in which the Left knew what it had to do (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), but simply had to wait patiently for the opportunity to offer itself. Today, we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss of the New in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the New just in order to maintain what was good in the Old (education, healthcare, etc.). The journal in which Gramsci published his writings in the early 1920s was called L’Ordine nuovo (The New Order)—a title which was later appropriated by the extreme Right. Rather than seeing this later appropriation as revealing the “truth” of Gramsci’s use of the title—abandoning it as running counter to the rebellious freedom of an authentic Left—we should return to it as an index of the hard problem of defining the new order any revolution will have to establish after its success. In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
Communism is today not the name of a solution but the name of a problem: the problem of the commons in all its dimensions—the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (“intellectual property”), and, last but not least, the problem of the commons as that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution might be, it will have to solve this problem.
This article was adapted from the afterword to the new paperback edition of Living in the End Times, out from Verso Books this month.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, In Defense of Lost Causes, The Essential Žižek: The Complete Set (The Sublime Object of Ideology; The Ticklish Subject; The Fragile Absolute; The Plague of Fantasies), and many more.