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Living in the End Times–A Book Review
by Richard Burke
Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek, Verso Books, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-598-2, 416 pages, $ 29.95
Having been called the “Elvis of cultural theory” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” Slavoj Zizek has become increasingly important as a point of reference for the world left. In works such as In Defense of Lost Causes Zizek has challenged the ideological prohibition on thought of post-cold war capitalist society by daring to ask whether there were redeeming features of the communist move-ment which deserve to be repeated. Now in his most recent book Living in the End Times he argues that what many, even on the left, perceive as the approaching “end of the world” is in reality capitalism ap-proaching its final crisis. The factors that Zizek sees as causing this end are the ecological crisis, the bi-ogenetic revolution, economic crises, and increasing social divisions.
Zizek ironically structures his book around the stages of grief about impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. He uses these as frames of reference for investigating cultural responses to the recent financial crisis. Like a terminally ill patient, capitalism is approaching its death, and those, especially in the developed world, who have supported and/or benefited from it must learn to accept that fact.
The first chapter, “Denial: the Liberal Utopia,” analyzes what Zizek terms “the predominant modes of ideological obfuscation, from the latest Hollywood blockbusters up to false (displaced) apocalyptism.” The capitalist world-system, which claims to reject utopianism, ends up imposing its own utopia on the world in the form of free markets and electoral democracy. Zizek demonstrates that the belief in the system reproducing itself indefinitely is itself the most naive form of utopianism possible.
…ultimately the left will have to find a way to connect with these expressions of anger, and guide them in a more revolutionary direction.
Chapter two deals with the stage of anger, analyzing violent reactions against the current world-system. Zizek argues that religious expressions are often the mask for what are really political concerns. In the post-cold war era these can take the form of violent religious fundamentalisms among the poor and dispossessed. The rejection of modernity is in reality a rejection of the capitalist world-system and the prevailing secular world-view of its more privileged classes.
He concludes that ultimately the left will have to find a way to connect with these expressions of anger, and guide them in a more revolutionary direction. Here Zizek reveals his conflicted and contradictory stance towards religion. On the one hand he frequently asserts himself as an atheist and materialist who rejects religion. On the other he repeatedly refers to Christian theology as a basis for his ethical positions. Zizek’s work is an example of “Christian Atheism,” which Alan Watts once jokingly described as the assertion that “there is no God, and Jesus is his only son.”
The third chapter, “Bargaining: The Return of the Critique of Political Economy,” is a “plea for a renewal of this central ingredient of Marxist theory.” According to Zizek this is an aspect of cultural studies which has been sorely neglected as a result of postmodernism. Here he investigates such questions as the relation of the masses to social classes, revisits the Marxist labor theory of value, and defends the idea of a non-Marxist Marx. By this he means a rethinking of Marxist theory to apply it to contemporary conditions, in which direct physical labor is playing a diminishing part in capitalism’s productive activity, and “immaterial labor” (to use Antonio Negri’s terminology) that produces information and services rather than a material product begins to play a leading role. Zizek also examines proposals for a basic citizen’s income and argues that such policies ultimately imply moving beyond capitalist relations of production.
What many perceive as the approaching “end of the world” is in reality capitalism approaching its final crisis.
Chapter four, dealing with the stage of depression, investigates the ways in which capitalism undermines traditional social roles and concepts of the personal self. In a system where the pursuit of profit is the overriding value, everything else is undermined and commodified. A crisis of meaning and values results. Conservatives are quick to call attention to social and moral decay, yet they are the ones enthusiastically promoting the very economic forces which promote this decadence. Zizek wryly points out the effect of capitalism, that psychologically we are all being reduced to proletarians in the service of the capitalist machine itself.
Finally, with acceptance, the fifth chapter, we reach the stage where something positive may result from the chaos of a system in decay. Just as the acceptance of death allows the terminally ill patient to find some peace with his or her fate, our collective acceptance that capitalism is doomed will allow us to find a way out of the situation. Zizek finds signs of a possible communist culture appearing in various disguised forms such as literary works, television shows, and even in New Age themes of collective spiritual transformation.
Reading Zizek can be an exhilarating experience. One reviewer has claimed that he produces the best “intellectual high” since Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Nonetheless there are some reservations that can be raised about his work.
He has a tendency to engage in long digressions which, while fascinating, stray far off topic. Zizek’s logic can at times be contorted, and he sometimes seems too clever for his own good. While he is quite humorous, at times he can leave the reader wondering if he is kidding or not. Zizek clearly believes that the “universal” values of Western culture are superior to those of the rest of the world. He seems dismissive of the fact that Western “universalism” functions as the rhetoric of power, unlike Immanuel Wallerstein who has advocated the construction of a truly universal universalism where all the world’s cultures have something of value to offer.
He is quick to repeat the claim that only religion can make good people do bad things, yet the history of the last century shows that the same could be said of politics. After all, the experience of communism provides a secular example of well-intentioned people committing horrific acts in the name of a noble ideal. Zizek is absolutely right in saying that there were redeeming features of communism which deserve to be repeated. Other features deserve to be left dead and buried. A movement which makes atheism and socialism into a “package deal” is likely to alienate many potential supporters and play into the hands of its enemies.
…our collective acceptance that capitalism is doomed will allow us to find a way out of the situation.
Minor reservations aside, Slavoj Zizek’s Living in the End Times is an important work. Zizek has performed an important service for the left. He has successfully challenged the prohibition on thought which capitalist triumphalism has imposed on us, and demonstrated the hypocritical way in which our view of the communist movement has been distorted. This will play a major role in reversing the despair of the world left, which up to now has been rendered impotent. To refer to a saying of Mao Zedong which Zizek likes to quote, “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.”
R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.
[10 jan 11]