All that is solid melts into thin air

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Slovenian philosopher and commentator Slavoj Žižek advocates improved healthcare, educational standards and wage rates across Europe

Book review: Like a Thief in Broad Daylight by Slavoj Žižek. Published by Allen Lane, 2018 • review by Colin Fox • I read Slavoj Žižek’s new book Like a Thief in Broad Daylight in Venice whilst celebrating my wedding anniversary.

It was the week after important regional elections in Bavaria and I found myself reflecting on his views of 21st century capitalism and the ideological weakness of the left.

Žižek is, as the book’s flyleaf informs us, ‘a Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist’. He is also a commentator whose views are followed by political students and socialists around the world.

The central theme of this book is borrowed from Marx, that the present hegemonic influence of neoliberal capitalism will not last forever. In the meantime, he argues, its exploitation is so blatant that any pretence of moral superiority is dispensed with by multinational corporations who conduct their business with impunity ‘like a thief in broad daylight’.

With a wealth of statistics at his fingertips showing the exploitation of labour intensifying, Žižek notes that resistance has paradoxically diminished. If capitalism produces its own gravediggers as Marx concluded, Žižek warns there is nothing automatic about it.

In the decade following the financial collapse for example Britain witnessed the longest fall in real wages of any comparable period since the Napoleonic Wars 200 years earlier.

In the US too, as academic Joan Williams points out, Americans born in the 1940s could expect a standard of living twice as high as their parents. Nowadays it is half as high.

Across the Western world the share of national income spent on labour costs [wages, social insurances, etc] has fallen to a post war low.

The figures reveal that mass underemployment has replaced unemployment and precarious contracts, the gig economy and self-employment have replaced job security.

One would have expected resistance from organised labour to have surged in these circumstances. Yet it has not. Instead union membership and influence has relentlessly diminished. The working class appears reluctant to fightback.

Consequently ‘Western Marxism’ says Žižek ‘is constantly on the lookout for other social agents who could play the revolutionary role, the understudy replacing the indisposed working class: Third World peasants, students and intellectuals, the excluded’.

Reading this book, I found myself reflecting on the parlous state of the left internationally.

In Italy where the Communist Party once had a million members and was the most powerful left-wing organisation in the Western world, it is today defunct. Its demise no better illustrated than in the ideologically pitiful ‘Partido Democratico’ it spawned.

There is no inheritor of Antonio Gramsci’s legacy left. Italy today is governed by those belonging to Mussolini’s tradition. ‘The League’ were elected throughout Northern Italy, including the Veneto region, backed by millions of workers.

Across the border in Germany the picture is no rosier. The biggest beneficiaries of the political crisis there have been the proto-fascist ‘Alternative for Deutschland’ not the left.

The situation is even more depressing in Greece, where in 2015 I witnessed the election of the most left-wing Government seen anywhere in Europe in 80 years. Syriza betrayed its promises within days and carried out attacks on working people no other government could even have contemplated.

The catastrophic collapse in living conditions endured by the Venezuelan masses under the socialist regime of Nicholas Maduro hardly lifts the gloom. Nor does the election of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil after two decades of Workers Party rule.

To his credit Žižek shirks none of these issues. And yet unlike others amongst ‘the left commentariat’, he refuses to give up hope of genuine socialist advance.

The Slovenian knows all about disappointment. He grew up in a Yugoslavia that referred to itself as one of the ‘already existing socialist states.’ It disappeared in a barbaric and bloody civil war, the other ‘existing socialist states’ are now in the grip of ultra-right governments.

Under Tito, Yugoslavia was politically non-aligned. Žižek by contrast is ‘aligned’. He is a Hegelian fond of referring to Trotsky—whom he views was way ahead of his time in seeing the need to take control of the technical operations of the Russian state in October 1917. Incidentally his occasional references to Trotsky are a habit he shares with that other independent left ‘man of letters’ the late Christopher Hitchens.

Žižek’s defiance of capitalism is spelt out most clearly in the book’s final paragraphs.

‘The predominant ideology [of capitalism today] is not a positive vision of some utopian future but a cynical resignation, an acceptance of how ‘the world really is’, accompanied by a warning that if we want to change it, only totalitarian horror will ensue…The main function of [capital’s] ideological censorship is…to crush hope.’

Whilst I find Žižek’s psychoanalytical obsession with sex and obscenity rather wearing at times, his is nevertheless a fearless voice that stands by both Marx’s analysis of capital and his inherent, unshakeable faith in the only force capable of replacing it.

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