This is from Jameson’s blurb on my new book on Bloch with Žižek
“Late capitalism has been celebrated by its apologists as that stage of society in which nothing more, nothing new, will ever happen (except for wars, catastrophes, bankruptcy and Armageddon): the end of history as the death of the future. In this affluent desolation, at the tail-end of all thought, we confront the immense enigmatic figure of Ernst Bloch and that tangle of the Not-Yet-Conceived —the heritage of unfinished business, loose ends and tired aporias, in which new problems are somewhere hidden, new futures slumber, and a freshening and a renewal of history is promised. The present collection makes a start on renewing Bloch himself as a living multiplicity of themes and questions, and may even mark a beginning of that new beginning with which he tantalized us.”—Fredric Jameson, Duke University
And from Žižek’s preface:
“Bloch . . . is one of the rare figures of whom we can say: fundamentally, with regard to what really matters, he was right, he remains our contemporary, and maybe he belongs even more to our time than to his own.”—Slavoj Žižek, from the preface
Just published an article on the German Left Party Die Linke here:
This is the text of a press introduction I have written for the premiere of the Sophie Feinnes/Slavoj Zizek film The Pevert’s Guide to Ideology in October. Slavoj likes it so it must be OK!
The Big Other is Watching You!
A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Žižek
Ask most people what they think the word ideology means and they will say that it is something active, like Marxism, communism, fascism, or any number of active political commitments. But this is not the ideology that Žižek means. Drawing on Lacan, Freud, Hegel and Marx, Žižek shows in this film how it is the ways in which our unconscious is formed which is entirely ideological. Everything we think and do is not something we have autonomous control over but is primed by our unconscious responses to what is going on around us. It would be a mistake though to think that we are separate from this process. It is not simply something which is being done to us and which we passively accept, but something in which we are ourselves actively complicit. We think we are making our own stories and we are, but only within parameters already laid down for us.
We are ultimately and intimately trapped within the snow globe of social relations which are entirely ideological. The reason that this is a pervert’s guide is that in order to be able to see how ideology works you have to be able to look at it in a perverted way. Everything has to be stood on its head and looked at awry in order to be able to see it properly. In one of his earlier books he called this the parallax view and in They Live, excerpted in this film, the rather clunky mechanism of sunglasses which allow us to see properly is used. What becomes clear here is the lengths we will go to stop ourselves being liberated. We struggle against any attempts to strip away the ideological blinkers and see things more clearly. Žižek maintains that this is a painful process. As he said in his last film, Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema: “I think this is what liberation means. In order to attack the enemy, you first have to beat the shit out of yourself. To get rid, in yourself, of that which in yourself attaches you to the leader, to the conditions of slavery, and so on and so on.”
It is for this reason that Žižek ends this film with a look at Christianity (rather than religion in general) because he believes that it is the only religion fundamentally based on the recognition of the absence of God. The point of the scene on the cross from The Last Temptation of Christ is that Jesus recognises that God has not forsaken him but that he was never there in the first place. He has never been watching over us and we are alone. What Žižek is trying to do in this film is to show that we create the story about our existence out of a recognition that our existence is absolutely unnecessary and that our individual death is as insignificant as every other passing, even if we do think we are Jesus. This is why he maintains that the phrase “only a Christian can be a good atheist and only an atheist can be a good Christian” (Ernst Bloch) is the key to understanding our psychological make up in late capitalism. It is only through the recognition that we are not necessary and that we are only here by mistake that we can make sense of the stories we tell ourselves.
The imagined Big Other – in this film Stalin, Hitler, money, or the love of money, God – is an essential component of our ability to survive collectively and to give our existence a purpose. If ideology – as the target of Žižek’s opprobrium here – is the way in which this basic human need and desire becomes perverted by those who wish to have control over us then this is also why he calls this film the pervert’s guide to ideology, because we ourselves are the people doing the perversion.
The Big Other is not watching you, you are watching yourself.
Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly once said: “never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.” All too often we hear people justifying their activities on the basis that what they are doing is legal. People are not tax dodging, for example, but practising tax efficiency and in any case what they are doing is “legal”. When it came to the expenses scandal , the constant refrain on MPs lips was “it’s all within the rules”. This fetishization of the law and rules as some sort of justification for whatever one is doing ignores the fact that laws and rules do not arrive on planet Earth fully formed from the mind of God but are the product of specific power relationships within society. This was Martin Luther King’s meaning. Those in charge of society will always be able to make rules and laws which support them being in charge of society. They will do this on all sorts of spurious grounds, from the divine right of kings, through to natural justice, common sense, racial superiority and all manner of various justifications which amount to no more than saying ‘L’Etat, c‘est moi’. Democracy is supposed to be the exception to this rule, but actually it suffers from it just as much, even if it does so in a hidden way.
It has become a shibboleth term, one which cannot be challenged and in the same way that laws have become fetishized, so the rule of law carried out by the will of the people as represented through parliamentary elections become sacrosanct. The Daily Telegraph got into problems this week because of this fetishistic thinking and it ended up saying that Morsi had to stay in charge in Egypt precisely because he won an election. But the slogan on the streets of Cairo today is “the legitimacy of your ballot box / Is cancelled by our martyrs’ coffins” and, in slightly less lurid language, what this means is that the struggle for political control in any society is one which goes on either side of the elections. In fact the struggle either side of the elections is the most important part of the democratic process. Elections are merely very rough snapshots of an ongoing process and the fact that we fetishize these elections indicates only the extent to which we have become a largely depoliticized and de-ideologized society — and that is not a good thing.
In addition of course, elections are not simply decided by the people in some sort of ideal platonic form. Rupert Murdoch, despite not having a vote, has much more power than I do when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. His opposition to a particular political trajectory will mean that any party which wants to win governmental office will trim its sails to his wind. We see that quite clearly now with the Labour Party. It is not able to offer any alternative to government austerity not because austerity is logically the right thing to pursue, but because to stand against austerity is to take on the hegemonic view which has been cultivated that there is no alternative to austerity.
One of the most extraordinary and, indeed, impressive things that has emerged from The Great Recession (2007-2020) is the way in which an economic system entirely in thrall to privatisation and financialisation has managed to shift the blame for the ongoing collapse of the economy (if you think that is an exaggeration, then think about the 64% unemployment rate amongst young people in Greece and Spain, far worse than the 1930s even) away from the banks, sub-prime mortgage lenders, Lehman Bros and various other speculative actors and onto the state and its apparent largess in funding “skivers” rather than “strivers”. It has been a brilliant example of how to create a popular mood.
And this is the point. The popular mood is a creation, just as is the law, and the popular mood changes in a way which the ballot box and the law find difficult to deal with. Morsi is finding that now. His blatant gerrymandering, his non-fulfilment of various pledges and a creeping Islamicization of what was a largely secular uprising means that the support that he won at the ballot box is no longer valid. The popular mood has broken free of the normal hegemonic restraints of the ruling ideology. In many ways that is a definition of revolution and when you have 14 million people marching against you then it is time to take notice, take down your tents and move on.
The Jenga Revolutions
So what is going on? Since the start of the Arab spring in Tunisia we have seen revolutionary events flicker into life around the world. This week in both Turkey and Brazil it is, in the words of Paul Mason, all kicking off again. But what is the nature of this series of events? We have seen pictures from Taksim square, modelled quite clearly on 1789. Or maybe it is a new 1848, in which liberalism triumphed over almost all the old despotic regimes in Europe? Or is it our 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, this time with political and social collapse engendered by private rather than state indebtedness?
But how do revolutions happen? What is the precise mechanism between dissatisfaction and overthrow? This is where you need Hegel and the dialectic. In the past week I have heard talk of various modes of change. There has been the balloon which you gradually filled with water until it bursts, but you cannot predict where the weak point is that will lead to bursting. I have also heard of the Jenga theory of evolution and species collapse, where bricks are gradually removed from the pile until generalised instability leads to the collapse of the tower.
These are both great metaphors but Hegel got their first when he talked about the dialectic of quantity into quality. By this he meant that there is a constant interaction between objective trends and tendencies which will have their contingent outcomes and sooner or later these contingent outcomes add up to a qualitative change. If we think of the individual contingent events that go on to make up a revolution as the individual blocks in a game of Jenga than at first they can be removed fairly easily and the tower remains upright.
This model has been used to describe the way that individual species collapse and the effect that that has on the global environment as a whole. But, without wishing to sound too much like Engels in reverse, this model of species collapse can also be applied as a model of the collapse of authority. One protest here, one there can be managed but once people are rising up from Tunisia to Brasilia then something is qualitatively and perceptibly shifting.
But there is another dialectic of quantity into quality which has been going on since the mid-1970s and that is the gradual pulling away of the blocks of social solidarity as part of the neoliberal agenda to privatise the world. It didn’t start with Mrs Thatcher but it can probably be traced back to her friend General Pinochet and his military coup against the Allende government in Chile with the express support of ITT and the other global corporations. The global corporations were happy to see the removal of Allende as the first block in the attack on the post-war social settlement. This creeping global neoliberal coup has been so successful that in many ways we have not noticed that the very way that we think has changed. Even our dreams and hopes have been privatised and sold back to us in the form of a consumer paradise we can’t afford in the place of a social settlement which we can’t afford to do without.
Heidegger coined a word for this process: Verwindung. It means the silent and unnoticed distortion of something until its shape has eventually changed beyond recognition. Again, Hegel talks about the way in which by the time you notice the smell of perfume that has been released into a room, it has already captured that room and changed its atmosphere. What goes for perfume also goes for teargas.
The creeping Verwindung of the world into a neoliberal utopia has now been noticed. So many blocks have been removed from the tower of social solidarity that it is starting to wobble, not uncontrollably yet, but it is only a question of how many more blocks can be removed. The dialectical interaction between economic transformation and political reevaluation has reached one of those turning points that it did in 1789, 1848 and 1989. What is required is another good Hegelian term; namely the negation of the negation. The mass uprisings going on around the world are the first steps in the social negation of the negation of the social. What is required now is a new Verwindung. This time an active one in which the world is changed, as Ernst Bloch put it, into all recognition.
You do realize that we are in the middle of a creeping global neo-liberal coup don’t you?
It has been going on for decades but the financial crisis has allowed our fine rulers to destroy the common space, privatize our very means of life, subjugate everything to the needs of the market and to restrict our ability to resist. In economics they have managed to convince us (yes, even those of us who don’t accept it) that there is no alternative to the current course towards meltdown. Milliband and Cameron throw stats at each other in an impotent forum about falling unemployment versus falling real wages and no one points out that the reason wages are falling is that the increase in employment is due to an increase in low wage, insecure, part-time, non-unionised employment. The Greek government closes down its public broadcasting – supported only by Golden Dawn! – in the name of budget difficulties but will hand over public opinion to the Murdochs and Dacres of this world who will demand their pound of flesh and soul in return.
In Turkey the corporations demand of the government that they hand over public spaces for private gain and the government sends in the water cannons. The US has extended its role of global policeman to that of global Stasi and can see no other way to run the world than via the drone and the big stick. In a world where it has become impossible to demand that the 1% pay even 1% of their taxes we are being forced to take up the burden of their own profligacy and at the same time being told that it is all our fault for spending too much. There are $32 Trillion stashed away in offshore havens, more than enough to solve all the worlds most serious problems. Even our climate is being subverted in the name of expansion, profit, growth the benefits of which are merely dangled in front of us in the form of trinkets and glittery tat;
The technology and scientific knowledge we have – taken together with the unutilized financial surpluses – is such that we could liberate ourselves from all this drugery and free ourselves from labour but we carry on down this path to disaster. Our world is being sliced and diced and sold to the highest bidders who then sell it back to us as a privatized dream. We must protest and resist but we must also offer an alternative way of being which goes beyond the limitations of this world and unleashes the desire to create a new one.
The alternative is out there, we just have to build it!