Academic journal article New Formations

Financial Crisis, Social Pathologies and 'Generalised Perversion': Questioning Zizek's Diagnosis of the Times

Academic journal article New Formations

Financial Crisis, Social Pathologies and 'Generalised Perversion': Questioning Zizek's Diagnosis of the Times

Article excerpt

The global financial crisis came at a good time for Slavoj Zizek. When the crash began to spread from the American sub-prime mortgage market, Zizek was just going to press with two major interventions into left-wing politics, designed to refute what he takes to be the basic assumption of today's postmodern leftism, that 'capitalism is the only game in town'. (1) His popular work Violence (2008) maintained that the real violence in the world system was not the political counter-violence of the oppressed, but the structural violence of unjust economic arrangements. (2) Its theoretical companion, In Defense of Lost Causes (2008), proposed a reinvention of the left-wing program he calls 'egalitarian communism' on the back of a survey of the social atomisation of contemporary capitalism, the limitations of contemporary left-wing oppositional politics and the crisis potentials of the system. (3) Zizek's core discursive strategy is to critique the ideology of contemporary culture and politics as a means of contesting the naturalisation of capitalist economics. Because 'the depoliticised economy is the disavowed "fundamental fantasy" of postmodern politics', (4) Zizek calls for a return to the radical critique of political economy as the prolegomenon to a truly emancipatory project, described in terms of a radical Act capable of 'traversing' (negating) this ideological fantasy. But, as Georg Lukacs argued before the first Great Depression, nothing denaturalises the capitalist economy quite like a really impressive crash (5)--something that arrived on cue in the form of a wave of bank failures, pretty much at the moment Zizek's books hit the shelves.

Zizek, whose intuitions about capitalism were in this way spectacularly confirmed, has not been slow to respond. With the crash in full swing all around him, he dashed off First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), a detailed description of the escalation of the crisis replete with the usual pop-cultural and philosophical riffs on the theme of ideological justification for capitalism through the depoliticisation of its machinery, exposed as illusions through the massive state bailouts of the corporate sector at the height of the crisis. Zizek argues from the manifest irrationality of capitalism to the meaninglessness of liberal and socialist projects designed to ameliorate its workings, and thence to a radical vision of communism as a rejection of both state and market. (6) Scarcely pausing for breath, Zizek then produced a new juggernaut, Living in the End Times (2010), which focuses less on the financial crisis itself than on its delayed and distorted registration in the imaginations of contemporary radical opponents of capitalism. Capitalism has announced that its use-by date is up, basically, but the Left (like everybody else) is in denial, so trapped in stages of grieving for the lost support of our conformist subjectivity that it cannot grasp either the magnitude of the crisis potentials at work in the system or the radical nature of the opportunity for emancipatory politics that this represents. (7)

In spite of numerous calls for a reactivation of the radical critique of political economy, though, Zizek has not himself produced such an analysis; he has not really located his position within any of the contending schools of radical economics, although he mentions both Karatani's Kantian reconstruction of Marx's Capital and Boltanski's neo-Weberian analysis of contemporary post-Fordism. Thus, despite the richness of the cultural analysis and sociological descriptions in his most recent books, Zizek offers less an analysis of the crisis than a perceptive understanding of individuals' subjective attachments to capitalism and of the desperate uncertainty that has afflicted the Left, confronted with the virtually simultaneous reality of the discrediting of historical communism and the greatest crash since the 1930s. All talk of 'crisis potentials' based on the 'four antagonisms of the world system', then, is founded on descriptive plausibility in sociological terms rather than on an economic analysis that would represent a contemporary equivalent of the Marxian critique of political economy. …

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