Zizek can be about as frustrating a writer as one could possibly find. The world under Zizek is bleak, careening towards likely catastrophe, and yet the saving direction, the solution that might spare us the worst of suffering, is either totally unclear or is yet to emerge, at least as of 2017 when the book was written. Zizek is a master of weaving at times highly readable critique and political analysis, interspersed with obtuse psychotherapy theory, and often an unpalatable dose of Hegel, to create what can only be described as a “good” book.
For this reader, the journey through this book was intellectually fascinating, mainly because of the author’s stream of consciousness flow, and rhetorical technique. He seems to lead the reader through a series of traps, describing the conundrum civilization finds itself, pulling you towards some reflexive conclusion, then he throws a preposterous curveball which makes you want to write a handwritten letter in your own curdled blood expressing outrage, before showing that he fully understands each and every major counterpoint and that the curveball was a diversion. Every chapter seems to include such a passage of the ridiculous, from skewering the “representativeness” of democracy, to his paradox regarding the choicelessness of Syriza in the Greek crisis – suggesting that in order to strongarm the EU, Greece should threaten to allow a Russian military base into NATO territory. Yet consistently, he later qualifies his statements making the reader backtrack so far as to question whether or not Zizek is saying such things simply to elicit the reader to justify their own positions.
This may be called a form of intellectual entertainment for some. What is frustrating is not these tangents, nor the deliberate misleading, but the lack of clarity regarding a path forward. For a (probably, see 101, 112) democratic Marxist, there is no articulation of what constitutes real hope.
Every good critic ought to present some kind of alternative, and few are given at all.
Enter Bernie Sanders, in March of 2020. Zizek, a European, writing a book ostensibly about Europe, is clearly now an American in thought as well as action, as his focal point for international politics remains the American economic and political system. Even though Americans remain the most influential state by far in international organizations, the global economy, and the security space, there are Eurocentrics about who would argue that the direction of influence ought to be reversed and the world ought to pivot towards a multipolar non-American system. Yet, Zizek clearly pins his hopes on a Sanders’ transformation of America leading to a global shift.
While this book was written in 2017, it was prescient of the current state of the democratic primary process and America in 2020. Trump has imposed a largely market-centric, classical Republican agenda on the United States. He lightly flirted with tariffs which, strikingly, never even hit China’s most valued export group, consumer electronics, and makes inane statements about reducing the importance of strategic alliances, yet has done nothing concrete, except betray the Kurds and allow an ISIS jailbreak. He has even allowed market imperatives to dictate policy vis-a-vis communist and authoritarian leaders, praising the most brutal dictators in a generation in tear-inducing terms, like Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, Al-Sisi, Prince Mohammed, and Erdogan in terms such as, “my favorite dictator,” “a friend of mine… somebody I’ve become very close to,” “we fell in love,” “a strong man, I call him king,” “a very, very good man,” a sycophant to ultimate power, but no moralist. He makes clear that it is simply a capital-driven foreign policy, with little focus on anything else.
As of now, in March 2020, Sanders seems poised to lead a difficult but inevitable fight towards the democratic nomination, and a much harder fight against the establishment to win the hearts of the midwestern United States, and take on the international order. This outcome has become highly likely.
Zizek explains this when he portrays populism as a reaction to the failures of the politically correct, neoliberal order, and right wing populism as virtually on the same side as tolerant liberals (261). With the death of the American working class, the end of straightforward upward social mobility, and economic and social stagnation and nihilism, it makes inevitable the spread of reactionary, millenarist movements intrinsic to all of the working class political weight being thrown around in the last decade, directly linking the same forgotten working class Americans who elected Trump in 2016 with those who will vote for Bernie Sanders in 2020. Yet, they are still deluded, often reacting to the same stimuli while misdiagnosing the true problem, capitalism’s poison, blaming second tier issues for their trouble rather than focusing on class (299).
Rather, he criticizes the moderate wing of liberalism as being proponents of a slow status quo slide towards our ultimate destruction (270), and for this very reason, along with the awareness of the impotence of incremental change, the fracturing of the Democratic party is taking place before our very eyes as party elites and the mainstream media fight for their lives to prevent a shift in the status quo, ironically risking the destruction of the very order itself by backtracking towards an anti-democratic process in what would inevitably lead to Donald Trump’s 2020 victory when a spurned base turns on the elites. To be clear, maintaining the status quo, as the book makes clear, would inevitably lead to ecological collapse, and societal revolt; the timelines is unclear but the destination is obvious.
The book is sharp, mostly fun to read, and prescient about the twists and turns of American and international politics even now in 2020. Anyone looking for a heterodox interpretation on economics, policy, gender, and of course politics should give it a read.
Staff writer: Ari B