Another World Is Possible?
I've been slowly making my way through First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which I picked up while browsing the Strand back in the spring and then purchased as a supplemental counterweight to the delightfully light/fun Shantaram. Žižek isn't really breezy, but he's certainly brilliant, and more importantly willing to ask pretty hard questions.
The book is part dissection of the contemporary neoliberal status quo ideology, and part argument to revive the idea of (haunting music) Communism. It's already delivered a few gems, such as this explanation of the uselessness of the modern Leftist opposition:
In the good old days of Really Existing Socialism, a joke popular among dissidents was used to illustrate the futility of their protests. In the fifteenth century, when Russia was occupied by Mongols, a peasant and his wife were walking along a dusty country road; a Mongol warrior on a horse stopped at their side and told the peasant he would now proceed to rape his wife; he then added, "But since there's a lot of dust on the ground, you must hold my testicles while I rape your wife, so that they will not get dirty!" Once the Mongol had done the deed and ridden away, the peasant started laughing and jumping with joy. His surprise wife asked, "How can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?" The farmer answered: "But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!"
A lot of the rest is somewhat remedial for anyone with a critical eye for the world: how a "kinder" — or more recently "greener" — capitalist status quo has taken hold and is recycling its opposition into its own system, etc. The interesting piece to me is not this critique, but the argumentation to seriously (re)consider the Marxist alternative.
Žižek argues that the financial collapse was the final end of "Captialism" as a meaningful thing, and that emerging post-financial-collapse iteration of the World Order — big industry bailouts, a more culturally sensitive consumerism, enough social safety net to keep people complacent but not to really redistribute wealth — is really a sort of corrupt consumerist/cronyist Socialism, still rife with inequality and on a collision course with ecological catastrophe, and of course suppressing the still-present specter of Communism.
I don't buy all of his arguments. Some are just wrong — for instance the contention that recent famines are indicative of insufficient food production, when in fact modern famines have emerged within an abundance of resources; the problems being distribution and ownership. Others feel like a bit of a reach — appeals to post-humanism, fear of genetic manipulation, generally appolcalyptic thinking. However, the main thrust is undeniable:
- This 21st century post-capitalist elite-supporting socialism may be socialistic, but it's still primarily oriented around property and the preservation of existing holdings.
- As a result, vast and immoral inequality of life-chances looks set to persist through the coming decades.
- And of course nothing meaningful is being done to address any of the planetary-scale issues which, if they break in a bad/sudden way, will cause the inequality to rapidly escalate into a dystopian world so polarized and divided we can hardly imagine it today.
The last third of the book, which is what I'm still reading, explores the emancipatory notion of Communism as a way of freeing ourselves from this fate. Maybe there will be some aha! moment at the end, but I somewhat doubt it. Still, it's got me thinking.
At this time, I feel it's an appropriate time to peer into the cultural consciousness via Star Trek and some wonderful people from Iceland. First, Picard:
And now, Iceland:
The Best Party, whose members include a who’s who of Iceland’s punk rock scene, formed a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (despite Mr. Gnarr’s suspicion that party leaders had assigned an underling to watch “The Wire” and take notes). With that, Mr. Gnarr took office last week, hoping to serve out a full, four-year term, and the new government granted free admission to swimming pools for everyone under 18. Its plans include turning Reykjavik, with its plentiful supply of geothermal energy, into a hub for electric cars.
Their campaign video gives a good taste of the vibe:
It reminds me of Jim Henson and the muppets somehow. Comic, but also earnest. I like it.
Now my own position is ticklish. As was pointed out by a feisty old relative last fall in the midst of a debate about Health Care Reform, "You're in business for yourself. You're a capitalist, right?" In some ways, yes, though I more or less agree with Žižek's thesis that "Capitalism" has lost all but a tribal/totemic meaning. Though, I think that's how the question was posed, as a sort of cold-war "with us or against us" formulation, which I think is totally dated, but c'est la vie.
Anyhow, I'm certainly an entrepreneur, and a businessman of sorts — I'm with the invaders, no use in trying to hide that; but at the same time I disagree with some of the things they are doing. I would ultimately prefer to live in a more equitable world less oriented around material things, one with more of a sense of whimsy, exploration, and fun; a world where we might actually reach the stars rather than successively raping one another down in the dirt.
On that path I don't believe we can eschew economic self-determination or the competition it implies. Nobody really believes that command economies are coming back, but neither are we at any "end of history." There's got to be a better way to run things, both pragmatically in terms of creating wealth more efficiently, and morally in terms of distributing it equitably. My guess is without compelling and radical ideas which aggressively challenge the status quo in a progressive way — as opposed to the virulent reactionary opposition we see popping up on the Right — we'll end up with a bunch of bland technocratic hand-waving, until of course that fails at which point the reactionary forces won't hesitate to fill the gap.
The most compelling moment for me in the Best Party video was where Gnarr proclaims, And, and we won't accept mediocrity, because we want The Best. Another world may be possible, but hope is not a plan.
As per Žižek, those who believe in this possibility — whether they're Communists or not — must begin again at the beginning, and continue to try: "Try again, fail again, fail better." This is the only way progress is ever made.