I read Zizek's First as Tragedy, then as Farce yesterday in its entirety; while my friends drank beer at the Brazen Head--typical proletarians all--I chose instead to think.
Having read a couple books by Zizek now, I have come to the conclusion that the thing I like about him best is his embrace of the notion that Action and Thought are not inimical to one another and, furthermore, that the latter is more important. When the financial meltdown of 2008 happened we were told that there was no time to think, that we had to act without thought. But, this wasn't such a special scenario: in the day-to-day run of things, we don't act because there is no time to think, we act instead of thinking--as a way of actively avoiding the horror of our predicament. We refuse to acknowledge that capitalism is fundamentally irrational and, followed through to its logical conclusion, will lead to collective suicide.
The irony is that, by definition, the engine of Capitalism is the rational, self-interested, activity of individuals; no one is arguing this point. In theory, there is a capitalism of goods and services that increases the productivity per capita in society and the overall well-being of everyone (the capitalism of "better mouse traps" and self-made titans of industry); but this "clean" capitalism is under-girded by a system of rampant speculation--in short, it makes a gambler out of society as a whole. How often have we heard populist demagogues deride Wall Street as a Casino? But I say to you, WTF did they think it was? Anyone involved with capitalist investment knows that it begins with the calculation of risk--and that the greater the risk, the greater the potential for reward. This is the same thing that goes through the heads of poker players.
Of course, this rational calculation becomes radically skewed when you can make a bet that someone else has to pay for when you lose; this is the very definition of moral hazard--and it's EXACTLY what happened when our government propped up the finance industry with a trillion fucking dollars! But, wasn't it a rational action on the part of the financial speculators to create a climate of legislation and political culture that made this totally insane policy decision a matter-of-course? And, after all, who can we trust with advice concerning our economic decisions besides the "experts"--the same people who are ripping us off! They made outrageous bets, and constructed a Ponzi scheme, on an epic scale, because they knew that they wouldn't have to pay the consequences when they lost. The government for its part really had no choice; the markets needed reassurance--credit default swaps may be an intangible abstraction, but empty bellies and riots on the street are a concrete reality.
Furthermore, Zizek argues that the notion that we can expunge corruption from capitalism by fostering a culture of responsible citizenship is absurd. Capitalism is corrupt by its very nature. I won't elaborate on this bold statement--but I will ask you to contemplate why history is so full of hostility towards the "sin of usury." Of course, usury in our society is the air we breath; we live in a system that is designed to make us debt slaves through credit cards, student loans, inflation, depressed wages, and the extreme excitation of consumer appetites. The natural compulsion that made people abhor the notion of wealth that was unearned, and did not contribute to the material/cultural/intellectual wealth of the society as a whole, is now totally gone. In our society, the financiers are the "Masters of the Universe." It's right there in front of us, as clear as day for everyone to see. We're talking about the moral equivalency of feudal serfdom here: the financial overlords are conspiring--weather consciously or not--to reduce the population into a servile underclass. And the way people act, this is just the natural order of things. More than anything else, the aspect of capitalist ideology that makes it so formidable is its ability to masquerade as an anti-ideology--a natural expression of human nature, the default mode of civilization.
And, maybe, there might be some truth in that; I'm not certain. It certainly seems to be the case that capitalism is ascendant; it has become internationalized and divorced from the Enlightenment Project that provided its original milieu. Just look around: China took from Western Civilization the capitalist mode of production, and said "no thanks" to liberal-democracy, while in the States Communism--a philosophy that embraces "equality" and "fraternity" like no other--has become an ethic that dares not speak its name.
Which leads me to a personal revelation: what the hell happened to the Radical Left in this country? They don't even get a seat at the table, while libertarians like Rand Paul get time on network TV to tell people that "there are no rich people or poor people, only one interconnected economy"--so let's just get off the corporations' backs, huh, because Exxon Mobile and Lehman Brothers are people just like you and me--and they want to be free too! Listening to this type of shit, it seems like the Right has already won; they won the battle of hearts and minds: "rare are those who dare even to dream utopian dreams about possible alternatives" because "utopias of alternative worlds have been exorcised by the utopia in power, masking itself as pragmatic realism."
Yet, and this is the part of Zizek's argument that I found the most intriguing, Communism remains a powerful idea--even though we dare not speak its name. It exists as a kind of Platonic ideal--always as an ill-defined, and barely apprehended, possibility--a yearning for an escape. Nothing can destroy it, despite the fact that the critics are right: it has failed in practice, in all times and places. It has always led to repression of dissent, and, frequently, to a totalitarian police-state, yet it remains a specter haunting the political discourse. In Zizek's formulation it remains our only hope: Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better. Communism is "a dream which thrives on its own impossibility."
And, we have to try because the problems facing our now-global civilization are so vast that they can only be termed "apocalyptic." Furthermore, these problems are symptoms of the capitalist system--and they are not tangentially related, but directly. The pending ecological disaster, depletion of natural resources, the widening chasm between the plutocracy and the productive members of society, the inability of countries forcibly integrated into the "global economy" to feed themselves: all of these problems are part and parcel with the capitalist insistence that rational self-interest will save us all. The consequences of this non-ideology will be the End, my friends...
Do you hear the sound of the wind whistling through abandoned city-scapes? That's the sound of our future, if we can't wake up. After all, what do you think all those day traders and investment bankers were thinking during the 2000s? On some level, they must have known that they couldn't pass the buck of sub-prime mortgages around forever--that at some point someone would be left holding the bag (the tax payers, as it turned out). They wanted to keep on dreaming. It's like when you're a little kid and you don't want to get up for school; you say: "just five more minutes, just five more minutes..." Collectively, as a civilization, this is what we are doing. We dream sweet dreams, while on a fragile raft floating down a stream, headed for a waterfall with hard rocks below. The mother fucking apocalypse!
So where does this leave us? What should we do? Should you go down to Wall Street and start throwing bricks through the windows? Well, that would be a start! But, Zizek is not suggesting that. Zizek suggests this: Obey, but think. He seems to believe that there is some value in "just thinking." "Meme warfare" is not a term he uses--but, I think it's applicable. (If you don't know what a "meme" is, please look it up--it's important!) Maybe the battle of hearts and minds isn't lost; after all, remember the moment of Obama's election victory, only two years ago. The enthusiasm was real; people felt the sensation of the impossible become real, even as it remained seemingly impossible. The reality of Obama's continuation of policies that prop-up capitalist institutions aside, he reminded us that history is more open than we might suppose. It is this suggestion of a cognitive revolution that may be his greatest gift to us. A revolution that begins not with thoughtless action--a la Nazi thugs--but Thought before Action. As Gahndi formulated it, be the change you wish to see in the world. And, as Krishnamurti suggested: the only true revolution will be a revolution of intelligence.
For your edification: