The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, by Slavoj Zizek, Verso Books, RRP$14.95/£7.99
In an interview with the Financial Times a few years ago, Slavoj Zizek said he sometimes felt like a conjuror who flourished a lot of hats but failed to pull out any rabbits.
In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek embellishes his reputation as an intellectual showman but disappoints as a political magician. With his customary polemical pyrotechnics, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher assails the evils of our contemporary world in his zany, sensationalist style, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Lacanian post-structuralism and the US hit television series The Wire.
Rejoicing in the fact that capitalism has re-emerged as the “name of the problem”, he cites the revolutionary mantra of Mao Zedong: “There is chaos under the heaven – the situation is excellent.”
But the hero of the Occupy movement, who has become something of a cult leader for the radical left, offers scant solutions to our present dilemmas, provoking and baffling the reader in equal measure.
In spite of his revolutionary impulse, Zizek at one point suggests that Marxists should perhaps renounce the myth of the Great Awakening, that glorious emancipatory moment when the dispossessed seize power and lead the world to a more just future. Inaction, he concludes, could be even more revolutionary than action – a maxim that will comfort all those who believe they can change the world from the safety of their own sofa.
The purpose of Zizek’s book is to reinterpret the events of 2011, a year of dangerous dreams, which offered great hopes to humanity but also triggered some brutal setbacks. The Arab spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the anti-austerity protesters in Europe all stirred emancipatory dreams, he suggests. But the murderous rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway and the backlash of racist populists across Europe provoked fresh nightmares.
His contention is that the hegemonic ideology that sustains global capitalism has already snuffed out the year’s true significance. “The media killed the radical emancipatory potential of the events or obfuscated their threat to democracy, and then grew flowers over the buried corpse,” he writes.
Zizek’s aim is to challenge that ideology and contribute to what he calls a new cognitive mapping of our constellation, enabling us to think more freely and imagine a better future.
Take the case of Greece. Zizek argues that two dominant stories have been circulating in the mass media to explain the austerity programmes being forced on the Greeks, and that both of them are false. The German-European argument is that the Greeks are lazy, tax-dodging cheats who must be taught financial discipline. The Greek story is that their national sovereignty is being threatened by a neoliberal technocracy in Brussels.
Both stories marginalised the plight of ordinary Greeks. When their pain became too acute to ignore, a third story emerged (the most disgusting of all, according to the author): that the Greeks were humanitarian victims in need of help, as if some natural catastrophe or war had hit their country.
But the truth, according to Zizek, is that the Greeks are far from passive victims and are fighting back against the economic establishment. Progressive forces everywhere should express solidarity with their struggle, to save Greece from its supposed saviours. “Greece is not an exception; it is a testing ground for the imposition of a new socioeconomic model with a universal claim: the depoliticised technocratic model wherein bankers and other experts are allowed to squash democracy.”
Zizek argues that these times of acute crisis can help erode the ideology that underpins capitalism, enabling people to see the ugliness of the world as it really is. He therefore reserves his particular scorn for those who are trying to humanise capitalism, which he claims is by its very nature an inhuman system.
At times, Zizek sounds almost Leninist in his denunciations of those who believe that the capitalist beast can be tamed for the better. Their small acts of kindness only serve to perpetuate far bigger systemic injustices, which must be confronted rather than obscured.
The revolutionary Lenin infamously argued “the worse the better”: the more terrible the people’s suffering the clearer their understanding of the need for revolution. He once denounced those who wanted to help flood victims as exhibiting the “saccharine-sweet sentimentality of the bourgeoisie”.
Zizek is no Lenin. But like many a revolutionary who claims to love humanity, he comes close to despising the human.
The writer is the FT’s deputy editor