The philosopher explores our obsession with cancel culture and crisis
In his new book ‘Surplus Enjoyment: A Guide for the Non-Perplexed’, psychoanalyst and Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that Western decadence has reached a point of no return. When it comes to the simultaneous crises of climate change, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, he asserts, only a cooperative global effort will steer us away from catastrophe. But have the culture wars weakened the West too much to regain order in disordered times?
Slavoj Zizek joined me, live from his home in Slovenia, to discuss the cure for chaos.
On climate change:
Remember, one of the most disgusting events that I witnessed in the last year – I wasn’t there, I saw it on the media – was that Glasgow [COP 22] meeting against global warming. All that they said in principle was true. “We need global cooperation blah, blah, blah”. But nothing happens. For me, communism doesn’t mean I have a secret plan to nationalise or install gulags. It simply means, in some sense, we know what has to be done. Global cooperation, regulating the consumption of certain things such as oil, coal, beyond market necessities and so on. This will have to be done in one way or another. I call communism simply the system which will be able to do this.
On the pandemic:
Our dealing with the pandemic – didn’t it confront us with the most basic philosophical questions? In the sense of those who resisted wearing masks, vaccination, social lockdowns had an implicit idea: state authority encroaches upon the limits, so in some basic sense, what does it mean to be a human being? […] Covid was, for me, something that – even when I put this openly many people laughed at me – really demanded a new form of communism, which means not so much to vaccinate people forcefully, but to establish some kind of global healthcare – exchange of data and so on. We need some type of global coordination, which will not be left to market alone.
On the war in Ukraine:
Why I fully support Ukraine – with all the critical points about it, we don’t have time – but where is any doubt about who is basically right? Putin, when he announced the war on 23rd February, did you notice that he mentioned just one name critically: Lenin. And he said explicitly, Ukraine was Lenin’s invention, and it was a very obscene statement, where he referred ironically to Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statue, and he said, “Ah, you want decommunisation? Wait for us, we will bring decommunisation to the end there.” If you read not only what the Russians are doing, but their ideology, it is explicitly something that one cannot but designate, not even in this purely abstract term, but a form of neo-fascism. Fascism means that you want modernisation but without the destructive, liberal effects. Isn’t this exactly what they are doing: introducing traditional ethical standards against LGBT, and so on and so on. And you don’t have to read between the lines here.
On cancel culture:
Let’s face it, around 90% of people are what is usually called today, straight, binary and so on. Don’t implicitly make them guilty, as if, if you are straight, you somehow participate in oppression. The whole strategy is wrong here. My problem with so-called political correctness it is not that it’s too radical. But it’s a fake radicalism. It’s a way to avoid true problems. I know so many examples, friends are sending them to me all the time from United States, where – this is no big corporate practice – you find somebody not quite on the top, but a little bit below the top of a corporation who did something inappropriate and with all the pomposity, you fire him, and then you did your great duty and nothing changes in real exploitation. […] It’s a new hypernormativity which I think blocks and spoils the true actual Leftist task.
Maybe I’m too naive here. But I think there are things which are not bad in the liberal tradition. Don’t just dismiss liberalism as neo-liberalism. Never forget that feminism, socialism – they emerged out of the liberal tradition. Yes, first you have human rights, which were, I agree, secretly spun. They really meant the rights of independent white men. But then Mary Wollstonecraft said, “Why not women?” Then Blacks in Haiti said, “Why not blacks?” Then workers said – that’s socialism. You can only enjoy human rights in certain material conditions: healthcare, education, and so on and so on. So I think that only a renovated Left can save what is worth saving in liberalism.