the jab of tragedy, the righthook of farce

David Broder reviews First as tragedy, then as farce by Slavoj Zizek

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane (Marx, Communist Manifesto)

As we reach the end of the ‘noughties’ this month, there is much scope for reflection on the events of the last decade. There remains a crisis of alternatives to capitalism, yet together with the current dark spectres of recession and ecological crisis, two events bookmarking the decade disrupted the ideology of ‘the End of History’. The September 11th terrorist atrocities in New York shattered the illusion of the invulnerable American military hegemon, while last October’s financial meltdown has fatally undermined the gospel of free-market economics. George W. Bush’s speeches on each occasion were the same, of course: ‘action’ was needed to defend ‘our way of life’. As Slavoj Zizek acerbically comments, this brings to mind Marx’s quip that “History always repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”

This latest book by Slavoj Zizek reflects an increasing ‘politicisation’ of the Slovenian critical theorist’s work and his enthusiastic embrace of the idea of communism. Zizek’s books rarely have one particular subject – nor are they broken down into clearly defined sections – and typically feature a rollercoaster ride through many diverse themes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, film critique and varied historical and political episodes. First as tragedy, then as farce has sections like this, but the overall structure here is rather more strongly rooted in the current capitalist crisis and the ideology behind critiques of ‘reckless’ or ‘unethical’ capitalism.

Although far from an activist, Zizek deserves at least some grudging credit for this ‘stooping’ to the level of practical politics, and reaffirming the idea that a communist society is both a desirable and possible alternative to capitalism. Academia is not lacking in philosophers who use Marxism to provide a theoretical framework and set of categories but who are not themselves communists or insist that it is a purely abstract idea. We need only note Zizek’s attempt to rouse the 1,000 people in attendance at June’s Idea of Communism conference at Birkbeck to sing the Internationale, which was greeted with utter bemusement.

We see then, commodities are in love with money, but “the course of true love never did run smooth” (Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1 Chapter 3.2)

Zizek relishes the spectacle of free-market dogma left shattered, but also points to how little has been learnt. The market fundamentalists react in a manner “typical of utopian “totalitarians”: they blame all failure on the compromises of those who realised their schemes (there was still too much state intervention, etc.) and demand nothing less than an even more radical implementation of their doctrines” (p.19)[1]

He cuts sharply against the idea that the capitalist crisis shows that large corporations have become reckless or that ‘casino capitalism’ has run out of control. Quite the opposite: these are not contingent excesses of capital, but are the direct expression of its central internal dynamic towards ever-greater accumulation. Bernie Madoff was not some ‘bad egg’, the exception to the rule, but rather a ‘respected’ figure at the very heart of NASDAQ and the US financial establishment.

He notes: “It is not without irony to note how ideologists who once mocked [the] critical defence of socialism [that the Eastern Bloc was not really socialist] as illusory, and insisted that one should lay the blame on the very idea itself, now widely resort to the same line of defence: for it is not capitalism as such which is bankrupt, only its distorted realisation…” (p19)

So is ‘socially responsible eco-capitalism’ a contradiction in terms? Many on the British left today will have heard from SWP or Socialist Party comrades the idea of ‘transitional method'[2], arguing that what the left has to do is argue for reforms which sound reasonable to ‘ordinary’ workers, but which capitalism would in fact be unable to afford, for example free transport, massive house-building, more workers’ control in the workplace and so on. The left communist Loren Goldner has critiqued such a notion on the grounds that “There is nothing that, failing to call into question the hegemony of value production over social reproduction, which cannot be integrated into capitalism.”

Surely Goldner is right insofar as capitalism is immensely adaptable and not necessarily reliant on free-market dogma – which is why the massive state involvement in the economy this last year by bailing out the banks has in no way lessened the capitalist nature of these institutions, and why Starbucks is able to charge more for coffee produced by better-paid farm labourers or which is less detrimental to the environment. The ‘transitional method’ is basically patronising and elitist (putting forward the strategy for a left government over the bourgeois state, only later to reveal that we know the state bureaucracy and army would never allow it… and so we would have to take on a totally different strategy…), although it is also the case that struggles which increase the power of the working class are both ‘immediately’ necessary and useful for the overall purposes of revolution.

Zizek goes beyond saying that ‘socially responsible eco-capitalism’ is a contradiction in terms, and furthermore argues that it is a deeply ideological project. NGO-type ideas are not merely illusory, but rather directly integrated into capitalist development. The urge to ‘do something’ we can all engage in – buying organic fruit, Fairtrade products, the idea of carbon trading etc. – are a means of ‘action’ which substitutes for actually changing anything at all. This line of thinking seeks to blame us all for the outcomes of capitalism, and for us all to busy ourselves with alleviating its problems, to which we ourselves are also victim!

Perseus wore a magic cap that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters (Marx, preface to Das Kapital)

This ideological facade reaches its high point with the ‘personalisation’ of politics – the attempt to insist that social relations and structures of oppression do not really matter, since we are, after all, ‘all human’. Even if apparently the opposite of the scapegoating of individual bankers as guilty for the crisis through their ‘greed’, this nonetheless maintains the same rigid separation between our wants and needs as ‘ordinary’ human beings and our position in social relations. Zizek cites the Israeli media’s love of portraying IDF troops as ordinary people caught in a difficult situation, and uses the example of a soldier involved in a raid of a Palestinian family’s home:

“The mother of the family called her daughter by her name in order to calm her down, and the surprised soldier learned that the frightened girl’s name was the same as that of his own daughter; in a sentimental outburst, he pulled out his wallet and showed her picture to the Palestinian mother. It is easy to discern the falsity of such a gesture of empathy: the notion that, in spite of political differences we are all basically human beings with the same loves and worries neutralises the impact of the activity the soldier was engaged in.” (p.41)

As in the novel The Kindly Ones [3], narrativising the personal ‘story’ of an SS officer in the Holocaust – his crushes, his sexuality, his family life, as well as the massacres of Jews – we see that ‘the personal’ is not ‘the political’: the trivia of everyday home life is not ‘who we are’: what we do is who we are.

Zizek also argues, however, that much as we should not deny the IDF soldier or Nazi prison camp guard’s subjectivity by saying he is only ‘all too human’ and caught in violent circumstances, equally the left is wrong to support groups like Hezbollah on the grounds that their reactionary ideas are “no more than a confusion resulting from their being caught up into the immediacy of struggle” (p.69). They are not, as Badiou asserts, merely bound by “an internal limitation… bound as they are to religious particularity” (p.71) which tacks backward views about woman and gay people onto their anti-imperialism, but rather, their Islamic fundamentalism is the mainstay of all their other ideas, which is why they do not distinguish at all between US economic and military imperialism, and secular/’Western’ notions of emancipation.

Islamist movements may win support because of grievances against imperialism, and win hegemony due to the vacuum of a communist pole of attraction, but that does not mean they do not ‘really’ believe what they say. Their political ideology and consciousness of their anti-Zionist struggle are not somehow ‘separable’ as and how we choose to see them, any more than the fact that fascists ‘displace’ class struggle onto struggle against so-called Jewish financiers means that at heart they share some of the ideas of communists.

It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way (Marx, Letter to Engels on the Indian Mutiny)

Zizek argues that the battles ahead are not between unfettered free-market capitalism and communism, but rather, between so-called socialism (whether that be European social democracy or Chinese authoritarian capitalism, a ‘social’ system based on capitalist relations), and communism (p.95).

However, his idea of what communism actually is – as something separate and apart from state-managed capitalism – is very shaky and heavily reliant on the Hardt/Negri “post-class” understanding that we ought to struggle for “the commons”: to fight against the privatisation of the “shared substance of our social being”, for example infrastructure like transport and communications, nature threatened by pollution and exploitation, and the “biogenetic inheritance of humanity”. (p.91).

We should oppose the selling-off and degradation of all of these “commons”, if we are to use that term, but this is hardly much of an elaboration of what communism would be as opposed to capitalism. After all, the working-class exclusion from the collective control of intellectual property and infrastructure is not the only or main way in which it is exploited under capitalism: the working class is of course ‘internal’ and necessary to capitalist production, not some excluded ‘minority’ merely being denied equal rights within capitalist liberal democracy. And if we do maintain that communism really is a possible and necessary social order, then surely we should be able to more definitely give some outline of its basic principles and what differentiates it from state-managed or ‘socially responsible eco-capitalism’ which Zizek spends such effort decrying?

Even if Zizek is right in part to argue that communism is not a fixed historical experience we just have to transplant onto today’s conditions (recreate the soviets and factory committees of 1917, the Bolshevik Party etc.), but rather something which has to be continually reinvented, surely this only points to the stark need to reinvent it for the here and now. After all, it does not take much effort to imagine what basic principles of organisation might be – getting rid of the state, armed forces and all permanent bureaucracy, self-managed workplaces and community facilities without any hierarchy of management functions, the free exchange of goods, services, media and educational resources for all and abolition of money, massive reduction in working hours, etc. – but Zizek is deliberately aloof on the question.

Equally – and for the same reason – he only fleetingly raises the notion of working-class agency for social change and he does not integrate any analysis of the shape of the working class or workers’ movement into his perspectives. He does, to be fair, say that the idea of ‘Workers of the world, unite’ is “more pertinent than ever” (p.147) and insists on the unity of intellectual workers, anti-intellectual and anti-outcast ‘rednecks’ and the outcasts (e.g. illegal immigrants, the unemployed) themselves, but he offers no understanding of how they might be united. I am not making the boring old argument that the problem with philosophers is that they do not write what they ‘practically’ mean, but rather that since Zizek does leave the realm of abstraction and says he does want a very practical change – working class unity and communism – he ought to explain what he means by it.

Zizek knows that “It is easy to make fun of Fukayama’s notion of ‘The End of History’ but most people today are Fukayamean, accepting liberal-democratic capitalism as the finally found formula of the best possible society, such that all one can do is to try to make it more just, more tolerant and so on” (p.88). Yet those like Hardt/Negri who effectively see the state as a neutral space, and think all “the multitude” need fight for is to “reclaim the commons” are essentially among this milieu. So too are the likes of Evo Morales in Bolivia, praised by Zizek for his “involvement of the grassroots” – in fact this is merely the most extreme point of capitalist recuperation, the radical left president who co-opts the revolutionary movement by channelling it into the constant, strangling procedures of parliamentary bills and gradual reforms. It is the Bolivian equivalent of Keynesianism and ‘socially responsible eco-capitalism’ in the USA or UK.

There were not many books in my local Waterstone’s philosophy section putting forward a communist alternative to all the liberal ‘anti-corporate’ drivel on its shelves. Zizek’s defiance in declaring himself a communist, and trying to rouse his colleagues from their slumber in the isolation of the university can only be admired. Given Zizek’s witty writing style and ability to integrate many different themes and anecdotes, I can forgive much of what is wrong with First as tragedy, then as farce. But for all his confidence in an alternative to capitalism, Zizek seems rather less sure what his communist alternative is.


[1] All page references from Slavoj Zizek, First as tragedy, then as farce, Verso, London/New York, 2009

[2] This very crude ‘transitional method’ is, as it happens, not even in the spirit of Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, from which it purportedly derives legitimacy. Trotsky’s programme is one of socialist revolution, including such slogans as the establishment of soviets and a workers’ militia.

[3] This critically acclaimed book was a fictional ‘memoir’ of an SS officer called Maximilian Aue, best known in its French version Les Bienveillantes. See here.

2 thoughts on “the jab of tragedy, the righthook of farce

  1. Excellent review – critical and balanced; avoiding the temptation by some fiery sectarians to dismiss Zizek as a Stalinist, Maoist, bourgeois apologist, [add your own left denunciation here] …

    … we are lucky to have him on our side and writing books like this…

    “There were not many books in my local Waterstone’s philosophy section putting forward a communist alternative to all the liberal ‘anti-corporate’ drivel on its shelves.”

    Exactly right.


  2. David,

    Thanks very much for the thorough review.

    I do however disagree that it is up to Zizek to, in the same book, decry capitalism and its superficially more savoury alternatives (capitalism w/ a human face, etc.) and also propose the alternative. Isn’t the fact that communism must be constantly reinvented in the here and now a good argument that Zizek’s here and now is not our own? What I mean is that to avoid the errors of the past I think public figures like Zizek must stick to “destroying” the existing conditions and liberating new paths of organizing society. Defining these paths is the work of everybody in their own heres and nows.


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