Over 10 years ago I caught half an episode of the “Perverts Guide To Cinema”. I was gripped but could not be sure that the mittel European intellectual imposing impenetrable Hegelian, Lacanian and Marxist analysis on old slightly pulpy movies and the work of Hitchcock was not a elaborate joke. Zizek seemed almost a caricature of a slightly mad European philosopher. A take off of Wilhelm Reich, Baudrillard, Derrida etc. Then it turns out Zizek is a real philosopher whose fame only grew in the following years.
He was always worth a read when he had articles in the English press or worth a look when interviewed. I still did not take him at all seriously and thought his politics a elaborate joke or a pose to piss off the intellectual establishment. An example of why I did not take him seriously was his theory on the film of the Sound of Music. He argued that although the film is putatively about a singing family opposing the Nazi’s the movie itself mirrors the mental atmosphere of Nazism. So the Nazi’s are cosmopolitan, modern and urbanised and intruding on a reactionary pastoral idyll of a Austrian village and a perfect family. For a minute he had persuaded me and gave me another reason to hate the movie, until I realised the idea that Robert Wise, Oscar Hammerstein and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were closet Nazi’s is absurd. His decision to write the preface to a re-print of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism also seemed intriguing at first but the actual argument he was making was largely controversial and contrary for the state of it. Intrested only in Trotsky the ruthless military commander of the Red Army not his politics after 1923. He was a headline figure at the SWP’s Marxism every year and seemed to me to be stunt casting of a guy who basically was a engaging charlatan.
Then as the financial crisis started in 2007-8 something seemed to happen to Zizek. I saw a few interviews were he said interesting thngs about the economic crisis. He started talking rightly about left anti Semitism being on the rise in Europe and attacking those who excuse Arab Anti-Semitism . This brought him into conflict with absolute Anti-Zionistsand idiots like Israel Shamir. Here is a link to an article about the controversyhttp://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/israel-shamir-and-slavoj-zizek/
However it is the writing over the last year he has done on the Occupy movement, the English Riots and the Arab Spring that seems to have shown a transformation in his thinking and what he see’s his purpose as. Rather then cheerleading or criticising from the side lines his focus now seems to be on how these movement should move forward. He has left Baudrillard and Lacan behind and has gone back to Lenin, Gramsci and Trotsky.
In an article on the Occupy movement Zizek councils the Occupiers:
“The art of politics is also to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly "realist", disturbs the very core of the hegemonic ideology: ie one that, while definitely feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible (universal healthcare in the US was such a case). In the aftermath of the Wall Street protests, we should definitely mobilise people to make such demands – however, it is no less important to simultaneously remain subtracted from the pragmatic field of negotiations and "realist" proposals”
This is what Trotsky called “transitional demands”. Demands that make sense to working class people and are based on their current consciousness but at the same time challenge the capitalist system and the ideology of the ruling class. Lenin did not have a name for this but his famous formulation from April 1917 “Peace, Bread and Land, All Power To The soviets” are the supreme example of how these demands can work. In itself there is nothing inherently revolutionary about ending the first world war, providing food for the people and land reform (the British state could do all three). However none of these things could be done by the Provisional Government in Russia at the time so the first three demands make the fourth demand necessary- the establishment of Soviet Power and the overthrow of the Provisional Governement.
Zizek’s writing on the English riots too were anything but the mindless cheerleading and wishful thinking of the SWP. He argues:
“Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine, if violent, protest against the system; or are they representatives of the working class, fighting the forces of social disintegration? Here too one should reject the demand to take sides. The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. The rioters’ violence was almost exclusively directed against their own. The cars burned and the shops looted were not in rich neighbourhoods, but in the rioters’ own. The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, at its most radical, the conflict between society and society, between those with everything, and those with nothing, to lose; between those with no stake in their community and those whose stakes are the highest.”
In the same article he argues what is missing from the Arab Spring, the indignatios movement and even the Greek protests against austerity is the subjective factor of an organised movement to overthrow the state and capitalism. What is missing in short is a revolutionary party:
“But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.”
Zizek is a professional intellectual and academic Marxist not a partisan of class struggle. However Zizek is no longer a elaborate joke but like many who were dinner party Marxists has been shaken by the crisis and the epoch making upheavals of the moment into taking sides and re-engaging with what Marxist ideas actually are for- the emancipation of the working class and the otherthrow of the rule of profit.