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Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek on Capitalism, Healthcare, Latin American “Populism” and the “Farcical” Financial Crisis

StoryOctober 15, 2009
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Dubbed by the National Review as “the most dangerous political philosopher in the West” and the New York Times as “the Elvis of cultural theory,” Slovenian philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Žižek has written over fifty books on philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, history and political theory. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Žižek analyzes how the United States has moved from the tragedy of 9/11 to what he calls the farce of the financial meltdown. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We continue on the subject of the financial crisis with a man the National Review calls “the most dangerous political philosopher in the West.” The New York Times calls him “the Elvis of cultural theory.” Slovenian philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Žižek has written over fifty books on philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, history and political theory. His latest, just out from Verso, is called First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. It analyzes how the United States has moved from the tragedy of 9/11 to the farce of the financial meltdown.

Žižek’s latest offering, also excerpted in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, opens with the words, quote, “The only truly surprising thing about the 2008 financial meltdown is how easily the idea was accepted that its happening was unpredictable.” He goes on to recall how the demonstrations against the IMF and the World Bank over the past decade all protested the ways in which banks were playing with money and warned of an impending crash. They were met with tear gas and mass arrests.


The message, he writes, was, quote, “loud and clear, and the police were used to literally stifle the truth.”

Well, Slavoj Žižek addressed a full house at Cooper Union here in New York City on Wednesday night and joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


Thanks very much. It’s my pleasure.


It’s good to have you with us. Relate the protest to the —


You are even better than Fox News, which I usually watch. More amusing.


Relate the protests to the meltdown and why — how it was predictable.


No, what interests me is, for example, Paul — sorry, Paul Krugman said basically the same thing, which tells us a lot about how ideology works today. He said, what if we make a mental experiment, and all the leading bank people, managers and so on, were to know how it would end two years ago? He said, let’s not delude ourselves; there would have been no change. They would have acted in exactly the same way.

This brings me, as a psychoanalyst, into the play, because I think this makes us aware as to what extent our everyday dealing is controlled by what in psychoanalysis we call the mechanism of fetishist disavowal. “Je sais bien, mais quand même…” “I know very well, but…” You know, we can know very well the possible catastrophic consequences, but somehow you trust the market, you think things will somehow work out, and so on and so on. It’s absolutely crucial to analyze this, not only in economy, but generally. This is the focus of my work: how beliefs function today. What do we mean when we say that someone believes?

So that I don’t get lost, let me tell you a wonderful story, which is my favorite story. I quote it also in the book. You know Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, quantum physics guy. You know, once he was visited in his country house by a friend who saw above the entrance a horseshoe, you know, in Europe, the superstitious item allegedly preventing evil spirits to enter the house. And the friend, also a scientist, asked him, “But listen, do you really believe in this?” Niels Bohr said, “Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I’m a scientist.” Then the friend asked him, “But why do you have it there?” You know what Niels Borh answered? He said, “I don’t believe in it, but I have it there, horseshoe, because I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

That’s ideology today. We don’t believe in democracy — nobody. You make fun of it and so on, but somehow we act as if it works. It’s a very strange situation, because there are — some of us old enough still remember them, old days when the public face of power was dignity, belief. And privately you mocked it, you made fun, and so on, no? Now we are, I think, approaching a very strange state, where the public face of power is becoming more and more openly indecent, obscene. Look at Sarkozy in France. Look at Berlusconi in Italy, who is systematically undermining, for over five years now, the minimum of dignity of the state power. I mean, you are again and again surprised how is this possible. You know, after those sex scandals, two weeks ago, his lawyer, Berlusconi’s lawyer, made a public official statement, where he said that the claims that Berlusconi is impotent are lies and that Mr. Berlusconi is ready to prove this in court. Now, how? How — what did he mean? You know, there is a level of obscenity, but this shouldn’t deceive us. We really live in cynical times, not just in this cheap sense they don’t take themselves seriously, but in the sense that — how should I put it? — the ironic self-undermining, making fun of yourself, is in a strange way part of the game. It’s as if the system can function even if it makes fun of itself.


Well, I’d like to ask you, you say you are also critical of the progressive or the left response here. You say in your article in Harper’s, “There is a real possibility that the primary victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone.” Could you elaborate?


I am a radical leftist. I like to call myself, in a very conditional way, a communist even. But I think one should, as a leftist, really concede the amount of the defeat of the left in the last twenty years. That’s the sine qua non condition of a possible review. So, yes, apart from very sympathetic things suggested by people like Stiglitz, Krugman, which are basically a return to Keynesian welfare state, and apart from some interesting — but I don’t think they are the solution — economic ideas, like the basic income or so-called renta básica in Brazil, basic rent, which is a utopia of its own, I think, I sometimes, apart from this, have a strange paranoiac idea that maybe this crisis was manufactured so that people will see that even if there is a crisis, the left really doesn’t have a global answer.

I see — what worries me is two things about the left. First, it’s more and more legalistic moralization. You know, it’s kind of a pure form of protest against injustice. Then the only thing you can do is legal forums and so on. In this sense, many of the ex-leftists are getting depoliticized. They no longer ask the truly basic questions. Like even now, all the outcry was, “Oh, those bank profiteers,” and so on. I totally agree with what we just heard. But don’t you think that the truth is a little bit more complex, in the sense of — you know much more about this than me, but the way I see it is that one of the roots of the present crisis is not just greed. It’s that after the digital bubble at the beginning of our millennium, the idea was how to keep prosperity, how to keep economy alive. And it was, as far as I remember, even a little bit of a really bipartisan decision: let’s make it easier in real estate, and so on, to keep it moving. So, you know, there is a structural problem beneath all this psychological topic of the greedy bankers, which is, that’s how capitalism works, my God, which is why even concerning our beloved model — Bernard Madoff, no? — I didn’t like it how they focused on him. Wait a minute. He was just the radical version of where the system is pushing you. Now, I’m not saying — I’m not crazy — “which is why we need to nationalize all banks and introduce immediately socialist dictatorship” or what. What I’m just saying is, let’s not get rid of the problem by too easily making it into a psychological problem. You know, you can be an evil guy, but there must be very precise institutional, economic, and so on, coordinates, background, which allows you to do what you do.

The second thing, I also didn’t like the cry shared by left and right-wing populists of “help the Main Street, not the Wall Street.” Well, sorry, but those bank managers who emphasized, in capitalism there is no Main Street without Wall Street. In today’s industry, because of the competition and immense investment into new inventions and so on, without large accessibility, availability of credits, there is no prosperous Main Street. So this is a false choice. So, again, with all respect for the left and so on, I think we should avoid quick moralization, if we mean it seriously.


You write, “Is the bailout then really a ‘socialist’ measure? If it is, it takes a peculiar form: a ‘socialist’ measure whose primary aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend.”


Yeah. I mean, this is my whole thesis, that capitalism always was socialism for those who are on the top. This is the basic paradox of it, no?


What about healthcare?


Oh, now you touch my favorite topic. You know why? Because I think that here we see, when people — when I write on ideology, and people laugh at me — “Haha, didn’t you know this? We live in post-ideological era.” No, here you see ideology in its material force. We can —- we should distinguish here two levels. On the one hand are those ridiculous right-wing paranoias, which, incidentally, I like to listen. They amuse me, you know, like that Sarah Palin idea of death panels. Some mysterious bureaucracy will decide, does your uncle live or not. That’s funny, I hope; at least for the time being, we can laugh at it. But then -—


Not in a big part of America, unfortunately.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then the real problem, where the Republican critique of healthcare plan really works is by appealing to this basic gut notion of freedom of choice. And I think this is a problem; we have to confront it. The first we should make it clear is that in order to exercise the freedom of choice — one has to repeat this again and again — an extremely — to really exercise this, an extremely complex network of social, legal regulations, even, I would say, ethical rules, which are somehow accepted, and so on, has to be — have to be here. In other words, often less choice, at least less public choice, at a certain level means more choice at a different level.

Let me return precisely to healthcare. My idea is that healthcare should be at a certain level, like water and electricity. You can also say that you usually don’t choose your water supplier, no? OK, now we can play the Republican game and say, “What a horrible terror! They are depriving us of the fundamental choice to choose the water supply.” But we somehow accept that there are some things where it is much more practical that you are able to count on them. Sorry, but I gladly refuse the big freedom to choose my water supplier, the same as for electricity, although there things can get more tricky. Why not add to this series health? Europe demonstrates it can be done effectively, not to diminish our freedom, but to leave you much more space of much more greater actual freedom, and so on.

So, you see, this is the danger of this ideology of choice, because, you know, this is, in one sense, a central category today. There is an old Marxist card, which is played again and again, of we are only offered false choices, not real choices, like Pepsi or Coke, whatever, instead of the real choices. OK, there is a truth in it. But there is also another problem of ideology of choice, that often we are bombarded by choices — you really are free to choose — without being given the proper background to make a reasonable choice. John Gray, the British cynical skeptic, whom I otherwise admire, wrote very nicely that we are today more and more forced to act as if we are free. And this causes a lot of anxiety and so on. You know, one should be very specific apropos of choices. I’m all for the freedom of choice. I would just like to see the small — those, you know, in the footnote, the small print, what are the precise conditions of choice, and so on and so on.

And so, again, although I have no illusions about what Obama can do and so on, I am still proud that already before elections I supported him, although this had no great impact here, of course. But in contrast to my very more radical leftist friends whose motto was “he’s just a nice human face on the same imperialism,” “he will even serve better the interest of capitalism,” or whatever, no, I think we see now, apropos the healthcare reform, that we are fighting the central battle here.


I’d like to ask you, in terms of the somewhat pessimistic view you have of how the response to the crisis has been, there seems to be, continues to be, an entire continent that is heading in a somewhat different direction, South America and Latin America, in general.


Here comes my critical leftism.


Well, I’d love hear it, in terms — because there does seem to be in many of these areas, while the rest of the world is — the gap is increasing, at least there are governments throughout Latin America that are trying to decrease the gap and take a different role.


They are trying. Are they really doing it? You know, I am — this is my skeptic. Some people already accuse me of being a covert neoconservative for what I will say now. Let’s not have any illusions. I claim that much of the attraction of the recent wave, Hugo Chavez and so on, of Latin American populism comes from this old desire of the left. Let’s be clear, many leftists today in the United States are relatively well-paid academics who fight all the dirty department career war, but they like to feel warm in their hearts. So it’s good to have as far away as possible another country where you can sympathize. “Oh, but things are really happening there.” You know, at some point in the ‘30s it was Soviet Union, Cuba, Chinese Cultural Revolution, Nicaragua. I’m afraid now that it is Venezuela a little bit. And I don’t buy the standard liberal critique, Chavez dictator and so on.

I just think Chavez started well. He did something of world historical importance. As far as I know, he was the first one of truly trying to mobilize people who were in favelas and so on, who were excluded from the public domain. He really tried to bring them into the political process. I claim if we don’t find a way to do this, we are slowly approaching a kind of a new apartheid society, where we will live in a kind of a permanent low-level civil war, where we will have some kind of irrational explosions like in France, the car burning in the Paris suburbs.

On the other hand, I’m a little bit more pessimistic as to what in the long term he will really achieve. I think he is now losing his way approaching this standard Latin American populism, where he, because of the oil wealth, is allowed to play the game of fiddle with oil, fiddle with money. I think, if you ask me, a much more interesting phenomenon is Bolivia. It’s much more authentic. They’re really being forced to invent something new. I always think that the genuinely utopian moments are not when you are doing OK and why not even better, are when you are in a deadlock. Then, in order even to survive normally, you are forced to invent something. But I thought you would say entire — so, no, I don’t see too much hope in Latin America.

But I see more hope at this moment with you in United States than with Europe. Europe is now, I think, in great decline. I had some hopes about Europe. Why? Because, to put it very simply, it still looks that we have two models now which are in competition, if I simplify the analysis very much: the Anglo-Saxon liberal market model and what we poetically call capitalism with Asian values, which means authoritarian capitalism. This is what every leftist, as I repeat it, should worry about, because let’s concede to the devil what belongs to the devil. Wasn’t it that, ’til recently — I’m sorry to tell you again, as a strange communist, you will say — there was one good argument for capitalism? After. It may have been that capitalism needed dictatorship for ten, twenty years — Chile, South Korea — but when things started to move, capitalism always engendered a push toward some kind of democracy. No longer. I claim that what is now emerging in the Far East started — it started in Singapore, this kind of so-called, again, authoritarian capitalism. I think something new is emerging: a capitalism even more dynamic —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: —- than our own, but which, even in long term, doesn’t need democracy.


Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst, cultural theorist. His latest book is First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.

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