Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist. He is author of dozens of books; his latest one from Verso Books is called Living in the End Times.
This is Part II of this conversation.
Watch Part I here.
AMY GOODMAN: In these economically stressed times, how we’re expanding the war, how the administration is expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Well, this is the first irony, that although Keynes is out of fashion today, Keynesian theory, but already from Reagan onwards, our economy is de facto, in spite of all liberal rhetorics, work in a Keynesian way. So I think the first thing to do is to denounce neoliberalism as ideology. I mean, by this, something very precise, that it’s not what really happens in economy. We don’t have neoliberalism. We have a very strong state economy intervening more and more, and so on and so on. We don’t live in that world. That’s my first point.
My second point is that, you know, if you ask me again, I may shock you, about Afghanistan. Of course it was a catastrophe to go there and so on, but it’s really a tragic predicament because we, the West, by intervening there, we created a situation so that now it’s effectively difficult simply to pull out. What I mean, just a brief point. Look, Afghanistan, I’m sorry to tell you, I’m old enough to remember, forty years ago, Afghanistan was arguably the most tolerant Middle East Muslim country, with a pro-Western technocratic king, with a very strong local communist party and so on. And then, we know what happened. Communist party tried to took power. They did. When they started to fail, Soviet Union intervened. Then Americans backed the Muslim fundamentalists. In other words, always bear in mind this: Afghanistan is not an old fundamentalist country that we should enlighten. Afghanistan was quite a nice, tolerant country. Its fundamentalization is precisely the result of being caught in the global politics. We, the global liberal system, generate fundamentalisms.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain that for especially young people, who don’t know what you’re talking about when you say the Americans backed, when the Soviet Union took over at the time, and —
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I think that one of the key sources of not only Afghanistan, but general — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — so-called Middle East problems, fighting the Islamic fundamentalism, is that, as we all know, somewhere in late '50s, especially ’60s, as ’70s, not only United States, but as far as I can say, the West, made a catastrophic strategic miscalculation: they thought, to cut a long story short, that the main danger are — because they can be manipulated by communists, whatever — are secular leftists and that strategically the correct move is to support, at least in the short term, religious fundamentalists against them, which is why, to be slightly cynical, you know, it's very difficult to find today one of these great Axis of Evil guys who wasn’t, if not outright CIA agent, then at least closely linked. Never forget Obama bin Laden started there, when the West supported —
AMY GOODMAN: Osama bin Laden.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Sorry, what did you say? Obama. I deeply apologize. I mean, I still have all sympathy and respect for President Obama.
But, you know, this is the paradox. Again, it’s the same lesson as — à propos of this new right-wing immigrant. We, liberal majority and so on — we created not only in some deeper sense that fundamentalism is the reaction to the excesses of liberal capitalism or whatever, but often quite — in a surprising way, quite literally, we created the fundamentalism. We have no right to observe it with this arrogance. "Oh, my god, how primitive people are there." Sorry, before we started to mess there, they were not.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about this war being waged abroad that costs a trillion dollars? Joe Stiglitz, Linda Bilmes, they predict $3 trillion, and that might be an underestimate, over the years, the playing out, including supporting the veterans, when we have economic crisis at home.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: This is a true danger, yeah, yeah. I think that military spending is already to such extent a key part of making our economy function that, you know, we really — the only way to get out, it’s not just some peace movement, but again, starting to think much more radically how to restructure our economy, because you know what’s the problem with right-wing militarists, that they blackmail us, but they blackmail us in a way which, at some literal level, has a moment of truth. Yes, our economies do depend on war spending. It works. In contrast to what neoliberals are saying, it works. All our relative welfare was the result of military Keynesianism and so on, so again, with all my respect for those who want out of the war, peace, I respect them, but it’s not just this. It’s the time to start asking more radical questions, no way to avoid it, about how our economy works, and with no illusions. I am not saying we need the old Communist Party. I am not crazy. I mean, if old communists are in power, they are now often even worse capitalists than we in the West. Look at China and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: The massive French protests that are taking place — I mean, I think when people here hear that massive number of people are in the streets because the retirement age is being lifted from sixty to sixty-two —
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — people would only wish for that early retirement age in the United States.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah, but let me tell you something else which may surprise you here. I will make a different comment, because in my country, Slovenia, the same thing is going on. Of course, in general, in principle, I support those who strike and so on. But did you notice how they are mostly — mostly — state employees with guaranteed employment and so on. A strange phenomenon is now exploding in Europe, getting more and more accentuated, which was here, we just didn’t notice it all the time. Those who dare to strike today are usually the privileged, those who have a guaranteed state employment and so on. And they strike for these things like, no, we don’t want to freeze our salaries; we want raise them up, while, for example, in my country, there are thousands of textile workers, women, who, if one were to offer them what — that situation with regard to which those who strike today are protesting, like "we guarantee you permanent employment, just with frozen salaries for next five years," they would say, "My god! That’s better than we dared to dream." This is what worries me a little bit, that this strike waves, you know, are clearly predominantly strikes of the, let’s call it in old Leninist terms, workers’ aristocracy, those with safe positions. The truly needy and poor one don’t even dare to strike.
AMY GOODMAN: But talk about the mass protests in the street in France compared to what we don’t have here. We don’t see that in the streets.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: OK, this is an old French tradition, and I wouldn’t even overestimate it. You know why? Because — this is what makes me sad. There is no alternate — again, we are always returning to the same problem — there is no global alternate vision. They are — sorry, but now I will appear like anti-worker, but I’m not, please believe me. They just think, "Oh, no, we want this. We want our piece of cake" and so on. Well, what the left is missing is a kind of a more global idea of how to restructure entire economy. I mean, they are not addressing the true causes. This makes me very sad. This is typical. All that the left can do today is to propose — sorry, oppose — protest against reductions. The left is, let me be very frank, in this social sense, a conservative force. In the social sense of social, fast changes and so on, it’s capitalists who are today the revolutionary class. This makes it very sad, the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you one last question. You keep talking about the bigger issue of the system, that that’s what you have to look at. Explain.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: No, let me take the example of the oil spill. I’m not saying this primitive, old leftist mantra, "we have to change capitalism," and so on. But what even enlightened capitalists know today, it’s not simply immediately this fight of good against evil to be fought in moralistic terms, more radical changes in how our economy is organized, in how we make certain political choices and so on, economic choices. It’s a very simple point, that we simply have to start thinking in more global term, and so that you will not tell me, ooh, I am a utopian.
Let me give you an example how this works, a very modest pro-capitalist example. When I was in Norway, I was told that when this new crisis began, somewhere in the early '90s, already with this disappearance of the old welfare industry state, they did there something miraculous, very modest, no communist revolution. The representatives of different social powers — trade unions, industrialists — maybe this is possible only in Scandinavia — they came together and concluded a kind of a social pact. We will sacrifice these industries. We will take care of those who suffer, and so on and so on. They really restructured the entire country economically. It worked wonderfully. And it's not only because Norway has oil. As a friend demonstrated to me in Norway today, their per capita product is 50 percent higher than Sweden, even if you take the oil away.
Just the last thing to demonstrate to you how neoliberalism is ideology. I read recently a wonderful sociological study demonstrating that Scandinavian countries, which still have an incredibly high level of healthcare, egalitarianism — in Norway, they told me, in a big company, even private, it’s quite usual that the salary difference between lowest worker and boss is usually one to four. But let me tell you the other surprise. If you look at the World Trade Organization — no communist manipulation — the list of the most competitive countries, they are also at the top — an empirical proof that it’s not true what neoliberals are telling us all the time are: too much healthcare, social welfare, egalitarianism, it hurts our competitiveness. No, it’s not true. So I’m not saying socialist revolution. We still have quite a lot of maneuvering space for maneuver to do things better here. We just have to push things a little bit further.
You know, let me conclude with another thing that may interest you. People tell me, "What you are saying is impossible." Did you notice how strange the word "impossible" functions today? When you talk about private pleasures and technology, everything is possible, you know, like we will live forever, everything will be downloaded, we can do whatever we want. We say impossible is happening everywhere in technology. But, the moment you go to social changes, ah, ah, ah, the idea is — we learned the lesson from the fall of socialism — practically everything that disturbs the market is impossible. So what they ruling ideology is telling us, maybe we will live forever, maybe we will become omnipotent, whatever you want, all these new — we will all travel to moon — that’s all possible. But a small social change of more healthcare is not possible. Maybe the time has come to change this and to less dream about these gnostic possibilities we will all turn into digital entities and more about quite modest social changes.