Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek seems to publish at least one book every year, and as of this writing The Courage of Hopelessness: A Year of Acting Dangerously is his latest. It contains seven long essays on a wide range of political matters. The first essay offers a Marxist critique of global capitalism, the principles of which inform subsequent essays. Then follows commentary on the Greek debt crisis, the rise of China, the challenge of Islamic terrorism, the issues facing the LGBT community, the threat of populist movements, and the problems with U.S. foreign policy. Erudite if a bit meandering, Žižek manages to provoke but never to surprise — regardless of the question at hand, he always arrives at the same two conclusions: Capitalism is the disease, and Communism is the cure.
Like much of Žižek’s work, The Courage of Hopelessness seeks above all to convince us that the neoliberal world order is fatally deficient. In Žižek’s view it allows “politicians, bankers, and managers” to “realize their greed” by stashing their ill-earned wealth in offshore tax havens. It creates false scarcity and exacerbates already-savage income inequalities. It destabilizes the lives of working people. It establishes sweatshops (in Asia), resuscitates slavery (in Qatar), and necessitates oppressive policies of social control. The way to overcome these troubles, Žižek argues, is by reinvigorating the politics of the radical left, unabashedly embracing Communism, and confronting the behemoth of the capitalist economy.
In a review of Žižek’s oeuvre, Roger Scruton observes that his intellectual output is the product “of a seriously educated mind.” Scruton is right: Žižek’s books usually include many passages indicative of nothing less than sheer brilliance. Upon encountering them, even the most ardent anti-Communists might catch themselves reconsidering their positions. But one should be careful; Scruton notes that as readers “[nod] in time to the rhythm of the prose,” Žižek slips in “little pellets of poison.”
And so it is: Impressive insights are sometimes followed by poisonous pellets within the space of a single page. Thus, Žižek notes (correctly in my estimation) that while “the French colonized Haiti, the French Revolution also provided the ideological foundation for the rebellion that liberated the slaves and established independent Haiti.…In short, one should never forget that the West provides the very standards by means of which it (as well as its critics) measures its criminal past.” Fair enough, one thinks — Žižek lauds the power of Western ideals, and rightly. But a few paragraphs later we learn what Žižek really intends to commend. “Radical egalitarianism,” he writes, “is European; the notion of modern subjectivity is European; communism is a European event if there ever was one.” Insofar, then, as Žižek can find anything to praise in the Western heritage it is, bafflingly, the legacy of Communism.
Unlike other (perhaps more reserved) radical thinkers, Žižek makes the connection between utopianism and terrorism explicit: He demands utopia at the expense of terror despite knowing full well that utopia is unobtainable.
Such remarks are par for Žižek’s Marxist course. He possesses an extraordinary analytic tool, inaccessible to most others and deployed frequently in The Courage of Hopelessness: He can discover ways to blame anything on capitalism. With a wave of Žižek’s wand any issue can be converted into a matter of class politics. Of the causes behind the Syrian civil war, for instance, Žižek writes that, “while the dominant factor is political (where Arab tensions play the main role), the determination in the last instance is exerted by the global capitalist economy.” (Those are his italics; you can tell because as elsewhere in his writing they serve no discernible purpose.) Wherever a problem arises in the world, Žižek is certain to be there, ever-ready to find a connection, however tenuous, to the dynamics of global capitalism.
It’s all part of Žižek’s overarching theory: He overstates the nature of the challenges we face and misstates their causes to create the intellectual space needed for the projects of the radical left. “The change required,” The Courage of Hopelessness explains, “is not political reform but a transformation of the social relations of production — which entails precisely revolutionary class struggle rather than democratic elections.” Liberal democracy is incapable of handling the disasters brought about by capitalism. Overcoming them requires a total departure from extant political and economic systems. But, asks Žižek, “Can such [a departure] remain within the confines of parliamentary democracy?” The answer for him is no. Extreme problems demand extreme solutions, which are not laid out in this book.
Žižek has, however, proposed specific solutions in the past. His clearest statement of how humanity might escape capitalism appears in “Robespierre or the ‘Divine Violence’ of Terror,” an essay published over a decade ago.
“Our task today,” Žižek writes in that essay, “is to reinvent emancipatory terror.” One cannot achieve true liberation without wanton violence, because “as Saint-Just put it succinctly: ‘That which produces the general good is always terrible.’” When Žižek elaborates on this idea his language is uncharacteristically lucid. He believes there come points in human history (France 1789, Russia 1917) when the masses awaken to their status as brutalized and degraded creatures, when extraordinary leaders (Robespierre, Lenin) recognize the critical importance of the times and take charge of said masses, when there arises an opportunity, at last, to shatter the systems that oppress us (feudalism, capitalism), and in those moments — in those precise moments — we must decide: Should we embrace “revolutionary-democratic terror?”
Žižek argues that we should, and that we must: During the moment of revolutionary fervor, passivity is tantamount to complicity with the forces of reaction. Anyone who does not participate in the terror is fit for elimination. To create a better world, destroy capitalism, and bring about liberation, one should not be reluctant to employ pitiless methods of political action. Those unwilling to inflict slaughter on behalf of revolution are “sensitive liberals” who long for “revolutions which don’t smell of revolution.” Such people want freedom without violent struggle, and for Žižek such a position is morally bankrupt: One must accept terror “as a bitter truth to be fully endorsed.”
Žižek in this essay is somewhat exceptional. Unlike other (perhaps more reserved) radical thinkers, Žižek makes the connection between utopianism and terrorism explicit: He demands utopia at the expense of terror despite knowing full well that utopia is unobtainable. Indeed, Žižek himself acknowledges that the Jacobin, Bolshevik, and Maoist utopian experiments failed utterly to bring about Communist bliss, yet he is willing nevertheless to encourage similar undertakings in the future. One more revolution, one more outburst of emancipatory terror, and we will finally arrive at the truly “just” society. He therefore contradicts himself when he says that he wants a revolution only so that the brutalities of capitalism can be washed away in the carnage. One comes to realize that he is not opposed to brutalities as such; he only objects to brutalities that he perceives to be caused by “the system.” When atrocities are committed for “correct” (i.e. Communist) causes, he morphs into their foremost intellectual apologist.
And yet, in my view what makes the Žižek phenomenon truly remarkable is not that he openly advocates the mass murder of civilians, not that he is taken seriously by the Western academic establishment (he has 100,00 citations on Google Scholar), not that despite all his writing on Stalinism he cannot muster an unambiguous moral condemnation of Stalin’s butchery. It is, rather, that the terror he endorses is ultimately nihilistic. If utopia is impossible, then any society born after a terrorist uprising is bound to be flawed in some way. Certain classes of people will continue to be excluded from the “benefits” of the revolution — Jews in the former Soviet Union are one obvious example. If Žižek will stop at nothing until full and perfect equality is attained, and if he sanctions terrorism to attain that perfect equality, then he must (and to be fair he does) endorse a perpetual cycle of revolutionary terror to achieve that which cannot be achieved. Seduced by the aesthetics of revolution rather than committed to a serious pursuit of justice, Žižek’s philosophy collapses under the weight of its incoherence.
In a world where his dreadful revolutionary project could be separated from his descriptive commentary, Žižek’s books would perhaps be useful interventions in public-policy debates. But we do not live in such a world. Book after book, Žižek applies the same Lacanian–Marxist theories to analyses of current events in a quixotic attempt to prove that doomsday nears, that capitalism is begetting catastrophe and only terror can save us. Bearing all this in mind, readers who engage The Courage of Hopelessness will find themselves captivated by its insights, furious with its absurdities, and repelled by its implicit proposals.