First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Žižek (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a philosophical/economic discussion of the 2008 financial crash from a wider angle, one that acknowledges the possibility that some of our most seemingly axiomatic notions must be reëxamined. In particular, the notion that capitalism has won—Fukuyama’s end of history—and that humanity has found the final expression of itself. That the drive to consume is immanent, that the drive to amass long after one has more than enough is genetic.
This book is not afraid to discuss various expressions of capital and capitalism and to shine a harsh light on the really-existing version that has slipped in in sheep’s clothing.
Step one: convince everyone that capitalism is good; remain vague about the definition. Step two: convince everyone that the system that benefits you the most is capitalism. Step three: profit.
Criminalize that which you do not want to do; legalize that which you do, but only with tight strictures so that it applies to yourself. Privatize profit; socialize cost. This system is ridiculously short-lived. As the author says on page 90, “[…] even in the US, the bastion of economic liberalism, capitalism is having to re-invent socialism in order to save itself.”
Capitalism as practiced today is the greatest con game of all. It’s an absolute cruel joke that so many fervently believe in it, while all the time getting screwed by it. It’s feudalism dressed up with better marketing.
“If it believed in its own nature, would it try to hide that nature under the appearance of an alien nature and seek its salvation in hypocrisy and sophism? The modern ancien régime is rather merely the clown of a world order whose real heroes are dead. History is thorough and passes through many stages while bearing an ancient form to its grave. The last phase of a world-historical form is its comedy.”
“Long ago, John Maynard Keynes rendered this self-referentiality nicely when he compared the stock market to a silly competition in which the participants have to pick several pretty girls from a hundred photographs, the winner being the one who chooses girls closest to the average opinion: “It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.”1 So, we are forced to choose without having at our disposal the knowledge that would enable a qualified choice, or, as John Gray put it: “We are forced to live as if we were free.””
“The way the market fundamentalists react to the destructive results of implementing their recipes is typical of utopian “totalitarians”: they blame all failure on the compromises of those who realized their schemes (there was still too much state intervention, etc.), and demand nothing less than an even more radical implementation of their doctrines.”
“The true problem lies elsewhere: namely; how to keep people’s faith in capitalism alive when the inexorable reality of a crisis has brutally crushed such dreams? Here enters the need for a “mature” realistic pragmatism: one should heroically resist dreams of perfection and happiness and accept bitter capitalist reality as the best (or the least bad) of all possible worlds.”
“Clearly, Greenspan’s error was not only and not simply one of overestimating the rationality of market agents—that is, their ability to resist the temptation of making wild speculative gains. What he forgot to include in the equation was the financial speculators’ quite rational expectation that the risks would be worth taking, since, in the event of a financial collapse, they could count on the state to cover their losses.”
“This, however, only makes the enigma even more impenetrable: how is this displacement possible? “Stupidity” and “ideological manipulation” are not adequate answers; that is to say, it is clearly not good enough to claim that the primitive lower classes have been so brainwashed by the ideological apparatus that they are not or are no longer able to identify their true interests.”
“In other words, the temptation to “morph” legitimate business into a pyramid scheme is part of the very nature of the capitalist circulation process. There is no exact point at which the Rubicon was crossed and the legitimate business morphed into an illegal scheme; the very dynamic of capitalism blurs the frontier between “legitimate” investment and “wild” speculation, because capitalist investment is, at its very core, a risky wager that a scheme will turn out to be profitable, an act of borrowing from the future. A sudden uncontrollable shift in circumstances can ruin a supposedly “safe” investment—this is what capitalist “risk” turns on. And, in “postmodern” capitalism, potentially ruinous speculation is raised to a much higher level than was even imaginable in earlier periods.22”
“. The diagnostic that Lacan poses for the malaise of civilization is that knowledge has assumed ‘a disproportionate growth in relationship to the effects of power.’”45 In the fall of 2007, a public debate raged in the Czech Republic concerning the installation of US Army radars on Czech territory; although a large majority of the population (around 70 percent) was opposed to it, the government pushed on with the project. Government representatives rejected calls for a referendum, arguing that one does not make decisions about such sensitive national security matters merely by voting—they should be left to the military experts.46 If one follows this logic through to the end, one arrives at a strange result: what is there, then, left to vote about? Should not economic decisions, for example, be left to economic experts, and so on for all other realms?”
“There is, however, a feature conspicuously missing from this series: namely, the injunction to choose when we lack the basic cognitive coordinates needed to make a rational choice. As Leonardo Padura puts it: “It is horrific not to know the past and yet be able to impact on the future”;48 being compelled to make decisions in a situation which remains opaque is our basic condition.”
“The first involves a false universality: the subject advocates freedom or equality, while being unaware of implicit qualifications which, in their very form, constrain its scope (the privileging of certain social strata: being rich, or male, or belonging to a certain culture, etc.). The second involves a false identification of both the nature of the antagonism and the enemy: class struggle is displaced, for instance, onto the struggle against the Jews, so that popular rage at being exploited is redirected away from capitalist relations as such and onto the “Jewish plot.””
“In the case of the “Jew” as the fascistic fetish, the interpretive demystification is much more difficult (thereby confirming the clinical insight that a fetishist cannot be undermined with an interpretation of the “meaning” of his fetish—fetishists feel satisfied in their fetishes, they experience no need to be rid of them). In practical political terms, this means that it is almost impossible to “enlighten” an exploited worker who blames “the Jews” for his misery—explaining to him how the “Jew” is the wrong enemy, promoted by his true enemy (the ruling class) in order to obscure the true struggle—and thus to direct his attention away from “Jews” and towards “capitalists.”
“One should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” Arab anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians: there should be no “understanding” of the fact that in several Arab countries Hitler is still considered a hero by many, or of the fact that in their primary school textbooks all the traditional anti-Semitic myths are recycled, from the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the idea that Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes.”
“Liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and death camps imitated Bolshevik terror and the Gulags; the Leninist form of the party is kept alive today in al-Qaeda—yes, but what does all this mean? It can also be read as an indication of how fascism literally replaces (takes the place of) Leftist revolution: its rise is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for so-called “Islamo-Fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries?”
“The ongoing financial meltdown demonstrates how difficult it is to disturb the thick undergrowth of utopian premises which determine our acts. As Alain Badiou succinctly put it: The ordinary citizen must “understand” that it is impossible to make up the shortfall in social security, but that it is imperative to stuff untold billions into the banks’ financial hole? We must somberly accept that no one imagines any longer that it’s possible to nationalize a factory hounded by competition, a factory employing thousands of workers, but that it is obvious to do so for a bank made penniless by speculation?”
“Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, saving AIDS patients and those dying for lack of funds for expensive treatments, saving the starving children . . . all this can wait a little bit. The call to “save the banks!” by contrast, is an unconditional imperative which must be met with immediate action. The panic was so absolute that a transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established, all grudges between world leaders being momentarily forgotten in order to avert the catastrophe.”
“Having analyzed data from more than 20 states, the researchers from Cambridge and Yale established a clear correlation between loans made to these states by the IMF and the rise in cases of tuberculosis—once the loans stop, the TB epidemics recede. The explanation for this apparently weird correlation is simple: the condition for getting IMF loans is that the recipient state has to introduce “financial discipline,” i.e., reduce public spending; and the first victim of measures destined to reestablish “financial health” is health itself, in other words, spending on public health services. The space then opens up for Western humanitarians to bemoan the catastrophic condition of the medical services in these countries and to offer help in the form of charity.”
“seems clear that this is not a short-term issue which can be quickly overcome with the appropriate market regulation, but is rather the sign of a long-term problem impossible to solve by means of the market economy. Some apologists for the new world order point out that the lack of food is in itself an indicator of material progress, since people in the fast-developing Third World countries earn more and so can afford to eat more. The problem nonetheless is that this new demand for food pushes millions towards starvation in those countries lacking such fast economic growth.”
“The communist hypothesis remains the right hypothesis, as I have said, and I do not see any other. If this hypothesis should have to be abandoned, then it is not worth doing anything in the order of collective action. Without the perspective of communism, without this Idea, nothing in the historical and political future is of such a kind as to interest the philosopher. Each individual can pursue their private business, and we won’t mention it again. … But holding on to the Idea, the existence of the hypothesis, does not mean that its first form of presentation, focused on property and the state, must be maintained just as it is. In fact, what we are ascribed as a philosophical task, we could say even a duty, is to help a new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being. New in terms of the type of political experimentation to which this hypothesis could give rise.”
“A simple but pertinent question arises here: if liberal-democratic capitalism obviously works better than all known alternatives, if liberal-democratic capitalism is, if not the best, then at least the least worst form of society, why do we not simply resign ourselves to it in a mature way, even accept it wholeheartedly?”
“The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums.”
“[…] even in the US, the bastion of economic liberalism, capitalism is having to re-invent socialism in order to save itself”
“This is why, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that what Hugo Chávez has begun doing in Venezuela differs markedly from the standard liberal form of inclusion: Chávez is not including the excluded in a pre-existing liberal-democratic framework; he is, on the contrary, taking the “excluded” dwellers of favelas as his base and then reorganizing political space and political forms of organization so that the latter will “fit” the excluded. Pedantic and abstract as it may appear, this difference—between “bourgeois democracy” and “dictatorship of the proletariat”—is crucial.”
“As some social analysts and economists have suggested, the contemporary explosion of economic productivity confronts us with the ultimate case of this rule: the coming global economy will tend towards a state in which only 20 percent of the labor force are able to do all the necessary work, so that 80 percent of people will be basically irrelevant and of no use, thus potentially unemployed.”
“As this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to bring it to its self-negation: is not a system which renders 80 percent of people irrelevant and useless itself irrelevant and of no use? Toni Negri once gave an interview to Le Monde”
“As some social analysts and economists have suggested, the contemporary explosion of economic productivity confronts us with the ultimate case of this rule: the coming global economy will tend towards a state in which only 20 percent of the labor force are able to do all the necessary work, so that 80 percent of people will be basically irrelevant and of no use, thus potentially unemployed. As this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to bring it to its self-negation: is not a system which renders 80 percent of people irrelevant and useless itself irrelevant and of no use?”
“This led to sublime “communist” moments, like the one that occurred when French soldiers (sent by Napoleon to suppress the rebellion and restore slavery) approached the black army of (self-)liberated slaves. When they heard an initially indistinct murmur coming from the black crowd, the soldiers at first assumed it must be some kind of tribal war chant; but as they came closer, they realized that the Haitians were singing the Marseillaise, and they started to wonder out loud whether they were not fighting on the wrong side. Events such as these enact universality as a political category. In them, as Buck-Morss put it, “universal humanity is visible at the edges”:”
“Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defense but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world; Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes. The positive form of the White Man’s Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man’s guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: they are merely imitating”
“Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defense but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world; Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes. The positive form of the White Man’s Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man’s guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: they are merely imitating what their colonial masters used to do, and so on):”
“One should remember here the programmatic words of Stokely Carmichael (the founder of Black Power): “We have to fight for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted. This is the first need of a free people, and this is also the first right refused by every oppressor.””
“Here the series is terminated, simply because the enemy has now taken over the revolutionizing dynamic: one can no longer play the game of subverting the Order from the position of its “part of no-part,” since the Order already now entails its own permanent subversion. With the full deployment of capitalism, it is “normal” life itself which, in a certain manner, is “carnivalized,” with its constant reversals, crises, and reinventions, and it is the critique of capitalism, from a “stable” ethical position, which today more than ever appears as an exception.”
“In Public Opinion (1922), he wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the challenge—he saw the public as Plato did, as a great beast or a bewildered herd, floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.”39 So the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality”—this elite class is to act as a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omni-competent citizen.” This is indeed how our democracies function—and with our consent. There is no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is an obvious fact; the mystery is that, knowing this, we continue to play the game. We act as if we are free to choose, while silently not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction (inscribed in the very form of our commitment to “free speech”) tells us what to do and to think. As Marx noted long ago, the secret is in the form itself.”
“When “immaterial work” (education, therapy, etc.) is celebrated as the kind of work which directly produces social relations, one should not forget what this means within a commodity economy: namely, that new domains, hitherto excluded from the market, are now commodified. When in trouble, we no longer talk to a friend but pay a psychiatrist or counselor to take care of the problem; children are increasingly cared for not by parents but by paid nurseries or child-minders, and so on. We are thus in the midst of a new process of the privatization of the social, of establishing new enclosures.”
“I have referred elsewhere to Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s claim that, if we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this “historical” notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time. Dupuy calls this time the “time of a project,” of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, while the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation:”