The Scattershot Musings of Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most celebrated, perceptive, and eclectic philosophers alive today. He is also one of the least organized. His latest book, Heaven in Disorder, is less a sustained argument than a staccato of stand-alone articles calling themselves chapters. One look at the ‘Contents’ page gives some sense of the scattershot musings in store for patient readers.

Žižek attends to topics as varied as the 150-year anniversary of the Paris Commune, Chile’s Estallido Social, and the meaning of Christ during a pandemic. Overall, the book gives the impression of a philosopher most at home with his thoughts when lurching from one subject to another with the attention span of a gnat. Only very occasionally does Žižek also display the wisdom of an owl.

Indeed, the symbolism of this nocturnal bird means a lot to the Slovenian philosopher, who describes himself as more of a Hegelian than a Marxist. In essence, this means that Žižek regards human history as a dialectical process moving to higher forms of consciousness, the ultimate direction of which can only begin to be understood once the historical events in question have run their full course. As Hegel put it in Philosophy of Right, “the owl of Minerva,” that mythic goddess of philosophical wisdom, “spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” Indeed, Hegel’s late Berlin lectures on The Philosophy of History are devoted to past thought and events. At most, Hegel meditated only speculatively about the future. But Marx believed that the past, along with the present, held the key to a coming Communist order which mankind must struggle violently to bring into being. In contrast to Hegel, Marx thought of himself as a scientific prophet, tracing the internal logic of the contradictions within Capitalism to herald the classless society which, he thought, would inevitably result. The proletarian beneficiaries, declared Marx, had nothing to lose but their chains. As it turned out, many also in fact lost their lives in the places where Marxist theory had its way.

If he ever did hold it, Žižek has since dropped the Marxist pretension to prophesy future resolution (what Hegel called Aufhebung, often translated into English as ‘sublation’) from present conflicts. As a result, his latest book fizzles with questions, uncertainties and at best tentative suggestions about possible futures. These are all features which characterized the mature Hegel whenever he commented on the unfolding events of his day.

There is also plenty of the flair, colour, and irreverent comedy that readers have come to associate with the Slovenian philosopher. The only puzzle is that such an eccentric, dynamic mind should wish still to identify, as Žižek does, with the doctrinaire theories of Karl Marx, long outdated in their most basic respects. This is rather like an impressive butterfly boasting about the now rotten cocoon which once swaddled it. In any case, Žižek is not a dreary optimist like Marx, but a flamboyant realist tending towards deep pessimism. This has the virtue of making him both more entertaining and less dangerous than the average left-wing intellectual. 

While he remains sympathetic to some of the old-fashioned Marxist rhetoric about an approaching crisis of capitalism, it is tempered by an ironic, self-effacing defeatism which Marx would have found entirely alien. It was well-expressed in one of Žižek’s other recent bestsellers, The Courage of Hopelessness: “Forget the light at the end of the tunnel—it’s actually the headlight of a train about to hit us.” 

But the title of this recent work, Heaven in Disorder, comes from Mao Zedong, for whom Žižek professes a strange admiration. Mao, being a Marxist, was alert to any chaos which might create opportunities for revolutionary action. This is conveyed in one of the Chinese dictator’s best-known sayings: “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.” Žižek is equally conscious of the disorder through which the modern world is moving. He refers to crises like COVID-19, the foothills of a new Cold War with China (not to mention the hot war that has since broken out between Russia and Ukraine), and conflicts over identity and culture serving to distract a complacent West. “But,” Žižek asks, “does this chaos still make the situation excellent, or is the danger of self-destruction too high?” 

Hence Žižek’s strange title: “Mao speaks about disorder under heaven, wherein ‘heaven,’ or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today, we should talk about heaven itself as being in disorder.” The semi-utopia of modern liberalism is proving no less accident prone than the many stages along the way. Throughout Žižek’s book there runs a gloomy sense that reason may not win out and that History, the great saviour for Marx and Hegel, might have nowhere to go.

The blurb lauds Žižek’s credentials as a challenger to the “accepted verities on both the Left and the Right.” However, he is nevertheless guilty of the occasional complacent slip. For example, he refers to the conservative side in the American culture war as “the alt-Right,” apparently unaware that this term, coined by the white nationalist Richard Spencer, applies only to a small band of racist, irrelevant nitwits.

In one of his longer chapters, he devotes some time to Chile’s choice in an October 2020 referendum to write a new constitution in place of the one inherited (albeit in a more democratic, highly revised form) from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This referendum, proclaims Žižek, “raised some hope in our depressive times.” But he fails to explain why a brand new constitution is needed to atone for the dark episodes in recent Chilean history. Why not reform the constitution by congressional means, if there is such a strong desire to rid it of particular anomalies and entrenched privileges? In 1807, the British Parliament abolished the slave trade—a far greater evil than, say, the unpopular part of Chile’s present constitution which sends 10% of national copper revenues to the military—without needing to dump the constitution from which it drew the authority to do so.

But the appruebo vote, as Žižek admits, is more of a symbolic triumph, whereby “a new narrative… ‘de-normalized’ the post-Pinochet democracy as a continuation of his rule with democratic means.” If a symbolic reckoning with the Pinochet era is what motivated the Chilean Left to set up a new constitutional convention, a body fraught with the danger of being overtaken by divisive ideologues, they need not have gone to such trouble. Even most conservatives in Chile, if asked, will concede that Pinochet was a brutal dictator who committed unspeakable abuses of power. They will merely add that the economic prosperity achieved under his regime should be preserved, in much the same way that the international Left likes to celebrate the wonderful healthcare and literacy rates supposedly accomplished by the Castroite tyranny in Cuba. 

In any case, the proper setting in which such questions should be discussed is a political one. Contentious debates about health and economic policy should not be shut down before they can start by an inflexible constitution. The problem is made worse when such a document is politicized, written by ideologues and gerrymandered to make left-wing dogma the test of allegiance to the civic culture that all constitutions create. Yet Chilean progressives make no secret of the fact that this is their intention.

Turning to the European “populists,” Žižek accuses the likes of Viktor Orbán and Boris Johnson of exhibiting, along with Trump and Putin, “hatred of a strong EU”—that is, “the Europe of transnational unity, the Europe vaguely aware that, in order to cope with the challenges of our moment, we should move beyond the constraints of nation-states.” He makes this jibe without any recognition of the EU’s failures, be it during the woefully mismanaged 2015 migration crisis or Brussels’ sluggish vaccine programme in 2021, to work as nimbly as nation states acting in their own interests with the support of their own people. Moreover, these frightful “populists” are for the most part not against international co-operation as such. They have merely caught on to the fact that EU bureaucrats take a suspiciously self-serving view of what “co-operation” amounts to.

On climate change, there is no engagement—let alone a sustained one—with the work of researchers like Bjørn Lomborg. President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Lomborg marshals data—a phenomenon conspicuously absent from Žižek’s book—to argue that predictions of looming ecological disaster lack the evidence to justify a comprehensive restructuring of our life and economy. Yet Žižek endorses just such a restructuring, urging leaders to “admit the absurdity of our geopolitical war games when the very planet for which wars are fought is under threat.” These rhetorical flourishes are elegant enough, but seldom earned by assiduous treatment of the relevant facts.

In his treatment of lockdowns the analysis is even more naïve. Žižek’s central contention is that the selfish priorities of “global capitalism” stopped leaders from doing what was right: locking down harder to prevent an “explosion” in COVID-19 infections. Quite apart from the questionable efficacy of lockdowns as an agent of disease control, it is remarkable that Žižek should neglect the class angle of this question. Far from being feared, lockdowns were overwhelmingly favoured by the ‘laptop class’ which does extremely well out of “global capitalism.” Affluent professionals not only continued to rake in their handsome salaries from home, but spent them on putting more vulnerable people—the new Lumpenproletariat of Amazon couriers, Deliveroo drivers, and public service workers, who kept society running and serviced to middle-class needs—at greater risk. To make matters worse, Žižek then claims that the West should have emulated China—whose COVID-19 statistics he takes at face value—which is said to have distinguished itself by “clearly prioritising lives over the economy.” He forgets that “the economy” is not some abstract altar upon which greedy capitalists sacrifice “lives,” but a real, vitally necessary thing inextricable from human health and flourishing. Derived from the ancient Greek oikos, meaning household, “the economy” is no less than the architecture of our home. It therefore cannot be shoved into a fake contest, a false dichotomy, with the “lives” which have their being there.

But Žižek can also be wittily perceptive, such as when he turns to the self-satirizing absurdity of intersectional theory in practice. He pours scorn on the left-wing dream that “feminism, anti-racism, LGBT+ struggles, protection of minorities, worker’s struggles, freedom of expression struggles, hate-speech opponents, freedom of information efforts, etc., will join into one big Movement in which trans-feminists will march together with Muslim women…” The old-school Marxism, he accepts, has yet to find a convincing way to update its theory of group struggle to 21st century conditions. As a result, radical intellectuals now busy themselves with a desperate, quixotic search for the new “incarnation of a true emancipatory agent that would replaces Marx’s working class.”

On the European migration problem, Žižek turns this idea into an attack on sentimental left-wing fictions. He has no time for the many activists who deploy a mixture of abstract humanitarianism and cultural self-hatred to virtue-signal about those migrating to Europe. There is then a perceptive critique of the way in which many of Žižek’s Marxist comrades, notably Alain Badiou, have leapt upon refugees as a beleaguered social category and therefore a promising new revolutionary class. Badiou has gone so far as to call them “nomadic proletarians,” whose struggle can and should be leveraged in the fight against a heartless neo-liberal system. 

As Žižek recognises, this is a non-starter. These “nomadic proletarians” are not only an incongruous mix of genuine refugees and economic migrants, but largely unemployed. This means they can create no surplus value for the capitalist class to exploit. The fact that in the main these people also do not integrate socially into their host countries makes the situation much more tragic than Badiou’s naïve optimism would suggest. Žižek explains: “they are caught in a kind of social limbo, a deadlock from which fundamentalism offers a false exit. With regard to the circulation of global capital, refugees are put in a position of surplus-humanity, a mirror image of surplus value, and no humanitarian hope and openness can resolve this tension.” He adds, unrealistically, that “only a restructuring of the entire international edifice will do.” 

No proposals then follow for solving the war in Syria, let alone the conditions which have encouraged millions from countries as far afield as Eritrea and Bangladesh to migrate to Europe. Still less is there any recognition of the reality that economic migrants and refugees are not the by-products of a particular “international edifice,” but, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, will exist for as long as man makes war and poor countries are corruptly misgoverned. Nevertheless, Žižek sees right through the posturing of left-wing liberals and brings fresh insight, if not practical suggestions, to the migration question.

Finally, there are insightful reflections about the resurgence of protest in advanced democracies. From Chile to France, Žižek looks to identify a common denominator to these dynamics. He draws attention to the recurring way in which unrest against a specific law or measure, be it increased fuel costs in France or hiked Metro fares in Chile, “explode[s] into a general discontent that was obviously already there… waiting for a contingent trigger to detonate it.” Due to the pre-existing grievances, these protests continue even when the triggering law or measure is hastily repealed by panicked leaders.

Regarded until quite recently as marking the end point of historical development, liberal societies in fact leave a whole set of crucial questions unanswered, producing hungers for meaning and recognition that the liberal model cannot itself fulfil. Poor Francis Fukuyama, often caricatured, actually questioned in the latter parts of his excellent book, The End of History and the Last Man, whether the ‘end of history’ would be quite so simple. He wondered “whether there are other deeper sources of discontent within liberal democracy—whether life there is truly satisfying.” The work closes with an arresting image of various wagons, representing nations, pulling into the same liberal town to enjoy equality of opportunity, material riches and a legally protected set of basic freedoms. Fukuyama then leaves his readers with an open question: “Nor can we in the final analysis know, provided a majority of the wagons eventually reach the same town, whether their occupants, having looked around a bit at their surroundings, will not find them inadequate and set their eyes on a new and more distant journey.”

Three decades on, the sense that liberal democracy does not satisfy the higher needs of the human soul could not be more palpable. As Žižek is well aware, the problem raises political questions: “Who will be the most salient in the articulation of this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it?” He even admits that the recent victories of the Right should awaken his like-minded progressives to “the big task of the Left: to translate brewing discontent into a viable program of change.” But Žižek does not bother asking why conservatives are so much better-placed to address the crisis of meaning within liberal democracies. (If anyone can be said to “exploit it,” it is those who openly praise Maoist statements like: “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent”). Indeed, national conservatives have had success in recent years because their routes beyond the shortcomings of liberalism are not based on schemes for a high-mindedly bleak, global collectivism of the kind that stimulates Žižek. Instead, they have urged a revival of more visceral, realistic forms of human attachment—the most important of these being the red-blooded love of home and hearth now galvanizing the people of Ukraine.

Despite his colourful pessimism, Žižek still appears to indulge the fallacy that some combination of good will, rationality, and imagination is up to the task of saving our fallen world. In truth, the predations of nature and the reality of human failing mean that all possible worlds will always be plagued by a measure of conflict, crisis, and catastrophe. There is nothing more corrupting to intellectuals than the notion that if only enough of them were given the power they feel they need to remake humanity, original sin would cease to be a problem.

In addition to its bizarre structure, Heaven in Disorder has a rattling prose style that bears comparison with an Uzi submachine gun. It is not a sustained argument, but closer to Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître in being a largely bonkers piece of work, which always entertains, sometimes enlightens, but mostly consists of slapdash, unsubstantiated aphorisms. Still, conservatives can only profit from including this most eccentric of thinkers, perfectly happy to offend and often insightful when doing so, in their libraries.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.