Zizek’s Capitalist Realism?

Jul 29th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

zizekSlavoj Zizek's recent column “How Alexis Tsipras and Syriza Outmaneuvered Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats” is a good example of how left theorists who hold to what Andrew Kliman calls “political determinism” can go wildly wrong. Political determinists think “that the capitalists control capitalism—not the other way around—so that the system can become something it's not once different people with different priorities assume control of it” and in Zizek's latest column he both holds a political determinist position and explains the motive for clinging to it.

The main question that Zizek wants to answer in his essay was first raised by Stathis Kouvelakis out of King's College London in an essay written for the left leaning journal “Jacobin.” Stathis asked, “How is it possible for a devastating 'no' to memorandum austerity policies to be interpreted as a green light for a new memorandum?”

The answer to this question is that Tsipras did not interpret the vote as a green light for more austerity, but rather that the power of the referendum could not overcome the power of economic reality. Zizek notes this when he writes that the new austerity measures were offered “out of pure despair, to avoid a total economic and financial collapse,” but he does not stay with this conclusion, but moves off into a rather complicated series of tangents and anecdotes borrowed from his previous work. He concludes that we must “demand democratization of social and economic life” and continue our struggle as a kind of patient guerrilla war against financial occupation.

hegel-lithograph-webTo really understand what went wrong with Zizek's essay we have to note what kind of writer Zizek is, what his overall project is, and how this overall project can often lead him astray when it comes to prescriptive politics. What's worth noting is that, at his best, Zizek is not a political writer, but a descriptive philosopher. Zizek approaches politics in very much the same manner that he approaches film criticism. That is, what Zizek is most interested in discussing and illustrating are not concrete political problems, but theoretical abstractions. When he writes about films it is of little importance to him whether his interpretation of the film is accurate in terms of the film itself. He doesn't offer up an essay on Hitchcock or an old Columbo episode in order to help us evaluate the significance or even the meaning of these works, but rather these cultural products serve as the common coin by which he can elaborate and elucidate otherwise occult arguments. News stories, celebrity gossip, historical incidents, and even personal anecdotes serve a similar function in his work. We aren't meant to question the depth of his understanding of Gangnam Style or Batman Returns, these things don't need to be understood. Rather, we're meant to take in his theory, to go with him through his examples, and understand Lacan or Hegel or Marx more clearly through Zizek's reference to Psy.

What is the common coin in left thought today? Who can he turn to with the assurance that he'll be immediately understood? Paul Krugman's optimistic anti-austerity politics are well known. Treating the economic crisis in Europe as a David vs. Goliath story, pitting Tsipras and Varoufakis against Merkel, is another well worn trope in left circles. Unfortunately, however, unlike Gangnam Style, these commonly understood spectacles have real life consequences and deploying these anecdotes in order to illustrate a deeper theoretical point is nearly guaranteed to lead both the writer and reader to false conclusions.

On the level of politics the major error in Zizek's essay is that he flirts with conspiracy theory. He quite rightly points out that nobody really believes that the austerity measures will lead to the kind of growth that will set the Greek economy right, but what he leaves out is that a Krugman style anti-austerity solution is self-contradictory. In his June essay “Greece Over the Brink,” Krugman spells out why austerity measures haven't worked to reboot the Greek economy, namely that without the ability to devalue its currency the austerity measures only slowed productivity in Greece, but he also describes why a currency devaluation is no option for Greece.

“The problem with Grexit has always been the risk of financial chaos, of a banking system disrupted by panicked withdrawals and of business hobbled both by banking troubles and by uncertainty over the legal status of debts. That’s why successive Greek governments have acceded to austerity demands, and why even Syriza, the ruling leftist coalition, was willing to accept the austerity that has already been imposed.”

markets_1980043cThat is, the European economy overall is so weak that the devaluation of a Greek currency might very well cause another panic on a scale that would not only preclude a Greek recovery but that could threaten the rest of Europe with a repetition of the 2007 recession or worse. Krugman's conclusion then, that the German insistence on harsh austerity measures for Greece, is purely political ignores his own conclusions. That is, by Krugman's own logic, there is no political solution to the Greek crisis and both sides are merely kicking the can down the road and trying to minimize the damage to their own economy.

In order to understand why both players are caught between a rock and hard place we might turn to an economist. Phil Mullan, writing for Spiked!, explains the situation this way:

“Faster economic growth has become an unfashionable, and to some a seemingly unattainable goal for the West. Instead we are told to expect and adapt to what many call a ‘New Normal’ world, characterized by sluggish growth and near stagnant, if not falling, living standards.”

Put another way, the underlying problem in Europe is a decline in productivity, and while there are various solutions on hand from bourgeois economists--increasing innovation, suppressing wages, and stimulus spending are three of the contradictory solution frequently offered—the reality is that this decline in productivity is built into capitalism and can only be solved through crisis itself. That is, the very depression we fear, which would cause so much human suffering and chaos, is exactly what our system wants from us.

So, this leads us back to Zizek and his argument. Zizek states at the beginning that “True courage, is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that no discernible alternative exists. Indeed, the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish that prevents us from thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament.”

And he can be read one of two different ways here. On the one hand he can be read as siding with Margaret Thatcher and her pronouncement that there is no alternative to capitalism and its attendant ideology of free trade, free markets, and the rest. Or, and I think this is what Zizek really wants to say, we can read him as saying that in this particular moment there is no immediate solution within capitalism.

Zizek tries to have it both ways in this essay. He tries to use his usual dialectical tricks to turn acceptance of the status quo into its opposite while avoiding actually arriving at that opposite conclusion. He remains fully within Capitalist reality even as he repeats his Hegelian anecdotes that were originally constructed as didactic escape vehicles.

image00Why does Zizek stay within the bounds of capitalism? Precisely because this is the terrain without options. That is, Zizek reverts to political determinism as a response to a moment where the economic solutions on offer are transparently ineffectual. As he puts it, "The Greeks are not asked to swallow many bitter pills for a realist plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed."

Still, it's worth remembering that in 2011, when Zizek visited Occupy Wall Street, he told the crowd of twinklers to “Remember that our basic message is, ‘We are allowed to think about alternatives.’ A taboo is broken. We do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want, but what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism?”

The difficulty for Zizek, and for the rest of us, is that he can only ask these questions but is nowhere near answering them. Given that this is his position it's no wonder that he asks us to believe that Tsipras is playing three dimensional chess and that this or that political act, whether it's a Greek deal with Russia or a demand for more than just political democracy, might eventually lead to an exit that goes far beyond what any Grexit might promise. Still, as understandable as this mistake is, it must be recognized and we must ask ourselves these seemingly unanswerable questions again:

What do we want? What might be a real alternative? How might we replace capitalism?


Douglas Lain is the publisher of Zero Books, a novelist (Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landed), and a sometimes pop philosopher for the Partially Examined Life Blog and Thought Catalog. He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast.

If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
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8 Comments to “Zizek’s Capitalist Realism?”

  1. Bruce Wallace says:

    Yes Doug on the money. As Chomsky said of Zizek he is a theoretical posturer without content. Same as the rest of the postmodernist cabal.

  2. “in Zizek’s latest column he … explains the motive for clinging to [ a political determinist position].” Where exactly? I don’t see it.

    • Douglas Lain says:


      You’re right. I started off intending to give that answer directly and then failed to do that. I’ll fix that. I know why he clings to that position, but I haven’t said it here.

    • Douglas Lain says:

      I added a paragraph. I’m not sure how helpful it is, however.

      “Why does Zizek stay within the bounds of capitalism? Precisely because this is the terrain without options. That is, Zizek reverts to political determinism as a response to a moment where the economic solutions on offer are transparently ineffectual. As he puts it, “The Greeks are not asked to swallow many bitter pills for a realist plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed.”

  3. Matt Barnard says:

    I enjoyed this, Doug. Although, I do feel a bit silly as Žižek’s column was the first one of that left me feeling he was really onto something. Clearly I’ve been reading him upside down. But, is there not room for pragmatism and “capitalist realism” in combatting capitalism? I’m not very good on Marx, but it seems to me that allowing capitalism to totally collapse would be a step backwards rather than forwards.

    • Douglas Lain says:


      I think there is room for real “capitalist realism” when fighting capitalism. So, for instance, the realistic appraisal of Syriza’s situation was to recognize that their only option was to play a game of chicken and threaten a Grexit with the hope that the threat of a destabilized Euro was more frightening that the threat of giving more unpayable loans without any guarantees or consequences. Would the loss of confidence from European banks over a soft deal for Greece be worse than a Grexit? That would’ve been their calculation.

      Of course, in the end, the problem remains and we’ll have to go through this all again in a few years.

      Here’s the realistic appraisal about capitalism. As long as the working classes aim at fixing capitalism they’re going to be hurt and disappointed. Fixing capitalism and defending yourself from it are at odds. The system needs will never be human needs. So, fight for reforms, fight against austerity, but don’t expect that to make the system whole and don’t expect that to be the end of your fight.

  4. olleboo says:

    I thought this piece resonated well with yours. I’m interested in your opinions on it, if any.


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