All the Red Young Žižekian Guys
Photograph by UnB Agência
by Rose Barnsley
These squares are outwardly similar to existing squares and yet we have never seen them…we are in an immense previously inconceivable world.
—Paul Eluard on de Chirico’s The Uncertainty of the Poet
At nineteen, it is easy to think that all you’re missing is the right movement. But there is something about the young left wing societies I talk with that properly gets under my skin. I don’t like the sweaty red t-shirts and the sweaty red pamphlets. I don’t like the theatrical way the guy from my linguistics lecture puffs himself up at a march, carefully smoking American Spirit. A reflexive nostalgia often seems to govern these movements and sometimes I swear the party shirts are only there to accessorise a Facebook album with a sepia tint.
Slavoj Žižek recently spoke at the London Literature Festival. He talked about true freedom and where it lies; about whether it has become an impossible dream. Stretching a tightrope in between the poles of John Gray and Francis Fukuyama, he explored the tension. How free, he asked, is the current system? He nearly sold out the Royal Festival Hall. The crowd was mainly my age, with a lot of guys sporting good cheekbones who didn’t take off their coats before sitting down.
Žižek is often dismissed. A big personality, he can come off as a clown, advocating a utopia he cannot define. Benjamin Kunkel noted that, since 1991, the greatest challenge to the would-be revolutionary left has been the fact that they can demonstrate “…neither a serious strategy for the conquest of power nor a programme to implement, should power be won.” This is not a new anxiety, but it gets at why Žižek is relevant to the young left today. I don’t believe we are able to look to Žižek to tell us where a revolution should lead. What he can give us is something more concrete than that. He says things that can be held onto in the world of exam preparation and career prospecting. He says things that feel like the intimations of a strategy. It’s a message, from someone who has pored over revolutions, to those people, like myself, who are agitated by the apparent immutability of the current economic system.
According to Žižek, the pivotal question of his speech was: ‘Are you a Fukuyamist?’ Even Fukuyama says he can no longer justify his position as a Fukuyamist, but what we can justify need not correspond with how we believe. Global capitalism’s greatest art is its ability to tranquillise us with the belief that we exist at the culmination of civilisation.
Canary Wharf is made of steel, glass and inhuman scalings. It is hard to see it being ripped apart any time soon. Maybe this is why the young movements I come across seem so tied up with the manageable. Their Facebook pages, their society balls, their fantasies about the sixties. These things, at least, we can relate to and hope to alter, unlike the great steel mechanisms of capitalism’s political economy. As such, even those kids who stand outside of my tutorials, slouching and smug in Marxist Society t-shirts, are quite often Fukuyamists.
Once Žižek had finished speaking, a guy at the back of the hall stood up and asked for specifics. I couldn’t see him, but I assumed his eyes were bright, he had good hair and wore a dark coat. He explained how he had recently graduated and was working in the environmental sector. He had decided, with some level of desperation, that the changes to global environmental policy which were essential were also impossible. Such necessary alterations were ruled out by the very existence of enormous corporations. What could a march do about that? What could he do, really, fighting his life away over policy minutia? What was the point of everything Žižek had to say if he didn’t have an answer to environment guy?
Žižek really liked these questions and, as always, he had a response ready. The very concept of human rights, Žižek told us, opens a gap – even where they only apply to white males of a certain level of citizenship and birth. This is formal freedom. It acts as a point of reference enabling progress. There is no freedom without form. A master will come as the tension escalates. An authentic, non-oppressive master who will make you aware of your potential freedom, make you aware that you have the ability to catalyse what seems in the current framework to be impossible.
This past summer, I was fundraising for a global charity. We were told during a briefing on South Sudan that their manifesto dictates that they will not meddle in the causes (politics) of a crisis, and will, under no circumstances, attempt to communicate them to givers. In his talk, Žižek expounded the idea that immediate ‘action’ on painful humanitarian issues is often less effective than the development of further pertinent theory and writing, something that rubs uncomfortably against our warm conceptions of charity.
It should be understood that the existence of casual gift giving and six generations of iPhones is only made possible by the spectre of extreme poverty. This is not something that can be solved with a telephone campaign and, as such, is not something that any kind of charity is equipped to handle. Charities are, in their very nature, a necessary catharsis. Charities exist because within the current framework children will never stop starving. Žižek is right in saying that charity is not, and never will be, revolutionary. New theories, however, might be.
Today we are trammelled by the thought that what is, is it. This concept props up the ideology of global capitalism. We find ourselves striking small attitudes. Keeping the memory of revolutions past alive appears to us to be all we are capable of, with the monolith of the present being unalterable. Žižek is relevant because he provides an understanding that all that holds it in place is gravity. He may not be able to tell us the form our revolution will take, but he can remind us that there is a form a revolution can take.
Žižek opens the door for my generation to take on the great challenge of the revolutionary left, putting together a “serious strategy for a conquest of power.” We shouldn’t forget that once we have finished interpreting the world, it is possible for us to change it. The young left today should care about Žižek because he reminds us of this ineradicable potential.
 Benjamin Kunkel, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Slavoj Žižek’s Philosophy’, The New Statesman, 2012.
About the Author:
Rose Barnsley is in her second year of a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. She majors in English and Philosophy, and is currently on an exchange with the University of London at Royal Holloway in Surrey.