Slavoj Zizek is a contemporary Slovenian social thinker who is well versed in Hegelian Idealism, Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and film theory and, I am told, is very well thought of among young people. It is easy enough to see why he is appealing: his broad range of references, his graceful writing style, his willingness to bring in what would not seem apposite subject matters, but even there you have the beginning of a sense of why he is unreliable. He mentions “Gangnam style” which was a South Korean video and dance that made it into popular culture for a little while, but doesn’t have enough weight, less important than hoola hoops, for saying something about society. He reflects on the relation of North to South Korea, possibly because he had lectured in Seoul, when it would be more important to evaluate the meaning of capitalism in the United States, still its center, and so I am pressed to ask this question of his “Trouble in Paradise”, the title itself a reference to an Ernst Lubitsch film: what does he mean, really, by capitalism, other than it is the opposite of what is not yet, which is true socialism? That Hegelian opposition will not do, and so let us tease out his definition by bypassing his fascination with the Hegelian trick of turning everything into a negation or a negation of a negation, which is a philosophical parlor trick that doesn’t mean anything at all. Zizek says, with glee, that capitalism is a system which has two negatives: those in the surplus labor pool, who can’t get jobs, and those in the pool of educated persons who do not think they need jobs, and so capitalism includes both those it needs to keep the price of labor down, and those who it creates who seem surplus to the economy as a whole. All Zizek is saying in this formulation is that everything that happens in capitalism is a product of capitalism and so part of what is a combined mind set and social structure which does not have mechanisms which are either more or less essential. That holistic approach does not do justice to the complexity of what we know to be capitalism, where levels of taxation and central planning differ in, let us say, the United States and Sweden.
When you get into what Zizek has to say, he is a retread of the Marxist view that capitalism will self-destroy because of its internal contradictions. Again, what Zizak does is take something temporary, as he did with Gangnam style, and make it a crucial thing that will bring capitalism, either as a culture or as a structure, to an end. He focuses on the Great Recession as the dramatic crisis point even though the crisis had already passed by the time he published his book in 2014. Capitalism has an amazing ability to heal itself, whether during the New Deal or in 2008, when a giant stimulus package plus a bailout of the banks restored the banking system and the economy of the United States, however unfair it was to bail out the banks and not all of those people whose homes had been foreclosed. Even Europe has moved on from its preoccupation with the division between the debtor nations in Southern Europe and the lending nations in Northern Europe, a problem Zizek thinks could be dealt with by nationalizing the banks. Rather, Europe has moved on in short order to being preoccupied with immigration, Angela Merkel, to my mind, the villain of the European banking crisis, but the heroine of inclusiveness when it comes to immigration. So Zizek has this problem of folding all of the problems of capitalism to being the problem of capitalism itself, and that is the core of my disagreement with him.
I know what Marx meant by capitalism. It was a set of factories owned by families and these were the major production units in the society, accounting for both production of goods and wealth and for employment. The profits from the factories went into the hands of the owners who paid their workers as little as possible and used their influence over government to see to it that the workers remained unempowered. Sometimes, the factories were set up in the generation of their original owners and sometimes ownership was passed down within the family or, later on, to someone from a set of people with similar social backgrounds. What has changed? Not much except that the capitalist system is the only system there is in the advanced industrial world. Hang on while I explain that.
Everywhere, whether the nation is called socialist or communist or not, its corporations, which are the legally structured replacements for family capitalism, are also the mainstays of the economy, accounting for wealth and employment and most products, and these somewhat autonomous organizations are also. As in early capitalist times, sometimes founded and grow gigantic during the lifetime of their founders, as is the case with numerous chinese corporations. These corporations are more or less regulated by their governments in much the same way: through a banking system that applies Keynesian like policies to keep credit available and to avoid inflation, though some of these governments can be more aggressive than others in pushing for political policy goals, so that China encouraged the building of a lot of extra residential facilities to eat up loose capital, and the United States encourages its extractive fuel sector through tax breaks and its agricultural sector through price supports and other measures. France also subsidizes its agriculture. All remain corporate capitalist states in that their corporations play out a complicated dance with one another and their governments. Meng Wanzhou, for example, who is a major executive at the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, and was recently detained in Canada for extradition to the United States, is the daughter of the company founder. Family capitalism is not a thing of the past.
Russia is also like that, its corporate structures controlled by the so-called oligarchs who are all personally beholden to Putin who is, likewise, beholden to them because they hold his money and so it is necessary for him to insist that Trump drop restrictions on those oligarchs so that they can invest their money (and Putin’s money) in the United States real estate market. Even the South of the Sahara African nations are part of this capitalist model. There, the local corporations are controlled or control a government more interested in its own profiteering than in the stability of the nation’s economy, which is also the case in the extractive economies of the Arabian Peninsula, where state operated oil companies supply the wherewithal that allows most citizens to hold one hour a day jobs and manual labor is done by foreign workers. Those pre-capitalist societies are kleptocracies, as is also the case in Central America, though not in most of Latin America, where nations have mostly climbed into being more productively capitalist. Being a one crop economy is doom for any economy, whether it calls itself capitalist or not. North Korea, Zizek’s favorite counterpoint to capitalism, may be very singular in remaining a purely politically centered regime that depends for its foreign exchange on payments from China which it receives because China does not want North Korea to implode. Different situations require different solutions.
So I don’t know what Zizek means when he suggests socialism can rise out of the ashes of capitalism, that socialism is the negation of capitalism. Unlike banks, capitalism is truly too big to fail. Marx and Bernstein may have thought that parliamentary democracy would carry the capitalist world into the socialist world without the need of violence. Even Lenin thought that a brief period of revolutionary violence would usher in a new coordinated age of industrial production. But what we now know is that on the other side of capitalism is only complete catastrophe: worthless money, people going hungry and living around campfires in abandoned apartment buildings, roving gangs amidst the garbage. That is what Venezuela is like and what the United States was like, with different particulars, when FDR took over in 1933, and it is why even laissez faire Republicans supported the bailout of the banks at the time of the Great Recession because they were terrified of what would happen if the economic system collapsed. So there we have it: capitalism moving along from one problem to another, which is to say, the modern economic world moving on from one problem to the next, solving each one, on its account alone, rather than providing for some salvic transformation of capitalism into a new kind of society with a new economic system, one which no one can even describe. What Zizek does instead is invoke the possibility of a charismatic Master who will lead the way, which is very chilling, his entire enterprise less frightening than that because It is all blather.
Probably the best explanation for Zizek’s confusion on social theory is that Zizek is a humanist rather than a social scientist. That means that he elaborates on insights he has within the context of one or another of the thinkers who have influenced rather than, as a social scientist would, build his contribution into the structure of a body of theory that is already established. In this sense, Zizek is unlike the Marxists, from Marx through Bernstein and Kautsky and Luxembourg and Lenin and Trotsky and Gramsci, who each saw themselves as adding a piece to the puzzle rather than going on to build puzzles of their own, the Marxist tradition very much like the American sociological tradition in that respect, it building on the Englishman Herbert Spencer with additions made by William Graham Sumner, Robert Merton, Talcott Parsons, and then by Peter Blau and S. M. Lipset, all of whose contributions made American sociology accumulative rather than literary. Such a project is harder to do than rhapsodizing about favorite authors and Zizek shows just how hard it is to do social science and so I warn young people to be wary of flashy thinkers.