Swatting the Impish Gadfly

Indeed, if there were no greater reason to regret the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the release of Žižek on the world of Western scholarship would perhaps already be a sufficient one.

Sir Roger Scruton

Throughout the George W. Bush and Obama eras, Slovenian-American Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek made a name for himself as a gadfly, stinging his fellow leftists who, he argued, were enraptured by political correctness, and abandoning the Marxist and egalitarian roots of the Left. Quoting from conservative figures such as T.S. Eliot and G.K. Chesterton, as well as writing positively of a Marxism-inflected Christian theology, Žižek largely broke the mold of leftist writers whose works primarily derided conservatives and Christians. By providing Hegelian and Lacanian analyses of pop cultural artefacts as diverse as the postmodern animated (anti-) fairy tale Shrek (2001), the German metal band Rammstein, and the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, Žižek garnered tremendous popular appeal. He was able to achieve the rare accomplishment of becoming a public intellectual in the United States. Playfully sparring with figures such as Jordan Peterson (whom Žižek famously debated in April of 2019), Žižek drew the admiration of some on the right for his skewering of left-wing political correctness. 

However, in the Trump and now post-Trump era, many of Žižek’s admirers have noted a marked change in his work. As statues have toppled and a host of figures (including some on the left) have been “canceled,” Žižek has reined in his ironic trolling of left-wing orthodoxy. Many of Žižek’s writings helped facilitate the current left-wing orthodoxy. He writes in support of climate change theories. Much of his recent work is focused on championing the cause of Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia, as well as attacking those who write on alleged anomalies in the 2020 election. He is a firm believer in strong COVID lockdowns, and tars those who refuse to conform as extremists. In many ways, Žižek has morphed from a left-wing gadfly into an almost official spokesperson for the current liberal establishment. 

Nowhere is this new “orthodox” Žižek more manifest than in his recent work, Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide for the Non-Perplexed. Although full of moments of humor and typically Žižekian wit, Surplus Enjoyment is affected by a palpable sense of fatigue and perhaps even fear of state power and “canceling” that marks so much of the Biden Era. As many conservative commentators have noted, since the advent of President Trump, the left has largely lost its sense of humor. Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century, left-wing comedians humorously roasted conservative figures, with perhaps the most famous example being The Simpsons’ lovable but goofy conservative Evangelical Ned Flanders. Since the 2016 presidential election, much of liberal “humor” consists of cruel rants against the New Right, which have occasionally spilled over into violence. Žižek’s tone, however, in Surplus Enjoyment is not really angry, so much as it is passively submissive to the new liberal orthodoxy. 

Žižek still thinks that capitalism is currently collapsing, but he does not seem entirely sure.  

This is not to say that Surplus Enjoyment is without its moments of brilliance. Žižek notes the truism that we are living in a “topsy-turvy world” or what Hegel calls in Phenomenology of Spirit die verkehrte Welt.” Žižek recognizes that there are people on the left in this topsy-turvy time who have resisted some of the COVID-19 measures. In fact, Žižek, with some degree of accuracy, explains that vaccine resistance is part of a “class-struggle” against power. There is a measure of truth to this; many on the right would frame this as a populist struggle against elites. Žižek also importantly reflects on Francis Fukuyama’s dramatic announcement of the end of history at the end of the Cold War. The twenty-first century is a time, not of prosperity, but of catastrophe. At the same time, the American-dominated liberal capitalist system continues to triumph amidst these catastrophes. Thus, Fukayama’s thesis is both upended and affirmed. American liberal democratic capitalism is not unchallenged or unquestioned, but it is so strong that the twenty-first-century challenges to the end of history thesis, whether that challenge comes from Radical Islam or Russia, or from pandemics or seeming climate anomalies, cannot halt the advance of capitalism.

It is not only Fukuyama’s thesis that is challenged but Žižek’s own view of the end of capitalism. In works such as Living in the End Times (2010), Žižek had suggested that events such as the 2008 stock market and housing crisis, as well as the rise of populist and anti-establishment movements such as Occupy Wall Street, signaled the end of capitalism. But if Fukuyama was wrong to insist that history had ended in the 90s, Žižek was equally wrong to suggest that capitalism was ending in the 2000s and 2010s. In Surplus Enjoyment, Žižek still thinks that capitalism is currently collapsing, but he does not seem entirely sure.  

Žižek, ironically like many libertarian and right-wing figures, sees a financial and ecological apocalypse forthcoming. However, Žižek regards this apocalypse as avoidable—by applying radical and even totalitarian measures. Žižek sees global capitalism as the source of the world’s ills. Capitalism, in his view, creates a tremendous sense of despondency and unhappiness in human lives. Human desire is excited by capitalism but, at the same time, depressed because of the inability in a capitalist system for this desire to be satiated. There will be more and worse pandemics, according to Žižek. Moreover, he sees human thinking as potentially being taken over by the internet—a point, in fact, made by many conservative commentators. If the American Century is ending there are, Zizek believes, potentially new political and economic systems emerging, and Žižek wants to make sure that the return of the reactionary repressed does not occur. At times though, he seems to suggest that a new totalitarianism may not be such a bad thing, as long as it is progressive and egalitarian.  

Žižek strangely and disturbingly argues that humans have a perverse desire for totalitarianism, noting that Lacan referred to this pleasure as “surplus enjoyment,” which is a variation on Marx’s notion of “surplus value.” This notion of surplus enjoyment is, Žižek argues, similar to Freud’s notion of Lustgewinn or “gain of pleasure,” which results from the pleasure derived from the attempt to gain pleasure, as well as the pleasure derived from the renunciation of pleasure. Žižek argues that Lacan, borrowing from Freud, suggests that capitalism begins with the pleasure of gaining profit. Added to this pleasure was the pleasure of counting profit, and finally, the process of striving to obtain profit (and consumer goods) is itself a pleasure. Capitalism allegedly exploits this desire; however, Žižek hopes to channel it into a revolutionary ethos. 

In Žižek’s analysis, there is a clear rejection of the teleology of the classical and Christian ethics. For Aristotle, there were various goods to be obtained that led to human happiness—the greatest being contemplation (along with friendship). Christians then argued that the ultimate telos or goal of human life was unity with God. There is thus the sense that some final rest can occur in human searching—even if this rest is not fulfilled completely. Žižek, like Albert Camus’s notion of the Myth of Sisyphus, in contrast, seems to be suggesting that mere striving is good enough. 

Žižek explains that he is trying to wake up the unperplexed who are drowning in the everydayness of ideology by perplexing them.

Žižek further argues against the universalism of Christian and post-Platonic ontology. Drawing from Marx’s Grundrisse, he suggests that objects only appear universal in particular epochs. In our time, it seems like chaos is the natural order for life. However, Žižek regards this merely as the product of our age. Again, Žižek is rejecting traditional metaphysics and ethics in place of a pragmatic and relativistic view. 

Žižek argues that the philosophy of G.W. Hegel supplies the properly analytic lens to enable us to break free from the limits of Marxist and Freudian analysis. Žižek explains that he is trying to wake up the unperplexed who are drowning in the everydayness of ideology by perplexing them. He proposes a “multiverse” or plurality of ontologies, not just one, in order to avoid totalization. Žižek sees humans living their lives in “furious indifference” or an energetic nihilism. He wants to rid the world of oppression and domination and proposes radical freedom, but at the same time supports radical and totalitarian COVID and ecological measures. He is trying to paper over nihilism and create meaning in the world, affirming a “politics of truth.” He hopes that a “utopian” project might be realized out of the chaos of the twenty-first century. Recognizing and experiencing the hopelessness of the situation and becoming subjectively destitute will enable this project to unfold. 

In September of 2016, the late Sir Roger Scruton penned a piece in The City Journal titled “The Clown Prince of the Revolution: On Slavoj Žižek, a new kind of leftist thinker.” Throughout his essay, Scruton takes Žižek to task over his communism, buffoonery, and lack of clarity, ultimately dismissing the Slovenian as a clownish nihilist. At the same time, Scruton took note of Žižek’s genius and mastery of select philosophical thinkers such as Hegel. Žižek’s genius is very attuned to the catastrophe into which the entire world is set, as well as the impending sense of disaster felt by the world’s population—regardless of their political orientation or ethnicity. However, Žižek, himself ever the critic of ideology, has himself been swallowed by the ideology of Hegelianism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. His renunciation of metaphysics and the notion of a right order to the universe is a critical blind spot that undermines his efforts. Despite occasional moments of wit in Surplus Enjoyment, it is largely a humorless (and often offensive) work. What is needed at our historical epoch after “the end of history” is true hope, not destitution, and this hope can only be provided by the trust in a transcendent moral and metaphysical order that is grounded in a God whose providential care is guiding the universe.