10 November 2009

Fall of Communism, Triumph of...What?

The New York Times invited Slavoj Zizek to contribute an op-ed to yesterday's issue commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. A few posts ago I took a swipe at Zizek for advocating a sort of neo-Leninism, but I actually find him one of the most consistently challenging and entertaining authors publishing today -- entertaining by polemical standards, at least. He was smart enough not to use his space in the Paper of Record to call for new forms of Leninism or suggest the usefulness of revolutionary terror. Instead, he ironically noted a fresh wave of anti-Communism in several former Eastern Bloc countries, only to note that the anger in those countries is also a form of anti-capitalism. Here's the meat of his argument:

The new anti-Communism provides a simple answer to the question: “If capitalism is really so much better than Socialism, why are our lives still miserable?” It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we do not yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the same dark forces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of former Communists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s really changed, so we need another purge, the revolution has to be repeated ...

What these belated anti-Communists fail to realize is that the image they provide of their society comes uncannily close to the most abused traditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in which formal democracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy minority. In other words, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get that what they are denouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism simply is capitalism.

Zizek goes on to suggest that ex-Communists were "effectively better suited" to "ruthlessly accommodate themselves to the new capitalist rules and the new cruel world of market efficiency" than the idealistic dissidents who dreamed of plain and simple freedom. This leads him to restate a point that's come up in a lot of his recent writing: the adoption of capitalism by corrupt former Communists or by enduring Communist-in-name-only dictatorships (i.e. China) is undermining people's naive identification of capitalism with democracy. In the U.S. it's still widely assumed that the two go together like peanut butter and jelly; where there is free enterprise, there'll be a free society. It has long been hoped that China's adoption of capitalism, even under state or party control, would nurture a "civil society" that would eventually rival and finally supplant the Communist Party. Zizek is one of many writers to point out that that isn't happening.

"What if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism?" Zizek asks, "What if democracy is no longer the necessary and natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?" The next question is: what if we prefer democracy, even if it impedes an efficiency that benefits the powerful? On this occasion, Zizek's answer isn't Leninsim, but something we might all agree on:

Deceived by 20th-century Communism and disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism ... on the search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.

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