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Episode #199 ... A conservative communist's take on global capitalism and desire. (Zizek, Marx, Lacan)


Today we talk about the distinction between left and right. Lacan's thoughts on desire. How Capitalism captures desire and identity. I would prefer not to. Moderately conservative communism. Hope you enjoy it! :)


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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello everyone, I'm Steven West. This is Philosophize This. Apologize for the short delay on the episode. As some of you know, I was expecting a son to be born in May, but he decided to come six weeks early a few days ago. So we've been in and out of the NICU all week. Thank you for your patience. The good news is, the next three Mondays in a row, we're dropping episodes, so you can look forward to that, I guess. I'm just going to get started on this one. Quick heads up, though. This is a bit of a longer episode. I tried to cut it down, but I really wanted to take some additional care with some of these ideas today. I always try to be respectful of your time and the ideas. Look, I promise if you stick with it, it'll all come together by the end of the episode. Talked about how there's this common way people will talk about politics. They'll say, you know, that person over there is on the left. This person over here is on the right. We talk about how to a lot of philosophers these days, how that's ultimately too simple a way to think about it if you ever want to understand the complexity of the ways people look at things. People's views don't often fall into a neat binary like this.
It's become more and more common for people to be conservative on some issues, progressive on others, and more than that, these days it's become more common to be talking about global issues that have so many moving parts to them that it can be pretty tough to just label somebody strictly left or right if they're not a... Complete cartoon of a person. Don't get me wrong, on one hand there's always Uncle Murray, red-faced, strumming his guitar, going off on the left to sit Thanksgiving dinner. Classic Uncle Murray behavior. And of course there's always people out there that are putting the finishing touches on their most recent passive activism protest sign, putting extra glitter on it this time so that it really changes something. In on one side or the other of this. But outside of their visibility on whatever algorithm gives you your information about the world, is it even useful to reduce... Everyone's worldviews down into a neat little binary like left and right. A lot of smart people
these days say no. But if we resist that temptation to just reduce the complexity of the situation down, like we also talked about last episode, the terms left and right can still be useful in some cases as flakiness. The flexible indicators of evolving political ideals that lie underneath. What do you mean by that, Stephen West? Well, look, sometimes people hear the terms left and right. And the way they understand them is by knowing what specific positions are to the left or to the right at this precise moment in history. With the example of the United States we gave last time, people will think, you know, people on the left, those are people that are pro-abortion, people on the right, anti-abortion. People on the left, they're for protections to the environment. People on the right, not so much. This is how a lot of people make sense of left and right. They ask what positions are considered to be left and right right now. And then once I know that I don't got to think about it anymore, but there's.
Way those terms are used in conversation, oftentimes among philosophers, political analysts, sociologists, they'll use the terms left and right in more of a general way to describe a more timeless disagreement between different kinds of people when it comes to the question of how to maintain a society. It goes back to the French Revolution, the terms left and right, I mean, not the disagreement that goes back forever. But at the time of the French Revolution, these categories were talking about people that sat to the left of the king or to the right of the king. The right of the king were supporters of the monarchy and the church that they had at the time. To the left were people that thought it was better to reform society under a different banner, something more democratic. But regardless of what the specific positions were that were being defended at that time, the more timeless way to view all this... Is that the left and right are two different ways of maintaining a good society, both of which are necessary at different times. People on the left will often say, Look, society hasn't always been as good as it is right now. And that's because over the years, human beings have been more
have gotten better at organizing themselves. We've come up with better ideas, and we'd be stupid if we didn't apply those better ideas to society. That's people on the left. People on the right, though, would at least start by saying something pretty simple. To that. They'd say, look, society hasn't always been as good as it is right now. now. A lot worse than this at other points in history. It's not like we don't have a lot to lose here. And there's no guarantee that you just-- The next. Left are generally trying to change the existing order of things and move on to something different, something they see as better. Which means, fundamentally, there's no fixed specific… On an issue that determined what left or right is. And knowing this, it's interesting. Some right wing conservative positions today were at one.
Point in history, left wing, radical progressive positions. This is just the way political ideals evolve over time. Now I know a lot of this is pretty basic for a lot of you out there listening, but it's very important that everyone who's listening to this episode today doesn't just try to understand Slabaw Dzijek through these common filters of left and right that you may hear on CNN or Fox News. Because if you do, I'll tell you what's going to happen. Depending on how charitable of a mood you're feeling in today, some of his views might start to sound… like he's a right-wing conservative, railing against all the leftists out there? Then at other times, he may sound to you like he's a first-year college student that just read Karl Marx for the first time. In reality, he's neither of these things. Every position of his is just a piece of a larger world picture that doesn't fit into a clear-cut CNN/Fox definition of left and right. In fact, in the sense that the left is almost always in the business of subverting the existing order of things and trying to bring about a different world, when it comes to Zizek,
That there are different tiers to being left-leaning, different degrees of being left. And the reality is, when it comes to a political spectrum of left and right, like the one that exists in the United States currently, Zizek is so far to the left that he's off the charts. He's going to seem antagonistic towards what the United States calls the left, because he has a lot to criticize about what he sees as a bunch of pseudo-left-leaning people that are captured by processes that they need to be more self-aware of. Itself has. At the end of the episode, we're going to understand why that term actually makes a lot of sense to be able to describe them if you have an understanding of communism that isn't rooted in Western liberal capitalist propaganda.
Now to get there, we're going to need to understand more about the way Zizek sees the world, and to get there, we're going to need to know more about the way he sees the subjectivity of modern people. We talked about how important that is to him. Being someone who's doing his work in the year 2024, psychoanalysis and psychology are gonna be a big part of the way that he sees people's subjectivity. See, that's the thing about Zizek. Because he's so aware of ideology Up seeing about the world. He has no problem being very upfront about his own ideological or theoretical bias. He's basically advertising on a billboard at the start of the day. Any conversation you have with him. Hagel, Marx, Lacan, and big red letters.
Starting from a place where he's saying these are three people whose work is incredibly useful to be able to interpret the state of the world right now if you're at all confused about it, and the psychoanalytical side of that is going to be the work of Jacques Lacan. See, to Lacan and to Zizek, a huge piece of what makes you or anyone out there who they are is going to be what and how you desire. You can tell a lot about someone if you know what they desire, and as we'll see, you can control a lot about someone if you can control how they desire. It's important we know what they're talking about here, though. episode we started talking about dialectics as a way of interpreting the world, a la Marx. And when we did that, the example we used was to think of something like a school. How there's one way to answer the question what is a school? That's very simple. A school is where you go to get an education.
It's where you learn right from wrong, no monkey business about it. But as we also talked about, there's another, more dialectical way of looking at what a school is, where we acknowledge that obviously the school is something that's always in a state of change, how it's always subject to internal and external tensions and negotiations that are going on all the time, and how when it comes to the... Identity of that school in any given moment, how it's not just about understanding the internal dialectical tensions that are going on. It's not just about understanding. Position within the larger system of society, it's about understanding that the specific form that this school takes in this type of society quantitatively is connected to whatever the content of that school is quantitatively. Well, apply this same kind of analysis to what it's like to be a person with an identity that's alive today. What is it like to be you? There's another simple kind of answer to that question. Something along the lines of, I am who I am. I was born this way. Life is about living, learning, and getting more. And more to the bottom of what it really is to be me. In other words, there's this assumption that
static thing that it is to be me down at the bottom of all this. That if I just keep getting to know myself, I'll eventually underst- Who I really am, and one day maybe I can live as authentically as possible as a person. But Zizek would say, no, that's not the full story of what it's like to be you. And worse than that, when you talk about it in those simple terms, you know, it's just me, just like the false binary of left and right, just like thinking about a school, like all it is is an institution of learning, this simple way of viewing yourself often just serves to reinforce the dominant ideologies and power structures of the world you were born into. Those social structures, by the way, that we all need to recognize are very... Very important part of what it is to be you at all. I mean, you can forget how much your identity is always something you fall into given what your options were when you were born. Your options to Lacon and Zizek being that symbolic order that we talked about on episode one of this series.
Complex network of symbols and language that allows us to make sense of reality. Now, where does desire start to factor into all this? Well, remember when we talked about dialectics, and the example was that our understanding of something like the law is always related to our understanding of transgression, and how our understanding of transgression is related to how we think about the law, in other words, how the negations, or the dialectics, That moves our understandings of these things forward, without engaging with the oppositions that make law what it is, say, because of political gridlock. it is, say, because of political gridlock. Our understanding of the law will not move forward. Well, so too when it comes to your identity and what you desire. To Zizek, the person you are is always determined by the person that you are not. Your sense of who you are is shaped by what you perceive to be lacking in you. Meaning that if you're one way, and you don't, you're not.
Desire to be a different way, which we always do. The tension between the way you are right now and the way you want to be in the future is like an engine that drives your identity forward. When you're hungry and you don't want to be hungry anymore, it drives you to go get food. When you want to be somebody that knows more about the world around you, you listen to a podcast episode about it. If you wanted to be a calmer person than you are right now, maybe you'd start Some skills there. Again, the way you are right now and the way you want to be in the future is like a perpetual engine that drives your identity forward. Or to put it in flowery language, as Zizek does, desire is the force inside someone that compels them to move beyond. Now a quick disclaimer. Here. I don't want to present this all in a way that oversimplifies it, but I also kind of have to if I ever want to put it into a snippet of a podcast like this, in a world where people have dedicated their entire lives to understanding the work of Lacan on desire. I just can't cover all the details of it here. That said, one thing that doesn't feel wrong to say is that
This idea that we talked about before, that your subjectivity or your identity is this thing that you have direct access to, that life is just me trying to discover who I truly am, that is an even bigger oversimplification. Because when you pay close attention to it, to Zizek, subjectivity is something that's actually pretty mysterious, if we're being honest, something that there's still tons more work to be done if we're going to understand it. And that just like when it comes to trying to look at what a school is and all its complexity in a dialectical way, when you're trying to understand the true complexity of what it is to be you, it too is going to be something that's enormously complex, almost impossible to get a full grasp of. It's going to be something that's full of contradictions and paradoxes, and there's going to be temptations to try to simplify this process down all throughout the way. And those simplifications will always come with...
Real negative consequences. There's a sense in which, just like with the dialectic, true self-knowledge is not about finding some ultimate, static description of who you are in a given moment, but it's about a commitment to this process of examining your own...
Subjectivity within those contradictions, tensions, and negotiations. Accepting that is part of what subjectivity truly is. So to return back to the one-sentence version of this, if we can say anything general about human psychology, what you desire is to zizek a fundamental component of what drives people forward. Because what we want, in other words what we are not yet, in a geishin, creates a tension that moves us in a particular direction with our behaviors that then continually reshapes our identity as we go on throughout our life. But, and here's another very important part of human psychology for Lekana Dzizek, you never actually get what you ultimately desire. Meaning, as a person, you're always wanting things, but there is always a gap between the specific thing that you say you want and an unconscious desire that lies beyond that thing that is elusive and unattainable. This may sound weird, but it's actually not that extreme of an idea. It's something we see around us in other places.
All the time, we just may not see it in ourselves. Let's give a couple examples of the kind of thing they're talking about, though. Someone, a hypothetical person could say that what they want is to be in a stable, loving, romantic relationship. And they could tell you everything they want in a partner. They could tell you the kind of life they want to have with them. They can go out on all kinds of picnic lunches. And dating reality shows and put in some serious effort to try to make what they say they want to happen, happen. But for the sake of this example, imagine this is also someone who's gone through some serious trauma in their past, and that while they think they just want to be in a stable, loving relationship, At an unconscious level, they actually have a drive to be in a relationship so bad so resolve some of those past traumas. This is an example of the kind of psychological predicament that we're always in as people, and yours will vary depending on who you are. For Zizek, there is a gap between what this person swears they want and can consciously
And the unattainable thing that lies underneath. Let's give another example of this in the form of a commodity, because it's going to be useful for understanding how Zizek sees the rest of the world. Someone could say that what they want... Is I want a Lamborghini. And they could tell you all the reasons. They could say, I love the way it looks, or how fast it goes, the social status I'm going to get from driving it around. Oh boy, people are going to think I'm such a great guy when I drive this around. People could say that's what they want. But it could also be the case that at an unconscious level, this could be something that they really want because they're on some quest to be perfect or to overcome feelings of inactivity. Adequacy that they have, or to even just be desired by others. In other words, the real object of desire for Zizek or Lacan is not the Lamborghini, a void or a lack in their life that's never actually gonna be solved by having that Lamborghini. Now, somebody can hear this and think, wow, wow. If this is what it is fundamentally to be a person, to desire like this and to never get it, then what a pessimistic...
Stick out, look on life in general. It starts to almost sound like Schopenhauer, our pessimistic friend from many episodes ago, where life to him is about restlessly striving for the things we think are going to make us happy. But then he says, we're perpetually disappointed thing like the Lamborghini, because we get it, we drive around in it for a while, and a few months later when you're driving around in it, it's now just become your car. Nothing special about it at all. To Schopenhauer, your life is to restlessly strive for one thing after another, and then in the event that you get the thing you want, at most what you're getting for him is not happiness but just a temporary relief of suffering. Now, for Zizek, it's important to understand the differences in his outlook. If this type of unfulfillable desire is just a part of the human condition, then it's interesting. He's not really concerned with talking about whether fundamentally that's a good thing or a torturous thing. In fact, if you're someone that wanted to talk about how this constant desire is like
Pushing a rock up a hill. It seems like torture. He'd probably ask, can you imagine how bad it would be to never desire anything at all? He calls that actually the peak of melancholy. It's almost like being dead to never desire anything. So to him it's like, no, don't get sad. About it yet. For him, he's not looking at all this about human psychology because he wants to make big declarations about how great it is to be alive or not. What he's interested in is a more analytical claim about the world. Remember, he's interested in what's going on in the world, and how it got this way. What he's asking is, if this desire is a good description of a fundamental piece of human subjectivity, if we can use Lacan's work to interpret the world in this way, then how does human subjectivity go about it? Link up with the existing social structures that people are born into. Again, saying nothing about whether they're good or bad yet, what is this relationship between subjectivity and society? This is where Zizek's operating at.
And this is probably where you'd want to point out how absolutely genius capitalism is, in particular, as something that takes advantage of these aspects of human psychology. And just so we don't kind of interrupt the show at any point beyond this, I want to thank everyone who supports the sponsors of the show today. First up is NordVPN. In a world where there's hackers and... Crackers trying to steal your personal information, having a VPN is becoming more of a must-have item. A VPN stands for virtual private network. And if you're not aware, by the way, I was joking about hackers and crackers. It just sounds like something Sarah Palin would have said back in the day. I'm a goofball, I guess. But yeah, without a VPN, point is. Without a VPN, you're sending all sorts of information out that you may not even realize you're sending out. You go to a website and it has an ad that's tailor made for you, it's surprisingly easy to know exactly what you're doing online. And then to use that information against you to do a number of different things. Have you ever gone to watch a video online that says it's not available in your country? That's because it's not a secret to anyone where you're accessing the website.
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ruminate on the most negative framing of your life you could possibly come up with and then pay a hundred dollars and come back next week to do it again. That all you're really doing there is just reinforcing these patterns you have in your head of how horrible... Your situation is and indulging in talking about yourself way too much, that what you really should be doing is moving past this stuff, not talking about it and focusing on it all the time. Well, I can... I agree that if somebody's using therapy in that way, wow, what a place to be in in life. Disagree with those that that encapsulates all of what therapy is for people. You know, part of the strength of talking to a therapist is how open ended it can be. It can be about preventative maintenance. If you know a big moment's coming up in your life, you just want to talk to someone. It can be about just setting aside time every week to work on self awareness and growth in the ways that you want to grow. It's easy to neglect that when life's going on, it becomes the thing that you just put off every week.
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critical of global capitalism and the effects it has on the world, and that's certainly true. But as someone who spent a lot of his 75 years on this planet trying to unpack the ideology that dictates people's thinking, to him you have to just stop and behold the system that capitalism has evolved into. Think about it. What was the strength we talked about last time in this modern system of organization in the western world of liberal democratic capitalism? Well, let's break down what it does piece by piece. We have class. Classical liberalism, which says everybody be an individual. And as long as you follow the laws, be whatever kind of... Of individual you want to be. Then we have democracy, which says that all these individuals can now vote to bring about whatever kind of society they want to live in. And then we have capitalism, which is supposedly the economic version of liberal democracy, where it has free markets and it's going to adjust and evolve to meet the needs of consumers, whatever they are. But hypothetically, if you could control what people desired, then to Zizek, you could control
You could control what kind of individuals people would want to be, and classical liberalism wouldn't be as necessary anymore. And if you could control what sorts of individuals people wanted to be, then you could control the way they voted, and then the types of societies they'd vote for in a democratic system. Well, to just come out and say it, global capitalism, to Zizek, is not just an economic system anymore. Is that we're talking about these days when we say capitalism. It's nothing like what Adam Smith wrote about in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It's not the same thing as what Marx was critiquing in the 1800s. No, in that dialectical way we talked about, the progression of things, to Jesus. Check over the years to people who have been paying attention capitalism has transformed into something completely different something that more acts as a
or ethical dimension to people's lives rather than just simply as an economic system. It's not a new concept. A lot of thinkers we've talked about have said this. But to Žižek, the point is, when you compare all the different ideological structures that exist out there for people to potentially link their identity to, certain ideological structures are just far better at capturing people's psychology than others. And global capitalism, to Žižek, is the most advanced form of this that we've ever seen on this planet. Again, it is nothing short of absolutely genius. Perfectly, capitalism lines up with those pieces of human psychology we were just talking about, that desire people have that moves them forward. In everyday life, in a capitalist society, you have a constant stream of problems. That are being blasted into your eyeballs at practically every second of the day. And because of that, there's almost never a shortage of... These products for you to be desiring and striving towards. And with the way the commodity fetishism works,
are imbued with these magical qualities that they don't really have. You know, the thing that makes the pair of shoes extra magical for you, these are super limited run. These shoes are made out of the leather from the backs of trust fund cows, whatever it is, the purse that's really special, or the phone. Because we treat these... Commodities like they possess qualities that are beyond anything they can actually provide for us. They become the things that perfectly plug into Lacon and Zizek's picture of desire. We want things. We have the product we just saw in the commercial that we can consciously say... Ooh, I want that thing! And then there's the elusive magical thing beyond the product that it symbolizes that it will never actually give to us, but we just constantly move forward on this hamster wheel of finding another product to desire, and then another product to desire. Point is, this is an absolutely genius way of attaching human psychology and people's identities to the material productive forces that are going on in a given society.
And because this podcast has a lot of episodes to go back and listen to, I'm going to assume you're familiar with some of this. I'm going to make an executive decision here that I don't think I got to spend 20 minutes explaining how someone could see this whole setup as something that's on the level of a religion. And we talked about it in episode 171 when we talked about Guy Debord and the society of the spectacle. On Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School. If you're a newer listener and you want a more in-depth explanation, go and check out those episodes. For this one, though, if we accept Zizek's point here that there is an ethical, religious dimension to what global capitalism has become for people… how it leverages these aspects of human desire and identity, then you start to understand the irrational religious behavior of consumers, putting themselves in debt to buy something that has some luxury status to it. For three days on Black Friday to get 80% off a blender. You know, working 12 hours a day, maximizing product.
Never seeing their family, saying no to all their friends because that's what it takes to be a successful business owner these days as they Snort a line of Froot Loops to stay awake all night. All this stuff makes sense because this is a religion. Right? G-Tech's not the only One saying this again to be on chill hon the smartphone is the modern day rosary beats facebook is church you can understand it And you can understand why Zizek spends so much time deconstructing the ideology that gets delivered to people in movies and other media. This is a call from him. To become more aware of this messaging that a lot of people are just mindlessly internalizing. Media to Žižek, the messaging of global capitalism, doesn't tell us what to desire, necessarily. It teaches us how to desire. It goes on at a deeper level from the time we're very little. This is how it still feels like freedom to the people that are living in it. It allows you the freedom of choosing between a number of different options, but it severely limits the framework that you can make those choices.
Within. And if you haven't seen Zizek break this down, I highly recommend watching The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. It's a two and a half hour movie Zizek made. It's on YouTube for free somewhere. It's classic Zizek. Where he superimposes himself into different scenes from movies, describing the ideology of global capitalism underneath, The movies as metaphors to describe how it shapes our thinking. Tons of interesting points he makes in it. He talks about apocalyptic movies that are really common in our world as being an enforcement of nostalgia of the present. What he means is that there's some movie out there, like The Hunger Games, where society is in a far worse place than ours is right now.
We're all supposed to watch it and be like, Hey, look at this movie where things are absolutely horrible. Jennifer Lawrence literally had to eat a squirrel to stay alive. See, things aren't so bad in a global capitalist society. You know, just lowering your standards, telling you to be grateful nostalgia of the present. But anyway, an important point to all of this is that the Zizek, one of the most crucial ethical choices that a person could ever make in their lives is as he says, to never betray your desires. But the subtext of him saying that is that obviously when you're embedded into a system that has taught you how to desire and then creates very specific incentive structures for you to follow, to be successful in it. If you ever wanted to get to a place where you're not betraying your design.
You would first need to take control of your desires. And to Zizek, the best way to do that within a global capitalist system is to just get really, really good at saying I would prefer not to. He actually wore a t-shirt around for a while with that phrase on it, further increasing the whole paradox of it all, on purpose. This is Zizek, of course. See, to him, you say I would prefer not to because it clearly means that you're not going to be able to do that. Here's the table for a new kind of subjectivity or desire to emerge when you deny the subjectivity that's given to you by ideological structures, notably global capitalism. In other words, if global capitalism teaches us how to desire, then once we've internalized The things that we desire and do in our lives, anything that we think of as a good thing to do after that, only ends up further perpetuating global capitalism in some way. We've talked about this on previous episodes, how even down to the ways that we protest against things, how these are all sort of things that we think of as a good thing to do after that, only ends up further perpetuating global capitalism in some way.
So, ultimately, just forms of protests that are approved within law-abiding, stable capitalist society. And that at some level, of course the ways we protest would be tolerated by the system. They're not very effective at radical systemic change. And again, this isn't a conspiracy theory, where there's a handful of people with all the power and their plan and all this stuff. But it turns out you don't need a conspiracy theory. Theory of a few evil capitalists out there. When you have billions of benign capitalists all conspiring to keep their Individual lives going as well as possible within that system. With absolutely zero malice involved, we're all trying to keep this thing going. And this is to the point that many left-leaning people out there, the people who are really trying to subvert the status quo like this. A lot of them choose to not talk about revolutionary options in too public a way, because of how easily their work can get turned into a t-shirt or a bumper sticker, and the
Ideas they're talking about lose steam. How do you escape a system that's set up like that? Well, first to Žižek, by not participating in it. And not just by simply denying it. Because when you deny a system of authority, You're at some level legitimizing it as a form of power. And we'll talk more about that, but the key phrase to remember right now when it comes to the incentives of global capitalism is not I don't want to, but instead one that's more empowering, one that allows for a totally new kind of desire or subjectivity. I would prefer not to. It's a reference to a story by Herman Melville, where one of the characters named Bartleby, whenever he's at his job and he's asked to do something by anyone around him, he just replies back with I would prefer not to. The point is that this phrase becomes a bit like a what would Jesus do wristband for an anti-capitalist movement if there was one.
Meaning, if global capitalism is one giant behemoth of a thing, what would it require for something to be the negation of that? If the negation of law is transgression, or chaos, or tradition, or anarchy, or whatever it is, what would the negation be of global capitalism? What would that even look like? Is it even possible or productive to think on this kind of scale? For Slavoj Zizek, I would prefer not to. Becomes a great starting point for finding a way out of any kind of ideological structure. No, let's go. Consider the other side of this for a second. If you're somebody that Zizek would see as someone who's embedded in global capitalist ideology, then you may agree on some of the stuff he's saying here, but have a totally different read on it. For example, someone could hear all this and say, yeah, I... Agree, capitalism is an amazingly efficient system, and it is nothing short of incredible at taking advantage of human psychology. But the way I see that, all you're really saying there is that capitalism...
Perfectly alongside what I call human nature. It considers the way that people naturally desire things, and then it creates opportunities for people to get the things they want out of life. What's so wrong with that? To me, that's actually a testament to how great the system is, not a problem. But can we accept that as a premise, that this is what capitalism is doing? It's worth asking, is that all that capitalism is doing? Is it worth considering the specifics of how capitalism locks people into these perpetual desire loops? What keeps capitalism going? Well, as it's been said by many thinkers before, the problem is that global... Global capitalism is a system that's fundamentally built on antagonism between people. Again, if you see any problem with the current way things are set up and the problems around the world that it's producing, it's worth considering.
That one of the main identifying qualities of capitalism as a system, a big part of what makes it even work, is this antagonism that exists between the ruling class and the exploited class. Quick, super basic recap here for anybody that needs context, always trying to include new listeners. It's been said before that capitalist society, as we've set it up so far throughout human history, requires there to be two distinct... In classes for it to work. There needs to be one type of person that owns the means of production, and then there need to be workers, who, so that they can make their living, rent their labor out to these people that own the means of production. Now those workers are paid less than the value that they produce, and the difference between what they're paid and the value they produce is called surplus value, or the profit that the people that own the means of production take as compensation for the risk they have to assume for owning the means of production. Now capitalism, one way to think of it, is that it's essentially a giant machine
for producing this surplus value. And this relationship, where there's one group that profits off the value that another exploited group of people are producing, same thing we see in feudalism, same thing we see in slave economies, this relationship leads to an antagonism between different classes of people that produces a ton of... Different social problems that you can see in the world all around you. Now, if you're a fan of capitalism and all the good that it does for people, there's a hope here that's pretty common, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. People say, Hey, pretty unfortunate that we have this antagonism between different classes of people, but does it really need to be this way? Do we need to have capitalism set up in a way where there's such a huge difference between
possible for people. Maybe we can fix this antagonism, and maybe we can do it from within the capitalist system itself. In other words, if liberalism and socialism have been at odds in recent history, then let's try to find a happy medium between the two. And this is the emergence of the modern political strategy of democratic socialism, where we're going to keep the capitalist system more or less exactly how it is, and it's going to continue to produce this inequality and social unrest that's going to make it more or less a reality. Certain number of people out there miserable. But through socialism, we're gonna remove some of the negative effects of that. We'll do slight reforms, one little step at a time, no need for a revolution. And if we do this, then maybe we can make a system that's a bit more humane, a little less racist, a little less sexist. We're gonna give people homes if they're homeless. We're gonna pay for people to go to college and get an education, pay for people's health care. A modern democratic socialist might say that capitalism does produce some
Yeah, but look if people at least can have these basic services then nobody's gonna be riding in the streets in other words marks This prediction that the workers will eventually overthrow the ruling class will never actually happen There will be no exploited class of people to rise up and overthrow the existing Order of things because nobody's going to feel exploited anymore. Common democratic socialist slogan is we gotta find a way to make capitalism work for the people rather than the people working for capitalism. But to Slavoj Zizek, democratic socialist slogans like that are meaningless platitudes when you consider the actual situation we're in. It all sounds great to him, but this idea that we're going to somehow
get rid of the exploited class of people through piecemeal reforms is ultimately a delusion, he thinks, that really only exists within global capitalist thinking. Because to him, this antagonism that exists between classes, again, this is part of what makes capitalism work in the first place. For capitalism to work, we need people fearing for their jobs feeling desperate. We need people to be incapable of doing what they want to do. Demanding better work conditions or pay. And even if we see some quality of life improvements in developed Western countries, we need to people being immiserated in other places abroad to keep the system working. We need cheap labor from other countries.
We need the imbalanced trade agreements that exploit these people. Contrary to what someone optimistic about global capitalism might delude themselves into believing, to Zizek, these things that happen are not a malfunction of the system. These things are essential features of what the system requires to keep on functioning. Fact is, global capitalism, to Zizek, absolutely thrives on the constant creation and recreation of the other, which then ensures a constant flow of this cheap, unfulfilled, unfulfilled, unfulfilled, unfulfilled, and resources from people that are in a state of dependency, which then further maintains the concentration of wealth and power in developed nations, and in the hands of an elite few within them. Again, this stuff is not a malfunction. This is how the system keeps on working at all. Capitalism is built upon this antagonism. The metaphor that comes to mind is to think of global capitalism as being similar to a combustion engine. A combustion engine is an incredibly powerful thing.
You can use it to take you in any number of different directions if you know how to use it. But the engine itself, by design, is based on an antagonism with physical stuff, meaning you gotta burn stuff and destroy materials, most of the time gas, to be able to get the good stuff that you want out of that engine. And that antagonism at the root of what a combustion engine is may bother you at a certain level. We could make little changes to the engine, where we didn't have to burn stuff anymore to make it work. And in a very democratic socialist sort of way, to Zizek, you could have the best… Of intentions, coming up with little ways to make the engine more efficient. Maybe we don't gotta burn as much now to be able to use it anymore, and all that's But there's another reality to the situation that we all need to acknowledge. You're never going to get rid of that antagonism altogether, because that antagonism is a reality. Some of the burning stuff is literally the thing that makes a combustion engine a combustion engine. There's a sense in which if you can make...
The engine work without it having to combust things, it'd be something entirely different. Which, by the way, is what Žižek thinks we should be doing with global capitalism, moving on to something different. More specifically, he thinks it's coming to an end. He's certainly not going to get deluded by what he sees as a middle path of democratic socialism. To Zizek, if you truly remove the exploited class of people, then in a sense, it wouldn't be capitalism anymore. This is why, to Zizek, democratic socialism, from one perspective, he says is the most conservative option that people have to vote for. Because remember, as we talked about at the beginning, conservatives want to preserve the existing institutions. Well, in this way, democratic socialists are giving people health care, housing, and education, trying to prevent social unrest that would lead to chaos. But in doing so to Zizek, they end up preserving the fundamentally broken system underneath that requires certain people to be exploited. It's an ironic position, because Zizek actually is for these services being provided to people. He doesn't oppose the services.
But he opposes democratic socialism as a political strategy. It's too surface level to him. It's not fixing the problem. It's just allowing people to continue being exploited. And as long as it's not happening on your doorstep, as long as people pretty close to your doorstep get government cheese and housing, then I guess the problems really aren't that bad. But he'd say, notice how those same people that support that policy will change their tune the second the exploited people are actually on their doorstep. What all this leads to, Cizek thinks, is an entirely new kind of subjectivity in people living today that shows up all over the world, and you'll see... Versions of this new way of thinking on both the left and the right. And we'll talk a bunch more about this next episode, this new kind of person, and how much this all aligns with the work of Byung-chul Han, but the short version of this is that the subjectivity that dominates people's thinking in today's world is not what you might assume. It's not the traditional, hierarchical, patriarchal type of thinking. That sort of thinking certainly is still... There to Zizek, but the more common one he says that's still so new to people that they don't even notice it's going on, is what he calls...
The more nihilistic, post-patriarchal way of thinking that presents itself to people as more freedom that they have and as though they're Worldview as revolutionary, when in reality, this way of thinking actually ends up enslaving people at an even deeper level than they were before. We'll talk a lot about the ways this manifests in people's lives next episode. Gonna be a fun one. But for right now, there's still one burning question that needs to be answered to understand how GGX is thinking about the state of the world. Why does he describe himself, although it's meant to be kind of funny, as a moderately conservative communist? I mean, for somebody that grew up and went to school in a global capitalist society, you can wonder how Zizek could ever say something so stupid. They may ask, you know, if you consider what went on during the 20th century, how communism was tried... And then how over and over again it led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. How could anybody say that they're a communist in public?
and not be laughed out of the room. Clearly, this system that Marx came up with for how society should be structured didn't work. I mean, I get it, capitalism isn't perfect. But how can somebody that claims to be an intellectual still be taking this stuff seriously? Well, I think what Zizek would say there is that what you just gave is a fake understanding of Karl Marx. That it's not a coincidence that somebody that Talk about stuff this way was raised and educated in a global capitalist society, and that it's not a coincidence that this person who's saying this stuff has never actually read the philosophy of Karl Marx. There's a reason that calling somebody specifically a Marxist in capitalist society has turned into a b- what? Oh my god, they're a what? Oh. Demonized before you even read a single word of what they wrote is not Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. It's not a coincidence that Marx would be the one that gets this kind of special treatment, because some people would say that there's a special level of correct that he was about the problems this society has.
Was going to be producing for us. A lot of people listening probably know how this is. I mean, you grow up and the stuff... You hear about Marx and communism. It can make you think he's like an evil dude with antennas and horns or something. No, he was a philosopher. And he wasn't some guy sitting around saying Death to capitalism? No, I want to be in charge. Get rid of capitalism. He wasn't somebody that created an exact way that society should be structured and then called it communism, where first you start with a leader, and then you make some gulags. And forget about individualism, guys, because everybody should be working towards a common goal determined by the government. That's my plan. We're all gonna dig a giant hole together and call it communism. His philosophy wasn't anything like that. In fact, in reality, Marx was a dialectical thinker. He didn't think it was possible to come up with some ultimate design for a society that all future societies should follow as a model, which is why he never did it.
Also part of the reason, by the way, it was so possible for dictators and revolutionaries to come along in the 20th century and impose their horrible ideas for how a society should be structured. But for Marx, he thought it was a mistake to think... That you could just design a model for a perfect society. For him, the design of any society would have to start by considering these specific material conditions. We're in, the needs and resources of the particular individuals that you're trying to build that society for. And he just didn't think that sort of thing could be planned ahead of time. Now what did Mark say? Well, he did say that he saw that. Antagonism between classes and capitalism that we talked about before. And he did say that he thought inevitably the working class would overthrow the ruling class. And what he recommended was that during that historical moment, as horrible as that was going to be, that the working class, after wanting a revolution, while they're redesigning what that society should specifically look like on the other side, they should do certain things during the
Transition period to safeguard against other forms of power taking control when there's a vacuum of power like that. Things like the abolition of private ownership of land, the means of production, nationalizing major industries, the establishment of new democratic institutions – again, things that Marx thought would make it harder for a class-based authority to retake control over society in that interim. The goal, ultimately, for Marx was to establish a classless society, or a society that isn't based on that fundamental antagonism between people, like capitalism, or feudalism, or monarchy, or any other example from history. So communism was not some plan that Marx laid out for how society should look. In fact, here's how Marx and Engels themselves defined communism. They said, Communism for us is not a state of affairs which is to be established, and ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. It is in this.
More accurate understanding of the word communist that Žižek thinks of himself as a moderately conservative communist. Saying is he's beyond any hope of democratic socialism being the thing we need to change global capitalism and while again He's for many of the quality of life improvements that it wants to bring about when we're talking about the context of the problems that face Western society and in the spirit of a truly left-leaning thinker. When we're talking about how much things need to change radically from where they are now. He is a communist in the sense that he... Is for the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. But why would he be moderately conservative then? Well, in a world where the present state of things has been abolished in post capitalism, then the political goalposts of left and right would have been moved as well. The right-leaning people in that world would then be pro-communists trying to preserve the existing order. Leaning people would be people that want to change the order of things in some way and bring about a different world. And in that world, Zizek.
Would be a moderate conservative, he says, because there are no left-leaning positions that have been offered up so far that he thinks are good. Zizek is actually extremely cautious about just forcing ideas. Ideas through because they're new and happen to not be capitalism. Which is why another important thing to say about the guy is that there's plenty of people Further to the left of Slavoj Zizek that hate his guts for that. In other words, if you're far enough to the left... Then you may think Žižek is a fake leftist as well. But Žižek calls himself… A Monday morning leftist, or a law and order leftist. But what does he mean by those things? Well, when it comes to thinking about things like revolution or radical social change, Slavoj Zizek thinks that... We need to do is to learn from the revolutionary mistakes we made all throughout the 20th century. There's that famous quote by Marx where he says philosophers in the past have just tried to interpret the world, but Marx says the goal should be for us to change the world. And this quote people have used over the years as a call to action to get out there and change
The societies that are enslaving people, that all you have to lose are your chains, as Marx says. But Zizek disagrees. He says if the 20th century should have taught us anything, It's that launching a revolution and then designing a society on the other side of that is not as simple as just Easing control of the government. Hundreds of millions of people died because of a lack of a real well thought out strategy for exactly how we're gonna abolish a market based system and not just instantly. Into another traditional master-slave dynamic that former societies have had before. The 20th century can teach us, he says, that we acted too hastily. Every time we have one of these left-leaning revolutions where there's all this energy, yeah, yeah, let's revolutionize yesterday, it's our birthright. Eat the capitalist overlords. Every time we do that, we got plenty of energy, but it ends up alienating and not considering the lives of so many ordinary members of society, you know, people that.
Go into your revolutionary meetings every Friday. These are people that don't understand or don't relate to the revolutionary movement. And then the strategy and stuff. In the next video. Of everyday people in a deeper way, a revolution that doesn't just exist in the form of ideals, but one that could be shown in the everyday lives of the average person. There's no easy answers to these questions, Zizek thinks, but they're things that we should be considering. Because to him, this idea from Marx, that we should stop interpreting the world and go out there and change it instead? When you just say that and then don't think about it, it just either gets people trapped in the sort of Western progressive pseudo-activism that doesn't really change anything, or it makes people so excited to change that they don't fully consider how quickly an Dialectical way, political movements will often devolve into their opposites. Hegel, he thinks of all people, realized very clearly how...
Quickly a movement can devolve into its opposite. Zizek gives some examples. He says, look at the French Revolution. Liberty, equality, fraternity, that spirit turns into terror and Napoleon. Then after Napoleon, you have a period of progress for... Few decades. Women's rights, voting, and then World War I happens. Then you have the Soviet Union, he says, October Revolution, attempt at the emancipation of people, and then you... Stalinism out of that. Then Fukuyama, the happy 90s, he says, the end of history, and here we are at the place we're at right now. He says when you have a real understanding of what Hegel was saying about the risks involved as events unfold in the world, what you land on, a good way to describe it, is to call it moderate conservatism. So if there's anything Zizek's saying when he says I'm a moderately conservative communist, it's that on the other side... Of this abolition of the present state of things, whatever that strategy looks like, we gotta be real careful about how we proceed. We gotta be
self-aware of how these ideas will shift. We have to be aware of the ideology that gives us the options we have to select from. We have to do that work ahead of time, or else we'll never be able to stay true to our own desires. We'll always just be captured by the ones given to us. To Slavoj Zizek, and many leftists hate him for saying this, but for him, maybe it's not the time to... Change the world right now. Maybe it's time to learn to think about the world more clearly. Thank you for listening. Talk to you next time.
Transcript generated on 2024-04-15.