Zizek, Badiou, Kotsko: The Revolutionary Sociopath

 We must create new symbolic forms for our collective actions. … We must find a new sun…

– Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

– Karl Marx, Critique of Goth Program

Why do we need revolutionary sociopaths? If the soldier is a figure who transfigures humanity, and if indeed it is through the deeds of such a being that we attain something eternal as Badiou suggests in his Philosophy for Militants, then why is it that this figure of a new heroism should be sociopathic? Zizek remarks that there is a simple reason for this: our society needs sociopaths if it is to function “normally”; only they can save it, that is, society’s rules have to be broken for the sake of society itself (126).1

Adam Kotsko admits that we need to draw a line between real-life psychopaths or sociopaths  and their fantasy portrayals to be seen on our nightly television sets or at the movies. For Kotsko the dividing line between the reality and the fantasy is one of social mastery.2 As Kotsko remarks, “The sociopath is an individual who transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool” (Kindle Locations 142-145). Speaking of the dream worlds of our TV’s and movies and their impact on the modern conformist culture of our age, Kotsko remarks that what motivates the fantasy of the sociopath is the simple truth that: our society really is broken.

The question I would ask, however, is what we’re using as a point of comparison. Every social norm, it seems, even the apparently “natural” social order of the family, can be exploited for sociopathic ends or be caught up in the vicious cycle that generates and supports sociopathic behavior. This is because, as I argued in Awkwardness, there is no “natural” social order— all social norms are no more than functional guidelines that we use to help us cope with the anxiety and conflict that comes with being the fundamentally social beings that we are. Rather than coming down from heaven or being grounded in some kind of natural law (such as the biological or evolutionary imperatives that supposedly ground the family structure), our social orders are long-term strategies for dealing with each other, tools that are useful in a given time and place with no guarantee that they will last. (Kotsko, Kindle Locations 212-219).

In the Renaissance such a sociopathic figure was once known as the Magus: the idea of the pragmatic instrumentalist vision of a being who breaks our social norms, and manipulates the codes by which we live and uses these as tools to transform our desires toward good of ill. Several years ago I read Ioan P. Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance in which the figure of the Magus is portrayed as the master manipulator.  The Magus is altogether aware that, to gain the following of the masses, like the loyalty of an individual, it is necessary to take account of all the complexity of the subjects’ expectations, to create the total illusion of giving unicuique suum (“To each his own”). This is why Bruno’s manipulation demands perfect knowledge of the subject and his wishes, without which there can be no “bond,” no vinculum. That is why Bruno himself also asserts that it is an extremely difficult maneuver, only to be accomplished by the use of intelligence, perspicacity, and intuition equal to the task. The complexity of the task is not diminished, for the illusion must be perfect to satisfy the many expectations it proposes to fulfill. The greater the manipulator’s knowledge of those he must “enchain,” the greater is his chance of success, since he will know how to choose the right means of creating the vinculum.

It was Bruno himself who remarked that all “affections and bonds of the will are reduced to two, namely aversion and desire,  or hatred and love. Yet hatred itself is reduced to love, whence it  follows that the will’s only bond is Eros.”3 We see that the goal of Bruno’s erotic magic is to enable a manipulator to control both individuals and crowds. Its fundamental presupposition is that a big tool for manipulation exists-Eros in the most general sense of the word: that which we love, from physical pleasure to things probably unsuspected, in passing, by wealth, power, etc. Everything is defined in relation to Eros, since aversion and hatred merely represent the negative side of the same universal attraction.(Couliano, 92)

Zizek commenting on the postmodern fantasy sociopaths remarks that what Kotsko identifies is the redeeming features of every important type of sociopath he describes: the “schemers” display a kind of innocent childlike joy in their plots to screw over their friends; the “climbers” display exceptional creativity and a willingness to take risks in the ruthless pursuit of their goals; the “enforcers” (McNulty, Bauer) are dedicated to a goal more important than normal life with its pursuit of happiness. Does not the combination of these three features provide the perfect model for an authentic revolutionary? He is ready to forsake his life for his cause; he brings to it creativity and a readiness to take risks; and, last but not least, he finds an innocent joy in his activity, clear of all traces of sacrificial masochism..(Zizek, 126).

Kotsko himself adds to this telling us that the figure of a more radically sociopathic sociopath, who combines the joy of the schemer and the single-mindedness of the enforcer with the creativity, persuasiveness, and unsentimental outlook of the climber. Such sociopaths could use the norms of our present social order without being bound by them and could form relationships based on enjoyment and the desire to know the other person rather than out of sentiment and obligation. I would even dare to say that radical sociopaths of this type could very well be the ones to invent a “better game” than the stultifying game of chess adult life under late capitalism has become, drawing people in through the persuasiveness of their very way of being in the world— and that’s because it seems to me that many of the great cultural innovators, such as Jesus, Buddha, or Socrates, have been sociopathic in just the sense I’m describing. (Kotsko, Kindle Locations 1405-1411).

Zizek would only add two more figures, Coriolanus and Che Guevara, one a fantasy figure from Shakespeare, the other an actual revolutionary figure:

Coriolanus is a killing machine, a “perfect soldier”; but precisely as such, as an “organ without a body,” he has no fixed class allegiance and can easily put himself in the service of the oppressed— as was made clear by Che Guevara, a revolutionary also has to be a killing machine: “Hatred as an element of struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”(Zizek, 123)

What can we conclude from all this? asks Alain Badiou. As he reminds us the soldier has been the modern symbol of two very important features of the capacity of human animals to create something beyond themselves, beyond their own mortal limits, and thus to participate in the creation of a few eternal truths. We know that in this figure of a new heroism we see the creation of an immanent and collective revolutionary fervor that does not depend upon religious faith. And, second, this new form of heroism creates eternity in time, not after. The revolutionary struggle is always beginning in the eternity of this moment. But where will we find such figures of sociopathic glory to lead us out of our malaise? Kotsko tells us that we cannot expect our society to create them for us. To find sociopaths of this kind, we must seek them out in the real world— or else become them (ibid, KL 1411-1412). Zizek reminds us that this new figure of the revolutionary warrior is ready to forsake his life for his cause; he brings to it creativity and a readiness to take risks; and, last but not least, he finds an innocent joy in his activity, clear of all traces of sacrificial masochism (126).

Zizek also relates an anecdote about Stalin:

In 1929, when a journalist asked Stalin what characterized a good Bolshevik, his answer was a combination of Russian dedication and American pragmatic spirit. Today, eighty years later, one should add to the list innocent joy: what we need is a subject who combines the dedication of Jack Bauer, the inventive pragmatic spirit of Stringer Bell, and the innocently malicious joy of Homer Simpson. (126)

What if John Galt renounced Randian Objectivism and joined in with Badiou and Zizek in creating out of the communist Idea a new heroic struggle for an egalitarianism founded on equity and justice? Badiou tells us we need a world of militant philosophers of the communist Idea. Zizek in robust agreement only adds our need for both gusto and humor as well.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-10-02). The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. Norton.
2. Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (Kindle Locations 36-37). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
3. Giordano Bruno,  Theses de Magia, Vol. LVI quoted in Coulianu,  Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago, 1987) page 91.

5 thoughts on “Zizek, Badiou, Kotsko: The Revolutionary Sociopath

  1. Real sociopaths are to be found in the boardrooms of multinational corporations and on the floors of stock exchanges. The type of revolutionary, ultimately altruistic sociopath Zizek is longing for, doesn’t exist. The reason is that whoever wishes to genuinely change the world, can only be overcome by supreme despair and pity, leading either to violent misanthropy (viz. high school shooters) or suicide. The uebermensch is a messianic fantasy. Opium for the communist intellectuals. Waiting for Godot.

    That leads me to another point I’d like to make. Communist intellectuals are closeted misanthropes. In the 20th century misanthropes could still masquerade as philanthropes by using communism as a vehicle for their hatred. These days however, no-one is buying it anymore. So why not come clear?

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    • altruistic sociopath? Where do you read altruistic? uebermensch? Where would you see anything of such an ‘overman’ in Zizek or Badiou? closeted misanthropes? I assume you would include me in that? Since yes, I may be an affirmer of the communist Idea without being a party going member… and, of course both Badiou and Zizek would not see being party members as a detriment since that is something both see in a negative light at the moment. Obviously both Zizek and Kotsko were using satire and irony over the top hyperbole to make certain outrageous points. For you to literalize it is to in fact become too serious for the type of message that informs either thinker. Yes, this is serious play, but we’re not out for a blood fest… that’s more of a sign of certain black brigades and anarchistic curmudgeons that what either Badiou or Zizek have in mind.

      Why so much anger and derogatory emotionalism toward Badiou and Zizek? Where is that coming from? Of what political persuasion are you? And, you seem to think you speak for everyone? Are you the universal voice of humanity?

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  2. I say altruistic because the sociopath Zizek is talking about, puts his violence/anger/hatred in the service of (the idea) of communism, that is to say, the betterment of mankind.

    What I dislike about Zizek and Badiou is that they continue the tradition of faux radicalism. They keep the hopes of art school and philosophy students who think one can be both hip and radical alive. My political persuasion? Somewhere in between fascist negative utilitarianism and militant misanthropy.

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    • Good! Now we have our cards on the table, and can truly engage each other as equals its good to know and meet you! I like it when someone stands their ground, opens up and truly says what’s on their mind. And, why not engage any avenue of communication available if it gets your message across? I disagree with you on that score! The reason for Zizek having a voice is his engagement as a clown of philosophers, a sort of Diogenes of the Internet whose only goal is to awaken others from their academic slumber. (Yes, he has other goals, too.) Badiou is more of the academic professional, yet he has his dark militant side as well; he just learned the hard way during the sixties that militancy brings sorrow more than change. I saw on your other post that you reduce love to only its somaticism, and do not accept the nuances as presented through Badiou’s return to Plato?

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