Slavoj Zizek: On the Communist Idea

I call an ‘Idea’ an abstract totalization of the three basic elements: a truth procedure, a belonging to history, and an individual subjectivation. … an Idea is the subjectivation of an interplay between the singularity of a truth procedure and a representation of History.

– Alain Badiou, The Idea of Communism

‘Begin from the beginning…’, remarks Slavoj Zizek; yet, adds, “descend to the starting point, but with a difference.” (210)1

Those who sit on the fence will be torn to shreds by their own indecisiveness. Today we have a choice to make: What kind of future do you want? Communist or socialist? This is the question Slavoj Zizek repeats with gusto and a polemical fervor that offers no third alternative. “The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms powerful enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?”1 At the moment there are only four such antagonisms at play in the world today according to Zizek: first the threat of ecological catastrophe; second, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property’; third, the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, finally, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and Slums around the world.(214)

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Slavoj Zizek: Augur, Prophet, or Charlatan?

“We should fully accept this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future.”

– Zizek, Slavoj, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

Or maybe… a philosopher, an Idealist and semiotician or Lacanian deep diver after dark portents and signs from the future. Fragments of an apocalypse or generative ideas awaiting their emergence?  Maybe there is an Idea hidden in the deserts of the Real awaiting its prophet? Dare we say it… a Communist Idea?

Reading signs, events, or omens has been with us from the earliest ages. Ancient Chinese history offers scrupulously documented occurrences of strange births, the tracking of natural phenomena, and other data. The Roman historian Livy stresses the importance of the augurs: “Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the auspices, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the auspices?”.

Has Slavoj Zizek taken on the role of Augur for our age? “Radical emancipatory outbursts cannot be understood in this way: instead of analyzing them as part of the continuum of past and present, we should bring in the perspective of the future, taking them as limited, distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential” (Kindle Locations 2369-2371). Like an augur who casts lots and reads them for signs from the future, Zizek asks us to read the fragmented outbursts around the world as fragments of some utopian dream city lying just below the subterraenean rubble of the present. Yet, this is not just any future he hopes to divinize into the present of our emancipatory moment, these fragments of a distorted tension hide the reality of the Communist Idea. Zizek offers to teach us a new art: “the art of recognizing, from an engaged subjective position, elements which are here, in our space, but whose time is the emancipated future…” (Kindle Locations 2373-2374).

An Idealism you ask? Of course it is. It is a return to subjective engagement, and political engagement, and… can we say it, – a post-ideological engagement in a possible, potential future that seems to be hiding in the very fragments of our failed outbursts? As Adrian Johnston tells us on the one hand, the subject is an overdetermined effect of subjection; and, on the other hand, the subject is an unpredicatble upsurge of freedom (Zizek’s Ontology 286). For Zizek ‘freedom’ is both a question and a problematique: How does a philosopher approach the problem of freedom? (Zizek! The Movie)

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Jodi Dean: The Communist Horizon a first look…

“The general horizon of the era is communist.”

– Álvaro García Linera

Does communism condition the possibility of politics? García Linera seemed to think so. As Jodi Dean in her new book The Communist Horizon states it many on the “Left dismiss the communist horizon as a lost horizon” (Kindle Location 46).1 There are those she says who in seeking a way out of the old guard are sponsoring a new horizon of ‘post-capitalist’ thought that overturns the very critique that Marx instigated to begin with. As she states it these so to speak Leftists offer us not a critique but are in fact “rejecting the positive notion of “communism,” they opt for a term that suggests an empty relationality to the capitalist system they ostensibly deny, “post-capitalism.” For [these post-capitalist’] “the term “capitalist” is not a term of critique or opprobrium; it’s not part of a manifesto. The term is a cause of the political problems facing the contemporary Left. They argue that the discursive dominance of capitalism embeds the Left in paranoia, melancholia, and moralism” (KL 60-63). In such theorists as Zizek it becomes a return to Lenin: “The key ‘Leninist’ lesson today,” he writes, is that “politics without the organizational form of the Party is politics without politics.” (KL 100-101). But mostly it becomes a return to an emancipatory, egalitarian politics and that has been actively rethinking many of the concepts that form part of the communist legacy (KL 102-103).

Instead of such a – as she puts it, ‘generic post-capitalism’, one that offers not a true alternative but an actual alignment with the forces of capitalism, ones that circumvent anti-capitalist energies by promoting a brokered complicity with its nuanced fluidity within an idealized realm of open spaces of discussions and ethical decision making, Dean says:

“I take the opposite position. The dominance of capitalism, the capitalist system, is material. Rather than entrapping us in paranoid fantasy, an analysis that treats capitalism as a global system of appropriation, exploitation, and circulation that enriches the few as it dispossesses the many and that has to expend an enormous amount of energy in doing so can anger, incite, and galvanize” (KL 67-70).

What is the real problem for the left? “The problem of the Left hasn’t been our adherence to a Marxist critique of capitalism. It’s that we have lost sight of the communist horizon, a glimpse of which new political movements are starting to reveal”, as she states it (KL 74-76). What do these neo-liberals and reactionary conservatives fear? They fear the resurgence of Communism as an Idea,as once again offering a discourse against its own dark horizons. With such scholars as Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Bruno Bosteels, Susan Buck-Morss, Costas Douzinas, Peter Hallward, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière, Alberto Toscano, and Slavoj Žižek. In these and other scholars Dean sees a new theory of communism arising. In Hardt and Negri it comes as a non-dialectical reconceptualization of labor, power, and the State, a new theory of communism from below(KL 96). From Badiou as an emphasis on the “communist invariants”— egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political volunteerism, and trust in the people…(KL 97-98).

“The power of the return of communism stands or falls on its capacity to inspire large-scale organized collective struggle toward a goal”, (KL 145-146). The Left has failed itself and it has “failed to defend a vision of a better world, an egalitarian world of common production by and for the collective people. Instead, it accommodated capital, succumbing to the lures of individualism, consumerism, competition, and privilege, and proceeding as if there really were no alternative to states that rule in the interests of markets” (KL 148-150). Living with failure is out, nostalgia for the good old days is out, we no longer have to “live in the wake of left failure, stuck in the repetitions of crises and spectacle. In light of the planetary climate disaster and the ever-intensifying global class war as states redistribute wealth to the rich in the name of austerity, the absence of a common goal is the absence of a future… The premise of communism is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible, if we want it” (KL 150-15).


Among many other things on my plate, I’ll be reading her work over the next few weeks and will review it at the completion. I only wanted to open up its energy and intensify its appeal. One can follow Jodi Dean on her blog: I Cite and her new book can be found here.

1. Dean, Jodi (2012-10-03). The Communist Horizon (Pocket Communism) Norton.

Marx and Critique: “I am not a Marxist.”

It is time to tally the sordid history of Marxist theory and praxis. We must ask the question that Althusser asked in ’78: “What can we retain of Marx today as being truly essential to his thought, even if it has perhaps not always been well understood?” As Marx said of himself: “I am not a Marxist.” Marx was against dogma, of enshrining himself and his work as something other than a critique. We need critique not enshrinement and dogma. What Marx began and advanced was the knowledge of the conditions, forms and effects of class struggle as he understood it within the context of capitalist modes of production of his era. He above all believed he was producing a systematic philosophy that could contribute to, and guide, in a revolutionary movement for the struggle and emancipation of the working masses enslaved within the capitalist machine. Against a grounding of his work as a scientific discipline he affirmed instead that his Capital was a ‘critique’ or ‘criticism’ of the Political Econonmy. As Althusser has emphasized it was the idealism of the Political Economy as ‘objectified’ within the scientistic pretensions of such economists as Smith, Ricardo, Hodgkins, and the Physiocrats that Marx’s work resides as critiqe by seeking to overturn its idealist vision as Political Economy: as ‘objectified’ truth founded within the scientistic void of Reason.

The rationalist traditions that underpinned the enlightenment critiques from Bayle to Kant, that sought a philosophical dignity and a Truth within the radical dictates of Reason must be questioned. Marx himself pursued this tradition into its hiding places, denouncing the ‘irrationality’ at the heart of Reason’s conditions of existence. Yet, one must not look for this in Capital, however, where Marx instigated a differential and functional pursuit of critique; one that sought a “critique of existing reality by existing reality” (17). As Althusser reminds us, for Marx, “critique is the real criticizing itself,” (17) It was the pursuit of a revolutionary materialism against all forms of Idealism and reactionary formations of any type or pursuasion that is the core of Marx’s critique in Capital.

But this critique of the real was not some abstract notion, instead Marx tied his critique to a real material world, he grounded critique within the very dynamics of domination and exploitation of actual working peoples material existence. As Marx himself said of this critique: “In so far as such a critique represents a class, it can only represent the class whose historical task is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes – the proletariat.” (18)

Althusser understood the truth of Marx’s rejection of himself as a Marxist. He understood that the critique, its conception and consequence – as, in fact and deed, a rejection of Marx the Intellectual, the creator of a critique; instead, it “was the real – the worker’s class struggle – which acted as the true author (the agent) of the real’s critique of itself” (18).  As Althusser concludes, Marx wrote for the multitude, the workers who faced in their actual lives the domination and exploitation of capitalism’ dark oligarchic forces:

“In his own fashion and style, with all of his intellectual culture turned upside down by the experience he had acquired and was still acquiring, with his acute sense of the conflicts of his time, the individual named Marx ‘wrote’ on behalf of this ‘author’ [the multitude], infinitely greater than he was – on behalf but, first of all, by its agency and at its urging” (18).

1. Louis Althusser. Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987. Verso; 1 edition (June 17, 2006)