Addressing the “Impossible”

Salvador Dali, “The Great Masturbator”

Salvador Dali, “The Great Masturbator”

In a prequel to his notorious endorsement of Donald Trump, Slavoj Zizek wrote “Addressing the Impossible” in Socialist Register 2017: Rethinking Revolution. His message: forget about alternatives to real existing capitalism, and by clear implication any chance of preventing climate catastrophe.

How inspiring to millennials! In glaring contrast to Che Guevara’s “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” Zizek concludes his essay with:

“The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us from thinking through to the end of the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction.”

The passage was apparently first written in 2015 in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of the left-wing Greek government to the terms of European bankers.

Ascending from the abstract to the present conjuncture, we are on the Fossil Capital train with the conductor being the Military Industrial (Nuclear State Terror and Surveillance) Complex; the oncoming train is Climate Catastrophe. “True courage” is the determination to derail both trains before collision, which means a commitment to organizing on an unprecedented transnational scale before the shrinking window of opportunity disappears. The light at the end of the tunnel is the Sun, passively offering its power for a new global civilization, Solar Communism, whose path is the “discernible alternative,” ecosocialist transition.

The so-called “courage of hopelessness” that Zizek invokes from Giorgio Agamben is rather the voice of a coward, in retreat from any sense of profound responsibility to the children on our planet. When Zizek endorsed Trump, did he understand that Trump’s climate denialism and commitment to expanding coal mining and fracking is to shrink this window of opportunity even more?

While some may read Zizek’s essay as a provocation, I take it as a long tedious cynical joke, not even close to the level of his notorious “not politically correct” repartee. Once again, the “Great Masturbator” who fiddles while the climate burns triangulates between “communism”, neoliberalism and right-wing populism instead of seeking a path to the “discernible alternative” he finds missing. As a start, perhaps he could consider addressing how the networking of World Social Forum process might contribute to a more cohesive global movement with the capacity to first check the Imperial Agenda and then proceed to ecosocialist transition.

Yes, Zizek has tried to keep his communist credentials intact by (co)editing The idea of The Idea of Communism books, the latest being Volume 3. In that volume he opines:

“The solution is to become fully aware of the explosive set of interconnections that make the entire situation dangerous. Once we have achieved this, we should be able to embark on the long and difficult work of changing the coordinates of the entire situation. Nothing less will do. Nothing less than a new communist project” (2006, xiii).

In his contribution to the edited volume An American Utopiaa: Dual Power and the Universal Army, Zizek says:

“What today’s left needs are such ‘seeds of imagination’ that would enable it not only to provide a new vision of Communist society, but also to break out of the terrifying impoverishment of our power of imagination in our late capitalist society” (2016, 268).

But he himself is trapped in this impoverishment when, in the same essay, he asserts that:

“Marx’s fundamental mistake was to conclude …that a higher social order (Communism) is possible – an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and effectively and fully release the potential of the self-increasing spiral of productivity which, in capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle (contradiction), is again and again thwarted by socially destructive economic crises”.

Not a fundamental mistake, rather a profound insight. Quoting from my own chapter in the same volume:

“Indeed the reproduction of capital, utilizing productive forces powered by fossil fuels, created the material conditions leading to both this bifurcation and its potential resolution, which we now face in the twenty-first century: either the abyss of climate catastrophe driven by carbon emissions, or an ever-diminishing chance of what would appear to be a miraculous escape from this abyss powered by renewable energy technologies” (143).

Of course information technologies, the product of the “self-increasing spiral of productivity” are coupled to renewable energy technologies. And communism is contingent on necessary and sufficient class struggle, not an inevitable, but still possible outcome. This challenge is not even mentioned in the three volumes of The Idea of Communism, climate change or the environment are not even in the index.

Zizek moves to his neoliberal vertex, Lacanian human nature primordial, following Jameson’s lead in An American Utopia, “in communism, precisely insofar as it will be a more just society, envy and resentment will explode”.

But Jameson’s “communism” is a grotesque depoliticized vision, full employment by universal conscription in a militarized economy. In her contribution to An American Utopia, Jodi Dean gets it precisely right in critiquing Jameson’s “utopia”:

“The people do not and cannot appear as a collective subject. To the extent that utopian proposals pull out features of the given, arranging them so that we can see our own tendencies differently, Jameson’s “An American Utopia” is effective. It puts before us a society in which the political has been replaced by computers and therapy, and collective action has been displaced by work and leisure. For a left that refuses the political – that rejects the state, abandons the party, betrays the crowd, and mistrusts the people – this is what utopia looks like” (132).

No wonder Zizek gives Jameson enthusiastic praise.

Should we really settle for a “communism” of scarcity, resembling the worst side of 20th Century real existing socialism? Given the bifurcation we face, two paths, either to climate hell with at best primitive communism for the minority of humanity who survive climate catastrophe outside the gated commons of the billionaires, or to the discernible alternative, avoiding this catastrophe with virtually free energy to drive a global economy?

Can one imagine a more utopian scenario, with the prefiguration of transnational solidarity of the global Subject emerging as the only conceivable force capable of creating a communist civilization?

In contrast to Zizek’s pessimism, the other chapters in Socialist Register 2017 are highly illuminating. In recognition of the global climate/energy challenge, I especially recommend the contribution of Andreas Malm, author of Fossil Capital, and that of Patrick Bond’s. And of course, I invite critique of my own contribution, in which I unapologetically take seriously not only Che’s advice but also the inspiration of Ernst Bloch, invoked in Leo Panitch’s closing chapter “On Revolutionary Optimism of the Intellect”. More Bloch, less Zizek!

And to reload Lenin in this conjuncture, “to recognize the potentiality of the moment and act, else we lose the chance to change the future; and second, to utilize every division in the ruling class to gain the necessary political momentum to prevent catastrophic climate change” (Schwartzman, 2009, “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?” Capitalism Nature Socialism 20:1, p. 33).