“Living in the End Times“

"Living in the End Times"

The landscape of the world in Slavoj Žižek’s “Living in the End of Times” is dotted with incomprehensible horrors. Global ice sheets melt and various countries rush to plant their flags in order to profit from the exposed resources that lay below. TV talk shows in Indonesia feature participants in the massacre of millions of Communist sympathizers in 1966. Now respectable politicians, they proudly discuss how they were inspired by gangster movies. Local warlords and foreign armies feast on profits from coltan, diamonds, gold and copper extracted from the Congo – funding what Time Magazine called the “Deadliest War in the World,” with four million killed in the past decade. Žižek’s is not saying the end of the world is nigh … exactly. What he is saying is that there are things going on to which we are just not paying sufficient attention.

By way of illustration, he writes of the changing way ancient Rome is discussed. Not long ago, the in-the-know talk focused on the United States as the sole global superpower. Rome was viewed as a mighty empire with a strong army.

That has since changed. “The passage to a multi-centric world (to which President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy gave no small aid) has generated an obsession with the Roman empire in decline.” Zizek argues that the American Century is over and, “we are entering a period characterized by the formation of multiple centers of global capitalism: the US, Europe, China possibly Latin America, each of them representing capitalism with a specific local twist.” The world today is, “potentially more dangerous than it may appear.”

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Žižek is a cultural critic and philosopher. His prime influences are the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. If you are not a student of these thinkers (to say nothing of Emanuel Kant), there are parts of this book that will be particularly challenging. Yet, Žižek’s particular insights arise from their thinking. This is not straight ahead, common sense thinking – which in one passage he amusingly describes as a particular form of idiocy – but a deeper dialectical method. Your affinity to the ideas of the people he invokes will condition the degree to which you agree with what he puts forward.

Žižek is widely followed by a new generation of intellectuals, not only for his novel ideas but also for the way he unabashedly mixes and meshes philosophy, political economy, Marxism, all with a searing indictment of capitalism. In that respect, he never ceases to amaze. His discussion of the Josef Fritzl case in Austria (that of a man who monstrously kept his daughter locked in a basement for 24 years) will make you look at the “Sound of Music” in a much different way. Those who hold that particular work dear may want to skip that section entirely.

The pop culture references are just some targets for Zizek’s razor-sharp analysis. Writing about the tendency toward passive accommodation among the left to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, he states sharply, “We should insist on the unconditional right to conduct a public critical analysis of all religions, Islam included – and the saddest thing is that one should even have to mention this.” Similarly, talking about how many in the gay community in the Netherlands were moving toward support of anti-immigrant nationalist parties because of Muslims’ harsh views on homosexuality, he suggests that rather than each group retreating to their respective identities, gays ought to, “organize a struggle” with Muslims; they ought to work together. It is this type of counterintuitive reasoning that makes Žižek appealing.

There is a particularly provocative chapter titled, “The Return of the Critique of Political Economy” (a play on the full title of Marx’s “Capital”). In the wake of the financial catastrophe of 2008, a lot of people picked up Marx, hoping to make sense of things. In his reading of Marx, Žižek suggests, “The problem is that the rise of ‘intellectual’ labor to a hegemonic position undermines the standard notion of exploitation, since it is no longer labor-time which serves as the source and ultimate measure of value. But what this means is that the concept of exploitation needs to be radically re-thought.”

This is an idea Žižek put forward in last year’s “First as Tragedy.” The thrust of his argument is that folks working with their minds are creating a situation in which those who work with their hands are becoming more and more marginal. This seems to contradict the central notion in “Capital” that labor power is the basis for generating profit and sits at the heart of capitalism. This is one of those fundamental points not so easily assimilated. As Marx noted, “Value does not have value branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic.” After reading this particular section, it is worth returning to Marx himself, or perhaps David Harvey, who has just published a helpful “Companion to Marx’s Capital.”

For Žižek, mighty problems abound. Late capitalism – far from being a utopia – poses a threat to the very survival of humanity. Žižek identifies the key issue from the outset in his introduction (reworking language from Paul, of all people, in Ephesians 6:12), “Our struggle is not against actual corrupt individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order and ideological mystification which sustains it.” For Žižek, and many of the rest of us, much needs to be done.