Žižek: ideologies only win when they lose

I’ve been reading a little bit by/about Slavoj Žižek over the past few days, and find him an intriguing figure, if also an infuriating and incomprehensible one at (quite a lot of) times.

One interesting argument I wanted to share from his essay Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule, though, is his suggestion that an ideology can only flourish in the face of opposition, and only triumph in its apparent defeat. As he puts it:

The true victory (the true “negation of negation”) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy.

Žižek gives two examples of this (three, if you include his parenthetical remark that “the true victory of science [over religion] takes place when the church starts to defend itself in the language of science”). The first is New Labour’s role in confirming the permanance of the “Thatcher revolution” in the UK:

The Thatcher revolution was in itself chaotic, impulsive, marked by unpredictable contingencies, and it was only the “Third Way” Blairite government who was able to institutionalize it, to stabilize it into new institutional forms, or, to put it in Hegelese, to raise (what first appeared as) a contingency, a historical accident, into necessity. In this sense, Blair repeated Thatcherism, elevating it into a concept, in the same way that, for Hegel, Augustus repeated Caesar, transforming-sublating a (contingent) personal name into a concept, a title.

Thatcher was not a Thatcherite, she was just herself – it was only Blair (more than John Major) who truly formed Thatcherism as a notion. The dialectical irony of history is that only a (nominal) ideologico-political enemy can do this to you, can elevate you into a concept – the empirical instigator has to be knocked off (Julius Caesar had to be murdered, Thatcher had to be ignominously deposed).

A similar lesson can be drawn from the Communist Party’s introduction of capitalism to China over the past thirty years, so that the truly revolutionary force in China today is capitalism, with its “breath-taking dynamics of self-enhancing productivity” in which “all things solid melt into thin air”. In the Marxist view, this revolutionary dynamism is an ultimately futile attempt to escape the contradictions of capitalism, and Žižek continues:

Marx’s fundamental mistake was here to conclude, from these insights, that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible, an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and effectively 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.

In short, what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the “condition of impossibility” of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its “condition of possibility”: if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism – if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates…

In other words, the economic stagnation seen in Communist countries – and, by the 1970s, in countries following the social democratic/Keynesian policies that were swept away by Thatcherism – were the paradoxical result of the apparent removal of an obstacle having the effect of removing the potential which it had appeared to thwart.

But those who long for fully free and unleashed capitalism, released from the remaining constraints of regulation and social provision should be aware that the same principle may apply in both directions:

[I]t is as if this logic of “obstacle as a positive condition” which underlied the failure of the socialist attempts to overcome capitalism, is now returning with a vengeance in capitalism itself: capitalism can fully thrive not in the unencumbered reign of the market, but only when an obstacle (the minimal Welfare State interventions, up to the direct political rule of the Communist Party, as is the case in China) constraints its unimpeded reign.


7 thoughts on “Žižek: ideologies only win when they lose”

  1. capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle/contradiction, is again and again thwarted by socially destructive economic crises.

    I don’t entirely follow the argument (or your brief comment) at this point. Is it that one would expect planned economics to be more productive, but that doesn’t happen because a planned economy doesn’t experience the periodic re-configurations which occur in a free market? And (further) that this is a paradox?

  2. Phil: I think this is coming from the Marxist point of view that capitalism has inherent contradictions which lead to its periodic crises (e.g. the “crisis of over-production”). The intention of a planned economy is to avoid these crises by ensuring everything operates smoothly and rationally.

    And we know how well that worked out.

    So what Zizek is saying is that what conventional Marxism thought was capitalism’s greatest weakness – its lack of central control, its unpredictability, its tendency towards destructive crises – is in fact the source of its strength and its ability to revolutionise productivity over time. Which strikes me as something that could have come from the pens of Hayek, Von Mises or Friedman.

    Of course, that’s only a paradox if you accept the Marxist premise about the nature of capitalism (and it’s probably worth my repeating that I am not a Marxist; but nor am I entirely anti-Marxist). And in fairness, Zizek doesn’t use the word “paradox” himself there, so blame me for the inaccurate summary…

  3. Right. Yes, then I see the point.

    If one takes the view that those crises of re-configuration are extrinsic obstacles to capitalism, then it is paradoxical. But they’re not extrinsic: they’re an intrinsic part of the free market process. (I thought that was a standard part of the Marxist critique of capitalism?) So I would question the legitimacy of Zizek’s move from the particular to the general, not only because it’s not a valid move logically, but also because one of his particulars doesn’t actually show what he thinks it shows!

  4. Hi,

    I stumbled across your blog(s) and lots of your ideas I really enjoy. However with the politics I’m not sure we can be more different! I’ve looked at some political/economic work from a Christian perspective found in http://davidpfield.com/Ethics/Ethics.htm (see the economics sections etc). The conclusions he has are very minimal state, free markets etc which I’ve found convincing. However I’d love to see what Christian arguments there are for a more left wing government (and how a left-wing evangelical would counter act the arguments David makes) as my thinking is still being formed. If you could provide some links I’d be very grateful!


  5. Josh: thanks for your comment. The nearest thing I have to a “political philosophy” remains what I described in this post on my main blog a couple of years ago.

    This in turn leads me to have something of a tension/contradiction between suspicion of the state’s instrusions on the one hand, but also a recognition that the state is often the only effective counterweight to the power of capital.

    Bottom line though: I don’t think the Bible teaches either capitalism or socialism or any other form of political economy (which is one reason I’m not a “Christian socialist” – the other reason is I sympathise with Marx’s assessment of Christian socialism as “but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat”!). It’s all a matter of wisdom and human judgments in the end.

    As for other reading on this: difficult to know where to begin, but Jacques Ellul is worth reading (Anarchy and Christianity, Money and Power). I haven’t read this since 1997, but I recall the Roman Catholic Church’s 1997 document The Common Good being pretty good.

  6. Thanks John for those links. I really appreciate your concerns about the power of raw capitalism and your “recognition that the state is often the only effective counterweight to the power of capital” and therefore see where you’re coming from. There’s been so much abuse caused by a love of money that we need something to counteract the greed behind it.

    Some questions/observations coming (I hope) from a genuine desire to learn and think more:

    The problem of capitalism is actually a problem of sin (being rich isn’t, in itself, something which the Bible condemns). Therefore is it right to see the solution coming from something other than the gospel (ie. a political solution)?

    The Common Good report encourages government to act for the common good which, in effect, means raising taxes to pass money to the needy. The question which I’m trying to think through is, “Under what circumstances and for what circumstances does Government have the right to levy taxes?”

    For example: if I lived next to two neighbours, one very rich, one very poor, I clearly don’t have the right to take money from the rich, against their will, and give it to the poor – even though I think the rich should give to the poor. Does the government have that right? Clearly they do have the right to levy taxes to do some things (criminal justice for example – Romans 13). Has God granted the government the right to take people’s money and give it to hospitals for instance? Can this be justified from the Bible, if so how and where?

    Genuinely looking forward to your thoughts…


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