As an undergraduate in the 90s I had a friend who was a full-blaze Marxist firebrand. Between glasses of red wine, strong coffee and Gauloises, she would declaim that the moment of revolutionary emancipation was upon us, knitting together harbingers of the end times of capitalist hegemony with soundbites from Lenin and Camus. It was heady, captivating rhetoric, and I was keen to impress her with my solidarity in the struggle.
Reading Zizek's book drew me back to those long afternoons, though also reminded me of why I was never entirely convinced by her arguments. It's not easy to pick out a theme from this disjointed, fragmentary and internally contradictory book, but one seems to be that we should be seeking common cause with all those fighting against the current world order, from the revolutionaries of Egypt to migrant workers to marching students on London streets.
This is a noble aspiration; I simply don't believe that it's a realistic one. Much like the 99% movement, what unites us is opposition, an entirely negative agenda. To claim we should unite requires us to elide the numerous conflicts of interest among us as if these are less important than the one class struggle (or to agree that it's all class struggle abstracted). When pressed, I doubt that many would concur. Can we really propose that liberal feminists in the West will unite with Islamic revolutionaries to overthrow our common class oppressor?
Zizek doesn't ignore this problem, though his expected outcome is avowedly Utopian. He celebrates those moments of opportunity when society comes together and everything seems possible. Times like the Prague spring, the aftermath of the 1980 Iranian revolution, the early days of protest in Tahrir Square. Rather than providing a manifesto, he assumes that a new and better society will be forged in the cauldrons of such debates. That it has failed to do so to date is only because each revolution was betrayed - they were not strong enough. Yet paradoxically he argues in the eighth chapter that the best way to protest might be... withdrawal from protest! He also earlier states that "It is the people who have the answers, they just do not know the questions to which they have (or rather are) the answer." This represents exactly the kind of faux-insight that he (correctly) lampoons earlier in the book; it's not deep, just obscure.
I remain a socialist, and the case against the present world order is as strong as ever. Sadly I am also more cynical, and with my head no longer clouded by youthful hormones it's too easy to see through this naive vision, even when wrapped in inspirational quotations and social theory. I want to believe that our common humanity will overcome all barriers between us; the evidence of history strongly suggests otherwise. I want to believe, as Zizek contends in the last chapter, that a reformed communism is the inevitable end-point of history, but I suspect that he has misidentified the light in the tunnel. I want to believe that 2011 marked a turning point in the relationship between people and capital, yet wonder whether we're just going round in circles.
That's not to say there aren't perspicacious insights here, which cause you to reconsider your view of events that have been well-trodden by the news media. Zizek is certainly a provocative and sometimes original thinker. There may yet be an argument that brings down the walls of capitalism and opens the gates to a more open, egalitarian society. This book isn't it.