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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #105, August 2003. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

An interview with Slavoj Zizek

This is the edited version of an interview with the Slovenian philiosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek originally broadcast on Doug Henwood's radio show, April 17, 2003. Zizek combines Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist political economy to analyze politics and culture.

To hear the original interview, which is much longer than this, visit here.

What did you think as Saddam's statue was falling in Baghdad?

Strangely, my first association was the bombing of Buddha statues in Afghanistan. I'm not implying that the U.S. is a new Taliban, the game where both are fundamentalists is a little too easy. Nonetheless, if we take statues as such, representing some kind of traditional culture, not so much American bombs as the American capitalist model is a much more effective destructive force than those poor Taliban bombs. My second reaction was, you know, if there is a lesson to be learned from history, from the fall of Communism ten years ago, is a deep distrust of this enthusiastic moment. Yes, probably a majority of Iraqis was, to put it modestly, relatively enthusiastic. Life was difficult under Saddam. Probably for an ordinary Iraqi, it may get a little bit better. But these enthusiastic explosions are just a moment; what matters to me is the day after. And there I'm a little bit less enthusiastic than it may appear.

The first problem: the idea was, "Let's bring democracy to Iraq." A couple of simple facts have to be mentioned here. First, for simple geopolitical strategic interests, the U.S. cannot afford democracy in the Middle East now. And I'm not playing any Marxist games about the illusions of bourgeois democracy. I simply mean usual Western liberal democracy - multiparty elections. This would assure that sooner or later, some kind of, if not fundamentalist, then at least nationalist Arab regime would take over, and would at least play some anti-American games with the oil. So that's the first irony of the situation.

The second one is how open the game is becoming. William Kristol is blunt: it's not really about Iraq, it's about the absolutely hegemonic role of the U.S. And another point they are making clearly is best captured by the last book by Fareed Zakaria, who now openly whines about "overdemocratization." In the U.S. and the rest of the world democracy exploded too much, which disturbs the normal run of things. The countries that have performed well economically - Tawian, Chile, Singapore, Korea - a decade ago, all were military dictatorships. He argues the U.S. should not bring democracy; it should install a benevolent authoritarian regime under U.S. guidance. The U.S. will decide when it's ready for democracy.

Within the U.S., this lesson is the same. There is too much popular pressure. What we need is more power for experts. Zakaria is not designating a new trend; it's effectively already going on for years. We have democracy at this certain level of this false, for me, secondary choices. But key questions about monetary politics, globalization, trade agreements and so on - nobody votes about that. In the years to come, the system - the global capitalist system - will have to directly curtail democracy. What we take now for granted will be slowly taken from us. They'll say, "This is not a thing to be discussed, it's a neutral knowledge expert rule or it's a matter of security." What is going on now in the U.S. is typical: it's not simply an emergency state, it's at the same time an emergency state and a normal state. It's a strange state where at the same time we are at war and things go on as normal.

And I think that this is not necessarily a bad thing, in the sense that the system, if I may use this old-fashioned left term, will be more and more obliged to break its own rules. This will open up a space for some leftist conversation which will be able to catch the system at its own work, to measure it by its own standards.

Let me change the subject a bit. In an article in the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson wondered why the Bush war on Iraq had given rise to such a large anti-war movement. He thought that there were many similarities between Iraq and what the U.S. had done in the past, and didn't understand why suddenly things were perceived as different. And he attributed it in part to a cultural antipathy against the Bush administration. Now I think cultural antipathy to the Bush administration is a very good thing, and I'm very much in favor of it, but what do you think of Anderson's critique?

I don't find this difference as mysterious as it may seem. There's a shift in legitimation, a real break here. First, there is, to use the old Stalinist dialectical term, a clear jump of quantity into quality. To the horror of many leftists, even I did show some understanding for the NATO bombing of ex-Yugoslavia. Sorry, but this bombing did stop a terrible conflict. Some kind of humanitarian effort was perceivable, and the action had some kind of international legitimacy. Since then, a whole series of shifts threw things into a different perspective. One of the key events was the American dismissal of the Hague International Court. Although it may appear just a minor judicial matter, it inscribed itself into people's consciousness. And with Iraq, the U.S. wanted to do it alone. It was absolutely clear already before the war that all the official justifications - the al-Qaeda connection, the mythical status of the weapons of mass destruction - did not work.

You've said that Bush's target was also in part the emancipatory possibilities of American society.

Maybe I exaggerated it a little bit, but still I think that you simply cannot also discount that factor. Not that Bush will use this as an excuse to introduce some kind of half-military dictatorship. No! But the imperceptible, unwritten rules of political life are changing gradually. My eternal trump card is torture. Can you even imagine the topic of torture as a legitimate topic two or three years ago? My biggest worry is this "soft revolution," these imperceptible changes in normativity, the unwritten rules about what is acceptable.

A large portion of the American population believes that Saddam was behind September 11. Only about 17% of respondents to one poll could correctly say that there were no Iraqis among the hijackers on September 11. Where do you think these fantasy views come from? Also, there's a tendency of the American left that thinks that all you have to do is get the facts out there, and things will take care of themselves. How do fantasies figure in politics and how do you counter them?

Now that's a good, big question. Big in the sense that I don't have good answers to it. With all my admiration for Noam Chomsky, I partially disagree with him. It's an underlying premise of his work that you don't have to do any theory - just tell all the facts to the people. The way ideology works today is much more mysterious - not more complex, one can always say this, things are always more complex, it means nothing just to say this. People just do not want to know too much. There's an active refusal to know. If you ask average citizens with enough of their own worries, they'd say, "Don't even tell me this. We pay taxes so the government can do all the dirty things that I don't want to know about."

The question isn't of any real link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. I remember a debate on TV where some viewers' calls made their point clear, which is: we are not talking about empirical links. Both Saddam and al-Qaeda hate the U.S.. That's enough of a link. You cannot really help by making factual refutations. The key factor is not that people are duped - there's an active will not to know. Remember the Reagan presidency, when the media pointed out his factual mistakes. That only raised his popularity. This was the point of identification. With Bush, you have an almost ideal image for how things worth: a naïve, unknowing president, and a sinister figure of knowledge, like Dick Cheney, the operative, who really controls him. This is really quite a nice metaphor for how things work.

People like to identify themselves. "I can be stupid but I'm still at the top. The wiseguy is my vice, he is doing all the dirty jobs for me." There is something appealing in this, I think. Again, my basic position is drop the point that people want to know; people don't want to know. I'm not engaged in any conservative psychology of, you know, "People prefer ignorance, it's only for us, the evolutionary or spiritual elite to lead them." I'm not saying this is an eternal fact. I'm just describing how specifically today's ideology works, through a direct appeal to the will of ignorance.

So what should we do in the face of this embrace of ignorance? Challenge it? Work with it? Ignore it?

I am still a naïve, enlightened person. One should challenge it, but without illusions. Here I'm in a very tragic predicament. I'm not saying that I have a blueprint for what to do today. My remaining hope is a very sad, pessimistic hope. The ruling system of ideology created such high democratic expectations that it cannot live up to them. Gradually, it will have to violate them. Once people are given certain rights, even if they are purely ideological, it's difficult to take these rights from them. It won't be easy to discipline people, to say, "No, we promised you too much." If you combine this with likely future economic upheavals.... My worry is not the worry of many of my leftist friends, like, "Why are you dreaming about revolutions? The system will just go on." No - I am almost tempted to say unfortunately, because unstable pre-revolutionary situations are not a holiday of history. They can be very unpleasant. But they will compel us to invent new political forms. In a couple of years, we will be literally forced to reinvent new ways.

What do you make of German and French opposition to the American war effort? Is it the dying gasp of a displaced imperialism, or the birth of an EU alternative to American power?

This dilemma that you present is inscribed into the very situation. It's both. On the one hand, yes, there definitely is an imperial aspect within Europe for Germany and France. They were worried by the expansion of the EU, and they wanted to assert a leading role there - and they did it even in a very arrogant way. We shouldn't have any illusions, especially about France. The Rwanda massacre a couple of years ago, that that was pure France - pure Mitterand, if anything. Now, then what the French are doing.... Congo-Brazzaville, my god, if the notion of neo-post-colonialist state has any meaning at all today, it's Congo-Brazzaville. It's worse than even Latin-American banana republics. It's Elf-Acquitaine, the big French oil company (which incidentally has had much better relations with the Socialist Party than with the right). It owns the country. It's interested only in controlling the small piece of land close to the sea where the oil reserves are and to bribe the ruling clique. The infrastructure is below the level of forty years ago when it was still a colony. So, no idealization of France.

But, on the other hand, I think it's the basic historical dialectic: that things which start as a narcissistic injury to some big party, things which may explode and emerge for the wrong reason can, in the long term, start to function on their own. They can start movements that are in themselves good. If we say, yes much of Europe was against the U.S., but we should look at the true roots and thereby dismiss it. No, I don't think this is the truth of it. There was resistance, which is in itself positive.

Point two: even when people complain, "But this was a weak resistance, now it's vanishing, now already Chirac is practically withdrawing," and so on, how Europe really showed its weakness. Oh, but I would say, are people aware how precisely by experiencing this as Europe's defeat, you at least set certain standards? You become aware in a negative way of what should have been done. My parallel here is with feminism. The first step of feminism is not, "Women should win." It's that you become aware of how defeated women are. You know, the first step towards liberation is, in a way, the awareness of defeat.

Along the same lines, I think this is very good if we become aware of how Europe failed. But, you know, if Europe failed, then it failed to do something we at least know we should have done. And there will be other changes and so on and so on. So, in the same way that I didn't have any big illusions two, three months ago, that this would already be the start of the big anti-American coalition, I am now not such a pessimist. Isn't this a good thing that at least Europe is aware of its failure, that it's clearly aware of its failure?

We saw the emergence very rapidly of a very large globally coordinated antiwar movement, and one with substantial anti-imperialist content. Why do you think it rose so quickly, and do you think it's going to continue to grow beyond that? Is it going to grow into a real anti-imperialist movement, or has it now been shattered by the results of the war in Iraq?

Of course now it's temporarily shattered. The reasons it grew is precisely what we were talking about at the beginning of our talk. People are somehow aware that more is at stake here than Iraq, that the whole new, implicit rules of international order, which are pretty catastrophic if you universalize them, are emerging. I think that was key.

And, second point: I do think more and more that, of course now there will be a backlash but the logic of progressive movements is always from defeat to defeat up to the final victory. There will be a next crisis, and resistance will be better organized. Two years ago or more, who would have expected such an explosion? It was incredible. Of course now we have this deceptive moment of triumph, but wait a couple of months. In the short-term, it may work. But, there will be other tensions with other countries, probably renewed terror attacks. You know, the situation is so predictable, that even if it would work in Iraq, by the very logic of their intervention, they may be pushed into Syria, and so on, further and further. The situation will get out of hand and this will trigger new protests and so on and so on.

So, no, no, no. What I'm really afraid of is that when we left-wingers ask, "is America aware that in this way they are only creating new tensions?" they miss the point. What if the aim is to introduce instability to the entire region and then to brutally impose some kind of universalized emergency state or new order? But even if the U.S. is consciously counting on the global disorder, it will not be able to control it. My only hope is that American interventions will give rise to some kind of resistance. My big hope - as an atheist, praying night and day for it - is that the resistance in the Middle East will not be simply kidnapped by the so-called fundamentalists. That this resistance will have at least secular socialist wing. And I think there is a fair chance at it. Look at Iran. There is hope.

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