Book of the Month: Slavoj Žižek’s ‘First As Tragedy, Then As Farce’

December 4, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

First as Tragedy, then as Farce consists of two essays examining the impact of the global economic crisis on the political culture of the 21st Century. Rejecting the notion that the crisis should automatically lead to a renaissance of radical emancipatory politics, Žižek identifies instead a steady drift towards racist populism and militarism, as societies turn in on themselves in an atmosphere of political uncertainty and economic precariousness.

Žižek sees the increasing prevalence of populist politicians of the Berlusconi type as a manifestation of the creeping spread of what some economists have labelled ‘capitalism with Asian values’ – a politically authoritarian, economically liberal mode of governance that compensates with xenophobia and reaction for its inability to address the root causes of economic stagnation. Rightwing populist condemnations of the so-called ‘excesses’ of the bankers and financiers are very much in fashion at the moment, and they come with a good deal of rhetoric about ‘responsibility’.

The truth is, however, that irresponsibility is inscribed on the very core of the global economic system: ‘You cannot,’ Žižek argues, ‘throw out the dirty water of financial speculation while keeping the healthy baby of real economy.’ Comparing the global financial system to a giant pyramid or ‘Ponzi’ scheme, he attacks the utopianism of the propagandists of the Clinton era, who triumphantly claimed that ideological struggles had been settled once and for all in favour of the US model of capitalist democracy.

The fact that mainstream commentators like John Caputo can seriously argue that the triumph of social struggles within a capitalist framework has been so comprehensive as to render the political left redundant is a testament to a solipsistic quality in mainstream current affairs commentary that is impervious even to the shock of a world of increasing inequality, fragmentation and uncertainty. Coached as they are in the notion that everything in life is a question of supply and demand, these dogmatists mistake the structurally-determined marginalisation of the political left for a manifestation of popular indifference towards progressive politics per se; presuming to transfer their own cynicism onto the rest of the human race, their quiet determination to see things through has something of the discomforting utopianism of so many doomed despots.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek is published by Verso.

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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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