Slavoj Žižek is part philosopher, part international phenomenon. And if that seems impossible in this day and age, consider: Žižek, a Slovenian cultural theorist, has published more than 40 books in English, has starred in four films, and even has an academic journal (International Journal of Žižek Studies) dedicated to his work. Renowned for his gymnastic thinking and mastery of counterintuition, Žižek has been called “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” by the New Republic and “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals” by the New York Review of Books.
Out this week, his latest book, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles With the Neighbors is an urgent and entertaining diagnosis of the ongoing refugee crisis and global terror threat, highlighting the glaring contradictions in our attitudes and actions. True to form, Žižek, an avowed Marxist, takes this fraught historical moment as an opportunity to apply his particular brand of bombastic, unconventional salve. His past positions have chafed liberals and conservatives alike, and this book will be no exception. (See below.) I caught up with Žižek to talk about the limitations of democracy, orphan prophets, and America’s ugly presidential election.
Mother Jones: What, specifically, is the biggest problem that the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in North America, has exposed?
Slavoj Žižek: It’s an issue with democracy! When people complain Europe is not transparent—if, right now, you organized elections all across Europe, the first result would be to throw all the immigrants out. Unambiguously. This is the problem! I spoke with some Slovenian representatives in Brussels when they were negotiating to help Greece and immigrants. And they told me they were making deals in closed sessions, but if the debate were to be public, it would have been much worse for Greece and for immigrants, because public opinion in countries like Slovenia and Poland was much more against immigrants and against helping Greece. What shocks me is that the very same people who complain that the democratic process in Europe should be more transparent at the same time want more rights for immigrants.
MJ: And what does this mean for democracy?
SZ: The state wants to impose basic anti-racist measures, and then local communities controlled by right-wing fundamentalists block that. I am here on the side of the state, which I am ready to endorse up to the crazy end. We have to accept that the people are quite often not right. I believe in democracy but in a very conditional way. There are elections that are a miracle, in the sense that you can see that people were really, authentically, mobilized. For example, in spite of all the compromises that occurred later, the Syriza elections—this was an authentic choice. So miracles do happen, but they are exceptions. Don’t fetishize the people. Don’t mythologize the people, they are not right! Don’t mythologize the immigrants. This is the big motive running through my book.
MJ: This is one of those positions that won’t be too popular on the left.
SZ: My point is precisely that the ultimate racism is to endorse the immigrant other, but the idealized version of that other. They are ordinary, shitty people like all of us. The point is not to like them. The point is to accept them the way they are and try to help them. That’s why I don’t want to open my heart to the refugees. That’s for liberals to do. Let’s open our purses to them. Give them money! Let’s not get into this emotional blackmail.
MJ: You first bring up the term “double blackmail” in the book with regard to the supposedly irreconcilable opposition between secular capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Please explain that.
SZ: Although I’m totally opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, I don’t buy the story of stupid, radical leftists who claim Islamic fundamentalism is one of the big anti-capitalist forces. I think this is empirically not true. I read reports of Daesh [ISIS]. The nearest approximation is that they operate like a big mafia corporation, dealing with artifacts, cultural monuments, oil. Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, they are not traditional. Forget about their ideology; look at their organization! They’re a brutal centralized power. They are ultramodern in their mode of functioning.
The second reason I think the opposition is wrong is that a new form of capitalism is emerging. It’s a wrong, racist term, but “capitalism with Asian values,” which simply means capitalism no longer ideologically perceives itself as this hedonistic individualism. More and more, you can combine a certain religious, ethnic, or cultural commitment. Like India’s prime minister, Narenda Modi, my hero in a horrible sense. I am totally opposed to him. He is a neoliberal economist and Hindu fundamentalist. So again, this entire disposition of oppositions like “liberal permissive capitalism” versus religious fundamentalism is wrong—it doesn’t function like that. This is not where capitalism is moving.
MJ: An interesting illustration of this contradiction is Uber, which recently caught flack for taking $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia. So we have the technological vanguard of Silicon Valley in bed with one of the world’s most infamously regressive Islamic regimes, and yet Uber’s services in the kingdom have been portrayed as a social justice issue, since women aren’t allowed to drive.
SZ: So let me play the devil here. As Saudi Arabia I will tell you, “Fuck you. You preach multicultural tolerance. Such a role of women is an immanent part of our culture. Where is your tolerance for different cultures?” And in a way, I would be right! Because you cannot say, “We will correct women’s role in society and otherwise we leave to Saudis their culture.” A shameful story is how American feminists supported the invasion of Iraq, claiming it would bring liberation to Iraqi women. They were totally wrong. Saddam was still, with all the horrors, a secular leader. Women held public posts in Saddam’s Iraq. If anything, now the role of women is much lower. They are much more oppressed now. Isn’t this a beautiful irony?
The main social effect of the American occupation of Iraq was to worsen the position of women and, because of the rise of more orthodox Islam, most of the Christians left Iraq. Christians were a considerable minority there, a couple million of them for thousands of years. It took American intervention to see them thrown out. Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, was an Iraqi Christian. We should never forget this. The two states which are disappearing now in the Middle East, Iraq and Syria—are you aware that these are the only two states which were formerly secular? Assad was also horrible, but neither Syria nor Iraq defined themselves as Islamic states. They defined themselves as secular states.
MJ: Yet in your book, you focus as much on the impact of economic policy in creating these problems as you do on the impact of military intervention.
SZ: Economic trade agreements are more destructive; they’re even worse. I’m not even a priori against military interventions. Take the Republic of Congo. The state is simply not functioning—it’s the closest you can get to hell on earth. But of course nobody wants to intervene there because Congo’s local warlords all make deals with big companies who get minerals—like coltan for electronics—much cheaper. I would have nothing against a nice military intervention into Congo to simply establish it as a normal functioning state with basic services. But this I can guarantee will never happen. Big powers become interested in human rights violations only when there is some economic interest behind it.
MJ: Let’s talk about the American election.
SZ: When I was young, decades ago, my leftist friends were saying that those in power speak the official polite dignified language. To provoke them we should be more vulgar with words. But today it’s the opposite. Right-wing populism introduces vulgarity into public space. Trump is obviously a pure ideological opportunist. You know he makes the move to the right, then a little bit to the left. At some point he supports raising minimum wage, then he’s lowering it. At some point he said we should have more understanding for Palestinians; now he says we should recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. He is an opportunist, and I think that even with his provocations, he is nothing extraordinary. I don’t think there is anything remotely radical in his position. I am infinitely more afraid of people like Ted Cruz. Trump is a vulgar opportunist. Cruz is a monster. Do you think Ted Cruz is human?
What I find problematic about this demonization of Trump is that through this demonization, Hillary Clinton succeeded in building a common front. This is the only time I sympathize with Trump. When Bernie Sanders supported Hillary, Trump said, “It’s like Occupy Wall Street supporting Wall Street.” Hillary succeeded in building this totally ideological unity, from [Clinton Foundation donations from] Saudi Arabia to LGBT, from Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street. This consensus is ideology at its purest.
MJ: What do you make of the argument that, beneath all the racial animus we’re seeing toward immigrants and refugees, there’s some vague, misdirected frustration with neoliberal policy?
SZ: This is always how racism works. Take anti-Semitism: The Jew was always the ersatz for the capitalist. The big achievement of anti-Semitism was to take class resentment and rechannel it into race resentment. Here we come to the true greatness of Bernie Sanders. Instead of just despising the ordinary farmers who fell for [racist rhetoric], he got them on his side. He got those who by definition are conservative fundamental Republicans to the moderate left. This is a mega achievement. He is the answer for the left. To get this infamous silent majority on your side should be our strategy. The left should reappropriate things like public decency, politeness, and good manners. We shouldn’t be afraid of this. Capitalism has become an extremely vulgar space.
MJ: Back to the question of refugees. Nowhere do you advocate opening borders, or posit that everything will work itself out.
SZ: There are real cultural problems. You know in Cologne, Germany, the New Year’s scandal. This was of course not a rape attempt—if you want to rape you don’t go to the place full of light and people at the center of the city. This sort of thing happens all the time. It was happening at the anti-Mubarak protests at Tahrir Square. This is a typical lower-class Arab carnival ritual. You dance around women; you maybe pinch them a little bit, but you don’t rape. Of course, this is unacceptable for us. But we need to talk openly about this, because if we don’t talk about this we feed the opponents, the right-wing paranoiacs, Islamophobia. An open, honest debate should be risked here. And the first mistake we make is if we think we understand ourselves, we definitely don’t. Yes, criticize Islamic fundamentalists. But at the same time analyze ourselves.
MJ: So can progressive values and Islam be reconciled?
SZ: If you look at the Muslim tradition, there are terribly progressive elements of it. Islam is not a religion of family; it’s a religion of orphans, which is crucial—Muhammad was an orphan and so on. There is tremendous emancipatory potential in that. The Haiti revolution, the key ideologist was a guy named John Bookman, a slave who knew how to read, that’s why they called him Bookman. But you know which book he was reading? The Koran. Islam played a key role in mobilizing slaves in Haiti. Right now, I think we live in dangerous times. Who knows what turn it will take. But I think there is a chance for the left.