OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS a handful of Marxist and semi-Marxist intellectuals have achieved an unlikely measure of fame among the disaffected young. In the wake of the so-called War on Terror and the near-collapse of the international financial system, men and women such as Antonio Negri, Naomi Klein and Alain Badiou have crisscrossed the globe addressing rapturous student audiences. Their message is sometimes obscure but on one thing they all agree: international capitalism cannot meet the needs of ordinary people and has to be overthrown or at least radically reformed. Together they have helped to effect one of the most surprising intellectual shifts in modern history. Until recently it was widely believed that the politics of anti-capitalism were dead. Nowadays a significant (though still relatively small) fraction of the world’s youth are about as opposed to the free market as it is possible to be.
In many respects the most interesting of the new celebrity Marxists is the Croatian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), whose recent visit to India has done a lot to boost his profile in Asia. Bulky, bearded and preternaturally intense, Žižek is on the faculty of the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School in Switzerland; he also holds a number of visiting professorships in universities throughout Europe and the USA. His reputation as a critical thinker rests on his ingenious, suggestive and fearsomely intricate attempt to fuse the Marxist theory of ideology with the ideas of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The theory in question, which draws in particular on Lacan’s notion of the Real, is shown off to best effect in the early text, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and has now served as the foundation for more than 40 books. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce addresses the world crisis that began with the events of 11 September 2001, and deepened immeasurably with the onset of recession in 2007. Easily Žižek’s most accessible work—readily understandable even without a knowledge of Lacan—it has already become cult reading in universities across the planet. So what does it tell us about its author’s habits of thought? Is Žižek a salubrious influence on our young radicals or is he not?
First As Tragedy... is largely concerned with two aspects of the world crisis, each of which gets a lengthy chapter to itself. The first is the future of neoliberalism, now that the dreadful consequences of free-market dogma have begun to hit home. Žižek has no time for the thoughtless optimism of many of his comrades on the Left. Noting that utopian ideologies like neoliberalism tend to gain in strength at the very moment when their weaknesses are most exposed, he rejects the idea that the world recession necessarily creates the conditions for a new political dawn. There is no reason why the future should belong to the Left. It is just as likely that the heirs of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush will press ahead with the privatising, globalising and deregulating agenda that has already done such damage.