01 September 2010

A Coffee For Our Conscience

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A Coffee For Our Conscience ©Hendrik Speck

He has been dubbed by the American conservative magazine New Republic as ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’, and by the British Observer newspaper as ‘the superstar messiah of the new Left’. Sublime unpicks the issues that make Slavoj Žižek one the most controversial thinkers of our time

Slavoj Žižek is a 61-year-old Slovenian radical who has gained international renown as a public figure more than willing to take a stand against the social inequalities and dangers arising from the effects of global capitalism. He has said that ‘Society today is fast approaching a certain zero point’, with an immense ecological crisis to the fore, coupled with a growing divide between rich and poor.

Furthermore, with the advent of biogenetics, Žižek believes that ‘The very destiny of the human race is in question’. Žižek’s solution to this potentially catastrophic situation is to offer analyses of the capitalist ideologies preventing us from breaking free from our impending fate, and to propose a robust programme of sociopolitical and legal change.

One of Žižek's principal targets of critique concerns recent shifts in modes of marketing by multinational corporations and businesses intent upon developing – while also exploiting – the increased desire among the liberal classes in the West to ‘do something’ about saving the endangered planet and helping the world’s poor. Like all other issues in his work, Žižek comes at this particular subject of corporate marketing from a position on the radical Left.

He is a self-declared Communist – although he is at pains to distance his ideas from the communist doctrine associated with the totalitarian regimes in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and its territories in the Eastern bloc prior to the fall of the iron curtain. Indeed, he deems the Communism of the 20th century a ‘total failure’. ‘It was really a catastrophe – look at the terrible death count,’ he says.

‘Emancipatory politics’

In spite of the fact that he was brought up under a communist regime, Žižek’s few remaining affiliations to its ideology lie mainly in his understanding of the original semantic meaning of the term communism, as this is derived from the word ‘commons’. From the period of the Middle Ages to the 19th century in Europe, the word ‘commons’ referred in the first instance to the idea of common land that existed in the rural areas, and its communal usage by the landless. But it also came to denote the historical struggle during this period for the rights to such usage.

While this struggle ended in ultimate failure in the face of the assertion of private land ownership, Žižek states: ‘I believe that the term communism, if understood in its original dimensions, still has a strong relevance for emancipatory politics today, as a way of directing our ideas about the common cause of our shared social being as this encompasses culture, and primarily language, our means of communication and education.

‘But also shared infrastructure, such as public transport, electricity, post and so forth – external nature threatened by pollution and exploitation, from oil to forests and the natural habitat itself, and internal nature, the biogenetic inheritance of humanity.’

Like other radical Leftists, Žižek’s opposition towards capitalism lies in its creation of social inequalities, particularly as this is manifested in terms of the distribution of wealth.

‘I am not simply opposed to capitalism alone, but to any economic system reliant upon a single universal medium – in capitalism’s case, this is money – by which to gauge and evaluate all that can be exchanged and sold … the value of a commodity assumes the form of another thing, money.’

Žižek’s point is that such systems inevitably repress the possibility of paradigmatic differences between products or things; indeed, Žižek suggests that there may be forms of production or modes of being in this world that cannot be given a monetary value – an idea that capitalist ideology struggles to comprehend. He has written about these issues of economic and political theory at some length in his first book that was published in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, in 1980. But he does not believe that political opposition towards capitalism can be engendered solely through an understanding of economics.

Social inequality

Žižek also recognises that the principal way by which political opposition is mounted is through reacting to social inequalities as they are experienced either directly, or as they are reported through the media. It is especially owing to the media today in its role as a social conscience of global affairs that the liberal class has developed a keen awareness about poverty, both as this exists globally but also as an ever-deepening affliction in the West. The huge display of public support for Bob Geldof’s Live Aid charity appeal in 1985 was a defining moment in the growth of this awareness.

It is exactly at this point of an increased awareness in the West of social inequality and poverty that Žižek identifies what he feels is a new, and from his point of view, worrying trend in corporate marketing strategies.

‘When you buy something, your anti-capitalist duty – the desire to do something for others and for the environment – is already included in your purchase.’

Many companies, of which Starbucks is a prime example, now give a percentage of their product’s cost to a recognised world charity or an organisation working in the third world.

As the campaign for Starbucks states, ‘It’s not just what you’re buying, It’s what you’re buying into. When you buy Starbucks, you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee: you are buying into coffee ethics! Through our Shared Planet programme, we purchase more fair-trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work, and we invest in and improve good coffee practices and communities around the world.’

A similar consumer pitch cited by Žižek is that of the American company TOMS Shoes, whose slogan is ‘One for one: for every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of shoes to a child in need.’

This combination of consumerism with an ethical dimension is, says Žižek, ‘cultural capitalism at its purest – in the very consumerist act, you buy redemption from being a consumerist.’ Žižek argues that this feeling of redemption from Western consumerist guilt is closely allied to the vogue for organic goods and other environmentally friendly products that also act as a salve to the consumer’s conscience. Žižek caustically observes that when we purchase, say, a bag of organic apples, it is not because they necessarily taste any better than other apples, but because ‘It makes us feel warm inside by doing something for the environment, for Mother earth, for the planet.’ With the problems of poverty and ecology already included in the price of what we buy, our conscience is absolved. Thus making it all too easy to think that capitalism takes care of the predicaments facing the world.

Extreme measures

For Žižek, the effect of this recently formed bond between consumerism and ethical responsibility effectively nips in the bud a potential alliance between those liberals with a social conscience who wish to alleviate, and even eradicate, poverty and the radical Left opposed to capitalism. Furthermore, in Žižek’s opinion,

‘Donating money to charities and other world organisations, however effective this may be in alleviating the problem of poverty in the short term, is not the long-term answer.’

Žižek concurs with Oscar Wilde’s analysis of the same problem, who argued in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ (1891) that charity ‘does not cure the disease, but rather simply prolongs it’. Wilde suggested that charity is actually part of the disease it is trying to cure, since altruistic virtues simply preserve the status quo and actually prevent the radical reconstruction of society by which poverty may be alleviated altogether.

Žižek’s philosophy is that capitalism cannot be made to work for the good, however much it tries to put on a human face. In short, he believes that ‘private property cannot be made to solve the problems engendered by private property’. He has declared,

‘What is needed to solve the present ecological crisis, in so far as this is interrelated with the problems of poverty and capitalism, is a far-reaching and ruthlessly ambitious political programme. Our present political masters cannot be trusted,’ he asserts. ‘Indeed, they usher in further catastrophic changes because their mindset is so limited, composed as it is of a desire to administrate the situation in line with capitalist interests.’

Thus, our present difficulties call for extreme measures in the name of the common good, measures that Žižek has boldly synthesised into a four-point manifesto of collective action. He calls for: ‘An imposition of worldwide norms of per capita energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions; the punishment of all those who violate the imposed protective measures; the deployment of large-scale collective decisions intended to run counter to the “spontaneous” logic of capitalist development; and all of this combined with a new-found trust in the people – the wager that the large majority of the people support these severe measures, see them as their own and are ready to participate in their enforcement.’

Whether this manifesto offers a real way forward in overturning capitalism, and whether it, itself, is another form of totalitarian ideology, remains to be seen.


Slavoj Žižek is a Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at Ljubljana University, Slovenia. He has been a visiting professor at many US universities and is currently the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. He has published numerous articles as well as over fifty books in English on current political and cultural issues. His most recent book is Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010).

Christopher Kul-Want is a writer on philosophy and art theory. He is the author of Slavoj Žižek: A Graphic Guide (Icon Books).


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