There’s a lot of work to be done in Europe

Slavoj Žižek

When Stojan Pelko invited me to this event, he asked me to be provocative. And I certainly will. We started with 40 minutes of self-congratulatory ritual introductions. Not a single thing was said that was not already known. I know that this is a ritual but perhaps the time has come to change the rituals. That is where culture and ideology are: in unwritten rituals.


Let me bring up another issue. It is fashionable to speak of plurality of opinions and lack of full consensus. But I would say that we need dogmas: hard dogmas about non-negotiable issues. What do I mean by that? Is it another provocation? No. Here is an example. Would you like to live in a society where people openly debate whether rape is justifiable or not? Of course not. I would like to live in a society that bans the rape of women as an unconditional dogma. If somebody starts reflecting on this and wondering – “Well, it depends… Suppose the woman is giving implicit signals…” – he simply comes across as an idiot. You do not even need to argue about this. The moment you start arguing, things get lost.


I remember a wonderful incident involving president Ronald Reagan. He was accused of being tolerant of Holocaust deniers. He said, “No, it is not true. Each time somebody at my dinner table claims there was no Holocaust, I always claim the opposite“. But the question is what kind of guests he associated with in the first place. Why did he have to defend the view that the Holocaust occurred?


We need more dogmas


We need more dogmas. These are a condition of a living culture. However, we have a dogma of openness today: consensus is bad; let us have a debate and stay open. A catholic theologian said 100 years ago, “An open mind is like an open mouth. You open it to close it on something firm“. That is what we need today.


Let me provoke you a little bit more. There is a dogma called Leitkultur. I am going to defend this dogma but you need not be afraid. I am not a crazy right-winger. I claim that we have to be critical of liberalism. The liberal idea of multiculturalism, and the role of government as nothing more than a regulator of the co-existence of diverse cultures, simply does not work. I am coming back to the concept of unwritten rules. Multiculturalism presupposes that all parties that participate in it share a set of meta-rules which regulate the way that different cultures interact. It is noteworthy that these rules cannot be the law.


The moment you start discussing such rules, you get involved in political correctness. Of course, I am against racism and other types of discrimination. My problem with political correctness is of a different nature. It tries to legalize what should be part of a dogma and some unwritten rules in a positive sense.


The next thing that I would like to draw your attention to is the celebration of culture. I hope that you have noticed that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. It started some 30 or 40 years ago. Today practically everything is culture. My problem is that this strong focus on culture comes at a heavy price. Perhaps the price is even too high to be paid. Problems that are inherently economical are presented as cultural problems.


Of course, we are all against sexism and racism. But have you noticed how we automatically translate these into a problem of cultural tolerance? To Martin Luther King it would have been an obscenity to hear that the suffering of the Blacks in the United States was a problem of tolerance. Did Blacks at that time ask Whites to be more tolerant? It is even more evident in the case of feminism. Should women ask men to be more tolerant? The fact that we experience sexism and racism is a problem of power and economics. We live in a world where the economy is increasingly viewed as some kind of machinery operated by technocrats that need not be debated by others. It is simply presented to us in the form “The experts say that we must do this“. What remains are cultural conflicts. This is almost the only field in which we have a genuine political debate.


The price for all this is depolitization. This pre-eminence of culture goes together with a series of replacements. Culture is replacing art. Art is suspicious; it is elitist. People prefer to talk about culture. Have you also noticed that we prefer to say “knowledge” rather than “science”? If you say “science”, it sounds like European cultural imperialism. You are brutally imposing your form of knowledge on others. Why should Western science be privileged? Aren’t local superstitions also fully legitimate knowledge? I experienced something similar during a visit to India half a year ago. I mentioned castes and equality. I was immediately brutally attacked and told that castes are part of their culture. Who was I – a European imperialist – to tell them that they should dismantle their castes? Interestingly, the only people who were on the same wave length as me were the true victims – the untouchables.


Another thing is that we do not want to talk about love. It is replaced by whatever you call it: sex, emotional bonding, you name it. My good friend, Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, noticed that we are witnessing a return of the pre-modern strategy of arranged marriage. It is no longer relatives that arrange marriages but match-making agencies. I recently flew United Airlines and saw a wonderful ad in the in-flight magazine. The idea was that, since we outsource everything nowadays (and the United States outsource even torture), why not outsource your love life? Just provide your data and the agency will do the job for you. Besides, the ad said, “We will enable you to be in love without a fall“. This is our narcissistic economy today. You want to be in love but without the authentic open contact. You want to domesticate love so that you do not get hurt. Make it safe and without risk. It is like beer without alcohol, coffee without caffeine and meat without fat.


Finally, instead of politics, we prefer to talk about governance. It is the same neutralizing mystification.


My fear concerning this meeting is that it can degenerate into another self-congratulatory ritual whose real goal is not to achieve something but to make you feel good. I heard the phrase “sustainable development”. Are we aware of the mystifications that are associated with this idea? It is a wonderful way to enable the big industries to do nothing. Instead of really tackling ecological problems, we are talking about “way of life” ecology. Did you recycle your garbage? Did you dispose of your trash in separate containers? Of course, we should do these things. But I am afraid that once we get involved in these everyday rituals, we think that we have done our duty and it makes us feel well. As a result, we forget about the big problems.


As far as I am concerned, the modern model of corporate responsibility is provided by Starbucks coffee. That company will tell you that their coffee is more expensive but one percent of the profits goes to some hungry children in Guatemala, another two percent goes to a water drilling project in the Sahara desert and so forth. It is a wonderful ideological operation. In the good old days of pure consumerist capitalism, you felt good and then you did something to appease your guilty consciousness. Now, the socially responsible activity is included in the price. You just pay a little more and you have been a responsible consumer. This is the logic of the chocolate laxative. Chocolate is usually associated with constipation but in the United States they have a laxative that looks like chocolate. In this sense, the poison is its own antidote.


Another example is organic fruit. I buy it, too. However, I suspect that we do not really believe in it. We buy it simply because it makes us feel good. I buy half-rotten apples, paying three times as much as I do for normal ones, and I feel so great because I have done something for Mother Earth. We are buying ideology. I am not saying we should not be doing this. I am just showing you how ideology works. You see a picture of a miserable black boy from Africa and an ad tells you that you can make a difference for the price of a cappuccino. But what is the real message behind this? The real message is, “We know you feel bad because we exploited Africa but we can make you feel good for the price of a cappuccino“. This should not only deal with your sense of guilt but even make you feel that you have made a real contribution. This is how anti-racism and ecology turn into ideology.


We will never understand each other because we do not even understand ourselves


My next point is the cheap celebration of different cultures and the culture of understanding. I think this is cheap liberal blackmail. We will never understand each other because we do not even understand ourselves. People ask, “When I discuss art with the Chinese, how do I know that we mean the same thing as we do in Europe?” I will be brutal and tell you that there is a way to achieve instant communication. I will mention my own country – former Yugoslavia – as an example. Thirty years ago, we had abandoned apparently racist jokes. Prior to that, we had jokes about each Yugoslav people. The Slovenes were misers and those of Gorenjska were the worst of all. There was even a joke that one of them was spending too much money; so they put him on a boat and sent him to Scotland. Montenegrins were viewed as lazy, whereas Bosnians were sex maniacs.


The funny thing was that these jokes were not perceived as racist. They were something that created authentic contact. This works everywhere: from Latin America to China. In China, I was once told an obscene joke about how a party secretary tried to flirt with a young girl; this is what broke the ice between us. To communicate successfully with another culture, you need a little bit of obscenity.


Also, remember the paradox of cultural misunderstandings as they can be productive. If you know the history of the West, you will notice an authentic phenomenon: culture. Then, it is appropriated by another country and there is a case of misunderstanding. In the most beautiful example of dialectical reflection, this can have a creative influence on the original. For example, we have spaghetti westerns that retroactively influence the original ones. My point is that we do not need to be afraid that we do not really understand the other party. Nobody understands even himself properly.


There is another brutal rule that I would like to propose to you. I claim that the only thing that really works in education and culture is enlightened dictatorship. Let us imagine that you wish to set up a new university department or an art gallery in a particular country. If you have a large democratic network, you will experience envy and resentment. The only working formula that I know is this: you give the whole power and money to one person and you pray that he is not an idiot. We need democracy in politics. But it is not good in education and the arts in the sense that we know it: people getting together and debating things.


Now here is another rule, apparently the opposite of the previous one. A hierarchical system should not be based only on merit. That would be a catastrophe. We believe in egalitarian societies. If a hierarchy were based on merit, the situation would become explosive and violent. Suppose that a society could function in the way that John Rawls proposed in his “Theory of Justice”: If I am rich, that is because I have earned it through my abilities and now your consolation is that some of my wealth will trickle down to those on the lowest step of the social ladder. Would people accept this?


Do you know what, in my view, makes unequal systems liveable? It is precisely the awareness that they are not just. Let us imagine that I am a failure and you are a success. If I believe that success depends on luck and not on merit, it is very easy for me to accept my failure. I will also believe that you are a bigger idiot than me but you are just lucky. Imagine how horrible I would feel if I accepted that you are above me because you are intrinsically better than me. This means that it is OK that we have democracy but we should not push it too much into meritocracy.


The general problem in Europe is what Immanuel Kant called “public use of reason”. He opposed private and public use of reason in an absolutely paradoxical way. In his view, a private use of reason would be what we today would count as public policy: the things that you do so that the state can function properly. He saw this as private use of reason. A public use of reason, in Kant’s view, occurs when we meet outside the domain of legalistic institutions. In that case, our reason is not subordinated in advance to the public good.


Real intellectuals should be able to ask the right questions


I am mentioning this because the ongoing reform in higher education in Europe is a big attack on the public use of reason. It is shocking that we are now getting the same output from Brussels as we got from the communist nomenclature of this country when I was young. We are again told that intellectuals should not live in their ivory towers. Our knowledge should have some specific use; we should be able to solve real problems. As a result, higher education is being transformed into a machinery producing experts. This is a catastrophe. This simply means the end of intellectual life. In true intellectual life, you do not just solve problems defined and proposed to you by others, for example, those in power. The first step is to think of the very formulation of the problem. Are we formulating the problem properly? Is this really the problem?


The problem today is not just that we have big problems with the economy, ecology, and more. The problem is that we do not even know if we are asking the right questions. Quite often, the way that we formulate the problem is part of the problem. Just think of the example that I mentioned already: tolerance. The moment that you formulate sexism and racism as a problem of tolerance, you mystify it. Real intellectuals can help in a situation like this one because they should be able to ask the right questions.


As another exercise of the same type, I propose that we consider the current attack on neo-liberalism. The easiest thing is to inveigh against it. But it is first of all necessary to realize that neo-liberalism never existed. Even governments that preach it do not practice it. Look at the United States. Was there ever a state in the history of mankind with a stronger state apparatus? Did another state ever interfere so strongly in the economy? Neo-liberalism is simply an ideology proposed by some Western states to steer Third World nations but nobody really practices it.


My next provocation is associated with culture. Do not put too much hope into it. We like to say that politicians are crazy but poets can tell us the truth. Poets can indeed tell us many things. But never forget the symbolic fact that Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was also a poet. It is easy to make fun of him now that his political career is finished and he is in prison. I remember the late 70s and early 80s when people did not know that Karadžić would become what he was going to become. He was taken quite seriously as a poet.


We live in secular times. The old patriotism is dead. Nevertheless, we have preserved our morality. I would find it a little difficult to gouge your eye with my knife. Do you see my point? The question is how to overcome this element of natural decency. You need something strong, like a national myth. This is where religion and poetry enter. Remember that there is a poet behind every ethnic cleansing. I checked this empirically. Do you remember the big slaughter in Rwanda? The name is Hassan Ngeze – the Karadžić of Rwanda. He was a journalist who systematically spread anti-Tutsi feelings and hatred among the Hutu majority for two decades until the carnage was actually unleashed.


I admit that conflict is the basis of our being human. But it can also be precisely the medium that enables people to do horrible things. The true horror is not that bad people do bad things. The true horror is that good people do horrible things thinking that they are doing something great. Unfortunately, you cannot do this without poetry or religion. I am not against poetry. I am just saying that we need to be very clear about how it works.


We will need new thinking in the new situation and culture can do a good job


We live in a critical period when intellectual and cultural work is needed more than ever. Why? Because it is obvious that the liberal capitalist way of life is slowly being eroded. The best argument in favour of capitalism was that, no matter what else it does, it eventually generates a demand for democracy. But it seems that this marriage between capitalism and democracy is slowly falling apart. Is it not sad that the most efficient capitalist economies today – China, Singapore, and Korea – combine what we poetically call “Asian values” in their political order?


I do not like the protesters on Wall Street. But we must admit that our institutionalized democratic system cannot cope with the failing financial institutions. We have a problem here. The old 20th century solutions no longer work. The 20th century is over. We see the limits of the social-democratic welfare state. I am especially opposed to the idea of local self-management. It has very serious limitations. We are facing mega problems. Millions of people will have to move because of the global warming. We have to think of radically new solutions. How can we do this while preventing a new form of authoritarianism? I am not talking about “neo-fascism” like some leftists who use this term to describe the right-wing anti-immigration mood in Europe. This is called thinking by association. You do not understand what is going on and you just think what it reminds you of. This is a failure to think properly. We will need new thinking in the new situation and culture can do a good job.


Let me conclude with a wonderful anecdote. In mid-April 2011 the media reported that the Chinese government had passed a law prohibiting all public media from publishing any story about time travel and virtual reality. It is clear that they did not want people to think about alternatives. Nevertheless, this is a good omen for China. This can suggest to the Chinese what kind of things the powers are afraid of. In Europe we do not need that prohibition.


A colleague of mine, Alenka Zupančič, had an interesting idea. Have you noticed how strangely the “possible-impossible” pair works? In the sphere of economy and private pleasure almost everything is possible. We are told that we will be able to grow organs and cure all sorts of diseases through cloning and stem-cell research. We will practically live forever. We will be able to dine on the Moon.


Sometimes this goes totally haywire. A couple of months ago I met a New York surgeon who is specializing in splitting penises in two. As a result, you can have sex with two women at the same time. It seems that practically anything is possible. But if you have to raise taxes by one percent in order to boost the healthcare system, economists will tell you that it is totally impossible. You will lose competitiveness and the country will go down the drain. So, everything is possible outside the economy but when you start tackling economic problems, everything is impossible.


I think that we have to change our priorities. The best description of our situation is provided by an old apocryphal anecdote. In 1916, during the First World War, there was an exchange of telegrams between the Austrian and German headquarters: “The situation here is serious but not catastrophic“. The answer was “Here, the situation is catastrophic but not serious“. This is our predicament today. We all know that the situation is potentially catastrophic, yet we do not take it seriously. We know that ecological catastrophe is looming large, yet we expect things somehow to take care of themselves.


What is the problem here? Think of the violent riots in the United Kingdom a couple of months ago. Do you remember how people celebrated the end of ideology in 1990? We saw riots that were post-ideological in nature. They were just frustration-driven consumerist riots. They were a reaction to the consumerist advertising. We want to consume and because we cannot do it legally, we will do it illegally. They did not have any demands, be they fundamentalist or pragmatic or anything else. This is the sad reality. The rioting people do not have an ideological vision.


We should be proud of European idea of radical egalitarianism and tolerance


I may be a Utopian but I think that Europe can do something in this respect. Perhaps the time has come for Europe to abandon its liberal leftist self-humiliation: Europe was horrible, Europe used slavery, Europe exploited the Third World, and so forth. There are also some great things in the European tradition, such as the idea of radical equality, the idea of a radically egalitarian community that nonetheless functions as a community. What is the idea of the Holy Spirit in Christianity? It is the idea of a community of believers outside the social hierarchy. Jesus said that unless you are ready to abandon your father and mother, you are not a real believer. This means that there is an authentic community outside the hierarchical social relationships. We should be proud of this idea of modern egalitarianism and democracy.


I think that the answer to right-wing claims that we have to defend Europe against Muslims is not to say, “You are exaggerating“. The right answer is, “Yes, you are right. The European legacy is under threat. But the threat comes from you“. These people are the real threat that we must fight in Europe.


Take anti-Semitism. Did you notice something very strange about Breivik? In my view this is the most dangerous shift in ideology. He is one of the first clear cases of anti-Semitic Zionism. On the one hand, he is a total Zionist: he believes that Israel is a bulwark against Islamism. But at the same time he embraces an anti-Semitic ideology with respect to the West. For example, he says that there are not too many Jews in Europe because Hitler took care of them. But in the United States, they have too many of them. Breivik is not a unique case. Look at Fox News – the big right-wing media network in the United States. One of their most popular commentators was fired because he was openly anti-Semitic while firmly supporting Zionism. I am afraid that the Israelis are accepting this game: practice your anti-Semitism in the United States as long as you allow us to practice our apartheid with respect to the Palestinians.


The discourse about Turkey’s readiness or lack of readiness for the European Union is also worth mentioning. I am in favour of being tough on Turkey concerning its European Union membership. But consider this. This summer there was a big gay parade in Istanbul. It went very smoothly. Now, try to stage a gay parade in Croatia and Serbia and see what will happen. Do you know what happened in Split? Seven hundred paraded, protected by 2,000 police officers, surrounded by 10,000 Catholic demonstrators trying to attack them. The irony was that even the Croat government was not ready to unambiguously condemn the violence. They said that the demonstrators were also guilty because they provoked the local Catholic population. At the same time, a paedophilia scandal erupted in the Catholic Church and a gay man said, “Oh, now we understand the Church. Its problem with homosexuality is that it involves only adults. If one of the sexual partners was 10 years old, then it would be OK for the Catholics“. This is an obscenity. I am not saying that there is no such thing as a Muslim fundamentalist threat. I am in favour of a tough stance against it. But we should start the job by cleansing our own house. There is a lot of work to be done in Europe.


It appears that we are entering a world with only two possible models: Anglo-Saxon capitalism versus authoritarianism. I do not like that. I think that if we examine the European tradition and historical memory, we may be able to get enough inspiration for a third way. The current crisis is not just economic. It is fundamentally a crisis of culture and ideology. Until now the choice was either Brussels technocracy or right-wing populism. If these are the only choices, we are lost.


I claim that the concepts of radical egalitarianism and tolerance are inherently European. When Indians speak of tolerance, they do not have the same thing in mind. I claim that the egalitarian democratic tradition is something uniquely European. Philosophers call this “singular universality”. In all traditional non-European cultures, the idea of justice is “each at his own proper place”. In China, I asked people what they think of communism. They told me that it is an old term. Now they prefer to talk of a “harmonious society”. This is Confucian nonsense. I asked them to define what they mean by that. They told me that this is a society where everybody does his duty. A wife is a good wife and a master is a good master. A worker is a good worker and a pupil is a good pupil. Then, I exploded: “This is wonderful! It does not leave any room for cultural misunderstanding!


What I find great in Europe is the idea that the way an individual relates to universality is not only through his particular role. You have a direct role with universality. The idea of human rights is that human rights are not linked in any way to your personal characteristics. They provide a direct access to universality. This is something open to everyone to practice. This is what is so great about Europe. Yes, we should criticize European imperialism but let us not forget that the very tools for this criticism are again provided by European culture.


I should stop here or else I will never stop. Thank you very much.



Izgovorjeno na delavnici CultureWatchEurope 11. novembra 2011 na Bledu

Povezava na Svet Evrope