By Slavoj Zizek, 504 pages, Verso Books, $38.50.
Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and Paris-trained psychoanalyst, spends a lot of time thinking about capitalism and its spiritual, psychological, and metaphysical fallout. He examines this fallout both in the hearts and minds of individuals and in historical and recent political experiences. Zizek is a big thinker who talks about mental health, cultural studies, politics, and sexuality all at once.
In Defense of Lost Causes' steady focus on humans and how they are affected by aggressive, revolutionary capitalism is reminiscent of Carl Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Aggressive capitalism has destroyed age-old human and physical ecology. Countless cultures across the world, one by one, have fallen to America's opening up markets imperialism.
Zizek makes the point over and over that capitalism leaves no one untouched, and that the normal state of the individual nowadays is to feel overwhelmed and unhinged.
Zizek's pessimism comes from his belief that capitalism for the time being has indeed won and has become the backdrop to everything else. It is, he writes, the Big Other. Just as the West was once a Christian civilization, with religion producing all the givens, now capitalism offers all the assumptions. Money, not eternal religious truth, is the measure of all things.
Yet Zizek is not a true pessimist. He adopts Thomas Beckett's dictum, Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Opponents of capitalism must not give up. Alternatives are available. Often limp-noodle socialists and anti-capitalists in general just don't realize that they have to create the alternatives themselves. They have been uninspired, lazy, and stubborn.
Liberal bourgeois democracy, the force behind rabid capitalism, is not as all-knowing and powerful as people suppose. Zizek's psychoanalytical skills help us see the short-sighted, foolishly arrogant nature of this political way:
“[I]s bringing Western liberal democracy the real solution for getting rid of the religious-fundamentalist regimes, or are these regimes rather a symptom of liberal democracy itself? What to do in cases like those of Algeria or the Palestinian territories, where a 'free' democratic election brings 'fundamentalists' to power?”
Zizek repeatedly circles vulture-like around the same problems: The pro-Nazi philosopher Heidegger; Stalin's purges; French deconstructionists and philosophers; Mao and the Cultural Revolution; Freud; and countless other topics wound together in an analysis of utilitarianism, materialism, and scientism. Zizek philosophizes from pop culture.
Zizek's philosophy, as pessimism with a possibly rosy ending, is really Christianity-without-Christ thinking. The new original sin is capitalism and the money-mind. The new grace, as mysterious as Christian grace, comes out of the depths of suffering – from our dark side or from our ecological fate. We can build a refreshed, post-capitalist civilization if we cooperate with this post-Christian grace.
Capitalism, like anything else, can never be totally free and easy because things just don't work like that. Zizek identifies “fundamentalist populism” as socialism's replacement. Populism in its extreme simplicity finds ready scapegoats such as immigrants or, in Europe, Brussels.
Zizek sees through Islamic terrorism, humanizing the terrorists in a unique way, showing that their anti-Western bloodlust is the core of their own weakness:
“Are, however, the terrorist fundamentalists, be they Christian or Muslim, really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, deep indifference towards the non-believer's way of life.”
Zizek emasculates what our culture sees as imposing, and empowers various lost causes. He shows how our attempts at fighting capitalism or fundamentalism already point to our defeat. In Defense of Lost Causes invites us to create a new reality rather than contest these things head on. Zizek opens up new possibilities in our suffocating, money-mad world.