Inside Story

The end of the future

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek engages with “pre-apocalyptic” times

Frank Yuan Books 8 April 2024 2602 words

Slavoj Žižek at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Christian Lademann/LademannMedia via Alamy

In April 2019 hopes were running high in US progressive circles, with the left-wing “Squad” making its presence felt within the Democratic congressional majority and Bernie Sanders launching his second presidential campaign. Universal healthcare and tuition-free universities had returned to the realm of political possibilities, joined now by the Green New Deal. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez narrated a mini-mockumentary, “A Message from the Future,” sketching out how these programs would combat climate change while revitalising America’s economy and democracy.

Five years later, the Biden administration has a track-record of domestic half-measures and compromises, has deepened the Sino-American confrontation and has failed to prevent dangerous flare-ups in Ukraine and Gaza. Its deep unpopularity portends a possible second Trump presidency backed by an unprecedentedly reactionary Republican Party. The hopes of 2019–20 seem all but a mirage.

Or perhaps it was precisely the hopefulness that doomed the progressive cause in America. If one follows Slavoj Žižek, the proper “message from the future” should have been this: our own self-destruction has already happened. Only by fully accepting an apocalyptic future can we muster the strength to pull the emergency brake on the train of history that is carrying us there.

Left-wing members of Congress have seemed reluctant to pressure the Democratic Party, even though much of their economic and foreign policy agenda remains broadly popular. In contrast to the right-wing insurgents’ success in the Republican Party, their faith in the long arc of history bending towards justice does seem to have drained them of urgency.

Žižek’s new book Too Late to Awaken, is the latest instalment in the Slovenian philosopher’s regular — typically more than once a year — book-form commentary on the international political and cultural landscape, always infused with a generous dose of a philosophy that combines the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and a particular interpretation of Friedrich Hegel.

In his characteristic free-associating style, Žižek continues to refuse to either patronise his readers by simplifying high theory or leave them wandering in abstraction. Once again a cache of anecdotes ranges widely across space, time and even languages — from the differentiated forms of “future” in Slovenian and French to disguised obscenities in the Chinese internet lexicon. Sometimes, tenuous analogies can tax on the reader’s patience, and those acquainted with his work will also notice recurring themes and examples. A long-running joke has it that Žižek is always writing the same book, but it also means, for anyone interested in engaging with his thought, his latest is as good an entry point as any.

Too Late to Awaken is, however, unapologetically presentist, anchored by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. (It was finalised too early to cover the crisis in Gaza following the 7 October attacks.) But Žižek doesn’t confine himself to the stalemate in Ukraine, instead treating it as part of the unfolding global struggle between the right-wing fundamentalist authoritarianism exemplified by Putin’s Russia and the hegemonic liberal capitalism of the European Union and the United States.

For Žižek, this confrontation distracts us from, and indeed compounds, the existential threats posed by ecological destruction and the “digital control of our lives.” To avoid an apocalyptic war we need a revolution that would reset the faultlines of political struggle to a universalist orientation and enable us to grapple with the contradictions inherent in global capitalism and its nationalist variants.

This doesn’t mean abandoning Ukraine in a compromise with Moscow, an attitude Žižek attributes to some of his leftist friends. NATO’s expansion, despite repeated reassurances to Russia, and the neo-Nazi presence in Ukraine should not be enlisted to serve the Putin administration’s efforts to deny Ukrainians legitimate nationhood. Whatever the strength of Russia’s security concerns, he argues, the invasion is a blatant act of colonialist expansionism and the spearhead of Putin’s grand campaign against liberal-democratic Europe. Both intentions are evidenced, Žižek argues, by the pronouncements of the Russian leadership and its propagandists and theoreticians.

The implication is that Europe must not allow Ukraine to be defeated. To achieve this, NATO must be strengthened — a position not usually associated with a self-proclaimed communist — not by submitting further to America’s military-industrial complex but through a more strategically independent European Union. At the same time, any attempt to reduce Ukraine to a new captive market for Western capitalism must also be resolutely resisted.

To effectively deal with today’s global ecological and political crises, Europe must mobilise itself not only militarily but also on other economic and political fronts. Here, Žižek embraces the bombastic term “war communism,” a mobilisation that overrides market imperatives and even, occasionally, democratic principles. Russia’s aggression is, for him, another symptom of the dangerous undercurrents stirring at the “end of history”: as the nation state and its social democratic elements continue to erode under global capitalism, the nation itself, in its older sense, reasserts its authority through violence.

Žižek’s view is somewhat reminiscent of that of David Graeber and David Wengrow in Dawn of Everything, a book that proposes a longer view of the state as an aggregation of coercive, administrative and charismatic modes of power that has only cohered relatively recently in human history and is now coming apart. Where some see possibilities of emancipation, though, Žižek warns about new forms of unfreedom under the emerging anarcho-capitalism.

But the goal should not be merely one of self-preservation. To be truly secure, Europe must reckon with its culpability in global capitalism, and “war communism” must include international coordination as well as local mobilisation. Solidarity with one victim of colonial aggression, Ukraine, requires a universalist solidarity with all victims of historical and neo-colonialism in the Third World.

There is an undeniable element of enlightened self-interest involved, as Žižek reiterates his preference for lifting living standards in poor countries to obviate a key driver of mass migration into Europe. Solidarity must also extend across the frontlines of official hostilities, embracing anti-war protesters in Russia and perhaps even Russian conscripts. True to his reading of Hegel, Žižek declares that “[t]he line between civilisation and barbarism is internal to civilisations, which is why our struggle is universal.”

The forces of “barbarism” already operate across geopolitical boundaries. The rising far-right movements in Western Europe and America share Putin’s reactionary social visions; even Ukraine itself, Žižek points out, is plagued by a neo-Nazi problem; Christian fundamentalists and nationalists are no less hostile to multiculturalism and LGBTI+ rights than are their counterparts among Muslims, both groups railing against supposed liberal decadence. A universalist solidarity is made even more imperative by one of Žižek’s most interesting observations — the “solidarity of those in power.”

He suggests, for example, that the Chinese party-state’s attempt to portray protests movements in Europe and South America as an outcome the West’s sympathy with the rioters in Hong Kong is a play to evoke the common interests of ruling elites across the world. Paralleling this is a shared interest in “de-communisation” in both post-Soviet Eastern European nations and Russia itself — evident not only in the destruction of the remnants of the welfare state but also in attacks on Lenin, whose principled support for Ukrainian national development Putin blames for fostering its distinctive nationalism.

If the state has to play a central part in our response to the apocalyptic future, Žižek is also warning us to avoid the trap of identifying it with the political class, which plays a realist game in which its own survival is paramount.

Having sounded the alarm on global “barbarism,” Žižek once again rejects the obvious battlelines, instead waging a struggle against liberal sensibilities themselves. It is a move that has made him rather infamous in leftist circles in recent years.

“Woke” ideology and “cancel culture” — terms Žižek now uncritically employs — are not inherently progressive despite their proponents’ declared hostility towards patriarchy, nationalism and other conservative values. Liberation of sexual and gender identities, for instance, is the predictable outcome of capitalism’s erosion of the old social strictures (as Marx vividly described) and perfectly befits the individualistic ethos of its political economy. “Wokeness” — which operates under the logic of the Freudian superego, demanding ever-greater degrees of introspective self-criticism — offers a theatre of radical action that avoids the real challenge of improving the material conditions for all.

While conceding that “wokeness” is largely confined to the intelligentsia, Žižek believes that it reflects a fundamental philosophical mistake no less serious than its paralysing political effect. The “woke” approach to gender identity, for instance, displaces the inherent antagonism within such identity (or “pure difference” in Lacanian terms) onto an enemy “other” — those who are seen as clinging onto male-centric heteronormativity. In Žižek’s eyes, the most emancipatory aspect of the LGBTI+ movement is its embodiment of “pure difference,” the impossibility of fully identifying with the archetypal male or female. The patriarchal mentality makes the difference external to the well-defined genders and constructs the binary gender relationship upon this externalised antagonism, subjugating the feminine to the masculine; the true progressive stance would be to embrace it, to accept that we are all divided and contradictory subjects.

This is where Žižek’s quintessential Lacanian–Hegelian philosophy has always pointed, though he seems somehow reluctant to put it in such simple terms. Instead of sorting ourselves into increasingly niche categories of multiplicity and particularity, leaving us with nothing more than mutual tolerance to aspire to, we can instead build universal solidarity based on shared inner contradictions.

Of course, it is not for a philosopher to propose concrete programs or rules. In this book and elsewhere, Žižek readily admits that no easy solutions exist for theory to reveal. But political analysis must eventually make contact with reality, and it is here that Žižek produces some confusing arguments pertaining to the Ukraine–Russia War.

Moscow shows little regard for the Ukrainian state’s legitimacy; it professes hostility to the European Union as a liberal-democratic polity; it has threatened to use nuclear weapons against vaguely defined foreign intervention or in the event of losing the conventional war — for Žižek, all these seem to make Putin’s Russia an existential threat “aiming to rebuild the world in its image.” It follows that any Western attempt to pressure Ukraine into making territorial compromises with Russia would be morally obscene and self-defeating. He makes a fundamentally sound observation that Putin’s “red line” is not some unchanging parameter but can be shaped by Western responses; yet his formula, “not provoking Russia means surrender,” is at best an imprecise rhetorical ploy to challenge the perceived cynicism among those calling for an early negotiation.

Having rejected the “pacifist” stance, Žižek still has to reckon with the risk of a conflagration involving the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal. Early in the book he proposes that “the only real solution to this debilitating dilemma is to… transform the way we perceive the situation” by adopting a universalist approach. But while the revolutionary masses organise themselves to remake the global political landscape, how does Žižek propose that we deal with Moscow, whose numerical advantage in troops and ammunition makes it increasingly unlikely that Ukraine, already weakened by this attritional warfare, can recover its territory, especially now Russia has escalated its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure?

Is it in Ukraine’s interest for more of its young people to be killed on the battlefield or flee abroad, for its land to be pummelled and for it to become increasingly dependent on the United States and Europe? Nor, given the severe imbalance of resources and the sophisticated military hardware necessary for offensive operations, is there any reason to believe that the West can tip the scale without a more direct intervention (such as “no-fly zones,” which Žižek casually mentions as a possibility) that would bring their militaries into direct contact with Russia’s.

Or, if we did manage to implement some form of “war communism,” combining heightened military-industrial mobilisation and an avowedly internationalist political agenda to dethrone today’s ruling elites, would it not make the still existing Russian state feel even more threatened?

Moreover, the notion that Putin is bent on risking it all to destroy Western Europe is at best a gross exaggeration, and Žižek implicitly recognises this by conceding that an all-out war should (and thus, by implication, could) be avoided. Nor is it self-evident that Moscow desires to conquer and absorb the entirety of Ukraine — had that been the case, it would have used a much larger invasion force supported by a more intensive air- and missile-bombardment of which, we now know, Russia is capable.

It is all very well to portray oneself as the “principled” leftist defender of freedom and justice; yet, as any good Hegelian would concede, principles are never separable from their attempted enactment; they are inevitably “tainted” by the consequences. This has precisely been Žižek’s critique of communists who, dismissing the failure of the revolutions of the twentieth century, insist that “pure” Marxist theory applied with more conscientiousness could still lead us to socialist paradise.

If, in our whole-hearted support of Ukraine, we end up strengthening the military-industrial complex or setting off a wider, catastrophic war, it would have to be concluded that our supposed solidarity or desire for justice has been contaminated by war lust in the first place. And the near obsession with the Putin regime (which, however odious and brutal, has limited means to undermine Europe) poses the exact danger that Žižek detects in “wokeness” — to disavow internal antagonisms within the West and project it onto an enemy “other.”

All wars involving major powers end in a settlement, even when they involve arch-villains suffering total defeat like Germany and Japan at the end of the second world war. Is a settlement not more desirable sooner than later — before thousands or millions more causalities? Are we going to continue fighting Russia until the last Ukrainian, or roll the dice on nuclear annihilation, just to keep our universalist philosophy above ugly compromises?

As a late-comer to Western cultural history, my first exposure to the slogan “no future!,” to which Žižek refers in the book and indeed uses in its subtitle, is from the German-language Netflix series, Dark. (Partial spoiler ahead.) In an early episode, before the scope and the stake of the story is apparent, a scene depicts the slogan spray-painted at the entrance to a nuclear power plant, a location around which the mystery of the series will revolve. Through the story, various characters travel through time to change the apocalyptic future, their hopes repeatedly dashed by the deterministic nature of their world. Whatever they choose to do, it has already happened and become part of the fabric of time. And yet they cannot stop trying.

Perhaps only with this sense of impending doom, and radical reassertion of freedom while recognising one’s fate, can we reject the future that is already taking shape. Philosophers are, by Hegel’s definition, the exact opposite of futurologists — “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the coming of dusk.” But by describing the internal logic of our “pre-apocalyptic” times, as Žižek attempts in his political analysis, they can begin discerning its immanent contradictions, the cracks in the unfolding darkness. We are then left with the daunting task of awakening to the night and bringing forth a tomorrow that has never been. •

Too Late to Awaken: What Lies Ahead When There is No Future?
By Slavoj Žižek | Allen Lane | $45 | 192 pages