Financier George Soros has conferred his benediction. So have filmmaker Michael Moore, author Chris Hedges, actor Susan Sarandon and other luminaries. But if the burgeoning, still inchoate Occupy Wall Street movement can claim any sort of messiah, it is a bearded, slightly rotund 62-year-old Slovenian academic named Slavoj Zizek.
Never mind al-Qaeda, sovereign debt or the Russian mafia. Mr. Zizek (pronounced Zheezhek) – a veritable rock star of philosophy and cultural theory – may be the modern Western world's most dangerous adversary.
He turned up recently at the OWS epicentre in New York's Zuccotti Park, appropriately clad in a bright red T-shirt. The authorities had banned the use of microphones, lest the protest disturb the neighbourhood's peace (although as he spoke, a raucous Hispanic Day parade was snaking up Fifth Avenue). So Mr. Zizek's speech had to be declaimed, sentence by sentence, then echoed by the standing choir in cascading waves. Idea surfing in the mosh pit of lower Manhattan.
His core message, perfectly calibrated to our distressed zeitgeist, is not new. In fact, it is the same subversive sermon Mr. Zizek has been preaching for two decades, disseminated in more than 50 books, several documentary films and scores of personal appearances. Its essence is this: Global, liberal, democratic capitalism as we know it is experiencing its death spiral, choking on its own excess. The only serious question is what will ensue.
“They tell you we are dreamers,” he declared in New York, reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin addressing socialist comrades in Berne, 1916. “The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. We're not destroying anything. We're watching the system destroy itself.”
From dissident to superstar
What's disarming about Mr. Zizek, however, is the current of cold realism that courses through his work. He freely acknowledges that communism, wherever practised and under any name, has been a near-total disaster. He watched the train wreck unfold, growing up in Ljubljana under Kremlin rule. Identified early as a dissident, he spent several years in socialist limbo, functionally unemployed.
He knows, too, how easy it is to surrender to the euphoric esprit of revolution. “Carnivals come cheap,” he told the protesters. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. … There is a long road ahead. … We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism?”
He often invokes Winston Churchill's coy aphorism, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms,” yet points out that the most efficient form of capitalism is today practised by regimes that are neither liberal nor democratic – namely, China and Singapore.
Now a visiting professor at New York University and other American campuses, Mr. Zizek spends half the year at the University of Ljubljana, lectures each summer at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is international director of the University of London's Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.
As an A-list invitee to Big Think academic conferences, his life has become an intellectual concert tour, complete with autograph hounds. If he wanted, he could sell Zizek mugs and T-shirts, though it would make him complicit in buttressing the very capitalist scaffolding he reviles.
It's not hard to fathom his appeal on the academic circuit: earthy language, scatological humour, a rare ability to connect abstruse meta-theory to contemporary culture in digestible sound bites, and a subversive delight in offending everyone, even his erstwhile comrades on the left. With his dishevelled look and strictly proletarian garb, he resembles nothing more than a superannuated grad student.
Mr. Zizek is at once court jester and provocateur, entertaining crowds with clever conceits and detonating counterintuitive verbal bombs. On one occasion, he described love as evil, an act that upsets the cosmic balance.
His voluminous writings testify to the catholic range of Mr. Zizek's scholarship – dense tomes devoted to his ideological mentors, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan, as well as more accessible books on Alfred Hitchcock, fantasy, terror and a dozen other subjects. The Zizekian archive of articles is equally vast, encompassing the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the Pope, Hollywood films, even the hit TV series 24. His latest book, Living in the End Times, devotes five pages to analyzing the animated children's film Kung Fu Panda through a Lacanian lens.
There is scarcely a subject on which Mr. Zizek has no considered opinion – even if, as with James Cameron's Avatar, he has not yet seen the film. “I like what Oscar Wilde said about book reviewing,” he explains. “Better to not read the book beforehand. It will only cloud your judgment.”
A sit-down session with Mr. Zizek, who is functional in eight languages, is more audience than interview. Forever tugging at his beard or nose, he stirs restlessly in his chair, ideas exploding from his brain, volcanically. In a single minute, he migrates from Samuel Beckett (“my hero”) to psychoanalytic theory to natural science to ideology to Wagner.
Although he once ran for president in Slovenia under a Liberal Democratic banner, he insists he was simply seeking to impede the ascent of right-wing nationalists – the very kind, he laments, who are now gaining power in several former Soviet republics.
British psychoanalyst Ian Parker, author of a key study of Mr. Zizek's writings, calls him “a radical force in the academic world, mobilizing a new generation against capitalism. For all of my criticisms, his work has been progressive and useful.”
‘Some of my worst enemies are also Jews'
But his critics, including American Adam Kirsch, have come close to calling Mr. Zizek an anti-Semite. The allegation infuriates him. Mr. Kirsch, he complains, had quoted selectively. “I mean, my God, if you read my book, it's unambiguously clear that I'm describing the line of argumentation of my opponent. Are people aware? They are basically accusing me of demanding another Holocaust. It's madness.”
Then another joke: “I don't mean to say some of my best friends are Jews. I tell you, practically all of them are. At the same time, some of my worst enemies are also Jews.” While in New York, Mr. Zizek stays with the family of Udi Aloni, the left-wing Jewish activist and filmmaker.
What people ought to be more concerned about, he says, are people like evangelical Christian broadcaster Glenn Beck and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik – both, he notes, are pro-Zionist, yet simultaneously guilty of old-fashioned anti-Semitism. “The most anti-Semitic people these days,” he says in another inversion, “are Zionists.”
Mr. Kirsch, reviewing two Zizek books, Violence and In Defence of Lost Causes, also labels him a not-so-crypto fascist, referencing his now infamous line that “the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough.”
Again, he demurs. “I am not celebrating violence. On the contrary.” Mahatma Gandhi, the maharishi of civil disobedience, was actually more violent than Adolf Hitler, he says, because his goal was to sabotage Britain's colonial state. Hitler, on the other hand, wanted to change nothing systemically. “He wanted the German state to function more efficiently. He was afraid of real change. That's the best definition of fascism.”
Violence that actually kills people, he says, quoting his friend, French philosopher Alain Badiou, “is meant to keep things the way they are.” The violence of the Wall Street protesters, on the other hand, is purely ideological. “We want to change the order. That is the violence I am for – real change.”
Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail feature writer