When the world-famous Slovenian philosopher and publicist Slavoj Žižek was asked who would he vote for in the US Presidential elections in a Channel 4 interview, his answer was unequivocal: it would be the Republican, Donald Trump. Immediately the world of media exploded with the simple headline: “Žižek would vote for Trump.” However, this controversial bit of info, shocking to many a reader of Žižek’s books and articles, is not the most important part of his message; that lies within his argumentation. A closer look at Žižek’s logic – although improvised due to the constraints of a television broadcast – can reveal that he definitely has not gone insane, but merely escalated his long-term critical views on today’s global capitalist society. This makes his television expose even more noteworthy.
Žižek’s desperate hope
Žižek states that while he is shocked by Trump, it is Clinton who is the real threat. The danger of her position lies – according to Žižek – in the fact that the Democrat candidate would merely continue propagating the status quo, effectively suppressing or downright burying any hope for change. Every society, Žižek says, has a web of unwritten rules directing the behavior of its elites – and Trump breaks these rules. Trump’s victory can shock American society into political activity, forcing both the dominant parties, Republicans and Democrats, to re-evaluate their approaches and return to their ideological roots. Žižek would – obviously – not welcome Trump’s victory; he is merely investing his desperate, very desperate hope into it.
Historical experience tells us that things are never so bad they cannot get worse.
In March 1933, Germany was a democracy too – and it, too, believed that Hitler was just another big-mouthed clown whom the ruling conservative political-economic elites would easily tame on account of being an outsider.
Let us try to translate Žižek’s logic into the language of his favorite theorist, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan operates with the terms of the Symbolic and the Real: the symbolic order organizes and mediates the Real, but not in its entirety. There are always empty spaces, discrepancies, that do not fit the symbolic order of things and are thus covered, hidden. In an ideological narrative, the world is always presented as a discrepancy-less, perfectly functioning machine. The discrepancies covered by ideology however do not simply go away, they are still present. Thus the Real intrudes upon the Symbolic, for example in the form of war and revolution. Or Donald Trump’s victory. Žižek, radical thinker that he is, stands firmly on the side of the Real – against the seemingly impermeable ideological Symbolic.
The question is whether Žižek makes the right call believing Trump’s presidency will bring on the traumatic collision of the Symbolic and the Real – and whether that will show the discrepancies of today as an issue that desperately needs resolving here and now. Historical experience tells us that things are never so bad they cannot get worse.
Presidential selection as self-sacrifice
In one of his books, Slavoj Žižek analyses the trial of Nikolai Bukharin, formerly a close colleague of the great Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin himself. Žižek writes that Bukharin stopped defending himself, he was acting like a penitent willing to die for the Party, to commit suicide. But this is perceived only with laughter – the trial turns into a perfect slapstick comedy. Bukharin the human no one cares about – his inner pain is not worth mentioning, he just has to die for the Party. Bukharin the party member eventually pleads guilty, despite subjectively knowing he has done no wrong. Why? Because he believes in the Party purge as an ideal and considers his admission of guilt an act of self-sacrifice that will ultimately benefit an objective historical event.
The year 1933 in Germany showed that there is no bottom to history: that the situation of “the worse things get, the worse they get” is possible.
I believe Žižek’s rationalization of voting for Trump hides a similar mechanism of subjectivity’s destruction and self-sacrifice. A left-wing or liberal voter could subjectively incline towards voting for the Democrat candidate, despite Hillary Clinton embodying the ingrowing elite of those in power and despite the liberal coat of paint of the Democratic party showing more and more wear and tear to reveal the cynical realpolitik underneath. Žižek would have voted “objectively”: not for himself (since his own opinions disagree with Trump), but to sacrifice his vote on the altar of the ideal of the political activation of society. He does not ask whether there are any prerequisites for such a development: who would mobilize? What forms would the mobilization take? How familiar is Žižek with the reality of life in America? He further explains that the election of Trump would not be a cataclysmic disaster – because the USA is not a dictatorship, but a democracy. This is a remarkable statement. What democracy is there when the country is ruled by – as he himself claims – isolated elites and shadowy political-economic structures, represented by Clinton? Žižek is simply contradicting himself here.
Waiting for the Aurora
Žižek’s argumentation lays bare the stance of a theoretical revolutionary: he is waiting for the Aurora to fire, he is waiting for a historical event – but this event is just not appearing. Lenin was systematically preparing for his revolution, he ran a long-term propaganda campaign and faced many political conflicts. Is American society prepared for Trump’s victory? Is the world prepared for it? And is Žižek himself prepared for it? I am afraid the shock from Trump triumphing would only lead to further apathy.
I do not like to wallow in shallow historical analogies, however in this case the parallel with 1930s Germany is simply too obvious to ignore. In March 1933 Germany was a democracy and it was widely believed that Hitler was just a loudmouthed outsider. But the loudmouthed outsider unleashed terrors that destroyed Germany within only a few years. Hitler never gave any opposition – any political activation – the slightest opportunity to act. He did not even have to put out a new Constitution – for the whole duration of his bloody dictate, the old democratic one from the times of Weimar Republic was still in effect. All he needed was a single law, obediently signed by the democratically elected President Hindenburg (who definitely was not a Nazi and openly despised Hitler). What followed was legislative storm that led to the Nuremberg laws and the atrocities that followed.
I do not want to crudely compare Trump to Hitler (Trump, after all, lacks SA and SS units). What I am trying to point out is the danger and – in a certain sense – the perverseness of Žižek’s arguments that remind me of the old adage “the worse things become, the better”. Žižek dreams of a Lenin-like jump, of seizing the historical opportunity – not of a Menshevik wait for a situation allowing for revolution. But the year 1933 in Germany showed that there is no bottom to history: that the situation of “the worse things get, the worse they get” is possible. Because of that, Žižek’s desperate hope is really a pure gamble, a sacrifice intended for something that cannot be seen – something with no name or shape.
Roman Kanda is a literary historian. This text originally appeared on A2larm.cz. Translated by Michal Chmela.