In the midst of a crisis of capitalism, the Western underground is rediscovering communism. Its star is the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who mixes Marxism with pop culture and psychoanalysis. His appearances offer stand-up comedy for a radical leftist avant-garde.
It is five a.m. on a Friday morning, and Slavoj Zizek is on his way to the Idea of Communism Conference, traveling from Ljubljana to Berlin via Zurich. He finds it irritating that Alain Badiou, the French Maoist, will be making the introductory remarks.
And is it true, he wonders, that Toni -- Antonio Negri, a former sympathizer with the Red Brigades terrorist group -- is also coming, even though he is always at odds with Alain? When would Negri speak, what might he talk about and -- above all -- why has he, Slavoj Zizek, not been kept in the loop?
But Zizek doesn't have time to waste pondering these minor irritations. He's brought a few stacks of notes, which he must now use to write a one-and-a-half hour presentation during his two short flights. A bit about Marx, a lot about Hegel, something about Badiou's "communist hypothesis" (which, he reasons, he could criticize a little) and something about Negri's concept of the "multitude" (which he could even criticize sharply).
He can't find his notes. But it doesn't matter, because he is so full of thoughts that are just waiting to bubble out of him. He's packed an extra T-shirt for tomorrow or the next day. It's hot in Ljubljana, even at this early hour. Zizek is already sweating. The conference on communism begins in a few hours.
The Big Three
The Big Three, the great thinkers of the new left, will be speaking at the event, held at Berlin's Volksbühne Theater on a weekend in late June: Antonio Negri, an Italian in his late 70s, is a former political prisoner and the author of "Empire," the best known neo-Marxist bestseller of the last 10 years; Alain Badiou, a philosophy professor in Paris, is in his early 70s, very abstract, a Maoist and a universalist, and is searching for a new "communist hypothesis"; and Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalyst in his early 60s who teaches philosophy in Ljubljana and is a visiting professor in London and Saas Fe, Switzerland, the "Elvis of Cultural Theory" (as he is referred to in a film). One of his bitterest opponents once called Zizek "the most dangerous philosopher in the West." It wasn't meant as a compliment, which is precisely why Zizek likes the nickname so much.
The three men are intellectuals, but they are also stars, like the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and, more recently, the post-structuralists Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. But ever since the height of the post-structuralists' popularity, almost 20 years ago now, this position has remained unoccupied, with the possible exception of Bernard Henri-Levy, whom Zizek despises mainly because of his tendency to show too much chest hair.
It was Negri who revived radical leftist theory 10 years ago. The socialism of the Eastern Bloc had failed, and American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the eternal victory of capitalism and, with it, "the end of history." Then came Negri. He was steeped in theory, but he was also a credible class warrior. He'd been in prison because the authorities believed he was the brain behind the Red Brigades. Michael Hardt, an American literature professor, helped him summarize his thoughts in three books. They became global bestsellers, the most successful of which was the first one, "Empire," a sort of new Mao bible for a young, hip, anti-G8 left.
Zizek, Badiou and Negri have known each other for years. Sometimes they work together, but each of them is more apt to take note of what the others are doing, what they are saying or what they are writing about, even if they have more than likely not read the others' books. Negri is not aloof enough and too much of a class warrior for Zizek and Badiou. Badiou is too rarefied for Negri, and Zizek publishes so many books that even he probably doesn't have time to read them all.
The New 'Communist Hypothesis'
It is early in the afternoon, and Zizek is sitting in the first row in the large hall of the Volksbühne, forced to remain silent for an hour. He has many talents, but keeping still is not one of them. Next to his chair is a plastic shopping bag that contains everything he needs during the three days of the conference. The room is full, and some of the roughly 1,000 members of the audience are sitting on the steps. They are young people, most of them under 30, a panopticon of leftist subcultures. Some are dressed like Brecht, others like Sartre, and many of them look as if they were backpacking through Southeast Asia and were about to start juggling with flaming sticks. All wear headphones, so they can listen to simultaneous translations of Badiou's presentation in French, Negri's in Italian and Zizek's and the other speakers' in strongly accented English. Zizek, who is fluent in six languages, including German, is the only one not wearing headphones.
Most of the presentations are difficult enough to understand in their original languages. Translated, they become virtually unintelligible. But the point is not to provide easy or concrete answers, which are readily available from the Left Party or the unions. The conference is also not about looking back into history, back into the gloomy 20th century, with the catastrophes that occurred in the name of communism and the more than 30 million people who were murdered under Stalin and Pol Pot; the labor camps, the police states. This conference is about theory. It's about a new "communist hypothesis," as Badiou calls it, about universalism, the subject in history, events of truth, Hegel and psychoanalysis after Jacques Lacan.
The word "communism" is printed in large letters on the roof of the theater on Rosa Luxemburg Square. But what are all these people doing here? Outside, in the streets of Berlin, summer has finally arrived. The attendees could just as well be drinking beer and watching one of the World Cup matches being broadcast on large screens.
Some 20 years after the tentative end of the communist experiment, and exactly 21 months after the near-collapse of the capitalist status quo, there is apparently a new yearning -- not for leftist policy, but for leftist theory. As practical problems become more pressing, our democracy becomes weary, the euro seems headed for failure, Germany's coalition government becomes less and less effective, and the banks more and more unmanageable, the more abstract does the search for truth and the practice of philosophy become.
Philosophy no longer moves society the way it did until the end of the 1960s, writes Karl Heinz Bohrer in the current issue of the magazine Merkur. But thinking has changed in the last few decades. Philosophy has become cultural criticism, more essayistic, more volatile, more anecdotal and more literary -- in the vein of the French philosophers Deleuze, Foucault and Roland Barthes, and of people like Peter Sloterdijk.
This brand of theory also has to be consistently sexy. It has to entertain, provoke and be easily quotable in the form of sound bites and physically palpable like rock music. Zizek delivers all of the above. One could say that he's reinvented the profession. Some would say he's defiled the profession.
Badiou gives the introduction, and Zizek, sitting in the first row, can hardly remain in his seat. He moves his lips as if he were giving the talk himself. Badiou is an affable, well-dressed elderly gentleman. He doesn't look like an enemy of the state, but more like an easy-going East German pensioner. Negri, who is also sitting on the stage, looks like Badiou's polar opposite. He seems emaciated, as if he had just been released from prison, and not nine years ago. Badiou quotes Mao in his introduction: "Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory."
And just as the audience looks ready to cringe, Zizek interrupts Badiou to quote Samuel Beckett instead: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." He laughs and looks around to see if anyone is laughing with him.
He can speak more quickly than he can think. He's like a jackhammer. He has published more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. His most recent book, "Living in the End Times," is a 400-page treatise on the demise of the liberal democracy.
He gives more than 200 lectures a year and has held visiting professorships at elite American universities. He recently spoke to an audience of 2,000 people in Buenos Aires. He is the subject of two documentary films, and in another film he interprets movies from a psychoanalytical point of view as he speeds across the ocean in a motorboat. There are Zizek T-shirts and Zizek records, and there is a Zizek club and an international Zizek journal.
'He'll Have to be Sent to the Gulag'
His repertoire is a mix of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegel's idealist philosophy -- of film analysis, criticism of democracy, capitalism and ideology, and an occasionally authoritarian Marxism paired with everyday observations. He explains the ontological essence of the Germans, French and Americans on the basis of their toilet habits and the resulting relationship with their fecal matter, and he initially reacts to criticism with a cheerful "Fuck you!" -- pronounced in hard Slavic consonants. He tells colleagues he values but who advocate theories contrary to his own that they should prepare to enter the gulag when he, Zizek, comes into power. He relishes the shudder that the word gulag elicits.
"Take my friend Peter, for example, fucking Sloterdijk. I like him a lot, but he'll obviously have to be sent to the gulag. He'll be in a slightly better position there. Perhaps he could work as a cook."
One could say it's funny, especially the way Zizek delivers it, in his exaggerated and emphatic way. But one could also think of the more than 30 million people who fell victim to Soviet terror. Those who find Zizek's remarks amusing could just as easily be telling jokes about concentration camps.
"But you know?" Zizek says in response to such criticism. "The best, most impressive films about the Holocaust are comedies."
Two Posters of Stalin
Zizek loves to correct viewpoints when precisely the opposite is considered correct. He calls this counterintuitive observation. His favorite thought form is the paradox. Using his psychoanalytical skills, he attempts to demonstrate how liberal democracy manipulates people. One of his famous everyday observations on this subject relates to the buttons used to close the door in elevators. He has discovered that they are placebos. The doors don't close a second faster when one presses the button, but they don't have to. It's sufficient that the person pressing the button has the illusion that he is able to influence something. The political illusion machine that calls itself Western democracy functions in exactly the same way, says Zizek.
His detractors accuse him of fighting liberal democracy and of wanting to replace it with authoritarian Marxism, even Stalinism. They say he is particularly dangerous because he cloaks his totalitarianism in pop culture. The jacket of his book "In Defense of Lost Causes" depicts a guillotine, the symbol of leftist terror decreed from above -- "good terror," as Zizek has been known to say. The Suhrkamp publishing house removed passages from the German edition of the book which reportedly toyed with totalitarianism.
There are two posters of Josef Stalin on the wall in Zizek's apartment in a new building in downtown Ljubljana.
"It doesn't mean anything! It's just a joke," Zizek is quick to point out.
He says that he'll be happy to remove the posters of Stalin from the wall if they offend his visitors. And he says that he is tired of being characterized as a Stalinist. He has been sharply criticized in recent weeks in publications like the liberal, left-leaning US magazine The New Republic, Germany's Merkur and the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. His critics write that Zizek's thoughts on communism ignore history and are insufficiently serious, and that his theory of revolution is downright fascist. And now he has even been accused, once again, of anti-Semitism. Even Suhrkamp decided not to publish some of his writings, arguing that they could -- maliciously -- be interpreted as anti-Semitic. These accusations are opprobrious, but Zizek knows he isn't entirely innocent. His constant drilling, poking and questioning is truly subversive, but sometimes it makes him extremely vulnerable. He says that those who attack him in this way have rarely comprehended his thoughts.
For Zizek, philosophy means thinking out of bounds -- far removed from practical execution, as opposed to reality-based political science, which must have its limits. When American leftist liberals accuse him of making a case for a new leftist dictatorship, Zizek points out that it was he, not they, who lived under (former Yugoslav dictator Josip) Tito and, as a young professor, was barred from teaching.
The Itinerant Intellectual
Zizek's roughly 600-square-foot apartment looks as though Tito were still in power. It consists of three rooms and is carelessly furnished. A poster from a Mark Rothko exhibition hangs on the wall above the sofa in Soviet-era colors; otherwise, the furnishings consist of a rack of DVDs, bookshelves, mountains of "Star Wars" Legos and his laundry, which he keeps in his kitchen cabinets. He serves iced tea in Disney cups.
He lives alone in the apartment, except when his son from his second marriage stays with him. He also has a son from his first marriage. His last wife was an Argentine lingerie model, 30 years his junior, the daughter of a student of Lacan who, ironically enough, is named Analia.
Zizek wears jeans and a T-shirt, blue sandals from the Adlon Hotel in Berlin and socks from Lufthansa's Business Class. "I haven't bought any socks in years," he says. He stays in the best hotels, and he has just returned from a trip to China and Los Angeles. He spoke about Mao in China and Richard Wagner in Los Angeles. The Chinese had invited him because of his status as a communist thought leader, but he doesn't believe that they understand his theories.
"They translated 10 of my books, the idiots," says Zizek. The Chinese translated the books as poetry and not as philosophical and political works. The translators had supposedly never heard of Hegel and had no idea what they were actually translating. To make up for these deficiencies, they tried to make his words sound appealing.
The experience of meeting Zizek is initially fascinating for everyone (for the first hour), then frustrating (it's impossible to get a word in edgewise) and, finally, cathartic (the conversation does, eventually, come to an end). Zizek begins to talk within the first few seconds, and in his case talking means screaming, gesticulating, spitting and sweating. He has a speech defect known as sigmatism, and when he pronounces the letter "s" it sounds like a bicycle pump. He usually begins his discourse with the words "Did you know…," and then he jumps from topic to topic, like a thinking machine that's been stuffed with coins and from then on doesn't stop spitting out words.
Zizek has created an artificial character. His appearances are performances, something between art and comedy. He says that he wants to get away from these standup comedy appearances, and that he wants to give a serious lecture in Berlin, mostly about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the subject of his new book. He says that he has already written 700 pages. It would take a normal person 10 years to write 700 pages about the man who may have been the most difficult thinker in the history of philosophy. Zizek wrote his 700 pages on airplanes in the last few months.
A comforting thing happens after exactly three hours in Zizek time. Suddenly his battery seems to have run empty, and the machine stops. Zizek has diabetes. His blood sugar is much too high, he says, or maybe it's much too low. The symptoms seem to be particularly severe at the moment. But Slavoj Zizek would not be Slavoj Zizek if he were to describe such a thing in such banal terms. Instead, he says: "You know, my diabetes has now become a self-perpetuating system, completely independent of external influences! It does what it pleases. And now I have to go to sleep."
On the way to Berlin, Zizek has not managed to put together his talk on the plane, as he had expected. While the speaker preceding him at the Volksbühne, a short man from Turkey with long hair and a long beard, is still speaking, Zizek is shifting papers from one stack to the next, searching, writing things down and furiously reading his notes. Strands of hair are pasted to his forehead. Zizek doesn't just sweat while speaking, but also while thinking.
It is now the second day of the conference, and so far Zizek has had to content himself by merely asking the speakers questions. Now, he immediately attacks Negri who, on the previous day, had accused him and Badiou of neglecting the class struggle. Negri's theory of the "multitude," that is, his concept of a revolutionary subject that sees commonality in the differences among individuals, assumes that late capitalism eliminated itself, and that this alone is the source of a revolutionary situation. This is far too concrete and pragmatic for Zizek and Badiou. Zizek arms himself with Hegel's concept of totality, with Plato's concept of truth and Heidegger's concept of the event. He argues that to one has to be outside the state to abolish it, but that Negri remains within the system, which is why his "multitude" can never start a revolution.
'Think I'm an Idiot'
Negri, furrowing his leathery brow, reacts testily. Zizek, he says, has lost the revolutionary subject, but without a revolutionary subject there can be no resistance. Badiou observes the argument with the face of an old turtle, as if he were wondering which of the two he would like to send to a labor camp first. The moderator asks Badiou whether he would like to comment. Badiou waves aside the question, flashes a wolfish grin, and says that he intends to comment on Negri, and perhaps on Zizek, as well, the next day. It sounds like a threat.
At the end of Zizek's lecture, an audience member asks a complicated and unintelligible question. "You made a good point," says Zizek, and continues to talk about Hegel. His response has nothing to do with the question, which in turn has nothing to do with the lecture. The game could continue endlessly in the same vein. Suddenly Zizek pushes aside the cardboard screen and interrupts his Hegel lecture. "Okay! It doesn't matter. As I said already, you made quite a good point. And the truth is that I have no response. In fact, my long-winded talk was also just an attempt to cover up that fact!" The audience seems grateful, now that Zizek has said that it's okay to say that you don't understand something and don't have a clue as to what something is talking about. Even Zizek does it.
"I know that people often think I'm an idiot," he says that evening, "that nostalgic Leninist. But I'm not crazy. I'm much more modest and much more pessimistic."
Why pessimistic? In fact, it isn't absurd at all to assume that capitalism and democracy have reached a dead end. "That's true," says Zizek, "but I believe that the left is, tragically, bereft of any vision to be taken seriously. We all wish for a real, authentic revolution! But it has take place far away, preferably in Cuba, Vietnam, China or Nicaragua. The advantage of that is that it allows us to continue with our careers here." He ends the conversation by saying that it's time for him to return to his hotel -- you know, the diabetes, he says.
'See You Tomorrow!'
Late Saturday evening, just as the US and Ghana World Cup match is in overtime, Zizek calls again. He sounds excited. "Did you watch my clash with Negri today? Unbelievable! What is he talking about! That late capitalism is doing away with itself?"
Zizek says that the revolution can never function without an authority, without control, and that this was already the case during the French Revolution and with the Jacobins.
He pauses. Zizek rarely pauses when he speaks, because it makes him feel self-conscious for an instant.
Finally he says: The thing about the state and revolution reminds him of women. "It's impossible to live with them, but even more impossible without them."
He seems about to talk himself into a rage again, but just as the machine is revving up he suddenly interrupts himself.
"Oh, let's forget about it. I'll see you tomorrow, my friend!"
Last year the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek published a piece in The New York Times deploring America's use of torture to extract a confession from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who is thought to have masterminded the attacks of September 11. The arguments that Žižek employed could have been endorsed without hesitation by any liberal-minded reader. Yes, he acknowledged, Mohammed's crimes were "clear and horrifying"; but by torturing him the United States was turning back the clock on centuries of legal and moral progress, reverting to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. We owe it to ourselves, Žižek argued, not to throw away "our civilization's greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity." For anyone who is familiar with Žižek's many books, what was striking about the piece was how un-Žižekian it was. Yes, there were the telltale marks--quotations from Hegel and Agamben kept company with a reference to the television show 24, creating the kind of high-low frisson for which Žižek is celebrated. But for the benefit of the Times readers, Žižek was writing, rather surprisingly, as if the United States was basically a decent country that had strayed into sin.
He was being dishonest. What Žižek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: "Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture." Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers "a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life." This, to Žižek's many admirers, is more like it.
It also provides a fine illustration of the sort of dialectical reversal that is Žižek's favorite intellectual stratagem, and which gives his writing its disorienting, counterintuitive dazzle. Torture, which appears to be un-American, is pronounced to be the thing that is most American. It follows that the legalization of torture, far from barbarizing the United States, is actually a step toward humanizing it. According to the old Marxist logic, it heightens the contradictions, bringing us closer to the day when we realize, as Žižek writes, that "universal human rights" are an ideological sham, "effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market and exploit workers and women."
Nor does Žižek simply condemn Al Qaeda's violence as "horrifying." Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but "in a curious inversion," he characteristically observes, "religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society. It has become one of the sites of resistance." And the whole premise of Violence, as of Žižek's recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. "Everything is to be endorsed here," he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, "up to and including religious 'fanaticism.'"
The curious thing about the Žižek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror--especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose "lost causes" Žižek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes--the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Žižek claims, "Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy"; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Žižek is "a stimulating writer" who "will entertain and offend, but never bore." In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that "the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred"; but this is an example of his "typical brio and boldness." And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Žižek remarks that "Heidegger is 'great' not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement," and that "crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not 'essential' enough"; but this book, its publisher informs us, is "a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values."
In the same witty book Žižek laments that "this is how the establishment likes its 'subversive' theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise--God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it." How is it, then, that Slavoj Žižek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment's pet subversives, who "tries to live" the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana's Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?
A part of the answer has to do with Žižek's enthusiasm for American popular culture. Despite the best attempts of critical theory to demystify American mass entertainment, to lay bare the political subtext of our movies and pulp fiction and television shows, pop culture remains for most Americans apolitical and anti-political--a frivolous zone of entertainment and distraction. So when the theory-drenched Žižek illustrates his arcane notions with examples from Nip/ Tuck and Titanic, he seems to be signaling a suspension of earnestness. The effect is quite deliberate. In The Metastases of Enjoyment, for instance, he writes that "Jurassic Park is a chamber drama about the trauma of fatherhood in the style of the early Antonioni or Bergman." Elsewhere he asks, "Is Parsifal not a model for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Gurnemanz?" Those are laugh lines, and they cunningly disarm the anxious or baffled reader with their playfulness. They relieve his reader with an expectation of comic hyperbole, and this expectation is then carried over to Žižek's political proclamations, which are certainly hyperbolic but not at all comic.
When, in 1994, during the siege of Sarajevo, Žižek wrote that "there is no difference" between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that "it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a 'true' peace and the residents of Sarajevo"--well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie. This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed "the Elvis of cultural theory."
In person, too, Žižek plays the jester with practiced skill. Every journalist who sits down to interview him comes away with a smile on his face. Robert Boynton, writing in Lingua Franca in 1998, found Žižek "bearded, disheveled, and loud ... like central casting's pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual." Boynton was amused to see the manic, ranting philosopher order mint tea and sugar cookies: "'Oh, I can't drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,' he says meekly. 'Caffeine makes me too nervous.'" The intellectual parallel is quite clear: in life, as in his writing, Žižek is all bark and no bite. Like a naughty child who flashes an irresistible grin, it is impossible to stay angry at him for long.
I witnessed the same deception a few weeks ago, when Žižek appeared with Bernard-Henri L évy at the New York Public Library. The two philosopher-celebrities came on stage to the theme music from Superman, and their personae were so perfectly opposed that they did indeed nudge each other into cartoonishness: Lévy was all the more Gallic and debonair next to Žižek, who seemed all the more wild-eyed and Slavic next to Lévy. Thus it was perfectly natural for the audience to erupt in laughter when Žižek, at one point in the generally unacrimonious evening, told Lévy: "Don't be afraid--when we take over you will not go to the Gulag, just two years of reeducation camp." Solzhenitsyn had died only a few weeks earlier, but it would have been a kind of betise to identify Žižek's Gulag with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag. When the audience laughed, it was playing into his hands, and hewing to the standard line on Žižek, which Rebecca Mead laid down in a profile of him in The New Yorker a few years ago: "Always to take Slavoj Žižek seriously would be to make a category mistake."
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Žižek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Žižek's work as if he means it--to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
Žižek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While "socialism" remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Žižek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp; and there is a kind of intellectual equivalent of this development in Žižek's work. The cover of his book The Parallax View reproduces a Socialist Realist portrait of "Lenin at the Smolny Institute," in the ironically unironic fashion made familiar by the pseudo-iconoclastic work of Komar and Melamid, Cai Guo-Jiang, and other post-Soviet, post-Mao artists. He, too, expects you to be in on the joke. But there is a difference between Žižek and the other jokesters. It is that he is not really joking.
Like them, Žižek, who was born in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 1949, spent his formative years under communism. As an undergraduate, he acquired what would become a lifelong fascination with the work of Jacques Lacan; later he went to Paris to be analyzed by Lacan's son-in-law and heir, Jacques-Alain Miller, and to this day Lacanian ideas and terms form one of the foundations of Žižek's thought. His academic career was evidently sidetracked by communist bureaucrats who believed, no doubt correctly, that his eccentric brilliance would make him politically unreliable. In the 1980s, he was involved in establishing Slovenia's opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and he even ran for office, unsuccessfully, in the newly independent country's elections in 1990. It would be interesting to know more about Žižek's activities in this period, so as to understand how this erstwhile liberal democrat emerged as an idolator of Lenin and a contemptuous foe of liberal democracy.
For if Žižek benefits, practically speaking, from the repudiation of the communist dream, it is also his central grievance. Since he mixes high theory and low culture--one of his books, Enjoy Your Symptom!, is a primer on Lacan that illustrates his theories with examples from Hollywood movies--it is tempting to classify him as another postmodernist. But Žižek is quite capable of distinguishing between pop culture, which is the air we all breathe, and postmodern relativism, which he unequivocally rejects. His recent work, in fact, is strictly conservative in its hostility to the libertarian and improvisatory aspects of contemporary Western culture. His attitude toward homosexuality, for instance, is that of a mid-century Freudian: he regards it as a symptom of debilitating narcissism. In Violence, he suggests that homosexuality is a step on the road to onanism: "first, in homosexuality, the other sex is excluded (one does it with another person of the same sex). Then, in a kind of mockingly Hegelian negation of negation, the very dimension of otherness is cancelled: one does it with oneself." Transsexuals are even more threatening: "The ultimate difference, the 'transcendental' difference that grounds human identity itself, thus turns into something open to manipulation: the ultimate plasticity of being human is asserted instead." When it comes to the brave new world of contemporary bioethics, Žižek is as hidebound as any Catholic traditionalist.
Žižek suspects all these postmodernist twenty-first-century phenomena because his political program is, as he recognizes, a throwback to the political modernism of the twentieth century, with its utopian longing for a violent, total transformation of human society. Only this kind of revolution, he believes, is real politics. More: only in the violence of revolution do we touch reality at all. "The ultimate and defining experience of the twentieth century," he declares, "was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality--the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality." Žižek, too, feels this longing for the Real, and he recognizes that this puts him in opposition to his times, in which the Virtual does quite nicely. He deplores "one of the great postmodern motifs, that of the Real Thing towards which one should maintain a proper distance." He wants to close that distance, to seize the Real Thing.
It makes sense, then, that the popculture artifact that speaks most deeply to Žižek, and to which he returns again and again in his work, is The Matrix. In this film, you will remember, the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, is initiated into a terrible secret: the world as we know it does not actually exist, but is merely a vast computer simulation projected into our brains. When the hero is unplugged from this simulation, he finds that the human race has in reality been enslaved by rebellious robots, who use the Matrix to keep us docile while literally sucking the energy from our bodies. When Laurence Fishburne, Reeves's mentor, shows him the true state of the Earth, blasted by nuclear bombs, he proclaims: "Welcome to the desert of the real!"
When Žižek employed this phrase as the title of a short book about the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, he was not making an ironic pop reference. He was drawing an edifying parallel. Why is it, the communist revolutionary must inevitably reflect, that nobody wants a communist revolution? Why do people in the West seem so content in what Žižek calls "the Francis Fukuyama dream of the 'end of history'"? For most of us, this may not seem like a hard question to answer: one need only compare the experience of communist countries with the experience of democratic ones. But Žižek is not an empiricist, or a liberal, and he has another answer. It is that capitalism is the Matrix, the illusion in which we are trapped.
This, of course, is merely a flamboyant sci-fi formulation of the old Marxist concept of false consciousness. "Our 'freedoms,'" Žižek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, "themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom." This is the central instance in Žižek's work of the kind of dialectical reversal, the clever anti-liberal inversion, that is the basic movement of his mind. It could hardly be otherwise, considering that his intellectual gods are Hegel and Lacan--masters of the dialectic, for whom reality never appears except in the form of the illusion or the symptom. In both their systems, the interpreter--the philosopher for Hegel, the analyst for Lacan--is granted absolute, unchallengeable authority. Most people are necessarily in thrall to appearances, and thereby to the deceptions of power; but the interpreter is somehow immune to them, and can singlehandedly recognize and expose the hidden meanings, the true processes at work in History or in the Unconscious.
This sacerdotal notion of intellectual authority makes both thinkers essentially hostile to democracy, which holds that the truth is available in principle to everyone, and that every individual must be allowed to speak for himself. Žižek, too, sees the similarity--or, as he says, "the profound solidarity"--between his favorite philosophical traditions. "Their structure," he acknowledges, "is inherently 'authoritarian': since Marx and Freud opened up a new theoretical field which sets the very criteria of veracity, their words cannot be put to the test the same way one is allowed to question the statements of their followers." Note that the term "authoritarian" is not used here pejoratively. For Žižek, it is precisely this authoritarianism that makes these perspectives appealing. Their "engaged notion of truth" makes for "struggling theories, not only theories about struggle."
But to know what is worth struggling for, you need theories about struggle. Only if you have already accepted the terms of the struggle--in Žižek's case, the class struggle--can you move on to the struggling theory that teaches you how to fight. In this sense, Žižek the dialectician is at bottom entirely undialectical. That liberalism is evil and that communism is good is not his conclusion, it is his premise; and the contortions of his thought, especially in his most political books, result from the need to reconcile that premise with a reality that seems abundantly to indicate the opposite.
Hence the necessity of the Matrix, or something like it, for Žižek's worldview. And hence his approval of anything that unplugs us from the Matrix and returns us to the desert of the real--for instance, the horrors of September 11. One of the ambiguities of Žižek's recent work lies in his attitude toward the kind of Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the attacks. On the one hand, they are clearly reactionary in their religious dogmatism; on the other hand, they have been far more effective than the Zapatistas or the Porto Alegre movement in discomfiting American capitalism. As Žižek observes, "while they pursue what appear to us to be evil goals with evil means, the very form of their activity meets the highest standard of the good." Yes, the good: Mohammed Atta and his comrades exemplified "good as the spirit of and actual readiness for sacrifice in the name of some higher cause." Žižek's dialectic allows him to have it all: the jihadis are not really motivated by religion, as they say they are; they are actually casualties of global capitalism, and thus "objectively" on the left. "The only way to conceive of what happened on September 11," he writes, "is to locate it in the context of the antagonisms of global capitalism."
'Will America finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival in the Real world"? Žižek asked in 2002. The answer was no. Even September 11 did not succeed in robbing the West of its liberal illusions. What remains, then, for the would-be communist? The truly dialectical answer, the kind of answer that Marx would have given, is that the adaptations of capitalism must themselves prove fatally maladaptive. This is the answer that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt gave in their popular neo-Marxist treatises Empire and Multitude: as global capitalism evolves into a kind of disembodied, centerless, virtual reality, it makes labor autonomous and renders capital itself unnecessary. But Žižek, in In Defense of Lost Causes, has no use for Negri's "heroic attempt to stick to fundamental Marxist coordinates." When it comes to the heart of the matter, what Žižek wants is not dialectic, but repetition: another Robespierre, another Lenin, another Mao. His "progressivism" is not linear, it is cyclical. And if objective conditions are different from what they were in 1789 or 1917, so much the worse for objective conditions. "True ideas are eternal, they are indestructible, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead," Žižek writes in his introduction. One of the sections in the book is titled "Give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance!"
Of course, Žižek knows as well as anyone how many chances it has been given, and what the results have been. In his recent books, therefore, he has begun to articulate a new rationale for revolution, one that acknowledges its destined failure in advance. "Although, in terms of their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery," he explains, "at the same time they opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations." He adds elsewhere: "In spite of (or, rather, because of) all its horrors, the Cultural Revolution undoubtedly did contain elements of an enacted utopia." The crimes denoted not the failure of the utopian experiments, but their success. This utopian dimension is so precious that it is worth any number of human lives. To the tens of millions already lost in Russia, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, Žižek is prepared to add however many more are required. He endorses the formula of the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou: "mieux vaut un desastre qu'un desetre," better a disaster than a lack of being.
This ontology of revolution raises some questions. On several occasions, Žižek describes the "utopian" moment of revolution as "divine." In support of this notion he adduces Walter Benjamin on "divine violence." "The most obvious candidate for 'divine violence,'" he writes in Violence, "is the violent explosion of resentment which finds expression in a spectrum that ranges from mob lynchings to revolutionary terror." It is true that Benjamin did, in his worst moments, endorse revolutionary violence in these terms. But for Benjamin, who had a quasi-mystical temperament, the divine was at least a real metaphysical category: when he said divine, he meant divine. For Žižek, who sometimes employs religious tropes but certainly does not believe in religion, "divine" is just an honorific--a lofty way of justifying his call for human sacrifices.
"In the revolutionary explosion as an Event," Žižek explains in In Defense of Lost Causes, "another utopian dimension shines through, the dimension of universal emancipation which, precisely, is the excess betrayed by the market reality which takes over 'the day after'--as such, this excess is not simply abolished, dismissed as irrelevant, but, as it were, transposed into the virtual realm." But if utopia is destined to remain virtual--if Robespierre is always followed by Bonaparte, and Lenin by Stalin--why should actual lives be sacrificed to it? Would it not be wiser to seek this "dimension," this "divinity," bloodlessly, outside politics, by means of the imagination?
But what if it is not the utopia that appeals to Žižek, but the blood and the sacrifice? That is certainly the impression he gives with his strange misreading of Benjamin's most famous image. In Violence, Žižek cites the passage in Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" that was inspired by Paul Klee's Angelus Novus:
"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
The moral sublimity of this image, which has made it a touchstone for so many postwar thinkers, lies in Benjamin's opposition between the violence of history and the ineffectual but tireless witness of the angel. Violence lies in the nature of things, but the angel, who is the always-imminent messiah, resists this nature absolutely: his one desire is to "make whole what has been smashed." Yet here is Žižek's response to Benjamin: "And what if divine violence is the wild intervention of this angel?" What if "from time to time he strikes back to restore the balance, to enact a revenge"? Benjamin's point could not be more completely traduced: if the angel struck back, he would no longer be the angel. He would have gone over to the side of the "progress" that kills.
That is not Benjamin's side, but it is Žižek's. And in his recent writings, as the actual--or, in his Heideggerian terminology, the "ontic"--possibility of revolution recedes, its "ontological" importance has increased. No, the Revolution will not bring the millennium. As a historical science, Marxism is false. Divine violence "strikes from out of nowhere, a means without an end." And yet "one should nevertheless insist that there is no 'bad courage.'" The courage displayed in the Revolution is its own justification, it is the image of the utopia it cannot achieve. "The urge of the moment is the true utopia."
Žižek is hardly the only leftist thinker who has believed in the renovating power of violence, but it is hard to think of another one for whom the revolution itself was the acte gratuite. For the revolutionary, Žižek instructs in In Defense of Violence, violence involves "the heroic assumption of the solitude of a sovereign decision." He becomes the "master" (Žižek's Hegelian term) because "he is not afraid to die, [he] is ready to risk everything." True, "democratic materialism furiously rejects" the "infinite universal Truth" that such a figure brings, but that is because "democracy as a rule cannot reach beyond pragmatic utilitarian inertia ... a leader is necessary to trigger the enthusiasm for a Cause." In sum, "without the Hero, there is no Event"--a formula from a video game that Žižek quotes with approval. He grants that "there is definitely something terrifying about this attitude--however, this terror is nothing less than the condition of freedom."
There is a name for the politics that glorifies risk, decision, and will; that yearns for the hero, the master, and the leader; that prefers death and the infinite to democracy and the pragmatic; that finds the only true freedom in the terror of violence. Its name is not communism. Its name is fascism, and in his most recent work Žižek has inarguably revealed himself as some sort of fascist. He admits as much in Violence, where he quotes the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk on the "re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia"--"where, I guess, I belong." There is no need to guess.
Žižek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label. Is "mass choreography displaying disciplined movements of thousands of bodies," of the kind Leni Riefenstahl loved to photograph, fascist? No, Žižek insists, "it was Nazism that stole" such displays "from the workers' movement, their original creator." (He is willfully blind to the old and obvious conclusion that totalitarian form accepts content from the left and the right.) Is there something fascist about what Adorno long ago called the jargon of authenticity--"the notions of decision, repetition, assuming one's destiny ... mass discipline, sacrifice of the individual for the collective, and so forth"? No, again: "there is nothing 'inherently fascist'" in all that. Is the cult of martyrdom that surrounds Che Guevara a holdover from the death worship of reactionary Latin American Catholicism, as Paul Berman has argued? Perhaps, Žižek grants, "but--so what?" "To be clear and brutal to the end," he sums up, "there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering's reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: 'In this city, I decide who is a Jew!'... In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency."
That sentence is a remarkable moment in Žižek's writing. It stands out even among the many instances in which Žižek, before delivering himself of some monstrous sentiment, warns the reader of the need to be harsh, never to flinch before liberal pieties. In order to defend himself against the charge of proto-fascism, Žižek falls back on Goering's joke about Jews! This is not just the "adrenalin-fueled" audacity of the bold writer who "dares the reader to disagree." To produce this quotation in this context is a sign, I think, of something darker. It is a dare to himself to see how far he can go in the direction of indecency, of an obsession that has nothing progressive or revolutionary about it.
It is not surprising that it is the subject of the Jews that calls forth this impulse in Žižek, because the treatment of Jews and Judaism in his work has long been unsettling--and in a different way from his treatment of, say, the United States, which he simply denounces. Žižek's books are loosely structured and full of digressions, more like monologues than treatises, but for that very reason, his perpetual return to the subject of the Jews functions in his writing the way a similar fixation might function in an analysand's recital: as a hint of something hidden that requires critical examination.
Typically, the form that Žižek's remarks on Jews take is that of an exposition of the mentality of the anti-Semite. This is an unimpeachable and rather common forensic device, but somehow it does not quite account for the passionate detail of Žižek's explorations. Consider, for instance, the passage in The Metastases of Enjoyment in which Žižek, in order to explicate John McCumber's theory about "the logic of the signifier" in Hegel, writes: "In order to explain this 'reflexivity,' let us resort to the logic of anti-Semitism. First, the series of markers that designate real properties are abbreviated-immediated in the marker 'Jew': (avaricious, profiteering, plotting, dirty...)--Jew. We then reverse the order and 'explicate' the marker 'Jew' with the series (avaricious, profiteering, plotting, dirty...)--that is, this series now provides the answer to the question 'What does "Jew" mean?'" In the ensuing discussion, Žižek goes on to recite this list of "Jewish" adjectives six more times.
It is an odd way to demonstrate a point of linguistic theory. Odd, too, is the passage in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle where Žižek discusses the ideological function of Nazi anti-Semitism: "one could say that even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews had been true (that they exploited the Germans, that they seduced German girls, and so forth...) their anti-Semitism would still have been (and was) pathological, since it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position." Why this need to keep open, as if for the sake of argument, the possibility that the Jews really were guilty of all the things of which the Nazis accused them? Why, when Žižek returns to this same line of reasoning in Violence--"even if rich Jews in the Germany of the 1930s 'really' exploited German workers, seduced their daughters," and so on--are there quotation marks around "really," as though the truth or the falsehood of Jewish villainy were a question to be postponed until it can be given fuller consideration?
These moments, unpleasant as they are, are not quite expressions of anti-Semitism. But in In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek does make plain what he might call the "fantasmatic screen" through which he sees Jews. This occurs in his discussion of Man Is Wolf to Man, the Gulag memoir of a Polish Jew named Janusz Bardach. In his book, Žižek writes, Bardach relates that when he was freed from the Kolyma camp but still forced to remain in the region, he took a job in a hospital, where he worked with a doctor on "a desperate method of providing the sick and starving prisoners with some vitamins and nutritious foodstuffs. The camp hospital had too large a stock of human blood for transfusions which it was planning to discard; Bardach reprocessed it, enriched it with vitamins from local herbs, and sold it back to the hospital." Later, when the hospital objected to this technique, Bardach found a way to do the same thing with deer blood, "and soon developed a successful business." Here is Žižek's reaction to this story: "My immediate racist association was, of course: 'Typical Jews! Even in the worst gulag, the moment they are given a minimum of freedom and space for maneuver, they start trading--in human blood!'"
Now, Žižek is telling this story against himself, as an illustration of the way "racism works as a spontaneous disposition lurking beneath the surface" of all our minds. Still, there is something chilling about that "of course": his implication is that we all harbor the association of Jews with profiteering and blood-drinking, though we ought to try to suppress it. It is at such a moment that one realizes that for Žižek, born and raised in a city that the Holocaust left almost without Jews (today the official Jewish Community of Slovenia estimates there are four hundred to six hundred Jews in the whole country), Jews are a mere abstraction, objects of fantasy and speculation, that can be forced to play any number of roles in his psychic economy.
In his recent writings, as his concerns have shifted more and more toward the political, the roles reserved for Jews and Judaism have become decidedly more negative. True, Žižek is less straightforwardly hostile to Israel than many European leftists. In his chapter on the subject in Violence, he writes that "everybody knows the only viable solution" to the Middle East stalemate is the two-state solution, with a Jewish state and a Palestinian state side by side. Yet Žižek's sovereign disdain for fact, along with his imaginative fixation on the Jews, ensures that his portrait of Israel is a malign fantasy.
"In all honesty I have to admit that every time I travel to Israel, I experience that strange thrill of entering a forbidden territory of illegitimate violence," he declares. "Does this mean I am (not so) secretly an anti-Semite?" (Note the disarming sincerity that expects absolution, and in Žižek's case usually receives it.) One manifestation of this illegitimate violence, he writes, is that "the Jews, the exemplary victims ... are now considering a radical 'ethnic cleansing' (the 'transfer'--a perfect Orwellian misnomer--of the Palestinians from the West Bank)." In fact, "the Jews" are not considering this at all; the only political party in Israel that did advocate such an obscenity, Meir Kahane's Kach, was banned from the Knesset for exactly that reason. But such merely empirical considerations cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Žižek's "dialectical" conclusion. As far back as World War II, he remarks, rehearsing one of the oldest and most pointless "ironies" of modern history, "the Nazis and the radical Zionists shared a common interest.... In both cases, the purpose was a kind of 'ethnic cleansing.'"
This method of alleviating European guilt by casting "the exemplary victims" of the Holocaust as in some sense the agents of holocaust is far from unknown on the European left. But what is less common, even there, is Žižek's resurrection of some of the oldest tropes of theological and philosophical anti-Semitism. The key text here is Žižek's book The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, which appeared in 2000. It addresses "the delicate question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity."
In Žižek's telling, that relationship is sickeningly familiar. Invoking Freud's Moses and Monotheism, Žižek asserts that Judaism harbors a "'stubborn attachment' ... to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement." Thanks to this Jewish stubbornness, he continues, "the Jews did not give up the ghost; they survived all their ordeals precisely because they refused to give up the ghost." This vision of Judaism as an undead religion, surviving zombie-like long past the date of its "natural" death, is taken over from Hegel, who writes in the Phenomenology of Mind about the "fatal unholy void" of this "most reprobate and abandoned" religion. This philosophical anti-Judaism, which appears in many modern thinkers, including Kant, is a descendant of the Christian anti-Judaism that created the figure of the Wandering Jew, who also "refused to give up the ghost."
It makes sense, then, that Žižek should finally cast his anti-Judaism in explicitly theological terms. Why is it that so many of the chief foes of totalitarianism in the second half of the twentieth century were Jews--Arendt, Berlin, Levinas? One might think it is because the Jews were the greatest victims of Nazi totalitarianism, and so had the greatest stake in ensuring that its evil was recognized. But Žižek has another explanation: the Jews are stubbornly rejecting the universal love that expresses itself in revolutionary terror, just as they rejected the love of Christ. "No wonder," he writes in the introduction to In Defense of Lost Causes, "that those who demand fidelity to the name 'Jews' are also those who warn us against the 'totalitarian' dangers of any radical emancipatory movement. Their politics consists in accepting the fundamental finitude and limitation of our situation, and the Jewish Law is the ultimate mark of this finitude, which is why, for them, all attempts to overcome Law and tend towards allembracing Love (from Christianity through the French Jacobins to Stalinism) must end up in totalitarian terror."
Stalinism, in this reading, is the heir to Christianity, and yet another attempt to overcome law with love. Here Žižek is explicating the views of Badiou, to whom the book is dedicated, but it is safe to say that Žižek endorses those views, since precisely the same logic is at work in The Fragile Absolute, where he writes of "the Jewish refusal to assert love for the neighbor outside the confines of the Law," as against the Christian "endeavor to break the very vicious cycle of Law/sin." "No wonder," Žižek says, "that, for those fully identified with the Jewish 'national substance' ... the appearance of Christ was a ridiculous and/or traumatic scandal."
It does not bother Žižek that this hoary dichotomy is built on a foundation of complete ignorance of both Judaism and Christianity. Nothing could be lazier than to recycle the ancient Christian myth of Judaism as a religion of "mere law." And nothing could be more insulting to Christianity than to reduce it romantically to antinomianism, which has always been a Christian heresy. "Christianity," Žižek remarks, "is ... a form of anti-wisdom par excellence, a crazy wager on Truth." But surely it is no part of the Pascalian wager that murdering millions of people will help to win it.
And there is no doubt that this scale of killing is what Žižek looks forward to in the Revolution. "What makes Nazism repulsive," he writes, "is not the rhetoric of a final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it." Perhaps there is supposed to be some reassurance for Jews in that sentence; but perhaps not. For in In Defense of Lost Causes, again paraphrasing Badiou, Žižek writes: "To put it succinctly, the only true solution to the 'Jewish question' is the 'final solution' (their annihilation), because Jews ... are the ultimate obstacle to the 'final solution' of History itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity and flexibility." I hasten to add that Žižek dissents from Badiou's vision to this extent: he believes that Jews "resisting identification with the State of Israel," "the Jews of the Jews themselves," the "worthy successors to Spinoza," deserve to be exempted on account of their "fidelity to the Messianic impulse."
In this way, Žižek's allegedly progressive thought leads directly into a pit of moral and intellectual squalor. In his New York Times piece against torture, Žižek worried that the normalization of torture as an instrument of state was the first step in "a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone." This is a good description of Žižek's own work. Under the cover of comedy and hyperbole, in between allusions to movies and video games, he is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century. He is trying to undo the achievement of all the postwar thinkers who taught us to regard totalitarianism, revolutionary terror, utopian violence, and anti-Semitism as inadmissible in serious political discourse. Is Žižek's audience too busy laughing at him to hear him? I hope so, because the idea that they can hear him without recoiling from him is too dismal, and frightening, to contemplate.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.
Der Spiegel publishes, in English translation, a fawning portrait of the ridiculous Slovenian Stalinist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. I cannot improve upon Adam Kirsch’s brilliant attack in The New Republic (which is referenced in the Der Spiegel piece three times), but in my essay in this book I offered a little context of how Zizek, called an “academic rock star” by the New York Times and the subject of two obsequious documentary films, affects the mainstream debate on post-communist Europe.
"Zizek, a frequent contributor to the New York Times opinion page, also grounds his anticapitalism in Soviet totalitarianism. 'Better the worst Stalinist terror,' he declares, 'than the most liberal capitalist democracy.' If Stalinism was indeed a negative development, it was because it was too capitalistic: 'Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’ was the capitalist logic of self-propelling productivity liberated from its capitalist form, which is why it failed: Stalinism was the symptom of capitalism.' On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Times selected Zizek to deliver its opinion page commemeration, an opportunity he used to denounce the 'new anti-Communist scare' in Eastern Europe and to argue, without corroborating evidence, that 'the large majority' of those liberated from Soviet tyranny 'did not ask for capitalism.'
So how does Der Spiegel treat a Soviet nostalgic, whose books were (stupidly) censored in Germany for (stupidly) arguing that “Nazism wasn’t radical enough”? With extreme deference, of course! Zizek is a an exceedingly clever “pop star” in the world of cultural studies, whose books are translated into dozens of languages, who has inspired “Zizek T-shirts and Zizek records…a Zizek club and an international Zizek journal.” He is a communist—nothing wrong with that!—who is sorting through the wreckage of those “catastrophes that occurred IN THE NAME OF COMMUNISM (emphasis added).”
"Zizek has created an artificial character. His appearances are performances, something between art and comedy. He says that he wants to get away from these standup comedy appearances, and that he wants to give a serious lecture in Berlin, mostly about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the subject of his new book. He says that he has already written 700 pages. It would take a normal person 10 years to write 700 pages about the man who may have been the most difficult thinker in the history of philosophy. Zizek wrote his 700 pages on airplanes in the last few months."
All of it incoherent. But Zizek is sensitive to such criticism, telling Der Spiegel that he is aware "that people often think I'm an idiot, that nostalgic Leninist. But I'm not crazy. I'm much more modest and much more pessimistic."
It’s nothing new for Western intellectuals to lavish attention and admiration on the resistance forces aligned against Israel, whether it’s Hamas or Hezbollah or even organizations like al-Qaida that are less interested in Israel than in killing and maiming Western civilians. Last week, when CNN’s former Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, tweeted that she respected the late militant cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the cards were out on the table for all to see. But usually the pro-resistance vibe is more subtle, as when Nasr’s defenders demanded a more nuanced understanding from knee-jerk Americans who were shocked by Nasr’s support for a suicide-bomb-sanctioning man of faith. After all, Fadlallah was a relatively pro-feminist radical Islamist cleric—and if his talk about Israel was genocidal, well, that’s just part of the package when dealing with a complex place like the Middle East.
Media consumers in the United States are by now well aware that Hezbollah and Hamas provide “social services” for their communities. For the writers and television personalities who push such supposed palliatives on their audiences—“Yes, they do chant ‘kill the Jews!’ and they do act on their rhetoric, but they also educate poor kids in clean, well-lit schools (please ignore the slogans painted on the walls)”—respect for the resistance is a polite way of indicating one’s tolerance for murderous anti-Semitism. The issue is whether this attitude is in danger of seeping into the mainstream of the U.S. public. Poll numbers show that U.S. support for Israel is consistently high—in February Gallup found that a near-record 63 percent of Americans were more sympathetic to the Jewish state than to the Palestinians. But ideas can change, and it’s intellectuals who often lead the way. Remember that Israel was a popular cause among the intellectual classes until the 1967 war. It is true that the American people and the bulk of their intellectual class are far apart on the subject of Israel, but all the massive and popular evil of the last century started among a small ideological elite.
A common explanation for the turning away of the intellectuals from Israel is that the Jewish state forfeited the world’s sympathy once it was no longer perceived as the underdog in its conflict with the Arabs. Israel’s sin, in this reading, is that it didn’t lose. However, this would suggest that intellectuals misunderstand a uniquely American concept: The underdog does not win the pity of the chorus because he is crushed by his tormentors; rather, he is the champion who perseveres because the stubborn stars that rule his nature will not permit him to choose otherwise. Perhaps his friends will abandon him, and maybe his family, too; neither his wife nor children signed on for such an arduous journey. If he intends to follow this hard path, he may well travel alone. Such is the stuff of big-ticket American heroism. It is odd that the American intelligentsia cannot recognize in Israel the likeness of our literary models, Melville’s Ahab, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Rather, the intelligentsia is more like Hester’s hypocritical neighbors. If Israel is portrayed as the Dirty Harry of nations, then its accusers are the tepid bureaucrats mistaking cowardice for compassion, who chide Clint Eastwood’s Callahan.
In reality, of course, Israel isn’t all that heroic. No one and nothing is. Israel’s men and women of honor do not accomplish Homeric deeds in south Lebanon or Gaza to the beat of martial songs, like the resistance; instead they ride the bus home on the weekend to see their parents, go out drinking with friends, and pick up the wrong guy or girl in a smoky bar with awful pop music. “Our warriors,” says one former tank driver, “are Jewish boys who are bossed around by their wives.” And yet during the war with Hezbollah four years ago, the country’s incompetent political and military leadership sent too many of those Jewish boys to their deaths, without sufficient training or a strategy for victory. It seems like almost every day there is news that another of Israel’s chief political leaders is under investigation for corruption charges, which is to say the system is rotten and the system works. To say that Israel is normal is to say that it is, like all democracies, mediocre.
Intellectuals are not interested in the quotidian mediocrity of a functioning democracy. They are interested in ideas. Once an idea is realized in the form of a political organization that must function on a day-to-day basis, it is difficult for men and women of ideas to stomach the result. For instance, it is very exciting that the United States is founded on an idea—one that upends classical political theory. Whereas the ancients believed the role of the state was to promote virtue, the moderns took a more realistic view of human nature. The United States is founded on the idea that men are mediocre when they are not murderous and that it is the role of the state to protect them from each other’s predations. For such an optimistic country like the United States, this is a very unpleasant picture of human nature, and quite a boring idea. Universal equality is not the kind of idea, in practice even more so than theory, that is apt to excite intellectuals.
Of course, intellectuals on the right and the left have been wrong about politics these last hundred years more than they have been right (or righteous). George Orwell, after all, is not a major figure who was right about communism; rather, he is a major figure because he was one of the few who was right about communism. Among the great names of U.S. and European literary modernism, it is difficult to number more than a handful who did not flirt with fascism or who were not openly anti-Semitic.
The same search for novelty and individual originality, the same disenchantment with democracy, the same desire to stand outside the mediocrity of mass culture that fueled the modernist revolution in the arts also gave rise to a dispiriting number of mass-murdering political cults, from communism to fascism and Nazism to a number of Western-inspired ideas that were realized elsewhere, from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot to Arab nationalism. Anything to change the status quo, for the West was “a botched civilization,” wrote Ezra Pound, the American poet, “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” This proudly fascist and anti-Semitic modernist master, who made radio broadcasts on Mussolini’s behalf, won the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1949—never mind Pound’s crazy politics, said his defenders, the man was a poet of genius.
You could argue that Israel is a nation of obvious appeal to the intellectual classes, even on their own terms. For instance, the rebirth of Hebrew as a living national language was the work of intellectuals. Zionism itself is an idea. If you were a person of faith, you’d simply take the restoration of the Jews as proof that God is real and acts in history. But as a man of reason, you’d see the rebirth of Israel as evidence of human progress: After 2,000 years of wandering and suffering, the Jews have a modern nation-state—things do get better. If you were a man of reason, you’d take Israel as proof that enlightenment is real.
But intellectuals are no more rational than the rest of us, and none of us are wholly rational in our politics. The attractiveness of the resistance takes place on an emotional level, for like all of the most intellectually captivating modernist grand concepts it is a rejection of the Enlightenment, the boredom and the mediocrity of regular politics. The Enlightenment did away with the blood, the magic and mysticism of the great leader, he who decides life and death with a word. And this is what is to be recovered in the resistance: the charisma and authenticity of the human being unrestrained by what Nietzsche called slave morality. From Pound and T.S. Eliot to Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault and their disciples, for a century the West’s greatest minds have taught that the privilege, and duty, of the Western intellectual is to unmake the West, even—or especially—through violence, even if someone else, like the resistance, must serve as the agent of apocalypse and rebirth. The notion that Israel is condemned because it is more powerful than its adversaries is patently false: The intellectuals are nothing if not spellbound by the economy of force, and equally so in the purgative bloodshed that ensues. The aspect of eros that Pound found in Il Duce and Foucault found in Khomeini is what the Western acolytes of the resistance see in Hamas and Hezbollah.
Some journalists shed tears when Arafat died, others are smitten by the beauty of Islamist militants: The “green eyes” of Hezbollah’s deputy Naim Qassem “are framed by thick, dark lashes and he has long elegant hands.” Saddam Hussein, we are told, did much to advance the rights of women. In Cairo I knew a former CNN producer whose first affair with an Arab intelligence officer was in Saddam’s Baghdad—a great city, she explained, if you didn’t mind the constant surveillance and widespread torture.
But this attraction of the intellectuals to the flame of the resistance is not simply based on eros alone. There is also the aspect of thanatos, the death instinct. The sad reality is that all organisms—men and the nations they populate—carry within them the seeds of their own end. While the normal run of men unwittingly nurture their demise through the wrong that has become habit and custom, the suicide overruns all limits. In reality, it is not Israel that our intellectuals despise, for that hatred is simply the latest pattern in a long century that the West’s self-loathing has taken. It is ourselves that we cannot abide.
Libertarians need Charles Darwin. They need him because a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.
In his review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, Thomas Huxley declared, “every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armory of liberalism.” The Whitworth gun was a new kind of breech-loading cannon — a powerful weapon, then, for liberalism.
In 1860, liberalism meant classical liberalism — the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others. According to the liberals, the primary aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud, which included enforcing laws of contract and private property. They thought the moral and intellectual character of human beings was properly formed not by governmental coercion, but in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society.
Although Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as Herbert Spencer in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw that Darwin’s science supported liberalism. Darwin himself was a fervent supporter of the Liberal Party and its liberal policies. He was honored when William Gladstone (the “Grand Old Man” of the Liberal Party) visited him at his home in Down in 1877.
Like other liberals, Darwin admired and practiced the virtues of self-help, as promoted in Samuel Smiles’ popular book Self-Help, with its stories of self-made men. Darwin was active in the charitable activities of his parish. He was the treasurer of the local Friendly Society. In Great Britain, friendly societies were self-governing associations of manual laborers who shared their resources and pledged to help one another in time of hardship. In this way, individuals could secure their social welfare and acquire good character through voluntary mutual aid without the need for governmental coercion.
Darwin was also active in the international campaign against slavery, one of the leading liberal causes of his day. In their recent book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown that Darwin’s hatred of slavery was one motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the pro-slavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a separate species of natural slaves.
Also in The Descent of Man, Darwin showed that the moral order of human life arose through a natural moral sense as shaped by organic and cultural evolution. He thus provided a scientific basis for the moral liberalism of David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other Scottish philosophers, who argued that the moral and intellectual virtues could arise through the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture.
Darwin and the Libertarians
One might expect that today’s libertarians — who continue the tradition of classical liberalism — would want to embrace Darwin and evolutionary science as sustaining their position.
But libertarians are ambivalent about Darwin and Darwinism. That ambivalence is evident, for example, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy, under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Charles Darwin. But there are entries for Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism, and Evolutionary Psychology. In these and other entries, one can see intimations that libertarianism could be rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature. But one can also see suggestions that Darwin’s science has little or no application to libertarian thought.
The entry on Evolutionary Psychology is written by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the founders of the research tradition that goes by the name of “evolutionary psychology.”
They indicate that evolutionary psychology was begun by Darwin. They say that its aim is to map human nature as rooted in the evolved architecture of the human mind. They summarize some of this evolved human nature, including reasoning about social exchange and cheater detection that provides the cognitive foundations of trade and the moral sentiments that make moral order possible. They contrast this idea of a universal human nature with the idea of the human mind as a blank slate that is infinitely malleable by social learning. They say that the false idea of the blank slate explains the failure of those experiments in social engineering that denied human nature, as illustrated by the failed communist regimes. This all suggests that a Darwinian evolutionary psychology could support a libertarian view of human nature.
But Cosmides and Tooby also cast doubt on this conclusion. Although the implementation of public policy proposals needs to take human nature into account, they say, “the position most central to libertarianism — that human relationships should be based on the voluntary consent of the individuals involved — makes few if any assumptions about human nature.” They don’t explain what they mean by this. One interpretation is that they are making a fact-value distinction, and suggesting that while the calculation of means to ends is a factual judgment that might be open to scientific research, the moral assessment of ends — such as the value of individual liberty — is a normative judgment that is beyond scientific research.
Perhaps their thought is more clearly stated by Will Wilkinson in his essay on “Capitalism and Human Nature”
"We cannot expect to draw any straightforward positive political lessons from evolutionary psychology. It can tell us something about the kind of society that will tend not to work, and why. But it cannot tell us which of the feasible forms of society we ought to aspire to. We cannot, it turns out, infer the naturalness of capitalism from the manifest failure of communism to accommodate human nature. Nor should we be tempted to infer that natural is better. Foraging half-naked for nuts and berries is natural, while the New York Stock Exchange and open-heart surgery would boggle our ancestors’ minds."
Wilkinson argues that while our evolved human nature constrains the possibilities of social order, the historical move to liberal capitalism — the transition from personal to impersonal exchange — was a “great cultural leap,” as Friedrich Hayek emphasized. Within the limits set by evolved human nature, the emergence of liberal capitalism depends on cultural evolution. “We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom.”
This dependence of classical liberalism on cultural evolution is also stressed by George Smith in his encyclopedia entries on Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer. Smith argues that Spencer’s view of evolution was Lamarckian, and therefore quite different from Darwin’s view. While Spencer’s Lamarckian conception of evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been discredited as biological theory, Smith observes, this is actually a better approach for understanding social history than is Darwin’s biological approach. Social evolution — including the evolution of liberal capitalism — really is Lamarckian in that the social practices successful for one generation can be passed on to the next generation through social learning as a system of cultural inheritance. Most importantly for Spencer, the move from regimes of status based on coercive exploitation to regimes of contract based on voluntary cooperation was a process of cultural rather than biological evolution. Smith suggests, therefore, that the liberal principle of equal liberty arose not from biological nature but from cultural history.
Furthermore, Smith argues, Spencer and other classical liberals understood that market competition differed radically from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. Smith concludes: “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply.”
There’s a big problem with Smith’s analysis. If Social Darwinism means explaining all social order through biological evolution based on zero-sum competition, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.
Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game.
Moreover, Darwin accepted Lamarckian thinking about what he called “the inherited effects of the long-continued use or disuse of parts.” And he saw that the moral and social progress of human beings came much more through cultural evolution by social learning than biological evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s reasoning has been confirmed by recent research on gene-culture co-evolution. As Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have shown, a broad understanding of evolution must encompass four systems of evolutionary inheritance — genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.
Darwin’s liberalism combines an Aristotelian ethics of social virtue and a Lockean politics of individual liberty. This is the sort of liberalism that has been recently defended by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl in their books Liberty and Nature and Norms of Liberty and by Den Uyl in his book The Virtue of Prudence.
To anyone who knows about my advocacy of “Darwinian conservatism,” it must seem odd that I am now arguing for “Darwinian liberalism.” But the conservatism I have defended is a liberal conservatism that combines a libertarian concern for liberty and a traditionalist concern for virtue. This is similar to the “fusionist” conservatism of Frank Meyer, which is close to the Aristotelian liberalism of Rasmussen and Den Uyl.
To see how Darwinian science supports classical liberalism, we must see how the liberal principles of equal liberty have arisen from the complex interaction of natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.
If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.
In Darwin’s writings on human evolution — particularly, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals — he accounts for these 20 desires as part of human biological nature. We now have anthropological evidence — surveyed by Donald Brown and others — that there are hundreds of human universals, which are clustered around these 20 desires. Psychologists who study human motivation across diverse cultures recognize these desires as manifesting the basic motives for human action.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify the natural ends of human action as corresponding to a list of generic goods that resembles my list of 20 natural desires. Their list of generic goods includes health, beauty, wealth, honor, friendship, justice, artistic pursuits, and intellectual pursuits.
My assertion that the good is the desirable will provoke a complaint from some philosophers that I am overlooking the distinction between facts and values or is and ought. They will insist that we cannot infer moral values from natural facts. From the fact that we naturally desire something, they say, we cannot infer that it is morally good for us to desire it.
But I say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken — because what we desire is not truly desirable for us — then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. Much of Darwin’s discussion of moral deliberation is about how human beings judge their desires in the light of their past experiences and future expectations as they strive for the harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, and much of this moral and intellectual deliberation turns on the experience of regret when human beings realize that they have yielded to a momentary desire that conflicts with their more enduring desires.
Whenever a moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, “Why?” The only ultimate answer to that question is because it’s desirable for you — it will fulfill you or make you happy by contributing to your human flourishing.
But even if we know what is generally or generically good for human beings, this does not tell us what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. Although the 20 natural desires constitute the universal goods of human life, the best organization or ranking of those desires over a whole life varies according to individual temperaments and social situations. So, for example, a philosophic life in which the natural desire for intellectual understanding ranks higher than other desires is best for Socrates and those like him, but not for others.
Evolutionary biology allows us to generalize about natural desires as the universals of evolved human nature. And yet evolutionary biology also teaches us that every individual organism is unique. After all, the Darwinian theory of evolution requires individual variation. Even identical twins are not really identical. Evolutionary biology also teaches us that human evolutionary adaptations enable flexible responses to the variable circumstances of the physical and social environment, which is why the human brain has evolved to respond flexibly to the unique life history of each individual.
If there is no single way of life that is best for all individuals in all circumstances, then the problem for any human community is how to organize social life so that individuals can pursue their diverse conceptions of happiness without coming into conflict. And since human beings are naturally social animals, their individual pursuit of happiness requires communal engagement. Allowing human beings to live together as children, parents, spouses, friends, associates, and citizens without imposing one determinate conception of the best way of life on all individuals is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify as “liberalism’s problem.”
Liberalism’s solution to this problem is to distinguish between the political order of the state as protecting individual liberty and the moral order of society as shaping virtuous character. While a liberal political community does not enforce one determinate conception of the human good, it does enforce procedural norms of peaceful conduct that secure the freedom of individuals to form families, social groups, and cooperative enterprises that manifest their diverse conceptions of the human good.
Natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions. If I am right about my list of 20 natural desires, this constitutes a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings by nature, and we can judge cultural traditions by how well they conform to these natural desires. So, for example, we can judge the utopian socialist traditions to be a failure, because their attempts to abolish private property and private families have frustrated some of the strongest desires of evolved human nature. We can also judge that political traditions of limited government that channel and check political ambition are adapted for satisfying the natural desire of dominant individuals for political rule, while also satisfying the natural desire of subordinate individuals to be free from exploitation. But cultural traditions like socialism and limited government arise as spontaneous orders of human cultural evolution that are not precisely determined by genetic nature or by individual judgment.
Recognizing that natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions, Darwinian liberalism avoids the mistaken assumption of biological determinism that biology is everything, culture nothing, while also avoiding the mistaken assumption of cultural relativism that culture is everything, biology nothing.
The interaction of human nature and human culture is manifest in the cultivation of moral and intellectual character through the spontaneous order of civil society. Classical liberals believe that while we need the coercive powers of the state to secure those individual rights of liberty that are the conditions for a free society, we need the natural and voluntary associations of civil society to secure the moral order of our social life. The associations within civil society — families, churches, clubs, schools, fraternal societies, business organizations, and so on — allow us to pursue our diverse conceptions of the good life in cooperation with others who share our moral understanding.
Darwin showed how this moral order of civil society arises from the natural and cultural history of the human species. The need of human offspring for prolonged and intensive parental care favors the moral emotions of familial bonding, and thus people tend to cooperate with their kin. The evolutionary advantages of mutual aid favor moral emotions sustaining mutual cooperation. And the benefits of reciprocal exchange favors moral emotions sustaining a sense of reciprocity, because one is more likely to be helped by others if one has helped others in the past and has the reputation for being helpful. “Ultimately,” Darwin concluded, “our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment — originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Recent research in evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened this Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design.
Natural desires and cultural traditions constrain but do not determine individual judgments. Classical liberals recognize that the human good or flourishing is complex in conforming to the natural ends, the cultural circumstances, and the individual choices of human life. Our shared human nature gives us a universal range of natural desires that constitute the generic goods of life. Our diverse human cultures give us a multiplicity of moral traditions that shape our social life. But ultimately, individuals must choose a way of life that they judge as best conforming to their natural desires, social circumstances, and individual temperaments. For that reason, liberals believe that the fundamental human right is liberty of judgment or conscience.
Darwinian moral psychology explains the evolutionary history of the human capacity for individual moral judgment. Most recently, neuroscience has begun to uncover the emotional, social, and cognitive capacities of the brain that make moral judgment possible. For example, while Darwin explained the evolutionary importance of sympathy for human moral experience, contemporary neuroscientists have studied the “mirror neurons” in human beings and other primates that allow animals to imaginatively project themselves into the experiences of other individuals.
Created from Animals
I have argued that Darwinian science is compatible with a classical liberal understanding of how moral order in a free society arises from natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. But does Darwinism make any unique contribution to liberal thought — something that could not have been derived from the moral and political thought of liberalism without the help of Darwinian science?
Yes, I think it does. Evolution provides a purely naturalistic grounding for liberal thought, so that there is no necessity to appeal to the supernatural. That’s important, because if liberal thought required supernatural beliefs, this might seem to require a coercive enforcement of those supernatural beliefs, which would subvert the individual liberty of conscience.
From Locke’s Two Treatises of Government to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Spencer’s Social Statics, liberal thought has justified equal liberty as an expression of the unique dignity that human beings have as created in God’s image. For Locke, our natural desires give rise to natural rights because they have been implanted in us by God, and we are all naturally equal in our rights to life, liberty, and property, because we are all “the Workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” For Jefferson, looking to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we can hold it to be self-evident “that all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For Spencer, since God wills human happiness, He also wills that human beings should have equal liberty as the condition for satisfying their desires.
If liberalism requires such religious beliefs, then the liberal doctrine of religious toleration cannot include tolerating atheists. This was Locke’s conclusion, because he warned that denying the existence of God as the Creator of human beings and of the moral law dissolved the moral bonds of human society.
Darwin offered an alternative. In one of his early notebooks, he wrote that “man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals.” Although scientists and philosophers had long speculated on the possibility of a purely natural evolution of life, Darwin was one of the first thinkers to lay out a rigorous theory of how this could have happened, which included an evolutionary theory of the natural moral sense.
In his review of The Origin of Species, Huxley explained that Darwin’s book was a great weapon for liberalism because it refuted the Biblical doctrine of “special creation.” To protect liberty of thought from coercive theocratic authority, liberals needed to explain all of nature, including human nature, as the product of purely natural causes.
And yet, despite the claims of some of its religious opponents, Darwinism does not dictate atheism. Although Darwin by the end of his life was an agnostic, he recognized that religious beliefs were often important for the cultural evolution of morality. Recently, evolutionary theorists such as David Sloan Wilson have shown how the evolution of religion through group selection can strengthen the cooperative moral dispositions of religious believers.
But even without religion, Darwin suggested, believing that we were “created from animals,” we can see that moral order stands on purely human grounds—human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.
That’s why libertarians need Charles Darwin.
Larry Arnhart is a Presidential Research Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.