Sweet dreams aren’t made of this

Issue: 137

Jonny Jones

Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, 2012), £7.99

Slavoj Žižek has been an important point of reference for many activists and intellectuals who were caught up in the protests of recent years, from the student revolt to the Occupy movement. In this small book he offers his take on the emancipatory potential of the events of 2011.

Žižek begins by making three sweeping claims about contemporary capitalism. He asserts that capital accumulation increasingly relies upon rent rather than profit. This leads to a changing role of unemployment in which “the opportunity to be ‘exploited’ in a long term job is experienced as a privilege”. Finally, he draws on the work of French linguist and psychoanalyst (and former Maoist) Jean-Claude Milner to suggest that these processes have given rise to a “salaried bourgeoisie” made up of, among others, “experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists”. The lower levels of this extraordinarily nebulous grouping make up, for Žižek, the people who are protesting “against the threat of being reduced to a proletarian status”.

To my mind, this eclectic bricolage, masquerading as political economy and class analysis, is not only wholly unsubstantiated but also seriously weakens Žižek’s entire analysis of the events of 2011.

So the English riots of August 2011 become an example of how our “post-ideological age” leads to angry inner city youth targeting “the hard won acquisitions of the very stratum that the protesters originated from…envy masked as a triumphant carnival”. Žižek simply ignores the fact that the vast majority of looting was targeted at chain stores. Quite what is different from these riots to earlier riots that took place before the inauguration of this “post ideological age” he doesn’t make clear. For all his criticism of liberal responses to the riots, he steps awfully close to the liberal conceit that “good riots” only happen elsewhere or in the past.

When it comes to the most important elsewhere—Egypt—Žižek once again slips up. Echoing those who saw the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as the dawn of an “Islamist winter” after the Arab Spring, Žižek argues that “the summer of 2011 will likely be remembered as the end of the revolution, as the suffocating of its emancipatory potential. Its grave-diggers are the army and the Islamists.” As I write this, the tens of thousands who are protesting against President Mursi’s power grab indicate that there is life in the revolution yet.

As always, Žižek is at his best when discussing ideological, philosophical and cultural questions. The book contains interesting and engaging excursions into Lacanian discourse, and there is a whole chapter on the TV show The Wire. Even here, however, he is on shaky ground. The chapter aims to confront “the difficult question of how to fight the system without contributing to its enhanced functioning”. Žižek is right to rail against social democratic notions of reforming capitalism, but he underestimates the way in which struggles to defend gains won under the system can grow over into the kinds of movements which point towards a new society, elements of which he says “are here in our space, but whose time is in the emancipated future”.

He is right to say that “this future is not ‘objective’; it will come to be only through the subjective engagement that sustains it.” This conception could be a hostage to “prefigurative” autonomist readings. But such sustenance cannot come through indefinite occupations or creating islands of non-capitalism within the wider system. Žižek recognises this and argues that the movements of 2011 require “a new form of organisation, discipline and hard work”. But beyond this, Žižek doesn’t seem to have much insight into what such an organisation might look like or how it might be constructed.

We end the book rather ominously, “guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future”. This smacks of a “wait and see” attitude devoid of any serious “subjective engagement”, which surely requires an understanding of how an interventionist organisation can play an important role in transforming the balance of class forces.

Unfortunately, such lacunae abound in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, rendering it a deeply disappointing and frustrating book.