The interview: Slavoj Žižek

The Slovenian philosopher, sociologist and cultural critic speaks to Graeme Green about losing control, Twitter, Trump and a new approach.

Pictured: Slavoj Zizek
Photo credit: Matt Carr/Getty

Graeme: You have said that ‘seeing stupid people happy’ makes you depressed. Looking around at global politics, are you currently feeling pretty down?

Slavoj: Absolutely. I think a new world order is emerging. A rule that is ideologically and politically ‘America First’, ‘Russia First’, ‘China First’, ‘Turkey First’ … We have to move beyond this level. It’s literally becoming a matter of survival.

This is why I’m attached, maybe naively, to the idea of the European Union. It’s clear that in view of the threats we are facing, including ecological threats, certain things cannot be done at the level of nation-states. We will need to invent large-scale international co-operation. I don’t care if it’s Europe or Pacific or whoever – we need strong transnational co-operation and organizations. Naive as it may sound, we need a new internationalism. Without this, we are lost.

The same is true with biogenetics – it needs some level of international co-ordination.

The same is also true with refugees and migrants – the problem is economic, geopolitical. If you want to help migrants, do something in Yemen [and] Syria – where millions of new refugees are coming from.

In your recent book, Like A Thief In Broad Daylight, you argue that control of our lives is being drained away from us – especially by new digital systems. Do you think we have allowed this to happen?

I don’t think we were even asked to allow it or not. Global processes are to a large extent determining our fate, but not only can we not influence them, they are also more and more abstract, in the sense that we’re not fully aware of them. They’re impenetrable to us.

The paradox I see is that we’re treated more and more like free subjects: free choice, everything depends on us… But at the same time, we are more and more determined by economic and even military processes that are impenetrable. Agency is taken from us.

All I know is that the first step is that people should become aware to what extent they are controlled. Don’t tell me this is easy to do. I don’t think the majority of people really want to know how they are controlled. Most people want a peaceful life. You remember all those Guantánamo and waterboarding debates? I spoke to US sociologists who told me something very sad: the reaction of the majority of people was not ‘Oh my god, we shouldn’t be torturing suspected terrorists’, or even the opposite, ‘We should do it, they’re a threat’. People thought that the state’s secret agencies should do it discreetly but they didn’t want to know about it.

In some sense, the news of how we are controlled will also not be welcomed by the people. Don’t overestimate them – there are things they don’t want to know.

Digital technologies that dominate our lives are currently owned by companies and corporations, not governments. Do you think that will change over time and the lines will get blurrier?

Of course. If we learn anything from all the Cambridge Analytica and NSA stuff, it’s that, even if they are owned by big corporations, we shouldn’t underestimate the incredible extent of their discreet co-operation.

I don’t believe in this idea that in today’s new liberal era, big corporations – out of the control of the state – are the threat. The reality is a new link between state apparatus and the economy and big corporations.

British comedian Stewart Lee described Twitter as the ‘Stasi for the Angry Birds generation’. Do you agree with the idea that we’re all giving away too much private information on social media?

I basically agree with this ‘Stasi’ idea. This is why I’m tempted to defend Julian Assange when people ask why he only ‘attacks’ the US and not Russia or China. People in Russia and China don’t have the illusion that they live in a truly free society. They all know there are limits and that they live in authoritarian states.

The truly dangerous unfreedom is the unfreedom of which you are not even aware, which you experience as your own freedom. Isn’t Twitter the ultimate form of subjective freedom? The idea that ‘I sit in front of my computer, I surf around, I do whatever I want, I communicate at will’. What can be freer than that? But then, people are also directed and manipulated in different ways.

On the other hand, I don’t follow the idea that Twitter and Facebook are the media of new manipulation and we should dispense with them. Can you even imagine modern forms of protest without digital social media? There would have been no Arab Spring.

How is change possible if people don’t know what information to trust, especially online?

There are no easy solutions. The ruling ideology like to invoke the line that we’re manipulated, but we can’t do anything, so just enjoy your life. But when people are aware in their bodies and minds of issues like global warming, migration, the economic crisis and so on, this can gradually give them the force to do something.

Don’t underestimate people. I believe in miracles. By ‘miracles’ I mean how things can happen unexpectedly, something explodes. Who could have predicted Syria, even if it then went into fiasco? Who could have predicted someone like Bernie Sanders in the US?

I’m a pessimistic optimist. That cost me dearly in my popularity when I said I’d have voted for Trump. I’m not crazy. Trump is a nightmare. But I claim that there would be no #MeToo and no Bernie Sanders without Trump. There’s the idea that sometimes a more radical enemy opens up more space for us and something new might emerge from that. It’s a desperate optimism.

The political Right is gaining ground. Why is the Left failing? Too ineffective? Too divided? Too slow? Too much debate, while the Right just charges forward?

It’s all of that. It’s easy to criticize liberal social democracy as not radical enough, or to criticize neo-fascist tendencies. But does the more radical Left really have an alternative model? What do they want? How do they plan to reorganize society?

The ultimate result of where we are is that change is needed for political and ecological reasons but I don’t think the Left has a workable answer.

Do philosophy and social theory feel like a powerful voice in the world today? Do you feel it has an impact?

I don’t know how powerful it is. But I have one, perhaps naive, professional legitimization: when we get into debates about Artificial Intelligence, mind control, biogenetics, ecology and so on, we are raising questions that are ultimately philosophical questions: do we have a free will? What does it mean to have free will? On what is our human dignity based? With the radical changes today in our status as humans, philosophy will be needed more than ever.

That’s why I like to say we should perhaps turn around Marx’s Thesis 11. Maybe in the 20th century we wanted to change the world too quickly. Now, instead of only changing the world, we should also learn to step back and interpret it again in a better way.