Addressing the Impossible

Slavoj Zizek


Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that ‘thought is the courage of hopelessness’ – an insight which is especially pertinent for our historical moment, when even the most pessimistic diagnostics as a rule finish with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us from thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction.

Which, then, are the taboos to be broken in imagining a future outside the constraints of the existing order? There are (at least) three. First, one should dismiss not only the two main forms of twentieth-century state socialism (the social democratic welfare state and the Stalinist party dictatorship) but also the very standard by means of which the radical Left usually measures the failure of the first two: the libertarian vision of communism as association, multitude, councils, and anti-representational direct democracy based on citizen’s permanent engagement. The second taboo to be broken concerns the problem of resentment. One should totally reject the predominant optimistic view according to which in communism envy will be left behind as a remainder of capitalist competition, to be replaced by solidary collaboration and pleasure in other’s pleasures. The third taboo concerns democracy. When Badiou claims that democracy is our fetish, this statement is to be taken literally – in the precise Freudian sense – not just in the vague sense that we elevate democracy into our untouchable Absolute. ‘Democracy’ is the last thing we see before confronting the ‘lack’ constitutive of the social field, the fact that ‘there is no class relationship’, the trauma of social antagonism. It is as if, when confronted with the reality of domination and exploitation, of brutal social struggles, we can always add: yes, but we have democracy which gives us hope to resolve or at least regulate struggles, preventing their destructive explosion.

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