Slavoj Žižek: What Lies Ahead?

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes in Jacobin that if we are to confront properly the threat of a catastrophe, we must embrace a new notion of time.

Slavoj Žižek receives the Golden Medal at Circulo de Bellas Artes on May 7, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Samuel de Roman / Getty Images)

There are in French (and some other languages like my own, Slovene) two words for the “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for the future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of the tendencies which are already present, while avenir points toward a radical break, a discontinuity with the present — avenir is what is to come (à venir), not just what will be. If Trump were to win against Biden in the 2020 elections, he would have been (before the elections) the future president but not the president to come.

In the contemporary apocalyptic situation, the ultimate horizon of futur is what philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of nuclear war, ecological breakdown, global economic and social chaos, etc. Even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” toward which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the future catastrophe is through acts which interrupt our drifting toward this “fixed point.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it designates not the impossibility of change but precisely what we should be striving for — to break the hold the catastrophic “future” has over us, and thereby to open up the space for something new “to come.”

Dupuy’s point is that, if we are to confront properly the threat of a catastrophe, we have to introduce a new notion of time, the “time of a project,” of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, while the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation. We should first perceive the catastrophe as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities (“If we were to do that and that, the catastrophe we are in now would not have occurred!”) on which we can act today.

Too Early to Tell

Is this not what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer did in their Dialectic of Enlightenment? While traditional Marxism enjoined us to engage ourselves and act in order to bring about a necessity (communism), Adorno and Horkheimer projected themselves into the final catastrophic outcome (the advent of the “administered society” of total technological manipulation) in order to solicit us to act against this outcome in our present.

Ironically, does the same not hold for the very defeat of Communism in 1990? It is easy, from today’s perspective, to mock the “pessimists,” from the Right to the Left, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Cornelius Castoriadis, who deplored the blindness and compromises of the democratic West, its lack of ethico-political strength and courage in dealing with the Communist threat. They predicted that the Cold War was already lost by the West, that the Communist bloc had already won it, that the collapse of the West was imminent. But it was precisely their attitude which did most for bringing about the collapse of Communism. In Dupuy’s terms, their very “pessimist” prediction at the level of possibilities, of the linear historical evolution, mobilized them to counteract it.

One should thus invert the commonplace according to which, when we are engaged in a present historical process, we perceive it as full of possibilities and ourselves as agents free to choose among them, while, from a retroactive view, the same process appears as fully determined and necessary. It is, on the contrary, the engaged agents in the present who perceive themselves as caught up in a Destiny, while, retroactively, from the standpoint of later observation, we can discern alternatives in the past, possibilities of the events taking a different path.

To put it in another way, the past is open to retroactive reinterpretations, while the future is closed since we live in a determinist universe. This doesn’t mean that we cannot change the future; it just means that, in order to change our future, we should first (not “understand” but) change our past, reinterpret it in such a way that it opens up toward a different future from the one implied by the predominant vision of the past.

Will there be a new world war? The answer can only be a paradoxical one. If there will be a new war, it will be a necessary one: “If an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is not inevitable. It is thus the event’s actualization — the fact that it takes place — which retroactively creates its necessity.” Once the full military conflict will explode (between the United States and Iran, between China and Taiwan, between Russia and NATO . . . ), it will appear as necessary. That is to say, we will automatically read the past that led to it as a series of causes that necessarily caused the explosion. If it does not happen, we will read it the way we today read the Cold War: as a series of dangerous moments where the catastrophe was avoided because both sides were aware of the deadly consequences of a global conflict.

When, in 1953, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese prime minister, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean War, a French journalist asked him what he thought about the French Revolution. Zhou is said to have replied: “It is still too early to tell.” In a way, he was right: with the disintegration of the Eastern European “people’s democracies” in the 1990s, the struggle for the historical place of the French Revolution flared up again. The liberal revisionists tried to impose the notion that the demise of Communism in 1989 occurred at exactly the right moment: it marked the end of the era which began in 1789, the final failure of the revolutionary model which first entered the scene with the Jacobins. The battle for the past goes on today: if a new space of radical emancipatory politics will emerge, then the French Revolution was not just a deadlock of history. It is in this sense that,

insofar as the future is not rendered present, one has to think it as simultaneously inclusive of the catastrophic event and of its not-taking-place — not as disjunctive possibilities but as a conjunction of states one or the other of which will reveal itself a posteriori as necessary the moment the present will choose it.

It is not that we have two possibilities (either military, ecological, social catastrophe on the one hand, or recovery on the other) — this formula is all too easy. What we have are two superposed necessities. In our predicament, it is necessary that there will be a global catastrophe, the entire contemporary history moves toward it, AND it is necessary that we act to prevent it. In a collapse of these two superposed necessities, only one of them will actualize itself, so that in any case our history will (have) be(en) necessary. It is exactly the same with the prospect of a nuclear war. Years ago Alain Badiou wrote that the contours of the future war are already drawn:

the United States and their Western-Japanese clique on the one side, China and Russia on the other side, atomic arms everywhere. We cannot but recall Lenin’s statement: “Either revolution will prevent the war or the war will trigger revolution.” This is how we can define the maximal ambition of the political work to come: for the first time in History, the first hypothesis — revolution will prevent the war — should realize itself, and not the second one — a war will trigger revolution. It is effectively the second hypothesis which materialized itself in Russia in the context of the First World War, and in China in the context of the second. But at what price! And with what long-term consequences!

Here we stumble upon the obscene ambiguity of nuclear weapons: officially they are made not to be used. However, as Aleksandr Dugin (Putin’s court philosopher) said in an interview, arms are ultimately made to be used. There is a big uncertainty about how convincing nuclear threats are, confirming Dupuy’s rhetorical question: “Does one have to be mad, or pretend to be mad, in order to be credible?” And it is crucial to add here that the true catastrophe already is to live under the shadow of the permanent threat of a catastrophe.

Each side in a nuclear competition, of course, claims that it wants peace and is only reacting to the threat posed by others — true, but what this means is that the madness is in the whole system itself, in the vicious cycle we are caught in once we participate in the system. The structure is here similar to that of the supposed belief: all individual participants act rationally, attributing irrationality to the other who reasons in exactly the same way.

Something New to Come

From my youth in socialist Yugoslavia, I remember a weird incident with toilet paper. All of a sudden, a rumor started to circulate that there was not enough toilet paper in the stores. The authorities promptly issued assurances that there was enough toilet paper for the normal consumption, and, surprisingly, this was not only true but people mostly even believed it was true. However, an average consumer reasoned in the following way: I know there is enough toilet paper and the rumor is false, but what if some people take this rumor seriously and, in a panic, will start to buy excessive reserves of toilet paper, causing in this way an actual lack of toilet paper? So I better go and buy reserves of it myself.

It is not even necessary to believe that some others take the rumor seriously — it is enough to presuppose that some others believe that there are people who take the rumor seriously. The effect is the same, namely the real lack of toilet paper in the stores.

No wonder, then, that some researchers are now suggesting a new answer to the big question: If intelligent extraterrestrials have already visited Earth, why didn’t they try to establish contact with us, humans? The answer is: What if they did observe us closely for some time, but did not find us of any particular interest? We are the dominant species on a relatively small planet developing their civilization toward multiple kinds of self-destruction (ruined ecological balance, nuclear self-annihilation, etc.), not even to mention local stupidities like today’s politically correct “Left” which, instead of working for a large social solidarity, applies even on its potential allies pseudo-moral purist criteria, seeing sexism and racism everywhere and thus making new enemies everywhere.

Along the same lines, Bernie Sanders warned that Democrats should not only focus on abortion rights ahead of the midterm elections in November 2022; they needed to embrace an agenda that addresses the economic woes facing the United States and supports the working class. Although Sanders has a lifetime 100 percent pro-choice voting record, he argued that Democrats also needed to focus on countering “anti-worker” views from Republicans and ways that their policies could hurt the working class. No wonder liberals immediately counterattacked, accusing him of anti-feminism.

The same aliens would notice a no less strange fact from the opposite side of the political spectrum: in her short time as the British prime minister, Liz Truss followed in her economic politics what she perceived as the demands of the market, ignoring working-class pleas — but what led to her downfall was that these same market forces (the stock exchange, big corporations) reacted with panic to her proposals. A further proof, if one is needed, that center-left politics (of Bill and Hillary Clinton, of Keir Starmer) represent the interests of capital in a much more adequate way than the new populist right.

Aliens would thus for sure come to the conclusion that it is much safer to just ignore us in order not to be contaminated with our disease. If we choose something New to come, we will maybe deserve their attention.