In today's "postmodern" liberal ideology, it would appear that the old trajectories of both universal struggle and authoritarian hegemony now resemble what Maoists - ironically enough - would call "paper tigers". Despite their fierce appearance, these passions have ultimately yielded to negotiated compromise, democratic tolerance and rational administration. Resistance, as they say in Star Trek, is futile. Thus, proceeding from the standpoint that capitalism has been "renaturalised" as an "omnipresent background" to all human life, and that our current era is characterised by a rejection of the "immature" political impulses of the past, Slavoj Zizek sets out to challenge this "underlying consensus".
In his extraordinary new work, Zizek insists that we must dismantle the all-pervasive assumption, held even by many on the radical left, that "the era of big explanations is over", that "we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects".
The breadth and ambition of In Defense of Lost Causes should therefore be clear from the outset. It is an unapologetic challenge to anti-foundationalism, pluralist relativism and indeed to the pragmatism of what passes for common sense. "If the reader feels a minimum of sympathy" with such notions, Zizek declares, then "she should stop reading and cast aside this volume".
The book is divided into three distinct sections: "The state of things", "Lessons from the past" and "What is to be done?" The last of these, of course, takes its title from Lenin's great treatise and culminates in a four-point manifesto - a playful parting shot perhaps, but also a serious, legitimate statement of intent that cannot be dismissed as a mere exercise.
In the preceding analysis, Zizek covers a bewildering amount of ground with typical brio, drawing on examples from high art, pop culture and news media - from Shostakovich's violin concertos to Michael Crichton novels to Venezuelan social policy. This represents a sustained effort to rehabilitate the so-called "lost cause", to excavate a redemptive moment of truth from "egalitarian terror".
In doing so, Zizek offers incisive critiques of contemporary leftist visions of resistance (Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Ernesto Laclau, Simon Critchley and so on) and of conservatives such as Francis Fukuyama (whose quasi-Hegelian "End of history" thesis is easier to mock than to formally dislodge).
More controversially - and this is no doubt the feature of the book that will really garner attention - he attempts to reinvigorate the figure of the "radical intellectual" by reading Heidegger's relationship with Nazism and Foucault's tryst with the Islamic revolution as "right steps in the wrong direction", caught in a politico-theological deadlock between Word and Act.
Most compelling here, however, is Zizek's engagement with ecological crisis - arguing that the looming threat of environmental ruin necessitates collective revolutionary action on the scale of Robespierre or the Bolsheviks. The worst possible path here, he demonstrates, following a formula that captures the spirit of the work as a whole, is "the middle position, taking a limited number of measures", where we "fail whatever happens".
Supplemented by a remarkable, counterintuitive theorisation of an "ecology against Nature", the book simultaneously lends a much-needed, explicitly politicised edge to the fast-developing field of "ecocriticism" and a much-needed ecological consciousness to post-Marxist political philosophy.
In Defense of Lost Causes is a monument to imaginative, risk-taking and rigorous scholarship. By breaking down a good many critical shibboleths, Zizek forces us to (re)acknowledge the antagonisms that underpin globalised capitalism, the basic tensions and injustices that have evolved in unforeseeable and uncanny ways since first diagnosed by Marx. It is a work that communicates a profound and necessary discontent with the notion that we must passively accept a world in which Rupert Murdoch is its leading environmentalist and Bill Gates its greatest humanitarian.
In Defense of Lost Causes
By Slavoj Zizek
Published 30 May 2008