Review: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book gets it’s title from the famous comment by Marx in his “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Written in 2009, in other words just after the financial crash, it is typically Zizek in style. A discursive ramble around the subject pulling in politics, philosophy, Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis, popular films and cultural studies.

The first part offers “a diagnosis of our predicament”, a wonderful dissection of the current state of capitalism and how the liberal left either actively delivered it or allowed it to happen. Written 8 years ago and long before the possibility of a Trump presidency was anything more than a fantasy ‘Simpsons’ episode, Zizek can see the direction of travel so:

“The primary immediate effect of the crisis will not be the rise of a radical emancipatory politics, but rather the rise of racist populism, further wars, increased poverty in the poorest Third World countries, and greater divisions between the rich and the poor within all societies.”

And:

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!””

Zizek’s thesis is essentially that the liberal left abandoned the pursuit of a truly progressive agenda, abandoned the emancipatory politics of ordinary people, and therefore opened the way for the the populist radical right to capture this discontent. To me that seems like a perfectly plausible explanation for the phenomena of Trump and UKIP.

The second section looks to the challenges for a modern progressive left and is probably less successful. Read in tandem with books like “Inventing the Future” by Srnicek & Williams and “Four Futures” by Peter Frase though it still contains insights. For example:

“The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, thereation of new forms of apartheid , new Walls and slums.”

Assuming you are prepared to accept Zizek’s idiosyncratic style, this is a superb, prophetic book. A valuable read for anyone on the progressive left looking for a philosophical underpinning for their conviction. It’s unlikely to persuade anyone not already convinced, but then that’s not the point.

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