Wednesday, January 24, 2018


353. Žižek and Basic Income

It can be difficult to find coherence in Žižek’s oracular utterances. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are beautiful, and I have learned a lot from them, but they do not seem to fit together.

Here I give an example from a lecture and subsequent questions on ‘The courage of hopelessness’ at the Schauspielhaus In Hamburg, in 2017, available on YouTube. In the process I contest Žižek’s  arguments against a Basic Income (BI), for which I have been an advocate since the 1980’s (see also items 154 and 226 in this blog). I think a BI would fit in what he pleads for.

As I discussed in a preceding item in this blog (item 346), I go along fully with Žižek’s diagnosis of a crisis in capitalism.

Strikingly, and interestingly, Žižek came up with a defence of Ayn Rand’s[i] claim that the use of money in capitalism, in payment for labour, is the only alternative to direct domination and exploitation. But later he also railed against monetization, commodification, of clean air, water and soil. I don’t know how to reconcile these two things.

On the question what to do in the face of capitalist crisis, Žižek does not see any utopian model to replace capitalism, but something needs to be done because present representative democracy proves unable to curtail capitalism. He is against evasion, a passive flight into hedonism, and pleads for ‘doing something revolutionary, dialectical … to develop a new solidarity’ in ‘full ethical engagement’.

In question time, one question was ‘how to do revolution right this time … avoiding a fall into fascism’. Žižek replies that there is no answer, but we are moving towards fascism anyway, so let us …. Let us do what? He doesn’t say.

In another question, someone from Iran asked what Žižek would think of a revolution in Iran.
Žižek put her down, saying that the notion of revolution is too abstract. She should be more concrete. ‘What would you do about the economy’, he asked.

In another question, Žižek was asked how he would reconcile his plea for revolution with his plea for modesty concerning big ideas. He answered that one should look for something simple that could still fit in the capitalist system but would operate as a kernel of radical change from within. One might call this the Trojan horse approach to revolution (my words, not his). For an example he mentioned Obama’s health bill.

He was also asked about his view on the idea of a BI. He answered that he was somewhat sympathetic to it, but rejected it because ‘people should work and contribute to society’. Here, he goes along with the view of economists, the neo-liberal view, that without wage as reward for labour people will do nothing. In fact, all the available evidence from experiments points the other way.

I propose that a BI is a good case of the ‘something simple’ that can be introduced into the capitalist system to develop a revolution from within. The radical thing about a BI is that it enables people to choose their own activity, and reinforces the bargaining position of employees (‘Treat me better or I will exit and fall back on a BI’). At some point elsewhere in his voluminous work, Žižek defines liberty as room to follow ‘inner necessity’. A BI gives that room.

Žižek next says that if there were a BI, people would have to be forced to work, in jobs assigned to them for the public good. So, while first he defended wage labour as freedom form direct domination he now pleads for such domination in assignment of jobs without wage.

So, again, as I asked in the preceding item in this blog: what does Žižek want? I appreciate the Hegelian virtue of seeing something good in the bad and something bad in the good, but with that, how can one avoid paralysis? Next to all the critical rejection, does he have any positive proposal? He makes far-ranging statements and when challenged retracts, twists or dodges them. The problem is not that he wants to have his cake and eat it too, but that he wants his cake but does not dare to eat it. Without thinking them through, he rejects suggestions for the simple trojan horses that he recommends. He did that in rejecting the local ‘commons’ as a form of direct democracy, as I argued in item 347 in this blog. He does it also to the idea of a BI.

He recommends strategic thinking in the design of Trojan horses: they should plausibly fit in the ruling capitalist order. With the BI, the strategic twist is that it appeals to the libertarian drive for deregulation: many elements of social security can be abolished when people have a BI to fall back on. The arch-libertarian economist Milton Friedman was an advocate of a BI.

An other objection of Žižek to the introduction of a BI in a well-developed country is that it would enlarge the gap with the poor elsewhere in the world. In other words: you may only introduce something if it solves problems everywhere. How can this be reconciled with his gradualist view of bringing in a Trojan horse somewhere? And in any case, a BI could well, perhaps especially, be introduced in poor countries. Successful experiments were conducted in India[ii] and Namibia.       


[i] Libertarian icon, (author of The fountainhead and Atlas shrugged)
[ii] Sarah Davala, Renana Jhabvala, Soumya Kapoor Metha, & Guy Standing, 2015, Basic Income; A transformative policy for India, Bloomsbury.