There are few philosophers who have people turned away from their lectures, but after a Tuesday afternoon talk on 24 November at Birkbeck where many were turned away, Slavoj Žižek spoke again to a packed hall at the Royal Society of Arts, with people queuing outside in the hope of an empty seat. He spoke again the following day at the LSE.
To the confusion of at least one questioner in the audience, he spoke against charity, rather than on the advertised theme, the title of his most recent book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. The lecture was introduced by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, and chaired by Nigel Warburton of Philosophy Bites, who, in his introduction, reminded us that Marx had been an FRSA.
Charity, Žižek suggested, was the basic constituent of the modern capitalist economy. Before 1968, there was a contradiction: a capitalist like Soros (whose currency speculations Žižek might have reminded us, precipitated more than one of the recent crises of capitalism) would make money in the morning in order to give it away in the afternoon. But now they are the same gesture.
He cited Starbucks as the typical modern capitalist enterprise, selling not only coffee but redemption from consumerism. Similarly, we buy, irrationally, organic apples. This is the logic of the chocolate laxative. Chocolate, according to Žižek, has a constipatory effect, and he was surprised to come across, in California, chocolate made and marketed to have the opposite effect.
Rent, he said, had taken over once more from the exploitation of labour power as the dominant mode in capitalism, in three areas, in the rent of the means of intellectual exchange, the source of Bill Gates' wealth, in rent from the natural environment and finally in welfare rent. He described the development in Brazil and South Africa, an idea also proposed by Negri's disciples in Europe, and by Phillipe van Parijs, of basic income, according to van Parijs the only way to legitimate capitalism to reconcile the irreconcilable dynamics of capitalism with a just society.
Thinker like Sloterdijk are trying to reconcile the dynamic of capitalism with a just society. Capitalist society only needs about 20% of its population to work. What to do with the rest? According to these thinkers, only the rich can save the world. Sloterdijk attacks the labour theory of value as the greatest historical mistake of modern times.
He ended with a lengthy quotation on poverty from Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man under Socialism. At points in the debate I felt that Warburton seemed out of sympathy with his guest, but some of the most Žižekian aphorisms occurred here, such as, To be an aristocrat today, you have to be a communist', ,'there is only one thing more utopian than Communism: that the present system can go on indefinitely', that 'the left [whoever they may be-TR] is now 90% Fukayamist"
Žižek described the new political economy emerging in Asia. He disagreed with the notion that China was on the path to a liberal parliamentary duck-house owning democracy, and thought the historic connection between capitalism and democracy did not exist, instead that a new Asiatic model is emerging. It was no coincidence that Deng Hsiao-Ping visited Lee Kuan-Yew's Singapore to harvest ideas for his restoration of capitalism. In Europe, Berlusconi's Italy seems t be following a similar model.
I had my hand up at end and hoped to ask what potential he saw in the open access movement for us to emancipate selves from the tyranny of the first form of rent he identified, rent in the area of intellectual property? But, wisely, the chair didn't see or call me