As President Obama leaves office, it was a strange walk down memory lane to read Slavoj Zizek’s “First As Tragedy, Then As Farce”, a 160 page, relatively easy to read book published around the time Obama was taking office. But though a walk down memory lane, like all walk down memory lanes, it is very much about what is happening right now. The title is a reference to a quote of Karl Marx’s “(Friedrich) Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Zizek begins by explaining the bombing of the World Trade Towers on 9/11 and the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector as examples of the tragedy/farce cycle and crises of liberalism. A prolific Communist writer, Zizek gets a lot of love (and hate) as the most insightful Leftist out. While, the title is not an idea he stays with throughout the book, it’s a short jump from 2009 to 2016 and an update to the tragedy/farce frame: Hitler. Tragedy. Trump. Farce. But, as a thoughtful Hegelian philosopher using “dialectics” or the idea that all symptoms are a part of a larger and unified whole, Zizek has powerful analytical tools and offers a number of really good insights. His opening on liberalism currently being so pervasive and all-encompassing that it operates as “non-ideology ideology” is still relevant as is his commentary on lberalism’s tendency to offer only one good “choice”.
However, Zizek’s Eurocentrism, which is really just a polite 90’s term for white supremacy, causes him to stumble when directly considering Black people. At one point, Zizek chides Stokley Carmichael, the father of Black Power, for Carmichael’s idea that Black people must “Fight for the right to invent the terms that will allow us to define ourselves and define our relation to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted.” To Zizek, Carmichael has it wrong because this strategy of creating our own terms cuts Black people off from the “Western Egalitarian Tradition” (WET). Instead of creating our own terms, what Black people must do is use the terms of this tradition and in doing so “deprive from the whites the monopoly of defining their own tradition.” While there is value in citing the egalitarian tradition, as Dr. King demonstrated, ultimately Zizek’s stance of offering a corrective is wrong. African people have a tradition of justice going back to the Kemitic idea of Maat and the 42 laws of justice, as well as many other traditions. To say Black people must root our ideological fight in an “egalitarian” tradition we’ve become acquainted with though slavery is farcical in itself.
It is an interesting question as to whether Black people have a history of overthrowing oppressive systems prior to colonialism that could be drawn upon today. However, as the West has yet to build any of its proposed utopias and Haiti, who Zizek offers as an example of Black people grounding a revolution in the WET, as we should, is still struggling against world forces that don’t seem to care what tradition it has grounded itself in, this argument comes up short. Actually, what he comes off as doing is reinforcing a core notion of white supremacy: African culture is ultimately incomplete and needs European culture to complete itself. Talk about abuser logic. This, in turn, undermines his core contention that his version of Communism is a big enough tent for all us. And somehow Zizek manages not to mention that Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Toure, a name that is a fusion of leading African socialists Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. It also goes unmentioned that Toure was also probably the most steadfast and visible American advocate for Socialism in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Strange.
On this the 4th day of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa-Cooperative Economics, it may seem odd to offer a review of a book by a contemporary white Communist. But Kwanzaa comes out of the Kawaida Theory which is an ongoing synthesis of the best of Pan African, nationalist and socialist thought. And Kawaida poses that culture always matters and even in its advocacy for socialism, race and culture still matter. Zizek’s critique of Carmichael/Toure shows how even in politics this is true. Still, First as Tragedy, Then As Farce’s penetrating critique of liberalism, introduction to the reader unfamiliar with the contemporary European Left (like this one) to many of its writers and thinkers, and the book’s relative brevity, make this a worthwhile read. 3.75 “hmmm that was deep”s out of 5.