Slavoj Žižek: Under capitalism, the problem is not there are evil people here and there. The problem is the basic logic of the system as it was developed by Zygmunt Bauman and many others. Some people even claim that if you look in a nonhumanitarian way just at the pure logic of today’s global capitalism, you arrive at a ratio even some people claim of 20–80%. That is to say again, if you disregard all humanitarian problems and just look at what would have been ideal for the functioning of the system, basically the idea is that sooner or later 80% of the people are disposable, of no use. Because first, with new technologies we get unemployment exploding. Each new technological progress means that tens of thousands, even millions of workers, not only [do] they get temporarily unemployed, but they get permanently unemployable.
The problem in Europe especially, and that’s now one of the reasons of demonstrations, protests, all around Europe is that there is an entire younger generation of students sacrificed. They are studying at universities and they are aware in advance that they are disposable, of no use. That there will be no jobs for them and so on and so on. So you know, you are already [contributed? ] in advance unemployed. You know there will not be a place for you.
Then an even more tragic phenomenon. You get what is called so-called failed countries. You get whole countries which are basically disposable. Or at least parts of the countries. Recently I read a terrifying report on Congo—not Kinshasa. The other, to the west, Congo-Brazzaville, the French Congo. And it’s horrible. It’s a country in which international capital is only interested with regard to its oil reserves, which are all close to the Atlantic Ocean, the southern part. So we get there a tiny track, band, of land which is developed but also extremely polluted, you know. All the oil is spilled, fishes dead and so on. But relatively rich. Things function and so on. This is the lower, close to the coast, 20%.
And then inside you get 80% of the land, about which simply nobody cares. Things are now, there, much more in decay, less developed, than they were when Congo-Brazzaville was still a French colony. People have simply forgotten. In the second-biggest city inside, electricity doesn’t work [most] of the time, hospitals disappear, etc. They are simply outside. And this may be the concept that we should elaborate with regard to disposable life. This new form of apartheid. Namely, it’s no longer this clear racial distinction, but it’s an invisible distinction between inside and outside.
Peter Sloterdijk, who is considered a right winger— He is, but he’s intelligent. One should read him. He developed this idea that capitalism is like a gigantic sphere, a global cupola, covering us all. And he says the problem is that once you are inside, it appears endless—you don’t even see the outside. So, what I like about this idea is that usually the emphasis with global capitalism—oh, it’s global, everything is caught [up in it]. Yes, but at the same time it’s those who are in—part of the international market commerce, and those who are simply left out.
The paradox we should bear in mind is that contemporary capitalism, it is global, but, the price is much greater invisibility of a part of it. Global means there is a globe. Which is not all-encompassing. It’s a globe where from within you think it’s endless, you see it all, but no. It excludes parts of it. So that’s for me the great irony, okay. The Berlin Wall fell down, but I think the paradox of global capitalism is that it’s not that the Berlin Wall fell down and now we live all in one happy market universe. No. New walls are emerging. In a way they are much more strict because you are simply not aware of the outside. If you are aware, you are aware in the most disgusting humanitarian way.
To return to your big first question, disposable life. You know, the problem is not just how to make everything useful. I think we should change the entire utilitarian perspective. So I think— You know…here is a point I want to make. My favorite one, almost. I was at an architectural conference three years ago I think, in Australia, where a guy, thinking he’s saying something deep, opposed these kind of minimalist bathroom objects—pipes and so on—done in this aesthetic way and so on, to the cheap, kitsch version of some Arab shapes—you know, all in gold, with pearls and so on, thinking that the first one is the true, useful one and so on, against decadence.
And then I exploded and I was so glad that the majority of the people there supported me. I told the guy, “But did you really visit slums? There, whenever they can they can, they have precisely this cheap imitation of wealth, kitsch, and so on. To have this minimalist, beautiful, apparently utilitarian version of plumbing and so on, only the very rich can afford it.” And I claim this is not something to be mocked at. Poor people like kitsch, with all plastic colors and so on and so on. And they are right.
At a certain point, I think the market system will break down. Look already today. I read somewhere that a big Hollywood blockbuster, even if it earns half a billion around the world, much more people see it by downloading and so on, not to mention music and so on. You see, communism is arriving here. Objects so far are already… So the only way I see it is— Okay, the problem is then how to pay the artists, who will decide how. But it will have to be collectivized. Market will not work here.
And again, the crucial thing is that this modern capitalist or communist regime, all the time wanted somehow to evaluate what art is useful and so on. But I don’t think you can break this circle, you know. Because what is useful? For example, in communist regimes they were usually trying to control political jokes. But the more we know about communist regimes, the more it becomes clear that they were not so stupid. That they knew very well that political jokes making fun of their leaders play a crucial role in keeping people satisfied, you know. You can ventilate your anger, blah blah. So there are even crazy rumors which are probably not true but I love them, that in communist countries there was always a secret department of the secret police whose function was to produce good political jokes. To keep people satisfied.
So you see, something may appear just a pure distraction. No. It played a crucial role in stabilization. And it’s the same in science. If you look at all great scientific inventions, they didn’t emerge in a planned way. It was something totally useless and so on, and all of a sudden it becomes useful. What’s my conclusion from this? We should abandon this old [?] leftist attitude which is today adopted by all, you know like “children are starving in Africa” or whatever, “who has time for art” and so on and so on. Or whatever. Non-productive expenditure.
No. It’s global capitalism which is talking like this today. It is Bill Gates who said once we shouldn’t live in our ivory tower while people are starving. No. I think the only thing that can save us is small things like chindogu, more universities where you do things which may appear useless, and so on and so on. Without this we are caught in this logic of disposable life. We have to break out. We have to accept life in its meaninglessness, in pleasures which serve nothing and so on and so on. Because the paradox is that if you take away from human life things which serve nothing, then the remainder, what remains, may be purely functional but it really serves nothing and everything collapses.