For a Žižekian-Gramscian Realism: Cutting the balls as a political duty — Caio Gontijo

Žižek interviewed on the “Roda Vida” (2013).

Žižek rarely mentions Gramsci. Recently, however – and not by chance – Žižek briefly recurs to the Sardinian philosopher to refer to the morbid symptoms and monstrous characters in the interregnum period “between” the new and the old political order. And it is in this exact interregnum, in which the far-right flourishes in part of our “occidental” world, that an approximation between the two philosophers is necessary. And this approximation must be made precisely in what they have in common (and this hasn’t been sufficiently noticed) namely, in their dialectical political “realism”.

The “voluntarist” idealism on the part of the liberal left has served little more than to weaken our analysis and, consequently, our praxis. One has to read the excess of optimism of this part of the left in terms of ideology. In Brazil, for example, from the famous June Journeys of 2013 onwards, the trajectory of the left, and of the democratic and popular field in general, has been one of defeat in defeat. Still, part of the left maintained its idealism (perhaps understandably with the intention of maintaining their motivation). In 2014 they shouted as a slogan: “there will not be a Cup” (against the high public expenditure with the FIFA mega-event) – and there was Cup. In 2016 they shouted “there will not be a coup” – and there was a coup. From 2016 onwards, they shouted “oust Michel Temer” – taking it for granted that the leaking of the audio recordings in which Temer spoke about bribing would lead him to fall; and they also shouted “freedom for Lula”, etc. Not only the opposite happened, but the left watched, tamed by their optimism, the rise of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, now leader in polls for president. But with the same arrogance, leftist sectors have already “decreed” the defeat of the candidate with the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim).

Well, it is interesting to observe, as an irony of fate, that Žižek was in Brazil right in the midst of the great events of the 2013 Journeys, to promote his “Less than nothing“, recently translated into Portuguese. Coincidentally, Manuel Castells was also in Brazil to promote his “Networks of outrage and hope“, which included an extremely optimistic “prognosis” regarding Brazil. In the preface to the Brazilian edition, he says that the current system had reached the limit of its capacity to provide human beings with the ability to live together and share their life with nature and that we’ve finally united to find “new ways of being ourselves”. The “forecast” provided by Žižek, however, was a little more pessimistic. In his TV interview to Roda Viva, on this same visit, on July 8, 2013, Žižek says:

I went to Singapore, South Korea, China. And they started to laugh when I began my deep talk about crisis. They told me: “What crisis? In China we are growing, South Korea is exploding, Indonesia is exploding, India is exploding, Russia, Brazil, BRIC countries” […]. And they made a very good remark, they said: “You leftists like to boast to be anti-eurocentrists. But you, who claim today we are in a crisis, here display your absolute eurocentrism.” I nonetheless tried to be an eurocentrist leftist in my reply. […] I said: “Yes, I agree. At this immediate economic level if you measure the bruto product and so on, of course it is only western Europe which is in crisis. I am nonetheless worried about this new form of capitalism, which is more and more imposing itself, what will it be?” And my thesis is here very naïve – not because of any special love for Europe – that this new capitalism will be more and more what we call “capitalism with Asian values”. But I repeat immediately: I don’t mean with this some Asian primitivism or despotism, but simply a much more autocratic capitalism. [1]

Žižek is not a psychic. Nor should it be attributed to the equally “metaphysical” maxim of being in the right place at the right time. Even so, Žižek was in Brazil of the 2013 Journeys and ended up foretelling its next developments (regardless of being aware of it). Here’s how we can interpret it: Žižek “via” Hegel, while aware of the retroactive reversion of contingency into logical necessity, comments that it is as if the entire Peloponnesian War happened “so that” Thucydides could write about it. It is thus also we could think that it was “necessary” that Žižek (although he was not mounted on horseback, like Napoleon in Jena, as seen by Hegel) or any other “intellectual” for that matter, would announce the Brazilian spirit – and thus it became the moment of particular inflection, “contingent” , among many others in the long process of which it is part, to contain the universal. In his claim as “eurocentrist”, Žižek did not contradict the emancipatory content of peripheral thinkers (“global south”, etc.) with whom he met. On the contrary, he realistically assumed European (and USA) centrism as a historical fact, whose modification calls for a practical-political content, strategy, etc. For some, the crisis in the “center” was mechanized into static-geographical rather than “organic” categories (that is, within a totality) and was the reason for a biased reading of a supposed symptom of eminent “freedom” of the south in relation to the north. They should have read Gramsci (and of course Marx) to know that the world is a whole, unity in diversity and that the crisis has been only one: the same one. If the “centrality” of Europe and the US is to be “deconstructed”, it is because it concretely exists – and it is not enough for “molecular” intellectuals to decolonize their minds.

But the difference between Castells and Žižek is not that between mere optimism and mere pessimism. Žižek manages to combine optimism and pessimism dialectically. Gramsci describes this relationship magnificently in his famous formula “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. From the Sardinian philosopher we can learn: pessimism to truly understand the tough reality to which we are presented and optimism to guide us in overcoming it. Pure pessimism is the sadistic worship of sadness. Pure optimism is nothing but defending one’s own laziness, a desire to do nothing. The result of this contradictory combination must be realism. And what for? To intelligently arm us with our dreams, to let go of the verbal revolt against the existing whole and to be “sober” in words and outward actions, precisely so that there is more power in the content of our struggles and concrete will.

In “Less Than Nothing“, Žižek asks himself why we (“intellectuals” to use Gramscian vocabulary) prefer this optimistic view of a tendency toward homeostatic equilibrium in politics. He replies that if we are solely responsible for the imbalances, it becomes much easier to fight them (ideally). It means that we simply have to change our way of life a bit – without realizing how ideological this form of “individualism” is. It refers to what is now regarded as “positive thinking”: common to the lexicon of the internet, social networks, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Similarly, Žižek exemplifies that with “green lifestyle” environmental issues are solved, and so we don’t confront large-scale problems such as how to completely reorganize our economy (and furthermore how to interpret the social whole, in order to reform it or to rebuild it, etc. insofar as it itself “reveals” to us that which is possible in each moment). We prefer to play small games in which we have to recycle all the bottles, consume organic products, follow small rituals every day, and so, somehow, we would have done something relevant – Žižek correctly observes that this is, no less than ideology at the everyday level. It is this same that gives us “the small but deep feeling of satisfaction”.

It is necessary to recognize and give due relevance to the enemy and to the negative tendencies that may exist, precisely so that we can better fight them. Gramsci comments that to the optimistic will one must give concrete and practical content in each historical moment. Žižek points out that the deviation (from part of the left) from class issues has caused the issue to return in the obscene form of far-right populism. Synthetically, it is necessary to combine the intelligence of the two philosophers to propose that: 1) The concrete / practical content of the left public discourse should contemplate a project – in the case of Brazil, for example, the defense of a “neodevelopmentalism” that points out economic solutions to unemployment, family indebtedness, etc. (Bernie might have been able to do it against Trump; Ciro Gomes seems to be able to do it against Bolsonaro). 2) To abandon the politically correct discourse – without, however, abandoning its demands (for instance, the right-wing has learned that the demand for equality of women is a consolidated agenda in Brazilian society and has been able to dialogue with it saying that women deserve wage equality instead of sensationalism – this may vary from country to country). 3) Return to class discussion, if necessary (as it is more precisely the case with Brazil) with a different lexicon – while there is no priority of discourse over reality, some forms are already worn out in public discourse, and the challenge here is, as Gramsci recommends, to speak the language of ordinary people, speak the language of common sense.

Caio Gontijo – Master’s student in International Politics by the Graduate Program in International Relations of PUC Minas.


1. “Slavoj Žižek – 08/07/2013”. Available at: < >.

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