‘Living in the End Times’ by Slavoj Žižek

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

Although signs abound, the truth hurts, and we desperately try to avoid it. To explain how, we can turn to an unexpected guide. The Swiss-born psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed the famous scheme of the five stages of grief, which follow, for example, upon learning that one has a terminal illness: denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact: “This can’t be happening, not to me”); anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact: “How can this happen to me?”); bargaining (in the hope that we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact: “Just let me live to see my children graduate”); depression (libidinal disinvestment: “I’m going to die, so why bother with anything?”); and acceptance (“I can’t fight it, so I may as well prepare for it”). Later, Kübler-Ross applied the same scheme to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction), emphasizing that the five stages do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are they all experienced by every patient.

One can discern the same five figures in the way our social consciousness attempts to deal with the forthcoming apocalypse. The first reaction is one of ideological denial: there is no fundamental disorder; the second is exemplified by explosions of anger at the injustices of the new world order; the third involves attempts at bargaining (“if we change things here and there, life could perhaps go on as before”); when the bargaining fails, depression and withdrawal set in; finally, after passing through this zero-point, the subject no longer perceives the situation as a threat, but as the chance of a new beginning.

The five chapters refer to these five stances. Chapter 1—denial—analyzes the predominant modes of ideological obfuscation, from Hollywood blockbusters up to false (displaced) apocalyptism (New Age obscurantism, and so forth). Chapter 2—anger—looks at violent protests against the global system, and the rise of religious fundamentalism in particular. Chapter 3—bargaining—focuses on the critique of political economy, with a plea for the renewal of this central ingredient of Marxist theory. Chapter 4—depression—considers the impact of the forthcoming collapse in its less familiar aspects, such as the rise of new forms of subjective pathology (the “post-traumatic” subject). Finally, Chapter 5—acceptance—discerns the signs of an emerging emancipatory subjectivity, isolating the germs of a communist culture in all its diverse forms, including in literary and other utopias (from Kafka’s community of mice to the collective of freak outcasts in the TV series Heroes). This basic skeleton of the book is supplemented by four interludes, each of which provides a variation on the theme of the preceding chapter.

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