First as Tragedy, Then as Farce | Slavoj Žižek

Summary of: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
By: Slavoj Žižek

Final Recap

In ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,’ Slavoj Žižek exposes the reality of capitalism as an ideology that weaves itself into various systems of meaning. The book highlights the importance of collective action and striving for truly egalitarian societies. Žižek brings to the forefront the relationship between capitalism and communism, bringing forth insightful arguments for a reimagination of a viable communist alternative to contemporary capitalism. To tackle antagonisms in modern capitalist societies, we must rebuild communism from the ground up and focus on including marginalized groups, challenging conventional ideas of property and inequalities. Remember, the book argues that communism has never truly existed, and by reviewing its past failures, we can aim for a better, more egalitarian future.


Get ready to embark on an insightful journey as we explore the book ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ by Slavoj Žižek. This revolutionary work challenges the notion of capitalism as a natural and neutral form of social organization. Capitalism, rather, is an ideology shaped by societal values. Learn how this system functions within different civilizations and the underlying ideas that drive our modern capitalistic world. The book also sheds light on the real reasons behind global crises, dispelling myths about the role of state intervention, and raises questions about freedom and democracy. Dive deep into the various dimensions of contemporary capitalism and the need for a radical shift towards egalitarianism and inclusive politics.

Unmasking Capitalism’s Disguise

Many individuals perceive capitalism as an impartial, natural, and functional social organization. However, it is an ideology interwoven with our belief systems that we turn to when our pursuit of success falters. Capitalism endures through these crises, not because it is efficient, but because each calamity prompts a reversion to its fundamental principles, creating the illusion of stability and trustworthiness. Acknowledging capitalism’s true nature is essential to understanding how it operates within various societies.

Capitalism is not merely a well-organized, neutral apparatus of society like many people assume. It is an ideology – a collection of ideas that drive our actions and decisions. This notion may come as a surprise, as it is often depicted purely in terms of its efficiency and productivity.

Capitalism’s flexibility is evident when it is seamlessly integrated into civilizations with differing belief systems, such as Buddhism, Christianity, or welfare ideologies. When our capitalistic aspirations of self-made success don’t pan out, these belief systems provide stability and solace. The reliance on these alternative frameworks, however, exposes capitalism’s ideological nature, as it should not require external support if it were truly inherent or impartial.

Despite recurring crises, capitalism remains a prevailing and alluring belief system. The reason lies in how we respond to these critical moments. Shock therapy ensues, redirecting our focus to capitalistic principles instead of questioning the basis of the ideology itself. Consequently, failures are often attributed to a lack of adherence to the dogma, rather than the intrinsic flaws within the ideology.

Historical examples illustrate this pattern. When socialist regimes faced crises that would eventually lead to their demise, leaders insisted that they were not socialist enough. Eastern Europeans’ dissent against their Soviet-supported governments was met with even more fervent socialist responses. Similarly, the 2008 financial crisis was inaccurately blamed on excessive state intervention and regulation, while insufficient oversight was the actual culprit.

Ultimately, acknowledging capitalism’s ideological character is crucial in comprehending its role in diverse societies and the resilience it displays, even in the face of adversity.

Unmasking Capitalism’s Illusion

Often considered a foundation for freedom and democracy, capitalism may not be as virtuous as initially thought. It tends to overshadow the true origins of universal rights, forged by revolutionary movements, while also encouraging a blind eye be turned to an individual’s responsibility for systemic injustice. Capitalism creates a divide between the public and private self, making collective action seem oppressive and obstructing necessary progress.

Capitalism, while praised for promoting freedom and democracy, may not be the genuine hero it claims to be. Instead, many much-appreciated rights stem from revolutionary politics, where champions endured staunch opposition from capitalists in power. A glance at universal suffrage, labor laws, and freedom of the press further supports this claim, as they were each born from revolutionary, emancipatory movements.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto argued for a list of rights, most of which were later achieved through left-wing group efforts – an overlooked achievement often mistakenly credited to capitalism. Acknowledging this reality is important, as it sheds light on our tendency to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the system’s flaws.

Capitalism’s greatest illusion lies in its ability to separate our public roles from our private identity. We perceive our true selves to be inherently distinct from our public actions, hence relieving ourselves of responsibility for any wrongdoing. For example, an Israeli soldier, when faced with the consequences of removing Palestinians from their homes, insisted he was only fulfilling his duty, dissociating himself from the actions.

This focus on the private self also hinders collective action, as it is often deemed as oppressive to one’s individualism. By drawing lines between our true selves and our public roles, capitalism ensures its continuation without the need for introspection or change.

Ultimately, it’s crucial to recognize that capitalism’s influence on freedom and democracy isn’t all that it claims to be. By unveiling the true origins of fundamental rights and highlighting the importance of individual responsibility within the system, we can begin to shape a more just society.

Illusion of Egalitarian Power

Capitalism’s evolution into its current form has seemingly promoted more freedom, but it merely disguises enduring social hierarchies. Unlike the past’s clear-cut organization, modern labor is now structured around projects and teams, creating a veneer of equal power distribution. However, ultimate authority still lies with higher-ups, who grant permissions rather than rights to workers and marginalized groups. This results in a society that seems progressive yet continues to retain unequal power structures.

In today’s world, capitalism has adopted a less apparent hierarchical arrangement, shifting from the traditional top-down control system since the 1970s. Instead of a single boss wielding authority, present-day work is divided into projects and teams, creating an appearance of more egalitarian power distribution.

Yet, this arrangement merely obscures the fact that ultimate authority still rests with someone at the top, such as a CEO or department head, although the rest of the organization may not adhere to the classical capitalist model. As such, there hasn’t been a genuine redistribution of power. Instead, authority figures grant permissions to perform new tasks, where permissions can be easily revoked, unlike rights.

This distorted power dynamic is evident in collaborative and participatory labor systems, with workers granted permission to engage in decision-making without ever having the final say. That prerogative remains with the boss, who remains the ultimate decision-maker. Similarly, marginalized groups like LGBT individuals and minority populations may receive additional permissions, such as legalizing same-sex marriage, without obtaining any real power.

An example of this is the revoking of Proposition 8, the law acknowledging same-sex marriages in California. Even with authorization to marry, same-sex couples still lacked the power to genuinely exercise that right. Consequently, our society appears to be more egalitarian on the surface, but it has not fundamentally restructured the underlying allocation of power between those who grant permissions and those who depend on them.

Unmasking Ideological Fetishes

Ideological fetishes, deceptive objects or ideas that distract from real issues, are a hindrance to addressing global problems. Capitalism encourages the creation of such fetishes, like Western Buddhism providing the illusion of mindfulness amid the chaos of capitalist society, or the use of Jews as scapegoats for class struggle in anti-Semitic ideologies. Removing these fetishistic distractions can expose the harsh reality beneath and ultimately help uncover the true roots of conflict and societal issues.

In a world filled with conflicts and societal issues, it’s crucial to recognize that the real roots of these problems might be concealed by ideological fetishes. In capitalism, these fetishes often serve as a comforting illusion, enabling people to avoid facing the hard truths about the consequences of their personal beliefs and actions.

The term “fetish” originally refers to an object attributed with greater value or significance than it inherently possesses. Ideological fetishes, as with Western Buddhism, are kept alive by people who wish to gain a sense of tranquility while still participating in hectic capitalist culture. This concept allows individuals to maintain the facade of inner peace, while overlooking the actual problems festering beneath.

Ideological fetishes can also be employed to suppress true conflicts, serving as a smoke screen for a deeper struggle. For instance, in anti-Semitic ideologies, the figure of “the Jew” is used as a scapegoat to mask underlying class conflict between society’s underprivileged and the ruling class. By placing the blame on a fabricated enemy, the real social problem remains hidden and unresolved.

A similar situation exists in Islamo-Fascist ideologies, where Jews and the State of Israel are used as a fetish, obscuring the actual issue—an economically impoverished region with failed revolutionary politics. In all these examples, the real challenge lies in disentangling people from the shackles of these ideological fetishes and confronting the root problems they conceal.

Only by identifying and removing these barriers can we hope to address the real issues and work towards a progressive, egalitarian society. By unmasking ideological fetishes, we can finally confront the authentic systems underlying conflicts, and strive for a more just and enlightened world.

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