A hallmark of conspiratorial thinking is that even disconfirming evidence can be interpreted as confirming the theory. If, for instance, all evidence points to an election having been fair, the theorist will think “aha! That’s exactly what the nefarious conspirators would have us believe!” thus demonstrating, in their mind, the truth of the theory. The Marxist critique of ideology (which, in the Marxist sense, means that part of the superstructure in which ideas that legitimize the current economic order are engineered), and more particular the cynical ideology of Slavoj Žižek, appears to be just such a conspiracy theory.
Post inspired by the following video:
According to the Marxist theory of ideology, whenever someone defends the status quo (e.g., defends liberalism), this is because of ideology (in the Marxist sense) brainwashing and indoctrinating them into acceptance (or even love) of their shackles. However, according to Slavoj Žižek, whenever anyone criticizes the current order, that is also a way of legitimizing the status quo. As Jared in the above video explains, when a movie like Black Panther 2 criticizes colonialism, the viewer can empathize, and even agree with, the bad guy, who seeks a violent overthrow of the current liberal order. But, in so identifying with the revolutionary point of view, the viewer has their revolutionary zeal sated and will therefore be content to allow the current liberal order to persist.
One can see why this is considered cynical ideology. It is an indictment of any form of art or slacktivism that isn’t literally taking to the streets to burn down the current “system“. The failure to actually conceptualize an alternative the liberalism means the work is not only a waste of time, but is actively harmful to any revolutionary cause.
Herbert Marcuse thought that the utopia to exist following the revolution is impossible for people prior to the revolution to ever conceptualize. The revolution was therefore a sort of singularity across which people brought up in the current superstructure could not view. All a person now can do is see how the current system fails to be utopia. It is therefore the revolutionary’s job to criticize those things wrong with the current liberal order (hence why it is called critical theory), chipping away at the corrosion until the unobservable gem of utopia hidden within is finally revealed.
Žižek’s critique of this form of critique implies that Marcuse’s program is worse than a waste of time, since it will only serve to further legitimize the current liberal order. The critiques levied by the Marcusean acolytes sate the revolutionary appetites of the slacktivists and deplete them of any true revolutionary hunger.
Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but I tend to agree with Žižek’s critique. When he wrote The Sublime Object of Ideology back in 1989, the concept of slacktivism had not been minted, but online slacktivism is the manifestation of this notion of cynical ideology. Liking, sharing, and commenting on content with a revolutionary bent tends to sate any real effort at changing things. This is why news stories have such a short half life these days, because once I’ve watched a Youtube video about it and made an outraged Tweet about it, there is nothing left for me to do, right? Surely someone else will see how outraged I am and try doing something about it, won’t they? I need to turn my considerable influence elsewhere, to address whatever the new outrage-of-the-day happens to be.
Even aside from Žižek’s critique, there is something else preposterous about critical theory, discussed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, which is that the constant criticism of the world for not holding up to some nebulous notion of utopia teaches people to think like depressed people: black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and so on. In other words, even if we assume critical theory will eventually reveal this new paradise, what manner of denizens will remain to enjoy the fruits of the glorious revolution? Ones who are psychologically predisposed to find little enjoyment in their new utopia.
The insidiousness of the Marxist/Žižekian notion of ideology is, as I said in the opening, that it suffers from conspiratorial thinking. Particularly the double bind of taking both conceptualizations together: if you support the current liberal order, then you are a stooge of neoliberal/capitalist ideology, but if you criticize it, then you are still a stooge of neoliberal/capitalist ideology. That’s not to say that this diagnosis is incorrect, only to say that precludes anything other than concrete action to “take down the current neoliberal/capitalist system” in whatever way that is to be interpreted.
The problem that afflicts the Žižekian critique is the same as that of Marcuse: if we cannot conceptualize an alternative to the current liberal order, then what concrete actions is one supposed to take in service of the revolution? Incremental actions, such as healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, etc. are upholding the current system: working within the system only legitimizes the system, and any such measures will only serve to mollify revolutionary zeal without actually bringing about the vaunted revolution. But aside from such measures, what concrete actions can be taken to bring about the revolution? One might argue that if we just tear down the current system, utopia can rise from the ashes, but without knowing step two, how do we get to step three? How many examples are there of a system being torn down in a revolution and having the system that replaces it be better than what came before?
None of this is to argue that our modern civilization does not face existential crises, but one would hope that the solution would not be worse than the problem.