Universality and communist strategy : Žižek and the disavowed foundations of global capitalism : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Sociology, School of Social and Cultural Studies, Massey University, Albany, New Zealand
Using global poverty as its central reference point, this thesis seeks to consider the political
applications of Slavoj Žižek’s work. Regarded as one of the most significant contemporary
continental philosophers, Žižek is also one of the most controversial. Whilst Žižek’s
Hegelian-inspired reading of Lacan and Marx provides an influential reading of social life,
and in particular global capitalism, his political interventions have not been so readily
embraced. Arguing that his emphasis upon the essential fixity of capitalism and the need for
radical change prevents the identification of any subtle forms of political action, critics have
suggested that Žižek’s political interventions are misguided, or conservative, despite his
radical pretensions. In spite of this rejection, the thesis comes to align itself with Žižek’s
politics. Considering the applications of Žižek’s work to the pressing demands of global
poverty, I suggest that whilst his theory does not provide any practical alternative to capital,
its value lies in a strategic form of politics which attempts to open up space for political
action by evoking the symptoms of capital. It is in this positioning of Žižek’s work in regards
to practical political issues, that the most original, and valuable, element of this thesis resides.
Situating Žižek’s work within the Marxism tradition, the thesis begins by documenting the
contemporary limitations of Marxist politics, particularly in relation to the discursive turn.
Moving to a consideration of the way in which Lacanian psychoanalysis has been deployed to
rehabilitate the political efficacy of Marxism, I suggest that Lacanian theory provides neither
a normative basis for Marxist politics, nor a form of political organisation in itself.
Nonetheless, through Žižek’s reading, Lacanian theory provides a powerful political response
to global capitalism which has, in Žižek’s terms, ‘hegemonised the place of hegemony’. This
value lies not in the production of a radical alternative to capitalism but, rather, the strategic
utilisation of ‘surplus labour’ – best embodied by ‘practicing concrete universality’ – to
dislocate the place of capitalism such that new space for rethinking the political and
production emerge. Moreover, Žižek’s politics are not reduced to a negative strategic
approach but have been supplemented by a utopian ‘communist hypothesis’ that potentially
reshapes considerations of Žižek’s politics today.