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Communist Ideals in Eastern Europe: Alive, cinematic and prêt a porter

November 24, 2012 - Ioana Burtea - Bez kategorii



Slavoj Zizek’s new film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (offical website), is meant to be a wake-up call, not a propaganda film. While most things we see on the big screens are idealised, romanticised, stereotypical versions of reality (and especially of morality), the “big problems” eat away at us because public opinion avoids tackling them. This is especially true for Eastern Europe, where years of dictatorial regimes taught the population to not ask too many questions and less than 25 years of democracy haven’t yet produced a particularly opinionated generation. In several short scenes, Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, film-maker and the protagonist of the movie, uses examples from film, music, history and current events to discuss various ideologies.

One of the fascinating points Zizek makes in the film is how the financial crisis became a source of violent outbursts and protest movements across Europe. He believes Europe no longer faces “an accident”, something that can be fixed, but rather is undergoing a structural phenomenon. Crisis has become a way of life, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer until the poor act out. What these protests lack, though he says, is a coherent agenda. Putting it this way, most of the manifestations of protest in Europe, including the Eastern countries, have been nothing but rage episodes or wannabe-copies of what a public manifestation should look like.

And Zizek may have a point. In May 2010, one of the biggest Romanian protests of the past decade took place in Bucharest. Over 30,000 people protested against the Emil Boc government and the austerity measures he had implemented. Far from touching on any violent frustration, the protest turned into what will be remembered as one of the largest-scale dance parties in Eastern Europe. People performed carefully synchronised choreographies on a well-known Romanian party-classic: the Penguin Dance. It’s on YouTube. And thus the grand reason why everyone gathered was forgotten. As Zizek would say, it started out from a spirit of revolt, but wasn’t followed by an actual revolution.

Communist past, leftist future?

It is impossible to watch The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology without stumbling upon the fact that Zizek is a self-confessed communist with a declared interest in Lenin. What people need, he argues, is “a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness”. He believes the socialism implemented in Eastern Europe went terribly wrong and that Stalinism was a perverse torture inflicted upon citizens. However, he wonders why the emancipatory movement ended up so tragically and points out that an attempt at social change – even a leftist one – should not be thought to end in disaster.

Wherever you might fall in the political spectrum, Slavoj Zizek’s film is proof of a larger phenomenon – a modern version of communism that is becoming fashionable and targeting the young, cinema-consuming audiences. This re-emergence of leftism has been obvious in Europe since the beginning of the financial crisis and it is only growing stronger with the liberals’ failure to overcome it. We now have modern socialist parties that advocate free health care and the right to state pensions, promise stability in the job market, and oppose war and the expansion of NATO. Most importantly, they challenge the status quo of capitalism. It is the case with the main opposition party in Greece, Syriza, which in 2012 became the second largest group in the Greek Parliament. A much less radical version of this is the Romanian USL, the liberal-socialist coalition that won the local elections in June.

Within this context it is even more crucial to distinguish between ideology and strategy – most of these parties are socialist only by name and televised speeches. The USL is not leftist, it is nothing. It is a bunch of people taking advantage of a void in the political landscape – namely a serious alternative to the capitalist waste Slavoj Zizek criticises. In the long run, people will always end up regretting having voted for them. The restless search for leftist solutions by young generations and mavericks like Slavoj Zizek is a sign that neither of these parties have filled or will ever fill that void.

Leftism in the East

Having leftist views is still a delicate subject in Eastern Europe, especially for youngsters – people don’t say it loudly, they only share their opinions in the voting booth. Politically correct society usually perceives such people as those who learned nothing from the past and it is slow in drawing a line between historical communism and modern leftism. This is another reason why Slavoj Zizek has become extremely popular – he has always been outspoken about his beliefs, even ostentatious.

Eastern Europe hasn’t forgotten its past. But more and more people want a leftist approach in running their countries and bringing the economy to life. They want a different approach, something that has nothing in common with Leninism or life under Nicolae Ceaușescu. Wanting a liberal left capable of producing solutions in a time when democratic capitalism is failing is not unreasonable. It just takes a bit of courage – and escaping ideology, says Zizek – to admit it.

In his new movie, Slavoj Zizek takes that courage and multiplies it by a million. He talks about adopting leftism with passion and naturalness. He adds some of the most iconic films and cultural trends of the past century to this mix and invokes a myriad of arguments for his positions. Some are logical and reasonable, others provocative, and some are difficult to imagine – like releasing oneself from all ideologies, living uninfluenced by anything.

Looking at Everything

At its heart then, Zizek proposes that we should constantly question our past and our present, as well as how we imagine our future. He puts communism back on the table and invites us to think about it once more, from a different point of view, with new information at hand. He encourages us to demand a real change in the social and economic order and go beyond the capitalism we’ve come to accept.

Putting aside his efforts to turn us into little Leninists, Zizek's film lets us admit that we’re disappointed with our leaders, our political options and our world. So, let’s get our hands out of our pockets and admit that we need to re-examine our options – maybe create new ones. Let’s look at everything.

Ioana Burtea is a writer with Europe & Me magazine. As a journalism graduate currently based in London, she studies creative writing and is carrying out research for her first non-fiction book. Ioana also worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest for almost four years, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior.

This text is published as part of an ongoing cross-publication partnership with Europe & Me magazine. The text also appears as a bimonthly column here.

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