Slavoj Žižek: Wake up and smell the apocalypse

Is touchy-feely environmentalism a new opiate of the people? Why are we paying rent to Bill Gates? Is reality incomplete? Marxist cultural commentator Slavoj Žižek, the most dangerous philosopher in the west, unravels it all for Liz Else.

Your new book, Living in the End Times, is about the demise of global capitalism. What is science's place in all this?

Science is completely entangled with capital and capitalism. It is simultaneously the source of some threats (such as the ecological consequences of our industries or the uncontrolled use of genetic engineering), and our best hope of understanding those threats and finding a way to cope with them.

Given the book's title, it's no surprise that it also features the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which you identify with four major threats you say we face.

For me, remember, apocalypse means revelation, not catastrophe. Take the threat to our ecology. Until recently, the main reaction to ominous news such as Arctic sea ice melting faster than predicted was, "We are approaching an unthinkable catastrophe, the time to act is running out." Lately, we're hearing more voices telling us to be positive about global warming. True, they say, climate change increases competition for resources, flooding, the stresses on animals and indigenous cultures, ethnic violence and civil disorder. But we must bear in mind that thanks to climate change the Arctic's treasures could be uncovered, resources become more accessible, land fit for habitation and so on.

So it's business as usual?

Yes. But whatever the truth of the predictions about how much oil and gas are locked up in the Arctic, for me an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place in front of our eyes: the impossible is becoming possible. We know the ecological catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen. Once the catastrophe occurs, it will be perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always having been possible.

Does that mean the way that we think about such threats is wrong?

Yes. One reason is to do with how certain environmentalists delight in proving that every catastrophe - even natural ones - is man-made, that we are all guilty, we exploited too much, we weren't feminine enough. All this bullshit. Why? Because it makes the situation "safer". If it is us who are the bad guys, all we have to do is change our behaviour. But in fact Mother Nature is not good - it's a crazy bitch.

So what should we do instead?

The fear is that this bad ecology will become a new opiate of the people. And I'm against the ecologists' anti-technology stance, the one that says, "we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings". I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being.

We should alienate ourselves more from nature to be aware of our fragility

Another of your "horsemen" is research into biogenetics. What's your problem with that?

Craig Venter may dream of creating the first "trillion-dollar organisms" - patented bugs excreting biofuels, generating clean energy or producing tailor-made food. There are, of course, more sinister possibilities: for example, synthesising new viruses or other pathogens.

But I think the problem runs deeper in many ways. For example, such extreme genetic engineering will create substantially different organisms: we'll find ourselves in a terrain full of unknowns. These dangers are made worse by the absence of public control, so profiteering industrialists can tinker with the building blocks of life without any democratic oversight.

You were in China recently and got a glimpse of what's happening in biogenetics there.

In the west, we have debates about whether we should intervene to prevent disease or use stem cells, while the Chinese just do it on a massive scale. When I was in China, some researchers showed me a document from their Academy of Sciences which says openly that the goal of their biogenetic research is to enable large-scale medical procedures which will "rectify" the physical and physiological weaknesses of the Chinese people.

Do these issues arise from problems about what humans are becoming, and the relationships between the public and the private?

Yes. These are problems of the commons, the resources we collectively own or share. Nature is commons, biogenetics is genetic commons, intellectual property is commons. So how did Bill Gates become the richest man on earth? We are paying him rent. He privatised part of the "general intellect", the social network of communication - it's a new enclosure of the commons. This has given a new boost to capitalism, but in the long term it will not work. It's out of control.

Take a bottle of water: I produce it, you buy it. If I drink it, you cannot. Knowledge is exactly the opposite. If it freely circulates, it doesn't lose value; if anything, it gains value. The problem for companies is how to prevent the free circulation of knowledge. Sometimes they spend more money and time trying to prevent free copying than on developing products.

Despite your critique, you are positive about science?

I have a very naive Enlightenment fascination with it. I have total admiration for science.

Should philosophers be helping scientists?

Yes. For the last few decades, at least in the humanities, big ontological questions - What is reality? What is the nature of the universe? - were considered too naive. It was meaningless to ask for objective truth. This prohibition on asking the big questions partly accounts for the explosion of popular science books. You read Stephen Hawking's books as a way to ask these fundamental, metaphysical questions. I think that era of relativism, where science was just another product of knowledge, is ending. We philosophers should join scientists asking those big metaphysical questions about quantum physics, about reality.

And what is your take on reality?

There is an old philosophical idea about God being stupid and crazy, not finishing his creation. The idea is that God (but the point is to think about this without invoking God), when he created the world, made a crucial mistake by saying, "Humans are too stupid to progress beyond the atom, so I will not specify both the position and the velocity of the atom." What if reality itself is rather like a computer game where what goes on inside houses has not been programmed because it was not needed in the game? What if it is, in some sense, incomplete?

All these complex ideas... how do we come up with them?

I like Stephen Jay Gould here: intelligence, language and so on are exaptations, by-products of something which failed. Say I am using my cellphone - I become fully aware of it only when something goes wrong. We ask the big metaphysical questions even though we cannot solve them, and as a by-product we come up with wonderful, solid knowledge.

Image: Channel4/Everett/Rex Features

Slavoj Žižek: Wake up and smell the apocalypse This article originally appeared in New Scientist