Monday, July 30, 2012

Nothing new under the sun? Zizek's new insights

Zizek: Capitalism can no longer afford freedom

In his recent re-reading of Marx's Capital, Fredric Jameson identifies the inherent contradiction of the world market: that it is the very success of capitalism (higher productivity, and so forth) which produces unemployment (renders more and more workers useless), and thus that what should be a blessing (less hard labour required) becomes a curse.

As Jameson puts it, the world market is thus "a space in which everyone has once been a productive laborer, and in which labor has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system." That is to say, in the ongoing process of capitalist globalization, the category of the unemployed acquires a new dimension beyond the classic notion of the "reserve army of labor," and should now include

"those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, 'dropped out of history', who have been deliberately excluded from the modernizing projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases."

We should thus include among the unemployed those so-called "failed states" (like Congo and Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disasters, those trapped in pseudo-archaic "ethnic hatreds," objects of philanthropy or (often the same people) of the "war on terror."

The category of the unemployed should thus be expanded to encompass a wide range of the global population, from the temporary unemployed, through the no-longer employable and permanently unemployed, up to people living in slums and other types of ghettos (that is, all those often dismissed by Marx himself as "lumpen-proletarians") and, finally, all those areas, populations or states excluded from the global capitalist process, like blank spaces in ancient maps.

Does not this extension of the circle of the "unemployed" point to the fact that what once lay in the inert background of History becomes a potential agent of emancipatory struggle? Just recall Marx's dismissive characterization of the French peasants in his Eighteenth Brumaire:

"the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes … Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented."

In the great twentieth-century revolutionary mobilizations of peasants (from China to Bolivia), these "sacks of potatoes" excluded from the historical process began actively to represent themselves.

But Jameson then makes the crucial observation that this new category of the "unemployed" is itself a form of capitalist exploitation – the exploited are not only workers producing surplus-value appropriated by capital, they also include those structurally prevented from getting caught up in the capitalist vortex of exploited wage labour, including entire geographical zones and even nation states.

This demands, then, that we rethink the concept of exploitation. Today, the exploited are not only those who produce or "create," but also (and even more so) those who are condemned not to "create." Everything hinges here on the fact that the capitalist mechanism not only needs workers, but also generates a "reserve army" of those who cannot find work: the latter are not simply outside the circulation of capital, they are actively produced as not-working by this circulation.

The importance of this shift of accent onto exploitation becomes clear when we oppose it to domination, the favourite motif of different versions of the postmodern "micro-politics of power." To put it simply, the influential theories of Michel Foucault and Giorio Agamben are insufficient: all their detailed elaborations of the regulatory power mechanisms of domination, along with their conceptions of bare life, homo sacer, and so on, they all must be grounded in (or mediated by) the centrality of exploitation. As Jameson rightly insists, without this reference to the economic, the fight against domination remains:

"an essentially moral or ethical one, which leads to punctual revolts and acts of resistance rather than to the transformation of the mode of production as such."

In other words, the outcome of the emphasis on domination is a democratic program, while the outcome of the emphasis on exploitation is a communist program. There lies the limit of describing the horrors of the Third World in terms of the effects of domination: the goal becomes democracy and freedom.

What this notion of domination fails to register is that only in capitalism is exploitation "naturalized," inscribed into the functioning of the economy. Domination is not the result of extra-economic pressure and violence, and this is why, in capitalism, we have personal freedom and equality: there is no need for direct social domination, because domination is already inscribed in the structure of the production process.

This is also why the category of surplus-value is crucial: Marx always emphasized that the exchange between worker and capitalist is "just" in the sense that workers (as a rule) get paid the full value of their labour-power as a commodity. There is no direct "exploitation" here – that is, it is not that workers "are not paid the full value of the commodity they are selling to the capitalists." So while in a market economy I remain de facto dependent, this dependency is nonetheless "civilized," realized in the form of a "free" market exchange between me and other persons instead of in the form of direct servitude or even physical coercion.

It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous "hymn to money" from her Atlas Shrugged:

"Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other."

Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, "relations between people assume the guise of relations among things"? In the market economy, relations between people can appear as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality: domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such.

The liberal answer to domination is recognition – recognition, according to Jameson, thus "becomes a stake in a multicultural settlement by which the various groups peaceably and electorally divide up the spoils." The subjects of recognition are not classes (it is meaningless to demand the recognition of the proletariat as a collective subject – if anything, fascism does this, demanding the mutual recognition of classes). Subjects of recognition are those defined by race, gender and so on – the politics of recognition remains within the framework of bourgeois civil society, it is not yet class politics.

The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a "new world" (just think of Mandela in South Africa or Lula in Brazil) – but, then, sooner or later, they confront the key dilemma: whether to dare to mess with the capitalist mechanism, or to just "play the game"? If one disturbs the mechanism, one will be very swiftly "punished" by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

So although it is true that anti-capitalism cannot be the direct goal of political action – in politics, one opposes concrete political agents and their actions, not an anonymous "system" – we should apply here the Lacanian distinction between goal and aim: anti-capitalism, if not the immediate goal of emancipator politics, should be its ultimate aim, the horizon of all its activity.

Is this not the lesson of Marx's notion of the "critique of political economy"? Although the sphere of the economy appears "apolitical," it is the secret point of reference and structuring principle of political struggles.

Returning to Rand, what is problematic is her underlying premise: that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation, with any alternative dismissed as utopian. However, as I've already said, we should nonetheless recognize the moment of truth in Rand's otherwise ridiculously ideological claim: the great lesson of state socialism was indeed that an immediate abolition of private property and market-regulated exchange, in the absence of concrete forms of social regulation of the process of production, necessarily resuscitates direct relations of servitude and domination.

Fredric Jameson himself falls short with regard to this point. By focusing on how capitalist exploitation is compatible with democracy, how legal freedom can be the very form of exploitation, he ignores the sad lesson of the twentieth-century experience of the left: if we merely abolish the market (including market exploitation) without replacing it with an adequate form of communist organization of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation.

What further complicates the situation is that the rise of blank spaces in global capitalism is in itself also a proof that capitalism can no longer afford a universal civil order of freedom and democracy, that it increasingly requires exclusion and domination.

The case of Tien An Mien crackdown in China is exemplary here: what was quashed by the brutal military intervention was not the prospect of a quick entry into the liberal-democratic capitalist order, but the genuinely utopian possibility of a more democratic and more just society. The explosion of brutal capitalism after 1990 thus went hand in hand with the reassertion of non-democratic Party rule. Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England: it was in the bourgeoisie's own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. Maybe something similar is happening today in China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.

This, of course, raises the immediate question of what to do after the Occupy movement, when the protests which started on the periphery (the Middle East and Greece), reached the centre (the United States and the UK) and then gained strength and multiplied around the world?

What should be resisted at this stage is precisely a quick translation of the energy of protest into a set of "concrete" practical demands. The protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, since it is pregnant, an opening for the truly New.

What we should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy's turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be coopted and reappropriated and recycled – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our "terror" – ominous and threatening as it should be.

Evoking Herman Melville's emblematic figure of Bartleby, the protesters of Occupy Wall Street were not saying only that they would prefer not to participate in the dance of capital and its circulation, they would also "prefer not to" cast a critical vote (for "our" candidates) or engage in any form of "constructive dialogue." This is the gesture of subtraction at its purest, the reduction of all qualitative differences to a purely formal minimal difference which opens up the space for the New.

The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn't know the question. It is only through the patient work of analysis that the right questions emerge.

There is old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that his mail will be intercepted and read by censors, he tells his friends:

"Let's establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false."

After a month, his friends receive the first letter, written in blue ink:

"Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls eager to have affairs – the only thing unavailable is red ink."
Does this not grasp our situation? In the West, we have all the freedoms we could want – the only thing missing is the "red ink." In other words, we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our un-freedom.

Perhaps this, then, is the role of intellectuals: not to listen to the demands of the protesters and provide clear answers – the protesters themselves are the answers – but rather to pose the right questions. In other words, to give the protesters red ink.

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