Saturday, September 25, 2010

Žižek in the New Left Review; Elections as Experiences

This article, which unfortunately is paywall-blocked, is a fairly pithy recapitulation of a number of Žižek's recent (and not so recent) themes, or at least it seems to be; he is so prolific it is difficult to follow him closely. At any rate, I thought I'd put up a few of the choicer quotes from this typically provocative piece:
There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, TV reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime. There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism—through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations—but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law. This remains the sacred cow, which even the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’—the Porto Allegre [sic] World Social Forum, the Seattle movement—do not dare to touch.

It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country—does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker–management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by ‘extending’ democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing ‘democratic’ banks under people’s control. Radical changes in this domain lie outside the sphere of legal rights. Such democratic procedures can, of course, have a positive role to play. But they remain part of the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie, whose purpose is to guarantee the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. In this precise sense, Badiou was right in his claim that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire or exploitation, but democracy. It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations…
I am unconvinced that the inadequacy of extending democratic forms into the "'apolitical' network of social relations" requires naming democracy as the ultimate enemy of freedom today, as Žižek and Badiou would have us do. Žižek's line that "It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations" seems to me to be a misdiagnosis which even he must see directly conflicts with his other diagnosis of the increasing tendency toward public-private partnership as a preferred style of rule, as we'll see in the passage below. If this tendency is as severe a problem as he (and many others) thinks it is, surely it indicates that rather than "democratic mechanisms" being the ultimate frame, it is much more the case that free market ideology remains the ultimate frame as it rapidly engulfs democracy itself (where it hasn't already been confused with democracy for some time).
What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself—the logic of market and competition—has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology. In education, we are witnessing the gradual dismantling of the classical-bourgeois school ISA: the school system is less and less the compulsory network, elevated above the market and organized directly by the state, bearer of enlightened values—liberty, equality, fraternity. On behalf of the sacred formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, it is progressively penetrated by different forms of PPP, or public–private partnership. In the organization and legitimization of power, too, the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange where voters ‘buy’ the option that offers to do the job of maintaining social order, prosecuting crime, and so on, most efficiently.

On behalf of the same formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, functions once exclusive to the domain of state power, like running prisons, can be privatized; the military is no longer based on universal conscription, but composed of hired mercenaries. Even the state bureaucracy is no longer perceived as the Hegelian universal class, as is becoming evident in the case of Berlusconi. In today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits it as a means to protect his personal interests.
I also want to change the terms of Žižek's argument that "the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition;" it seems to me that the way he means for this argument to function reflects an (arguably) outdated reality. (I should say that he may in fact have in mind exclusively European elections, so my disagreement may be merely a product of my U.S. parochialism, but I have certainly seen and heard this argument being made about U.S. elections as well, particularly in connection with moments (as this year miserably promises to be) of a switch in control of one or more of the branches of government.)

It is not that I see no truth in this argument, but, for one thing, I question the historical accuracy of Žižek's implication that this is an emergent tendency or that it is newly dominant in electoral politics. What I think he is also implying, though, seems to me even farther from the truth: that parties have given up on attempting to demonstrate real essential differences from one another and seek merely to convince voters that they will deliver the same things as the other party, only better—with "lower costs, higher efficiency." This is also a popular argument made about U.S. politics, but it completely ignores the intensity of partisan rancor which, while not new, has become (arguably) newly inescapable with the emergent media technologies of cable television and the blogosphere. The idea that a voter is just like a shopper choosing between negligibly different brands of laundry detergent seems absolutely disconnected from the demands being placed on her by this constant assault of animus and extremism. If there is an analogue in the world of consumer goods for this polarization, it would not be laundry detergent, but something more like the Mac-PC divide (which most people happily map directly onto the political divide, even if that really doesn't work well), in which the consumer's choice is not seen as an attempt to maximize efficiency and lower costs but as a conversion (or an apostasy) and a public act of self-definition.

Žižek's argument also (strangely naively) presumes that most voters retain a belief that electoral choice imitates consumer choice in that you can expect product satisfaction from your purchase. Maybe the ambient disillusionment of 2010 is greater than is usually the case, but even while campaigning in 2008, I found that enthusiasm was generally located at the point of the symbolism of electing Obama as president, rather than the expectation that he would govern with "lower costs, higher efficiency." This was, I think, not just a reflection of the general understanding that all politicians break their campaign promises, but a more acute sense that the election of Obama was the "purchase" itself, and that his presidency—the actual details of his governance—was something separate. Again, this may be specific to the 2008 election and may not recur, but I feel there is still somewhat of the same thing going on at the present with the Tea Party: candidates are products not in the sense of what they do in office—that's not what you're purchasing—but products in the sense of a specific electoral (or more generally political) experience. The campaign—or more accurately, the campaigning process (which has been stretched out as never before) is the primary product which is being purchased, and not the act of governance. The idea of politics as consumption has been delimited to the experience of enjoying (and perhaps participating in) their campaigning, and not to the experience of being governed by them.

The talk this year of an enthusiasm gap acknowledges these realities better than prior years' emphasis on the way that independents were leaning; while the idea of the enthusiasm gap is not new, I feel that this year there has been a softer focus on the battle for the Independents and more a fretting about whether the people who are going to vote Democratic no matter what might just stay home. (I don't watch much cable news, though.) Electoral politics seems to me to be mostly about mobilization rather than persuasion at this juncture; success is premised less on convincing the unconvinced to vote for you than it is about convincing the already convinced to vote at all. Again, this may be a geographically specific situation (if I have even diagnosed the U.S. situation correctly), and I would be interested if anyone has some insights into whether or to what extent this may apply elsewhere in the world.


Adam Kelly said...

I think you're right that Zizek's analysis doesn't apply accurately to the US, but I would say that is mostly because there are genuine ideological differences at play in US politics that aren't present in Europe (and which are reflected in your point about the media). In particular, the various iterations of the big government/small government argument so prevalent in the US are simply never invoked in Europe. The PPP model of governance is the hegemonic one in most countries.

Certainly here in Ireland, the "laundry detergent" analogy works perfectly for our two major parties, and the entire appeal they make to the electorate vis-a-vis each other comes down to the centre-right battlegorund of "lower costs, more efficiency." And even the Labour party, who were the only major party in the country to oppose the bank guarantee scheme that has had such a disastrous impact on the Irish economy, are very wary of claiming to provide any kind of economic alternative to "lower costs, more efficiency."

You're right of course that free-market ideology is the real culprit here, but on the basis of what you quote I assume Zizek's point is that "democracy" is now more or less coextensive with this ideological model, and that political rhetoric just provides a smokescreen for avoiding the only real change, which would be economic in Marx's sense.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks--I certainly do not know the Irish case at all. I wonder if, as in the last British election, things are trending at all in an American direction, with something like a presidential election emerging with the televised debates between Brown, Clegg, and Cameron? Just a thought, though--I don't have any more data.

I think Zizek definitely means what you say about democracy being coextensive with free market ideology, but I think he also means that the properties of democracy--universal suffrage, representative government, independent judiciaries, multiple parties, etc.--must be held negotiable. I think he's saying that an economically free order might not necessarily also be a democratic order, and that believing that it must be blocks the possibility of achieving any economic transformation. I don't think Zizek makes a convincing case that this is so in this article; maybe he elaborates more on it elsewhere (or maybe he says something more in line with what you're saying).

Adam Kelly said...

Interesting. I think there's a big difference between saying that debates about the democratic properties you name are distractions from what really needs to be addressed (which I think is true in many ways), and saying that those properties are actually a block to positive change. Don't you quote Zizek admitting that positive changes can occur through improving structures within democracy? The alternative to this is anarchist-utopianism, and I remain to be convinced that it's worth scrapping our political institutions altogether just because they're facing a tough time at the moment.

I waver on these issues (who doesn't?) but I think I'm probably in the Tony Judt camp of believing that social democratic values simply need to be reiterated in more powerful terms to compete with free-market ideology. The problem is how to do this coherently in the current mediasphere, which is something I don't think Judt, for all his brilliance, was able to answer. It's one of the biggest questions of our time.

You're not the first person to make the analogy between the British election and the US presidential one. There's definitely something in it, but the difference with the US at the moment seems to me more in the sheer rawness of the ideological debate outside of leadership figures. It's hard to imagine a Tea Party equivalent having quite the impact on the social values of major parties in Europe as they are having on the Republicans. That kind of influence was wielded by labour movements in the past, of course, but the parameters of politico-economic choice in Europe appear so narrow now as to be set in stone, meaning that everyone ends up speaking the same hegeomic language.

Andrew Seal said...

Zizek is being contradictory throughout this piece in a way that is pretty well demonstrated here in this comment about the "positive role" of "democratic procedures." Earlier on, Zizek says that "the misery of today's left [is that] there is no positive programmatic content to its demands, just a generalized refusal to compromise the existing welfare state. The utopia here is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system." Zizek many times in the essay seems, as with this comment, to have given up entirely on the project of preserving any part of social democracy and, I think, at times does argue that we have to let go of that "utopian" idea that it must be salvaged. At the same time, he closes with this head-scratcher: "We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old—education, healthcare, basic social services." Reform or revolution; abyss or maintenance?

My attempt to square this inconsistency is to say that Zizek isn't advocating that we assist neoliberals in dismantling social democracy in order to immiserate the masses to bring them to revolution or something like that. Instead, I think he's saying that democratic procedures cannot be the baseline of any imagined alternative to capitalism because they will basically shackle the will to bring that imagined alternative to fruition. So while we shouldn't imagine an alternative to capitalism as some sort of "Social Democracy Plus," and we shouldn't even be taking the maintenance of the welfare state as our central political goal, it isn't something we should actively sabotage either, because it retains for the present a positive role in society.

DrJ said...
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DrJ said...

As a Zizek watcher and someone who has just read First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, this is a great exchange teasing out some possible contradictions and implications of Zizek's thought. My contribution is of a different kind: Zizek does not explain how we would make the transition he wants us to make without massive bloodshed, since bourgeois democracy - the hegemonic model - is rejected, I assume we have 2 options: armed revolution or a great Ghandian refusal (what these two would actually imply in practice would need to be theorized). In addition, would we not still be confronted with that unresolved tension in radical political philosophy between not wanting to separate means from ends (and thus justifying "necessary" atrocities on the path to "liberation"), yet needing to act lest nothing ever changes (except the speeding up of our seemingly inexorable march towards ecological suicide). Second point follows in next post - too large for blog limits.

DrJ said...

The other thing I feel Zizek does not give us a clear picture of life "actually on the ground" in any such utopian communist society. Do we have any worthy examples from the historical past that might stimulate our creative imaginaries whilst also satisfying our Enlightenment sensibilities? (the rights Zizek seems to imply we need to forgo in order to pass over into post-apocalyptic harmony). I remember thinking 10 years ago that there was an unresolved contradiction in his political thinking because of his insistence on filtering everything through a Lacanian framework. If it is true, as he claims in Mapping Ideology, that ‘the very constitution of social reality involves the “primordial repression” of an antagonism’ (Zizek 1994, p. 25), that is, the subject’s irrevocable split, then it is hard to see any real political value or hope for change in his work. Yet Zizek seems to imply that the irresolvable split in the subject and thus the inevitability of social antagonism is exasperated under capitalist relations, without which the fundamental social antagonism would be tolerable, or at least manageable. I am never really sure how he leans on this question. Of course we can’t weld him (or any other thinker) to his earlier works but must allow for his ongoing twists and turns as he thinks the contemporary world. Perhaps his true value lies in the questions he asks (which provoke us – they should, anyway) and not in providing clear-cut answers. Dunno.

Adam Kelly said...

That's a really good point about Zizek's early Lacanianism suggesting an upper limit to the goals of any response to the late capitalist situation as he is currently diagnosing it. I don't read him enough to know, but has he moved away from that framework, given that it seems to suggest a kind of fatalism at odds with the tenor of these recent articles?

The thing that makes it hard for me to really follow Zizek with enthusiasm is the sense of belatedness I get with his work. I feel like Zizek is the point where high theory - which had, at least in its early days, genuine transformative goals - begins to adopt the spirit of pastiche. The old ideas get rehashed in new clothes (not that we don't need to be reminded of some core ideas, but still).

When I compare his project to that of Derrida's or Foucault's, for instance, I can only see a regression from a genuine attempt to think a post-utopian politics (in other words, trying to create something new from the lessons of the 60s) to an older hankering for utopia. But perhaps such a regression is what's called for in these changed times? Perhaps it's gone so far that we can't think of changing the "system" without challenging the core values of democracy? I don't like to think that is the case, but it seems to be what Zizek is getting at.

Adam Kelly said...

Another interesting article by Zizek in the current LRB. We were wondering what model of non-democratic, non-neoliberal society Zizek had in mind in the article Andrew posted about: turns out China is one such model. Zizek outlines his theory of the Party providing distance from Chinese state institutions, and then says the following:

"This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power. The Party’s distance from state apparatuses and its ability to act without legal constraint afford a unique possibility: ‘illegal’ activity can be undertaken not only in the interest of the market but – sometimes – in the interest of the workers too. For example, when the 2008 financial crisis hit China, the instinctive reaction of the Chinese banks was to follow the cautious approach of Western banks, radically cutting back on lending to companies wishing to expand. Informally (no law legitimised this), the Party simply ordered the banks to release credit, and thus succeeded – for the time being – in sustaining the growth of the Chinese economy. To take another example, Western governments complain that their industries cannot compete with the Chinese in producing green technology, since Chinese companies get financial support from their government. But what’s wrong with that? Why doesn’t the West simply follow China and do the same?"

The final paragraph throws up some problems around human rights and rebellion, but they feel like a bit of an afterthought to Zizek's argument, something he feels honour-bound to mention. But what precedes it seems very close to endorsing Party rule as preferable to the rule of the free market.