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.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).
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…
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.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.)
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.
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.