Thursday 18 March 2010

The old one-two punch of history

First as Tragedy, Then As Farce, by Slavoj Žižek (2009)

It’s now been a year and a half since the onset of the financial crisis, and the original dearth of literature on the subject has become a deluge. First came the journalists, then came the economists and now, it seems, come the philosophers. First as Tragedy, Then As Farce is Slavoj Žižek’s intervention into this burgeoning academic industry and, as might be expected, it is an intriguing and provocative contribution. It takes the form of two essay length chapters: the first is a work of diagnosis both of the crisis and of our reactions to it while the second is a work of political analysis which attempts to locate space for new forms of communist praxis.

The tragedy to which Žižek refers in his title are the 9/11 attacks which, as he puts it, ‘symbolised the end of the Clintonite period’ whereas the eponymous farce is the financial crisis which began seven years later. Collectively they represent the ‘old one-two punch of history’ and the death of a dream which began with fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Fukayama’s perverse fantasy of an end to history is over and, argues Žižek, it died two deaths: firstly in terms of its political utopia (liberal democracy) and secondly in terms its economic utopia (global market capitalism). The reaction of the American leaderships hints at the relationship between the two events:

‘We should note the similarity of President Bush’s language in his addresses to the American people after 9/11 and after the financial collapse: they sounded very much like two versions of the same speech. Both times Bush evoked the threat to the American way of life and the need to take fast and decisive action to cope with the danger. Both times he called for the partial suspension of American values (guarantees of individual freedom, market capitalism) in order to save these very same values.’

With the totemic second fall politics has, argues Žižek, changed for good and the burden now falls on the left to recognise and orientate themselves to the new space which has opened up. However this is not a zero-sum case of emerging from the darkness of neoliberalism into a bright communist future: the fallout from the financial crisis has embroiled the left in contradictions and ambiguities which require serious critical scrutiny.

Firstly he argues that the sort of democratic socialism which calls for a return to the ‘real’ economy must be resisted because its naive counterposition of the ‘fictitious’ financial economy to the ‘real’ material economy ignores the constitutive role that the former has always played in the latter. As he adroitly puts it, ‘the paradox of capitalism is that you cannot throw out the dirty water of financial speculation while keeping the healthy baby of real economy’. Secondly it must be recognised that while this argument can be used as a defence of the powerful (eg, letting the banks fail would harm all workers) it is true in so far as we live within a capitalist order: ‘kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers’. Thirdly any expectation that the crisis will inexorably lead to a renewal and revitalisation of the radical left must be abandoned as naive teleology while its actual immediate consequences (‘racist populism, further wars, increased poverty in the poorest Third World countries and greater divisions between the rich and poor within all societies’) must not only be resisted but understood. Finally the idea that the crisis will put into doubt the principles of the ruling ideology must be definitively surrendered because only then can we make sense of the reality that these principles are in fact even more violently asserted. Žižek couches this assertion in terms of the ‘shock therapy’ made famous by Naomi Klein:

‘Perhaps then the economic meltdown will also be used as a ‘shock’ creating the ideological conditions for further liberal therapy? The need for such shock-therapy arises from the (often neglected) utopian core of neoliberal economics. The way that market fundamentalists react to the destructive results of implementing their recipes is typical of utopian ‘totalitarians’: they blame all failure on the compromises of those who realised their schemes (there was still too much state intervention, etc.) and demand nothing less than an even more radical implementation of their doctrines.’

Unfortunately Žižek leaves this process under-analysed. He does not consider the massive consolidation within finance which resulted from the crisis (those banks that didn’t fail emerged stronger than they had ever been), the role that public money played in this consolidation or the manner in which the ensuing ‘debt crisis’ is being used as an ideological justification for the sort of shock therapy he talks about. However this omission is understandable given the length of the book and, in a way, it adds to his analysis. He does not dispute the dimensions of class war involved in these processes, but he also identifies the fetishistic element which manifests itself in liberal ideology: the disavowal of recalcitrant reality against the claims of utopian theory. He argues that ‘the central task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative which will place the blame for the meltdown not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations (overly lax legal regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, and so on)’.

Therefore it becomes imperative that an earnest desire on the left to engage in serious-minded discussion about the economics and policy of the crisis, in terms of matters such as regulatory failings or fiscal policy, doesn’t inadvertently reinforce this ideological process. The dominant narrative of the crisis matters because, as Žižek observes, it will be the vehicle for attempts to revive the economy through the military-Keynesianism of a renewed ‘war on terror’ or, as is the case in Britain, the imposition of ‘structural adjustment’ and the overcoming of an ideologically manufactured ‘debt crisis’.

A particularly intriguing section of the first essay is his psychoanalytical discussion of the rogue financier Bernard Madoff. Noting that Madoff was ‘not a marginal eccentric, but a figure from the very heart of the US financial establishment’ Žižek plausibly suggests that in the figure of Madoff we should not see an aberration but a particularly pure exemplar; not only in the literal sense that his Ponzi scheme was symptomatic of structural weaknesses in the wider financial sector but also in terms of the social origins of the psychopathology which drove him to continue his scheme to the bitter end:

Here one has to ask a very naive question: did Madoff not know that, in the long term, his scheme was bound to collapse? What force denied him this obvious insight? Not Madoff’s own personal vice or irrationality, but rather a pressure, an inner drive to go on, to expand the sphere of circulation in order to keep the machinery running, inscribed into the very system of capital relations. In other words, the temptation to ‘morph’ legitimate business into a pyramid scheme is part of the very nature of the capitalist circulation process. There is no exact point at which the Rubicon was crossed and the legitimate business morphed into an illegal scheme; the very dynamic of capitalism blurs the frontier between ‘legitimate’ investment and ‘wild’ speculation, because capitalist investment is, at its very core, a risky wager that a scheme will turn out to be profitable.’

As well as stressing the need to recognise firmly the systemic roots of the crisis, Žižek’s discussion is also suggestive of another risk the left faces: given the demoralising effects of neoliberalism (in the literal sense of removing social phenomena from the sphere of moral evaluation and contestation) it is easy for those critical of it to look to a remoralisation of social life in order to solve the ills of contemporary society. However such a move would be mistaken in so far as it occludes the structural causes of the crisis. It would mean, as Žižek puts it, ‘the compulsion (to expand) inscribed into the system itself is translated into a matter of personal sin, a private psychological propensity’.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the second essay is his perspicuous discussion of the uncoupling of parliamentary democracy and contemporary capitalism. He identifies this new authoritarian capitalism as not just the contingent emergence of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ but rather an event of world-historical stature manifesting itself just as much in contemporary Russia and Italy as in China and Singapore. In a sense this is the corollary of Žižek’s rejection of naive leftist triumphalism in response to the financial crisis: much as the crisis does not inevitably herald the invigoration of progressive forces domestically, it also does not entail the triumph of anti-capitalist or non-capitalist alternatives at an international level.

The much remarked end of the unipolar world of the Clinton and Bush era has shifted the relative balance of power to a host of countries previously kept on the fringes of global hegemony. What if the capitalism practiced in these authoritarian regimes proves to be economically more efficient than that of liberal capitalism? What if, as Žižek asks, ‘democracy, as we understand it, is no longer a condition and motive force of economic development, but rather an obstacle?’. There’s a certain degree of plausibility in this suggestion because the absence of a liberal democratic legacy removes both the destructive tension between anarchic markets and class politics, as well as the ideological obfuscation necessary to socially negotiate this tension. The state can serve the interests of capital directly and without pretence, often with its legitimacy enthusiastically buttressed by longstanding collectivist religious cultures and traditions. Furthermore the development of global consumerism enables these states to offer a politically anaemic but affectively powerful consumerist ‘freedom’ which can happily coexist alongside the social hegemony of capital. Perhaps in the future decades we will witness the proliferation of consumerist paradises without even the pretence of freedom (and correspondingly non admission to paradise for those deemed to be undesirable consumers).

The most obvious problem with the book is the slightly chaotic structure of the two essays contained within it. At points it became difficult to know quite how the present digression related to that of a few pages before or indeed how the whole thing fit together into some sort of overarching argument. As I often find with Žižek, it is difficult to know if this is my own failing or his, and in more cynical moments I suspect that Žižek is a writer who neither plans nor drafts (at least not to any considerable extent). In a perverse way though this slightly manic character possessed by his writing not only adds to the enjoyment of the book but also to the arguments contained within it; they stimulate and suggest in a manner which a more rigid and analytical style would most likely preclude. What doesn’t add to the enjoyment however is what was, as far as I could tell without actually going through the arduous process of checking in detail, the somewhat shameless regurgitation of passages from his last book In Defence of Lost Causes. Even so these gripes are minor and, in spite of reading it only a few months ago, the ‘overlap’ between this and his last book did not feel unduly detrimental.

The sheer vitality of Žižek’s thought usually serves to ensure that his work is an enjoyable read. In First as Tragedy, Then As Farce this effect is amplified by the urgency of his topic and the passion with which he approaches it. It’s perhaps inevitable though that this urgency does not translate easily into prescriptive politics and this is the one aspect of the book’s thesis which disappoints. Žižek is much more adept at the unpicking of socio-cultural contradictions and politico-economic ambiguities than he is at offering any substantive ideas about the paths we might negotiate through them. On the one hand this seems like a deliberate omission from his work, calling to mind Foucault’s idea that ‘to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system’. On the other hand, though, it leaves the prescriptions he does engage in seeming blunt and a little deflated. He frequently proclaims that ‘our side no longer has to go on apologising; while the other side had better start soon’ and similar such calls to arms. These are certainly edifying, particularly given the deficit of intellectual self-confidence which has accrued on the left in the face of neoliberal hegemony (and he plausibly suggests that this is evidenced just as much in naive triumphalism as in third way defeatism). Even so they ultimately fall short of satisfying the questions and desires which Žižek has stoked up through his critique.

Perhaps this is the point, though, and First as Tragedy, Then As Farce is intended not just as a powerful critique of contemporary circumstances but as an intellectual restitution of serious-minded communist thought. If this is so then the latter becomes the prerequisite for answering the questions raised by the former. It would therefore be unsurprising if much of this work needed to be done elsewhere.


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