One or Minus One: Comments on a Liberal Perspective on the Economic Crises…

December 20, 2008

Check out this piece coming out of the BBC. (“The New Capitalism” by Robert Peston, 8 December 2008 – click the “click here” link to download the PDF)

My question is, in regards to the talk McNally gave, what would be the major points the two (or more) camps would not agree on? That the economy is a global phenomenon; that the crises is the result of speculation and the separation of debt from the assets to which they are anchored; that there are many groups that are affected/that contribute to this problem? On these points I think they would agree. It seems to me that it is the framing and the conclusions drawn from these facts that are in large part the actual difference:

If the unfettered movement of capital, goods and services is going to survive, if there’s not going to be a retreat into national fortresses that could impoverish all of us over the longer term, we’ll have to find a far better way of monitoring global risks and of bringing governments together to deal with these risks.

Some may see this as a threat to national sovereignty, as the thin end of an anti-democratic wedge that’ll see the world ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats. Reconciling our political traditions with the imperative of making safe the globalised world will be a challenge, to put it mildly. But it’s not a challenge we can shirk.

I even see in this another parallel: there is the admission that this is a political problem and not merely one of economy; and one of the major divergences is the political conclusion that need be drawn. Here, it is that we still need the “unfettered movement of Capital”, but that we can change the nature of Capitalism to make it better:

A New Capitalism is likely to emerge from the rubble. And although it’s impossible to be precise about how the reconstructed economy will operate, parts of its outline are taking shape. What lies ahead can be determined from an understanding of what’s gone wrong with the existing model.

This, in itself, is no reason for gloom or despair. For many, the New Capitalism may well seem fairer and less alienating than the model of the past 30 years, in that the system’s salvation may require it to be kinder, gentler, less divisive, less of a casino in which the winner takes all.

It’s again possible to see parallels with this kind of talk and that of a Marxist: Capitalism changes constantly; we have to look at what’s happening right now to talk about possible directions to take. The major difference is the ‘faith’ on the part of liberals (which is what I assume this author is – though he espouses free-market ideologies, he seems to also lean towards ‘helping’ ‘taxpayers’ – and it is significant that he talks about taxpayers and not ‘people’) that we can have a “fairer and less alienating” capitalism… a position also taken by Naomi Kline. (On top of this, one is forced to wonder who the “many” in the above quote are, and how many they are, exactly…). A Marxist, however, has ‘faith’ in the potential of other worlds that could emerge that are not just another version of the ‘casino’ we’re living in.

That is, for this liberal, there is no question of what would happen if Capitalism ceased to exist, only if the market-liberalisation that we now posses did (“If the unfettered movement of capital, goods and services is going to survive, if there’s not going to be a retreat into national fortresses that could impoverish all of us over the longer term…”). For Peston communism is totally out of the picture, and this current crises will affect us more than even that falling out (“Arguably the global economic crisis will turn out to be more significant for us and other developed economies than the collapse of communism”).

Could we say, then, for a Marxist that which has ‘fallen out of the picture’ is still very much what determines how we see it? That is, this liberal won’t talk about Capitalism in terms of a real alternative to it because the old alternative has for him ceased to exist as a real challenge. Which brings me back to McNally: thinking about the title of his book – Another World is Possible – its ambiguity hits me. The title is not “other worlds are possible” – which would imply that any number of worlds are possible. “Another world”, while suggesting ‘other worlds’, also suggests that there is one other world possible: a socialist world. The question is whether or not this is an abstract ideal to be attained – in some sort of Stalinist mode where history necessarily marches toward a socialist society – or an investment in the idea that if we change the world in the right – that is, left – direction, it will be towards a world based in the needs of people rather than on the needs of profit…

So yes, some of the ‘facts’ will change depending on the theoretical framework that lies behind their conceptualization, but many of these facts overlap and take on different inflections because of those theories…That is, the facts are nothing without the ‘one’ that enables us to interpret them.

The question is that of the one – is it something that holds everything together (The Autonomous, liberal subject/’Capitalism will always be here’; the socialist society to come) or one that blows open what Zizek calls the terrible abyss of freedom? What I mean to say is that the autonomous liberal subject and a Stalinist conception of the objectively certainty of the socialist society to come are homologous in their abstractness – they serve to justify current actions (Liberal rights are used as justifications for military intervention, and in the States for curbing civil liberties – “You can’t be free unless we ensure you’re free by making you less free!”; Your actions are judged to be objectively reactionary because they have set back the march towards socialist society, and so the Party is justified in Purging you via a show trial). By contrast, a ‘faith’ in “another world” is faith in the potential for people to act on their freedom and stand up against the oppressive systems that exist and destroy them. That is, the difference is not between an abstract and a concrete universal, but between a positive abstract univseral and a negative abstract universal, between the monarch (either despotic or benevolent) and the analyst.

Yes; no? Maybe so?

We are dealing here with two opposed logics of universality to be strictly distinguished. On the one hand, there is the state bureaucracy as the universal class of society [this is a direct allusion to Hegel’s discussion of the state and the Monarch in PoR] (or, in a larger scope, the U.S. as the world policeman, the uiniversal enforcer and guarantor of human rights and democracy), the direct agent of global order; on the other hand, there is the “surnumerary” universality, the universality embodied in the element that sticks out of the existing order, which, while internal to it, has no proper place within it (what Jacques Ranciere calls the “part of no part”). Not only are the two not the same, but the struggle is ultimately between these two universalities – not simply between the particular elements of the universality, not just about which particular content will hegemonize the empty form of the universality, but between two exclusive forms of universality themselves (”Against the Populist Temptation”, 564).

12 Responses to “One or Minus One: Comments on a Liberal Perspective on the Economic Crises…”

  1. battleofthegiants said

    On second thought, I think I Marxist would take issue with the idea that a certain set of people was to blame – as McNally pointed out, it’s not that people were breaking the law, it was that the tools themselves (i.e. derivatives and the like) caused the crises. It was not an unscoupulous group of people who fucked up the system, but the system that drove itself off the hook.

    I’m also waffling on the idea that this journalist would agree that the answer to the crises is political. Perhaps he would argue that we just need the political to re-set the economic system, and after that the system would run fine on its own without politics…

  2. sonnyburnett said

    Are we not responsible for “the system that drove itself off the hook?”

    That is, if freedom isn’t just potential, but actual, did we not also choose “these oppressive systems that exist?”

  3. battleofthegiants said

    Fer sure – what I mean is that it wasn’t a group of people working outside of the system, outside of its laws, that brought on the crises. Rather, it was people following the ‘laws’ that govern the system that brought it to crises. That is what Marx argues – Capitalism isn’t simply theft, where capitalists are ripping people off and thereby making their profit – capitalism has definite rules that enable legal, regulated exploitation. That is, there is an ‘equal exchange’ between those who labour and capitalists, but exploitation is built into the capitalist system (and is what makes it capitalism in the first place).

  4. sonnyburnett said

    So you agree that we chose this system of “legal, regulated exploitation.” What’s the problem, then? I mean, it is our choice, in a sense, to be exploited, no?

    (I am quite serious w/ these questions. In my angry marxist days in the office, my co-workers hit me w/ these types of questions & though I wouldn’t admit it then, I couldn’t answer them, other than to say, “Well, if you were a marxist, you wouldn’t ask such silly questions.”)

  5. The Universal Singular said

    Just in response to Sonny’s last comment… a quote from ‘Indivisible Remainder’ on the opposition between coercion and subordination:

    Subordination, “precisely when it is experienced as ‘genuine’ and ‘sincere’ by the subordinated subjects themselves, presents a case of ideological delusion beneath which critical analysis should be able to discern the traces of (internalized, ‘naturalized’) external brute coercion. However, what about the far more sinister inverse operation which makes us (mis)perceive as mere coercion, to which we submit ourselves in a wholly external way, something which effectively has a hold on us ‘from within’? On a first approach – that is to say, at an immediate-abstract level – our yielding to this brute coercion is, of course, to be contrasted to a relationship towards some ‘genuine’ authority in which I experience my subordination to it as the fulfillment of my personality, not as something that thwarts my self-realization – by subordinating myself to a genuine authority, I realize my own essence” (IR, p. 203).

    This is one reason why people will often fight so hard to maintain the reigning Symbolic (or often political) order… An attack on the symbolic order is often felt as an attack on one’s own personal existence.

    The trick is to get people to understand that the reigning symbolic (or political) order actually does not support their own internal existence (to go through the psychoanalytic cure, to traverse the fantasy, enter into ‘subjective destitution’, and identify with the symptom/sinthome)… but at the same time, this means finding another symbolic guarantee for one’s own existence (not necessarily a master-signifier, in the sense of something like the Monarch, but a new formation of the Ego-ideal, or a new social formation which can guarantee the subject’s social, i.e., external, objective existence).

    So yes, freedom means choosing what is inevitable/necessary (for one’s own external, objective existence; the externalization of an internal necessity: the subject’s own existence), and this can often mean choosing freely our own subordination; but this necessity can also be seen from a different perspective following the psychoanalytic cure. Still, this has to come at the risk of some kind of trauma: the dissolution of the big Other (symbolic guarantee of the subject’s objective existence).

  6. sonnyburnett said

    “…‘genuine’ authority in which I experience my subordination to it as the fulfillment of my personality, not as something that thwarts my self-realization – by subordinating myself to a genuine authority, I realize my own essence”

    Could we not argue that what some marxists or anarchists or other varied radical leftists clearly cannot grasp is that they MUST have this external capitalist-Other out there to fight, to give support to who they are? That if, suddenly, they found ourselves without the capitalist-enemy, these beautiful souls would find the capitalist fiend lurking in every shadow, because without this external support, they are faced with a dissolution of their subjective position as the enemy of the capitalist state?

    I think that any protest of any sort must identify with the enjoyment it clearly gets by the protest as such. If not, it ends up just protesting an externalized form of its own internalized antagonism, the fact that it cannot identify with its own jouissance that is generated thru the very act of protest.

  7. battleofthegiants said

    Every time we go to the Pub and we pay our bill we affirm our choice of the capitalist system. Therein lies the difference between “formal conversion” and the end of the psychoanalytic cure: you can realize that what you do sustains your enjoyment, but that is not enough. The next step is to do something to change it.

    If actions for change do nothing but “antagonize the master”,and serve as a means of “doing something that nothing might change” then you have not moved to make change. If you organize a new way of doing things (rather than only protesting, writing petitions, smashing windows, whateve,) then, perhaps, you have moved beyond simple ‘conversion’…

  8. sonnyburnett said

    doesn’t Z endeavor to reverse the above formulation to “do Nothing so that something might change?”

    Not in the sense of “willing nothing”, but in the far more active sense of “willing Nothing”. I think Z calls for a ‘simple’ conversion of perspective. That ‘final’ dialectical step doesn’t involve a ‘substantive’ change, but only a formal change.

    He says this over & over. What is needed is not more action, but more theory. A curious thing about Z for the uninitiated is that he never lays out any “action plan” of any sort. He just analyzes. Interpretes. Does theory.

    If downtown cafe socialists got their stated goal, I’d think they’d be miserable. Exactly like that which the Talking Heads song (Nothing But) Flowers pokes fun at.

    I think it’s more like, you try to change the world, you fail. And in that experience of failure, you touch the Real. And you may, just may, identify with the Jouissance that is thereby produced and experience that you must choose this Nothing that allows you to sacrifice the Object of your endeavors for the Other’s Jouissance.

    Only at this point have you changed it all, though nothing of substance has changed.

  9. battleofthegiants said

    The thing about formal change is that it precedes a change in ‘content’. That is, if all we assert is that one understand the way one’s jouissance is organized and leave it at that, then all we have a conservative notion of psychoanalysis – i.e. making you happy with conditions as they exist. Which is what your “only at this point have you changed it all, though nothing of substance has changed” sounds like.

    Theory before action is necessary because otherwise you just have action within the limits imposed upon you. Like yesterday, when I was stopped by someone from Amnesty International because I had a red square on my jacket. He approached me with the “you’re into social justice? Check this out” schitck. Apparently the majority of what AI does is write letters. His big seller was that a letter campaign headed by AI freed a political prisoner in Myanmar who had been incarcerated for 20 years. I think this is the kind “act that nothing might change” politics that Zizek talks about. Find the symptoms scattered about, try to fix ’em, and then move on – rather than make an analysis of the conditions that make all the symptoms possible and attack that.

    (I’m trying to find the case in question online, but am not having much luck. My, perhaps cynical, suspicion is that this prisoner was released because they had little political import after their 20 years incarceration. It strikes me as a little ridiculous that a government that has control over its country and gains to be made by such an incarceration would bend to a letter campaign… but I may be wrong. Searching the AI Canada site, however, one finds campaigns in favour of other political prisoners in Myanmar – why hasn’t the letter-writing campaign worked this time? My suspicion is again the above.)

    I don’t think coming to a point where you act in accordance with ‘the big Other not existing’ means going about your regular business while knowing that it’s all just a game that enables you to get off, that all you’re looking to do is get a ‘touche’ from/with the Real – when you did this, you still believe in the big Other. Belief is always external, in one’s actions. If you do the same thing you have always done are you not acting in accordance with the big Other?

    That is, conceiving of ‘formal conversion’ as entailing only a perspectival change on the same situation does nothing to undermine one’s beliefs as they are played out in the social world. If there is truly a subjective change then one’s actions would have to follow suit.

    Z’s example in this regard (from SOI) is the mother who complains that she sacrifices everything for her kids. We all know that he says that what she can’t give up is her sacrifice itself, that she gets off on complaining. He brings up formal conversion here: it’s the point when you realize that you are responsible for the situation and get off on it. In “Lenin’s choice”, however, he talks about what an Act would look like in this case: he takes up the case of Andrea Yates. He describes not only how her enjoyment was tied up in the situation, but also to the social conditions of her motherhood: i.e. no socialized childcare, modern families have no support from extended family members, kids are hellions at a young age, etc. Her “act” was in fact an “acting out”: she murdered her kids.

    It seems to me that the process plays out like this: first formal conversion, then a choice: 1) ignore it and continue in the way you have always done it; 2) act out; 3) change the conditions that make your situation possible (i.e. perform an Act). Yates didn’t take number 1 or 3, but number 2. The proper choice, it seems to me, is to have fought for socialized childcare and a re-organization of family life.

    (and of course, Z would argue that you can’t consciously ‘choose’ the Act; but I don’t think that undermines what I’ve said above.)

    This is why Zizek endorses Lenin and Lukacs: You need subjective change before you can take advantage of a crisis; otherwise no real change occurs.

    That is, I can’t buy the idea that ‘enjoying your symptom’ means finding a way to live comfortably in the existing situation, to keep going that way things are with the hope that you’ll get to ‘touch the Real’. Take another example that Z uses: ‘Harmonica’ from _Once Upon a Time in the West_, who ‘identified’ with (and is identified by) the Harmonica stuffed in his mouth when his father was killed. “Harmonica” didn’t sit around playing the stupid harmonica by himself in a room, he went about fucking up those who killed his kin.

    But perhaps this is a ‘conservative’ example: the result of Harmonica’s actions was the instillation of law, order and civilization in the West. That is, the ‘underside’ of the west was eliminated and a new town born of the dust…

    Except… the two characters named Frank die: One is the unofficial law of the town, the other the underside of law who masquerades as Law, fucks shit up and sleeps with the female character. That is, both the benevolent and the despotic male figure die, and a new order is born…(‘Harmonica’ as vanishing mediator, who brings forth the new order and disappears once his work is done…)

  10. battleofthegiants said

    here is a description of “action” from the AI site:


    Please take one of the following two possible actions (or both if you have time).

    Action 1:

    * Download and print the letters in Burmese to the Commander of Southern Regional Command and Commander of Southeastern Regional Command. English versions of these are provided for your information. These letters are located on the sidebar of this page.

    * Please sign the Burmese letters (keep the English ones) and place them in plain-looking envelopes. Put the addresses on the front of the envelopes, and mail them to their respective addresses (below).

  11. The Universal Singular said

    ‘Enjoy your symptom’ means identifying with the sinthome formation as the support of one’s own internal existence (support of one’s own being) – this is what it means to not give way to one’s desire; in this way, the need for the (old) symbolic order becomes unnecessary.

    Theory (the critique of ideology) is a practice in this sense: it acts upon the symbolic order, re-setting the co-ordinates.

    Marxists critique the present set of symbolic co-ordinates (the reigning ideology) from the perspective of some future point where there is no exploitation, where there is no class antagonism. Whereas liberal political philosophy legitimizes the present social structure by comparing it to some mythical past state of nature (from this perspective, liberal democracy appears utopian).

    Any social change that does not meet with the conception of an imagined future society without class antagonism is not ‘it’.

    Marxists and radical leftists, I would argue, take ‘satisfaction’ from continuously circling around the object of desire (an ethics of drive); but this is not jouissance!

  12. sonnyburnett said

    Doesn’t Zizek insist again & again that freedom (to choose) is inherently retroactive?
    That is, a ‘true’ freedom is a transcendental freedom?
    That the condition of freedom is freedom?

    Above you state that the second step is a choice. The question that immediately arises is,

    FROM WHERE is this choice to be made FROM?
    Certainly not from a point of transcendence!
    Not from some metaposition!

    Here is Zizek’s general critique of all political positions, be they left or right:

    It is not simply the fact that these positions fail to achieve a point of transcendence from which they could be fully autonomous in their choice; rather, they must simply view themselves as continuously tripping over the hole in their own subjective finitude. ONLY then, as a result of this experience, can this ‘impossible’ choice be made.

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