W(h)ither Lenin and the State?

June 20, 2009

A few rough comments on Zizek’s “Objet a in Social Links”

Zizek begins this paper by writing that critical theory needs psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalytic clinic needs critical theory (107-8). In this paper Zizek is attempting (i.e. beginning – the paper doesn’t come to a conclusion, but appears to be an early version of a chapter from Parallax View) to show that psychoanalysis is revolutionary (110) and needed to achieve social change. This would lead to the conclusion that the transformation of state power (“capitalist power”) is to be achieved via the Party as analyst (though, again, Zizek doesn’t quite get there in this paper).

He begins his arguments with reference to J.A. Miller’s assertion that the social-relation that exists between people of the western world resembles what Lacan called the “analyst’s discourse”. It differs in that it has become atomized – this are no longer  any ‘ties’ between its four elements. Zizek suggests that Miller’s is wrong (calling it suspect), that it is not the case that the elements of the discourse are separated, but that there is a “short-circuit” between S1 and a. That is, rather than finding ourselves in an atomized version of the analytic link, we are instead in the midst of the discourse of the pervert – which is the same as that of the analyst, except the a functions differently (114-5) (hence the title of the paper – objet a in social links). When Zizek writes that there is a  “short circuit” of S1 and a what he means is that rather than the a functioning as an empty, disturbing element that pushes the analysand to create a new S1 that will re-order the existing set of signifiers to reveal the truth of the analysand’s desire (Althusser’s “swerve” – page 116), it instead functions as mastery – i.e. the pervert imposes castration on the subject rather than acting as the (passive) means to the end of analysis.

It’s not that the social link that makes enables capitalism to function is atomized, but that Western, capitalist societies have retreated from the universal and ‘renaturalized’ our social and political world. This is the same problem that Hegel set out to tackle in The Philosophy of Right: by his account, feeling had reached a point where it actually reflected the rational. However, this dialectical reversal (wherein ‘feeling’ became ‘reasonable’) led to the mistaken conclusion that feeling was of itself reason. The philosophy of Hegels time (in Hegel’s eyes) was plagued by assertions of opinion and feeling that claimed to be based in reason but were not. Marx makes similar remarks about the political economists of his time: whereas Ricardo and Smith, for example, were truly scientific and interested in the truth, later political economists (e.g. Malthus and Senior) were mere apologists for their own capitalist interests. That Marx had Hegel in mind on this point is evidenced in his adaptation of Luke 16:29 – “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” – used by Marx to describe the truth discovered by the scientific political economists yet ignored by the likes of Malthus, and used by Hegel to stand in for the ignorance of his opponents to philosophical truths. Similarly, Zizek asserts that today the problem is not that the ‘social link’ has become atomized, but that its class dimension has become “repressed” (113-114). According to Zizek we implicitly accept Fukayama’s end of History and the triumph of liberal-democracy, hence our inability (as leftists) to effectively deal with our current social and political ills. (Note too that Zizek’s use of “renaturalization” echos Hegel use of ‘nature’ to describe immediate rather than “rational” feelings.)

It is perhaps also interesting to briefly return to Zizek’s opening premise – that both theory and the clinic need each other – and make comment on it. Perhaps the reason interpretation has ceased to be effective (or so Zizek asserts) is because Freud’s (Lacan’s, Kline’s, etc – see page 112-113 on ‘the skinhead’) insights have become ‘common sense,’ yet are deprived of their fundamental ‘reason’: Eros, Thanatos, the unconscious, the Id. Without these, analysis is sterile, ineffective.

To go one step further before returning to Zizek’s paper, this perhaps also sheds some light on the relationship between ‘constructions of analysis’ and ‘transference’ as approached by Freud in “Repetition and Working Through”: Not only must the analysand first come to understand the logical, abstract precondition of their neuroses – i.e. that which must logically have happened but is impossible for the analysand to remember (in the case of the wolfman, ‘the primal scene’, his parents having sex; in beating fantasies, “I am being beaten”) they must then also come to feel it, live this abstract trauma in relation to the analyst…

And finally, to take one last tiny step, it’s worthwhile pointing out the distinction between therapy and prophlaxis: where the former is the practice of band-aiding neuroses and helping people function in their everyday lives (read: ego psychology) the later is the practice wherein the social roots of neuroses are sought (and fought) in order to prevent neuroses (See Otto Fenichel’s “Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialistic Psychology”). That is, where clinical practice ‘represses’ Freud’s primary insights, and our political culture (not to mention psychoanalysis ­– see Jocoby’s The Repression of Psychoanalysis) ‘represses’ class struggle, should we be surprised if interpretation loses its effectivity? Which is to repeat that clinical (and political) practice needs critical theory.

Returning to Zizek’s explicit formulations: to further his point about the different functions of the objet a, Zizek describes the different ways of conceiving it. First, objet a functions as lack, as the object of desire. Second, it functions as a hole, or the object of drive. It is his assertion that the second of these modes is the fundamental role of the a in capitalism (117). The objet a in capitalism is the endless push for self reproduction and growth via the creation of surplus-value (i.e. the exploitation of labour through the commodity form) and is for Zizek contradictory as it relates to the possibility of socialism. Marx held that under capitalism scarcity could be eliminated, that the high productive capacity of the capitalist mode of production could provide for all if it was not restricted by its ‘bourgeois form.’ All that needs to be done is (says Marx, according to Zizek – I’m not sure I agree) eliminate the formal mode (the social relation) and maintain the means (the highly productive technologies of capitalism). Zizek ascribes this position to Hardt and Negri as well.

Zizek holds, however, that without this social link (the exploitation of labour) the level of productivity that we currently see would not be possible. I.e. the transformation of capitalism is not as simple as simple as giving it a new form, as the productivity of capitalism which is necessary for socialism would thus be lost. 

Hardt and Negri, Zizek argues, can thus be read as 1 of 3 contemporary  political/theoretical positions in regards to ‘capitalist power”, each of which mistakes the role of surplus-value (the a) in socialist revolution. Hardt and Negri’s stand is that capitalism has developed to a point where that which fetters its productivity need simply be removed. I.e. need only a formal change (replacing the commodity form with another form) to create socialism, and this form already exists: immaterial labour, the direct production of social relationships, which they hold already ‘formally subsumes’ the capitalist mode of production (and one assumes need only become ‘really’ subsumed). The second position is that of Agamben: a direct step into unmediated Otherness, i.e. the end of alienation through divine violence. Rather than a change of form, Zizek sees in Agamben an attempt to support the idea that one can step out of the deadlock of Law/sin (Law/violence) (123) and thereby directly rule oneself  – the “abstract negation” of form (124). (It should also be noted here that there is a difference between “rule” and “governance” that need to expanded as well. While Hegel’s monarch ‘rules’, it is the legislature, the executive and the bureaucracy that govern….) The third position is that of Laclau and Mouffe: radical democracy would consist of the realization that all endevours are contingent and there can never be social transparency, that politics is necessarily antagonism.

(It might be possible to call Laclau and Mouffe’s position a pre-Hegelian conception of politics: i.e. for Hegel, the system of capitalism is organically intertwined such that one’s contingent needs and desires become necessary and universal by virtue of the interconnection of all existing needs and desires. I.e. the drives are not immediate and natural, but mediated through the social and therefore universal. It could perhaps be said that Laclau and Mouffe are stuck at the level of the ‘understanding’, of negative, abstract universality rather than the level of positive, concrete universality. Likewise with Zizek’s Agamben: non-mediation is, for Hegel, impossible: “Spirit attains its actuality only through internal division, by imposing this limitation and finitude upon itself in natural needs and the continuum of this external necessity, and, in the very process of adapting itself to these limitations, by overcoming them and gaining its objective existence within them” (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 224). The question being, of course, if this idealist position can be made materialist and if it would therefore be compatible with Marx…Perhaps if “Spirit” was replaced with “Social existence”…)

The problem here, left unsolved by Zizek, is how to create socialism from capitalism – what he has done is problematized the position of three (perhaps four if we include Marx) other (sets of) theorists. What Zizek need do is discuss precisely what is meant by “capitalist power” (121). That is, what is the relation between the state and the economy, between political power and the means of human subsistence? This is why I disagree with the assertion that Marx saw the possible transition from capitalism to socialism as a mere removal of the fetters that held it. Marx indeed writes that the end of capitalism is a change of form (see the addendum to Capital Volume 1); but it is also true that he wrote of the dictatorship of the proletariat and included a volume on the state in his (unrealized) plan for  Capital. Marx has written, however, that the state helped to impose capitalism to then step back and again use its forces in ‘exceptional cases’:

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. […] The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them [the conditions of production]. It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production. The rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages…(Capital, 899).

What I’m trying to suggest is that the form of capitalism doesn’t simply exist on its own, but must to some degree be produced and maintained by the state…

Zizek in part acknowledges the need to elucidate the relation between the economy and politics/the state with his passing reference to State and Revolution: power need not only be seized, but also transformed to achieve socialism. The beginning premise of the paper, too, points in a similar direction: it is not only psychaoanlytic theory but also psychoanalytic practice that serves as the answer. One needs the mediation of the analyst (come Party, if we take into account “Lenin’s Choice”) to achieve self-government/rule. And where Lacan asserted that he wasn’t sure that a psychoanalyst had ever existed, and Freud that analysis is ‘interminable,’ this implies not the end of the political, or the achievement of an unmediated self-governance, but the perpetuity of politics and mediation as the means to universality.    




One Response to “W(h)ither Lenin and the State?”

  1. […] My stock answer is the transference – feeling the antagonism revealed in the construction, and not merely knowing it. So I guess the question is, what does it look like when this feeling goes wrong? Perhaps the beginning of the answer were my brief reflections on Marx, Hegel and “Moses and the profits” (i.e. “W(h)ither Lenin and the State”)… […]

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