Thursday, May 14, 2009
The third step: communism can only be restated as a hypothesis, albeit one with reference to "a set of social antagonisms which generates the need for communism". The only social antagonisms which are capable of generating a life-threatening opposition to capitalism are ecological catastrophe, intellectual property, biogenetics and - the 'point de capiton' - new global systems of apartheid, slums, walls, immigration controls, etc. This latter points to the fundamental tension in society, which is now located between the included and the excluded. In a sense, we are all excluded from decision making over these vital matters and this itself calls for a new commons. This will be fought for not by any one agency in particular, but by "an explosive combination of different agents". The name for this struggle, for "the intrusion of the excluded into the socio-political space" is supplied by Ancient Greece: democracy. I apologise if you had a sense of bored déjà vu while reading this: this is a cut n paste job of an argument Zizek has been making for years now, including in his latest books and recent articles (eg). I'm sure he must have argued something similar at the 'Idea of Communism' conference at Birkbeck.
But I would like to make a few points about this, just by way of noticing. First of all, I note that Zizek is explicitly moving away from class. In previous polemics with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, he insisted that class antagonism possessed a "key structuring role" in political struggle. Although the "postmodern" narrative of the passage from 'essentialist' marxism (what Laclau and Mouffe had characterised as "the 'scientific' cosmovision" of the Third International in which the vanguard apprehends the 'historic interests' of the working class) to plurality, contingency etc. was an historical fact, it was nonetheless a problematic one. This was not Zizek championing old-school Leninism: he conceded the caricature of 'essentialist' marxism, and granted that it was oriented toward an 'outmoded problematic' of class and commodity production. Arguably, in so doing, he deprived himself of any solid political-economic basis for his insistence on class struggle. No wonder Laclau dismissed the argument as a series of dogmatic assertions. Nonetheless, Zizek was quite clear that in order to repoliticise the economy, it was necessary to place a central emphasis on class. That no longer appears to be the case, and in advocating a strategy based on a plurality of agents with no particular hegemonising role attributed to the working class and no especial focus on class antagonism - one conducted under the rubric of 'democracy' no less - he comes much closer to Laclau and Mouffe than he has been in the past. He's definitely putting the post- back in post-marxism.
Secondly, Zizek refers to the need to "renew the political economy of exploitation", I think primarily because he doesn't accept the 'labour theory of value'. Previously, he has argued that the theory is unsustainable because it would lead (reductio ad absurdum) to the conclusion that Chavez, by monopolising oil wealth and using it to extract surplus to fund his social democratic programmes, is exploiting 'the West'. I'm not batting for orthodoxy, and I'm quite aware that there are serious challenges to the 'labour theory of value', but this is not one of them. I'm just saying is all. Zizek does, however, accept in its stead some of the more esoteric value-theory of postoperaismo, specifically the ideas of 'cognitive capital' and 'immaterial labour'. At any rate, the role of 'exploitation' is subordinated here to the master-category of 'exclusion'. So, thirdly, this raises the question of whether this suspiciously vague apparatus of exclusion and inclusion can adequately address even those issues that Zizek argues are central. It is doubtful. Zizek acknowledges that it is a mainstay of neoliberal democracy (and also, in a different way, of Schmitt) that the main social antagonism is between the excluded and the included, and that the business of politics is about enabling everyone to take part, and play the game. Perhaps this acknowledgment is intended to foreclose a potential opening for critics, but it is not clear that his conception of exclusion offers a way out of the neoliberal paradigm. For, the actual conceit is rather threadbare, and the dimensions of inclusion and exclusion are left sufficiently vague that it could be congruent with any aim.
And there are obvious questions that arise. By what means is one excluded or included, and to what end? What produces the criterion by which one can be considered included or excluded? There are some things one would rather not be included in. And is one's being in some sense 'excluded' a sufficient basis for unity? Given the oddly random set of problematics that Zizek yokes together under the category of 'exclusion', this seems unlikely. Does my being potentially alienated from my genetic code necessarily make me a likely ally of Palestinians being expropriated and shoved behind an apartheid wall? Or would the experience of having one's immaterial labour capitalised by New York University press or The Guardian make one a lifelong opponent of immigration controls? I don't want to be facetious, but you could argue that the situation objectively demands facetiousness.