Enjoy Your Capitalism while It Lasts

In his early, groundbreaking workTarrying with the Negative, Slavoj ?i?ek opens up a novel, unchartered terrain of both “postmodern” thinking and the possibility of serious philosophical and theological reflection on a broad conceptual space that was just then beginning to exfoliate—the problem of globalization. In the book, ?i?ek leverages his now trademark Lacanian reading of German idealism, especially Kant and Hegel, to offer what comes across still to this day as an eccentric yet highly provocative take on the brutal and sometimes genocidal ethnic conflict that disrupted the Balkans during the 1990s. The Balkans conflict offered a sour foretaste of the “new world disorder” that would be associated with neoliberalism and global capitalism.

The specter of a planetary capitalism gone amok, seeding cultural and social collapse wherever it set its monstrous foot down, was at the time more a hostile fantasy of the disillusioned Marxist mind than an immanent object of social anxiety. Nor was the fateful irony of former colonial subjects, such as China and India, morphing into “masters” of the new capitalist universe a serious consideration in the discourse of both the traditional right and left. Finally, the wildcard of an aggressive, “asymmetric,” globalized, jihadist Islam had not yet been played.

However, ?i?ek interpolates from the singularity of what seems now like one rather detailed historical footnote to the end of Communism, and he thus manages to throw in relief some vast and daunting questions currently haunting us after the reputed meltdown of the global capitalist order roughly a year ago. In essence, ?i?ek boils down the intertwining legacies of capitalism, socialism, and globalization—and the ideologies that have both sustained and critiqued them—to the problem of “enjoyment.” ?i?ek’s entire hermeneutic of the “economics” of global capitalism is, of course, derived from his tireless application of Jacques Lacan’s semiotic Freudianism. For economists and theologians, not to mention political philosophers and just plain philosophers, using Lacan-speak to reconfigure our notions about global politics and finances seems not unlike, well, talking hip-hop to address international affairs. But in an era when the short-lived global consumer society, which truly defines what has been meant recently by “global capitalism,” is everywhere in crisis and imploding, this insight may be profoundly prophetic.

Political conflict at its core, ?i?ek argues, stems from the universal perception of the “theft of enjoyment,” a notion he adapts from the lectures of Lacan’s disciple and son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller. The pluralizing, communally destructive force of global capitalism and its erasure of national boundaries triggers everywhere multiple crises of both cultural and personal identity. These crises are the result at one level of severe economic dislocations, including the competition of “foreign” goods and labor, together with the loss of jobs and new transnational distortions of wealth. In recent years, the sublimation of tangible property assets and forms of economic control into “mysterious” ebbs and flows of global capital can only be pictured as signs of highly complex, arcane processes intelligible only to the Sanhedrin of finance. The emergence of this strange, new world of virtual capital has deepened a sense of pervasive anxiety throughout the global consumer society.

Furthermore, the apparent collapse of this system in late 2008, followed immediately by its presumed revival, has turned anxiety into rage, even in the once comfortable West. Deficits continue mounting, real incomes go on languishing, houses remain impossible to sell, and homeowners find themselves buried in mortgage debt. Meanwhile, the system itself is increasingly propped up by government favors to the financial industry, which prospers more and more at everyone else’s expense. Yet if we follow ?i?ek’s analysis, this recognizable and now epidemic spread of what Nietzsche termed resenntiment—a pathology of the democratic spirit that transforms the variable reality of social inequality into a demonizing of difference—is tied directly to these trends. Indeed, as earlier social theorists have long emphasized, any prevalence of resenntiment is a precursor to the terrible political cancer in the past diagnosed as fascism. “The fascist dream,” ?i?ek writes, “is simply to have capitalism without its ‘excess,’ without the antagonism that causes its structural imbalance.”1

Political Economy as Excess

Like the problem of signification in postmodern philosophy, the problem of what was classically called “political economy” rests on excess. To genuinely grasp this problem, we must dust off what in the age of quantification was seemingly a quaint and useless concept. The original Aristotelian expression, however, is vital now because of the inseparability in today’s globalized world of the polis (i.e., “civil society”) from the oikos (i.e., “household”), from which the term economics derives and where consumption necessarily takes place. Indeed, excess is not only the name of the game, it is the only game in town, as far as today’s planetary transformations are concerned.

In a new detailed study of the 2008–2009 world financial meltdown entitledCapitalism without Capital, economist Dimitris N. Chorafas describes how the dynamism of the post-World War II economic system in the Western world, which after 1989 became the standard for the entire world, had its own hidden and built-in tragic denouement. Although short on general theory, Chorafas’s book is chock-full of anecdotes, didactic explanations of economic fundamentals, and barbed observations. However, it enforces quite successfully the impression that the key to the current crisis, which he does not foresee abating any time soon, is the gradual mutation over time of real assets and commodities into “transcendent” or virtual significations divorced totally from the basic exchange mechanisms of the market.2 The crisis has had as much to do with the sublimation of economic theory itself into pure, “rational” mathematical models as the fostering of what semiotician Umberto Eco would term “hyperreality,” in this instance transcendentalizing market processes through the triumph of “finance capitalism,”3 based on such now all-too-familiar arcane financial instruments as “derivatives” or “credit default swaps.”

Chorafas notes that even such a supposed global monetary sage as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was mystified by the “failure” of the complex behavior modeling that had become the staple of central bank policy throughout the 1990s and well into this decade. Furthermore, as other economists have noted in the past eighteen months, this failure at the market level itself can be attributed in huge part to the growing dominance of so-called “structured investment vehicles” (SIVs), which both buyers and sellers barely understood yet traded without any serious thought to their underlying valuation, which in turn depended on the sales-driven “expertise” of ratings agencies.

The mathematical models, which made assumptions that were self-generating because of the upward pressure from all sides to inflate value, generated predictions on the basis of formal rules and patterns of ideal market behavior. The so-called world of “rational expectations,” as so-called “monetarists” from the early 1980s onwards termed it, turned out to be utterly irrational. The scourge of the global economy in recent decades has been, and will continue to be, speculation, which means that ever-greater magnitudes of pseudowealth will be more rapidly produced, if the “market” will support it, through people buying into the ever-seductive fantasy of an increasing excess of virtual or differential value, despite “the fundamentals.”

This excess of virtual value is pushed by higher intensities of private wants and fantasies of material indulgence. The inherent drive toward excess was observed more than half a century ago by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his landmark book The Affluent Society. In the postwar era, the crisis of capitalism deriving from industrial overproduction and underconsumption during the 1920s and 1930s had been reversed successfully by Keynesian fiscal policy, according to Galbraith, but the unintended consequence was a rapidly metastasizing personal affluence attributable to the new form of capitalism geared primarily to personal consumption.4

From Weber to ?i?ek

A shriller theme was sounded by sociologist Daniel Bell two decades later inThe Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism in the wake of the social revolution of the sixties. In his revolutionary theoretical analysis that in effect reversed everything that Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had described, Bell warned that consumerism—not proletarian revolution—was in imminent danger of essentially and irretrievably destroying the house that Adam Smith built.5 The “work ethic” and what Marx termed “capital accumulation” was a vestige of the past, Bell argued, and in its stead, pure enjoyment for its own sake had become the dominant value set, which would bring about a collapse of what we misleadingly term “capitalism.” Capital is fundamentally a “theft” of the intrinsic value of labor (what Marx called “surplus value”) that is subsequently exploited, controlled, and proliferated through the investment process by the “capitalist.”

But, according to Bell, such purloined value has evaporated into the mists of ever-insatiable desires and imagined desiderata, which can only be supplied as virtual goods and through symbolic production. Because there is really no productive labor left, there can be no real value left. Here we have a dark premonition of what then was the soon-to-be-lionized “knowledge society,” where pure constructs replace goods and signification supplants the actual process of exchange. In other words, this “ersatz” universe is one of differential excess, which is where we are now.

Though Zizek’s observations are meant to provide a critique of the current economic system, as so-called “cultural Marxists” did routinely from the sixties onward, and of capitalism as an engine of envy and anxiety about somebody else “stealing” enjoyment (in Lacanian terms the “injustice” of an alienated jouissance), the implications of his suggestions about fascism, the theft of enjoyment, and the stability of the system are profound. On ?i?ek’s own terms, the profusion of the “symbolic order” must encounter its own dysfunctional rupture as the “real,” which can be exceedingly messy. The global real is even more frightening. Apocalypse can be messy.

If the engine of resenntiment is no longer the theft of labor but the theft of enjoyment, and if the “stabilization” of enjoyment against the “excesses” of the dynamic system that by its very nature requires differential excess, then the future can only be fascism, if we do not remain on our guard. This intrusion of the ?i?ekian real into the symbolic structuration of contemporary politics can be glimpsed in the sudden, and rapidly descending, disillusionment of the progressive American electorate with the Obama administration. The innocent, uncritical infatuation with the contentless master, the at times messianic signifiers of “hope” and “change,” which brought Obama out of nowhere to the White House in such a short while, has given way to our latest postmodern malaise of pure Derridean “undecidability” as well as a tensive, tortured, and “ticklish” ?i?ekiansubjectivity. One of ?i?ek’s crucial terms, which he takes directly from Lacan, is the objet petit a (“object little a”), the fantasized cause of desire that gazes back at us “awry,” as if it were to confront us in the bare nothingness of our own “consumptive” subjectivity.

The Great Global Objet Petit a

The objet petit a, in the later Lacan at least, is both the entrance to, and the prophylactic against, the insinuation of the real. Can President Obama himself be the great objet petit a of our time, the imaginary face of our ownimpossible politics, as evidenced in the recent Nobel Prize Award, the pure virtual reality of what was once a mere dream of all desires satisfied at a universal level without conflict, without the “theft of desire”? Such was the sentiment of global rock star Bono in his controversial New York Times op-ed essay entitled “Rebranding America,” when he made the bald assertion that “the virtual Obama is the real Obama,” that the world’s “fantasies” about him are tantamount to their fantasies about America, and therefore, that America in the persona of their chief executive has an obligation to become that fantasy. The “American dream” must be rebranded as the dream of what America is in everyone else’s dream, and America must become the dream. Bono terms America “not just a country but an idea.”6 So it must become that idea, no longer America’s idea, but the the world’s idea, the idea of eliminating poverty, war, and of course, climate change in such a way that everyone will, in ?i?ek’s phrasing, “enjoy one’s nation as oneself,” as that nation will in fact be the new world-nation, once named America, in which all of the world, somewhat globo-narcissistically, experiences jouissance.7

If America is indeed the world’s fantastic desire and its world-celebrity president the objet petit a of that desire, can what ?i?ek would style as a “welcome to the desert of the real” be far behind?8 Such a ?i?ekian welcome may be closer at hand than we realize, particularly if the mounting theoretical critiques of the vacuity of consumer capitalism and idealistic politics—whether it be the right-wing righteous empire or the left-wing we-are-the-world sort of fantasy—are as prescient as they appear. The ubiquitous perception of a theft of desire now becomes brutally manifest in the spreading recognition of the impossibility of any capitalism without capital, a capitalism that causes no conflict and only serves the global good, which many political dreamers have dreamed for so long as an alternative to the very same capitalism they have ideologically learned to hate.

Such a capitalism relies on the unalloyed simulacrum of capital itself, a capital devoid of all surplus value, assets, or productivity, one that is indistinguishable from the pure symbolic imaginary, as Lacan would say. It is the imaginary other that commits the theft. According to ?i?ek, in the realm of the symbolic imaginary, we find both the pure desire and the fantasy of the growing menace to our desire. We find also the symbolic other that threatens this fantasy through the theft of desire. In the context of today’s globalized identity politics as the backdrop to Bono’s dream of a global political economy without conflict, without poverty, without, in effect, the dysfunctionality of desire, that is, jouissance without any antinomies, we also find the very suspicion of ontological trauma and the chaotic disruptiveness that constitutes the ?i?ekian real.

The Real Is Irrational

The crisis of global consumerism is a global crisis of “subjectivity,” where in ?i?ek’s analysis the symbolic imaginary is fractionated by its own impossibility to reveal the abyss of reality, the reality of our own subjectionto our own contentless desires. What we call “politics,” as Carl Schmitt and Jacques Derrida both have so trenchantly shown in their writings, is itself impossible without these irresolvabilities and the irreconcilabilities. The discourse of the symbolic imaginary wants to peer away from rather than in to the abyss; it wants to posture about a seamless fabric of political reality. It relentlessly cries “peace, peace when there is no peace.” But so is economics impossible as well in this kind of symbolic universe. Such an economics would always cry “prosperity, prosperity,” as Bono himself does in the article, without recognizing that the concept of economy itself demands its own “tarrying with the negative,” the negative of discernment, deferral, and denial. Such a capitalism without capital is at the same time a prosperity without posterity, without promise. It is a capitalism that requires the ever-intensifying pathology of debt, both public and private, that burdens immediate as well as future generations, that requires increasing government intervention and an indefinite risk-free (for the creditors, not the debtors) rigging of the financial system out of fear that it might somehow collapse.

The consequence is not merely more of the same, but even more and more of the same. As a New York Times article reports, banks are becoming wealthy again as a direct cause of the bailouts, but they are at the same time not making loans: “Even as the economy continues to struggle, much of Wall Street is minting money—and looking forward again to hefty bonuses.” Furthermore, “with interest rates so low, banks can borrow money cheaply and put those funds to work in lucrative ways, whether using the money to make loans to companies at higher rates, or to speculate in the markets.”9 The article notes that the consolidation of the financial industry, thanks to Washington, has made banks more able than ever to wring fees and charges from customers and to divert deposits and savings to even greater global self-aggrandizement. It also observes that in the last decade two-thirds of all growth in gross national product (GNP) was due to the financial industry, and that percentage is enlarging by the day.

It is perhaps the virtual, or symbolic, capital of this system that will continue to finance Bono’s great dream of world prosperity, until of course another “emperor without clothes” moment when workers can no longer work, goods can no longer be produced, and the reality of the real becomes tragically overwhelming.

In the meantime, no one can dare steal our enjoyment.

1. Slavoj ?i?ek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 210. Italics in original.

2. See Dimitris N. Chorafas,Capitalism without Capital(Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

3. See Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (New York, NY: Harvest Books, 1990).

4. See John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1958).

5. See Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976).

6. Bono, “Rebranding America,” New York Times, October 18, 2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/opinion/18bono.html?em.

7. See ?i?ek, Tarrying with the Negative.

8. See Slavoj ?i?ek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York, NY: Verso, 2002).

9. Graham Bowley, “Bailout Helps Fuel a New Era of Wall Street Wealth,” New York Times, October 16, 2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/business/economy/17wall.html?_r=1&dbk.

Books by Carl Raschke: