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Žižek: we’re all proletarians now

May 21, 2009

Slavoj Žižek has been considering the principal antagonisms within contemporary capitalism that might resuscitate the notion of communism.

zizek2In the latest New Left Review (57: 2009) he identifies four possible antagonisms that he thinks strong enough to prevent capitalism’s infinite reproduction. They are the threat of ecological catastrophe; the privatisation of culture, communication and education; the question of new techno-scientific developments that affect our biogenetic inheritance; and lastly the new forms of social apartheid. The first three, Žižek suggests are ‘the shared substance of our social being, whose privatisation is a violent act which should be resisted by force, if necessary’. Drawing upon Hardt and Negri, Žižek refers to these three antagonisms collectively as the ‘commons’ – the commons of culture, the commons of our external nature, the commons of our internal nature.

In a passage that must surely resonate with English dissenters and radicals, Žižek, suggests: ‘What all of these struggles share is an awareness of the destructive potential – up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself – in allowing the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons a free run.’

But it is the fourth antagonism – social apartheid – that Žižek argues is crucial. For it brings into focus the question of the included and excluded without which the others lose their subversive edge. He writes:

Ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight for the environment, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, oppose the copyrighting of genes, without confronting the antagonism between the included and the excluded. Even more, one can formulate some of these struggles in terms of the included threatened by the polluting excluded. In this way, we get no true universality, only ‘private’ concerns in the Kantian sense.

A new emancipatory politics, Žižek argues will be ‘an explosive combination of different agents’, united by the danger that they will be dispossessed of all symbolic content, genetically manipulated, vegetating in an unliveable environment. This triple threat, he suggests, makes us all proletarians.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2009 8:30 am

    Long Response:I’ve never read Zizek. Well, that’s not quite true. I must have stood in bookshops with works by him in my hand on at least a half dozen occasions and, without fail, put the book back on the shelf having read two or three pages of what seemed to me to be such pretentious twaddle that I wanted to throw the bloody thing across the shop….

    So I’m not exactly coming to this debate from a informed or unbiased position. But, really, what is it he is saying here that is at all new? He is claiming that capitalism is marketising stuff which has, traditionally, been outside the market (though I think in the case of intellectual property rights things seem to be going the other way – think of down loadable music, Pirate Bay etc). He also seems to be suggesting that the class struggle has a logical priority over other struggles, is the conflict which unites all conflicts becasue the sprad of the market into all areas of life leave more and more stratas of people in an objectively proletarian situation.

    This is intellectual mutton dressed as lamb. It’s so old fashioned I want to weep. Ecological disaster threatens all classes, not just workers. It’s not just capitalism which has despoiled the globe but Soviet style economies as well – think of all those ruined would-be cotton fields in Central Asia. I very, very much hope a new political synthesis can be woven from Red and Green traditions but it is not something which can be demonstrated as being theoretically inevitable.

    Short Response: that Zizek – what the fuck do people see in him?

  2. mariborchan permalink
    May 22, 2009 11:13 am

    It’s more than that, he’s saying that capitalism will fail at those points, that it will be unable to handle them. So it’s not simply the thesis that capitalism integrates everything in it’s logic, but that it will fail to handle successfully these four. And one correction to the article… he doesn’t say “the privatisation of culture” but “the privatisation of intellectual property”, which includes intellectual property in it’s electronic forms, it includes the patenting (of genes for example), it includes for example making money with writing books… his point is that the capitalist logic goes irrational here, producing phenomena like Bill Gates in the one extreme or The Pirate Bay at the other.

  3. May 22, 2009 12:26 pm

    When people tel me that capitalism can’t handle the ecological contradictions on a priori grounds I always think of the Great Stink of 1858, when the smell of untreated sewage almost overwhelmed people in central London and plans were laid to move Parliament and the law Courts out of town.

    They put a new sewerage system in. With public money – and just at a time when the idea of the minimal nightwatchman state was gaining popularity. Sorted.

    I’m not saying that capitalism will save the planet – of course there is a very real threat it might destroy it. But this is not a foregone conclusion.

  4. Rab permalink*
    May 22, 2009 7:35 pm

    Hi Mariborchan,
    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think it is inevitable that capitalism will fail at the points he indicates and I don’t think that this is what Zizek is suggesting anyway. They are potential points of antagonism that socialists can exploit if they can articulate them in the terms of the excluded and excluded, as a question of dispossession. If they would simply fail there would be no need for an agent (or ‘an explosive combination of different agents’) to engage in struggle.

    Charlie,
    I haven’t read much Zizek either, except his contributions in NLR, which I think have been useful, especially his thoughts on multiculturalism.

    i don’t think there is much new here either but he does seem to be groping towards a language or discourse around which the different agents he refers to can coalesce. You said you hope that new political synthesis can grow out of Red and Green but so far this has proved frustratingly difficult. Why? My own experience of this is that to some extent this is a problem of language (and the hunch that there are many Greens who disinterested in questions of class, indeed quite hostile to any discussion of it). The concept of the ‘commons’ though might be useful in this respect (and as I mention in the post it has historical resonance).

    One final point: no matter how pretentious or crap something you read in a bookshop, never, ever through the merchandise about. You can get in trouble for that sort of thing. Mind how you go now young McMenamin. Evening all.

  5. mariborchan permalink
    May 23, 2009 8:50 pm

    He explicitly states that capitalism will fail at those points and that some sort of cooperation outside the logic of capitalism will be necessary to solve this problems. Like for example, the bailout in America… that gesture itself is outside the logic of the free market, but even the Republicans endorsed it since they knew how serious the situation is.

  6. May 27, 2009 9:10 am

    Žižek is just the best philosopher in the world…
    In a media-mechanical-technological (and so spiritless) world, Žižek is a real thinker who made other real thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Lacan become readable again.
    And other philosphers like Badiou at least come frontstage.
    Thank you Slavoj. 🙂

  7. Chris Alford permalink
    July 12, 2011 10:58 pm

    Hello Rab I have not read Zizek but when CharlieMcMenamin mentioned
    “pretentious twaddle” this made me think of an interesting question to ask you as an lecturer.

    Have any of your students written a brilliant essay that shows ‘original’ thinking free from using any ‘terminology’ you would find in ‘media studies’ and Sociology like
    “Dialectical Materialism”?

    I think the best words are those that roll off the tongue easily and you know instinctively that the words are great.

    I think disciplines like media studies sociology, political science, is firstly closer to philosophy then secondly psychology.

    I think the disciplines I just mentioned should stop trying to imitate science like physics or medicine with pseudo scientific language which does them no justice.

    I don’t mean this as an insult as I think media studies is very important I just think
    ‘original thinking’ is more important than showing off BIG words.

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