Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Zizek on the Tech Bloom

I have stumbled upon an interesting recent Zizekian rant and I thought I might walk through my sympathies and a few of my frustrations with the essay here on Amor Mundi. Slavoj Zizek is almost always fun to read even if he is occasionally a bit terrible. And definitely he does engage from time to time with the technodevelopmental politics that preoccupy so much of my own attention and with a depth and ferocity I just rarely find elsewhere. A piece he wrote called "Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket," is an ongoing pleasure and provocation for me, and I also love while loving to hate his piece, "No Sex Please, We're Posthuman." This latest piece is called, "Nobody Has to be Vile" (already a deliciously snarky reference to dumb-dumb digirati fave Thomas Friedman).

What follows is Zizek's piece interspersed with my own spontaneous and sometimes impressionistic elaborations and comments. I am thinking out loud here quite a bit, and so read my comments in that spirit.
Since 2001, Davos and Porto Alegre have been the twin cities of globalisation: Davos, the exclusive Swiss resort where the global elite of managers, statesmen and media personalities meets for the World Economic Forum under heavy police protection, trying to convince us (and themselves) that globalisation is its own best remedy; Porto Alegre, the subtropical Brazilian city where the counter-elite of the anti-globalisation movement meets, trying to convince us (and themselves) that capitalist globalisation is not our inevitable fate -- that, as the official slogan puts it, 'another world is possible.' It seems, however, that the Porto Alegre reunions have somehow lost their impetus -- we have heard less and less about them over the past couple of years. Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go?

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as 'liberal communists' and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.

A couple of initial questions -- is it really true that we are hearing less out of the World Social Forum than we used to do? Is it that Zizek isn't counting Mumbai, Caracas, and Karachi because they aren't Porto Alegre? And is it really true that there are "liberal communists" who have taken it upon themselves to say the curious mixture of things that Zizek is attributing to them? I googled the term "liberal communists" and got a bunch of conservative mouthbreathers fulminating against Hilary Clinton and that sort of thing. Zizek seems mostly to mean to diagnose a symptom with this term (rather as I do myself with acerbic terms like "left-libertopian technophiliac") rather than critique a self-conscious movement so much:
So who are these liberal communists? The usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as court-philosophers like Thomas Friedman. The true conservatives today, they argue, are not only the old right, with its ridiculous belief in authority, order and parochial patriotism, but also the old left, with its war against capitalism: both fight their shadow-theatre battles in disregard of the new realities. The signifier of this new reality in the liberal communist Newspeak is 'smart'. Being smart means being dynamic and nomadic, and against centralised bureaucracy; believing in dialogue and co-operation as against central authority; in flexibility as against routine; culture and knowledge as against industrial production; in spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis as against fixed hierarchy.

Now, there are lots of things for technoprogressive folks to sympathize with in Zizek's gist here, it seems to me.

The irrational exuberants of the Long Boom never really were able to decide (or possibly to distinguish) between their dreams of living in Galt's Gulch -- the almost unbearably embarassing self-congratulatory fantasy of a separatist anarcho-capitalist superman utopian enclave dreamed up by the terminally awful trashy-romance-novelist (but not in a good way) slash Amway saleswoman misconstrued as philosopher, Ayn Rand -- and their dreams of living in a kind of permanently ecstatic Beyzian Autonomous Zone slash Burning Man qua polis but, you know, with somebody else, possibly robots but probably not, always on hand to clean up after all the diapers the infantilized bliss-out Eloi elites leave behind.

The self-satisfied partisans of the Long Boom and the well-meaning naifs of the Tech Bloom are the notionally "right" and "left" faces (pay no attention to the extraordinary similarity of those faces!) of the same complacent privileged fantasy of a technofacilitated spontaneous order that enables elite technophiles and technocrats and assorted members of the high-tech "investment class" to simultaneously ignore or disavow the painful realities of ongoing democratic stakeholder politics and yet still feel themselves to be committed to the values of the democratic order in which they live -- life and general welfare, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a faith in progress for those times when the system palpably fails to live up to those values in reality.

Certainly, Zizek hits the nail on the head when he points to the ongoing currency in all these technophiliac circles of libertopian buzzwords like "smart" "dynamic" and "nomadic" -- which tend to be words privileged people use to describe their privileges, while more vulnerable and exploited people will use words like "insensitivity," "violation," and "abandonment" to describe the very same realities.

What is especially curious is that we have come to expect as part of the high-camp theatricality of market libertopian rhetoric that its partisans will blithely deny that they are a straightforwardly right-wing political ideology even when they "naturalize" the contingent terms of a market order in ways that always support and console corporate-military elites with endless insider deals and pork stealthed in the name of abstractions like "Defense" and "Trade" all the while prescribing "market discipline" for the "unworthy poor" who constitute the vast majority of people on earth... and yet when the "openness"-advocates of the libertopian left (so-called) offer up the same denials and incomprehensions about the ways in which their own ideology gives primary comfort to the very same elites they seem -- perhaps due to the earnestness of their embrace of environmentalist, multiculturalist, experimentalist, not to mention rock-and-roll perspectives (or at least iconography) -- somehow to manage to get away with this disavowal of the political in general and democracy more particularly much more effectively than the market libertopians ever did.
Bill Gates is the icon of what he has called 'frictionless capitalism', the post-industrial society and the 'end of labour'. Software is winning over hardware and the young nerd over the old manager in his black suit. In the new company headquarters, there is little external discipline; former hackers dominate the scene, working long hours, enjoying free drinks in green surroundings. The underlying notion here is that Gates is a subversive marginal hooligan, an ex-hacker, who has taken over and dressed himself up as a respectable chairman.
But does anybody really think these things? For one thing, the conjuration of the scene of triumphalist nerds seems to me to describe the San Francisco that I lived in a decade ago but which is now dead as a doornail. And for those folks Bill Gates was a thief a devil and a bit of a clown. Isn't it precisely because he always had a shrivelled respectable chairman inside him that he became Bill Gates rather than Richard Stallman in the first place?

And I guess now is as good a time as any to register for the first time a bit of nervousness I feel around what appear to be the either-ors that structure the force of critique here in Zizek's piece. Even if we are sensitive and sensible enough not to be bamboozled by the bloody-minded delusion of "frictionless capital" does that mean we cannot say that there is a difference that makes a difference when social software facilitates collaborative practices of publication, annotation, critique, and readership? It's all very well to snicker at the paperless office and the death of distance, but at what point does one have to take real developments into account in a way that keeps real social democratic critique and advocacy relevant to the circumstances of a changing world? I agree with Zizek that it is terribly easy to become accommodationist with a too-glib acceptance of the contingent terms of the current market order -- but it seems to me that it is just as easy to become unintelligible or altogether hopeless if one denies that prices, like norms, laws, and architectural constraints (and by "architecture" I mean the resistances and articulation built into physical infrastructures, into code, into discourse) regulate social intercourse.

One needn't naturalize market protocols to register the fact that they do worldly work and that some of the work they do is work worth doing -- even while much of it does damage that we must undo. Is there room in what Zizek is saying for such fraught interventions? I hope so.
Liberal communists are top executives reviving the spirit of contest or, to put it the other way round, countercultural geeks who have taken over big corporations. Their dogma is a new, postmodernised version of Adam Smith's invisible hand: the market and social responsibility are not opposites, but can be reunited for mutual benefit. As Friedman puts it, nobody has to be vile in order to do business these days; collaboration with employees, dialogue with customers, respect for the environment, transparency of deals -- these are the keys to success.

Here, of course, Zizek is spot on. Is it really right to say "nobody has to be vile to succeed" when one sees vileness is just as ubiquitous as ever in the practices of "successful" enterprises, and when the global order that articulates the terms in which enterprises succeed or not generates such unspeakable vileness in general? And how can Friedman declaim as the very arenas in which vileness is no longer "necessary" precisley the ones in which the vilness seems so devastating and so palpably to arise as a structural feature of the order in whose name he means to speak as a priestly mouthpiece? Needless overwhelming wretchedness, poverty, illness, malnutrition, conscript and duressed labor, corrupt authorities, environmental devastation? Honestly, what planet is he on?

The confidence in "spontaneous order" is always the ecstatic voice of privilege. Freed of the urgent necessity to testify to social abjection when one is no longer personally abjected one as it were miraculously discovers that the very order which has faciliated one's own escape from misery is an engine ineluctably releasing everyone on earth... eventually, from that same misery. And the surest sign of that privilege is that it insulates one from all evidence to the contrary of this self-satisfied faith. Insulates it, that is to say, until the social contradictions themselves force some sudden devastating recognition, when social costs erupt onto the scene in the form of economic recession/depression, environmental collapse, social upheaval, etc.

"Olivier Malnuit recently drew up the liberal communist's ten commandments in the French magazine Technikart:

1. You shall give everything away free (free access, no copyright); just charge for the additional services, which will make you rich."

How are "additional services" construed here? Bruce Sterling writes in Tomorrow Now about how "free services" induct one into ongoing relationships with service-providers who constantly "update" the basic service to maintain a profitable relationship. Here, Sterling and Zizek are making complementary points. But what if we conjoin these universal access, creative commons/a2k ("access to knowledge") moves with collaborative service provision and updating, and throw in a robust "no logo" disdain of corporatism? If we then struggle to subsidize this information regime through basic income guarantees (my "pay to peer" argument) and go on to supplement these moves with a programmatic struggle for global universal education and healthcare, then it is hard to see how this technoprogressive/technoliberationist politics doesn't amount to a real left politics rather than the neoliberal/left-libertopian "liberal communism" Zizek properly derides -- through Malnuit -- here.

"2. You shall change the world, not just sell things.

"3. You shall be sharing, aware of social responsibility.

"4. You shall be creative: focus on design, new technologies and science."

Yes, it is very easy to hear Jennifer Saunder's Edwina Monsoon, the New Age libertopian hedonist monster of BBC's enduringly hilarious AbFab series as the voice giving the lie to these self-congratulatory corporatist fantasies. By the way, I think enterprise and commerce that is genuinely defined by these attitudes actually can do real good in the world. It just isn't and cannot ever be enough. How do we do justice to such intuitions without drifting into the neoliberal corporate-militarist accomodationism Zizek disdains here?

"5. You shall tell all: have no secrets, endorse and practise the cult of transparency and the free flow of information; all humanity should collaborate and interact."

Well, I am a strong believer in transparency as the price of authority -- transparency should be the price you pay when you benefit from things like tenure, limited liability, and legitimate monopolies on the use of force. I don't believe "transparency" is necessarily the best metaphor to express what is afoot in these demands, and I think it is an especially pernicious thing to demand of individual citizens, especially when the real threats to personal privacy are never the exposure of information but the control of interpretations. But for more on that I recommend people read my critiques of the cypherpunks and of David Brin in chapters Two and Three of my dissertation, Pancryptics (which I am editing into a book right now -- comments and criticisms are very welcome).

"6. You shall not work: have no fixed 9 to 5 job, but engage in smart, dynamic, flexible communication."

All this in an era when human trafficking is on the rise and millions are starving to death and paralyzed by treatable diseases in the midst of the greatest affluence in the history of the world. Yes, it is hard to stomach these cheerful declamations at times.

"7. You shall return to school: engage in permanent education."

Make this injunction universal and I'm for it. And, honestly, it is hard for me to see how one could practically implement such an injuction without supporting some of the cheap green laptop and p2p/a2k politics that Zizek is likely to disdain as "liberal communism" here. What is wanted here is more of the recognition that what is politically indispensable can still be politically inadequate. Else, Zizek's radicalism threatens to underwrite impractical violence and then cynicism and passivity. No doubt, this is pretty close to what an accommodationist would say in this moment and so just how does one get past this impasse?

"8. You shall act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaboration."

Of course, the whole point is that far fewer people would care to work for profit on the market at all if the satisfactions of creative work, social support, and self-creation outside the market order in its present terms did not practically guarantee annihilation.

"9. You shall die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend."

Zizek is right to deride this sort of straightforward patronizing aristocratic self-congratulation.

"10. You shall be the state: companies should be in partnership with the state."

Zizek is also right to deride this sort of "friendly fascism." A recongition of the ineradicable multilateralism of modern civil life (a la Gramsci, Arendt, Althusser, Foucault) certainly need not be to affirm the death dealing corporate-militarism of global "privatization" schemes.
Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralised state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way.

Here I think the point here is that the usual assertion of insistently pragmatic and instrumentalist language too readily facilitates the dismissal and disavowal of any genuinely political, any really democratic responsiveness to crisis -- one sweeps off the table any talk of the ways in which the terms of the current contingent institutional/legal/normative order of governance, corporate-militarism, production and trade might have produced or exacerbated whatever crisis is afoot. And then one simply starts mobilizing the problem-solving agencies and individuals constituted by and within that order.

What might have been a crisis of the contemporary order becomes, then, always only another implementation of that order. That this robotic re-instatement and re-inscription of the terms of the given order is then valorized as "creative" and "unconventional" is the final triumph, the insult added to injury.
Liberal communists like to point out that the decision of some large international corporations to ignore apartheid rules within their companies was as important as the direct political struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Abolishing segregation within the company, paying blacks and whites the same salary for the same job etc: this was a perfect instance of the overlap between the struggle for political freedom and business interests, since the same companies can now thrive in post-apartheid South Africa.

Again, I think we can point to the indispensability of this sort of argument and force for reform without pretending it is adequate to solve the problems arising out of the current corporate-militarist order. I worry about the cynicism and thereafter the exhaustion that is likely to follow from this sort of observation, however, so long as one highlights, as Zizek keeps doing here, the real inadequacy of such reform but without highlighting as well its indispensability.
Liberal communists love May 1968. What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! Those who were old enough were themselves protesting and fighting on the streets: now they have changed in order to change the world, to revolutionise our lives for real.

Well, I blame the nonresponsiveness of the more orthodox revolutionary left in France (whom Zizek seems to be ventriloquizing somewhat here) for no small part of the limited follow-through and subsequent assmilation of the revolutionary energies of '68.
Didn't Marx say that all political upheavals were unimportant compared to the invention of the steam engine? And would Marx not have said today: what are all the protests against global capitalism in comparison with the internet?
Zizek's derision here is a very healthy one for technoprogressives and technoliberationistas to take in and take seriously. As James Hughes and I never tire of reiterating, technodevelopment is social struggle: The accumulation of a technological toy pile is not a substitute for social struggle but is the context in which that struggle occurs and constitutes the permanent occasion for a reinvigoration of the terms and hopes of that struggle. The steam engine, the internet, social software, nanofactories, SENS, space elevators, terraforming -- none of them, not one of them, constitutes emancipation on its own. Emancipation is what happens when we take up the terms of technodevelopment and democratize the distribution of risks, costs, and benefits of technology to all the stakeholders to its developments.
Above all, liberal communists are true citizens of the world -- good people who worry. They worry about populist fundamentalism and irresponsible greedy capitalist corporations. They see the 'deeper causes' of today's problems: mass poverty and hopelessness breed fundamentalist terror. Their goal is not to earn money, but to change the world (and, as a by-product, make even more money).

Zizek conjures up here the evergreen critique of bourgeois bad faith.
Bill Gates is already the single greatest benefactor in the history of humanity, displaying his love for his neighbours by giving hundreds of millions of dollars for education, the fight against hunger and malaria etc.

Zizek assumes as I will not that any sensible reader of such an outlandish claim will be familiar already with the critique that the foundational gesture on the basis of which Microsoft came into being was the appropriation for profit of the fruits of what were long and collaborative labors, and that it still benefits from the ongoing labor of untold unpaid collaborators, critics, and troubleshooters to this day.

As for the contemporary disposition of charity and foreign aid from "developed" to the "developing" world... Again, Zizek assumes as I will not that any sensible reader of such a formulation will already know that such "aid" and "support" is always only offered up in the context of the imposition and implementation of legal and trading regimes that are injurious to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars a year. The comparatively minuscule millions in neoliberal charity and development aid constitute a cheapskate compensation for ongoing technodevelopmental abjection, a noisy imperial ceremonial of "support" that functions primarily to ensure distraction from the otherwise intolerable spectacle of violation.
The catch is that before you can give all this away you have to take it (or, as the liberal communists would put it, create > it). In order to help people, the justification goes, you must have the means to do so, and experience -- that is, recognition of the dismal failure of all centralised statist and collectivist approaches -- teaches us that private enterprise is by far the most effective way. By regulating their business, taxing them excessively, the state is undermining the official goal of its own activity (to make life better for the majority, to help those in need).

Yes, it is the usual shabby neoliberal translation of Kennedy's chestnut that from those to whom much is given much is required: One must take quite a lot before one can give a little bit back... The vampire ethic of crony capitalism. And notice the illustration here of the stealthy disavowal of politics through market-naturalizing pragmatism: Free enterprise "works" and authoritarianism fails to work, and so first the neoliberal identifies the institutions of corporate-militarism with "free enterprise" and then attacks as both naively impractical and authoritarian any anti-authoritarian resistence to authoritarian concentrations of power in corporations (which, recall, are already imagined in "partnership" with governance in the neoliberal imaginary), however inflexible, irresponsible, lax, flabby, slow and nonprofitable this authoritarian concentration makes an organization in its actual function.

What is astonishing is to hear these tried and true -- that is to say, tired and "truthy" -- market naturalist rhetorics and aristocratic apologias emerging from the frothing lips of saucer-eyed technology enthusiasts who want to imagine themselves as partisans, nonetheless, of the "left" in any legible sense of the word!
Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want
their lives to have deeper meaning.

That is to say, we are supposed to think there is somehow something admirable in wanting to have your cake and eat it, so long as it's, I guess, "open source." It's like the old Woody Allen bit -- I'm a hypocrite, I know. But, for the left.
They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically). Their motto is social responsibility and gratitude: they are the first to admit that society has been incredibly good to them, allowing them to deploy their talents and amass wealth, so they feel that it is their duty to give something back to society and help people. This beneficence is what makes business success worthwhile.

This takes us into the New Age dimensions of what Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook aptly call "The California Ideology." The pop-psychology and McBuddhism of the Tech Bloom tends to rise to the fore, I've noticed, in moments when the Business Cycle is more bust than boom, although we can always count on the reductive triumphalists and Randroids to re-emerge without memory -- or mercy -- the moment the Cycle nudges back into boom.
This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Remember Andrew Carnegie, who employed a private army to suppress organised labour in his steelworks and then distributed large parts of his wealth for educational, cultural and humanitarian causes, proving that, although a man of steel, he had a heart of gold? In the same way, today's liberal communists give away with one hand what they grabbed with the other.

Read it and weep.
There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! -- i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation. The structure of the chocolate laxative can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape; it is what makes a figure like Soros so objectionable. He stands for ruthless financial exploitation combined with its counter-agent, humanitarian worry about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy. Soros's daily routine is a lie embodied: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculation, the other half to 'humanitarian' activities (financing cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which work against the effects of his own speculations. The two faces of Bill Gates are exactly like the two faces of Soros: on the one hand, a cruel businessman, destroying or buying out competitors, aiming at a virtual monopoly; on the other, the great philanthropist who makes a point of saying: 'What does it serve to have computers if people do not have enough to eat?'

Zizek has a point, but I happen to find Soros less objectionable than I do Gates. (Is that so wrong?) Zizek is absolutely right to deny that only Soros or his like can provide the resources to fight actually-existing authoritarianisms, as he is absolutely right to deny any suggestion that Soros' fights against authoritarianism now somehow justify the damage he may have done in amassing his private fortune... but I find myself feeling glad Soros is doing the work that he is doing nonetheless. Soros is no William Fort, say (the leader of the socially progressive metanational Praxis in Kim Stanley Robinson's technoprogressive Mars Trilogy), but neither probably should Soros be the figure through which we try to debate the specificially technoprogressive possibilities of market socialisms and social democratic experimentalisms that will not degenerate into neoliberal market pieties and corporate-militarist apologias.

It is hard to shake the suspicion that there is no real answer to the question "What Is to be Done?" that will be invulnerable, exactly, to Zizek's Exlax analogy. And so where does it leave us?
According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly 'helping' undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.

It is hard to argue with Zizek here. Democracy isn't charity and exchange under duress isn't democracy. It is in moments like these the neoliberals and left-libertopians face their livid moment of truth -- are you really a right-wing ideologue genuflecting toward democracy and Greenness because that's the only way to get into the good parties or even live with yourself? Or are you really a social democrat who recognizes technodevelopment as the space of social struggle in this historical moment, the terrain of catastrophe and emancipation on which we find ourselves?
As for the opposition between 'smart' and 'non-smart', outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production -- disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution -- to 'non-smart' Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

I think Zizek misses the ways in which it is less the exportation of labor than its roboticization/automation that has emerged as the governing term for technodevelopmental abjection -- outsourcing is in fact just one among many of its implementations. This is the genocidal fantasy at the heart of the neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist elitist/aristocratic imaginary, not of a radical sequestration of the masses into the darkness and silence that is their lot and their substance, but of an even more radical obsolescence and, hence, nonexistence. This is important not only because it is best to see such a threat as clearly as it is possible to see it, but because roboticization/automation can be taken up by the radical democratic left as easily as it can the antidemocratic corporate-military right. The democratizing demand for a global basic income guarantee and shorter work-week (even zerowork) as the social dividend of roboticization/automation provides the emancipatory and anti-nostalgic face of technodevelopmental abjection -- as against any facile technophobia that would urge we smash the machines and "return" in our ineradicably prostheticized billions to a pastoral existence that could never sustain us and never existed in any case. Radicalism needs to attend to the damage and the danger -- but it also needs to find its way to hope, else it's worse than useless.
We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies -- religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies -- depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system
This is a powerful claim but a bit hard to take. Shouldn't the effort be to re-write the left tide of progressives, Greens, social democrats, secularists, liberals in the image of proliferating technoliberation? If there is an emerging technoprogressive majority in the already existing left in favor of medical research, science education, global reduction/policing of WMD, renewable energy, in addition to its support for democracy and social justice, then can't we articulate this emerging consensus into a globally emancipatory technoprogressive force? I worry that Zizek's clearheaded critique of accommodationism here leaves nothing but violent revolution as its alternative... but revolution in an era of insanely destructive devices is an existential threat, and not exactly an appealing or workable option.
It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it's important to remember exactly what they are up to.

Well, that is certainly sensible.
Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today's capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms.

That's a fine formulation, and one that market libertarians (among them many "left"-libertopians) are especially oblivious to as they define market-outcomes, however duressed they may be in fact, as "non-violent" from the get-go and by fiat.
They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces.

Well, of course we know that Zizek is right. But it just isn't clear to me that his righteousness here points the way to what is to be done. And until we know better what that might be, it isn't clear to me what good it is saying what he says, even when what he says is as good as it is.


DanT said...

Zizeck is concerned with solidarity in a post marxist world. One area where such solidarity can be articualted is around the environment.

Zizeck objects to a compensation culture. Charity is a form of compensation that does not address the initial crimes.

There are ways of addressing such issues that get closer to the practices that generate the problems.

One suggested area of debate is given here

Michel said...

Dale: thanks for this extensive analysis. I wonder if a little class analysis would not be helpful.

In my own analysis at the P2P Foundation, I distinguish between the cognitive capitalists, those that depend on monopoly rents from the protection of the information core of their products, like Bill Gates. They are certainly not 'liberal communists', and want to appropriate the digital commons; MacKenzie Warks speaks of the vectoralist class, those who own the vectors of information, say the mass media: Murdoch, Maxwell. Also a reactionary crowd who thrives on the control and manipulation of information. But the post-media internet undermines these powers, as open source undermines private appropriation of information, and the distribution of media undermines mass media based control strategies. But a new force is arising, which I call the netarchical capitalists. They enable but exploit the new participatory platforms: the ebays, the amazons, the googles. They thrive on the wisdom of crowds, and live from it. Their position is dual: they have to support the new participatory practices, but are also striving for world domination as private for profit companies. I think that the kind of liberal communist ideas that Zizek deplores fits with this latter group. It can be explained by their dual and contradictory interests. They are for participation, and 'not doing evil', but can only see the capitalist market as the context for this.

In my own work, I think that peer production, peer governance and new peer property regimes can be the basis of a new progressive politics: that p2p social processes can form the core of a new commons-based political economy: it can co-exist with a non-capitalist market subject to peer arbitrage (capitalist markets, which destroy the biosphere, simply cannot survive more than a few decades).

By the way, there is a real liberal communist tradition, exemplified by the french author Dominique Pelbois, an original utopian thinkers which wants to create a system where the factories are co-owned both by producers and consumers, and can exist without capital. In this vision, the market is internalized in the enterprises, through consumer-ownership, that's the liberal part, since it embeds liberal efficiency within what is essentially a communist system, hence liberal communism.

Michel Bauwens
P2P Foundation

DanT said...

Dear Dale

In reply to your comment, how would I base a class analysis?

A class analysis needs necessarily to relate to how people represent their relations to materia, or to the environment.

Laclau has done a wonderful Job of problematising this, and Zizeck has not come up with any easy fixes to class analysis.

I agree that relations with(in) the environment / materia are crucial, but how to factor issues of representation into attempts at structural analysis. Hall had a go, but it didn't work, Althusser tried, but was demolished by Laclau.

I don't claim to have answers, which is why my Phd project is entitled 'a mediated environment.' (see homepage

So how do theories of representation deal with the "natural", (i.e that which surprises, which exceeds representation) and how do we have a post-structuralist approach to issues of livelihood?


Dale Carrico said...

Hi, Dan. I am very interested in you description of the "natural" as "that which surprises, which exceeds representation" -- since for me the "natural" tends to denote the customary. For me the "natural" tends to signify a nostalgic and anti-democratic political impulse, while your more sublime construal of the "natural" seems to signify the emancipatory dimension at the heart of resignifiability. You see resignification where I see resignation! Of course, neither of us is right or wrong, it's just that interesting differences will ensue from our emphases.

This reminds me very much of the difficulties of discussing the relations between the literal and figurative dimensions of language. To be a competent speaker of a language is always to be able to discern when one is speaking a language as opposed to translating one, one the one hand, as well as to be able to mobilize nonstandard usage in meaningful ways. What is interesting is that accounts of figurative language will tend either attribute a special vitality, a viscerality, an endlessly generative catechresitic power to the figurative dimension of language as against the dying into literal usage that happens when a metaphor grows dim through customary usage -- *or* they will tend to attribute force (correspondence, if they're naive, or pragmatic goodness, if they are more sensible about it) to literality while consigning figurative language to the register of decorative effects or triggers of affect. When I teach the distinction to my students I am always careful to stress the traffic between these conceptions rather than a preference for one over the other.

I've loved too much Wilde for too long and listened to too many bioconservatives for too long to affirm your own sublime characterization of the natural over my own characterization of the natural as always a nostalgic clinging to custom -- but it is plain that there is much to be said for the useful traffic between these two conceptions!

I know that comment of yours was hardly the one to which you would expect or want me to respond. It just happens to have provoked some enjoyable speculation is all.

As for your other points, I agree that the global politics of climate change and sustainability are a prime candidate for incubating global solidarity. The complementaty politics of catastrophic and existential risks should incubate global solidarity as well. I would like to think peer-to-peer models of policy deliberation, collaboration, technodevelopmental assessment, representation, criticism, and accountability could also have a hand in this -- but I am well aware of the dangers of neoliberal/neoconservative accommodationism inhering in such a hope. Certainly, those of us who know better need to be quite insistent about disarticulating peer-to-peer formulations from facile libertarian appropriations, whether market-anarchist, neoliberal, neoconservative, coporate-militarist, or "deep" ecological versions. I personally think that democratic world federalism (through reform of the UN or through other means), and a global basic income guarantee are also likely sources for global radical/social democratic mobilization. Finally, I suspect that genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine will either inspire a global social democratic federalist polity or these developments will preside over a class struggle rewritten in the dreadful image of *speciation*.

For me, I seem to put a lot of weight on the idea of *consent* -- competent, informed, nonduressed consent as the key value that adjudicates between autonomy and diversity on the one hand, and provides for a thick "positive" construal of freedom. The difficulty is to avoid the amplification of consent into something like a Habermasian "ideal speech situation," on the one hand, or its reduction into an apologia for market contrarianism.

This takes me back to the dual worries I oscillated between in my little fantasia on Zizekian themes in the first place -- between a real concern with accommodationism on the one hand and a radicalism that either demanded violence of a kind that is out of the question in our own technodevelopmental era or invited a despair that is ultimately indistinguishable from the accommodationism it would explicitly repudiate. I realize now, looking back at his piece, that Zizek shifts later in the essay to a more conventional -- and to me more readily appealing -- exposure of the aristocratic and hence anti-democratic pretensions of "liberal communists" whatever their protestations of love for democracy. It seems to me these two themes don't harmonize as well as one might want them to at all...

Thanks for all the great comments, I definitely mean to read your work when my teaching schedule relents a bit! d