About late capitalism

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overview

source [the year of dreaming dangerously, s zizek, 2012]

about zizek [big think video bytes]

from domination to exploitation and revolt, chpt 2

… first capitalism as a social formation is characterized by a structural imbalance …

… the antagonism between forces and relations is present from the very beginning …

… and it is this very antagonism which pushes capitalism towards permanent self revolutionizing and self-expansion …

… capitalism thrives because it avoids its fetters by escaping into the future …

… this is also why one has to drop the “wisely” optimistic notion that mankind “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” …

… today we face problems for which no clear solutions are guaranteed by the logic of evolution …

… in order to move beyond this frame …

… we should focus on the three features that characterize contemporary capitalism …

1) the longterm trend of shifting from profit to rent

… in its two main forms rent based on privatized “common knowledge,” …

… and rent based on natural resources …

2) the much stronger structural role of unemployment

… the opportunity to be “exploited” in a long-term job is experienced as a privilege …

3) and finally the rise of a new class that jean-claude milner calls the “salaried bourgeoisie”

… the consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by an exponential growth in collective knowledge is the changing role of unemployment …

but does this new form of capitalism not also offer a new prospect of emancipation?

… therein lies the thesis of hardt and negri’s multitude …

… in which they endeavor to radicalize a marx for whom highly organized corporate capitalism already was “socialism within capitalism” …

… a kind of socialization of capitalism …

… with the absent owners becoming more and more superfluous …

… so that one only need cut off the nominal head to reach socialism proper …

… for hardt and negri, however marx’s limitation was that he was historically constrained by the centralized and hierarchically organized form of industrial labor …

… which is why his vision of the “general intellect” was that of a central planning agency …

… it is only today, with the rise of “immaterial labor” to a hegemonic position …

… that the revolutionary reversal becomes “objectively possible.” …

… this immaterial labor extends between the two poles of intellectual (symbolic) labor …

… the production of ideas, codes, texts, programs, figures …

… and affective labor …

… those who deal with our bodily affects from doctors to baby-sitters and flight attendants …

… today, immaterial labor is “hegemonic” in the precise sense in which marx proclaimed that in nineteenth-century capitalism large industrial production was hegemonic …

… as the specific color lending its tone to the totality—not in quantitative terms …

… but playing the key emblematic and structural role …

… what thereby emerges is a vast new domain of the “common” …

… shared knowledge forms of cooperation and communication etc. …

… which can no longer be contained by the form of private property …

… for in immaterial production the products are no longer material objects …

… but new social (interpersonal) relations themselves …

… in short, immaterial production is directly biopolitical …

… it is the production of social life …

… the irony here is that hardt and negri are referring to the very process that the ideologists of todays “postmodern” capitalism celebrate as the passage from material to symbolic production …

… from a centralist-hierarchical logic …

to the logic of autopoietic selforganization

… multi-centered cooperation, and so on …

… negri is indeed faithful to marx here …

… what he tries to prove is that marx was right …

… that the rise of the “general intellect” is in the long term incompatible with capitalism …

… the ideologists of postmodern capitalism make exactly the opposite claim …

… it is marxist theory (and practice) itself which remains within the constraints of the hierarchical and centralized logic of state control …

… and thus cannot cope with the social effects of the new information revolution …

… there are good empirical reasons for this claim …

… again, the supreme irony of history is that the disintegration of communism is the most convincing example of the validity of the traditional marxist dialectic of forces and relations of production …

… on which marxism counted in its attempt to overcome capitalism …

… what indeed ruined the communist regimes was their inability to accommodate the new social logic sustained by the “information revolution’ …

… they tried to steer it into yet another large-scale centralized state-planning project …

… the paradox is thus that what negri celebrates as a unique opportunity for overcoming capitalism …

the ideologists of the “information revolution”

… celebrate as the rise of a new “frictionless” capitalism …

… hardt and negri’s analysis has three weak points that, taken together explain how capitalism can survive …

… what should be (in classical marxist terms) a new organization of production that renders it obsolete …

… they underestimate the extent to which contemporary capitalism successfully (in the short term at least) privatized “common knowledge” itself …

… as well as the extent to which, more so than the bourgeoisie, workers themselves are becoming “superfluous” …

… increasing numbers of them becoming not just temporarily unemployed, but structurally unemployable …

… furthermore, even if it is in principle true that the bourgeoisie is becoming progressively non-functional …

… we should qualify this statement with the question non-functional for whom? …

… for capitalism itself …

… that is to say, if the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur investing (her own or borrowed) money into a venture organized and run by herself …

… thereby reaping the profit …

… a new ideal type is emerging today …

… no longer the entrepreneur who owns her own company …

… but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a ceo) …

… who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who do not own the bank itself) or dispersed investors …

… in this new ideal type of capitalism without the bourgeoisie …

… the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, becomes re-functionalized as a class of salaried managers …

… the new bourgeoisie itself receives a salary …

… and even if its members own part of their company …

… they earn their stock as part of the remuneration for their work …

… “bonuses” for their “successful” management …

… this new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus-value …

… but in the (mystified) form of what milner calls the “surplus-wage” …

… in general, its members are paid more than the proletarian “minimum wage” …

… this imaginary—often mythical—point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the salary of a worker in a sweatshop in china or indonesia …

… and it is this difference from common proletarians …

… this distinction, which determines their status, the bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tend to disappear …

capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers

… managers who are qualified to earn more by their competence …

… which is why the pseudo-scientific “evaluation” which legitimizes their higher earnings is so crucial today …

… the category of workers earning a surplus-wage is …

… of course, not limited to managers …

… it is extended to all sorts of experts …

… administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists …

… the surplus they receive has two forms …

… more money (for managers and so on) …

… but also less work …

… that is more free time (for some intellectuals but also for some members of the state administration etcetera) …

… the evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus-wage is …

… of course, an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology …

… with no serious link to actual competence …

… or, as milner puts it, the necessity of the surplus-wage is not economic, but political …

to maintain a “middle class” for the purpose of social stability

… the arbitrariness of the social hierarchy is not a mistake, but its whole point …

… for the arbitrariness of evaluation plays a role homologous to the arbitrariness of market success …

… in other words, violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social sphere …

… but when one tries to eliminate this contingency …

… therein lies one of the impasses faced by china today …

… the goal of dengs reforms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (as the new ruling class) …

… now, however, chinese leaders are becoming painfully aware that capitalism without a stable hierarchy (brought by the bourgeoisie as a new class) generates permanent instability …

… so what path will china take? …

… more generally, this is also arguably the reason why (ex-)communists are re-emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism …

… their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class fits perfectly with the progress of contemporary capitalism …

… towards a managerial system without the bourgeoisie …

… in both cases, as stalin put it long ago “cadres decide everything.” …

… this notion of the surplus-wage also allows us to throw new light on the ongoing “anti-capitalist” protests …

… in times of crisis, the obvious candidates for a “tightening of belts” are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie …

… since their surplus-wages play no immanent economic role …

… the only thing that stands in the way of their joining the proletarians is their power of political protest …

… although these protests are nominally directed at the brutal logic of the market …

… they are in reality protesting the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic position …

… recall ayn rands favorite ideological fantasy (from atlas shrugged) …

… that of (“creative”) capitalists going on strike …

… does this fantasy not find a perverted realization in many strikes today …

… which are often strikes of the privileged “salaried bourgeoisie” …

… driven by the fear of losing their privileges …

… the surplus over the minimal wage? …

… they are not proletarian protests …

… but protests against the threat of being reduced to a proletarian status …

in other words, who dares to strike today

… when having the security of a permanent job is itself becoming a privilege? …

… these are not the low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry and so on …

… but that strata of privileged workers with guaranteed jobs (mostly in the civil service, police and other law enforcers, teachers, public transport workers etcetera) …

… this also accounts for the new wave of student protests …

… their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus-wage in later life …

… of course, the great revival of protest—from the arab spring to western europe …

… from occupy wall street to china, from spain to greece …

… should not be dismissed as merely a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie …

… it harbors a much more radical potential …

… one that requires a concrete case-by-case analysis …

… the student protests against university reforms in the uk, for example, were clearly different from the uk riots of august 2011 …

… that consumerist carnival of destruction …

… a genuine outburst from those excluded from the system …

… as to the uprising in egypt …

… one could argue that it did begin as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie (the young and educated protesting at the lack of prospects) …

… but quickly became part of a larger protest against an oppressive regime …

… but to what extent did the protest mobilize poor workers and peasants? …

… does not the electoral victory of the islamists indicate the narrow social base of the original secular protest? …

… greece is a special case here …

… over the last few decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) has been created …

… with eu financial help …

… and much of the ongoing protest is a response to the threat of losing these privileges …

… this proletarianization of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is accompanied by an excess in the opposite direction …

… the irrationally high pay of top managers and bankers …

… a level of remuneration that is economically irrational since …

… as investigations in the us have demonstrated …

… it tends to be inversely proportional to the company’s success …

… instead of submitting these trends to moralizing criticism …

… we should rather read them as indications of how the capitalist system …

… itself is no longer able to find an immanent level of self-regulated stability; that is …

… of how its circuit threatens to run out of control …

… the good old marxist-hegelian notion of totality comes into its own here …

… it is crucial to grasp the ongoing economic crisis in its totality and not be blinded by its partial aspects …

… the first step towards grasping this totality is to focus on those singular moments that stick out as symptoms of the present economic predicament …

… for example, everyone knows that the “rescue package” for greece will not work …

… but nonetheless new rescue packages are imposed on greece over and over again in a weird example of the logic of “i know very well, but...” …

… two dominant stories about the greek crisis circulate in the mass media …

… the german-european one …

… the irresponsible, lazy, freespending, tax-dodging greeks must be brought under control and taught financial discipline …

… and the greek one …

… their national sovereignty is threatened by the neoliberal technocracy in brussels …

… when it became impossible to ignore the plight of ordinary greeks …

… a third story emerged …

… they are increasingly presented as humanitarian victims in need of help …

… as if some natural catastrophe or war had hit the country …

… while all three stories are false …

… the third is arguably the most disgusting …

… it conceals the fact that the greeks are not passive victims; they are fighting back …

… they are at war with the european economic establishment and what they need is solidarity in their struggle …

… because this is our fight as well …

… greece is not an exception …

… it is a testing ground for the imposition of a new socio-economic model with a universal claim …

the depoliticized technocratic model

… wherein bankers and other experts are allowed to squash democracy …

… imagine a scene from a dystopian movie depicting our society in the near future …

… ordinary people walking the streets carry a special whistle …

… whenever they see something suspicious—an immigrant …

… say, or a homeless person—they blow the whistle …

… and a special guard comes running to brutalize the intruders.. …

… what seems like a cheap hollywood fiction is a reality in today s greece …

… members of the fascist golden dawn movement are distributing whistles on the streets of athens—when someone sees a suspicious foreigner …

… he is invited to blow the whistle …

… and the golden dawn special guards patrolling the streets will arrive to check out the suspect …

… this is how one defends europe in the spring of 2012 …

… these anti-immigrant vigilantes are not the principal danger …

… however; they are merely collateral damage accompanying the true threat …

… the politics of austerity that has brought greece to such a predicament …

… critics of our institutional democracy often complain that as a rule elections do not offer a true choice …

… for the most part what we get is a choice between a center-right and a center-left party whose programs are virtually indistinguishable …

… at the time of writing …

… the greek elections scheduled for june 17, 2012 offer a real choice …

… between the establishment (new democracy and pasok) on the one side and syriza on the other …

… and, as is usually the case, such moments of real choice throw the establishment into panic …

… driving them to conjure up images of social chaos …

… poverty and violence if the electorate make the wrong choice …

… the mere possibility of a syriza victory has sent ripples of fear through markets around the world …

… and, again as is usual in such cases …

ideological prosopopoeia is having a heyday

… markets begin to talk like a living person …

… expressing their “worry” at what will happen if the elections fail to produce a government with a mandate to continue the eu-imf program of fiscal austerity and structural reform …

… but the ordinary people of greece have no time to worry about such prospects …

… they have enough to deal with in the present …

… in which their lives are becoming miserable to an extent unseen in europe in recent decades …

… such predictions, of course, often become self-fulfilling prophecies …

… causing panic and thus bringing about the very disaster they warn of …

… in his notes towards a definition of culture …

… the great conservative t s eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is that between heresy and non-belief …

… that the only way to keep a religion alive is sometimes to effect a sectarian split from its corpse …

… this is our position today with regard to europe …

… only a new “heresy” (represented at this moment by syriza) can save what is worth saving in the european legacy …

… democracy, trust in the people, egalitarian solidarity.. …

… the europe that will win if syriza is outmaneuvered is a “europe with asian values” …

… which, of course, has nothing to do with asia …

… and everything to do with the clear and present danger of contemporary capitalism s tendency to suspend democracy …

… greece is thus europe’s singular universality …

… the nodal point at which the historical tendency that shapes its present appears at its purest …

… this is why—to paraphrase the finale of wagner’s parsifal—we should redeem the redeemer …

… we should not only save greece from its saviors—the european consortium testing out “austerity measures” in dr mengele-like fashion …

… but also save europe itself from its saviors …

… the neoliberals promoting the bitter medicine of austerity and the anti-immigrant populists …

… there is, however, something wrong with this idea …

… the fact it is exactly the response of the archetypal european left-liberal moron …

… preferably a socially aware cultural intellectual on the question of europe today …

… as a politically correct anti-racist …

… he will insist that, of course, he rejects anti-immigrant populism …

… the danger comes from within, not from islam …

… the two main threats to Europe, he says, are this very populism and neoliberal economics …

… against this double threat …

… we must resuscitate social solidarity …

… multicultural tolerance …

… the material conditions for cultural development, etcetera …

but how is this to be done?

… the main moronic idea here involves a return to the authentic welfare state …

… we need a new political party that will return to the good old principles abandoned under neoliberal pressure …

… we need to regulate the banks and control financial excesses …

… guarantee free universal health care and education …

… and so on …

… what is wrong with this? everything …

… such an approach is stricto sensu idealist …

… that is …

… it opposes its own idealized ideological supplement to the existing deadlock …

… recall what marx wrote about plato’s republic …

… the problem is not that it is “too utopian,” but …

… on the contrary …

… that it remains the ideal image of the existing politico-economic order …

… mutatis mutandis …

… we should read the ongoing dismantling of the welfare state not as the betrayal of a noble idea …

… but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the welfare state …

… the lesson is that if we want to save the emancipatory kernel of the notion …

… we will have to change the terrain and rethink its most basic implications …

… such as the long-term viability of a “social market economy,” …

… that is, of a socially responsible capitalism …

… today, we are bombarded with a multitude of attempts to humanize capitalism …

from eco-capitalism to basic income capitalism

… the reasoning behind these attempts goes as follows …

… historical experience has demonstrated that capitalism is by far the best way to generate wealth …

… at the same time, it must be admitted that left to itself the process of capitalist reproduction entails exploitation …

… the destruction of natural resources, mass suffering, injustice, wars, etcetera …

… our aim should thus be to maintain the basic capitalist matrix of profitoriented reproduction …

… but to steer and regulate it so that it serves the larger goals of global welfare and justice …

… consequently, we should leave the capitalist beast to its own proper functioning …

… accepting that markets have their own demands that should be respected …

… that any direct disturbance of market mechanisms will lead to catastrophe …

… all we can hope to do is tame the beast.. …

… however, all these attempts, well intended as they often are in their endeavor to unite pragmatic realism and a principled commitment to justice …

… sooner or later encounter the real of the antagonism between the two dimensions …

… the capitalist beast again and again escapes the benevolent social regulation …

… at some point, we will thus be compelled to ask the fateful question …

is playing with the capitalist beast really the only imaginable game in town?

… what if, productive as capitalism is …

… the price we have to pay for its continuous functioning simply has become too high? …

… if we avoid this question and continue to humanize capitalism …

… we will only contribute to the process we are trying to reverse …

… signs of this process abound everywhere …

… including in the rise of wal-mart as the representation of a new form of consumerism targeting the lower classes …

… unlike the first large corporations that created wholly new sectors by means of some invention eg …

… edison with the light bulb …

… microsoft with its windows software …

… sony with the walkman …

… or apple with the ipod/iphone/itunes package …

… or other companies that focused on building a particular brand (e.g …

… coca-cola or marlboro) …

… wal-mart did something no one had ever thought of before …

… it packaged a new ideology of cheapness into a brand that was meant to appeal to the financially stressed american working and lower-middle classes …

… in conjunction with its fierce proscription of trades unions …

… it became a bulwark of keeping prices low …

… and of extending to its long suffering working-class customers a sense of satisfaction for having shared in the exploitation of the (mostly foreign) producers of the goods in their shopping basket …

… but the key feature is that the ongoing crisis is not about reckless spending, greed, ineffectual bank regulation etcetera …

… an economic cycle is coming to an end …

… a cycle that began in the early 1970s …

when what varoufakis calls the “global minotaur” was born

… the monstrous engine that ran the world economy from the early 1980s to 2008.8 …

… the late 1960s and the early 1970s were not just the era of the oil crisis and stagflation …

… nixons decision to abandon the gold standard for the us dollar was the sign of a much more radical shift in the basic functioning of the capitalist system …

… by the end of the 1960s, the us economy was no longer able to continue recycling its surpluses in europe and asia …

… its surpluses had turned into deficits …

… in 1971, the us government responded to this decline with an audacious strategic move …

… instead of tackling the nations burgeoning deficits …

… it decided to do the opposite, to boost deficits …

… and who would pay for them? …

… the rest of the world! …

… how? by means of a permanent transfer of capital that rushed ceaselessly across the two great oceans to finance americas deficits …

… the latter thus started to operate like a giant vacuum cleaner …

… absorbing other peoples surplus goods and capital …

… while that “arrangement” was the embodiment of the grossest imbalance imaginable at a planetary scale .. …

… nonetheless, it did give rise to something resembling global balance …

… an international system of rapidly accelerating asymmetrical financial and trade flows …

… capable of putting on a semblance of stability and steady growth.. …

… powered by these deficits …

… the world’s leading surplus economies eg germany, japan and later china …

… kept churning out the goods while america absorbed them …

… almost 70 percent of the profits made globally by these countries were then transferred back to the united states …

… in the form of capital flows to wall street …

… and what did wall street do with it? …

… it turned these capital inflows into direct investments …

… shares, new financial instruments, new and old forms of loans etc …

… although emmanuel todds vision of todays global order is clearly one-sided …

… it is difficult to deny its moment of truth …

… that the US is an empire in decline …

… its growing negative trade balance demonstrates that it is an unproductive predator …

… it has to suck up a daily influx of one billion dollars from other nations to pay for its consumption and is …

… as such, the universal keynesian consumer that keeps the world economy running …

… so much for the anti-keynesian economic ideology that seems to predominate today! this influx …

… which is effectively like the tithe paid to rome in antiquity …

… or the gifts sacrificed to the minotaur by the ancient greeks …

… relies on a complex economic mechanism …

… the US is “trusted” as the safe and stable center …

… so that all the others, from the oil-producing arab countries to western europe and japan, and now even the chinese …

… invest their surplus profits in the us …

… since this trust is primarily ideological and military …

… not economic …

… the problem for the us is how to justify its imperial role—it needs a permanent state of war …

… thus the “war on terror,” offering itself as the universal protector of all other “normal” (not “rogue”) states …

… the entire globe thus tends to function as a universal sparta with its three classes …

… now emerging as the first, second, and third worlds …

… 1) the us as the military-political-ideological power …

… 2) europe and parts of asia and latin america as the industrial-manufacturing regions …

… crucial here are germany and japan the worlds leading exporters plus rising china …

… 3) the undeveloped rest, todays helots …

… in other words …

global capitalism has brought about a new general trend towards oligarchy

… masked as the celebration of the “diversity of cultures” …

… equality and universalism are increasingly disappearing as genuine political principles …

… even before it has fully established itself …

… however, this neo-spartan world system is breaking down …

… in contrast to the situation in 1945 …

… the world does not need the US …

… it is the US that needs the rest of the world …

… against the background of this gigantic shadow …

… the european struggles—german leaders furious with greece and reluctant to throw billions into a black hole …

… greek leaders pathetically insisting on their sovereignty and comparing the pressure from brussels to the german occupation during world war ii …

… cannot but appear petty and ridiculous …

the "dream-work" of political representation, chpt 3