Saturday, January 20, 2018

352. Žižek: What does he want?

Žižek lambasts and lampoons much of what he comes across but rarely offers alternatives. That is not the task of philosophy, he claims. This is vintage Hegel: philosophy can and should only try to understand and clarify what happens, and can do this only when it has already passed, after the sun has set. That is the meaning of the famous dictum that ‘Minerva’s owl spreads its wings only at dusk’.

To me, this is a cop-out. At the basis of present problems lie philosophical issues, and philosophy should learn from this not only to clarify but also to contribute to ideas for improvement. Such as the crisis of capitalism, discussed in preceding items in this blog. It is a matter of elementary intellectual decency, in my view, that when you criticize something you must give some indication of at least the direction for an alternative.

In fact, Žižek does make suggestions. In a debate with Will Self, the latter gave up on solving problems and advocated a withdrawal into the comfort of one’s private bubble, closing the curtains. During and after the debate, Žižek quite rightly burst out in indignation at this. An example of his suggestions is how one should deal with the refugee problem.

For Žižek, true faith is not based on logical or empirical reason, but is a commitment regardless of that, going back to the old motto ‘I believe because it is absurd’, in a leap of faith. Here, he admits to being a fan of Kierkegaard. He also remains a revolutionary, and does not exclude violence. Peaceful attempts to change the existing order by argument are lost in advance, in concession to the established symbolic order of ‘reasonable discourse’. It is a weakness of leftists to say that yes, radical change is needed, but the time is not ripe. The time is never ripe.

On the other hand, Žižek calls for patience, for not rushing in, for having trust, and taking time, and being self-critical. Perhaps one can have both: belief as an unreasonable leap, action in prudence and patience. But how can that still be revolutionary? 

Žižek picked up Kant’s distinction between the private and the public use of intellect. The first is aimed at answering practical questions raised by private concerns. The second stays away from that, to maintain intellectual independence. Žižek claims, and I agree, that in recent years there has been an increasing pressure on academia to develop useful knowledge. In the Netherlands the motto for that is ‘valorization’.

I agree that this has adverse effects, of two kinds. First, it indeed jeopardizes the independence and intellectual integrity of science. Second, it is myopic: independent, fundamental research uninformed by practical interests has proven to be the most productive.

How far the perversity of private reason can go is illustrated in the following case in my own experience. When working at a semi-public institute for research I produced a report that did not sit well with established policy, and I was asked, or rather muscled, to align the report more with it. I was told that next to scientific rationality there was something called ‘policy-oriented’ rationality (’beleidsmatige rationaliteit’ in Dutch). That should take into account the costs sunk in the political decision process, and corresponding political commitments crafted with much effort. Many similar cases of pressure have been reported. It is disastrous for trust in science.   

However, on the other hand the essence of science is testing, and application is a form of testing. At some places, Žižek himself admits that for ideas the proof of the pudding lies in its eating. I can even put this in the Hegelian parlance that Žižek covets: the real is the rational and vice versa. The rational gets embodied in the real, and the real reflects the rational.

My argument is that of pragmatist philosophy: one develops new ideas by using and rejecting them. That also is vintage Hegel. It is connected to the issue of the universal in relation to its particulars, which I will discuss in a later item in this blog: practical use of reason is attention to particulars that will shift or topple the universal. And how, in the manifestation of absolute spirit through the working of individual spirits, can this be if those spirits only reflect and do not contribute to action?  

So, how to proceed? One can engage in practical reason while not being diverted by private reason. The difference is that one does not adopt the problem as formulated by private interest, but as formulated by oneself after thorough familiarization with the practice and one’s analysis of it, preserving one’s intellectual autonomy. This ethic should be defended in academic teaching and research.

The risk is, of course, that when defending such integrity one no longer gets the commissions for research that bring in the money one is expected to chase. The answer to that is to become one’s own principal, taking the initiative of initiating and applying one’s research according to one’s independent formulation of the problem. Again from my own experience: when I did that in a project for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, I became a persona non grata there. The money then should come from state institutions such as science foundations. The problem there is that they also begin to give in to the demands of ‘valorization’.   

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

351. When is tolerance tolerable?

Tolerance can be a sham, as indicated by Žižek. It then falls into politically correct gestures and intimations of respect towards the excluded (immigrants, Muslims, Jews, blacks, ….), not with corresponding actions of acceptance and solidarity, but rather as a front to hide indifference, and the will to keep them at distance, or even to surreptitiously dominate or suppress them. That is the false gloss of multiculturalism.

That fits in the present politics of identity, of who you are, and what you think, rather than what you do, while justice is about what you do.

Žižek gives the example of colonialists who expressed respect, even awe, for indigenous cultures, as a cloak to cover exploitation and lack of rights. He also relates it to the rhetoric of ‘opening our hearts’ to refugees, instead of recognizing their rights, regardless of your feelings for them.   

Yet tolerance is needed as indispensable for a just society, because modern societies are multi-cultural, as a matter of fact. But it should then be a solidarity that yields actions of justice and solidarity.

There is a connection here with the discussion of empathy, in the preceding item in this blog. You don’t have to love the refugees or have the same views, but you should try to understand them, for a workable society.  

What does all this do to the universality of, in particular, human rights? Should tolerance include tolerance of violations of such rights? Honour killings? Clitorectomy? Enforcement of chadors? Of bourka’s? Arranged marriages? If not, where, precisely, does tolerance end?

Žižek adopts the Hegelian view of the ‘concrete universal’, that a universal allows for variety of its particulars, according to which one should allow for variety in the adoption and practice of universal rights. He mentioned the example of the autonomous Kurdish Rojava region in Nort-Eastern Syria, which should be allowed to ‘do it their way’.

That seems an easy case. Their constitution is in accordance with international laws of human rights, including equal rights for women, freedom of religion, equality of all ethnic groups, and a ban on the death penalty and torture. However, they do engage in child labour and military conscription of children. Is that tolerable?

So, what is ‘sufficient’, tolerable accordance with human rights? I do not think that there is some single, context-independent essence here, anymore than anywhere else. What then? Can we fall back, perhaps, on Wittgenstein’s family resemblance? There, things belong to the same class if they resemble each other in a sufficient number of features from one member of the family to the other, even without having a single feature in common for all? Or can tolerance depend on circumstance, of history, education, religion, economy? Then the questions till remains: how far can that go?

However that may be, it seems simple to say that within a democratic nation tolerance concerns obedience to the laws of the land, not on ideas, feelings, thoughts or inclinations. But how about things not covered by laws? There, people have to deal with it together, in discourse and activities. And that, again, requires empathy in the sense of understanding how people think and feel, as a basis for trying to work things out, without necessarily sharing those thoughts and feelings.

As argued before in his blog (item 35), the notion of scripts may help to bridge the gap between ideas and actions: what does an idea or concept entail in terms of underlying elements and their connections, logically, causally or sequentially? Mapping that helps to pinpoint, identify and understand differences, depending on how fundamental they are. Variety of how nodes in a script are filled in are easier to accept than a difference in the structure or logic of the script.            

Saturday, January 13, 2018


350. Žižek and Devisch: Understanding empathy

In my work on trust, also in this blog, I argued that empathy is needed for trust (items 21, 171, 319). Now I see empathy criticized, by Žižek and Ignaas Devisch[i], among others. Am I mistaken?

Žižek criticizes empathy in two ways. First, he claims that the idea that we can fully understand people is an illusion: we cannot even clearly know ourselves. It is a myth that psycho-analysis unearths, clears up, and cures trauma’s, repressions and tensions that lurk in the dark of the self. The best psycho-analysis can do is to help a patient to learn to live with them. The self remains an abyss, as Žižek calls it.

Žižek and Devisch claim that empathy undermines justice, because it is partial, personal and prejudiced by feeling and impulse, while justice should be universal, applied to all anonymously, indifferently, based on reason. Worse: empathy can be and is being used to divert attention from a crumbling of justice.

Also, Empathy requires effort and personal contact, which have their limits, and can apply only to small numbers. There lies the lie of having hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’.  

According to Devisch, empathy settles on kin or the loved, or beyond that on the personalized, innocent and cuddly (babies, children and Panda bears are best), not on the bad and ugly, and not on the anonymous. Charities use that, appealing for donations with pictures of a drowned boy on the beach, or a crying girl that will not get the medicine she needs unless you contribute. 

Currently in the Netherlands, under the motto of ‘participative society’, austerity is imposed on different forms of care, of the ill, old, lonely, mentally ill (now called ‘confused’), lost, and destitute. They are thrown back on the mercy of empathy from family, friends, or neighbours.

When empathy turns into benevolence, it can oblige the recipient to be thankful and submissive, not to blemish the moral superiority of the giver with ungrateful criticism. Victims should behave. Nietzsche showed how benevolence and pity become an exercise of the will to power.

I agree with all this. However, there is an underlying misunderstanding. Devisch defines empathy not only as understanding how another thinks or feels, but also to ‘feel along’. That comes close to what I call ‘identification’. As I put it in my work on trust, empathy is understanding what ‘makes someone tick’, while identification is ‘ticking in the same way’, with a feeling of sharing a destiny.

The misunderstanding is that empathy is always, by definition, benevolent, loving, and helping. It is not. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, identification or altruism. It does not demand benevolent help.

We all agree that it is good to ‘know thy enemy’. That is empathy. It is needed to rationally assess reliability, or trustworthiness, and may lead to the conclusion they are lacking, and then it produces distancing, not approach, prudence that may lead to distrust.

It does not mean having sympathy for your enemy. But it does go further than understanding how he thinks and feels. It also includes understanding the contingencies that affect his conduct: temptations and  pressures that make him do things even which he might not himself want. It requires openness and receptiveness, extending the benefit of the doubt, engaging in ‘voice’. But doubt can go two ways: acceptance, even identification, but also refusal and ‘exit’.  

A psychopath usually has great cognitive empathy, with an acute understanding of hidden fears, hang-ups, weaknesses, or longings of his victims, to harm them more effectively.

It remains true that empathy, of whatever form, is necessarily selective, reserved only for a limited number of personal relationships. It cannot replace justice but can supplement it.

I haven’t yet adequately answered Žižek’s claim that we cannot fully understand the other. Indeed: not fully, but surely to some extent we can, with a certain ability and experience. I grant that the self remains an abyss. David Hume already recognized that there is no single, univocal, stable identity lying there to be found.

Here, think also of the increasingly accepted (though not new) insight that there is limited free will: our choices are largely made subconsciously, and the reasons we give for actions are largely rationalizations post hoc.    

In my studies of trust I deal with this as follows. The actions of others are not just risky, but uncertain. With risk you don’t know what will happen but you do know what can happen, so you can attach probabilities, but with uncertainty you don’t even know that. Actions of people regularly go beyond what one would have considered possible. Well-behaved husbands suddenly kill atrociously. A friendly neighbour kicks your dog. Since uncertainty is not calculable, trust becomes a leap of faith.

In the end, there still is what I now will call ‘the problem of Levinas’. Empathy may lead to identification, in awe of the ‘visage’ of the other, in a personal relationship.[ii] But how do we go from there to justice, as a universal that applies to all anonymous others, and how in that can the personal, the empathic, survive? Levinas recognized this problem, as I discussed in item 224 of this blog.

I will not attempt to answer that question here, but my hunch is as follows. As Hegel recognized, and in his footsteps Žižek, the universal allows, indeed needs, its differentiation in particulars. That then must also apply to justice.

A final question is this. Is empathy a virtue? In preceding items in this blog I went back to the classical ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation and justice. Empathy should be virtuous in that sense. It should be thinking, prudent, using reason for assessing trustworthiness. It should be courageous, in accepting the uncertainty of conduct. It should engage in moderation, in not demanding the impossible, of oneself and the other, accepting an ineliminable distance between self and other. And, as indicated above, it should not break down justice.   


[i] Ignaas Devisch, 2017, Het empathisch teveel; Op naar een werkbare onverschilligheid,(Empathic excess; Onwards to a workable indifference), Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.  
[ii] Note, however, that Levinas resisted identification: self and other do not merge but remain radically distinct.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


349. Democracy and market: are they compatible?

In Hegelian dialectics, in opposition between A and B a third element is needed to mediate between them. Here I try to apply that idea to tensions between democracy and market.

In democracy, collective choices are made in deliberation and voting by individuals. In markets, individuals make individual choices for themselves. The two are clearly incompatible, in the sense that you cannot have both at the same time in the same place. You can combine them in assigning some choices to the one and others to the other, but this is full of tensions. How is the choice between the two made?

In the recent past, there has been a shift, in neoliberal policy, from democracy towards markets, in privatization and liberalization. What, if anything, is the mediating third here? For a thought experiment I propose that it is authority, in two forms.

First, there is authority in the form of managerial discretion, in organizations public and private, such as firms. This has expanded its reach and power due increase of scale and concentration of firms (and governmental authorities), in waves of mergers and acquisitions. It is leading to organizations that are internally dysfunctional, in not fitting with present conditions of work, and dysfunctional in relations between firms. In globalization, it is leading to power play by multinationals imposing their will on national governments, under the threat to move their business elsewhere.

Second, there is a re-emergence of authoritarian politics, in countries such as China, Russia, Turkey, Malaysia, Hungary, Poland, pushing aside constitutional democracy, but often in combination with capitalist markets. Here the ideology is that of the will of the people, going back to Rousseau, under the wings of the populist leader who stands up to protect national culture, identity and prosperity. Here, as Žižek noted, a third element between the people and the leader is the scapegoat, that carries the blame as promises of the leader cannot be kept, such as the Jews under the Nazis, and now the refugees (or the lazy Greeks).

And now the question, discussed in preceding items in this blog, is: ‘what to do?’ As indicated there, I want to do away with neither democracy nor markets. But, to quote Žižek, the shift to markets is endangering the commons of various forms, the worst of which is increasing exclusion of unemployables, refugees, and the poor and suppressed. Would it help to have an alternative third element, replacing authority? Isn’t it especially authority that excludes?

The alternative, I venture, might be collaboration. The basic underlying idea is that technology and knowledge have become so far advanced, with rising complexity of processes of production, and social systems in general, that it has become an illusion to think that management or political leadership can supervise and direct labour or citizens. Authoritarianism is not only unjust, in creating exclusion, but now simply does not work anymore.   

There is a parallel here with the dialectic involved in the ‘Liberty, equality and brotherhood’ of the French revolution.[i] Liberty is associated with the market, equality with democracy, and brotherhood with collaboration, solidarity, balance of power and dependence.

Here also, collaboration applies on different levels. On the local level it entails more involvement of citizens in local commons, as argued in item 347 of this blog. Within organizations it entails a shift from authoritarian to inspirational and enabling leadership, and between organizations a shift from mergers and acquisitions to cooperation in alliances, as I have argued for a great part of my career. In outside relations with society it entails a shift from catering to the exclusive interests of shareholders to attention to the combined interests of shareholders and other stakeholders, such as employees, customers, suppliers and the environment. In public supervision of organizations (firms and public bodies) horizontal control is needed, to replace the traditional top-down control, as I argued in item 75. At the supranational level, collaboration between nations is needed to curtail excesses of globalized capitalism.

In all this, are the liberty of markets and the equality of democracy still there? Yes: next to collaboration there will remain competition and rivalry, and collective choices for collective resources, such as the commons of the environment, health care, security, justice, and information. Also, the striving for a balance of power, of mutual dependence, in relations of labour and ownership that are sufficiently durable to yield quality and justice, and sufficiently flexible to avoid stagnation. All this I have studied extensively, as discussed also in his blog.

All this requires the art of trust, not as ‘being nice’ to each other, but to extend the benefit of the doubt, to craft and manage the balances of power and dependence, with the art of empathy in the sense of understanding of how other people think and feel, and the contingencies they face, in Aristotelian phronesis, practical wisdom, with the exercise of the classical virtues of reason, courage, restraint and justice, as I have also extensively studied and discussed, also in this blog.  

Here, counter to the pristine model of libertarianism, markets are not simple, do not work everywhere and where they do work need more or less regulation, and require different forms and combinations of competition and collaboration, depending on the industry involved. I will elaborate on that in a future series of items on the economy and markets.
   


[i] As noted by Žižek, in one of his lectures, Rebecca Comay, in her book Mourning sickness; Hegel and the French revolution, 2011, and Lieven de Cauter, in his book Van de grote woorden en de kleine dingen, discussed in ‘De Wereld van Morgen’, 2 January 2018.

Saturday, December 30, 2017


348. Double negation of the market

In the preceding items of this blog I proposed that the market should not be abolished but reformed. That presupposes knowledge of what is good about it and what not, and how to separate the two. I discussed that more pragmatically in a book[i], but here I want to look at it more philosophically. For that, I employ the Hegelian notion of the ‘negation of a negation’.

In sum, what I want to say is this. The ideal of the market presented in traditional economics is that of ‘perfect competition’, and that is still the lore in economics, the pedestal of neo-liberal ideology. In Žižek/Lacan parlance, the ideal market is the master signifier that covers and hides the reality of markets. In fact, the actual working of markets is very different from the ideal, is in fact, in Hegelian parlance, its negation. The problem with the market is not that the idea is wrong but that it is never fully or even adequately realised.

So, here comes the negation of the negation: reject markets where they do not approach the ideal, try to reform them so that they do, and halt them when that cannot be done.

The irony of all this is another negation of a negation, as follows. The crux of markets is competition, as opposed to state planning, but in fact so-called competition takes the form of the avoidance of competition. There are many ways to do this, but here I do not have the space to elaborate. I will do that in future items in this blog. The upshot is that limits are needed to the market as it works in reality, to preserve competition, striving for markets as they should ideally work, in so far as possible, and this is the job of state competition authorities.

Now, the big twist that occurs in present capitalism is that states are sidetracked by multinationals threatening to move their business elsewhere, so that regulation is foiled and even reversed into favours for predation, as I indicated in preceding items in this blog.
But there is an even more fundamental problem of time. In the ideal, markets are driven by demand, by the needs of people. Supposedly, an assessment of future needs, such as preservation of nature, leads to present investment. In fact, consumers and shareholders give precedence to present consumption and wealth.

Consumers are not willing to pay extra for environmentally sound products and services, or to reduce their consumption. An increasing number of idealistic producers try to develop such products that can compete, but there are obstacles to this. Novelty at first is always expensive, due to imperfections that need time and application to iron out, and small scale due to lack of widespread use. And they run up against powerful established interests that protect themselves. That requires state intervention, which is politically not viable under neo-liberalism.

When firms invest for the future, that takes money away from present profit, which shareholders do not accept. Private equity firms, or ‘hedge funds’ incur loans to buy firms and then act as locusts, grazing them bare, financing the loan from reducing investments for the future, in research and development, increasing present profits by cutting labour costs, and then cash in on the resulting rise of share value. This is done for the sake of ‘efficiency’, which here means the grasping of opportunities for present profit to the detriment of the future. Again, states see themselves as unable to change the global financial markets involved and renounce themselves to this reality.      
The utilitarian ethic of liberalism was collectivist, aiming for the greatest good for the largest number of people. The pursuit of private interest is taken to promote public interest. Present reality is a travesty of that, with the richest 1 % in the US owning almost half (47%) of national income, and in Europe more than a third (37%). The utilitarian ethic has fallen into a hedonistic, individualistic ideology of instant gratification and wealth. Adam Smith, the godfather of market economics, said that ‘moral sentiments’ should correct private interests when they do not serve the public interest. But that has been ‘lost in translation’, the translation of market ideology.

So, what to do now? First of all, continue the unmasking of the master signifier: show how markets really work, how the ideal market is a fata morgana in he heat of the capitalist desert.
Next, it is up to philosophers rather than economists. The economy is too important to be left to economists. That is why I turned from economics to philosophy. The utilitarian ethic underlying economics and liberalism has to be reformed or, as I argued in my book on markets, and in preceding items in this blog, replaced by a virtue ethic. This may sound utopian or revolutionary, but to put it more modestly: I am merely trying to make good on Adam Smith’s promise of moral virtues in the economy.


[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


347. Žižek: Between capitalism and centralized bureaucracy

Is there a way out of the capitalist crisis discussed in the preceding item? Žižek says that he is a Marxist in his criticism of capitalism, but recognizes that communism as a centralized bureaucracy without private property and markets has irrevocably failed. Yet he called himself a communist, but when challenged on this explained that what he meant was that he was concerned about the loss of the global commons, of nature, culture, intellectual capital, and biogenetics, which capitalism causes and cannot cure. He thinks that social democracy has also failed, in bending to neoliberal capitalism, and he has himself difficulty in finding a solution between capitalism and communist centralized bureaucracy.

Žižek does not have any faith in some new, historically necessary utopia. He sees no universal, clear, all-encompassing alternative. He is wary of utopian designs, and more in favour, like Karl Popper, of what the latter called ‘piecemeal engineering’.[i]   

I agree that it is not easy to offer a grand design of how to proceed. The whole, coherent capitalist system of consumerism, advertising, profit making, competition, and financial markets, is difficult to change effectively in isolated bits by bits, and impossible to change in one coherent sweep.

I would not want to abolish markets. I still accept Hayek’s notion that the market is unparalleled in its use of local knowledge and room for initiative, which a central bureaucracy could never match. However, I disagree with Hayek that markets work well and need to be left alone. I wrote a book on this.[ii] In some areas markets should not be allowed, and where they are allowed they are often imperfect and need to be regulated. As Karl Polanyi said: markets need to be 'embedded' in society.       
One proposal has been that of local ‘commons’. There, choices concerning local facilities and services (schools, playgrounds, bridges, traffic, health care, parks, …) are no longer made on the basis of political parties, in representative democracy, but on the basis of ‘direct’ democracy with citizens councils to which willing citizens are elected or selected by lottery.

Žižek rejected such what he called ‘reversion to pre-modern times’. It is blinded, he claims, by some naïve faith in  unification of honest people in multicultural harmony. It would get mired down in endless and fruitless deliberation, erratic policies, and lack of reliability and continuity of services. It cannot solve problems of cultural mixing with immigrants. He would himself not like to take part in it, and prefers some impersonal, ‘alienating’ bureaucracy, to take care of things so he would not have to bothered with it. No doubt many other people would agree.

Žižek is half wrong and half right.

He is right that on many other issues, policy making is not to be decentralized to local communities, but, on the contrary, to be raised to a higher, supranational level. That is needed to block the perversities of power play and blackmail for advantages by multinational corporations. It is needed, in the EU, for effective military defence, foreign policy, the refugee crisis, and fighting terrorism. It is needed, in particular, for rescuing the environment, enforcing a long term perspective on investment and finance, a circular economy and abolition of pollution.

Alas: Re-emerging nationalism is blocking expansion of the EU.

My main point here is that Žižek is wrong concerning the local commons. Rousseau already recognized the problems of central government at a distance from communities: then one cannot meet the requirements of diversity in local conditions and customs, the contact between those who govern and those who are governed is impersonal, and the citizens involved are strangers to each other.[iii] The law is still a matter of the state, and can be since it is impersonal and applies equally to all everywhere, but government should be proximate to the people.

Žižek himself says that culture is needed to structure daily life, and that in finding ways to deal with problems of immigration we should involve the immigrants. That is precisely what would happen in local commons: dialogue concerning how to approach daily matters. The best path for integration of migrants is for them to do things together with locals, in shared projects. I will elaborate on that in a future item in this blog.

If you say no to this, what is your answer to the legitimate grievance of populists that government has alienated itself too much from citizens?   

The downside that Žižek notes is valid, but it can be resolved. Of course on the local level one would still need a professional, bureaucratic organization to provide the requisite expertise, continuity and reliability for the provision of public services. But what is the essential difference, in that respect, between a council with members from elected political parties and a council with directly elected or randomly selected willing citizens? One would still need an (elected) mayor and aldermen, elected by the council, to direct the running of the system.

There would remain issues that go beyond local communities, such as inter-local transport, a legal system, crime fighting, environmental issues that go beyond locality, and so on.

Also, I am under no illusion that on the local level there will not be minorities left out. Elimination of exclusion is not that simple. There will remain a predominance of influence, in city councils, of the higher educated and socially skilled. However, the local issues at play are concrete, not abstract, and easy to grasp and handle for many. Political ability and skill is not primarily a matter of education. Some possibility of appeal would still need to be available for those who remain excluded.

A further issue is this. Room for locally embedded choices inevitably yields differences between localities in the amount, kind and quality of public services. That may threaten old ideals of equality. An answer perhaps is the following. There may be equality of process that yields differences in outcome, depending on local conditions. Perhaps there still is a task on the national level to guarantee equality of conditions and process.

In sum, the national level would shrink, surrendering some authority to the supranational level, and some to the local level, but in sleeker form it would still remain.

Would all this qualify as Popperian ‘piecemeal engineering’?   


[i] I love to imagine how Žižek would hate it to be included in the same category as Popper.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.
[iii] On the social contract, Chapter 9, book 2.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

346. Žižek: The crisis of capitalism

Žižek tells us that he appreciates capitalism, as even Marx and Stalin did, as ‘the most productive, welfare producing, dynamic force in human history’. However, as Marx did in his way, and many others do now, Žižek sees a looming crisis of capitalism.

Some people see light at the end of the tunnel, in some correction on capitalism, but Žižek joked that this light may be an oncoming train.  

Multinational corporations pressure governments to provide tax breaks, allow for deteriorating conditions of labour, and give subsidies for settling in a country and for cheap energy. This is yielding a ‘race to the bottom’, with governments competing among each other to attract or keep multinationals.

Banks were bailed out after incurring excessive risks, hiving the losses off onto the public, leading to the 2008 crisis. Measures were taken to re-regulate banking to prevent such crises from occurring again, but in the US those are being abolished again by president Trump, and the next crisis is brewing.

These developments have been accompanied by the emergence of what is called a ‘precariat’ (a contraction of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’). There, workers have no lasting jobs, hop from one project or temporary employment to another, often with bad labour conditions, poor perspectives for housing, proper health care and pension. This is not only undermining their economic position, but is eating away their self-respect and hope.

Extremes occur, for example, in mines in Congo, factories in Bangladesh, services in India, and building projects in Arab gulf states, just to name a few. In China, many millions have been uprooted from their rural communities, to migrate to factories in the large cities, dumped in poor and filthy housing, meeting discrimination from the settled middle class that enjoys rising prosperity and cultural facilities.

In Western countries conditions are less dire, but serious enough to breed discontent and resentment, yielding political upheaval in populist movements in the US and Europe.

Žižek said, in one of those one-liners he throws out, that he supported Trump. When challenged on this, he said that what he ‘really meant’ was that Trump helps to carry the system to a crisis, unearthing the ugly truths of neoconservatism.

What will the precariat do when they find out that the populists also have no adequate answer, giving promises they cannot keep?

Marx predicted that the proletariat would form a class and would grab political power in a revolutionary overthrow, which they did. What will the present precariat do? An obstacle here is that the workers compete with each other in getting work, and do not have a shared workplace as a platform for banding together. Or will the new media offer the means to do so?

In one of his lectures, Žižek recalled how communism and Nazism also had guilty dreams of the submission of labour to higher purposes. In late capitalism that higher purpose lies in the supremacy of markets. An end of human submission in labour may lie in the emergence of androids, robots, who will not clamour for food, freedom or happiness.


Karl Polanyi, in his Great transformation (1944) proposed that unchecked markets lead to fascism. That happened in the rise of Hitler and is happening now.


Žižek offers the Hegelian thought that every system contains its contradictions and anomalies. Capitalism inevitably entails unemployment, exclusion. Poverty of the drop-outs is the price to be paid for prosperity. Means to a declared aim become aims for themselves. In capitalism markets and production systems were aims for prosperity, but now they have become aims in themselves.

A case in point is Chili, which under Pinochet was the pioneer of extreme neoliberalism. It wins in both the best and the worst. After some years it had the highest rate of investment, economic growth and per capita income in Latin America, and the lowest murder rate. The inequality of capital ownership is among the highest in the world: the top 1% owns 1/3. Among the rest of the population 3/4 has debts, one third of which is behind in payment. The depression rate is the highest in the world, suicide rates are among the highest in the world, and next to North Korea it is the only country with rising suicide among minors. Only the rich can afford good health care and education.[i]  

Then, for another dimension, Žižek also notes, like many others, that the emerging ‘platforms’ such as those of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Uber, with their use of algorithms that employ ‘big data’ on choices of consumers and voters are now getting to know them ‘better than they know themselves’, manipulate their subconscious choices and thereby dehumanize them.

As Žižek says, this is privatization and monopolization of intellectual capital, yielding rent, not profit as a margin on costs, but as unrelated to costs, thus going against the main argument of market efficiency and liberty that capitalism proclaims.

This is one of the cases of ideology that Žižek loves to expose, where dark reality is hidden behind the shining official lore.  

Capitalism still legitimizes itself as being based on liberal democracy, but it is presently in important ways becoming similar to the authoritarianism that it condemns. How different will authoritarian capitalism of present China, Russia, Malaysia, etc. be from the new-capitalist monopolies and manipulations of economic, social, intellectual and symbolic capital?          

Žižek claims that, even more deeply dark, capitalist competition is not only joy in winning but also, but hidden, joy at others losing, which is now increasingly becoming manifest in indifference to the increasing exclusion of the losers from employment. I am not yet sure what to think of this.   

This is one of the cases Žižek exposes of excess enjoyment, or ‘jouissance’, in transgression of morals. Also, feelings of guilt about consumerism, global injustice and ruin of nature, are assuaged, paid off, by firms (Žižek gives Starbucks as an example) that include in the high price of a product percentages they transfer for protection of the destitute, the suppressed, and nature. One can also think of airlines giving the opportunity to plant trees to fight pollution. Commodification of conscience.    


[i] Source: Volkskrant, 16-17 december 2017.