30 November 2009

Is Capitalism an Ideology?

Slavoj Zizek's newest book is First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. The title refers to recent history repeating itself, the tragedy being the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the farce being the 2008 economic crisis. Together, Zizek claims, the two events undermined the post-Communist "end of history" consensus and threw the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism into doubt. He warns readers against capitalist attempts to impose a narrative on the past decade that shifts the blame from capitalism itself to other malign forces. In the course of this he attempts an expose of capitalist ideology in order to refute claims made by capitalist apologists that their preferred economic system is not an ideology but simply a practical system proven to work. He quotes one such apologist, the economist Guy Sorman, who laments the fact that capitalism never seems to arouse the same passions that ideologies do:

From the intellectual and political standpoint, the great difficulty in administering a capitalist system is that it does not give rise to dreams; no one descends to the street to manifest in its favor. It is an economy which changed completely the human condition, which has saved humanity from misery, but no one is ready to convert himself into a martyr of this system. We should learn to deal of this paradox of a system which nobody wants, and which nobody wants because it doesn't give rise to love, which is not enchanting, not a seducer.

Zizek doesn't buy this:

This description is...patently untrue: if there was ever a system which enchanted its subjects with dreams (of freedom, of how your success depends on yourself, of the run of luck which is just around the corner, of unconstrained pleasures...), then it is capitalism. The true problem lies elsewhere: namely; how to keep people's faith in capitalism alive when the inexorable reality of a crisis has brutally crushed such dreams? Here enters the need for a 'mature' realistic pragmatism: one should heroically resist dreams of perfection and happiness and accept bitter capitalist reality as the best (or the least bad) of all possible worlds.

It looks to me that Zizek is trying to fit under the "capitalism" label a lot of attitudes and "dreams" that pre-exist that particular economic construct. There are other cultural influences that make people resist dreams of perfection, particularly the Christian belief of inherent imperfectibility based on original sin but also an irreligious skepticism grounded in cynical misanthropy. But capitalism, of all systems, should be capable of pitching itself differently to different audiences. It can offer the sort of dreams Zizek describes to plain materialists (though not the martyrdom-inspiring dreams Sorman seems to envy) while offering the more intellectual likes of Sorman the consolation of believing that they are undeceived by those other dreams. It can also co-opt more hot-blooded dreams, love of country especially, to keep people motivated to defend capitalism against "alien" influences. It's still worth asking whether we're still describing capitalism at this point or some other cultural construct or ideology that finds capitalism its ideal organizing instrument. I've still got plenty of this current Zizek to read, and I'm waiting to see if he gets this all sorted out.

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