A permanent state of emergency

By Thursday 25 November 2010 No Comments

The explosion of anger seen on the streets of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Bucharest is a sign of people’s exasperation and desire for change, with the hope that would bring. But we are in new economic territory: we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now

During this year’s protests against the Eurozone’s austerity measures – in Greece and, on a smaller scale, Ireland, Italy and Spain – two stories have imposed themselves. The establishment story proposes a de-politicised naturalisation of the crisis: the regulatory measures are presented not as decisions grounded in political choices, but as the imperatives of a neutral financial logic – if we want our economies to stabilise, we have to swallow the bitter pill. The other story, of the protesting workers, students and pensioners, presents the austerity measures as yet another attempt by international financial capital to dismantle the last remainders of the welfare state. The International Monetary Fund appears from one perspective as a neutral agent of discipline and order: from the other, the oppressive agent of global capital.

While each story contains a grain of truth, both are fundamentally false. The European establishment’s story obfuscates the fact that the huge deficits have been run up as a result of massive financial sector bail-outs, as well as by falling government revenues during the recession: the big loan to Athens will be used to repay Greek debt to the great French and German banks. The true aim of the EU guarantees is to help private banks.

The protesters’ story bears witness yet again to the misery of today’s left: there is no positive programmatic content to its demands, just a generalised refusal to compromise the existing welfare state. The utopia here is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system. But one should not miss the grain of truth in the countervailing argument: if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then measures to wring further sums from workers, students and pensioners are necessary.

One thing is clear: after decades of the welfare state, when cutbacks were relatively limited and came with the promise that things would soon return to normal, we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent, turning into a constant, a way of life. It brings with it the threat of far more savage austerity measures, cuts in benefits, diminishing health and education services and more precarious employment. The left faces the difficult task of emphasising that we are dealing with political economy – that there is nothing “natural” in such a crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions. Simultaneously it is fully aware that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, the violation of its rules effectively causes economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own.

It would be futile merely to hope that the ongoing crisis will be limited and that European capitalism will continue to guarantee a relatively high standard of living for a growing number of people. It would indeed be a strange radical politics, whose main hope is that circumstances will continue to render it inoperative and marginal. There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, TV reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime.

There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism – through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations – but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law.

The question of freedom

It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country. Does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker-management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by “extending” democracy into this sphere, say, by organising “democratic” banks under the people’s control.

The ABC of Marxist notions of class struggle is the thesis that “peaceful” social life is itself an expression of the (temporary) victory of one class – the ruling one. From the standpoint of the subordinated and oppressed, the very existence of the state, as an apparatus of class domination, is a fact of violence. The standard liberal motto – that it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence, but it is never legitimate – is not sufficient. From the radical-emancipatory perspective, one should turn it around: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate – since their very status is the result of violence – but never necessary: it is always a matter of strategic consideration whether to use force against the enemy or not.

In the current economic emergency, too, we are clearly not dealing with blind market processes but with highly organised, strategic interventions by states and financial institutions, intent on resolving the crisis on their own terms – and in such conditions, are not defensive counter-measures in order?

These considerations cannot but shatter the comfortable subjective position of radical intellectuals. What if intellectuals lead basically safe and comfortable lives and, in order to justify their livelihoods, construct scenarios of radical catastrophe? For many, no doubt, if -a revolution is taking place, it should occur at a safe distance – Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela – so that, while their hearts are warmed by thinking about faraway events, they can go on promoting their careers. But with the current collapse of properly functioning welfare states in the advanced industrial economies, radical intellectuals may be now approaching a moment of truth when they must make such clarifications: they wanted real change – now they can have it.

What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself – the logic of market and competition – has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology. In education, the school system is less and less the compulsory network, elevated above the market and organised directly by the state, bearer of enlightened values – liberty, equality, fraternity. On behalf of the sacred formula of “lower costs, higher
efficiency”, it is progressively penetrated by different forms of public-private partnership (PPP). In the organisation and legitimisation of power, too, the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange where voters “buy” the option that offers to do the job of maintaining social order, prosecuting crime, and so on, most efficiently.

On behalf of the same formula of “lower costs, higher efficiency”, functions once exclusive to the domain of state power, like running prisons, can be privatised; the military is no longer based on universal conscription, but composed of hired mercenaries. Even the state bureaucracy is no longer perceived as the Hegelian universal class, as is becoming evident in the case of Berlusconi. In today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits it as a means to protect his personal interests. Even the process of engaging in emotional relations is increasingly organised along the lines of a market relationship. Such a procedure relies on self-commodification: for internet dating or marriage agencies, prospective partners present themselves as commodities, listing their qualities and posting their photos.

Can the impossible happen?

In such a constellation, the very idea of a radical social transformation may appear as an impossible dream – yet the term “impossible” should make us stop and think. Today, possible and impossible are distributed in a strange way, both simultaneously exploding into excess. In the domains of personal freedom and scientific technology, we are told that “nothing is impossible”: we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions, entire archives of music, films and TV series are available to download, space travel is available to everyone (at a price). There is the prospect of enhancing our physical and psychic abilities, of manipulating our basic properties through interventions into the genome; even the tech-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into software that can be downloaded into one or another set of hardware.

On the other hand, in the domain of socio-economic relations, our era perceives itself as the age of maturity in which humanity has abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality – read: capitalist socio-economic reality – with all its impossibilities. The commandment “you cannot” is its mot d’ordre: you cannot engage in large collective acts, which necessarily end in totalitarian terror; you cannot cling to the old welfare state, it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis; you cannot isolate yourself from the global market, without falling prey to the spectre of North Korean juche ideology. In its ideological version, ecology also adds its own list of impossibilities, so-called threshold values – no more than two degrees of global warming – based on “expert opinions”.

Today, the ruling ideology endeavours to make us accept the “impossibility” of radical change, of abolishing capitalism, of a democracy not reduced to a corrupt parliamentary game, in order to render invisible the antagonism that cuts across capitalist societies. This is why Lacan’s formula for overcoming an ideological impossibility is not “everything is possible”, but “the impossible happens”.

The Morales government in Bolivia, the Chavez government in Venezuela and the Maoist government in Nepal came to power through “fair” democratic elections, not through insurrection. Their situation is “objectively” hopeless: the whole drift of history is basically against them, they cannot rely on any “objective tendencies” pushing in their way, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. But does this not give them a unique freedom? And are we – today’s left – not all in exactly the same situation?

Ours is thus the very opposite of the classical early 20th-century situation, in which the left knew what had to be done but had to wait patiently for the proper moment of execution. Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous. We will be forced to live “as if we were free”.

Slavoj Zizek is a philosopher and author of Living in the End Times, Verso, London,
2010. This article was published in the New Left Review, July/August 2010
Eutopia© Le Monde diplomatique

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