January 31, 2004

More on Paleo-Marxism

Posted by shonk at 11:37 PM in Geek Talk, Politics | TrackBack

I think Curt’s analysis of Slavoj Žižek’s “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” is spectacularly dead-on. This, to me, is especially prescient:

While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion.

As I see it, the “parablist’s psychology” of the piece stems from the fact that Žižek’s (and Lenin’s) distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedoms has a lot to do with their frustration that people simply cannot choose the impossible. For example:

Can you no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or “second modernity” ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of indulging in the “escape from freedom,” of the immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this situation is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, one automatically interprets all these changes as the results of their personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.

When Žižek says this, he clearly thinks that there is some third alternative other than “better life now or long-term security”. However, the reality is that no system can give people long-term security without degrading their present condition to some extent. This is no less true under socialism, though the fact that the citizenry is given no choice but to forego present wealth for future “security” makes it seem otherwise.

On a somewhat related note, when he discusses the death (if only) of State Socialism and Western Social Democracy, Žižek has this to say:

What these two defeated ideologies shared is the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development, to steer it in a desired direction.

It is in this context, I think, that it is more appropriate to ask Lenin’s fabled question: “yes, but for whom? To do _what_?” Because it is not just these two ideologies which share “the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development”; this is simply fact. For those that disagree, consider the social norms that prevent you from detailing to their face the character flaws of each person that annoys you, or the aggregate of human actions which makes the suburbs an attractive place to live. No, what distinguishes these two ideologies are two premises that underlie the final clause, “to steer it in a desired direction”.

To even talk about a “desired direction” is to imply that collective desires exist, that there is some collective consciousness existing semi-independently from individual consciousness which has its own desires, perhaps antithetical to the individual desires of its components. When I say a “collective consciousness”, I mean this in a very real sense, as something more than a mere statistical aggregate of individuals. A cynical observer (such as myself) might find a bit of irony in this mystical belief on the part of confirmed materialists, but the presence of the belief is quite real, most prosaically evident in the virtually uniform appellation of a definite article when ideologues of this stripe talk about “the people”.

The second implication underlying this notion of steering “in a desired direction” that distinguishes the ideologies of state socialism and social democracy is that the state reflects the desires of humanity, of the collective consciousness. Note that the emphasis of the above-quoted sentence undergoes a subtle shift: starting with “humanity as a collective subject”, it ends with a call to state action. One would think that a person like Žižek, so critical of current states acting against the needs and desires of people, would recognize that any state is necessarily exclusive and, as such, cannot capture the totality of human desire, that any “desired direction” embraced by a state can, at best, be a poor approximation of what “the people” (to use the usual nomenclature) really want. And that, even were this not the case, the only distinction, fundamentally, between state action and any other action lies in the legal use of force, which means that even if “the people” really do desire what the state supposes they do, they may very well not value that desire above the effects of the application of force necessary to achieve it.

Which brings us back to where we started: one cannot do what is impossible. Much as I am sure we all desire it, there is never a choice that does not have its associated costs, no matter how much thinkers like Žižek talk about undermining “the coordinates of the existing power relations”. That is not to say that many of these “coordinates” should not be undermined, but rather that altering the existing power structure will not make the impossible suddenly possible.


However, there is also no denying the power of denial. The back-benchers of Parliament are probably going to shut down the British government in the coming months over the travesty, the sheer bloody travesty, of making students shoulder some of the costs of their education. Apparently spiritual bankruptcy often occurs in advance of actual, financial bankruptcy.

Posted by: Curt at February 1, 2004 03:29 AM

Apparently spiritual bankruptcy often occurs in advance of actual, financial bankruptcy.

Which might lead one to wonder whether there's some causality involved.

Posted by: shonk at February 1, 2004 03:54 AM

I keep telling people -- and they keep thinking that I'm nuts when I do -- that the Cold War is not "over".

Anyone who thinks it was about ICMB's and submarines is deluded. It is (still) and always was about ideas. Specifically: it's about the unbreachable gulf between individualism and collectivism. And the collectivsts have not given up simply because the USSR fell over like a dead drunk.

Posted by: Billy Beck at February 4, 2004 01:13 AM