Quotes like this one from the Economist are tiresome:
It is true that the forces of global capitalism are not always benign, but nobody has yet found a better way of creating and spreading prosperity.
I’m somewhat more sympathetic to quotes like this one from a recent interview with David Harvey:
Capitalism is very much about taking away the rights people have over their natural resources. But it is not only natural resources when we are talking about dispossession. If you look at what is happening to people’s pension funds, it is the taking away of rights. And you take a look at the world andsome people are getting extremely rich right now. How are they getting rich? Are they getting rich because they are contributing to a global economy in productive ways or are they getting rich because they are taking away other people’s rights?
The problem, I believe, is the assumption (on both the Left and the Right) that there is a single entity which can be called “capitalism.” I would agree that there are certain features of nearly all modern economies which are substantively different from, say, feudalism, or slave-holding economies. In this sense it might make sense to talk about “capitalism” in the abstract. To do so, however, is to imply that capitalism is homogeneous and unchanging, neither of which are true.
To start we might look at the supposed opposite of capitalism: communism. Here people seem to get confused between the ideals of communism and its actual practice. The communist governments of the Soviet Union and China never claimed to have created a communist economy. In fact, both pursued a policy of what might best be called “state capitalism” which they believed to be a necessary first stage on the road to communism. Now, such beliefs were probably delusional, but that shouldn’t distract us from the equally delusional nature of the myth put forward by the folks at the Economist: namely, that there is only one capitalism and we must all succumb to its inevitable motor of progress.
What the Economist is advocating is not “capitalism” but a specific set of neoliberal policies for how capitalism should best be advanced. The Economists position implies that the students protesting in Paris are too stupid and naive to understand how they are hurting the forward march of progress. While some students may indeed be demanding the end of capitalism, the vast majority are simply trying to halt the neoliberal vision of capitalism we are all now told is so inevitable. They want the power to choose what kind of capitalism they will have to live with.
In a recent issue of The Nation a number of scholars put forth a call for a “progressive response to globalization.” Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz had this to say:
Yet Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have shown that there is an alternative way to cope with globalization. These countries are highly integrated into the global economy; but they are highly successful economies that still provide strong social protections and make high levels of investments in people. They have been successful in part because of these policies, not in spite of them. Full employment and strong safety nets enable individuals to undertake more risk (with the commensurate high rewards) without unduly worrying about the downside of failure. These countries have not abandoned the welfare state but have fine-tuned it to meet globalization’s new demands. We should do the same.
Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralised state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way.
I’m not sure if Zizek would consider Stiglitz a “liberal communist”; but it is easy to make fun of the idealism which leads people like Bill Gates and Thomas Friedman to believe that the harshest aspects of Capitalism can be so easily tamed by nerds armed with computers. I’m not so sure that we want to cast these people as the enemy. More naive than the students marching in the streets of Paris, yes, but not the enemy. Even David Harvey moves from such a broad theoretical condemnation of capitalism to (eloquently) recommending a reformist agenda, such as “living wage” campaigns. Lets look again at what David Harvey has to say:
Well you have to start somewhere. One of my favorite passages from Marx is “The realm of freedom begins where the realm of necessity is left behind,” and he gives this rather long rhetoric about freedom. Then at the end of it he says, “Therefore, limiting the length of the working day, is a crucial demand.” So you go from a kind of revolutionary rhetoric to an almost reformist, kind of practical demand right now. And I think the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary is not necessarily that you do radical things all the time, but it is that at a given moment, you may all do the same thing, i.e. demand living wage, but you do it with a different objective, and that is as a long-term transition. A transformation, which is what you may have in mind, and I think that Marx was very well aware that if people are working 18-20 hours a day, 7 days a week, they are not going to be very revolutionary in their consciousness. They are going to be so damn tired, that they are not going to have time for anything, and therefore, creating spaces and possibilities for people to think of other possibilities is a precursor to a more general transformation. That is one of things that I certainly found out in the living wage campaign in Baltimore. People working two jobs, working 80 hours a week, and they do not have time to organize, they hardly have time to have a life, let alone be active in community organizations, and active as political organizers. It is very difficult to do that when you are in that situation.
And so while Bono may be an easy target for the radical left, I think there is a lot to be said for pursuing a realistic reformist agenda while remaining wide-eyed about the limits of capitalist reform. As k-punk asks:
Fair enough — but does Zizek want centralised bureaucracy, central authority, industrial production and fixed hierarchy? Surely not, but what is his positive political economic model?
Zizek makes fun of the liberal communists’ nostalgia for France in ’68. And yet he seems locked into very much the same spirit of ’68 which so limited the student movement of that time. The fact is that France’s socialist system has created a space in which it might actually be possible to be more radical than the students of ’68:
What is positive about the France unrest is its coalescence of a proletariat that encompasses both students and the young of the banlieus. In this respect, Paris 06 is an advance on Paris 68, when any alliance between workers and Sorbonne students who looked forward to life-long, well-paid professional careers once they dropped back in, was bound to be short-lived. Now both the students and the banlieu youth are in a very similar objective predicament.
It seems to me that scholars like Zizek are very good at maintaining the moral high ground while offering us little less choice than the folks at the Economist offer up. He would do well to read some Gramsci whose analysis of the different forms of capitalism existing in American and Europe led him to espouse the American “Fordism” (i.e. Taylorism) as a means for objectively improving the living and working conditions of Italian labor, and advocating a slower, more reformist policy in Italy than the revolutionary model of the recently formed Soviet Union. Or even Marx’s own advocacy of the campaign for the 8-hour working day mentioned above.
Could ’06 prove to be more revolutionary than ’68? Or is it just a bunch of students defending their perks at the expense of recent immigrants? I don’t honestly know, but I do think that French capitalism will never look quite the same as that in England or America, or China for that matter. At least the French students are reminding us that we have a choice!