Disavowed Foundations

Discussions around the political implications of psychoanalysis by Chris McMillan, a doctoral student at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I've Moved!

My blog is now hosted by wordpress and can be found at chrismcmillan.org


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chapter One Outline: The Negativity of the Left

Despite the increasingly apparent contradictions of global capitalism – most notably in the current financial crisis and the interactions between ecological degradation, scarcity of resources and the continued expansion of life threatening poverty – the political Left appears to have no response. If ‘What is to be done?’ was the proto-typical Leftist question, at least for those able to bear the presence of Lenin, today those who cannot have been reduced to asking, ‘How can we help?’

The Left appears to have no response to the contradictions of capitalist political economy primarily because it has lost sight of either political economy or the economy in general. The Left has been split, in terms of academia, politics and ideology, between either an apolitical economy in which the reform of administrative devices are assumed to be neutral, or a withdrawal into (postmodern) politics or cultural studies without economy. It is as if neither politics or economy can be held together at the same time; an impossible element – class struggle – prevents their fusion. In essence, capitalism and class struggle has ceased to exist for both the Left and the Right, a circumstance with which the latter appears quite content. For Radical Leftist politics to regain its strength and begin to engage with the economy, capitalism must again return to the forefront of analysis.

Against the current splitting of the Left, in this thesis I shall argue that Slavoj Zizek operates at a particular symptomatic point within Leftist discourse. Zizek embodies the impossibilities of Leftist politics because, whilst he work grapples with the same difficulties of representation that have brought the downfall of traditional Leftist essentialist (read Marxist) politics, he maintains that the Left must not abandon the political terrain either through a tragic resignation to the dilemmas of representation or by losing sight of the politics of economy, which he labels class struggle. Indeed, Zizek has come to embody the very point of class struggle, insisting on the instantiation of the impossibility of political economy.

Yet, Zizek appears both unable and unwilling to posit an alternative imaginary. Instead he argues that the status of capitalism is such that any alternative or radical action has already been accounted for by the system; in these times it is neither possible to produce revolutionary activity, nor conceive of alternative imaginaries. Because of this interpretation of capital – along with the constitutive inability of psychoanalytic theory to produce a discourse of the good – Zizek’s work has become the point of much academic and political frustration. As he himself would argue, as a symptom, the signifier ‘Zizek’ has become a point of enjoyment. Yet, it is the wager of this thesis that despite the apparent impossibilities of Lacanian politics and Zizek’s interpretation of capitalism, it is Zizek’s work that provides the most hope for the hungry.

We must ask, therefore, If Zizek ‘s work embodies a singular point of radicality against global capital, what kind of political practices stem from his work? Moreover, first we must consider the kind of theory which has led to Zizek holding this position.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On Jameson , utopia and the practice of concrete universality

Always Historcize!

So starts one of Jameson’s most influential texts, The Political Unconscious (1981), which, like much of Jameson’s work, is highly influenced by Adorno, along with Althusser and Freud. For Jameson there is nothing which is not historical, even if Marxism is the one discourse which unities them. Jameson definition of history, however, is vitally different from that generally posited (Homer, 2006: 56). Instead, for Jameson History can be correlated with the Real, an idea predominately developed in The Political Unconscious.

This text holds to two propositions that are highly influential for our consideration of utopianism. Firstly, the political is unconscious; the activity of everyday language and politics is determined by the absent presence of an unconscious subtext that Jameson labels History. Secondly, that the unconscious itself is political. Opposed to Freud’s individualistic reading of the unconscious, like Lacan Jameson reads the unconscious as the fundamental domain of intersubjectivity. The unconscious is social not in terms of the Jungian collective unconscious, but rather what Walter Benjamin deemed the ‘nightmare of history’ (Homer, 2006:48). Not only is the unconscious structured like a language (in terms of its grammatical logic) but also structured by language and the flows of History (Clark, 1984: 67). Thus history is not so much the context for the performance of the political, but rather a subtext; each text is a re-writing of the contradictions of history itself. The text brings into being the subtext to which it has itself been a reaction (Jameson, 1977:82).

Jameson considers History to be the highest level of abstraction in his meta-commentary of interpretation. History, for Jameson, can be considered analogous to the Real (Jameson, 1977). History is that which resists symbolisation absolutely, providing a limit to the symbolic, a limit which can only be felt in its affect upon the symbolic itself. Jameson’s conflation of the Real with his notion of History is the over-riding difference between himself and Zizek in regards to their respective understanding of utopia.

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson considers an Althusserian reading of the Real, and by association, History. Here the Real appears only as an absent cause, felt in its affects rather than positive presence. Moreover, Jameson goes on to contend that the Real is the absent cause of History, thus associating both History and the Real with the unconscious, or repression. As I shall develop further latter in this chapter, this reading of the Real and the unconscious has major implications for the difference between Jameson and Zizek’s reading of utopianism and the political practice of utopia.

The other two levels in his consideration of interpretation are the political and the social. The political, instantiated in the individual text, or the practice of language itself, is the level of the ‘imaginary resolution of a real contradiction’ (Jameson, 1977: 77). Between the contradictions of History and the imaginary resolution inherent in the political text is the social, which for Jameson situates the narrative of the socially symbolic act in terms of class discourse. For Jameson class is considered a purely relational concept, the second of three levels of abstraction in analysis. Jameson considers class – in line with his designation of the social as the realm of class discourse – as a relational concept, not a category but rather a historical experience of consciousness. Nonetheless, Jameson certainly does not reject the logic Zizek presents in the operation of class struggle. Instead, Jameson postulates that a remarkably similar operation occurs in the dialectic of history. Jameson (1977:102) states;

“History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis...But this history can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them”

Similarly, in regards to class, Zizek argues;

“...class struggle as antagonism is, as it were, its own obstacle, that which forever prevents its own direct expression, its translation into clear symbolic or positive terms...the wager of Marxism is that there is one antagonism (‘class struggle’) which overdetermines all the others and which is, as such, the concrete universal of the entire field” (Zizek, 2004b: 100-101).

The structural role of History, for Jameson is the same as Class struggle for Zizek. Both set a limit to signification, a limit which is only presented by the experience of its absence. Class struggle and History are the negative limit of all discourse and as such cannot be the subject of investigation themselves. Nor, however, are they strictly determinate in a mode similar to the Marxist base/superstructure model. Both Jameson and Zizek would argue that such a model is impossible – there is no deterministic base which acts as a positive guarantee for political life. Neither does Althusser’s notion of (economic) determination in the last instance apply, although the dialectics are similar. Instead, for both Jameson and Zizek determination by the presence of absence allows a complex dialectical interaction between what might be deemed the ‘base’ (absence) and reactions to that base. These reactions are relatively autonomous, but are nonetheless reactions to the impossibility posed by History or Class struggle. Notably, both Zizek (in Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, Please! (2000a)) and Jameson (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) (1991)) have argued that postmodernism is not a positive discourse in itself (if a postmodern discourse can be regarded as positive) but rather the latest discursive response to the impossibility inherent in capitalism.

In this way, Jameson extends the use of Lacanian psychoanalysis as a sociological project. By considering the operation of history as a form of political unconscious, Jameson is able to consider the formation of desire and contradiction as specifically Marxist formations. For Jameson, contradictions operates in the same manner is desire in Lacan’s work, a designation which allows Jameson to bisect the traditional difficulty within Marxism of mediating between the social and the personal. Desire, as defined by history is immediately both personal and socially defined (Clark, 1984:68). Moreover, desire can be considered as contradiction and as a corollary, just as the Real is what resists, yet constitutes, desire, so does History.

History is conceived as a mode of production, but not in a strictly economic sense. Similar to class, Jameson considers the mode of production to be a differential concept; any given mode of production must relate to both previous modes of production, which may still have a presence, and anticipate future modes of production, specifically the collective dialectic of socialism. Following Raymond Williams, Jameson considers capitalism to be the dominant mode of production, but residual forms of production still exist, along with evidence of future modes (Homer, 2006:42).

Today, the dialectic of history has largely stalled around the capitalist mode of production, subsuming residual modes of production and limiting the possibilities for the emergence of future modes, or at least warping and displacing the utopian demand that drives the development of alternative modes. Here form becomes content as the processes inherent in the capitalist mode of production become sedimented in their own right (Homer, 2006:47). Much of the politics of Jameson’s work centres around the openly of the dialectic of the history to future (socialist) possibilities. The process of opening up the dialectic, when antagonistic forces previously held back by imaginary resolutions become openly contradictory, is known as cultural revolution.

Thus, not only is the unconscious structured like a language, but for Jameson the political unconscious is structured like the historic mode of production. In this way, not only ideology but individual desire is structured by the mode of production. Under global capitalism, Jameson argues that desire and subjectivity have become overtly reified, resulting in a commodity fetishism that has stalled the advancement of the collective dialectic of history.

Nonetheless, within this dialectic, the collective urge continues and is expressed not only in utopianism, but in ideology. For Jameson, therefore a utopian demand is always present within even the most reactionary forms of ideology. We can read this demand as jouissance. Although ideology works to prevent the impact of historical contradictions upon the subject, ideology is not primarily a mode of repression. Rather the subject is compensated for their passivity in the face of apparent contradiction. This compensatory gratification can be read as the element of utopia or jouissance inherent in every ideological formation. Here the utopian demand is ultimately for the fullness of society, that, contra Laclau, society does exist.
Consequently, for Jameson, all forms of class consciousness have a utopian demand in the attempt at an imaginary resolution of real contradiction, even if this imaginary resolution comes through the exclusion of other forms of class consciousness (Jameson, 1981: 289-291). The utopian dimension comes in the form the coherence and unity of a discourse of collectivity. Even today, the neo-liberal practice of class consciousness can be considered to feature a degree of utopianism simply through the presumption of a classless society which expresses collective solidarity.
Utopianism, therefore, has no relation to any specific content; one cannot designate the identity of utopia, nor construct a society that would fulfil any requirements that have been construction. Rather, utopianism is a practice, a method or a movement in which the desire for being itself is instantiated. As Jameson states; ‘Utopia would seem to offer the spectacle of one of those rare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable from its reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation’. (2004:35). As Buchanan (2007:19) notes, our understanding of utopia can only be tautological; any answer to the question ‘What is utopia?’ is necessarily erroneous unless the answer is utopia itself. It is this indescribable mysteriousness of utopia which leads to science fiction and the literary genre as a whole to be the primary mode of utopian expression. Here our inability to imagine the future organises utopian images around an impossible vanishing point (Jameson, 1998: 74)

The question of utopia, therefore, is not what it is but rather how it works. Utopianism then can only be designated as a transcendental absence, the affect of which we can fits under the signifier utopia. In this sense utopianism, or at least the form of utopianism which Jameson advocates, bears an overwhelming resemblance to Lacan’s understanding of drive. As Jameson states;“... in which the structure of Utopian wish-fulfilment itself slowly swung about into its object, form therefore becoming content and transforming the Utopian wish into a wish to which in the first place” (2005:213)

Moreover, Utopianism cannot come from ‘nowhere’ but instead from the ideological positions and class consciousness available within the contemporary conditions of possibility. Jameson’s sense of utopia includes this positioned impulse or urge for being, but also the impossibility of such a position. In this sense utopianism keeps alive the possibility of a different world, but takes the form of a ‘stubborn negation of all that is’ (Jameson, 1971: 111)

The impossibility of utopia does not relate to the practical impossibilities of political life, but rather the limitations of our imaginations. Imagination, of course, is not limited to the fancy of the individual. Rather, as Jameson himself has developed, imagination is always a social creation. The unconscious is always political, the unconscious is structured like a language and informed by language which itself is shaped by ideology. Thus the limitations of our imagination is always a political limit, it is the limit of what exists within the political order. Existence is not indexed to material presence, but rather ideological recognition. In this sense, as Buchanan (1998: 18) notes, utopia is what is repressed and is felt most in points of censorship and anxiety within the text.

Thus what the utopian text invokes is our constitutive inability to imagine utopia itself (Jameson, 1982: 153). In this sense, utopia appears only as an absence and any attempt to name this absence produces an ideological closure which converts the utopian demand for an anticipatory appeal to reactionary state. Although Jameson’s position evokes connotations of Zizek’s distinction between activity and the Act, the understanding of the presence of absence in relation to utopia is the key distinction between the work of Jameson and Zizek. Both authors contend that utopia occurs at the edge of our understanding. The value of Jameson is that he conceives the utopian impulse in everyday practice. The vital difference is that whilst Jameson believes that these limits come into being through the effects of absence, Zizek’s fuller conception of the Real and universality allows for the specific identification of the limitations of discourse, even though they remain incommensurable and extimate from the dominant horizon of being.

Thus, for Jameson, utopia is at its most effective when it cannot be imagined;
“Its function lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future – our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity of futurity – so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined” (2004: 46).

Utopia then suggests a complete overhaul of society, one that will produce much anxiety and repression of the utopian imagination (Jameson, 1998: 75). Although this anxiety can cause us to continue to grasp to the illusions which coherence our sense of being and hold us to the limitations of our current order, anxiety itself presents an energy from which to move forward (ibid: 51-53).

Whilst this form of utopianism leads itself to acquisitions of negativity, positive forms are easily subverted. Jameson argues that the designation of specific points of protest is contrary to the effectiveness of utopianism. When the specific contradictions become apparent, the tendency is to focus political demands upon these points. At this point, however, the utopian imagination becomes limited and what might have been a revolutionary demand gives way to practical political programmes (2004: 45). A salient example of this process in these times is the Green movement. Although Green ideology at times suggests an energy for widespread change that might be considered utopian, it has become too easy to divert this enthusiasm into smaller scale processes that only serve to supplement the interests of capital and escalate ecological collapse.

In this manner, Jameson’s conception of utopianism has vital similarities with Zizek’s. Zizek has often argued that politics in our time has lost its radical edge, what Jameson calls utopianism and Zizek references to the Lacanian act, and has settled for mere activity. Nonetheless, Zizek’s form of utopianism – the communist hypothesis – takes its form from the expression of actually occurring antagonisms with capitalism. Whilst he acknowledges that capital is able to include and pacify most of its symptoms, he designates the excluded or hungry populations of the world as the specific contradiction which holds a vital, utopian status. It is this designation which marks the differentiation between Jameson and Zizek’s conception of utopia, a difference which is driven by their opposing readings of the Real and the concept of universality.

Jameson considers that the notions of concept, system, universality, totality and history can be conflated (1990: 46). In doing so, his construction of the Real follows Althusser’s ‘absent cause’ as well as Adorno’s understanding of the concept. Here the concrete is concrete because - rather than being associated with discrete/empirical facts - it is the synthesis of several particular determinants such that ‘The totality could be concrete precisely because it included all of the mediations that linked the seemingly isolated facts” (Jay, 1984: 104-5). Here the Real, or the other/concrete side of the concept, is felt only in its effects and the ideological censorship that occurs around those effects. This understanding is more indebted to the Freudian unconscious than any Lacanian notion of the Real Jameson has tended to equate the notion of totality with the Althusserian notion of absent cause; totality is not available to representation - the totality can only be represented through its absence (Homer, 2006: 158).

As well as Althusser, Jameson takes his understanding of the concept from Adorno, whom he credits with a reading of the universal and particular that no other Marxist theorist has been able to achieve (Jameson, 1990: 9). That is, to be able to maintain the concept of totality and concept itself, whilst being able to consider the ‘dark side’ of the concept. For Jameson the originality of Jameson’s work stems from this ability to think;

‘an outside, or external face of the concept, which, like that of the moon, can never be visible or accessible to us: but we must vigilantly remember and reckon that other face into our sense of the concept whilst remaining within it in the old way and continuing to use and think it’ (ibid:25).

Moreover, Jameson suggests that to think this otherside is to reference the unconscious as a way to ‘endow the thinking mind with a dimension of radical otherness that...must structurally elude us, and remain forever out of reach’. It is here that the notion of totality comes in being, allowing the concept to be retained and without being reified, freeing us from the ‘spell’ of the concept to which there is nonetheless a drive (ibid: 26). Adorno, for Jameson, allows us to hold onto a belief in the concept whilst decoupling it from the thing itself of which the concept is simply an abstract representation. This representation must necessarily fail – hence the ‘dark side’ of the concept – but the notion of the concept can be maintained.

For Jameson, the importance of the struggle over the epistemological validity of totality is the maintenance of the dimension of utopia; the possibility of radically transforming society. Thus, in turning its back on the concept of totality, for Jameson, postmodernism is rejecting any prospect of the radical transformation of capitalism and is thus a rejection of Marxism's emancipatory narrative. This is the problem of post-structuralist/negative ontological politics; it leads only to an endorsement of the status quo. Thus Jameson's demand to maintain some aspect of utopian transformation politics (Homer, 2006:178).

Whilst Jameson would no doubt reject this label, conversely, he provides a similar political step in his understanding of the mode of production and collectivity of the dialectic.). Cognitive mapping invokes a utopian imperative to derive a future configuration out of the failure of the present (Jameson, 1998: 74)What is different is the explicit labelling of such positions.

Yet both Jameson and Zizek – the former with more conviction that the latter – suggest that political visions must be developed. In response to Stavrakakis’s development of the possibilities of partial/feminine enjoyment and radical democracy, Zizek suggests that what is to be done is not the formation of new, alternative mode of being, but the consideration of political passion in its own terms, suggesting ‘the true question is: What is there to be passionate about? Which political choices fit people’s experiences as “realistic” and “feasible” (Zizek, 2008: 331).

Likewise, Jameson argues that the role of Marxism cannot be limited to ‘scientific’ analysis. Rather the question is whether Marxism can be used to develop ideological positions and present a vision for the future, certainly in his earlier work. In The Political Unconscious, (1981: 285-286) , Jameson argues that despite the tradition of the negative dialectic in Marxism, Marxism remains capable of producing a ‘positive hermeneutic’, as evidenced by, amongst others, Bloch’s work on hope and utopia. Furthermore, Jameson adds;

“a Marxist negative hermeneutic, a Marxist practice of ideological analysis proper, must in the practical work of reading and interpretation be exercised simultaneously with a Marxist positive hermeneutic, or a decipherment of the Utopian impulses of these same still ideological texts...in which a functional method for describing cultural texts is articulated with an anticipatory one” (ibid: 296, emphasis in original).

Thus, the key point to be taken from Jameson work in regards to the positioning of a utopian response to capitalism is that there is a utopian demand inherent in every ideological text. Thus whilst ideological analysis must focus on the interpretation of the modes of enjoyment inherent in any discursive position, critique cannot remain negative, but must rather identify those positive elements that embody the utopian impulse that would allow the text to advance past its own limitations.
The task of Marxism, in other words, is to reinvent its own Utopian impulse (Homer, 2006:94). It is perhaps for this reason that Jameson designates Marxism – to which the development of ideological positions is constitutive of its approach – rather than psychoanalysis as the ultimate form of historicism. It is appears that the explicit labelling of the content of this vision is a matter more of theory and political strategy than a structured political philosophy.

But for Jameson the failure of the concept is present only as absence. Here he conflates the totality, the Real (and by association) and the unconscious with the notion of universality. By contrast, Zizek’s (previously outlined) understanding of both the Real and of universality suggests that there is more to the impossibility of objectivity than absence. Although the ‘dark side of the moon’ is only felt through its absence in the hegemonic signifying field, it nonetheless exists. Moreover, it is not so much that the dark side exists, but in the words of Pink Floyd lyrist Roger Waters, ‘There is no dark side of the moon really. matter of fact it’s all dark’. That is, it is outside of the concept is not strictly absent, but rather takes its presence as one of the particulars within the totality of universality. Zizek, in his Lacanian reading of Lacan, considers the existence of this particular to be the concrete universal.

Significantly, Jameson argues that whilst Adorno and Zizek are great dialecticians, Adorno’s tone can be considered tragic whereas Zizek (and we can compare him to Eagleton in this regard) follows a more comedic logic. It is this comedic logic which gives Zizek’s work the greater political traction (2006: 7).

Nonetheless, this traction is not immediately apparent in some versions of his work. Perhaps the most controversial element of Zizek’s oeuvre (along with the associated subtractive politics) is his notion of the Lacanian Act. Here the Act occurs as a sudden break from the existing, a moment (or suspension) of time in which the impossible occurs. This point has entertained numerous points of critiqued, predominately aimed at the supposedly conservative implications of Zizek’s work in his dismissal of mere activity in favour of the radical implications of the Act (cf. Devenney, 2007; Robinson, 2004; Robinson & Tormey, 2005). It is, however, the Act which is implied in much of Zizek’s use of utopia in which utopia is instantiated in the occurrence of impossibility, an unnameable compulsion for otherness (Brockelmann, 1996:201).

Nonetheless, another tradition exists within Zizek’s work that – whilst responding to the same impossibility of action – allows for a fuller application of utopianism. This position – the practice of concrete universality – is not far divorced from the Act and may indeed be considered to subsume the practice (ibid: 202). Moreover, this position, is not the singular truth of his work, the foundations of essence between mere appearance or the culmination of his project but rather what I want to suggest is the form of politics which holds the most potential for politics today and the hungry of tomorrow. This position has been best considered in the Parallax View.
Through the notion of the parallax, Zizek suggests that we can ‘practice’ the concrete universal by ‘confronting a[n] [abstract] universality with its ‘unbearable’ example’ (Zizek, 2006: 13). This unbearable example is, of course, the concrete universal. The concrete universal has an existence, although it is not a positive one within the hegemonic domain of abstract universality. Rather, it appears as the Real; a gap within the order of being. Nonetheless, by taking a parallax view the presence of this excluded exception becomes clear. What is important about the parallax view is not the positive existence of the exception. The exception does ‘exist’ within the ideological form of the abstract universal in a more palpable form. Poverty, for example, does exist within the ideological formations that support capitalism. Indeed its re-presented presence is often excessive, taking the forms of meaningless statistics and images over-ridden with super-ego guilt. What makes poverty – the hungry – into the concrete universal or constitutive exception is the relationship between the hungry and capitalist ideology. The hungry are ontologically excluded not because their presence cannot be acknowledged, but rather because they cannot be acknowledged as an intimate (or rather, extimate) part of universality itself.

In this sense the concrete universal has an extimate existence, outside of but produced by the abstract universal. Thus whilst concrete universality may be felt as an absence within the normative experience of capitalism, a presence does exist. As Zizek states;

“Lacan’s final lesson is not relativity and plurality of truths but the hard, traumatic fact that in every concrete constellation truth is bound to emerge in some contingent detail. In other words, although truth is context-dependent – although there is no truth in general, but always the truth of some situation – there is none the less in every plural field a particular point which articulates the truth and as such cannot be relativised; in this precise sense, truth is always One” (Zizek, 1991: 196, original emphasis)

This is a point that, we can speculate, Jameson would not reject out of hand. Rather he would suggest that the truth does emerge not as truth itself but as an affect within the symbolic order. The vital point of difference between Jameson and Zizek is that the latter contends that this truth becomes embodied in a particular point. We can, as I have throughout this thesis, label this point within capitalism as the hungry; the excluded or reserve army of labour whose suffering is constitute of the totality of capitalism. Moreover, there are deep political consequences for the presence of the concrete universal, and not just upon the bodies of those who have this status.

The presence of the concrete universal adds new leverage to the political practice of the utopian impossibility. In terms of Jameson’s reading of totality, the utopian point of impossibility emerges at the limit point of the discourse, what Jameson regards as History and Zizek class struggle. This position, however, lends itself only to a patient politics of rejecting the forms of censorship that emerge around the presence of absent and engaging in what Zizek has come to label ‘subtractive politics’. In his recent work on utopia, however, Jameson’s writing strategy has become quasi-transcendentalist (resonating with Derrida methinks). It thereby becomes quite different from subtractive politics. (By practicing the concrete universal, one is able to force this point of absence into being, not in terms of the full inclusion of the exception into the abstract universal, such that universality becomes fully constituted, but rather the violent intrusion of the disavowed foundations of the order itself. In this manner a new narrative can be created, which, if for only a historical moment, means that cause is no longer absent and utopian change is forced into our imagination.

The concrete presence – and identification – of an excluded point of exception which signals the existence of a totality is the key difference between Zizek and Jameson in regards to the hungry. This difference is embodied by their respective stances towards philosophy. Zizek openly regards himself as a philosopher. He rejects the image of the ‘crazy’ meta-philosopher, attempting to find an answer to everything, but rather contends that the role of the philosopher is to reshape the way in which we understand questions. For this reasons, despite his critics and his own statements about the need for an alternative vision, Zizek simply does not see this as his task.

By contrast, Jameson is an avowed anti-philosophy because of the connotations of systematisation, reification and ultimately commodification. Jameson’s nightmare is that his work could be packaged up into a system and sold off as a ‘brand name’ theorist. In this regard, Jameson reads Zizek’s Parallax View as a failed attempt at anti-philosophy. He states;

“Clearly the parallax position is an anti-philosophical one, for it not only eludes philosophical systemisation, but takes as its central thesis the latter’s impossibility. What we have here is theory rather than philosophy...yet theory itself was always ‘grounded’ on a fundamental (and insoluble) dilemma: namely, that the provisional terms in which it does its work inevitably over time get thematised (to use Paul de Man’s expression); they get reified (and even commodified, if I may say so) and even turn into systems in their own right”

Moreover, Jameson continues;

“ My occasional fear is, then, that by theorising and conceptualising the impossibilities designated by the parallax view, Zizek may turn out to have produced a new concept and a new theory after all, simply by naming what it is better not to call the unnameable” (2006: 8).

What Jameson misses, however, is that Zizek is a philosopher, he does produce a system and a concept, but a concept of what does not exist. Zizek is a philosopher of the Real and for that reason his philosophy – a grand philosophy of that which does not exist – will always strike a comedic tone. Fundamentally, whilst Jameson argues that the universal does not exist, but we can feel the presence of this absence in its effects upon the symbolic order in which our bodies exist, Zizek contends that it is the very non-existence of the universal which gives it is presence. If the original illusion of universality is that society is present, then for Zizek there is always a perverted truth in appearance; society has its existence, but only by the exclusion of ‘non-society’, which although banished from our horizon of understanding, nonetheless is an embodied exclusion. This embodied exclusion, which, in capitalism can be identified as the hungry or homo sacer, is the concrete universal, the part with no part which is the key to both the operation of universality and the impossibility of class struggle within capitalism.

If, however, the perverse signification of the concrete universal can advance the impossible performance of utopianism, then the naming of this horizon itself is a different matter. Both Jameson and Zizek take some measure to suggest that this future will take a communist or at least collective form, but are unwilling to advance further positive co-ordinates. Zizek labels this possibility the ‘communist hypothesis’. Zizek identifies this position follows Badiou, how has argued that without the idea of communism, there is no reason to do either philosophy, or attempt any form of collective action. Moreover, he argues that the communist hypothesis does not necessarily have any particular reference to its earlier instantiation; rather, the task today is to find a ‘new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being’ (Badiou, 2008: 115).

Zizek (2009) repeats Badiou’s argument without contention, adding that one should not consider the hypothesis as a ‘regulative idea’ of the kind that might lead to an ethical socialism with an a priori norm (see Zizek’s previous debate with Geoff Boucher (Boucher, 2004; Zizek, 2004a)). Rather the communist hypothesis must be referenced to actual contradictions within capitalism.

As Zizek states;

“To treat communism as an eternal Idea implies that the situation which generates it is no less eternal, that the antagonism to which communism reacts will always be here. From which it is only one step to a deconstructive reading of communism as a dream of presence, of abolishing all alienating representation; a dream which thrives on its own impossibility” (Zizek, 2009)

Not only does this continue Zizek’s long-standing dismissal of deconstruction and Derrida, but Jameson’s understanding of the impossibility of utopia (as the impossibility of our imaginations, indexed against a collectivist dialectic) is also in the firing line. Instead, Zizek argues that we use the communist hypothesis against the presence of contradictions of capitalism. It appears that for Zizek the only radical usage of the utopian urge is in this communist demand against the contradictions of capitalism. A utopian demand certainly exists within liberal attempts to reform the symptoms of capital (Sachs and the United Nations being the primary example of this approach) or the conservatism of the Bush Administration and its institutional cronies, whose more implicit demand is that society does indeed exist; it is simply threaten by enemies which it cannot recognise as having created. In the face of these alternatives, Fukuyama was certainly correct; history has come to an end.

Thus Zizek’s answer to Brockelmann (1996: 205) question ‘What, after all does it mean to be ‘against’ capitalism it that suggests nothing about what one would change in it or substitute for it?’ or Laclau’s almost hysterical demands for Zizek to reveal his alternative form of economy or radical imaginary (Laclau, 2000), is not the production of an alternative horizon, but rather the identification of point which reveal why the current horizon cannot continue. For Zizek, this is the most appropriate form of politics for the limitations of our time.

Thus the only way to restore the dialectic of history is by reference to the communist hypothesis, a hypothesis which itself can only come into being against a horizon of the contradictions of capital. Perhaps more accurately, although the presence of the communist hypothesis is necessary to generate a utopian demand, it is not the communism itself which will provoke change, but whether capitalism is able to contain its own contradictions. The task of this thesis, and any form of politics which attempts to invoke such a hypothesis, is to practice a form of analysis which exposes the constitutive contradictions of global capitalism.
Zizek argues that these contradictions are embodied in four antagonisms which threaten capitalism; the possibility of ecological collapse, the contradictions between immaterial labour, intellectual property and private property, the development of new scientific technologies which are changing the nature of life in its barest form and the new forms of exclusion, which Zizek labels new forms of apartheid. This exclusion is most notable in the rapidly expanding slums of the third world, but increasingly an underclass is developing within the western world itself. This group acts as reserve or surplus labour, the existence of which maintains the status of labour as a commodity and the capitalistic class relations. The radical potential of this group is not their poverty as such – horrific as it is – but rather the walls and divisions used to exclude them from the rest of society.
Under Zizek’s construction of the four dominant symptoms of capitalism, there is one symptom that defines the group; poverty, or rather the exclusion of those in poverty. The other three contradictions have been able to be included within the limits of capitalism. Environmentalism, despite the apparent radical possibility of a chaotic breech of nature, has become sustainable development. The contradictions of private property have become a legal challenge and bio-genetics has developed into an ethical, or even scientific, struggle. For Zizek these three elements are part of the battle for the commons.

Here Zizek follows Hardt and Negri in suggesting that the commons – particularly in the postmodern articulation of the commons in immaterial labour and knowledge – are increasingly being enclosed and privatised. In relation to these specific antagonisms, environmentalism equates to the commons of external nature, intellectual property to the commons of culture and bio-technology to the commons of internal nature. Whilst this enclosure and exploitation of what is common to all evokes the necessary use of communism, it is only the fourth symptom, that of exclusion, which adds the dimension of universality and the consequent possibility of communist ‘democracy’. Zizek adds that this level of universality – the Hegelian identification of totality embodied in the concrete subject which provides the impetus for political action – was the “communist dream of the young Marx – to bring together the universality of philosophy and the universality of the proletariat”. Thus, it is these contradictions, rather than any sense of a radical imaginary, which open up the prospect of before utopian demands and make democracy possible (Brockelmann, 1996: 199).

For Zizek, universality and democracy are intimately intertwined, abet with a characteristic twist. The excluded stand for universality preciously because they are excluded; they are the part with no part, the element whose exclusion constitutes the order. That is, the capitalist empire – both as an ideological system and symbolic/Real logic – must produce an exclusion in order to constitute itself as a set. That exclusion, of the unruly masses with no official place in the private capitalist order, is what makes the totality of Empire universal. The universal is not the failed attempt of any given set to constitute itself, but rather the set and its failure constitute the domain of universality.

Zizek links this form of universality to democracy in the Greek sense to signify the intrusion of the excluded into the socio-political space. Here Greek democracy contrasts strongly with Western-style liberal democracy. Liberal democracy seeks to include, but only that which is already symbolised within the current order. That is, liberal democracy is already formed on the basis of the exclusion of class struggle, the main instantiation of which is the masses of urban slums that act as the reserve army of labour for capitalism. By contrast, the Grecian form of democracy is based upon the inclusion of this group – the part with no part in the established order – into the demos. Such a move cannot be established by the demos themselves but rather must come from the internal destabilisation of the order. Thus democracy is universal in the sense that it includes that which is outside of itself, yet necessary for its own constitution.

Thus what is vital for both universality and democracy is not exclusion per se, but rather the interaction or gap between the excluded and the established order. The universal may be embodied by the excluded, but universality occurs through the inclusion of the excluded element. Zizek labels this approach a parallax view, where two incommensurable positions are held together. Thus, in Zizek’s communist democracy there is no specific revolutionary agent. Rather the revolutionary potential occurs in the short circuit between the order and its exclusion. The figure of the excluded confronts us – in its universal status – with the truth of its own position.

Thus, at this time in history in which capitalism reigns darkly supreme, yet is paradoxically plagued both by its own non-existence and the tormenting presence of symptoms which prove its existence, Zizek’s form of negative ontological politics is the approach which provides the most hope for the kind of radical change which would drastically improve the material circumstances of the hungry by giving them a presence beyond their mere biological being.

At this time, the opportunity exists within through a utopian demand for the impossible; for the democratic intrusion of the surplus labour of the world which has thus far operated as a necessary shadow of our order. This movement will not occur, however, only via the kind of hope that occurs when a utopian demand is disengaged from the processes of capitalism. Rather, more than ever today we are provided with an opportunity to practice an active politics of the negative by the exposal of the disavowed foundations of our order. These foundations, otherwise known as the concrete universal, offer the prospect of a dynamic and unsustainable disturbance in civilisation through the forced affective acknowledgement of the excluded as the foundations of our mode of being. To practice the concrete universal is thus to cross the mode of fantasy that coheres the horizon of being present in our civilisation, leaving ideology with no defence against that which – if we have any sense of ourselves as a species ‘good animals’ – must become unpalatable. This is Zizek’s utopian impossibility; the practice of concrete universality such that we (as a people) are forced to imagine a new mode of being. This is utopia.

The utopia of the communist hypothesis holds no content, no vision for the future, only an acknowledgement that the future must be different. As Jameson (2004:36) states; “even if we succeed in reviving utopia itself, the outlines of a new and effective practical politics for the era of globalisation will at once become visible, but only that we will never come to one without it”. Thus, as Buchanan (1998) notes, the practice of generating a new world is a utopian urge, but there is nothing utopian about the resulting society, which will be, like any other instantiation of human community, profoundly complicated.

Moreover, inherent in the demands of both Jameson and Zizek, and indeed any form of politics which takes its orientation from a negative ontology is a minimal demand, most beautifully articulated by Adorno in his Moralita Minnima: ‘There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand; that no one should go hungry’

As for the content of this vision or hypothesis, Zizekian psychoanalysis provides neither answers nor guarantees for the future. Zizek, in his own words, ‘Has a hat, but does not have a rabbit’. Rather in these dark times of global capitalism when neither rabbits nor their rabid breeding are possible, Zizek has set his sights on the critique of the fetishtic Hamsters produced by others. Without the instantiation of the co-ordinates of class struggle and the operation of the concrete universal, we are forced to grasp the commodified Hamster’s provided by capitalism.

Thus, in terms of the shape of the future, Zizek provides no options other than to suggest we need a new one. Yet, because of the performance of the impossibility of utopia, his work is certainly not conservative. Instead, it relies upon the opening of the space of utopian. Only then can Jameson’s dialectic of collectivity, otherwise known as the communist hypothesis, flourish.

But what form will the future hold? There can be no guarantee, but politics will continue. Utopia – in the sense of the fullness of being and the arrival of jouissance – will not occur. Instead the future may well take the shape of one of the approaches critiqued in this text, a version of Laclau’s radical democracy (indeed, in How to Begin from the Beginning Zizek suggests that there is no longer a singular revolutionary agent, but rather emancipatory politics will come from a dynamic combination of different agents and antagonisms. Where Zizek differs from Laclau is the identification of the excluded as the base for these agents and antagonisms and our implication in the universality of this position), or Madra and Ozselcuk’s feminine class relationship, but Zizek provides no suggestion as to what that might be, nor should we demand it from him. Instead, what is required is that at this time in the history of humanity when global capitalism reigns darkly supreme, it is the utopian practice of Zizekian psychoanalysis that is required. The rest is history.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thesis update, May 2009

My thesis asks the question, ‘What is the political value of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis for the materially excluded populations of the world economy?’ I find that the value of Lacanian theory for the hungry is not in terms of the development of a political ideology, or alternative mode of being, but rather the identification of the hungry – in conjunction with a Marxian analysis of class struggle – as necessarily excluded from the global economy. Such an identification of this population as the group which must suffer for the continued functioning of capitalism, should intrude into our contemporary ideological sense coherence, producing what Zizek labels a ‘traversal of the fantasy’, whereby the subject is not beyond fantasy, but rather is allowed no respite from its symptom – in this case the hungry. In these circumstances the subject has no option but to alter its form of being; existing co-ordinates of understanding can no longer hold. The potential still exists, however, for a conservative narrative to develop whereby the horror of the hungry is allowed to remain commensurable economic ideology because of a cynical or fetishistic disavow of their circumstances, in particular by externalising this failure to another cause. Alternatively the ideological status of capitalism could simply be altered – there is no progress – but this would constitute a fundamental alteration of the modernist enlightenment doctrine. For Zizek, what subverts this conservative potential is the instantiation of a utopian impossibility, one that claims that the acceptance of a lacking cause is unacceptable. Zizek labels this utopian impossibility the communist hypothesis.

The starting (Marxist) wager is that capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable because of the emergence of a fundamental material contradiction. The capitalist mode of production revolves around constantly increasing levels of production, which can only occur whilst a level of inequality is maintained. As a result of this inequality, any increase in the standard of living of those at the bottom of the global ‘development ladder’ requires increases in the overall size of the economy. The rungs of the ladder very rarely change place, but wealth does dangle down. Although the reduction of poverty is not part of either the symbolic functioning of capitalism, or its ideological political supplements, increases in global economic production, combined with the predicted substantial increases in population growth, will mean that gross global economic production will soar in the foreseeable future. Yet it is economic growth itself which is causing the ecological degradation which currently plagues the planet. Thus neither a contraction of the global economy – which would only serve to further drive the hungry into poverty – nor or further expansion will serve to either slow down climate change or help the poorest subjects of the world.

This material contradiction – between the hungry and the climate – is a necessary symptom of the capitalist economy. Capitalism, despite the apparent ideological narrative, cannot resolve these symptoms within itself; moreover, the capitalist economic system creates this very antagonism. For this reason, attempts to resolve these symptoms within the logic of capitalism are doomed to fail. Consequently, in the first chapter (‘The material contradictions of capitalism’) I seek to describe – whilst maintaining a critical approach to the representation of empirical occurrences – both the material contradictions of capitalism and the failure of positiving approaches. In this category I include both the liberal-apologist discourse of Jeffery Sachs (who attempts to articulate a solution within capitalism) and the utopian positivism of Hardt and Negri who have sought to postulate an anti-capitalist utopian manifesto.

I will go on to contend that the initial struggle against capitalism emerges within the methodological terrain amongst which it is understood, a fight against the hegemonic logic of the positivist/scientific/empirical discourse which currently dominates politics. The first stage of analysis is to suggest that the material contradictions of the global economy are not solvable within its own terms. Instead we must turn to theory which avoids the reification or commodification of the symptoms of global economy. The discourse which appears the most productive for this task is post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, which has become an increasingly popular form of analysis in Leftist political discourse, despite the failure to constitute an accepted form of political ideology.

In my second chapter, I will consider the fundamental concept of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, with primary emphasis upon the dialectic between lack and excess, the Real and jouissance through ideology, fantasy and objet a. The central difficulty in this chapter is the difficulty in defining ‘impossible’ Lacanian concepts. Nonetheless, there remains something ahistorical and structural about working with Lacanian theory, as Lacan himself expressed in his reversion to mathme’s and topological figures. Ultimately I can only argue that this is the reading that I will be using in this particular thesis. It will also be noted that these are largely Zizekian readings of Lacan. This is a crucial chapter because it sets up the key assumptions and limitations of the political approaches that follow.
Consequently, my third chapter explores the use of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis as a political device. Whilst the use of Lacanian theory has become more widespread, no stable fusion for its use has developed. This is not unexpected as psychoanalysis can be considered an impossible discourse; no ‘correct’ reading of Lacan is possible, nor it’s applicable to the political. As Stavrakakis suggests, the Lacanian Left ‘does not exist’. Thus in this brief chapter I will explore the history of the use of psychoanalysis in the political, including its Freudian beginning, and interactions with Marxism, as well as introducing the central contemporary debates over the use of psychoanalysis in politics. I will conclude by introducing the three central positions which have emerged, signified by the work of Laclau, Stavrakakis and Zizek.

The fourth chapter explores the work of Ernesto Laclau and follows his work through his move from radical democracy to populism, both in terms of the changes that have occurred in his theoretical work and how Laclau perceives politics in relation to the hungry. Laclau’s work (along with Chantal Mouffe) holds a seminal position with political psychoanalysis and I will take time to consider the critique of Laclau’s theory of hegemony and radical democracy in terms of his inadequate theory of enjoyment as well as the limitations of his political approach. Laclau’s work is both an ontological theory of what exists in the political work, but also a prescription of the type of politics that should be implemented in these conditions. The most salient limitation is Laclau’s rejection of class ‘essentialism’ and his associated refusal to consider the overarching framework of capitalism. This limitation can be linked not only to Laclau’s representation of the hungry in the political field, but also his interpretation of the Lacanian dialectic, firstly in terms of enjoyment, but most notably the Real. Thus, Laclau’s approach to the hungry is to include them within an overall ‘chain of equivalences’ of demands. Overall, I have sympathy for a version of Laclau’s interpretation of the political field, if not his political approach. I do not, however, believe it to be a plausible approach for the emancipation of the hungry in this environment.

The fifth chapter of the thesis moves onto Yannis Stavrakakis. Stavrakakis largely builds upon Laclau’s work, attempting to supplement the latter’s conception of radical democracy with a Lacanian theory of enjoyment. For Stavrakakis, Lacanian ethics can inherently inform a theory of (radical) democracy. Ultimately, Stavrakakis attempts to formulate an alternative/ideal form of jouissance compatible with the democratic ethos. I will identify two main issues with Stavrakakis’ work. Firstly, like Laclau he places little emphasis upon the economic, in particular class. It is difficult to consider an immanent political intervention into the world of the excluded within Stavrakakis’ work. Secondly, Zizek strongly critiques Stavrakakis’ utopian construction of an alternative mode of jouissance, claiming that it is a total misrepresentation of Lacanian theory. Ultimately, for Zizek and in this thesis, there is no alternative mode of enjoyment, at least within the foreseeable future. Whilst I have much of this debate written up, more time needs to be spent on the issue of feminine enjoyment, particularly Zizek’s reading, along with his construction of the Lacanian ‘end of analysis’.

In terms of the application of feminine enjoyment to the economic, a group centred around the Rethinking Marxism journal has developed an approach very similar to Stavrakakis. As such this shall be included within the chapter. This group seek to suggest that whilst the class relationship is an impossible one – in the same manner as the sexual relationship – they do occur. Moreover, these class relationships can be broken down into the manner in which they respond to the problem of surplus labour. This group, in particular Yahya Madra and Ceren Oszelcuk argue that what is required is a class relationship that operates without exception (that of the hungry), a class relationship that would be deemed feminine. Thus, central to this chapter is a critique of the notion of a feminine/non-all class relationship will be developed, centring on both the impossibility of naming the elements of the class relationship and the impossibility of the feminine position. This critique naturally leads into Zizek’s politics, which is the subject of the sixth chapter.

Zizek’s politics is well treaded territory, but before mapping out the debates around his positions, I will develop a reading of his key concepts, most notably the Lacanian ‘traversal of the fantasy/end of analysis’, universality and class struggle. I will then suggest that although Zizek’s political approach has changed emphasis (and signifier’s) over the course of his work, his political stances are all iterations in response to the same impossibilities of both political action and turning Lacanian theory into a political vision. This corresponds to Zizek’s analytic method, which focuses on the absent cause of ideological positions, rather than the ideological positions themselves. Vital to my reading of Zizek’s work is his construction of the hungry as the place of concrete universality within capitalism, the part with no official part which determines the functioning of the hegemonic horizon.

My reading, taken through a debate with various theorists, including Laclau and Stavrakakis, is that in a certain sense Zizek’s work is politically impotent. However, this is not due to Zizek’s reading of the political, more the status of capitalism in our time (critiques of Zizek’s politics tend to focus on the end political position, rather than the preceding Lacanian theory), which lays bare the foundations of capitalism.

It is here that my seventh and final chapter, the impossibility of utopia , is developed. At first glance Utopia is a counter-intitutive position for any form of Lacanian- inspired psychoanalysis. No position appears more opposed to the Lacanian project than the development of a Utopian discourse, read in the conventional sense of an ‘ideal’ or imaginary place. Conversely , Zizek in silent conjunction with Fredric Jameson, suggests a separate modality of utopia, a utopia of the impossible, rather than the ideal. It is this position – utopia as the very suggestion that another mode of being is possible, without the imaginary coherence of the development of that mode – that makes Zizek’s politics radical, rather than the conservative, right-wing position, that many of his critics have suggested

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Is there a beyond to capital?

Constructing the non-place of capital; A Žižekian critique of HN’s Empire

Marx famously stated that the only limit to capital is capital itself. Nonetheless, the majority of leftist and radical leftist thought remains stuck between two equally impotent positions outside of Marx’s conclusion. The majority of leftist political activity remains within the limits of capitalism, implicitly accepting the ideology of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis. This approach, characterized by the work of Jeffery Sachs, the practices of United States president Barack Obama and the official benevolence of the United Nations, argues that the productivity of capitalism can be utilized for the good of humanity, whether it is dealing with the ecological crisis, ending poverty or becoming more tolerant towards the Other. In particular the language of its politico-ideological supplement, liberal democracy is used to pacify the brutality of capitalism.

The eco-capitalist narrative acknowledges the symptoms of capitalism yet maintains that they can be resolved within the limits of capitalism. In this sense, eco-capitalism is similar to Marx’s conception of the transition from capitalism to communism. Marx believed that the communist economy would be able to capture the productivity evident in capitalism, without its symptoms. Unfortunately, Marx was unable to understand that this productivity was unique to capitalism itself, and without the torque provided by profit, capitalist productivity would not occur within capitalism. By contrast, the eco-capitalists still maintain their belief in profit, what they misunderstand is that it is profit itself which is causing the problems against which they rally. Thus whilst the eco-capitalist approach can pacify many of the symptoms of global capitalism, it is unable to recognise that it is capitalism itself which is producing these symptoms.

The alternative, radical but equally impotent, leftist approach is characterized by a utopian longing for a future generated entirely outside of capitalism. This approach, increasingly popular amongst post-Frankfurt school Marxists and leftist alike rejects the possibility of action within capitalism and instead searches for solutions beyond the limits of capitalism. This possible would be feasible, if it were not for its impossibility. There is no outside to capitalism. Capital has become an all-consuming beast, subsuming all available resources and including all possible resistance. Today there is no limit to capital except for – as Marx concluded – the limits internal to capitalism itself.

For this reason Žižek has constructed capitalism as the Real, the fundamental limit to all symbolization. As with any Žižekian conclusion, however, there is a twist. Capital-as-the-Real is not the Real of the clinic, but rather what he deems the symbolic Real, the formulaic background to symbolization. This position, as with much of Žižek’s analysis of political economy, remains in the abstract. Although the political consequences of this construction as wholly evident – no action is available within capitalism, or outside of its limits – the contours of the debate remain rough.

By contrast, Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri (HN) have produced an analysis strong on detail. This analysis, primarily constructed in Empire, but supplemented in the sequel Multitude, depicts capitalism in the same mechanic, formulaic terms, but as a specifically politically economic, rather than strictly economic, system of Empire. Specifically, HN argue that Empire produces a postmodern form of sovereignty, embedded in a system of biopolitics, in which the very reproduction of shared social life has become the main source of surplus-value for capital. Despite capital’s apparent total conquest of global affairs, HN argue that capitalism has created the germs of the future of its own destruction in what they deem the Multitude. The multitude are the hegemonic breed of immaterial labourers who actively reproduce society. The multitude reproduce themselves through knowledge, communication and cooperation. In doing so the need for capital is lost; the workers themselves have become all that is required for the reproduction of society. For the first time, HN claim, absolute democracy is possible because workers are in possession of the skills and resources required to reproduce the economy outside of capital and in a manner which is inherently democratic; communication, cooperation and the universality of language.

What HN fail to consider, however, is that the multitude itself is a capitalist creation. Not only does the multitude exist only as resistance to empire, but their productivity is operative only within capitalist conditions. Moreover, the mode of democracy envisaged by HN is little different to that operative in today’s liberal democracy. That is, the multitude and its cooperative commons exist only through an exclusion, that of class struggle and the reserve army of labour.

By contrast, Žižek claims that the seeds of the new order do lie in capitalism itself, but not in terms of its imaginary. Rather they exist through the internal failure of capitalism. In constructing this perspective, Žižek labels four antagonisms which threaten capital. The first three, ecological destruction, intellectual property and bio-genetic technology can be included within the commons and as such are subject to the same critique as that applies to HN. The fourth, the increasingly forms of exclusion (which Žižek labels the new form of apartheid), holds the key to end of capitalism and the production of an alternative form of political economy. Žižek labels this possibility the ‘Communist Hypothesis’.

Thus instead of searching for a new revolutionary subject, such as the multitude, or an outside to capitalism, Žižek has rejects this continual search, stating that we are already in possession of such a revolutionary possibility; the communist hypothesis. Or, following the Hopi tribal maxim that he quotes, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’.

The communist idea does not come from an idealist outside position, untouched by the vampirish claws of capital. Rather it comes as a response to the immanent contradictions of capitalism, particularly the capitalist instantiation of the impossible class relationship. As such, the communist hypothesis arrives without determinate content. Its articulation is independent of previous articulations in the name of communism. What is to be done is yet to be articulated, but does not have to come from outside of ourselves. The answer lies within the contradictions of capitalism. It is not located with a specific agent or missing ideological narrative but comes rather through our own implication – as practioners rather than believers – in the contradictions of capitalism.

For Žižek, this revolutionary potential comes from our universal implication in the contradictions of capitalism. Revolution comes not from a specific subject such as the proletariat, but because in capitalism we are all proletarians. Nonetheless, despite hinting at the shape the communist hypothesis might take, Žižek limits his analysis to the end of capitalism. Within this analysis, however, lie the seeds of a fundamentally different form of political economy. This form is based upon a comedic articulation of the communist hypothesis in what can be deemed comedic communist democracy.


...in so far as we conceive of the polito-ideological resignification in terms of the struggle for hegemony, today’s Real which sets the limit to resignification is Capital: the smooth functioning of Capital is that which remains the same, that which ‘always’ returns to its place’, in the unconstrained struggle for hegemony(Žižek, 2000b: 223).

Žižek’s assertion that global capital acts as a modality of the Real has been the source of much consternation from his critics, in particular Ernesto Laclau. Laclau’s main reproach is that in applying the Lacanian category of the Real to capitalism as a historical and political object, Žižek loses sight of the subtitles within both capital and the Real. Here, however, it is Laclau who misses the subtleties in Žižek’s argument. Capital as a modality of the Real is analogous neither to the Lacanian Real of the clinic nor the operation of the Real in ideological fantasy, although similarities do exist. Capital-as-Real is not that which cannot be signified, an inescapable trauma, although it may be experienced as such in large sections of global society. Capitalism does operate within the symbolic order and as such is subject to the same inconsistencies as any other entity. An initial analysis may suggest that Žižek is engaging a rhetorical device through which to make a point about the status of capital; capital has become the political force of our time, the point to which everything returns. Nonetheless, as is always the case with Žižek, there is some truth in appearance. Žižek is not simply using ‘Capital as Real’ for shock value; rather this assertion suggests a deeper point to which Žižek returns in his later work

Žižek's central argument is that global capital has become the determining factor in contemporary global affairs, but with a twist. Capital is not dominant in the totalitarian sense of exhausting all opposition although, both violence and systematic megalomania lie – disavowed rather than dominant – at the heart of the beast. Indeed, as I shall expand upon in regard to HN's description of the 'non-place' of capitalist sovereignty, it is difficult to even speak of capital in these terms. Capitalism is neither a form of civilisation, nor an ideology (Žižek, 2006: 181). Although in its most dominant (Western) forms capital is accompanied by its ideological supplement, democracy, democracy and capitalism are in no way necessarily entwined, as the rise of totalitarian capitalist China has displayed.

Žižek’s development of the capital as the Real has been a relatively sedate and contemporary occurrence. It was not until 1999 in the Ticklish Subject that Žižek begins to speak of Global Capital and the Real in the same terms when he states (in reference to global climate change and the El Nino effect) “This catastrophe thus gives body to the Real of our time: the thrust of Capital which ruthlessly disregards and destroys particular life-worlds, threatening the very survival of humanity”(Žižek, 1999: 4). Here though, Žižek is using the Real in a more conventional Lacanian sense; the Real as a horrific failure of the symbolic. Žižek’s initial considered conceptualisation of Capital as the Real occurred in his three-way collaboration with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality. Here Žižek considers Capital as the background against which all symbolisations must relate, a ‘limit to resignification’ (Butler, Laclau, & Žižek, 2000: 223,319).

Žižek’s definition of Capital as a symbolic form of the Real owes to his distinction (in the foreword to the 2nd edition of For they Know Not What They Do, written in 2002) between the triadic modalities of the Real. In response to his own criticism of his first book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), that he endorsed a ‘quasi-transcendental reading of Lacan’ and the Real. That is, Žižek claims that he constructed the Real as a point of failure with the consequence that what is ethical is to except failure. Instead, Žižek wants to construct the Real not only as symbolic failure, but also as a positive point of excess. In order to do this, Žižek claims that the triadic Lacanian matrix Real-Imaginary-Symbolic is reproduced within itself. That is, we can have an Imaginary form of the Real and as well as a Symbolic form of the Imaginary. Of most interest to this argument is the Symbolic Real, which Žižek describes as ‘the Real as consistency’ (Žižek, 2002: xii).

Žižek had previously presented this argument in Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, where he describes Capital as ‘structuring in advance the very terrain on which the multitude of particular contents fight for Hegemony’(Žižek, 2000c: 320). Žižek is clear, however, to make a distinction between Capital as a limit to signification and hegemonic struggle and Capital as the positive condition that creates a background against which hegemonic struggle occurs (Žižek, 2000c: 319).This last point is vital. It is not that Capital prevents the production of non-capitalist discourse, but rather that these discourses occur on a background (if a somewhat passive one) that determines the parameters in which it operates. Therefore, it can appear that an outside to Capital exists. Clearly not all relations are capitalist relations. Rather capital is structured similarily to one of its iconic structures, the shopping mall. The ‘mall’ allows all apparent freedoms and is experienced as a site of consumptive enjoyment. One is free to move around and experiences no apparent repression, except in acting against the interests of the mall. What the mall has achieved is the subsumption of public space; the historical village centre, with all its associated public space and room for dissent, is now contained within the mall itself. In this sense one can be free within the mall – and within capitalism – only by following the rules and internalising the structures of the mall. An outside exists only to the extent that we are allowed to belief it does; you are free to choice to leave, but no one does – there is outside only in terms of the impossibility of resistance

Žižek has subsequently refined his argument, claiming that capital is the (absent) cause to which all life returns. If capital is only present as an underlying (unconscious) social code, its presence is certainly felt on the bodies of those within the system and in this manner capital has more of a presence than one could ever hope to imagine. Nor is capital absent from the collective imagination, even though the signifier ‘democracy’ is often favoured above ‘capitalism’; United States politicians are fond of stating that the collapse of financial markets will not bring with it the breakdown of democracy, as if derivatives and democracy are a necessary couplet.

Rather capital is the absent cause in relation to the fundamental definition of the Lacanian Real; the elementary structuring point which determines in its very absence, the traumatic social antagonism that cannot be conceptualised within the symbolic order. More precisely, the Real is not the disavowed point to which we have no access, but rather the very point of that distortion (Žižek, 2008: 287-288). The Lacanian cause is thus strictly absent from the signifying chain and should be distinguished between causality and structure. Here causality is the regular unravelling of the code of social practices, whereas the cause is that which intervenes in that chain (Fink, 1995: 31). A cause is thus an absent cause; absent from the chain of causality but present in its affects as it disrupts the automatic functioning of the signifying chain.

Capitalism is thus absent in the same way one can consider unconscious desire to be absent from the psyche; what is absent is the cause, which only reveals itself as an affect. The unconscious acts is structured like a language, or more specifically like a grammatical chain, with certain rules and impossibilities (Fink, 1995: 7). The unconscious functions autonomously, repeating the structure of its chain. This is the same with capitalism as the symbolic Real. Capital is ultimately repetition of a symbolic structural logic regardless of ideological context. Within the structural chain of capital, an impossibility emerges. This impossibility is best conceptualised around Bruce Fink’s distinction between the two modalities of the Real.

Fink states that the Real can be divided into the Real before language (R1) and the Real after language (r2). R1 exists only as an absence, but is given a presence by language which attempts to conceptualise its own transcendental conditions of possibility. R2 emerges as a response to the symbolisation of this impossibility; r2 occurs at the points of failure within the symbolic system. Thus, in relation to the capital-as-the-symbolic-real R1 operates as the transcendental condition of possibility for the system. That is, there is no class relationship. However, capitalism, as a form of economy, attempts to symbolise this failure, producing its own impossibility (R2), class struggle, the instantiation of the failed class relationship within the capitalist political economy and its own nodal point, surplus value or profit.

Thus class is not only the factor that is disavowed within capitalism, but the very cause of the distortion which prevents access to class. Class takes on this structural role because the economy is non-All – class is the extimate core of the economy – which makes the economy inherently political. That is, class struggle is the existence of the political in the economy. Thus the economy is not deterministic in the sense of being the point to which all social relations return, but rather – through the politically of class struggle – the very point of the distortion of class relations (Žižek, 2008: 291-292).

But why should the economy, or rather class struggle, play this role? Can we not, in the Laclauian sense, claim that any domain can take on the place of dominant distortion through the hegemonic play of signification? This point remains the fundamental point of division between Laclau and the psychoanalytic approach whereby an element determines in advance the terrain of battle. For Žižek, the status of the economy is simply the Marxist hypothesis, the wager which determines his field of interest. Just as for Freud all unconscious desire is sexual desire for Marx it is class struggle that determines the field. In both cases the reasoning is the same. Class – or sexuality – defines the terrain not because it is dominant, but because of its inherent failure. This failure – that there is neither a sexual relationship nor a class relationship – produces a structural instability in both the psyche and in shared social life to which we are forced to return (Žižek, 2008: 295).

The impossibility of class struggle within capital, which I shall return to in detail in latter in this paper, is the impossibility within the symbolic code of capital, the impossible absent cause that determines the persistent revolutionising of the code in advance. This absence, however, is not acknowledged in all but the most baldly conservative articulations of global capitalism. Under neo-liberal ideology, the capitalist system is considered far from perfect, yet is regarded as not only historically the most effective system, but also the most beneficial system possible. In its most strongly ideological narrative, this approach contends that capitalism is simply a reflection of human nature and no more perfectible. Capitalism will operate in sporadic cycles and will be unjust to some degree. This may seem complacently benign when it comes to the fluctuating price of cheese, but becomes more brutal in regards to naked ambition for limited global resources. It is one thing to justify inflation, quite another to consider the prospect of an outright Oil war between the United States and China. It is also a perspective much more likely to be backed by those on the positive side of capitalistic justice.

Instead capitalist class relationships continue, allow with the autonomous repetition of the capitalist structure, under the guise of an imaginary ideological structure. As noted, capital itself is neither an ideology nor a form of civilisation. Instead a supplement is required in order to distort the impossibility of class struggle. Much of Žižek’s theory revolves around the point; the work of ideology, disavowal and fetishism. Žižek does not, however, make a direct link between the functioning of capital as a modality of the Real and of the political system. Instead, for Žižek politics and capital appear to have an arbitrary relationship in much the same manner as they would for Ernesto Laclau; although the politics of truth around capitalism must relate to class struggles, politics itself operates independently from the conditions of possibility established by capitalism. Capitalism sets a certain limit and provides a cause, but – for Žižek – politics, ideology and our form of civilisation operate with a degree of autonomy from capital itself. That is, the political narrative established is little more than an attempt to symbolise the impossibility of class struggle and capitalism. Capitalism certainly establishes itself as the dominant player in culture, the dominant source of jouissance, but this is not necessarily so.

This perspective is rejected by HN, must notably in their seminal text Empire in which, whilst establishing much the same mechanistic tendencies to capitalism, they construct capitalism as a historical form of sovereignty. The capitalist empire is as much a matter of politics, ideology and enjoyment as much an economic structuring chain. It is to this perspective that we now turn.


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s concept of ‘Empire’ produces a similar construction of global capitalism, without the specific reference to class struggle. Empire, not to be confused with what HN consider to be the modernist modality of ‘imperialism’, is a historical development under which capitalism has come to dominate the production and reproduction of shared social life. Although HN do not utilise a Lacanian vocabulary, Empire is confluent with Žižek’s ‘capital-as-Real’ thesis. Under Empire, capital retains the mechanistic quality proscribed to it by Žižek; HN state “the machine seems to predetermine the exercise of authority and action across the entire social space. Every movement is fixed and can seek its own designated place only within the system itself, in the hierarchical relationship accorded to it” (HN, 2000; 14).

HN, however, extend this thesis beyond the economic; the mechanistic quality of empire is not limited to the repetition of the symbolic logic of capital. Empire goes beyond this logic into the instantiation of the capitalism as a political-ideological mechanism for the reproduction of shared social life. In doing so, HN contend that the reproduction of social life has become an intimate part of the operation of capital, which, along with renewed forms of (postmodern) sovereignty, has expanded the terms of capital into what they deem Empire.

Empire includes not only the production of surplus value and class struggle (which HN place less emphasis upon, evidently because of its contemporarily abstract character) but also the political infrastructure which supports the economy. More importantly, for HN, empire is constructed upon communication and cooperation between humans, which has become the predominant feature of capital. That is, one is no longer able to make a strict distinction between politics, the economy and social life. Instead, under Empire all elements of social life and the human condition have become subsumed into the capitalist edifice, such that it no longer makes sense to talk of politics or economy. Rather we have entered an era of ‘biopolitical production', the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another’ (HN, 2000; xiii). There is no politics outside of economy, nor space outside of capital. All production, whether it is material goods or social relations, is capitalist production. This new modality of production, which HN label ‘immaterial labour’, along which the changing contours of global sovereignty, led HN to designate Empire as a distinctly postmodern phenomenon.

HN are not the first theorists to suggest that postmodernism – rather than being a radical form of emancipation from identity – is just the latest form of capitalism. Fredric Jameson has[MU1] made this argument most powerfully. Previously theorists had considered capital to require the parochial discipline that characterised the industrial era. Modernity's combined and uneven entry into a postmodern era was considered to be a mortal threat to the interests of capitalism. Indeed, HN suggest the refusal of factory discipline was a central factor in the economic crisis of the 1970s. Nonetheless, as Jameson postulate, the burgeoning development of social identities that came with the birth of postmodernism became a seamless cure for the ills of overproduction, as the new identities were ideal for the development of new products and new markets. Rather than acting as a threat to capitalism, working women, racial enlightenment and sexual reform allowed the development of new and profitable markets. Postmodernism may have been experienced as liberation for those outside of the hegemony of the white man within western nations, but it has achieved little more than the commodification of cultural difference. As Žižek suggests (see Žižek, 2000a), the normative expansion provided by postmodernity should be celebrated, but we should not mistake these new social movements and identity politics as the problems of our time. Westerners may have a more diverse range of restaurants at which to eat, but for those whom experience eating as an infrequent necessary, postmodern liberation remains entirely Other.

HN’s construction of Empire as a postmodern edifice goes beyond that identified by Jameson or Žižek. Although they acknowledge the hegemony of postmodern performance within contemporary culture, Empire follows a postmodern logic at a much deeper level, in the instantiation of sovereignty and relations of production. That is, empire is not regarded as postmodern in its expression of modernist capitalist relations, but is postmodern at its very core.

The changing nature of capitalist sovereignty is reflected in the movement from a disciplinary society to a society of control, where power is directly bio-power, internalised into the body as the whole of social life comes to be administered in what is known as the ‘panoptican affect’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000; 23-24). Instead of a single entity controlling power, sovereignty is rather constructed via the processes of capitalism. Whilst we can acknowledge an influential structure of governing organisations, including the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial instruments, regional trade organisations and agreements and the easily forgotten nation-state itself (as well as more local forms of sovereignty within the state), the dominant form of sovereignty within Empire is what HN label ‘ether’ (HN, 2000; 346); the reproduction of shared social life (in the name of profit) by immaterial labour through cooperation and communication.

Thus, in contrast to modernist imperialism, for HN Empire is without exception; all potentially fall within its grasp. Neither has it a home, despite the apparent hegemony of the United States. Empire has no 'Rome', instead it is organised around the ‘non-place’ of Capital, a non-place that Žižek labels the Real, or, more pertinently, class struggle. Instead of the modernist form of governance – by which a transcendental entity, whether Monarchic or an elected power, acts as a sovereign guarantee for political life; postmodern sovereignty exists without an apparent governing exception. Instead the non-place of sovereignty is mediated by the seemingly seamless flow of ether; sovereignty is guaranteed only to extent that it is reproduced in our social relations; nothing exists outside of the existence of capitalist social relations which might secure the system. Instead capitalist is actively – if unknowingly – reproduced by those who participate.

Much has been celebrated about the postcolonial era and the associated decline of the nation state. Theorists have come to suggest that the decline of stable identities and power relations which result from the loss of a Hobbesian sovereign, has offered the prospect of widespread emancipation. A dark side does appear, however, in two dimensions; both within western society and in the expanded exploitation of the hungry majority, although HN do not expand upon the latter.

Postmodernity has not meant the end of global sovereignty. The Hobbesian image of the social contract may be struggling, but sovereignty itself continues. Sovereignty is no longer produced by the discipline of an external guarantee, but rather the internationalisation of power in the Foucauldian 'biopolitical' society. The image of the panoptican and biopolitical control had become part of social life well before any transition occurred beyond modernity. What is unique about postmodern sovereignty, HN argue, is that biopolitical control has become the modality of power, not the support for power.

Governmental organisations certainly exist, but their role is one of control, not guarantee; they provide the administrative support for the deployment of the institutions of the biopolitical society that is Empire. Governments have become little more than instruments for the measurement of the flows of commodities and population they are charged with administrating in the name of capital (HN, 2000; 31). Beyond the representatives of government, the institutions of our bio-political society include the vast array of monitoring devices evident in our societies, from the ubiquitous surveillance cameras, online 'research' and the more Orwellian 'anti-terrorism' acts passed in the post 9/11 world. More pertinently for HN, the biopolitics of Empire are produced and reproduced by the immaterial labour which dominates postmodern capitalism. These industries, characterised by communication and cooperation implicitly reproduce the sovereignty of Empire through the production, and control of knowledge and ideas. The imposition of this power goes by unnoticed, serving as it does at our pleasure, but for their profit.

Thus Capital within Empire is totalising; it is impossible to speak of Empire without Capital, yet at the same time Capital appears the silent partner, reproducing itself through the everyday functioning of social life. Capital is evil in the terms of Hannah Arendt, in its very banality it allows for suffering on an unimaginable scale. This is the strength of capitalism. Capitalism requires no one to believe in it. Few actively and explicitly support capitalism, although they may profess an interest in the wellbeing of its elements. Ideological arguments may occur over democracy or multi-culturalism, but no such debate is required to secure the status of global capital. Capitalism reproduces itself through our everyday practices. We do not have to believe, we simply have to do; capitalism is a distinctly ontological, rather than epistemological entity. One becomes a card-carrying capitalist by brandishing a credit card rather than a membership card. No one door-knocks to sell capitalism, only its wares.

Such is the impossibility of acting against capitalism. How does one become an anti-capitalist? Perhaps only in death. All those who walk this earth are capitalists and there is no possibility of living withdrawal whilst the system still dominants. To reproduce oneself and community is to be a capitalist. To consume, to produce, is to be a capitalist. Even those who remain most ideologically opposed (I place myself in this category) cannot help but practice. The only out is death, symbolic (such as the fantasmatic position of ‘living outside of the grid) or otherwise.

Capitalism, or rather Empire, has achieved this level of hermeneutic self-containment through what HN label ‘immaterial labour’; the deployment of the communication and cooperation are then the hegemonic forms of labour in capitalism. This transformation includes not only the most obvious example of the change, such as social networking sites These sites – most notably Facebook and MySpace – commodify human relationships by offering a free and attractive service to users who update their personal details in order to interact with their peers. This information is then stored and sold to advertisers, both for research purposes and for the benefit of more direct advertising. The business model of these sites is similar to that of newspaper – the selling of readers’ attention to advertisers – with more interaction. Here social relationships and communities are actively created and reproduced for the sole purpose of the production of profit.

More than the obvious changes, however, the move to immaterial production has affected all industries. Just as the industrial revolution transformed the farm into a factory (by imposing factory relations of production) the knowledge revolution has turned the farm into a laboratory. Here knowledge has become the key resource; whether the product is physical or intangible. Such was the folly of New Zealand’s mission at the beginning of the 21st century to transform itself into a ‘knowledge’ economy. To many this brought on the beginnings of a national identity crisis as it was assumed that the advent of a knowledge economy would bring about the end of the nation’s traditional agricultural culture/economy. The ‘Green revolution of the 1970s also provides an example of the domination of agriculture by knowledge and immaterial labour.

The industry which embodies both these processes – that of the practicing belief of everyday capitalists and immaterial labour – is finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is the ultimate example of immaterial labour, whereby production itself does not exist; vast sums of money change hands (in 2008 the value of financial trading equalled that of the last 100 years of ‘physical’ trade) through an intangible global system of co-operation and communication. Yet that money exists not only because we believe it to exist (money being a system of trust whereby I believe that the currency which you offer me is ‘legitimate’) but because our societal practices establish this belief for us. We have no choice but to use money and in established economies only the most neurotic users would concern themselves with the acceptance of their money.

Financial capital is itself a postmodern industry. Financial capital, although always operative in some form, established its dominance in the 1970s[MU2] . The 1970s saw the advent of two vital and interlinked trends, over-production and the decoupling of the dollar from the gold standard. The crisis of over-production, combined with the oil shocks early in the decade, led a mass of surplus looking for an investment home. Some of this surplus was redirected into newly established 3rd world markets, but the core of the problem remained. It solution was the development of the financial industry. Key to this move was Richard Nixon’s move to break to the US Dollar from the gold standard (HN, 2000; 266). The move to floating currencies was followed, in various speeds, by the majority of nations. This development was of historical significance, removing the guarantee of the ‘general equivalence’ of money. Instead, in a definitively postmodern manoeuvre, money no longer exists, there are only currencies. Such a move is part of a historical development; money has moved from being an element of value itself, to being supported by an item of supposed value (the gold standard) to its current state as a purely virtual occurrence, given a presence only because we believe.

The significance of the removal of money as a universal general equivalent, to be replaced by currencies as particular embodiments of equivalency cannot be underestimated. In itself this is a particular postmodern development. Postmodernism is characterised by a lack of stability caused by the disappearance of meta-narratives of anchoring points that would provide a guarantee for the social order. These universal points acted as a ‘general equivalent’ against which other elements would relate. By contrast postmodernity is characterised by a flatness – there is no universal element would maintains order – broken up by difference; each particular element operates in differentiation relation to another particular element. Thus the financial industry has become a postmodern, or perhaps even feminine, order.

The breakdown of general equivalency has resulted in the financial industry, along with an increasingly complex variety of financial ‘products’ being based upon the trading of currencies, rather than products. Indeed, physical commodities are no longer the basis of much trade. Certainly the growth in physical trade, production and consumption continues, as the climate crisis reveals. Nonetheless, increasingly commodities are traded simply as a holder of currencies, particularly through mathematical ‘derivative’ trading. The era of a general equivalence which establishes value is over; the symbolic formula of capitalism has entered postmodernism and there is nothing that can contain it other than itself and its own spiralling and self-destructive tendencies[C3] . As of 2009, we are seeing these self-destructive tendencies in action as the credit ‘bubble’ has burst, most of all because people have lost their faith in money. To a certain degree actors have come to realise that money does not exist and have withdrawn their confidence from the system. For this reason the main task of the Obama administration – obstinately to hand over unthinkable amounts of US currency – is to restore confidence in the value of money.

HN’s conception of Empire is largely an extension of the Žižekian thesis (although neither Žižek nor HN write in response to each other). Empire maintains the same systematic qualities that make radical action, both within and outside of capitalism, impossible. What Empire adds to Žižek’s work is the construction of the current instantiation of class or power relations within capitalism. Or, more accurately, the operation of these relations in ideology and the political realm. If Žižek has constructed capital as a mode of the symbolic Real (with more emphasis given to the first term than has otherwise been given) than Empire captures the capitalist relationship between the symbolic and the imaginary. Empire is a historical construction of the power relations, ideological narratives and reproduction of social life within the boundaries set by the logic of capital, as established by Žižek.

Nonetheless, Empire cannot be simply added as a supplement to Žižek’s work. Although much of HN’s argumentation is confluent with the Žižekian thesis, there are two notable points of differentiation; the status and hope provided by the multitude. For HN the multitude are the germs of the future produced within capitalism. Conversely, whilst the multitude are a possible point of resistance against capitalism – any agent involved in the encapsulation of the commons holds a radical potential – they remain a resistant group particular to capitalism. Moreover, rather than provide the hope for what HN label ‘absolute democracy’, the multitude have more in common with contemporary liberal democracy; both are based upon the exclusion of surplus labour. Rather the immaterial labour of the multitude, it is the universality enabled by the unwanted horde of today’s political economy that provides the only hope for a radically different future. It is to the multitude that we now turn.

The Multitude

The advent of immaterial production has, however, been both a boom and a crisis for capital. In most circumstances, the system has been able to revolutionise itself to make these crisis into sources of profit, but the move to immaterial production has created difficulties that have yet to be fully integrated. There are two significant problems, the changing nature of private property and the increased significance of the worker in the production process.

Increasingly, the knowledge economy – based upon knowledge, communication and cooperation as intangible resources – has struggled to fit into the capitalist mode of private property. Although immaterial labour dominates production, the transition from industrial production has not been seamless. Corporations continue to struggle to effectively commodify and profit from intangible sources of production. Private property is proving inadequate of the task of immaterial production, as corporations are finding it more and more difficult to privatise and generate profit models from immaterial elements of human cooperation and natural life.

Digital technology has proved one of the more difficult areas in which to impose property ‘rights’. Significantly, digital technology has nullified the role of scarcity in the market, as digital commodities can be reproduced at almost no cost. Privatisation becomes increasingly difficult when lay-users can easily replicate the product. For this reason, in order to profit from these technologies, much effort is put into restricting access to the product. Hence large industries, most significantly in the entertainment industry, but also print media, are struggling to match up their profit models with the new forms of technology.

As both Žižek and HN suggest, the latter more giving it more significance than the former, the apparent failure of private property to respond adequately to immaterial production provides a notable point of traction for communist thought. Under Empire cooperation has become inherent to labour in a way that it never has previously. In this sense labour power moves from variable capital (a force activated by capital itself) to capital itself; knowledge has become the key means of production. For HN, however, the move subversive potential lies with what they label the ‘Multitude’. HN contend that;

“Today, productivity, wealth and the creation of social surpluses take the form of cooperative interactivity through linguistic, communicational and affective networks. In the expression of its own creative energies, immaterial labour thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism” (HN, 2000; 294).

If knowledge is the most important means of production, then for the first time the seeds of a new order lie with the workers themselves. Workers no longer need capital to reproduce shared social life; the workers are already doing so in their everyday movements. Capital loses its organising function and becomes purely parasitic (Žižek, 2008; 351). The material reproduction of society occurs in the workplace already in the forms of communication, cooperative and affective labour produced by the multitude. Rather than workers being solely operators of fixed capital, deploying the resources provided for work, the immaterial labourer is now a source of capital in itself; knowledge. The worker is thus a unit of variable capital and no longer requires specific sources of capital in order to reproduce itself.

Thus, while ‘from one perspective Empire stands clearly over the multitude and subject’s it to the rule of its overarching machine, as a new Leviathan. At the same time, however, from the perspective of social productivity and creativity, from what we have been calling the ontological perspective, the hierarchy is reversed. The multitude is the real productive force of our social world, whereas empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude’ (HN, 2000; 62).

Therefore, for HN, the multitude is the inherent form of resistance produced within capital. There may not be an outside within Empire which provides a nodal point for the subversion of capital, rather this point is produced by capitalism itself; capital provides the seeds of its own destruction. If postmodern production is immaterial, than the most important means of production lies with the bodies and the minds of the workers. Capital is no longer machinery and tools, but is increasingly immaterial in itself. As Žižek comments “It was Marx who emphasised how material production is always also the (re)production of the social relations within which it occurred; with today’s capitalism, however, the production of social relations is the immediate end/goal of production” (2006; 262).

The role of the multitude - and here HN return to old-fashioned Marxism – is to become conscious of their position as both subject and object of history and come to determine the world themselves, to break free of capital and realise the ‘absolute’ democracy that they are already in the process of creating. The multitude are in the paradoxical position of both holding an inherent potential for resistance to the system yet being the point of subversion of that resistance. It is the reproduction of knowledge and social relations by the multitude which holds the potential for radical action, yet at the same time the ideological narrative of capital – itself reproduced by the multitude, though in the implicit name of Empire – prevents the realisation of that radical potential. Knowledge maybe power, but within Empire it is immanently contained within that power.

The most pertinent point of this perspective is that it is difficult to determine the enemy within the enemy because of the sovereignty of ether and the ‘non-place’ of power within Empire. Ironically, given the shared communicative mechanisms which define the multitude, the problem they experience is a lack of clear language, both in identifying the enemy and articulating the future (HN, 2000; 210). Developing a common language against the multitude is to a large degree the task for the multitude, as in our society, constructed by the media images, the media have a monopolic grasp over the ontology of the masses (2000; 322). Once this can be established, and the multitude become conscious of their dominating status, all that is required is locating and knocking off the nominal head. Communism and absolute democracy appear upon us, all that is to be done is to realise our fate.

Yet, is this approach not, however, as Žižek suggests, confluent with the ultimate capitalist fantasy of frictionless capitalism, capitalism without governance, simply organising itself through the invisible hand of the market? (2006; 263). The democracy of the multitude and frictionless capital are sadly entwined because the both required the same propeller for sovereign-less development; the capitalist form of the appropriation of surplus-value. Here surplus-value takes the same structural position as the Lacanian objet a; both the condition of possibility and impossibility of the system. Objet a, like surplus-value, is the contradiction of system which drives it onward. For Žižek then, the democracy inherent in immaterial labour and the multitude occurs only because of the capitalist form. Without this form, the multitude would not be driven to interact. It is not a matter of simply maintaining the capitalist form without owners, this would only serve to either reproduce the contradictions would allow for the form of surplus-value (and it is these contradictions – class struggle, climate change and the hungry – against which we should rally) or the form of surplus-value itself would collapse without the imposition of objet a by the corporate structure.

In this sense the Multitude cannot be considered to be a group in themselves, rather they arise only as a point of resistance to capitalism. Such a group may be interesting in terms of a theory of revolution, but has little in relation to a theory of a new mode of the material reproduction of shared social life. Like Marx, HN’s mistake is to conclude that capitalist productivity is possible if the contradiction which drives that productivity – class relations – is removed. This is, as Žižek suggests, Lacan’s central critique of Marx, whereby Lacan identifies a homology between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment, suggesting that both rely upon dialectic between lack and excess.

Moreover, while HN’s multitude can be regarded as a specifically capitalist grouping, the biggest failure of HN’s work is the immateriality of their construction of capitalism, the very feature which allows for the development of the multitude. What HN miss is that the absolute democracy that they believe can be developed from within Empire is based upon the same exclusion which constitutes liberal democracy; that of the reserve army of labour. There is no reason to suggest that a communism reconstruction of immaterial labour would include the currently excluded populations of the world any more than is currently the case.

Symptomatic of such a failure is HN definition of the proletariat, which is so wide as to diffuse the real difference within this category, particularly in terms of suffering. Here HN state ‘ we understand proletariat as a broad category that includes all those whose labour is directly or indirectly exploited by and subjected to capitalist norms of production and reproduction’ (HN, 2000; 52). To compare the wealth of a professional sportsman and the poverty of a third-world farmer – both equally subsumed into capitalist exploitation – is to lose sight of the contours of exploitation and suffering. Moreover, it is to lose the reason why we oppose capital at all; the necessary suffering it imposes. For HN, ‘exploitation occurs, but it increasingly hard, perhaps impossible to designate a place of exploitation – the non-place of exploitation – exploitation can no longer be localised and quantified – instead they are universal qualities’ (HN, 2000; 209). Consequently, although exploitation and domination are still experienced concretely, on the flesh of the multitude, they are nonetheless amorphous in such a way that it seems there is no place left to hide’ (2000; 211). One can no longer exploit the worker, only cooperation amongst workers (Žižek, 2008; 356). Yet this construction of the proletarian and its exploitation is vital for HN’s conception of resistance to Empire; the multitude.

What HN miss is the split between the two, parallax sides of capitalism. One the one hand are the postmodern corporations, characterised by HN’s immaterial labour. On the other side - generally the other side of the world - is the remaining material labour, a capitalist historical tribute to industrial era production and suffering. There is no hope of the two coming together; material production is not becoming anymore immaterial. For this reason HN are incorrect to assert that capital is purely parasitic; it has an organising function, bringing these two sides together (Žižek, 2008; 359).

Class struggle and the excluded

It is the excluded underside of Empire that HN and Negri do not focus on. Yes, the 'multitude' may be actively reproducing society through communication, but it is the reserve army of labour built up in the majority world which is truly supporting capitalism. These workers are outside of the multitude, even in their status as proletarian. HN claim that Empire has extended exploitation to the point where all of the multitude, from call centre workers in India to marketing executives in California are deemed to be proletarian. It seems that the geographical dislocation of the working class has meant that both everyone and no-one are part of the proletariat. That is, except for the part with no part; the world's urban poor. In these massive urban slums – slums in which all of the world three billion strong population increase is predicted to occur – unemployment has reached meaningless levels, in some places reaching 80[MU4] %; employment being a marginal exception. This disparate grouping, which might otherwise be labelled the lumpenproletariat, are the new brand of entrepreneur, a neo-liberal dream in a Hobbesian nightmare. These enterprising business-workers sell whatever they can to survive, whether it be knick-knacks or their bodies. Their inadvertent subversion of intellectual property in the huge market for inauthentic designer merchandise may be an example of multitudian anti-capitalism, but there is nothing liberating about the circumstances of their lifestyle.

The urban proletarian of the 3rd world are the excluded from HN's image of Empire and the word of biopolitics. Indeed they are the exception that allows the whole to function; the concrete universal. In this sense, we do not live in a postmodern world, at least in terms of sovereignty. Rather, the place of exceptionality has changed. It is no longer the king or the government who guarantee the order, but rather an excluded exception, below, rather than above, the symbolic order. If postmodernity is characterised by a flatness distinguished only by relations of difference between elements, then capitalism and Empire do not fit into this category.

The issue of sovereignty and exceptionality is vital to this debate. Yahya Madra and Ceren Ozsecluk (MO) consider capitalism to be based around an exception, that of the Board of Directors[MU5] . Under this construction the Board are the exception because they are they are the only grouping within the organisation who receive a slice of surplus without having contributed to the production of surplus. A number of corrections need to be made to this point. Firstly, MO remain trapped within an industrialised schema by which to be productive is to produce materially. Whilst this thesis remains committed to a materialist construction of capitalism, HN are correct in asserting the (qualitative) hegemony of immaterial production. In this case, the Board of Directors, in producing knowledge and control are as much involved in production as any element of the capitalist organisation. Rather, a more effective target would be the (silent) shareholders, those who contribute only the conditions of possibility for the organisation (fixed capital), yet received a shared of the surplus.

This appears a feasible conclusion, yet it misses the core point. Neither the Board of Directors, nor are the shareholders are in any way excluded from capitalism, either in terms of ideological construction or receiving surplus labour. Instead those actually excluded from capitalism are the reserve army of labour. Not only are they excluded from the reception of surplus, but they are excluded from the ideological construction of capitalism. Not in terms of their existence, but rather they role within the capitalist system. The exclusion of these (non)workers is not specific to any actor or grouping. Exploitation remains in the abstract, only operational as the condition of possibility for the functioning of the system they inhabit. For the excluded, however, there is nothing abstract about their suffering. They ensure that exploitation is experienced concretely; in pathetic defiance to HN’s concept of immaterial labour and abstract cooperation-exploitation, their exploitation is purely of the body, not any aspect of cooperation or community. More accurately their exploitation and suffering comes from the very division from community and cooperation. The excluded are truly the necessary and constitutive exception which must be excluded for the continued functioning of the system, and so it is with capital and its reserve army of labour. The excluded, therefore, constitute the capitalist form of the class relationship. It is the exclusion of these masses which allows for the capitalist form of the production and distribution of surplus value.

Capitalism’s reliance upon its own exception has led MO to argue that what is required is form of political economy based upon the Lacanian logic of the feminine. Here, in a manner broadly similar to postmodernism as well as HN’s construction of Empire and the Multitude, the feminine is without exception; the feminine system is exceptional only to itself. In contrast to the masculine logic of exception, whereby an exceptional element is excluded in order to constitute an otherwise impossible set, the feminine set cannot exclude any element from its porous borders. That is, there is nothing that cannot be included within the set; likewise nothing that can be excluded from the set. The non-exclusive feminine set can never say what it is; the feminine set can never seal itself off or define its identity against another set. In Lacanian parlance, the feminine does not exist.

The non-exclusivity of the feminine universal has led MO to argue that feminine logic should be the model for a new modality of political economy in terms of the ‘impossible’ class relationship. Class is assumed to be impossible because ‘class’ cannot constitute itself fully; there is no meta-narrative which can guarantee the distribution of surplus (labour). Thus just as Lacan concluded that ‘there is no sexual relationship’ because there is no possible perfect sexual unity between the sexes, MO and Žižek (although taking a slightly different path) claim that there is no class relationship. Class struggle is always constituted around its own impossibility. Hence, any system of political economy is always split by the impossibility of class struggle. Class struggle becomes the absent cause in the symbolic formula of capital; it is the point around which capitalism fails, yet also the point which provides for its impetus.

Nonetheless, although it is easy to conclude that the lack of class relationship means that class relationships do not exist, they do, but they are always lacking. Class relationships certainly exist within capitalism – the exceptionality previously discussed being an example of those relationships – but they are disavowed within an ideological matrix in which history itself is dead. HN’s construction of Empire is just another narrative attempting to heal the wound of class struggle. Under Empire and immaterial labour class struggle is not fundamentally altered, the struggle is just expressed in different terms.

Feminine class relationships acknowledge both the presence and impossibility of class relationships and struggle. On the surface, they appear to be an inviting, if abstract, concept. Feminine class relationships are without exception, and thus, argue MO, without exploitation. Although they do not explore the issue in detail, the implication is that the instantiation of feminine class relationships (based upon a feminine logic of enjoyment) would greatly improve the circumstances of the hungry by including them within both the production and consumption of surplus. Likewise, the implicit assumption is that a feminine economy would not require the spiralling growth of capitalism and would thus avoid, or subdue, the threat of ecological collapse.

Capitalism, however, has already proven itself capable of integrating the feminine, as can be seen in the financial industry and postmodern culture. What it cannot integrate, however, is its own failure; the excluded. Such a trans-fantasmatic integration of the excluded into political economy could only force a new order into being, a new order that we can provisionally label comedic communist democracy. In order to follow this hope we must continue to believe in the possibility of action against capitalism. As I have illustrated, however, this action cannot come from outside of capital (which does not exist) nor from within the limitations of the system. Moreover, although capitalism does produce the ‘germs of the future’ in the dialectics of its own impossibility, HN’s conception of the multitude still does not institute the full dimension of universality operative in class struggle. It is only this dimension, this concrete universality, which is revealed in the presence of the excluded in the face of global capital which institutes the possibility of universality. In order to access this radical possibility, however, Žižek suggests that we require more than the critique of the existing. Rather we need to hold onto the possibility of something beyond capital, a possibility Žižek labels the communist hypothesis.

The Communist Hypothesis

The communist hypothesis is neither an ideal, a semblance or a presence to come in the deconstructive sense, nor has it any necessary relation to previous communist instantiations which focused on either property or the state. Rather it is the task of dedicated anti-capitalists and the focus of this thesis to consider the manner in which it must be articulated in today’s conditions.

Thus the communist hypothesis cannot be a transcendental idea. Rather it arises as the only radical response to the contradictions of global capital. Western Marxism, beginning with the Frankfurt school, has become increasingly critical towards the Hegelian-Marxist notion of determinate negation, by which any new form of society emerges from the contradictions immanent to the current order. Instead, Marxism and other forms of Radical Leftism have adopted a utopia longing for an order which is wholly Other; an order which develops from an unmediated outside.

Žižek’s notion of the communist hypothesis is strictly opposed to any notion of an outside to capitalism. Rather Žižek rehabilitates the Hegelian determinate negation in his theory of universality. Under this theory the concrete universal – that which is excluded from the ‘private’ order, yet exceeds its boundaries and remains immanent to the totality – stands directly for universality through determinate negation. Thus the communist hypothesis comes as a response to the immanent contradictions of capitalism, not from a mythically unspoiled outside.

Žižek argues that these contradictions are embodied in four antagonisms which threaten capitalism; the possibility of ecological collapse, the contradictions between immaterial labour, intellectual property and private property, the development of new scientific technologies which are changing the nature of life in its barest form and the new forms of exclusion, which Žižek labels new forms of apartheid. This exclusion is most notable in the rapidly expanding slums of the third world, but increasingly an underclass is developing within the western world itself. In the US this population is increasingly visible, even though the US underclass is increasingly located in the military or the overcrowded prison system. This group acts as reserve or surplus labour, the existence of which maintains the status of labour as a commodity and the capitalistic class relations. The radical potential of this group is not their poverty as such – horrific as it is – but rather the walls and divisions used to exclude them from the rest of society.

Communism, in the face of these antagonisms, operates as the only alternative in response to the apparent subsumption of the symptoms of capital in the context of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis. This thesis has becomes so maligned it is passé to do so, yet it continues to dominate socio-political performance. The communist hypothesis does not emerge from outside of this history, but rather upon the basis of the exclusion around which capital is founded. Under Žižek’s construction of the four dominant symptoms of capitalism, there is one symptom that defines the group; poverty, or rather the exclusion of those in poverty. The other three contradictions have been able to be included within the limits of capitalism. Environmentalism, despite the apparent radical possibility of a chaotic breech of nature, has become sustainable development. The contradictions of private property have become a legal challenge and bio-genetics has developed into an ethical, or even scientific, struggle. For Žižek these three elements are part of the battle for the commons.

Here Žižek follows HN in suggesting that the commons – particularly in the postmodern articulation of the commons in immaterial labour and knowledge – are increasingly being enclosed and privatised. In relation to these specific antagonisms, environmentalism equates to the commons of external nature, intellectual property to the commons of culture and bio-technology to the commons of internal nature. Whilst this enclosure and exploitation of what is common to all evokes the necessary use of communism, it is only the fourth symptom, that of exclusion, which adds the dimension of universality and the consequent possibility of communist ‘democracy’.

For Žižek, universality and democracy are intimately intertwined, abet with a characteristic twist. The excluded stand for universality preciously because they are excluded; they are the part with no part, the element whose exclusion constitutes the order. Žižek labels this contradiction the instantiation of the impossibility of class struggle. That exclusion of the unruly masses with no official place in the private capitalist order – in relation to the order which produces the exclusion – gives place to the universality of Empire. The universal is not the failed attempt of any given set to constitute itself, but rather the set and its failure constitute the domain of universality.

Žižek links this form of universality to democracy in the Greek sense to signify the intrusion of the excluded into the socio-political space. Here Greek democracy contrasts strongly with Western-style liberal democracy. Liberal democracy seeks to include, but only that which is already symbolised within the current order. That is, liberal democracy is already formed on the basis of the exclusion of class struggle, the main instantiation of which is the masses of urban slums that act as the reserve army of labour for capitalism. By contrast, the Grecian form of democracy is based upon the inclusion of this group – the part with no part in the established order – into the demos. Such a move cannot be established by the demos themselves but rather must come from the internal destabilisation of the order. Thus democracy is universal in the sense that it includes that which is outside of itself, yet necessary for its own constitution.

Thus what is vital for both universality and democracy is not exclusion per se, but rather the interaction or gap between the excluded and the established order. The universal may be embodied by the excluded, but universality occurs through the inclusion of the excluded element. Žižek labels this approach a parallax view, where two incommensurable positions are held together. Thus, in Žižek’s communist democracy there is no specific revolutionary agent. Rather the revolutionary potential occurs in the short circuit between the order and its exclusion. The figure of the excluded confronts us – in its universal status – with the truth of its own position. Such a parallax juxtaposition –whereby both (incommensurable) sides are held together in the same frame – makes communist democracy a comedic system in more than just an ironic sense, following Zupancic’s logic of comedy/love, to which I shall soon turn my attention[SB6] .

Butler, J., Laclau, E., & Žižek, S. (2000). Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Verso: London.

Fink, B. (1995). The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Žižek, S. (1999). The Ticklish Subject. Verso: London.

Žižek, S. (2000a). Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, Please! In J. Butler, E. Laclau & S. Žižek (Eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality; Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (pp. 90-135). London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2000b). Da Capo senza Fine. In J. Butler, E. Laclau & S. Žižek (Eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Univerisality; Contemporary Dialogues of the Left. London: Verso

Žižek, S. (2000c). Holding the Place. In J. Butler, E. Laclau & S. Žižek (Eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2002). For They Know Not What They Do (2nd ed.). London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2006). The Parallax View. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Žižek, S. (2008). In Defense of Lost Causes. London: Verso.


[MU2]Reference and expand from text - vital section in regards to finance capital and money/currency and the end of general equivalence as a guarantee. Perhaps reference back to Harvey. Explain the link between postmodernity and the lack of a general equivalent

[C3]Has the formula of capitalism altered, or was the postmodern tendency always evident?

[MU4]Reference to Davis from previous work


[SB6]I need to expand upon finance capital, the feminine, the relationship between class struggle and the excluded and how the 2nd Zizekian perspective builds on the first; in particular how class struggle relates to capital as the Real. Thus far the argument follows a symbolic (real), imaginary, real structure and I need to reflect on the relationship between the latter and the former