Friday, October 17, 2008

Lenin and the October 2008 Bailout (3)

I am continuing on this topic, perhaps for some time, but I think the last time under this title. The second entry, Lenin and the October 2008 Bailout (2), began with reference to the first entry,Lenin and the October 2008 Bailout and the three main elements of that entry. This included a segue to an entry earlier than that on Alain Badiou - Allegiance to the Truth Event. Therein is introduced several articles in making the point germane to the topic of the 2008 Bailout: that is, the advent of this "Event" challenges the existing coordinates of power - and of paramount importance is what action will constitute allegiance to the "Truth" the "Event" reveals. This discussion was preamble to discussing the views of the Bailout by recognized progressive activists (at that very time, I attended a forum presented in Manhattan) The fact that such a forum had spontaneously arisen at the event of the Bailout suggested many people are sensing this can be a time to intervene and seriously challenge the existing coordinates of power.

The way to intervene was the critical question. The progressive left viewpoints of William Greider, Doug Henwood, Naomi Klein, and Francis Fox Piven were given some air. Their ideas were appreciated in what demands and quality of demands they felt the circumstances called for. To this end, in the context of my stated purposes for the blog, it came to mind introducing a perhaps unheeded perception on the question of "demanding": what Sovoj Zizek writes about, what he characterizes as, the "symbiotic relationship between power and resistance". This the goal of the present entry.

Happily, while I was in the process of developing this entry series, Zizek himself published on the Bailout: Don't Just Do Something, Talk. Here the theoretical idea I want to discuss is rather posed for popular consumption. Zizek points out we live in a risky society, where the powerful do the choosing while the rest of us do the risking. We are forced to live as if we were free. The powerful have us duped that it is counterproductive to help the poor directly because the real dynamic productive element is the rich and the benefits will "trickle-down"- we must avoid simply giving to the "needy". Zizek agrees, however, that the problem is that there is a need to help Wall Street because its collapse really will hurt ordinary workers. So up to this point he doesn't say much more than the progressive left. But he then makes the point that one must take a political position outside the coordinates of existing power (his theme: don't just do something within these coordinates, talk about how they can really be challenged). This is what needs further discussion beyond his merely keeping the topic within the range of that suitable for popular consumption. Its not enough, I think, to simply conclude as he does with "we need not less politics, but more". Here are some snippets from his article I hope interests you in using the link:

"We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.. We are forced to make choices without having the knowledge that would enable us to make them; or, as John Gray has put it: ‘We are forced to live as if we were free.’The resistance was formulated in terms of ‘class warfare’, Wall Street against Main Street: why should we help those responsible (‘Wall Street’) and let ordinary borrowers (on ‘Main Street’) pay the price for it?.. So while it is true that we live in a society that demands risky choices, it is one in which the powerful do the choosing, while others do the risking.. although we all want the poor to get better, it is counter-productive [say the powerful] to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element; the only intervention needed [they say] is to help the rich get richer, and then the profits will automatically spread down to the poor. Throw enough money at Wall Street, and it will eventually trickle down to Main Street. If you want people to have money to build, don’t give it to them directly, help those who are lending it to them. This is the only way to create genuine prosperity – otherwise, the state is merely distributing money to the needy at the expense of those who create wealth.. It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defense of the rich. The problem is that as long as we are stuck with capitalism, there is a truth in it: the collapse of Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers.. What all this indicates is that the market is never neutral: its operations are always regulated by political decisions. The real dilemma is not ‘state intervention or not?’ but ‘what kind of state intervention?’ And this is true politics: the struggle to define the conditions that govern our lives. The debate about the bailout deals with decisions about the fundamental features of our social and economic life, even mobilizing the ghost of class struggle.. As with many truly political issues, this one is non-partisan. There is no ‘objective’ expert position that should simply be applied: one has to take a political decision. The U.S.doesn't need less politics, it needs more."

Savoj Zizek makes a much more forceful argument in an article written much earlier. In Resistance is Surrender, he makes no bones about the need to focus on how to take power, avoiding accommodation of the existing coordinates of power (either by working within them or in various modes of opposition to power which amount to no more than a symbiotic relationship). He identifies the various modes of leftist or progressive resistance and defines what he sees as their critical deficiencies, lauding in contrast the take over in power by Chavez. Nonetheless, rather than a whole-hearted endorsement of Chavez, he is quick to say it is most important to ensure that such a power structure not be a repetition of a socialist state as seen before, but one which engenders subversive power of its people:

"One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death..Today’s Left.. accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (Third Way Social Democracy).. or not accepting the hegemony, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfill .. or, not directly attacking, but refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’ [so] the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined.. or, ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony.. These positions are not presented as a way of avoiding some ‘true’ radical Left politics – what they are trying to get around is, indeed, the lack of such a position.. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left.. So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it?.. demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society.. It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chavez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it.. the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilization of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees).. the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill... presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in'. The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse."

In closing, I think Zizek's argument lumping anarchism with the rest of the progressive left needs comment. Yes, historically revolt without re-establishing a vanguard to protect the success of revolution has not survived - but equally true is that the new power has never failed to eliminate class struggle. Perhaps it is a matter of enough continued evolution of human nature, but egalitarian self-organization should remain the point of allegiance.

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1 comment:

relmeligy said...

An interesting point raised by Zizek's comments is that, as he mentions, politics "is the struggle to define the conditions that govern our lives", with reference specifically to the "debate about the bailout."

What is interesting about that is that the bailout was passed before any debate took place, making the debate a retroactive one. We came late to the party, after the bankers had secured the money they needed to keep them existence. From that existing reality proceeds the corollary that their survival is necessary for the proper functioning of society, an assumption which is not borne out, simply by looking at other societies which function perfectly well without such large concentrations of speculative private capital.

So the debate about the bailout, by setting the framework and parameters of debate, is itself rooted in a set of assumptions about what those "conditions which govern our lives" are, and ought to be. Those assumptions proceed from centralized sources of elite power. By participating in that debate, as the media literally forces us to do, we inevitably gravitate towards the set of values which defines prosperity in the terms dictated by Wall Street and not by, for example, the median salary paid to a teacher in public education, or the percentage of the population which graduates from college and goes on to higher ed.

Which goes back to the point about taking up a position that is outside the coordinates of power. Debating over the merits of the bailout is squarely at the center of those coordinates. Essentially, having participated in the debate, we now take responsibility for a decision over which we had no control; a point also referred to in the Zizek piece. And if we don't like it, well, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Ironic, isn't it?