'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, October 15, 2010

What is the Left to Do? 

An excerpt from an uncharacteristically clear and concise Zizek article about the inability of the left to effectively respond to the current global economic crisis:

One thing is clear: after decades of the welfare state, when cutbacks were relatively limited and came with the promise that things would soon return to normal, we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent: turning into a constant, a way of life. It brings with it the threat of far more savage austerity measures, cuts in benefits, diminishing health and education services and more precarious employment. The left faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing ‘natural’ in such a crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously being fully aware that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, the violation of its rules effectively causes economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, rendered easier by the conditions of the global market (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse.

It would thus be futile merely to hope that the ongoing crisis will be limited and that European capitalism will continue to guarantee a relatively high standard of living for a growing number of people. It would indeed be a strange radical politics, whose main hope is that circumstances will continue to render it inoperative and marginal. It is against such reasoning that one has to read Badiou’s motto, mieux vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre: better a disaster than a non-being; one has to take the risk of fidelity to an Event, even if the Event ends up in ‘obscure disaster’. The best indicator of the left’s lack of trust in itself today is its fear of crisis. A true left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions. Its basic insight is that, although crises are painful and dangerous, they are inevitable, and that they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. Which is why today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.

There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, tv reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime. There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism—through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations—but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law. This remains the sacred cow, which even the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’—the Porto Allegre World Social Forum, the Seattle movement—do not dare to touch.

Of course, while Zizek emphasizes the prospects for the survival of social democracy within Europe, his perspective has a much broader resonance. Please consider reading his article in its entirety.

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