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Capitalism, when viewed as a system of exchange relations, is described as a commodity or market society in which everything, including one's labor power, has a price and all transactions are fundamentally exchange transactions. Capitalism, when viewed as a system of power relations, is described as a society in which every kind of transactional relation is fundamentally exploitative. (Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, 1998, p. 96.)

Capitalism is, was and always will be essentially and fundamentally a patriarchy. Iris Young wrote: "My thesis is that marginalization of women and thereby our functioning as a secondary labor force is an essential and fundamental characteristic of capitalism." (Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, 1998, p. 122-123.)

Capitalism is a system that depends on the exploitation of underclass groups for its survival. (hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: from margin to center, 1984, p. 101.)

Capitalism is an ideology that has for its dominant values, "individualism, competitiveness, domination and in our time, consumption of a particular kind." (Hartman, Heidi, "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism." from The Second Wave edited by Linda Nicholson, 1997, p. 99.)

"The first mode of economy with the weapon of propaganda, a mode which tends to engulf the entire globe and stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and a soil." (Rosa Luxemburg 1963). "An advanced stage of patriarchy." (Azizah Al-Hibri 1981). (Both these quotes are from Chris Kramarae & Paula A. Treichler. Amazons, Bluestockings, and Crones, Pandora Press, 1992, p. 85.)

Capitalism: The economic system in which the means of production are in private ownership. Marx described the exploitative forms of capitalism in his theory of the capitalist mode of production. Radical feminists, liberals and socialist feminists agree that there can be no understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalist society without placing the oppression of women at the centre of such an analysis. Nor can any adequate feminist theory simply add women as a "missing ingredient" to an overall Marxist theory. (Humm, Maggie. The Dictionary of Feminist Theory, 1990, p. 23.)

Capitalism: An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods and by prices, production and distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1997, p. 122.) 14-16, 146-52, 154-6

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

If much of Žižek’s philosophical endeavour entails unveiling and intertwining the enigmas of Hegel and Lacan, it has become increasingly apparent that the political goal of this undertaking is the critique of global capitalism. In producing a Lacanian-Hegelian reading of Marxism, Žižek does not directly engage with normative critiques of our mode of material reproduction, nor seek to gain an empirical understanding of capitalism. Instead, his critical reading of the dialectics of ideology and enjoyment, class struggle and the structural reproduction of capital, seeks to provoke a disruptive rethinking of the methods through which capitalism continues to flourish and the opportunities to halt its seemingly infinite reproduction.

Although the critique of capitalism has become the primary focus of Žižek’s political enquiry, its prominence is most evident in his later texts. Capital had certainly been a point of discussion in Žižek’s initial work, but largely as a necessary exemplar for interventions into Marxism (SO: 23–6, 51–3). A more detailed analysis of the status of capital emerged through the debate with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality and in The Parallax View, but it was only with the publication of In Defense of Lost Causes that global capitalism became a distinct focus of Žižek’s political critique, a focus that has continued in Living in the End Times and Less Than Nothing, in addition to his shorter works. There are three core elements to this critique: the symbolic logic of the self-revolutionary reproduction of capital, the co-option of desire and enjoyment, and the Real contradictions of class struggle.

Symbolic limitations

For Žižek, capital is not an object like any other. Instead, the operation of capitalism is the (absent) background against which all sociality responds, producing a “Real” limit to the possibilities for political action. Th is point has been the source of significant criticism, with suggestions that by constructing capitalism in such a manner, Žižek reduces politics to an impossible radicality (Laclau in CHU; Sharpe 2004; Sharpe & Boucher 2010). For Žižek, however, this radicality (often referenced to the Lacanian Act) is a necessary response to a situation in which “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe” (MI: 1).

Žižek’s development of capital as the Real been concurrent with his growing reflection on the seemingly endless reproduction of capitalism. The first links between capital and the Real emerged as seemingly secondary references in Mapping Ideology and The Ticklish Subject, when (with reference to global climate change) Žižek suggested: “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” (TS: 4). Moving on to argue that “Capital itself is the Real of our time” (TS: 276), in his three-way collaboration with Butler and Laclau, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, he positions capital as the background against which all symbolizations must relate, a “limit to resignification” (CHU: 223) that “structures in advance the very terrain on which the multitudes of particular elements fight for hegemony” (CHU: 320).

Žižek however, makes a clear distinction between the economy/capital as an essential limit to signification and hegemonic struggle and capital as the positive condition that creates a symbolic background against which hegemonic struggle occurs (CHU: 319). This understanding is extended through the distinction Žižek makes between triadic modalities of the Real, giving the Real Imaginary, Symbolic and Real dimensions (TK: xii). Here the symbolic Real, which Žižek describes as “the Real as consistency”, provides the systematic background against which shared social life operates.

Consequently, the reproduction of the circuit of capital can be understood as independent of any of the demands of “reality”. Th is conception is not strictly ahistorical, but represents the rise in a self-fulfilling and self-revolutionizing finance capital such that:

It [financial speculation] is “real” in the precise sense of determining the structure of material social processes themselves: the fate of whole swathes of the population and sometimes whole countries can be decided by the “solipsistic” speculative dance of Capital, which pursues its goal of profitability with blessed indifference to how its movements will affect social reality. Therein lies the fundamental systematic violence of capitalism … it is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective”, systematic, anonymous. (LN: 244)

The reproduction of systematic violence within capital takes the form of the Lacanian drive, in the sense that the circulation and expansion of capital becomes an end in itself (PV: 60–61). Further, Žižek argues that capitalism has become a self-revolutionary force that is propelled by its own point of impossibility, whereby what appear to be obstacles to the circuit of capital become opportunities for profit (LN: 651). Indeed, for Žižek it is this very point of impossibility that drives capital, a point he argues Marx overlooks (SO: 50–53), along with the importance of the Lacanian notions of enjoyment and the superego (FA: 23).

Enjoying capitalism

Beyond the “structural violence” of the symbolic Real, Žižek argues that capitalism maintains a “grip” upon subjectivity through the incitement of enjoyment, which under late capitalism is not prohibited but rather demanded. These demands upon the body are a form of superego enjoyment, which Žižek suggests has become the prevalent form of contemporary enjoyment under late capitalism.

This Lacanian superego is not the superego of the Freudian moral conscience but, instead, an excessive demand to enjoy. Utilizing this notion, Žižek argues that under capitalism enjoyment is no longer prohibited by moral norms, but explicitly demanded and administered, largely through the consumption of commodities that act as the embodiment of objet a, offering the prospect of full enjoyment (FA: 23; Stavrakakis 2000). In this way, even the most radical desire can be included, so long as it can become a site of profitability.

Consumerist fantasies, accompanied by the ideological fantasy of liberal democracy, present capitalism as a realm of freedom. Conversely, Žižek argues that this freedom functions only as “activity” – as opposed to the proper Lacanian Act– that presents the illusion of choice while maintaining the systematic reproduction of capitalism (TS: 374). Consequently, it is only with the radicality of the Lacanian Act that the possibility for rupture exists. Th is possibility of these radical acts is dependent upon the disruptive presence of the Real within capitalism.

Real fault lines

Although much of Žižek’s work is directed at alerting the reader to the grip of capital and its lack of interest in the exigencies of ordinary life, he also seeks to point to fault lines within capitalism itself. These fault lines, particularly the “impossibility” of class struggle and the production of “new forms of apartheid”, threaten to disrupt the operation of capital.

As with his writings on capital and Marxism, Žižek’s development of class begins at a relatively late stage in his work, but is both vital to his understanding of capitalism and has distinct similarities to his reading of capital qua the Real. Žižek first addressed class struggle in The Sublime Object of Ideology, where he declares (with reference to the Real):

In this way we might reread even the classic notion of “class struggle”: it is not the last signifier giving meaning to all social phenomena (“all social processes are in the final analysis expressions of the class struggle”), but – quite the contrary – a certain limit, a pure negativity, a traumatic limit which prevents totalization of the social-ideological field. (SO: 164)

Žižek subsequently develops this reading to suggest that, although class acts as the totalizing moment in society, it does not operate as the classical Marxist positive guarantee for social life. That is, class (like capital) is not the anchoring point against which all other social positions can be determined, but instead acts as the totalizing antagonism that prevents the final occurrence of society (I: 100). Consequently, if capital operates as a systematic form of violence, the foundational wound that disrupts this systematic reproduction is class struggle.

As a corollary, Žižek argues that the indeterminacy of class struggle ensures that the economy is always the political economy (PV: 55). Here, much as Lacan identified sexual difference as the antagonism by which both sexuality and sociality are riven, Žižek suggests that class plays this role in the economy (UE: 82). Thus, capitalism cannot simply be understood in terms of the symbolic Real, but this logic is itself a response to the impossibility of class struggle.

Nonetheless, because class struggle qua the Real is both the antagonistic point to which direct access is not available and the factor preventing this access, Žižek argues that it cannot be the subject of “positive research” (ibid.), and he has little more to say about it beyond reference to the Real, much to the consternation of his critics (Özselçuk & Madra 2005, 2007; Devenney 2007). Conversely, his later works have been driven towards the identification of those elements of capitalism that are proving most disruptive to it.

These works have increasingly focused upon a particular point of contradiction within capitalism, that of the slum dwellers of the developing world, which Žižek argues is one of the “new forms of apartheid” and the “crucial geo-political event of our time” (LC: 424). Here, contrary to his apparent understanding of capitalism as a monstrous juggernaut, Žižek argues that four points of antagonism currently threaten capitalism: the possibility of ecological collapse; the contradictions between immaterial labour, intellectual property and private property; the development of new scientific technologies that are changing the nature of life in its barest form; and the new forms of political exclusion (LC: 420–25). In this construction, it is the last element that defines the rest by adding that dimension of universality Žižek finds so decisive: the other three contradictions have been able to be included within the limits of capitalism; it is only the “part of no part” of the excluded human surplus that adds the “subversive” (LC: 430) edge to those other antagonisms that will be the “germs of the future” (LC: 426).

It is this Real dimension of universality, Žižek argues, that holds the possibility of disrupting the symbolic and imaginary reproduction of capitalism (LN: 1001–1004). Here, for Žižek, it is the traumatic possibilities hidden within our understanding of capitalism that open up the possibility of rupture, and it is the evocation of these possibilities that drives his description of capitalism.