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The Liberal Communists of Porto Davos

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In the last decade, Davos and Porto Alegre have emerged as the twin cities of [[globalization]]. In Davos, the exclusive Swiss ski resort, the [[global ]] [[elite ]] of managers, statesmen and [[media ]] personalities meets under heavy police protection, trying to convince us (and themselves) that globalization is its own best remedy. In the sub-tropical, Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the counter-elite of the [[anti-globalization movement ]] convenes, trying to convince us (and themselves) that [[capitalist ]] globalization is not our fate, that, as their [[official ]] slogan has it, “another “[[another]] [[world ]] is possible.” Lately, however, the Porto Alegre reunions seem to have lost their impetus. Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go?
Some of [[them]], at least, moved to Davos itself! That is to say, more and more, the predominant tone of the Davos meetings comes from the group of entrepreneurs who [[French ]] journalist Olivier Malnuit ironically refers to as “liberal “[[liberal]] communists” (that is “liberal” in the pro-[[market]], European [[sense]]) who no longer accept the opposition between “Davos” (global [[capitalism]]) and “Porto Alegre” (the new [[social ]] movements’ alternative to global capitalism). They [[claim ]] that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as profitable entrepreneurs) and eat it too (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social [[responsibility]], ecological concerns, etc.). No [[need ]] for Porto Alegre, they say, since Davos itself can become Porto Davos.
So who are these liberal communists? The usual gang of suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as court-[[philosophers ]] like Thomas Friedman. What makes this group interesting is that their [[ideology ]] is becoming indistinguishable from that of [[Antonio Negri]], who has praised [[postmodern ]] digital capitalism, which, according to Negri, is becoming almost indistinguishable from [[communism]]. By Negri’s reckoning, both the old Right—with its ridiculous [[belief ]] in [[authority]], [[order ]] and parochial patriotism—and the old Left—with its big [[Struggle ]] against Capitalism—are the [[true ]] conservatives today, completely out of touch with the new realities as they fight their shadow-theatre struggles. The [[signifier ]] of this new [[reality ]] in the liberal [[communist ]] Newspeak is “smart.” Smart means [[dynamic ]] and nomadic against centralized [[bureaucracy]]; dialogue and cooperation against central authority; flexibility against routine; [[culture ]] and [[knowledge ]] against old industrial production; and spontaneous interaction against fixed hierarchy.
Bill Gates—software mogul and philanthropist—is the [[icon ]] of what he called “frictionless capitalism,” the post-industrial [[society ]] in which we [[witness ]] the “end of labor,” in which software is winning over hardware and in which the young nerd has replaced the black-suited manager. In the new company headquarters, there is little [[external ]] [[discipline]], and (ex)hackers dominate the [[scene]], [[working ]] long hours and enjoying free drinks in plush surroundings. In this respect, it is a crucial feature of Gates as icon that he is (perceived as) the ex-hacker who made it. At the [[fantasmatic ]] level, the underlying [[notion ]] here is that Gates is a subversive marginal hooligan who has taken over and dresses himself up as a respectable chairman.
Liberal communists are big executives reforming the spirit of contest, or, to put it the [[other ]] way round, countercultural geeks who took over big corporations. Their dogma is a new, postmodernized, version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: Market and social responsibility are not opposites, they can be employed together for mutual benefit. Collaboration with employees, dialogue with customers, respect for the [[environment ]] and [[transparent ]] deal-making are now the keys to a successful business.
Liberal communists are pragmatic, they [[hate ]] ideology. There is no single exploited Working [[Class ]] today, only [[concrete ]] problems to be solved, such as starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim [[women ]] or [[religious ]] fundamentalist [[violence]]. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa—and liberal communists [[love ]] humanitarian crises, they bring out the best in them!—instead of employing anti-imperialist [[rhetoric]], we should simply examine what really solves the problem: Engage [[people]], governments and business in a common enterprise, approach the crisis in a creative, unconventional way, and don’t worry [[about ]] labels.
Liberal communists also love May ‘68: What an explosion of youthful [[energy ]] and [[creativity]]! How it shattered the confines of stiff bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to [[economic ]] and social [[life ]] after the [[political ]] illusions dropped away! And although they’ve changed since then, they didn’t resign to reality, but rather changed in order to really [[change ]] the world, to really revolutionize our lives. Didn’t [[Marx ]] say that all the world’s political upheavals paled in comparison with the invention of the steam engine when it came to changing our lives? And wouldn’t Marx say today: What are all the protests against global capitalism in comparison with the Internet?
Above all, liberal communists see themselves as true citizens of the world, [[good ]] people who worry. They worry about populist fundamentalists and irresponsible, greedy corporations. They see the “deeper causes” of today’s problems, the mass poverty and hopelessness that breed fundamentalist [[terror]]. So their [[goal ]] is not to earn [[money]], but to change the world (and, in this way, as a by-product, make even more money).
The catch, of course, is that, in order to give it to the [[community]], first you have to take it (or, as they put it, create it). The rationale of liberal communists is that, in order to really [[help ]] people, you must have the means to do it. And as experience—the dismal failure of all centralized [[state ]] and collectivist approaches—teaches us, private initiative is by far the most efficient way. So if the state wants to regulate their business, to tax them excessively, it is effectively undermining its own official goal (to make life better for the large majority, to really help those in need).
Liberal communists do not [[want ]] to just be machines for generating profits: They want their lives to have a deeper [[meaning]]. They are against old-fashioned [[religions ]] and for spirituality sans confessional meditation (everybody [[knows ]] that [[Buddhism ]] foreshadowed brain [[sciences]], that the [[power ]] of mediation can be measured scientifically!). Their preferred motto is social responsibility and gratitude: They are the first to admit that society was incredibly good to them by allowing them to deploy their talents and amass wealth. And after all, what is the point of their success if not to help people?
However, is any of this really something new? What about the good old Andrew Carnegie, employing a private [[army ]] to brutally suppress organized labor and then distributing large parts of his wealth for educational, [[arts ]] and humanitarian causes, proving that, although a man of steel, he has a heart of gold? In the same way, today’s liberal communists give with one hand what they first took away with the other.
This is what makes a [[figure ]] like Soros ethically so problematic. His daily routine is a lie embodied: Half of his working [[time ]] is devoted to financial speculations and the other half to humanitarian activities (providing finances for [[cultural ]] and democratic activities in [[post-Communist ]] countries, underwriting the movement in the [[United States ]] to get [[public ]] money out of private elections, coining pejorative [[terms ]] like “free-market fundamentalists”) that ultimately fight the effects of his own speculations. Likewise the two faces of Bill Gates: a cruel businessman, destroying or buying out competitors, aiming at [[virtual ]] monopoly, employing all the dirty tricks to achieve his goals … and the greatest philanthropist in the [[history ]] of mankind.
In the liberal communist [[ethics]], the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: Charity today is the humanitarian mask that hides the underlying economic exploitation. In a [[blackmail ]] of gigantic proportions, the developed countries are constantly “helping” the undeveloped (with aid, credits, etc.), thereby avoiding the key issue, namely, their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable [[situation ]] of the undeveloped.
And the same goes for the very opposition between the “smart” and “non-smart” approach. [[Outsourcing ]] is the key notion here. By way of outsourcing, you export the (necessary) dark side—low wages, harsh labor practices, ecological pollution—to “non-smart” [[Third ]] World places (or invisible places in the First World itself). The ultimate liberal communist [[dream ]] is to export the [[working class ]] itself to the invisible Third World sweatshops.
Etienne [[Balibar]], the French [[Marxist ]] [[philosopher]], distinguishes the two opposite but complementary forms of excessive violence in the world today: the [[objective ]] (“structural”) violence that is inherent in the social [[conditions ]] of global capitalism—i.e., the “automatic” creation of excluded and dispensable individuals (the homeless, the uninsured, the unemployed)—and the [[subjective ]] violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious fundamentalisms. While they fight subjective violence, liberal communists are the very agents of the [[structural ]] violence that creates the conditions for such explosions of subjective violence. Precisely because liberal communists want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global [[capital ]] system—to render it “frictionless” for their mechanations—they are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the [[system ]] as such.
In the midst of any necessary tactical alliances one has to make with liberal communists when fighting [[racism]], sexism and religious obscurantism, we should [[remember]]: Liberal communists are the [[enemy ]] of every true progressive struggle today.
* [[The Liberal Communists of Porto Davos]]. ''In These [[Times]]''. April 11, 2006. <>
[[Category:Articles by Slavoj Žižek]]
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