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Economics

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== In the work of Slavoj Žižek ==
The [[subject ]] of economics [[enjoys ]] a crucial, if seemingly ambiguous, [[place ]] in Žižek’s oeuvre. On the one hand, Žižek has repeatedly insisted on the contemporary relevance of [[Karl Marx|Marx]]’s “critique of [[political ]] economy”, positing the [[capitalist ]] [[mode of production ]] as the [[transcendental ]] determining force of any [[social ]] [[totality]]. Yet, on the [[other ]] hand, Žižek’s focus on economics has been singularly defined by its thorough engagement with, and critical revision of, the [[theoretical ]] problems endemic to essentialist models of [[economic ]] [[determinism ]] that problematically characterized a large strand of [[Marxist ]] [[philosophy ]] throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To this end, Žižek’s [[synthesis ]] of Marx’s “critique of political economy” with [[Sigmund Freud|Freud]]’s [[psychoanalytic ]] account of the psyche’s [[libidinal ]] [[economy ]] can be read as an attempt systemically to revise, and newly account for, the place the [[desiring ]] subject and [[unconscious ]] forms of social [[fantasy ]] occupy in the social [[construction ]] of capitalism’s “objective “[[objective]] laws” of economics.
Yet despite his works’ nuanced critique of [[economism]], this has not kept his many critics – such as [[Ernesto Laclau]] and [[Judith Butler]] – from charging Žižek with the [[endorsement ]] of an implicit, albeit updated version of the same tendency. In their co-written [[work]], ''[[Contingency, Hegemony, Universality]]'', [[Laclau ]] criticizes Žižek’s Marxist [[theory ]] of [[capitalism ]] for operating within “a new version of the base/superstructure model” (''CHU'': 293). According to Laclau, Žižek’s economism results from his positing “a fundamental level on which capitalism proceeds according to its own [[logic]], undisturbed by [[external ]] influences” (''ibid''.). Because he understands Žižek’s [[model ]] of capitalism as a [[self]]-generated economic [[process ]] that simply unfolds the [[logical ]] consequences deriving from an “elementary [[conceptual ]] matrix”, Laclau argues that the Žižekian theory of economics ineluctably “returns to the nineteenth-century [[myth ]] of an enclosed economic space” (''CHU'': 291).
While ultimately incorrect, Laclau’s critique is not completely misplaced. Indeed, for Žižek, the capitalist economy – that is, “the [[structure ]] of the [[universe ]] of commodities and capital” – represents far more than simply one [[dimension ]] of modern [[life ]] among [[others]]. As Žižek states in his essay “[[Lenin’s Choice]]”, the sphere of the economy should be grasped as “not just that of a limited empirical sphere, but [as] a kind of socio-transcendental ''[[a priori]]'', the [[matrix ]] which generates the totality of social and political relations” (''RG'': 271). Such a radically determinate viewpoint of the economy’s politically transcendent force ''vis-à-vis'' the social totality is consistent with the entirety of Žižek’s [[intellectual ]] career. Indeed, in Žižek’s ''[[The Sublime Object of Ideology]]'', he promotes the rather essentialist-sounding [[claim ]] that “in the structure of the [[commodity]]-[[form]], it is possible to find the transcendental subject” of [[society ]] (''SO'': 16). By this, Žižek means that the abstract structure of the commodity-form (i.e. its determinate [[role ]] in mediating social [[acts ]] of production, [[exchange ]] and consumption) should be [[understood ]] not as a rationally neutral economic tool, but as a “real “[[real]] abstraction” – a social form of economic abstraction (i.e. exchange [[value ]] embodied in [[money]]) that temporally precedes and thus objectively determines forms of modern [[subjectivity ]] (''SO'': 16–30). In making such claims, Žižek follows in the theoretical footsteps of the Western Marxist [[tradition ]] began by [[Georg Lukács]], who departed from the vulgar economism of the Second International during the 1920s, and for whom “the [[class]]-and-commodity structure of capitalism is not just [[[thought ]] of as] a phenomenon limited to the [[particular ]] ‘domain’ of the economy, but the [very] [[structuring ]] [[principle ]] that [[Overdetermination|overdetermines]] the social totality” (''CHU'': 96). Hence, Žižek claims that the “social organization of production (‘the mode of production’) is not just one among many levels of social organization, it is the site of ‘contradiction’ … which, as such, spills over into all other levels” of social [[reality ]] (''LC'': 295).
As “essentialist” as these aforementioned claims appear at first glance, there [[exists ]] a [[whole ]] “other scene” in Žižek’s work, one that insists on precisely the opposite fact: namely, that the determinate [[figure ]] of the economy is precisely “not-all”(in the [[Lacanian ]] [[sense]]), not a coherent whole or totality of social [[existence]]. In this conception, the economic horizon represents not a transcendental [[cause]], but rather a sort of social [[limit ]] or “traumatic “[[traumatic]] kernel”, which is expressed by the political existence of the [[class struggle]]. In ''[[Living in the End Times]]'', Žižek argues in this vein, [[stating ]] that the “the ‘economy’ cannot be reduced to a sphere of the positive ‘order ‘[[order]] of being’, precisely insofar as it is always political, insofar as political (‘class’) [[struggle ]] is at its very heart” (''ET'': 198). In ''[[In Defense of Lost Causes]]'', Žižek refers to the “determining role of the economy” both as an “absent “[[absent]] cause” and as “an ‘impotent’ pseudo-cause” of the social (''LC'': 291). According to this line of thought, “the determining role of the economy” should not, pace Žižek, be imagined as a “hidden meta-[[essence ]] which then expresses itself within a two-level-distance in a [[cultural ]] struggle” (''LC'': 290). Rather, as he describes it in [[Less Than Nothing|''Less Than Nothing'']]: “it [the economy] is the absent X which circulates between the multiple levels of the social field (economic, political, [[ideological]], [[legal ]] …), distributing [[them ]] in their specific articulation” (''LN'': 361).
These two seemingly contradictory motifs in Žižek’s work apropos the problem of economics (i.e. “the sphere of the economy”) beg the following question: is the sphere of the economy a “transcendental logic” – that is, the fundamental basis of which other cultural phenomena of struggle (such as those of [[religion]], [[race]], [[gender ]] and [[sexuality]]) [[represent ]] a mere epiphenomenal expression? The first way to resolve this [[apparent ]] ambiguity in Žižek’s work is to [[understand ]] what he means by the [[terms ]] “economics” and “economy”. While in everyday [[discourse ]] we often refer to and [[identify ]] “the economic” as an [[autonomous ]] field of [[social reality]], for Žižek the economy represents no such [[thing]]. In fact, it is precisely the [[reification ]] of the economy into a positive order of [[being ]] (“a thing”) that redeems Žižek’s work from the simple charge of economism. How so? How can the economy not have a positive existence in the [[world]], especially when [[global ]] markets, commodities-exchanges and the industrialized sphere of [[material ]] production certainly [[exist ]] in a very materially apparent way?
To begin with, it is important to [[recall ]] how the fallacy of economism usually proceeds. As is well known, one of the primary conceptual limits of orthodox Marxist thought (much like [[liberal ]] thought, surprisingly) was its mistaken [[belief ]] that the field of economics represented a [[rational]], self-sufficient field of social existence, whose objective laws would inevitably lead to capitalism’s eventual demise. For orthodox [[Marxism]], the economy (“the base”) acts as the determining force upon which all other social facts are founded, reducing the “merely cultural” realm (the superstructure) to an epiphenomenal, even [[illusory]], existence. As [[Karl Marx|Marx]] puts it in his ''[[Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]]'': “The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, ''the real foundation'' [italics mine], on which arises a legal and political superstructure” ([[Marx ]] 1977: 7). In Marx’s description, only the economy is “real” and historically decisive, a positive force of social existence whose “real foundation” upholds the illusory realm of [[culture ]] ([[ideology]]).
Employing the insights of Lacanian [[psychoanalysis]], however, Žižek follows the reverse strategy by de-substantializing the economy of its [[ontological ]] integrity and by materializing ideology, turning economy into a [[contingent ]] type of social relation and the realm of ideology into a material site of real abstraction. So while the economy might not be real as in an [[object ]] one can touch, taste or feel, it is very much Real in Lacanian terms. This is because [[the Real ]] is not a positive existent for [[Lacan]], but the very gap – [[lack ]] or [[absence ]] – that separates the [[symbolic ]] order from itself (“not all”). Hence, “the economic”, Žižek claims, “is thus doubly inscribed in the precise sense which defines the Lacanian Real: it is simultaneously the hard core ‘expressed’ in other struggles through displacements and other forms of [[distortion]], and the very struggling principle of these distortions” (''LC'': 291). Against liberal and vulgar Marxist theories of economics, then, there is no “economy” in itself, according to Žižek. The economic is “always already” distributed in culturally symbolic terms, making the political reality of culture a mediated form of class struggle “in a [[displaced ]] mode” (''PV'': 359–65). Hence, the economic sphere is defined by its “[[Extimacy|ex-timate]]” [[relationship ]] to the [[multiplicity ]] of social relationships that articulate the economic relation itself. The modern subject encounters its economic [[position ]] in a distorted, “parallax” fashion: that is, in terms of sexuality, race, religion, nationality, and so on. Indeed, as Žižek describes it in ''[[The Parallax View]]'': “the relationship between economy and [[politics ]] is ultimately that of the well-known [[paradox ]] of ‘two faces or a vase’: you see either two faces or a vase, never both – you have to make a choice” (''PV'': 271). The subject, for Žižek, is never ''[[homo economicus]]''.
It is precisely this specific [[understanding ]] of the political, as marking the distance of the economy from itself, that keeps Žižek’s understanding of capitalism from [[repeating ]] the “myth of a self-enclosed economic space”, which [[Ernesto Laclau|Laclau]] claims is the [[case]]. ''Pace'' Žižek:<blockquote>What we are dealing with here is [[another ]] version of the Lacanian “il n’y a pas de rapport …”: there is ''no relationship between economy and politics'', no “metalanguage” that enables us to grasp the two levels from the same neutral standpoint, although – or, rather, because – these two levels are inextricably intertwined. (''Ibid''.)</blockquote><blockquote></blockquote>This problem of [[choice ]] apropos the subject of the economic is why, since ''[[The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology|The Ticklish Subject]]'', Žižek has staunchly advocated the “repoliticisation of the economy”: namely, “to bring [[about ]] a society in which risky long-term decisions [with [[regard ]] to the economy] would ensue from [[public ]] debate” (''TS'': 353). Thus, as opposed to the orthodox Marxist view, in which “the economy” and “the [[working]]-class” represent two positively defined terms in an enclosed [[space]], Žižek’s work shows how the antagonistic site of economy likewise de-ontologizes the very [[nature ]] of the social itself.
This is also why it is crucial to insist on the central role of the critique of ''political'' economy: the “economy” cannot be reduced to a sphere of the positive order of being precisely in so far as it is always already political, in so far as political (“class”) struggle is at its very heart. In other [[words]], one should always bear in [[mind ]] that, for a [[true ]] Marxist, “classes” are not [[categories ]] of social existence, parts of the social [[body]], but categories of the real of a political struggle that cuts across the entire [[social body]], preventing its “totalization”.
Hence, unlike those [[leftist ]] thinkers of “pure politics” such as [[Ernesto Laclau]] and [[Alain Badiou]], “the true task [today]”, according to Žižek, is “to [[think ]] the two dimensions together: the transcendental logic of the commodity form as a mode of functioning of the social totality, and class struggle as the [[antagonism ]] that cuts across social reality, as its point of subjectivization” (''ET'': 201). Or as Žižek would say, “It’s the ''Political'' Economy, Stupid!”
[[Category:Zizek_Dictionary]]
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