Class/Antagonism

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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Given the slash sign that separates class and antagonism, this entry can be approached in three ways that correspond to three theoretical moments in Slavoj Žižek’s discourse. First, there is the post-Marxist moment of “antagonism”qua the Real whereby Žižek affirms the thesis of the impossibility of society as such, as irreconcilable with class antagonism, and yet gives this impossibility a thoroughly psychoanalytical inflection by explaining how enjoyment (jouissance) is organized around it. Second, there is the post-Marxist moment of “class antagonism”, which refers to the impossibility of achieving a harmonious social organization of class relations through a translation of Lacan’s well-known formulae regarding the non-existence of sexual relationship. And, finally, there is the Marxist moment of “class” as a particular content, which, through its fundamental exclusion, overdetermines and grounds a certain historical horizon.

The first moment that refers to Žižek’s development of the notion of antagonism qua the Real can be traced, in part, to his earlier conversations with the post-Marxist discourse of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (“Beyond Discourse Analysis”: 249–60). Žižek seems to be broadly in agreement with Laclau and Mouffe resignifying the concept of antagonism as “the limit of all objectivity” by distinguishing it from the Marxist notion of contradiction – which Laclau and Mouffe argue harbours an essentialist ontology as it subordinates the effects of all social antagonisms to the mediating determination of class antagonism. At the same time, Žižek offers a favourable critique by pushing the framework of Laclau and Mouffe towards a psychoanalytically precise definition of this limit as the Real: “The traumatic kernel the symbolization of which always fails” (“Beyond Discourse Analysis”: 251). Signification produces a cut, a remainder, a surplus that, acting as the anchorage point of enjoyment, permanently disrupts from within the operation of imaginary and symbolic identifications, and therefore is responsible for why (a transparent organization of) society does not exist.

Žižek’s crucial point is that, in so far as discourse theory is unable to give an account of jouissance and remains merely at the level of deconstructing meaning, it runs the risk of moderating and curtailing the radical implications of antagonism as the Real of the social. It also misses the constitutive role of fantasy in patching up the fundamental antagonism of society by providing a particular “solution” to the organization of jouissance in the figure of an external cause that brings social harmony into ruin. For instance, in the supreme fantasy of anti-semitism, it is the corrosive identity of the Jew, associated with the finance/merchant capital that exploits the “‘productive’ classes”, that functions as this external obstacle. Žižek introduces “class” as an adjective that modifies antagonism precisely at this stage, when he reads “the Jew” as a fantasmatic figure that displaces the “source of … class antagonism” away from “the basic relation between the working and ruling classes” to the relation between a corporatist, productive social body and the corrosive financier/merchant (the Jew) who exploits this social body (SO: 125–26).

Nonetheless, the notion of class antagonism as a binary opposition that informs this pivotal example still falls short of capturing the psychoanalytical notion of “antagonism” in its most radical meaning. If, rather than focusing on this example, we look at the principal tendency that runs through Žižek’s writings, we find that Žižek does not in fact locate the “source of class antagonism” in the particular antagonism “between the working and ruling classes”. On the contrary, he repeatedly argues against such a theorization since this would conflate the psychoanalytic concept of antagonism as the ineradicable obstacle that throws into disarray every identity with the notion of antagonism as the particular relation between oppositional identities. In the subject-position model of class antagonism between the proletarian and the capitalist, each identity is presented as what prevents the other from achieving its identity, that is, the capitalist is the obstacle, the external enemy preventing the proletarian from realizing their full human potential. Žižek, however, argues that one should “invert” the relationship between these two terms:

It is not the external enemy who is preventing me from achieving identity with myself, but every identity is already in itself blocked, marked by an impossibility, and the external enemy is simply the small piece, the rest of reality upon which we “project” or “externalize” this intrinsic, immanent impossibility. (“Beyond Discourse Analysis”: 251–2)

Žižek draws further conclusions regarding class antagonism when he translates the Lacanian formulae regarding the impossibility of sexual relationship into the context of class politics: “There is no class relationship” (SO: 126; LC: 295). He does not mean by this that there are no concrete class structures, but that any attempt by participants to institute a ‘‘normal’’ way of organizing class relations is bound to fail. Class antagonism does not refer to the particular antagonisms between the serf and the lord, the proletariat and the capitalist, the slave and the master. Rather, class antagonism is the very impossibility of achieving an ideal class structure that can ultimately fix class relations. Approached from the perspective of the Real of class antagonism, it is possible to view various concrete articulations of class positions as socially invented (symbolic and imaginary) identities that make up for the non-existence of proper class relations. Each concrete class structure, or a particular class antagonism, like the one Žižek mobilizes in the example mentioned above, between “the working and ruling classes”, is ‘‘already a ‘reactive’ or ‘defense’ formation, an attempt to ‘cope with’ (to come to terms with, to pacify …) the trauma of class antagonism” (“Four Discourses”: 81). Nevertheless, these particular defence formations inevitably fail to stabilize the Real of class antagonism. A key indication of this is that, whenever class antagonism is translated into the “opposition of classes qua positive, existing social groups”, such as bourgeois versus working class, or the top elite versus middle class, “a surplus, a third element that does not ‘fit’ this opposition” emerges, such as the lumpenproletariat, or the immigrant workers (“The Real of Sexual Diff erence”: 74).

It is important to stress that “class antagonism” is not merely another venue (adding to the series of gender, racial, ethnic antagonisms and so on) for Žižek to restage his position on the deadlock of sexual relation. If “antagonism” qua the Real is Žižek’s re-interpretation of the post-Marxist attempt at undoing class essentialism, “class antagonism” is his psychoanalytical in(ter)vention enabling him to persist within, while radically transforming, the field of post-Marxism. This is to say that “class antagonism” is not simply Žižek’s psychoanalytical application of antagonism to the issue of class, but rather his provocation for rethinking Marxist class politics since it puts into question the myriad utopian preoccupations that have drawn their moral force from fantasies of class reconciliation.

Žižek especially takes issue with communist fantasies that represent capitalism as a self-revolutionizing movement that would bring about its own end and deliver a society of producers free of enjoyment (i.e. aggression, envy and resentment) (“Multitude, Surplus, and Envy”). He supports his critique by drawing from Lacan’s homology between surplus jouissance and surplus value. Jouissance is not an assimilable excess that can be done away with in order to render signification whole again. Surplus value is not an assimilable excess that can be rid of so as to assist the passage from capitalism to communim. This homology opens up a space to pose a series of crucial questions for class politics, such as how to relate to or enjoy the irreducibility of class antagonism, and what would it mean to traverse the fantasy of class reconciliation. At the same time, the homology, in so far as it collapses the different roles the concepts of surplus value and surplus jouissance play within their respective problematics of Marxist political economy and Lacanian psychoanalysis, also raises some intractable questions for Žižek: if surplus value, just like surplus jouissance, is ineradicable, then does that mean capitalism is here to stay as the only possible defence formation for organizing “class antagonism”?

Our third and final moment refers to the particular way Žižek mobilizes the idea of “class” as a specific repressed content, describing it sometimes as foreclosed and sometimes as disavowed. This idea appears especially in his conjunctural formulations on the overdetermination of the social by class antagonism. In such formulations, the complex interweaving of different theoretical investments (which have their diverse sources in a combination of the Althusserian concept of structural causality, the Hegelian concept of oppositional determination and the Lacanian concept of foreclosure, as well as possibly others) suggests at times a diversion from the notion of class antagonism qua the Real and results in some confusion and possible tension in Žižek’s work.

These are the times when, for instance, Žižek treats class antagonism as a specifically privileged entity that, while “certainly appearing as one in a series of social antagonisms”, simultaneously “predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity” (CHU: 320). In such contexts, in which class antagonism is characterized as “one touchy nodal point” that stands apart from other antagonisms in its constitutive force to “secretly overdetermine” the social horizon that it is also a part of, the accent moves away from “antagonism” qua the Real towards a more traditional notion of “class” as deep structure. Here, class, through its exclusion, provides a condition of possibility for what Žižek designates as postmodern radical democractic politics (CHU: 96, 108). Th is renders Žižek vulnerable to accusations of positing a new version of the Marxist base-superstructure model; nevertheless, Žižek’s writings on class and antagonism should be read as a symptom of his complex relationship both to the contemporary Lacanian Left and the Marxist tradition.