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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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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: “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 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 “ex-timaterelationship 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 Laclau claims is the case. Pace Žižek:

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.)

This problem of choice apropos the subject of the economic is why, since 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!”