Features » June 20, 2008
The Ambiguous Legacy of 68 (cont’d)
What better proof of capitalism’s triumph in the last three decades than the disappearance of the very term “capitalism”? So, again, the only true question today is: Do we endorse this naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain contradictions strong enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?
There are (at least) four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of private property rights for so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, in the form of new walls and slums.
The first three antagonisms concern the domains of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call “commons” – the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act that should be resisted with violent means, if necessary (violence against private property, that is).
The commons of external nature are threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and natural habitat itself); the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity) are threatened by technological interference; and the commons of culture – the socialized forms of “cognitive” capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc. – are privatized for profit. (If Bill Gates were to be allowed a monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual would have owned the software texture of our basic network of communication.)
We are gradually becoming aware of the destructive potential, up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself, that could be unleashed if the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons is allowed a free run.
Economist Nicholas Stern rightly characterized the climate crisis as “the greatest market failure in human history.”
There is an increasing awareness that we need global environmental citizenship, a political space to address climate change as a matter of common concern of all humanity.
One should give weight to the terms “global citizenship” and “common concern.” Doesn’t this desire to establish a global political organization and engagement that will neutralize and channel market forces mean that we are in need of a properly communist perspective? The need to protect the “commons” justifies the resuscitation of the notion of Communism: It enables us to see the ongoing “enclosure” of our commons as a process of proletarization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance.
It is, however, only the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded that properly justifies the term Communism. In slums around the world, we are witnessing the fast growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants and ex-peasants make up this population, they are not simply a redundant surplus: They are incorporated into the global economy, many working as informal wage workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security coverage. (The main source of their rise is the inclusion of the Third World countries in the global economy, with cheap food imports from the First World countries ruining local agriculture.) These new slum dwellers are not an unfortunate accident, but a necessary product of the innermost logic of global capitalism.
Whoever lives in the favelas – or shanty towns – of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or in Shanghai, China, is not essentially different from someone who lives in the banlieues – or outskirts – of Paris or the ghettos of Chicago.
If the principal task of the 19th century’s emancipatory politics was to break the monopoly of the bourgeois liberals by politicizing the working class, and if the task of the 20th century was to politically awaken the immense rural population of Asia and Africa, the principal task of the 21st century is to politicize – organize and discipline – the “destructured masses” of slum-dwellers.
If we ignore this problem of the Excluded, all other antagonisms lose their subversive edge.
Ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development. Intellectual property turns into a complex legal challenge. Biogenetics becomes an ethical issue. Corporations – like Whole Foods and Starbucks – enjoy favor among liberals even though they engage in anti-union activities; they just sell products with a progressive spin.
You buy coffee made with beans bought at above fair-market value.
You drive a hybrid vehicle.
You buy from companies that provide good benefits for their customers (according to corporation’s standards).
In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian fighting poverty and diseases, and NewCorp’s Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.
In contrast to the classic image of proletarians who have “nothing to lose but their chains,” we are thus ALL in danger of losing ALL. The risk is that we will be reduced to abstract empty Cartesian subjects deprived of substantial content, dispossessed of symbolic substance, our genetic base manipulated, vegetating in an unlivable environment.
These triple threats to our being make all of us potential proletarians. And the only way to prevent actually becoming one is to act preventively.
The true legacy of ‘68 is best encapsulated in the formula Soyons realistes, demandons l’impossible! (Let’s be realists, demand the impossible.)
Today’s utopia is the belief that the existing global system can reproduce itself indefinitely. The only way to be realistic is to envision what, within the coordinates of this system, cannot but appear as impossible.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.