The Liberal Communists of Porto Davos

Slavoj Žižek

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 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 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.

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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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