Lecture Notes on Ideology and CapitalismIdeology 257 Aimee Inomata
These are the notes read for a lecture, not a formal paper (i.e. grammar, paragraphing, etc).
So ideology – what is it and why does it matter. Well to get a grip on it we need to start at the same place that the word itself does because like the those words I used in last week’s lecture such as art, culture and industry, the word ideology has also undergone significant shifts in meaning so much so that those words like art, culture and industry now form a little subset under the word ideology, that is, they tend to be used in the service of and be expressions of this thing called Ideology. So the word itself is coined in 1795 by the French revolutionary aristocrat Destutt de Tracy in a prison cell during the happily named Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1789. The word, like the man himself, was very much the product of the Enlightenment – the Age of Reason – when it seemed there was no problem that could not be solved by the solid application of rational minds and science promised Man a similar kind of knowledge and power to God. The Enlightenment is exceedingly important to the western world because many, if not most, of our ideals and value are a product of this time – concepts like equality amongst all men, just and fair societies and our own conviction that where there is a problem, we will, through calm and rational thought, be able to find a solution – these are all the legacy of the Enlightenment. And we will see later how these have contributed to an ideology of their own.
So in line with Enlightenment thinking, ideology is first conceived of by De Tracy as a SCIENCE – that is something both calculable and measurable. It would be the reconstruction and recording of the human mind, a map of the way in which sensations generate ideas – a science of consciousness such that laws of operations, actual systems of thought could be drawn up and illustrated so that an exact map of what sensation produced what thought could be shown. Now, this sounds a little like psychology but it differs for its aim was not the successful functioning or mental health of the individual but rather how this science of consciousness strove for something bigger. De Tracy hoped that it would have a profound impact on society for with this knowledge of how to tweak the mind, society itself could therefore be made entirely rational and the people within it emancipated from the fears and superstitions that seemed to him (remember he conceived of this sitting in a prison cell) only caused trouble.
Unfortunately around the same time, a certain famous Corsican called Napoleon was rapidly gaining power and was astute enough to see, in the way that dictators always are, that a society free of fear and superstition might not be so open to a dictatorship. So Napoleon decided in a move repeated throughout history, that de Tracy and his theory of ideology were, in fact, the cause of society’s unrest and certainly to blame for his recent defeat in Russia and so he said:
“It is to the doctrine of the ideologies – to this diffuse metaphysics, which in a contrived manner seeks to find the primary causes and on this foundation would erect the legislation of peoples, instead of adapting the laws to a knowledge of the human heart and of the lessons of history – to which one must attribute all the misfortunes which have befallen our beautiful France.”
Translation: People need the comfort of illusions in order to live by and too much rationalism is bad for the soul. Now, you may agree with Napoleon or disagree but the effect of his words is that ideology swings from being a scientific study, what De Tracy had conceived of as a kind of zoology to something pejorative – something abstract and speculative – an intellectual pursuit that had little to do with the average citizen or indeed his human heart.
Enter Karl Marx. Now Marx and Marxism are a name and a philosophy that have reverberated through the 20thCentury and Marxism may be something that you wish to pursue further in which case far more than the brief summary I’m about to give will be necessary but for the purposes of this lecture, these are the important points to note:
For Marxists, history or social change occurs through the struggle (dialectical struggle) between two classes – the proletariat and the capitalists. The proletariat is the labourer who has to sell his labor power in order to survive; the capitalist is the owner of the means of production to whom the labourer sells his labor power. There is actually also a third class in the capitalist mode of production and that is the so-called middle class or infamous bourgeoisie who do not sell their labour power directly but who provide services (for the labourers and capitalists) such as merchants, doctors, teachers etc and who identify themselves with the capitalists – serving their interests rather than the proletariats. For Marx then ideology is necessary in a capitalist society to keep the proletariat in his place and convince him/her that where they are is where they’re meant to be. But in the first formulation of the term ‘ideology’ Marx and his buddy Friedrich Engels pull a radical move (The German Ideology). They assert that, as De Tracy had believed, consciousness and social practice (the way we communicate, behave, interact with others) are indeed closely bound BUT unlike De Tracy, they did not believe that first we have consciousness and from this develop our social practices. They thought it happened the other way around – that social practice precedes consciousness. This means that contrary to the standard belief that in order to transform society, the minds of the people must be transformed first (people + transformed minds = better society), Marx proposed that actually the only way to transform peoples minds was to transform the conditions in which they lived (people + transformed society = better minds) In a nutshell SOCIETY must be changed in order for the individual consciousness to be changed.
So Marx famously says ‘Men and women make history but not under conditions of their own making.’ This means we are born into an already existing society in which we already have a position determined for us by our socio-economic class and gender. It’s for this reason that Marx says “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. It is these ruling ideas which construct the way we are supposed to live our lives and these ruling ideas must make the position into which we are born seem both entirely natural and just – the way things have always been. But this is a false consciousness which for Marx is precisely the work of ideology – ideology creates a false picture of reality.
So for the early Marx we can see that consciousness and power are closely linked and that until we are truly conscious of just who holds the power and why, then society cannot change – the ruling class continues to promote a system that keeps it in power. The more conscious one is, then the more power becomes an issue, the more aware one is OF an ideology at work. BUT what if this ideology was not only what gave your society its values and beliefs and customs and practices but was, in fact, also what gave you you? What if you, sitting here now, are simply ideology in the flesh?
For Louis Althusser, a French Marxist writing in 1969 “there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.” Translation: that is without the subject (you and I) there can be no such thing as ideology. But Althusser goes a step further in his famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses” and states that it is actually ideology that constitutes or makes the concrete individual INTO a subject. This means that we, in the western world, are born into an ideological system that sees us AS subjects.
Now, what does this word ‘subject’, a word which we will encounter over and over again, mean? Well, if we look at it we can see that there is a fundamental ambiguity built into the word ‘subject’. For it means or denotes a) one who is the free author of and responsible for his/her actions but it also simultaneously means/denotes b) one who is a subject of and to a higher authority – that is I am subject to the authority of the state. So what this actually means then is that the subject then really only has the freedom supposedly integral to the concept of subject (of the first definition) to accept his/her submission TO the higher authority.
So Althusser maintains that this ambiguity is in fact ideology at work – the individual is acknowledged as a free subject (first definition) precisely so he freely submits to authority – that is it appears, most importantly to himself, that he chooses to submit of his own free will and in this way ‘he subjects himself’. And this subjecting of him/herself is something that has always already happened. Althusser believes that ideology hails or interpellates the subject even before s/he is born and it begins with a naming, that is, the name you are given (which is chosen for you), which is what confirms your entry and position into the world as subject. And of course it is your name by which you are first hailed, called by and to. But our name seems such an integral part of who we are so what does this suggest?
Well, it means that if ideology, as Althusser claims, is responsible for constructing the subject then ideology is a fundamental part of who we are. So, ideology shifts again from being a false consciousness as in the early Marx to a facet of consciousness itself. From being a false way of seeing the world to being just the way we see the world – a bit the way a fish cannot see the water in which it swims. But is this true? Does this mean we never quite see things as they really are? As Althusser states ‘Ideology is the imagined relations of individuals to the real conditions of existence.’
Now there are two well-known theorists Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey who present the argument that writing does not work to uncover ideologies but rather is in the process of creating and enforcing them. But how does it do this? Balibar and Macherey argue that in particular the literary form fabricates a unity of which the reader then becomes a part. A unity? What do they mean by a unity? Well, they mean something like the resolution of conflicts, the reconciling of contradictions especially those of ideologies – particularly those between socio-economic classes. Their point is that literature exists precisely because these contradictions and conflicts CANNOT be resolved in anything except a fictional world or as they put it:
‘literature is produced finally through the effect of one or more ideological contradictions precisely because these contradictions cannot be solved within the ideology.’
We can look at the example of detective fiction to illustrate this. We all know the genre but we do not often think about the set of assumptions that we always bring to the texts (which include the plethora of crime shows on tv) – assumptions that reinforce the ideology of which we are a part, in which we are swimming as it were. The subjects of the story, both criminals and detectives who are at once autonomous and responsible for their own lives but subject also and always to a higher authority – that of the law. Now interestingly criminal and detective must share a number of characteristics in order for the detective to catch the criminal, that is, the detective must be able to think like a criminal BUT what distinguishes the criminal from the detective is that the criminal subscribes only to the first definition of subject while the detective subscribes to both definitions. That is the criminal behaves as though he or she really is autonomous and free from all restrictions, that is, the first definition of the subject, while the detective recognizes AND enforces the concept of being autonomous only to the degree that it does not infringe on being subject to the law. Those people, like the criminal, who subscribe only to the first definition therefore are generally removed from the system. So, though we take for granted the presuppositions of detective fiction or crime fiction, they function quite nicely as enforcers of ideology and it is precisely these things that seem too obvious to be questioned that might be things at which we want to take another look – like the idea behind our naming.
Now, you might argue against Balibar and Macharey that this is actually what writing does – makes us take another look. So then, what’s the answer? Is it an ideological tool or not? Does it work for or against ideological practice?
Well, for an answer let’s go back to the idea of the subject and the ambiguity built into the word itself as Althusser points out.
So, what does ambiguity mean? Well, there are different kinds of ambiguity but in its most general sense it means that something may be read in more than one way and therefore its meaning is not clear. For example, a student of mine saw this sign in a chemist’s window “We dispense with accuracy”. So, we can read this in two ways – now what’s particularly interesting about this is that the words the chemist has chosen to represent to us just how good his business is do on one reading do that but these exact same words also work to utterly undermine that impression and give us an entirely different sense – again, just like Althusser’s ‘subject.’
So, we have one phrase with two meanings that contradict each other. How is this possible?
Well, one answer might be that what’s being displayed here is the very nature of language, that is, if language is how we represent both the world and ourselves then there is always a gap between how we use language – what we say – and how it is received and interpreted by other people. We’ve all experienced those moments of misunderstanding, those moments that also mean there is a chemist who dispenses with accuracy.
So we can see that ambiguity just is a feature of language.
Now we have already seen that ideology is also dependant on ambiguity – in the gap between representation and reality. Another well-known theorist called Paul De Man says ‘what we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality.’
Translation: the words we use to talk about how things are and how things ACTUALLY are are not the same thing. And this is why writing can be an ideological tool; because we can linguistically (i.e. through language) create a world that is not a natural reality but make it seem as though it is. This is why George Bush can talk about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘an axis of evil’ and have it seem to refer to something real. But what is this reality of which we constantly speak?
And thus we come to Slavoj Zizek – one of the most prolific cultural commentators of the last twenty years and one of Zizek’s main topics of interest has been and is that of ideology – lately in particular he has been interested in how various commentators have described the developed world as one that is post-ideological. He takes the concepts of ideology that Marx and Althusser have delineated and expands them so he says
Ideology has nothing to do with “illusion”, with a mistaken, distorted representation of its social content but rather that the function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape and therefore what this means is that the stepping out of what we experience as ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it.
So what does this mean? Well Zizek goes on to say
An ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it: “not all is ideology, beneath the ideological mask I am also a human person” is THE VERY FORM OF IDEOLOGY, of its “practical efficiency.”
So what Zizek is suggesting here is that it is precisely when we believe that we have identified a set of practices, beliefs, values etc as an ideology, as ideological that we are perhaps the most firmly embedded in the ideology itself. He states:
A gesture which draws the line of separation between “real problems” and “ideological chimeras” is, from Plato onwards, the very founding gesture of ideology: ideology is by definition self-referential – that is, it establishes itself by assuming a distance towards (what it denounces as) “mere ideology”.
So what we can say here is that what is at issue here is our very sense of what IS real and that we believe that we can even make this distinction between what IS real and what is not IS by its very nature ideological – this is what Zizek is referring to in his mention of Plato. Plato distinguished between what he called philosophical episteme which equaled real knowledge and the doxa of the crowd which was opinion and belief neither of which as far as Plato was concerned necessarily contained any real knowledge. So what this means, as Zizek suggests, is that from Plato onwards we have already been caught in a kind of ideology which tells us what is ‘real knowledge’ and what is not so our very definition of what is real and what is not is not grounded on some bedrock of ultimate truth – it’s actually grounded on Plato’s doxa or beliefs. So Zizek says
The fundamental level of ideology is not an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy (and we’ll talk more about the unconscious fantasy later) structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course, far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way (more of this in cynicism lecture) – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic distance, WE ARE STILL DOING THEM.
So what is this ‘social reality’ and a ‘post-ideological society’? Well, social reality is what we regard as ‘just the way things are’ – it’s that sense of helplessness you have at times when you read the newspaper or watch the news or CNN or, if you really are a hopeless fantasist, Fox News – it’s a reality where some things are simply inevitable and cannot be helped – in fact this is often how we tend to define the word ‘reality’. The reality is, we say, that the world is neither fair nor just and our reaction to this is either an active one or a passive one. Active in the sense that either individually or in an organised group we then attempt to make society fairer or more just. Passive in the sense that we employ the kind of cynical distance to which Zizek refers – recognizing the inadequacies and inherent corruption of the society or world in which we live, that is, supposedly not being taken in by the ideology of which we are aware and also surrounded by but understanding also that there’s simply nothing we can do about it. And both of these reactions to ‘reality’ are, says Zizek, precisely examples of ideology at work. He notes:
The form of consciousness that fits late-capitalist “post-ideological” society – the cynical, “sober” attitude that advocates liberal “openness” in the matter of “opinions” (everybody is free to believe whatever she or he wants; this concerns only his or her privacy), disregards pathetic ideological phrases, and follows only utilitarian and/or hedonistic motivations – stricto sensu remains an ideological attitude: it involves a series of ideological presuppositions (on the relationship between “values” and “real life”, on personal freedom, etc.) that are necessary for the reproduction of existing social relations.
That is, we like to think we are conscious of those obvious ideological phrases that we associate with things like communism or weapons of mass destruction – for now we are more sophisticated and recognize the necessity of the individual’s right to their own beliefs, values, freedom – that is we have become what’s called a post-ideological society meaning that we have moved beyond ideology to reality or real life and the truth of being human. Further proof of this is to be found in what’s become known as ‘anti-capitalism’ – that is the recognition that capitalism has pushed the world and its resources (and consider that even the word ‘resources’ is part of that ideology) to the limits, that corporate greed is responsible for the ecological mess in which we now find ourselves and that this must change. Of course what we fail to recognize, says Zizek, is that these particular concepts or ideas (which are once again the legacy of the Enlightenment) are themselves ideological presuppositions and in particular they are presuppositions necessary for the continued production of how things are, that is, of how society works. So then we must ask how does society work? Well of late we seem to live in a society which is subject to what are called impersonal ‘forces’ which combine to produce things like recessions which have quite tangible effects on people’s lives such that one day they have a job and the next day they don’t. So what is it that produces these forces – well, actually far from being mysterious it’s a little something called capitalism and what Zizek contends is that capitalism is so anchored to liberal democracy – the kind of democracy in which we live, the kind of democracy that exists in Australia, Canada, America, Britain, the sophisticated kind, that capitalism has become synonymous with freedom. Capitalism IS not just an economic system, it is a way of thinking, a way of being, a way of living, that is, our notions of what it means to belong to a liberal democracy are inseparable from the capitalist way of life. So what does this mean?
Well again we owe a debt to the Enlightenment – the term ‘capitalism’ is a European Enlightenment term – although capitalism actually developed from mercantilism which was a very early form of capitalism in Rome, the Middle East and the early Middle Ages. Now mercantilism was essentially the distribution of goods in order to realize a profit, that is, goods are bought at one place, then moved to another place and sold for a higher price. Capitalism is based on a similar principle, that is, the large scale attainment and accumulation of profit by acquiring goods for a lower price that one sells them but capitalism is distinguished by the following:
- The means of production, that is, materials, machinery, land and tools are described as property and known as capital and the people that own the means of production are obviously capitalists. It is important for overall profitability obviously that as few people own the means of production as possible.
- The introduction of what’s called productive labour – that is the human workers needed to use the materials and tools in order to produce the goods who are then paid in wages so this means that the workers are working for wages and not product which means that the worker doesn’t have to be invested in or even terribly interested in the product he or she is producing. For the capitalist time is literally money, that is, the longer it takes to produce the good or product, the more he will have to pay in wages and so efficiency becomes paramount so that the main value in the capitalist system is productivity and the way to achieve maximum productivity is through what’s called division of labour which divides the productive labour into its smallest components and the effect of this is to lower the value of the individual worker in terms of skill and wages. So for example where once an artisan would select a piece of wood that he considered appropriate for a table and then proceed to craft and carve the table from start to finish, after the industrial revolution that kind of production was done largely by machine – different parts of the table are produced by a combination of different machines and workers operating those machines (IKEA). This means that it is no longer necessary to employ a skilled carpenter who will cost more to employ but instead one can hire a worker who can be trained in half a day at most to feed pieces of wood into a machine, another person to feed pieces of wood into another machine that produces a different part of the table, another person to assemble the bits and still another to varnish the finished product. This means that each person knows only his small step in the process and that the level of skill involved in each part of the process is not very high and therefore of course the wages can be lower. There may be one person who knows the whole process and is able to perform each particular step – this is generally the foreman or manager who will be paid a slightly higher wage and there can only ever be one of them because above all what a capitalist is trying to do is maximize profit and the only way to do this is through rational calculation which is supposedly what capitalism is all about. That is the capitalist must be able to calculate the number of people involved in the means of production such that the final figure of the equation will result in the capitalist emerging with the biggest possible gain. This means he must calculate exactly the number of workers he needs to keep productivity at its maximum such that each worker is working at their maximum efficiency BUT he must not have too many workers because this will mean one worker will not have enough to do, will not be working at maximum efficiency hence throwing out the equation and resulting in a reduction in profit. The whole system then must run like a finely honed machine – each individual component that is, human being, performing their task perfectly and therein we might say lays the problem.
Now what this kind of system tends to produce then, capitalism that is, is a way of thinking that is profoundly individualistic because it is the individual who is at the very centre of capitalism and it is here that the Enlightenment once again enforces most of capitalism’s principles, that is, that all individuals are different, that society is a composition of individuals who not only pursue their own interests but should and must be free to pursue their own interests (this is what we tend to call freedom) and this is what we define also as a democracy based on the principle that individuals pursuing their own interests will guarantee the interests of society as a whole. Capitalism is also linked to the dominant Enlightenment concept of progress – that is the goal of capitalism is to produce wealth for the individual which in turn produces wealth for the national economy making it stronger and there is no end theoretically to economic growth, that is, it just keeps growing and pushing the country forward which leads us to the economic world view that sees the economy produced by the capitalist enterprise as something essentially mechanical – like the capitalist’s calculations – that is it is subject to predictable laws and can therefore be rationally calculated and these calculations are always future-directed, that is, they are always based around potential profit – the profit that one will make if…
Now if we look at the four main principles of a liberal democracy which look like this:
- A belief in the individual based on the idea that the individual is both moral and rational
- A belief in reason and progress based on the belief that growth and development are the natural conditions of mankind
- A consensual theory of society based on the belief that society is a mutual benefit association based on the desire for order and cooperation (rather than disorder and conflict)
- A suspicion of concentrated forms of power whether by individuals, groups or governments
what we hopefully start to see is that capitalism looks very much like the legitimate child of liberal democracy because what distinguishes a liberal democracy we could say is that is absolutely not about rank, privilege, status or class, rather what distinguishes a liberal democracy is that anyone – apparently anyone can seek and make their fortune – can go from checking that the chocolate bars are properly wrapped as they move along the conveyor belt to owning the chocolate factory – you too can start at the bottom of the ladder and climb to the top – a liberal democracy is about the freedom to be whoever you want to be (as long as it breaks no laws) because a liberal democracy upholds what we like to think of as natural values such as tolerance, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, religion and perhaps most importantly the right to private property and privacy. And these are of course also precisely the conditions required for the capitalist enterprise so the values of capitalism and liberal democracy SEEM to be the same, seem to be about the natural progression, achievement and evolution of the individual. It is for this reason that Zizek observes in the course book reading “It’s Ideology, Stupid!”
No wonder then that capitalism itself is presented in technical terms, not even as a science but simply as something that works: it needs no ideological justification, because its success is itself sufficient justification. (25)
Guy Sorman, who Zizek quotes, is a French professor and public intellectual who writes extensively on economics and who has just written a book in defence of free markets, says
Capitalism is a system which has no philosophical pretensions, which is not in search of happiness. The only thing it says is: “well, this functions.” And if people want to live better, it is preferable to use this mechanism, because it functions. The only criterion is efficiency. (25)
Note the language here – it is strictly utilitarian – that is supposedly not tied to any kind of value other than its usefulness. Of which Zizek observes
This anti-ideological description is of course patently false; the very notion of capitalism as a neutral social mechanism is ideology at its purest.
But perhaps the best example of this is from Sorman again on page 27
An essential task of democratic governments and opinion makers when confronting economic cycles and political pressure is to secure and protect the system that has served humanity so well, and not to change it for the worse on the pretext of its imperfections…Still, this lesson is doubtless one of the hardest to translate into language that public opinion will accept. The best of all possible economic systems is indeed imperfect. Whatever the truths uncovered by economic science, the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.
So is the free market really a reflection of human nature? This is always something that’s cited as the reason communism as a system cannot work – it goes against human nature – apparently we don’t like to share. Well, let’s see, the fundamental unit of meaning in capitalism and economic thought is the object which capitalism calls the product – capitalism has to invent, package and supply objects for consumption – that is for capitalism to function at its most productive level, it is necessary to create a consumer culture – the kind of culture where people will not need but DESIRE to buy more and more or rather perhaps people will confuse desire with need – only through people consuming can capitalism work – this is why during recessions people some of whom are already heavily in debt are encouraged to go out and buy more stuff because it is good for the economy – we can think of it as a circle of spending. But what defines a consumer culture is a culture in which the majority of people are not producing most of what they are actually consuming so it’s no coincidence that the growth and rise of urban or city living has encouraged a rise in consumer cultures. Now what this also means is that there is little or no relationship between the people who produce the objects and those who consume them – it’s a kind of novelty now to go to what’s called a ‘farmer’s market’ which tend to still take place in the city but where the consumer gets to meet the producer, the person behind the product – but even so what this has meant is that the consumers relationship is not with the producer of the object or good i.e. another human being as it would once have been and tends to still be in more rural communities but rather the consumers relationship is with the object itself and what this has meant is that now people tend to be defined by and define themselves by the objects they purchase rather than those they produce. So is this a reflection of human nature? A capitalist system has no choice or rather is designed to produce a consumer culture but to state that this is “only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible” is to say that the imperfection of human beings is reflected by the imperfection of the economic system which is simply another way of saying because we are not perfect beings, we cannot expect to have a perfect economic system. Now apart from the fact that that is a ridiculous statement what Zizek wants us to see is that the very problem with capitalism is the fact that it is based upon a fantasy – two really – the fantasy of the capitalist and the fantasy of the consumer. Because ultimately as Zizek notes Capitalism is not about production – it is about productivity – another way to say this is that what matters above ALL in capitalism, that is, in our western developed nations is profit – it is not the actual production of the objects themselves – they are simply a means to gain the profit and if it is necessary to sacrifice to some degree the quality of the product in order to ensure profit then that is generally what happens although the consumer is told that it has been ‘reformulated to make it a better product’ so mallowpuffs now are at least a third smaller than they once were and rusks are now half the size they once were. And of course Cadbury’s recent attempt to cut down on cost by using palm oil in its chocolate was really about flavor and a better buy for the consumer. When Cadbury’s realized that their profit would be lessened even more by people simply not buying their product if they used palm oil, they abandoned the idea. Then of course there is the problem of competition, that is, how do I compete in a market where my product is only one alternative without dropping the price which would lower profit? Well, one of the possibilities is to make my product seem somehow more desirable than others, that is, if the consumer is defined by the product/object they consume then I must create a story or narrative around my product that offers the consumer an image or idea of the person they really want to be, a fantasy if you like – now one of the more recent ridiculous examples of this I’ve seen is the washing powder that is supposedly going to fill your clothing with the scent of wild orchid and ______. So, it’s not enough anymore that your clothes are simply clean or even that they smell like sunlight whatever that smells like – now what that company is trying to sell you is the idea that doing your washing doesn’t have to be a humdrum experience, that, in fact, it can be an exotic experience, that your laundry will somehow be transformed into a Brazilian rainforest and that you will somehow also, simply through the use of this washing powder, be transformed into a more exotic version of yourself. Perhaps what I find most interesting about that particular example is how nicely it once again demonstrates the power of language, how the addition of a single word transforms the fantasy – if it were simply orchid scented, it’s appeal would be quite different and I suspect more limited but insert the word ‘wild’ and everything changes… Now of course the other way to keep your product in the spotlight, to ensure that it doesn’t get boring for the consumer is to keep changing the narratives around the product or object and of course the master at this is Coke – the production of their advertisements and slogans is all about convincing each new generation of consumer to choose Coke over any other soft drink – the way they’ve done this is to ensure that Coke is always linked to living – the words ‘life’ or ‘living’ are always a part of their campaigns hence the three basic things that humans need to exist have been somewhat altered– where we once used to require food, water, shelter – now we require food, Coke and shelter – add to this that anywhere there’s a bottle of Coke people seem to be having a good time and the illusion is complete. And let’s face it as a company Coke takes care of us because now, out of consideration for those of us who find it difficult to actually hold a bottle, they’ve produced an easy grip version. Words actually briefly fail me here. I have this image of an entire generation who are only able to drink Coke because they’re not trained in holding a bottle that doesn’t come with an easy grip. This all seems ridiculous but it is the ‘reality’ of the marketplace – the consumer has to keep consuming no matter what. Which brings us then to the question that Zizek also ‘how is it that people are literally acting counter to their own interests?’ As he notes
“Stupidity” and “ideological manipulation” are not adequate answers; that is to say, it is clearly not good enough to claim that the primitive lower classes have been so brainwashed by the ideological apparatus that they are not or are no longer able to identify their true interests…Indeed, who needs direct repression when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?
Now Zizek here is referring to the anti-tax tea parties in America whereby the people who are most likely to benefit from the taxes Obama plans to introduce, that is, the ‘hard-working ordinary people’ appear to be the ones fighting hardest against these plans. As Zizek notes Obama effectively plans to LOWER taxes for over 95% of hard working ordinary people, proposing to raise them for only the upper couple of percentiles – that is, for the “exploitative rich.” But those who most stand to gain are resisting this because it is not the authentic American way – the American way rather is a minimum of state intervention, fewer taxes, fewer regulations – that is the individual has a constitutional right to be left alone as much as possible (and of course to bear arms) so that he or she may pursue without restriction the American dream which is identical to the capitalist dream. But as Zizek observes
From the standard perspective of the enlightened and rational pursuit of self-interest, the inconsistency of this ideological stance is obvious: (the populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into ruin.) Less taxation and deregulation means more freedom for the big companies who are driving impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help for small businessmen and entrepreneurs.
So what then IS at work here? What is the irrationality at work in both our level of consumption and our belief in the right to that consumption? For a system based on rational calculation as capitalism is supposed to be, it seems that in order for it to function only it requires a large degree of irrationality. Well what we could say is that this is precisely what capitalism relies upon and that is perhaps less irrationality than unconsciousness – the ‘self-blindness’ to which Zizek refers. Zizek notes that
if there was ever a system which enchanted its subjects with dreams (of freedom, of how your success depends on yourself, of the run of luck which is just around the corner, of unconstrained pleasures…), then it is capitalism.
And it is this enchantment we might say, this drive for pleasure which is at the very heart of capitalism and consumer culture whether we are the capitalist seeking profit in order to purchase pleasure or the consumer consuming for that same reason in order to purchase pleasure – the injunction behind capitalism is ‘enjoy!’ and then enjoy some more. And this is where we hit Lacanian territory or rather Zizek does because what Zizek is suggesting is that what we need to realize is that there is literally nothing TO enjoy, that capitalism is a system that must cultivate and normalize what is a senseless drive and it is senseless because the desire that drives it can never be satisfied because what capitalism and the consumer culture promise is a place where there is no absence or loss or lack, a place where there is no need that can’t be satisfied. Now we’re going to dip into a little bit of Lacan but only a little bit – now what Lacan does essentially is work over Freud but where Freud hoped to bring the unconscious into consciousness so that it would be possible to really know all of ourselves and thus strengthen the I or the ego over the id or unconscious, Lacan believed that this was simply impossible. He believed that the unconscious could never be emptied out or controlled because for Lacan, it is the ego or I which is actually the illusion – a product of the unconscious – for Lacan the unconscious IS the ground of all being, not the conscious as Freud believed so what interested Lacan was just how we come up with this illusion that we really have a self and what I’m going to talk about now is the very beginning stage of that process. Now Lacan, like Freud, believes that the infant or baby starts out as something inseparable from its mother, that is, there is no distinction for the baby of any difference between itself and its mother – rather the baby is a kind of blob with no sense of self or individuated identity and no sense even of its own body as something whole. Now this blob of baby is driven by need, that is, it needs food, it needs comfort and safety, it needs to have its nappy changed and all of these needs are satisfiable and these needs are satisfied by an object – when the baby needs food, a breast or bottle appears, when it needs comfort, a pair of arms appear except that the baby does not recognize that there is any difference between itself and the objects that are meeting its needs, it doesn’t recognize that the breast and arms actually belong to another whole person, there is no distinction between it and anyone or anything else – there are simply needs and the things that satisfy those needs. Now this for Lacan is what’s called the state of nature which has to be broken up or ended in order for culture to form that is the integration of the infant into the world and for this to happen the baby must separate from its mother and form its own separate identity. Now of course the problem is that this separation from the mother always entails some kind of loss, that is, when the child knows the difference between itself and its mother, that primal sense of unity, of safety and security that it originally had is lost. So what this means in both Freudian and Lacanian theory is that in order to become a civilized adult what always has to be lost is the profound sense of original unity, of non-differentiation. However the baby who has not yet made this separation and so whose every need is satisfiable exists in what Lacan calls the realm of the Real and the Real is a psychic place, not a physical place, that is, it exists in one’s head as a feeling not as an actual place, where there IS original unity and what that means is there is no such concept as absence, or loss or lack – only fullness and completeness and where every need can be satisfied and consequently where there is no language. Why is there no language? Because Lacan’s theory is that language is always about loss or absence, that is, you only need words when the object you want is gone or absent but it is always when we start to use language that we become speaking subjects, that we become an ‘I’. But the flipside of this is that the realm of the Real is always beyond language, unrepresentable in language and is therefore absolutely lost when the infant starts to speak – remember in order for the infant to begin speaking, it must be able to recognize itself as separate and that separation means the loss of completeness forever. Now one aspect of Lacanian theory suggests that it is to this sense of unity or completeness that we are always trying to return where there is no such thing as absence or loss or indeed death but of course it is impossible to return to the state of nature – the only way it can even be attempted is artificially – for some people it’s alcohol, for some people it’s heroin, but for most of the western world it’s the objects that we are daily encouraged to both desire and purchase for our enjoyment in order to return to a state of being full and complete but which we never can. But it is the fantasy built into the very structure of capitalism that the accumulation of more stuff – be it goods or profit will one day get us there but of course it is also always in the future – always there with the next ipod, car, pair of jeans, never here. It is our unconscious attachment to this system which Zizek tries to bring into the open. And this is why Zizek says in his last paragraph
The self-propelling circulation of Capital thus remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled, since it itself controls our activity blinding us to even the most obvious dangers we are courting. It is one big fetishistic denial: “I know very well the risks I am courting, even the inevitability of the final collapse, but nonetheless…[I can put off the collapse a little bit longer, take on a little bit more risk, and so on indefinitely].” It is a self-blinding “irrationality” strictly correlative to the “irrationality” of the lower classes voting against their own interests, and yet another proof of the material power of ideology.
Ultimately what Zizek wishes us to confront is our own willful blindness to a system which offers itself to us as supposedly only the reflection of human nature when in fact it is we who are the reflections of the system.
So what is Zizek’s answer – well it’s a kind of suspension of the circle or cycle, what’s become known as Bartleby Politics because it’s modeled on Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener who to the narrator’s astonishment whose reply to every request made of him is “I would prefer not to”. Zizek notes
One should have the courage to affirm that, in a situation like today’s, the only way really to remain open to a revolutionary opportunity is to renounce facile calls to direct action, which necessarily involve us in an activity where things change so that the totality remains the same. Today’s predicament is that, if we succumb to the urge of directly ‘doing something’ (engage in the anti-globalist struggle, helping the poor…), we will certainly and undoubtedly contribute to the reproduction of the existing order. The only way to lay the foundations for a true, radical change is to with withdraw from the compulsion to act, to ‘do nothing’ – thus opening up the space for a different kind of activity.
That is acts of resistance in Zizek’s eyes have a way of enforcing and consolidating the very thing that they’re resisting – rather in Zizek’s opinion the kind of Bartleby withdrawal may produce a confrontation with the fantasies that bind us to a particular system. There is much more to his philosophy but he sums it up nicely in the paragraph on page 11 of the essay
The pressure ‘to do something’ here is like the superstitious compulsion to make some gesture when we are observing a process over which we have no real influence. Are not our acts often such gestures? The old saying “Don’t just talk, do something!” is one the most stupid things one can say, even measured by the low standards of common sense. Perhaps, rather, the problem lately has been that we have been doing too much, such as intervening in nature, destroying the environment, and so forth…Perhaps it is time to step back, think and SAY the right thing. True, we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them.