A few days ago I came across Long Sunday, a group blog whose contributors write, for the most part, on continental theory writ large. Reading the posts there have taken a while because the comments are often magisterial in length (not unlike some of the posts here at SM!)
Quite frankly I am jaw-drop amazed at the high level of discussion there and I am glad I came across this wonderful site. I have been on-and-off following the individual blogs of some of the contributors (such as Fort Kant, Charlotte Street), but having one place to go to get my RSS feed fix will be convenient.
One particular post, begun by Jodi Dean, caught my attention. She has launched a learned discussion about the ways in which neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy of Capital as the Real. Taking cue from Slavoj Zizek‘s concept of the imaginary real, she suggests that this neoliberalist fantasy is so sublime (and subliminal) that when disguised in the language of the Symbolic (economic laws, for example) it tends to obfuscate the institutional violence of state power at both the national and international levels.
Here’s a long quote from this post, which neatly summarizes a paper she has made available online titled “Enjoying Neoliberalism“:
Zizek argues that Capital is Real in several senses: it is the ‘positive condition of hegemonic struggle’ (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 319), it ‘sets a limit to resignification,’ and it determines “the structure of the material social processes themselves’ (Ticklish Subject, 276). But, to assert that Capital is Real is to embrace neoliberal ideology, to accept its premises without a struggle, without inquiry into how neoliberal faith in the market has come to produce a sense of its own inevitability. What is necessary, then, is an account of the neoliberal imaginary allied with the Real.
One might want to claim that Zizek’s elaboration of the Real in terms of an imaginary Real, a symbolic Real, and a real Real and his specification of capital as a symbolic Real (one that operates in terms of basic formulae or persists as an underlying structure) contributes to thinking about capitalism insofar as it points to a logic determining and distorting, that is, forming, the basic matrix of contemporary socio-political life. I disagree. The specification of capital as formulae invests economics with a scientific status, with the ability to formulate laws or truths about the world that tell us how the world functions. Such an investment occludes and naturalizes the roles of governments, both as national states and as international organizations, in creating property rights, establishing corporations, producing a functioning tax system, and sustaining and militarily defending the very infrastructure necessary for business.
As I understand her argument, neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy around the very notions that guarantee it, such as free trade, private property rights, the right for governments to tax and enforce regulation, etc. These elements of neoliberal capitalism, however, are backed by the state’s fundamental power to mete out punishment. In her short essay she explores this idea through a sharp analysis of the shopaholic and the criminal as two prominent subject positions in neoliberal capitalism.
In her discussion she takes Zizek to task for downplaying the role of disciplinary power in neoliberal capitalism while overemphasizing the truimph of unfettered exchange-value. She asks:
How is that we have been taken in by capital? That we find ourselves so entrenched in it that escape seems impossible, a step into oblivion?
To answer this question, Alphonse van Worden, another blogger at the site, delves into the history of the Atlantic slave trade. If Dean argues that neoliberal capitalism produces a sublime fantasy around the institutions of state power, for Alphonse this resonates specifically with the genealogy of emancipatory politics (she brings up the transatlantic slave trade) as integral to understanding the legacy of private property rights.
She makes sure to explain the process of inversion whereby the initial calls for liberating slaves, which were initially a response to the traumatic encounter with the horrors of industrial capitalism, had been usurped by Capital itself in the form of liberal economic thought. For this inversion to be convincing, however, required not only “the revival of antique narratives and the fanstastic and the fabulous” but also the twisting of the political mythology from an image of freedom to that of bondage. This is why she says:
Its a head-exploding irony that the modern concept of ‘freedom’ upon which the idea of ‘free trade’ is built and which is the fairy in its shell was first embodied in sugar industry slaves, who were physically the ‘freedom’ of their proprietors.
Reading this exchange I immediately thought of a parallel discussion about the theory of labor power in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, which was mentioned in the commentary (Alphonse also mentions Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution, which I did not know of but sounds fascinating from a comparativist perspective.)
I am quite enthralled by this bringing together of Zizekian musings on neoliberal capitalism and what seems to me as a more “British Cultural Marxist” look at the history of industrial capitalism. Although I am not fully convinced of Dean’s critique of Zizek (but then she’s read much more Zizek than I have, so who am I to say this), this move to ground a critique of neoliberalism in a nuanced historical materialist sort of analysis is promising. If anything, it blasts through the comforting mythology of neoliberal capitalism that we (or I should really say “I” to be less presumptuous) often wrap ourselves in by tuning into the emancipatory potential of one’s encouters with the acute economic and political inequalities that exist today. This engagement with the Real is for me at the heart of the ethnographic encounter — and perhaps is part of my answer to oneman’s discussion about the disciplinary “moral core” of anthropology.
This discussion also brings back some of the key theoretical issues in the anthropology of political economy (the work of Sidney Mintz immediately comes to mind). It also touches on the anthropology of law, which in rent years has been energized through a double-whammy of Giorgio Agamben‘s reappraisal of Foucault’s theory of biopolitics and the critique of neoliberalism from what I see as a more Anglo-American take on the politics of recognition.