Slavoj Žižek gave a lecture last night at the Duke University Franklin Center. In that lecture, he brought up one of the themes that he’s been fixated on lately: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the upsurgence of something he sees as completely new, “authoritarian capitalism,” a capitalism that no longer veils itself with liberal slogans but embraces authoritarian cynicism. Now, this is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for and one that I have used whenever someone tells me that my father is a funny or interesting man (don’t worry, this isn’t a family piece). For Žižek, it is very disturbing that we are now seeing, in Europe, the growth of blatant disregard for decorum and a shameless triumphalism of power. This is something new, he argues (although I’m somewhat suspicious of its novelty), and it is something that threatens to undermine not only liberalism, but the leftist project.
Metonymically, we can read this as why Žižek sees the struggle as one over state power. We need to take control over the state because this is where the spectacle takes place. Berlusconi’s command of the public sphere stems from his control over state media (Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit”). We cannot, Žižek is arguing, simply operate at a localist and diffuse level in the hopes that we will change the world “from below,” precisely because the state retains control over so many aspects of life and because, in its blatant disregard for public norms, it has no problem dividing and conquering (but a Žižekian power struggle is different from a Gramscian one).
Žižek’s experience with Eastern European Communism both benefits and obscures his argument. The advantage is that Žižek sees very clearly how power operates at the state level and is not put over by the myths that power likes to perpetuate. Hence, a thought experiment that he set up last night was particularly interesting: suppose, he tells us, Žižek is Stalin, and we are at a Party Congress, and anarchist Michael Hardt stands up to denounce the famine in Ukraine. Now, we all know, Žižek tells us, that tomorrow, Michael will be gone and the talk of the town will be, “Who was the last person with Hardt?” But, Žižek goes on, suppose that Fred Jameson stands up to denounce Michael in the same party congress, and he says, “You cannot denounce Comrade Stalin in such a way!” Žižek argues that Fred would disappear even quicker than Michael. Worse than breaking the rules is stating them explicitly.
This kind of comment comes out of the Eastern European experience, and it is a very valuable insight. However, this kind of comment also illustrates Žižek’s weakness: everything is about the leader. Žižek doesn’t talk about international politics, backroom negotiations, the WTO and the IMF, food prices, etc. He talks about Berlusconi and Chavez and Stalin and Obama and Sarkozy. This is the only reason why Žižek can simultaneously denounce the organics movement and Berlusconian hubris. He sees everything at the level of the individual and the individual psyche. Even mass movements operate at the level of the individual.
Yet secrecy and institutional exploitation not only continue to thrive, they do so over the heads of the Berlusconis of the world. Berlusconi has outed himself and given a strong impetus to the feminist movement in Italy. He will eventually be overthrown and his downfall will be hard. But what are we to make of the leaked private memo sent by Larry Summers when he was at the world bank?
‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:
1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.
The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.
This is the way that private industry and finance operate: over our heads and faster than we can respond. Companies like Monsanto have an army of actuaries, lawyers, engineers, public relations experts, and advertisers who manage the public image, stay ahead of state law, and, in general, muddy the waters. In the face of such an onslaught, the only thing the state can do is nationalize, in which case the state leader is risking assassination. And even nationalization is fraught with many of the same problems of institutional obscurantism.
This brings me to the crux: time. The authoritarian leader may (apparently) suspend time in favor of an omnipresent now, but neoliberalism takes the opposite course: “Move faster and with more skill than states can keep up with, and we will effectively be above the law.” While Europe may be oscillating between Sarkozy-style dismantling of the welfare state and Berlusconi style authoritarianism, Latin America is trying to cement a leftist national bloc (through BANCOSUR, for example) in the face of oligarchic pressure that operates in secret and quickly (Honduras being the most recent example; for those of you who believe that Honduras was simply an emergency effort to retain constitutionality, you need to beef up your reading; I’d start with upsidedownworld.org).
Anarchism, although by no means perfect, starts from the assumption that conflict is uneven and takes place in multiple temporalities. For example, there is the difference between the rapid destabilization of development and the temporal horizon of families in the Appalachians whose water is being poisoned by coal mining. Here, the conflict may radiate outward to the state level, but it begins with the local mandate: stop poisoning my water. At work here is localized interest in conflict with capital, and the temporal plane in which it takes place is not at all the permanent now of authoritarianism, but rather a biologically-determined time frame relating to the lifespan of disease, the renewal time of lakes and streams, the duration of a clean-up project, etc.
We can wax rhetorically about how the large problems of capital require large solutions, and in some instances I am wholly in agreement. But the problem remains that the “large” problems of capital are aggregates of diffuse and localized problems. States, especially authoritarian ones, are good at mass-mobilization. But the very nature of mass mobilization is that it often completely overlooks the important struggles altogether.