Anti-Capitalism & the Politics of Envy

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 14, 2012

Anti-Capitalism & the Politics of Envy

Žižek’s essay in the London Review of Books entitled The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a little pessimistic about the revolutionary possibilities of the recent political unrest in the West. The crucial problem is the lack of participation by the proletariat, making the protests into the rage of the bourgeoisie against their declining prospects, and Žižek even goes so far as to suggest that these strikes have a passing connection with the idea of “going Galt”.

But what was more interesting to me was the digression where he discusses Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s take on how we come to accept hierarchy. Žižek normally deploys Dupuy’s reasoning to critique Rawls’ theory of justice (in Violence and several other writings), but this is the first that I have seen a reference to Dupuy’s four procedures that allow us to experience hierarchy as non-humiliating. These are:

hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure that demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merits and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’

By itself, this is an incredible and devastating critique of very large segments of the Left, who routinely use all of these in their criticisms of power. The Academic Left in particular is in the habit of problematizing various categories and showing how these are culturally constructed, as if this in itself will lead to change. It’s difficult to blame them – as academics, their job is to produce knowledge, so you can hardly expect them to attempt any other strategy. But nonetheless, the view that they promote is that power structures are reproduced in society because the people are naive. Once we adopt a sophisticated understanding of our culture – which is to say an academic understanding – we will accept that these are culturally contingent and arbitrary, and be empowered to change them. Dupuy argues the opposite, that this sophisticated knowledge actually allows us to accept the way things are. The Truth does not set us free.

The assumption is that ordinary people blindly accept what their culture tells them to think and are only able to see the truth with the aid of heady European post-structuralist or sociological theories. In order to combat flat stereotypes and generalizations about other cultures, we should embark on a kind of sensitive anthropological study of other cultures to see their richness and diversity. The problem is located at the level of facts and knowledge – people are racist because they are ill-informed and parochial, a view that the well-read, well-traveled American upper middle class naturally gravitates towards.

We can see that this is false by considering racist or sexist jokes that rely on stereotypes for the punchline. If we really thought the stereotype was factually true, these wouldn’t be considered funny. For example, “Why don’t women need watches? Because there’s a clock in the kitchen.” If we really believed that women do (or should) spend most of their time in the kitchen, this wouldn’t provoke laughter, which we can see if we change the joke to “Why don’t chefs need watches?” It no longer functions as a joke, it’s even sensible advice. It’s only when we know the stereotype is false (and we’re being jerks) that we laugh.

We can see how the knowledge that our beliefs about others are culturally constructed not only fails to contest power, it can even be the punchline to brutal and cruel jokes. This is an instance of fetishistic disavowal: even though I know very well that women do not really “belong in the kitchen”, I can still act as if they do.

The point, however, is not that we are better off believing a lie. Žižek is simply reminding us that the current fashion for “speaking truth to power”, uncovering the illusions and openly saying how things really are is not liberating in itself. The Left tends to forget this fact, seemingly insisting that if we are not yet liberated, it is because we haven’t yet uncovered the whole truth, or it is not known widely enough. Žižek’s reproach here is “No, we do know it. That’s what allows us to accept the status quo.”

One possible counter-argument is to point to various anti-capitalist movements who tend to be motivated by one or more of Dupuy’s four categories – for example, they denounce greedy Wall Street bankers with their ill-gotten gains. Doesn’t this show how this kind of politics can generate resistance rather than simply accepting the status quo?

This procedure of demystification demonstrates that the bankers received their bonuses not because of their actual contributions to the economy, but simply granting themselves bonuses for exploiting the rest of us. But to repeat another Žižekian truism, their perception of the problem is part of the problem. The implication is decidely reformist, that were it not for these few corrupt bankers, things would be fine and capitalism could continue to work. This does generate activity, but a false kind of activity of the obsessional who puts on a great show of furious activity to ensure that nothing changes.

A paradigmatic example of this kind of nominally anti-capitalist politics of resentment is antisemitism. The problem here – other than everyday bigotry, of course – is that the internal contradictions of the system are transformed into a problem of outsiders who come in and disturb the harmony of our society by breaking the rules, cheating, stealing from “decent people”, etc. We are led to believe that once we get rid of them, the balance will be restored and capitalism will once again serve the “decent people”. The outsiders become the scapegoat and are punished for the crimes of the system. Saying that is not to defend the bankers and claim they aren’t guilty. They are guilty, but of a different crime.

A scapegoat is often not simply an innocent who was framed, taking the place of the true criminal. The crime itself can be a substitution.

The best reason to doubt the revolutionary possibilities of envy is to look at the Gingrich campaign’s recent attacks on Mitt Romney’s history as a Bain Capital executive in the documentary King of Bain, which alleges that the company engages in predatory practices, drives companies to bankruptcy and destroys jobs. The surprise is that these attacks are virtually identical to the kind of criticisms against “corporate greed” normally associated with people like Michael Moore, who is routinely called a socialist.

Gingrinch has taken some heat from the Republican mainstream for doing this, but not even close to point of being ejected from the party. This might be because the content of the documentary might be considered heterodox, but the form is not. It may be possible to argue that this film is actually antisemetic in the formal sense described above, and the campaign’s strategy is to play to the prejudices of South Carolina primary voters more than their anti-capitalist leanings. The problem is not that progressives are criticizing capitalism and Republicans are co-opting this to Other their political opponents. The progressive critique of capitalism already contains a fatal flaw, the contours of envy and antisemitism which makes it amenable to cooptation in the first place.