Notes on Democracy & Other Neoliberal Fantasies

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


January 7, 2012

Notes on Democracy & Other Neoliberal Fantasies

Reading Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies this week, I found some interesting parallel perspectives to some things that I’ve written recently and wanted to record them here. The first is on the concept of the internet as enabling interpassivity that I wrote about here. Dean has a slightly different take on it:

Because of this registration effect, people treat their contribution to circulating content as communicative action. They believe that they are active, making a difference by clicking on a button, adding their name to a petition, or commenting on a blog. Slavoj Žižek describes this kind of activity with the term interpassivity. “When we are interpassive, something else, a fetish object, is active in our stead. Žižek explains: “You think you _are active, while your true position, as embodied in the fetish, is passive:’ The frantic activity of the fetish works to prevent actual action, to prevent something from really happening. Activity on the Internet, contributing to the circulation of affect and opinion, thus involves a profound passivity, one that is interconnected, linked, but passive nonetheless.

In a way, Twitter’s trending topics/hashtags are one of the best examples of this idea of contributing to the circulation of content. Or to put it another way, talking about what everyone else is talking about. I want to draw out one phrase from this paragraph – “the frantic activity of the fetish works to prevent actual action” – with a paragraph that follows it a bit later:

Networked communication and information technologies are exquisite media for capturing and reformatting political energies. They turn efforts at political engagement into contributions to the circulation of content, reinforcing the hold of neoliberalism’s technological infrastructure. This capture of political energies and investments and their reformatting as contributions is enabled by the reduction of politics to communicative acts, to speaking and saying and exposing and explaining, a reduction key to a democracy conceived of in terms of discussion and deliberation… When communication serves as the key category for left politics, whether communication be configured as discussion, spectacle, or publicity this politics ensures its political failure in advance: doing is reduced to talking, to contributing to the media environment, instead of being conceived in terms of, say, occupying military bases, taking over the government, or abandoning the Democratic Party and doing the steady, persistent organizational work of revitalizing the Greens or Socialists.

There’s much to agree with here. Much of progressive political discourse on the internet is devoted to commenting on the latest outrageous statements from Republican candidates in the hopes that their campaign can be damaged if enough media noise is generated. But Dean seems to be advancing a “Don’t just stand there (talking), do something!” critique of communicative capitalism, where Žižek has inverted that into “Don’t just do something, talk”, drawing attention to the crisis mentality that pervades politics where we denounce the supposedly endless, ineffectual, unresolvable debates and demand that politicians take action – the post-ideological demand for Washington to “solve problems” and “get things done” which is effectively a prohibition on debate.

I think it’s important to note that communication under communicative capitalism is never understood as merely talking and always contains the promise of having some kind of efficacy. As Dean points out, it is framed as contributing to the free circulation of information that is supposedly transformative. We’ve fully accepted that the medium is the message, so much so that the medium now occludes the message – it doesn’t matter what was said, only that it was said on the internet. Rather than doing reduced to talking, I think it’s the opposite: talking is reduced to doing, where there is no communication except phatic communication.

Another connection in her book relates to my idea in The Peer Production Illusion that the productive spaces outside of the logic of market exchanges where open source and other forms of free labor occur are necessary to sustain the fantasmatic inner distance from the official ideology:

The mistake involved in excessively sacrificing for the sake of success is one of overidentification, of identifying too much with neoliberal ideology. As Žižek argues, “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.” The free-marketeer who sells himself, who sells out, who sells it all, overidentifies with neoliberal ideology, eliminating the place of the warm, interesting person that the system is supposed to serve, whose needs the system is supposed to meet. When he sacrifices everything to the system, the player, the investment banker or entrepreneur, acts as if such a sacrifice is necessary for success. He exposes the truth of the system – it really does demand all sorts of horrible, incalculable sacrifices; it really does brutally disregard real human needs and relationships. The overzealous executive thus fails to keep open the gap between the fantasy and the reality of the free market and thereby subverts the fantasy that we are all winners.

A similar logic seems to be at work when Dean addresses the common pseudo-leftist critique of consumerism that focuses on excessive enjoyment, luxury and wastefulness:

The image of the excessive consumer saturates popular media. Magazines, newspapers, and television shows employ a vocabulary of abundance. Women are said to pickup “armloads” of sweaters or t-shirts – one in every color! Consumers scoop up or snatch up “must haves.” In the United States, the market for mini storage facilities as well as for closet organizing systems is rapidly expanding as consumers run out of places to store their extra stuff. Mainstream media coverage of “Black Friday” – the Friday after Thanksgiving when shoppers eager to cash in on Christmas bargains send retailers into the black as they post their first profits of the year – features images of mobs and mayhem. A television news report from an ABC affiliated station in the San Francisco area describes a common scene: “Stores created a shopping frenzy on the day after Thanksgiving that turned ugly and even violent. Here and across the country, shoppers fought over merchandise, and in one case, trampled others. The rush to get into a Michigan Wal-Mart store when the doors opened turned into a stampede. Shoppers fell and tripped over each other. A lady lost her wig and quickly put it back on as the melee continued. At the Best Buy store in San Carlos, early morning shoppers created a mob scene just to get bargain-priced laptops and other electronics.”