In ‘Unbehagen in der Natur’, the final chapter of In Defense of Lost Causes, Slavoj Žižek begins by pointing to the contemporary crisis related to classical Marxism. He then highlights some of the antagonisms inherent to contemporary global capitalism, and suggests that our way forward is found within these antagonisms, especially if all of those antagonisms remain rooted within the central struggle between the Excluded and the Included.
In this post I wish to explain, and expound upon, this argument in a little more detail as I find it intriguing and would be very interested in hearing what others think of it.
Žižek opens ‘Unbehagen in der Natur’ (‘Uneasiness in Nature’) with Gerald A. Cohen’s cogent presentation of the classical Marxist understanding of the ‘working class’. Cohen argues that this working class is defined by four features which, when combined together, produce an additional two features. These features are as follows. The working class:
- constitutes the majority of society;
- produces the wealth of society;
- consists of the exploited members of society;
- and its members are the needy people in society.
- Therefore, the working class has nothing to lose from revolution;
- and it can and will engage in a revolutionary transformation of society.
The problem, Žižek notes, is that none of the first four features apply to the contemporary working class, and so features five and six cannot be generated. Further, even when these elements are present, they are no longer united in a single agent — the needy are no longer the workers and so on.
Therefore, Žižek goes on to ask one of the pivotal questions undergirding much post-Marxist research today:
The underlying problem is: how are we to think the singular universality of the emancipatory subject as not purely formal, that is, as objectively-materially determined, but without the working class as its substantial base?
That is to say, given that the working class was the basis of salvation within classical Marxism, where can salvation be found now that the working class is gone? Žižek answers this question in the following way:
The solution is a negative one: it is capitalism itself which offers a negative substantial determination, for the global capitalist system is the substantial “base” which mediates and generates excesses (slums, ecological threats, and so on) that open up sites of resistance.
Thus, Žižek reworks the classical Marxist thesis that the negation of capitalism is inherent to capitalism itself. However, this negation does not occur by means of the (now absent) working class; rather, it occurs be means of four antagonisms that Žižek sees within contemporary global capitalism. These antagonisms are related to:
- Ecology: Although capitalism treats ecology as a field of investment and competition, a looming ecological catastrophe threatens to bring radical change.
- The inadequacy of private property: Although the concept of private property may have functioned well at earlier stages of capitalism, this notion is no longer sufficient to address the increasing importance of ‘intellectual property’–knowledge. This new form of property increasingly challenges the old boundaries of capitalism.
- The socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments: New developments, especially in the realm of biogenetics, hold the potential to create significant changes within human nature itself, which could result in a genuine Novum, the results of which are difficult to anticipate, but which likely would not fit within the world-as-it-is.
- New forms of apartheid: Even though some old boundaries are collapsing, some new boundaries are being created. This is most evident in the rise of new and massive slums within the megalopolises of the world. Hence, ‘the new proletarian position is that of the inhabitants of slums’; but note that the primary form of exploitation experienced by these slum dwellers is no longer economic, but socio-political (i.e. it is not that they generate a surplus that is appropriated by the powerful, rather they themselves are a surplus that is accorded no place within the world).
Now, in a particular interesting move, Žižek maps the four features of the classical Marxist understanding of the working class, onto these four antagonisms:
the “majority” principle appears as ecology, a topic which concerns us all; “poverty” characterizes those who are excluded and live in slums; “wealth production” is more and more something which depends on scientific and technological developments like biogenetics; and, finally, “exploitation” reappears in the impasses of intellectual property, where the owner exploits the result of collective labor.
However, and this is where we get to the core of the matter, Žižek argues that, within these antagonisms, we must privilege the proletarian position — ‘the position of the “part of no-part”‘. Hence, he asserts:
it is the antagonism between the Excluded and the Included which is the zero-level antagonism, coloring the entire terrain of struggle… [It is] the point of reference for the others; without it, all others lose their subversive edge: ecology turns into a “problem of sustainable development,” intellectual property into a “complex legal challenge,” biogenetics into an “ethical” issue. One can sincerely fight for ecology, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, oppose the copyrighting of genes, while not questioning the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded — what is more, one can even formulate some of these struggles in terms of the Included threatened by the polluting Excluded… Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favor among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell products that claim to be politically progressive acts in and of themselves… Political action and consumption become fully merged. In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian fighting against poverty and diseases, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.
And, might be quick to add the likes of Oprah, Bono, and the ‘Red’ campaign, to this list. Or, for that matter, the pursuits of most of the so-called ‘counter-cultural,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘radicals’ found within the Church and the world today. Žižek reminds us that these pursuits — from ‘going Green’ to buying fair trade coffee, to paying attention to where and how one’s clothes are manufactured — are largely impotent pseudo-acts, which simply ease the conscience of consumers, rather than bringing about any significant social change. These actions only gain force and meaning, when they are related to the central antagonism between the Excluded and the Included. Thus, for example, I as a member of the Included, can afford to pay $5 for a fair trade coffee, and I can afford to shop at local food markets… but these actions, in and of themselves, do nothing for members of the Excluded who can only afford cheap coffee and fast food. I as a member of the Included, can afford to buy clothes that are made without violence, and I can afford to pay what those articles of clothing are worth… but this does nothing for families of the Excluded who rely on places like Wal-Mart for affordable clothing. Finally, I as a member of the Included, can contribute to the multi-million dollar building campaign that recently occurred at my school. Yet the result of this was an environmentally friendly wind-tower that helps our school ‘go Green’… but also new, smaller, and less comfortable couches intended to discourage homeless people from coming in and sleeping in our Atrium.
Consequently, if we are genuinely pursuing social change, and not simply embracing ‘virtue’ or ‘righteousness’ as an aspect of our privilege, we must bring these divided elements into relationship with one another. We may be wealthy enough to live morally (or at least to gain the moral approval of our society) but this does nothing for those who are not wealthy enough to live this way and it does nothing to change society itself.
Therefore, in agreement with Žižek, I think that most of our ‘counter-cultural,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ and ‘radical’ acts, are self-serving and impotent unless they are related to the central antagonism between the Excluded and the Included. When we not only buy fair trade coffee, but also feed the hungry, when we not only buy local-made clothes, but also clothe the naked; when we not only ‘Green’ our homes, but also invite the homeless into our homes, then we will be getting somewhere.