Armando Salvatore wrote this great essay for The Immanent Frame about the pitfalls of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. The way he ends up talking about the State in terms of Zizek’s cartoonish cat – that has stepped over the precipice but fails or refuses (or to use a Zizekian term, short circuits) to recognize there is nothing holding it up – should be applied to all talk of the economy. I don’t just mean the official cult known as finance, but the much more pervasive popular following behind value, its production and accumulation, and profit. Zizek’s Tom and Jerry analogy, as worn out as it threatens to become, has to be applied not just to the capitalist nomenklatura, but the larger population of devoted capitalists – everyday people who operate on a principle of “getting ahead” and affirm that in their capacity as consumers, workers and voters.
Armando contends with Zizek’s tired cat-and-mouse analysis though:
If the mythology of revolution indicates a pure state of popular will, the mysticism of the state—its modern political theology—reposes on a redundancy: a mysterious ritual of self-establishment that literally allows it to float in the air without the need to look down; it does not need awareness since it is itself, in Hegelian parlance, the peak of consciousness, spirit incarnate. Every state, by definition, walks on the edge of—and indeed across—a precipice: not just by demanding that millions of citizens comply with the law by imposing just a modicum of violence in routine times but also, as more people in the world are now becoming aware, by piling up hundreds of billions of “sovereign” debt for decades without anybody really worrying about it.
This might happen with or without corruption—surely, if the “fat cats,” all the way up to the president, took a large part of that pile of cash into their own accounts, the cat’s game of floating in the air becomes a caricature of itself. Yet, in itself it is neither a caricature nor a cartoon, but the very image of what the state is about, the outcome of a collective entrancement that makes a docile subject out of popular multitudes who know how to organize themselves. Indeed, matching this kleptomaniac, steady drainage of resources under the regime of Mubarak, these thirty years witnessed a spectacular rise of social self-organization and solidarity in a variety of sectors (health and education first) that has blurred the boundary, imposed by the modern state and its weak imaginary, between “formal” and “informal” associations and networks, between “religious” and “secular” NGOs.
Yet, within the collective trance staged by the state, the multitudes as “the people” are none other than the state. In the trance routine, they are its very collective body: at best, they can imagine inhabiting a parallel space called “civil society,” which, however, only exists and flourishes in a symbiotic relationship with the state and manages to pump citizens’ energies “voluntarily” in the “non-profit” sector, thus creating social cohesion at low or zero cost.
We should think of David Cameron’s “Big Society,” which has this vaguely populist cant to it while simultaneously affirming the sovereignty of the economy and its “leaders” by cutting taxes to the rich and privatizing or simply auctioning off State services and property. Not all Brits seem to be taking to cool-aid, but the vague sense of being taken hostage looms. Just a few years ago, when the market began to crash in the United States, the ultimatum given Congress and Wall Street and not a few well-to-do Main Streeters was that if Wall Street (i.e. the institutional face of capitalism) fell then so would Main Street. Even Zizek wouldn’t or couldn’t admit that Wall Street had stepped off the precipice in 2008 when he repeated in the LRB that
The problem is that there is no way to separate the welfare of Main Street from that of Wall Street. Their relationship is non-transitive: what is good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street, but Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well – and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street.
That ultimatum is really not that unlike “Mubarak or chaos,” which Zizek got right in the Guardian saying ‘The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.” The same stance needs to be taken against the position we hear all the time that if we do not do X (cut taxes on the rich, work longer hours, take care of our own healthcare/retirement, deregulate this or that industry, get rid of or otherwise compromise our unions, make ourselves more competitive, and the like) then jobs will go away, and we’ll starve or else succumb to chaos.