Saturday, December 23, 2017


347. Žižek: Between capitalism and centralized bureaucracy

Is there a way out of the capitalist crisis discussed in the preceding item? Žižek says that he is a Marxist in his criticism of capitalism, but recognizes that communism as a centralized bureaucracy without private property and markets has irrevocably failed. Yet he called himself a communist, but when challenged on this explained that what he meant was that he was concerned about the loss of the global commons, of nature, culture, intellectual capital, and biogenetics, which capitalism causes and cannot cure. He thinks that social democracy has also failed, in bending to neoliberal capitalism, and he has himself difficulty in finding a solution between capitalism and communist centralized bureaucracy.

Žižek does not have any faith in some new, historically necessary utopia. He sees no universal, clear, all-encompassing alternative. He is wary of utopian designs, and more in favour, like Karl Popper, of what the latter called ‘piecemeal engineering’.[i]   

I agree that it is not easy to offer a grand design of how to proceed. The whole, coherent capitalist system of consumerism, advertising, profit making, competition, and financial markets, is difficult to change effectively in isolated bits by bits, and impossible to change in one coherent sweep.

I would not want to abolish markets. I still accept Hayek’s notion that the market is unparalleled in its use of local knowledge and room for initiative, which a central bureaucracy could never match. However, I disagree with Hayek that markets work well and need to be left alone. I wrote a book on this.[ii] In some areas markets should not be allowed, and where they are allowed they are often imperfect and need to be regulated. As Karl Polanyi said: markets need to be 'embedded' in society.       
One proposal has been that of local ‘commons’. There, choices concerning local facilities and services (schools, playgrounds, bridges, traffic, health care, parks, …) are no longer made on the basis of political parties, in representative democracy, but on the basis of ‘direct’ democracy with citizens councils to which willing citizens are elected or selected by lottery.

Žižek rejected such what he called ‘reversion to pre-modern times’. It is blinded, he claims, by some naïve faith in  unification of honest people in multicultural harmony. It would get mired down in endless and fruitless deliberation, erratic policies, and lack of reliability and continuity of services. It cannot solve problems of cultural mixing with immigrants. He would himself not like to take part in it, and prefers some impersonal, ‘alienating’ bureaucracy, to take care of things so he would not have to bothered with it. No doubt many other people would agree.

Žižek is half wrong and half right.

He is right that on many other issues, policy making is not to be decentralized to local communities, but, on the contrary, to be raised to a higher, supranational level. That is needed to block the perversities of power play and blackmail for advantages by multinational corporations. It is needed, in the EU, for effective military defence, foreign policy, the refugee crisis, and fighting terrorism. It is needed, in particular, for rescuing the environment, enforcing a long term perspective on investment and finance, a circular economy and abolition of pollution.

Alas: Re-emerging nationalism is blocking expansion of the EU.

My main point here is that Žižek is wrong concerning the local commons. Rousseau already recognized the problems of central government at a distance from communities: then one cannot meet the requirements of diversity in local conditions and customs, the contact between those who govern and those who are governed is impersonal, and the citizens involved are strangers to each other.[iii] The law is still a matter of the state, and can be since it is impersonal and applies equally to all everywhere, but government should be proximate to the people.

Žižek himself says that culture is needed to structure daily life, and that in finding ways to deal with problems of immigration we should involve the immigrants. That is precisely what would happen in local commons: dialogue concerning how to approach daily matters. The best path for integration of migrants is for them to do things together with locals, in shared projects. I will elaborate on that in a future item in this blog.

If you say no to this, what is your answer to the legitimate grievance of populists that government has alienated itself too much from citizens?   

The downside that Žižek notes is valid, but it can be resolved. Of course on the local level one would still need a professional, bureaucratic organization to provide the requisite expertise, continuity and reliability for the provision of public services. But what is the essential difference, in that respect, between a council with members from elected political parties and a council with directly elected or randomly selected willing citizens? One would still need an (elected) mayor and aldermen, elected by the council, to direct the running of the system.

There would remain issues that go beyond local communities, such as inter-local transport, a legal system, crime fighting, environmental issues that go beyond locality, and so on.

Also, I am under no illusion that on the local level there will not be minorities left out. Elimination of exclusion is not that simple. There will remain a predominance of influence, in city councils, of the higher educated and socially skilled. However, the local issues at play are concrete, not abstract, and easy to grasp and handle for many. Political ability and skill is not primarily a matter of education. Some possibility of appeal would still need to be available for those who remain excluded.

A further issue is this. Room for locally embedded choices inevitably yields differences between localities in the amount, kind and quality of public services. That may threaten old ideals of equality. An answer perhaps is the following. There may be equality of process that yields differences in outcome, depending on local conditions. Perhaps there still is a task on the national level to guarantee equality of conditions and process.

In sum, the national level would shrink, surrendering some authority to the supranational level, and some to the local level, but in sleeker form it would still remain.

Would all this qualify as Popperian ‘piecemeal engineering’?   


[i] I love to imagine how Žižek would hate it to be included in the same category as Popper.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.
[iii] On the social contract, Chapter 9, book 2.