This paradox was rendered palpable in the autumn 2013 shutdown of the U.S. state apparatus. What was this shutdown really about?
In the middle of April 2009, I was taking a rest in a hotel room in Syracuse, N.Y., jumping between two channels: a PBS documentary on Pete Seeger, the great American country singer of the Left, and a Fox News report on the anti-tax “Tea Party” in Austin, Texas, in which another country singer performed an anti-Obama populist song full of complaints about how Washington is taxing hard-working ordinary people to finance rich Wall Street financiers. There was a weird similarity between the two singers: both formulated an anti-establishment populist complaint against the exploitative rich and the state, calling for radical measures including civil disobedience.
All of which is another painful reminder that, at least with regard to the form of organization, today’s radical-populist Right strangely reminds us of the old radical-populist Left. Are today’s Christian survivalist-fundamentalist groups, with their half-legal status and seeing the main threat to their freedom in the oppressive state apparatus, not organized like the Black Panthers in the 1960s? In both cases, we have a militarized group getting ready for the final battle. How long will this masterful ideological manipulation continue to work? How long will the base of the Tea Party stick to the fundamental irrationality of its agenda to protect the interest of the hard-working ordinary people by privileging the “exploitative rich” and thereby literally countering their own interests?
Some of us remember the old infamous Communist tirades against the bourgeois “formal” freedom—ridiculous as they are, there is an element of truth in this distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom. A manager in a company in crisis has the “freedom” to fire worker A or B, but not the freedom to change the situation which imposes on him this choice. The moment we approach the U.S. healthcare debate in this way, the “freedom to choose” appears in a different way. True, a large part of the population will be effectively delivered of the dubious “freedom” to worry about who will cover their illness, to find a way through the intricate network of financial and other decisions. Being able to take basic healthcare for granted, to count on it like one counts on a water supply without worrying about having to choose the water company, people will simply gain more time and energy to dedicate to other things.
The lesson to be learned is that freedom of choice is something which actually functions only if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic and other conditions exists as the invisible thick background of the exercise of our freedom. This is why, as an antidote to the ideology of choice, countries like Norway should be held as a model: although all main agents respect a basic social agreement and large social projects are enacted in solidarity, social productivity and dynamics are at an extraordinary level, flatly denying the common wisdom that such a society should be stagnating.
Not many people know—and even fewer appreciate the irony of the fact—that “My Way,” Frank Sinatra’s iconic song that supposedly expresses American individualism, is an Americanized version of the French song “Comme d’habitude,” which means “as usual,” or “as is customary.” It is all to easy to see this couple—the French original and its American version—as yet another example of the opposition between sterile French manners and American inventiveness (the French follow established customs, while Americans look for new solutions)—but what if we drop the false appearance of opposition and discern in the habit of “comme d’habitude” the hidden sad truth of the much-praised search for new ways? In order to be able to do it “my Way,” each of us has to rely on quite a lot of things going on comme d’habitude. Quite a lot of things, in other words, have to be regulated if we are to enjoy our non-regulated freedom.
One of the weird consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was the revival of the work of Ayn Rand, the fullest ideological expression of radical “greed is good” capitalism: the sales of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged exploded. According to some, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged—the “creative capitalists” themselves going on strike—is now being enacted. Yet this reaction almost totally misreads the situation: most of the gigantic sums of bail-out money went precisely to those deregulated Randian “titans” who failed in their “creative” schemes and in doing so brought about the meltdown. It is not the great creative geniuses who are now helping lazy ordinary people; rather, it is the ordinary taxpayers who are helping the failed “creative geniuses.” One should simply recall that the ideologico-political father of the long economic process which ended up in the 2008 meltdown was Alan Greenspan, a card-carrying Randian “objectivist.” So now we finally know who John Galt is—the idiot responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and, consequentially, for the threat of the shutdown of state apparatuses.
In order truly to awaken from the Randian capitalist “dogmatic dream” (as Kant would have put it), we should apply to our situation Brecht’s quip from the Beggar’s Opera: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” What is the stealing of a couple of thousand dollars, for which one goes to prison, compared to financial speculations which deprive tens of millions of their homes and savings, and are then rewarded by state help of sublime grandeur? Maybe José Saramago was right when he proposed treating the big bank managers and others responsible for the meltdown as perpetrators of crimes against humanity, whose place is in the Hague Tribunal; maybe one should not treat this proposal just as a poetic exaggeration in the style of Jonathan Swift, but take it seriously. This, however, will never happen since, after the doctrine of the bank too big to indict (since, one can argue, its indictment would have catastrophic consequences for the financial and moral status of the ruling elites).
These elites, the main culprits for the 2008 financial meltdown, now impose themselves as experts, the only ones who can lead us on the painful path of financial recovery, and whose advice should therefore trump parliamentary politics, or, as Mario Monti put it: “Those who govern must not allow themselves to be completely bound by parliamentarians.” What, then, is this higher force whose authority can suspend the decisions of the democratically elected representatives of the people? The answer was provided back in 1998 by Hans Tietmeyer, then governor of the Deutsches Bundesbank, who praised national governments for preferring “the permanent plebiscite of global markets” to the “plebiscite of the ballot box.” Note the democratic rhetoric of this obscene statement: global markets are more democratic than parliamentary elections since the process of voting goes on in them permanently (and is permanently reflected in market fluctuations) and at a global level—not only every four years, and within the confines of a nation-state. The underlying idea is that, freed from this higher control of markets (and experts), parliamentary-democratic decisions are “irresponsible.”
What is new today is that, with the continuing crisis which began in 2008, this same distrust of democracy—once confined to the Third World or post-Communist developing countries—is gaining ground in developed Western countries themselves: what was a decade or two ago patronizing advice to others now concerns ourselves. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us, with full or less-than-full democracy?
The least one can say is that the current crisis offers many proofs of how it is not the people but the experts themselves who, in large part, don’t know what they are doing. In Western Europe, we are effectively witnessing a growing incapability of the ruling elite—they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby ensuring the Greek debt will never be repaid. At the end of December 2012, the IMF itself released research showing that the economic damage from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling its own advice on austerity in the Euro-zone crisis.
Now, the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive—now, after hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost because of such “miscalculations.” And herein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests all around Europe. The protesters know very well what they don’t know: they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonetheless true—that those in power also don’t know it. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense. It is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition—a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrably complex situation, a common sense reaction of ‘”things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffer, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less.”
Austerity is not “too radical,” as some Leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial: an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.
Another example of such magic thinking (and a true model of what Hegel called abstract thinking) is the so-called “Laffer curve,” evoked by free-market advocates as a reason against excessive taxation. The Laffer curve is a representation of the relationship between possible rates of taxation and the resulting levels of government revenue, illustrating how taxable income will change in response to changes in the rate of taxation. It postulates that no tax revenue will be raised at the extreme tax rates of 0 per cent and 100 per cent, and that there must be at least one rate where tax revenue would be a nonzero maximum: even from the standpoint of the government which taxes business, the highest revenue is not gained by the highest taxes. There is a point at which higher taxes start to work as a disincentive, causing capital flight and consequently lower tax revenues.
The implicit premise of this reasoning is that today the tax rate is already too high, and that lowering the tax rate would therefore not only help business but also raise tax revenues. The problem with this reasoning is that, while in some abstract sense it is true, things get more complex the moment we locate taxation into the totality of economic reproduction. A great part of the money collected by taxation is again spent on the products of private business, thereby giving incentive to it. More important even, the proceeds of taxation are also spent on creating the appropriate conditions for business.
Let us take two comparable cities, one with a lower business tax rate and the other with a higher one. In the first, city public education and healthcare are in a bad condition, crime is exploding, and so on; the second city, meanwhile, spends higher revenues on better education, better energy supply, better transport, etc. Is it not reasonable to suppose that many businesses would find the second city more attractive for investment? So, paradoxically, if the first city decides to follow the second in its tax policy, raising taxes may give more incentive to private business.
(And, incidentally, many half-developed ex-Communist countries to which developed countries are outsourcing their industries are exploited, in the sense that Western business gains access to a cheaper skilled workforce that has benefited from public education: thus, the socialist state provides free education for the workforces of Western companies.)
Excerpted from "Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism" by Slavoj Zizek. Published by Melville House Books. Copyright 2015 by Slavoj Zizek. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.