Sorry for not posting for so long. Things have been just too busy recently. Hopefully, more substantial, and more frequent, posting will resume soon.
For the moment, some rough comments about politics and economics — or what used to be called (and probably should be called again) political economy. Zizek notes, rightly and usefully, that Marxist theory is characterized by a parallax — an unresolvable alternative, where both terms are necessary, yet each one disqualifies the other — “between economy and politics — between the ‘critique of political economy,’ with its logic of commodities, and the political struggle, with its logic of antagonism.” (As I have noted previously — here and here — Zizek gets the term “parallax” from Karatani, though he endeavors — wrongly in my opinion — to replace Karatani’s rigorous Kantianism with his own Hegelianism). The political focus of thinkers like Badiou and Ranciere — and Zizek himself? — means that they tend to elide Marx’s emphasis on economy; while Marx himself, in Capital, so emphasizes economics that he fails ever to link up his complex analysis of exploitation under capitalism with the political praxis that is the ostensible goal of his analysis.
I’d like to give a somewhat different twist to Zizek’s observation, by looking, from a different angle, at the parallax between politics and political economy in recent theoretical discussions. I am inclined to agree with Fredric Jameson (though I cannot find the exact citation) that the specific difference of a Marxist approach is precisely that it focuses on economy rather than on politics. You don’t need Marxist theory to do a political reading of contemporary culture — such a political approach is precisely what characterizes Cultural Studies in the US and the UK. But Cultural Studies generally elides political economy: it may mention “class” in a sociological sense (as in: how people define their own class status, and how they regard groups whose status is higher or lower than themselves); but it almost never looks at the systematics of exploitation and capital accumulation. It may well denounce “neoliberalism” in general terms, but it almost never thinks about how the Market has become the horizon of thought today, the a priori that is so deeply embedded in the background of everything we think and do, so taken for granted, that we scarcely even remember that it is there.
But I am not just talking about Cultural Studies — I am thinking about a lot of (other) recent theoretical work as well. It seems to me that economy is being elided (in favor of politics) whenever there is talk about power and domination, without linking these to processes of exploitation and capital accumulation. It seems to me that this elision is taking place in all the arguments about Agamben’s “bare life” and the notions of sovereignty and the exception. Much as I love Foucault, it seems to me that this elision is taking place whenever people invoke Foucault’s theories of governmentality (not to mention biopower and the control of populations — I do not think biopower can be understood apart from the investments and accumulation of capital). And it seems to me that this elision is taking place when Zizek writes of “surplus enjoyment” (instead of surplus value), of the obscene superego supplement, and of the alleged “decline of Symbolic efficacy” (this latter notion I especially dislike, because it seems to me to be just a sophisticated veneer overlaying the old conservative complaint that without Absolute Values and Authority to guide us, we slip into nihilism and/or anarchy. Isn’t Zizek really just a neoconservative of the left? — understanding neoconservatism, in the manner of Wendy Brown, as an unavoidable supplement of neoliberalism, shoring it up, insofar as the latter is always threatening to collapse).
Political economy is what’s missing from all these analyses. And I think that political economy needs to be brought back into the picture. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of energy was spent arguing (rightly, I think) against essentialism, and against the old base/superstructure model of a certain old-fashioned variety of Marxism (and of a certain strain in Marx himself, admittedly) which asserted that the economy was the fundamental cause and center of everything, and that all other levels — politics, culture, and so on — were mere epiphenomena. But the result has been an elision of political economy altogether. I agree with Deleuze, Foucault, Latour, et al. that systems are complex and can never be given a monocausal explanation; and that local practices and processes cannot be subsumed under a single Big Picture. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot make any sort of directional or general statements about “capitalism.” We can recognize, with Nigel Thrift, that “capitalism” and “the market” are “made up of institutions which are manifold, multiform, and multiple,” so that “there is no one capitalism or market but only a series of different capitalisms and markets”, or that “capitalism is ‘instantiated’ in particular practices” — yet this is not a license to simply abandon all talk of capitalist mechanisms like exploitation, expropriation, and capital accumulation. (What’s wrong with Latour, and his Actor Network Theory, in particular, is that they do indeed take locality and bottom-up description as an alibi for evading the movements and processes of Capital altogether).
In other words, it is possible to argue that political economy is necessary, that it needs to be put back in the picture, without having to argue that it is the “base” or the ultimate determinant or any other such metaphysical thesis. Ultimately, I am a Whiteheadian in metaphysics; which means that I think any abstraction, the one that reduces things to political economy as much as the others, is necessarily incomplete, and leads to confusion if it is given a “misplaced concreteness,” pushed beyond the limits within which it makes a certain sense. But the flip side of this position is the recognition that abstraction is necessary, that thought cannot do anything without it, that we won’t get anywhere without the partiality of abstraction. Political economy is not the base or the ultimate explanation and cause of everything in society; but it is the abstraction, or perspective, that we need right now, in this world of neoliberal globalization.
One of a number of reasons why I still find Deleuze and Guattari so worthwhile, is that — almost alone among “post-structuralist” thinkers — they do not elide political economy. Their formulations — especially in Part 3, sections 9 and 10 of Anti-Oedipus — remain crucial for any attempt to comprehend how Marx’s account of capital remains relevant for today’s “network society.” I have great difficulty in following many of the ways that contemporary Deleuzians make use of notions of the “virtual,” and especially of the “body without organs.” But these key Deleuzian concepts do make sense to me in terms of the body of capital, and of the way that capitalism, and especially “postmodern” or “post-Fordist” capitalism, is all about capitalizing and capturing potential, commodifying the abstract and the impalpable, and harnessing “innovation” and “creativity” for capital accumulation.
Of course, going back to the “parallax” with which I started, affirming political economy runs the counter-risk of eliding the practice of politics proper, of not addressing questions of antagonism, and of “what is to be done?” The more one comprehends the reach of Capital and the Market today, the harder it becomes to believe that any of the recent political proposals on the left — from Cultural Studies’ quaint faith that watching soap operas can be “oppositional,” to Hardt and Negri’s faith in the uprising of the Multitude, to Zizek’s romantic fantasies of Party discipline and an absolute Leninist rupture — can actually come to anything. I find myself led, in spite of my own better instincts, to a kind of Adornoesque despair, and to a pessimism both of the intellect and of the will. Nonetheless, I remain unapologetic about such negativistic gloom. For I continue to believe that the only way out is the way through, and that, if the point is not to interpret the world, in various ways, but actually to change it, that such change will never come about without a Spinozian understanding of the Necessity that constrains us — or (better) without a Whiteheadian understanding of the inseparability of the permanent and the transient, of the necessary and the contingent. And such an understanding today needs to pass by the way of political economy.