Zizek on the Financial Crisis

You wouldn’t think that a Marxist Lacanian psychoanalyst best known for his interpretations of Alfred Hitchcock movies would have anything of interest to say about the current financial crisis. Well, you’d be wrong. Zizek actually makes some good points here.


I particularly like the ending:


“This is why Obama was right to reject McCain’s call to postpone the first presidential debate and to point out that the meltdown makes a political debate about how the two candidates would handle the crisis all the more urgent. In the 2000 election, Clinton won with the motto ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ The Democrats need to get a new message across: ‘It’s the POLITICAL economy, stupid!’ The US doesn’t need less politics, it needs more.”


It’s the political economy, stupid – that’s a slogan I can live with.

The Red Archbishops

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: he even looks like Marx.

The current crisis is having all sorts of interesting consequences, one of which is the two leading Anglican clergymen (Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and John Sentamu, Archbishop of York) are now echoing Marx, with special reference to the classic Marxist idea of reification (the process whereby humanly created things and institutions take on a life of their own).

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Sans Frontiers

People sometimes ask me what it’s like behind the scenes at Sans Everything. Pretty luxurious, I usually say. When you’re dealing with an operation of this size, you really notice the benefits of economies of scale. Last week for example, we decided to re-do all the ensuite bathrooms, and because our order for marble is so large, the same supplier has offered to put a second fireplace in the ballroom at no cost. Yet despite our high-toned surround, life in Sans mansion can get pretty boyish and jocular at times. Take Jeet, for example. From the outside, you might guess that he spends most of his time up in the library, in order to bolster his already phenomenal learning across such an impressive range of subjects. In reality, however, he has practically moved into the pool room (he does some of his best writing in there) and loves to flick his towel at the rest of us whenever we so much as poke our head in the sauna.

This same mischevious spirit has now appeared on the blog itself, in Jeet’s recent post on Barack Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee. Like John in his response below, I was struck by the passage in which Jeet contrasts his economic views to that of the other writers of this blog: “I believe I’m the only skeptic of our group when it comes to neoliberalism and the policies that are often described as ‘free trade’ (but which are in fact managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power).”

John has already made many of the points I would make, so let me add only three quick comments.

I could not help noticing that Jeet runs together the principle of free trade with particular trade deals that, although they have “free trade” in their name, do not in fact liberalize trade. What struck me about this aspect of Jeet’s post is how it echoes a line of thinking that was once most common on the right, but increasingly seems to be employed by the left. It is the idea that you can refute an ideal or principle by pointing to a case in which it has been poorly or disasterously implemented. When the Soviet Union was around for example, left-wingers were often careful to distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism. Marx’s philosophy was one thing, they would point out, what was being done in the Soviet Union in its name quite another. The difference between the two is evident in the fact that there have been Marxist critics of the Soviet Union (such as Terry Eagleton).

Leftists who made a distinction between Marxism and Stalinism were making a fair point. To refute Marx, you had to go beyong the USSR, and point to problems with his actual philosophy (such as, say, the labour theory of value). By using dubious free trade deals to attack the principle of liberal trade, Jeet’s position is reminiscent of conservative anti-communists who failed to distinguish between Marx and Stalin.

Perhaps this only shows that dismissing a given philosophy by pointing to its thwarted implementation is a temptation we all sometimes succumb to. But it seems to me that when it comes to defending our own views, whatever our politics, we invariably distinguish between the principles we hold and cases where those principles have been implemented in a hamfisted way. If that is the case, consistency would seem to demand that we judge rival views by the same standard. In the case of Jeet’s objection to free trade, this would require showing not only that free trade has sometimes not been advanced by particular trade agreements, but showing that it can never be. That strikes me as a tall order, to say the least.

The second thing from Jeet’s post that struck me was not something he said, but a remark he guotes from Nation writer John Nicols:

Next, Obama needs to go to Pittsburgh and deliver a very serious, very detailed speech in which he makes it clear that he is the only remaining candidate who is fundamentally opposed to current U.S. trade policies — and that if he is elected he will drop the fast-track model for negotiating these deals. That speech should be delivered at the international headquarters of the United Steelworkers of America in the city’s downtown.

Nicols, I take it, is no fan of free trade either. What is strange to me is how widespread such a view has become on the left. I would argue that protectionism of the kind Nicols is calling for is not in fact a progressive view. This is because it is gives too much weight to nationalism, and seeks to protect the jobs of American workers at the expense of workers in poorer countries. I much prefer the more inclusive philosophy of Peter Singer, who points out the problem with rich-world protectionism in his book The Ethics Of Globalization:

Since Mexico is a much poorer country than the United States, any tranfer of work from the United States to Mexico can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much less well off than those U.S. workers who lost their jobs. Those who favour reducing poverty globally, rather than only in their own country, should see this as a good thing.

In line with Singer’s comment, I would argue that the thing for unions to do is not to oppose free trade agreements and support proectionism with the frequency that they do, but to try to improve the working conditions of people in Mexico and elsewhere, by fighting for eight-hour work days and other benefits that union activism helped establish in rich countries.

Finally, I could not help but notice Jeet’s use of the work “skeptic” to describe his economic views. How often have we heard journalists describe themselves as skeptics, in contrast to all the highly credulous people who disagree with them? Announcing oneself as a skeptic has become one of the most common rhetorical moves of our time. Yet it is a misleading way of putting things. As in this case, the disagreement is not between skeptics and non-skeptics, but people who believe in different things, i.e. free trade and protectionism. Moreover, there is a certain irony in how popular the “I’m a skeptic” move has become. The herd-of-independent-minds aspect was well brought out by a friend of mine who told me he wanted to write the most iconoclastic book imaginable. “What would the title be?,” I asked.

“Against contrarianism,” he replied.

Marxists for conservatism

Karl Marx.

Karl Marx.

In 1978 the Canadian philosopher G. A. Cohen wrote a book called Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Cohen’s work updated Marx’s ideas for the contemporary world, and it has since come to be regarded as a classic of political philosophy. Although Cohen rejects “dialectical thinking” and many other ideas usually considered central to Marxism, he is a Marxist in the sense of someone who has been broadly influenced by Marx, and who takes Marx’s concerns seriously.

Cohen is now affiliated with All Souls College, Oxford. Several of his college’s “Fellows,” as academics who work there are called, have proposed changing how All Souls is funded. Rather than express delight at this new scheme, Cohen has written that “my gut reaction to these proposals is negative.” He uses his reaction to the All Souls funding proposal as an example of his “conservative attitude” in a recent paper called “A Truth in Conservatism: Rescuing Conservatism from the Conservatives.” As Cohen puts it:

I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice, and I here mount an exposition and defence of what I believe to be my widely, although perhaps not universally, shared, conservative attitude. I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue). I am a kind of conservative not only in that I have the strong small-c conservative attitude that I shall describe, but also in that I endorse certain conservative factual assessments according to which a lot of valuable things have been disappearing lately. I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”

Cohen is not the first Marxist to align himself with some form of small-c conservatism. In his book Marx’s Revenge (2002), the socialist economist Meghnad Desai expresses sympathy for the ideas of Austrian philosopher-economist Friedrich Hayek. Although Hayek once wrote a paper called “Why I am not a Conservative,” there is a strain in his writings that is in keeping with Cohen’s gut reaction to change, a strain that emphasizes traditional knowledge and the value of the known over the unknown. Similarly, the Marxist literature professor Frederic Jameson has found inspiration in the writings of conservative journalist Hilton Kramer, whose negative attitude toward postmodernism influenced Jameson’s discussion of the topic in his 1991 book Postmodernism. Last but not least, the left-wing literary critic Irving Howe once wrote an essay for The New Republic (Febuary 18, 1991) noting that famous Marxists such as Georg Lukacs, Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci all exhibited great respect for the literary canon and other aspects of “the classical heritage of mankind” (something Howe thought modern left-wing academics had lost sight of).

At first glance it might seem strange that so many Marxists would have a conservative side. However, I would argue that the conservative attitude Cohen is referring to has no particular politics. It is a rather a mood, one that has been felt at one time or another by everyone who lives in the fluid and fast-changing modern world. From this point of view, what separates a leftist from a political conservative is not an impulse toward preservation, but which particular institutions and goods they want to keep around. After all, it was Marx himself who complained of life under capitalism that it is too hectic and unstable. As he wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

Clearly there is good authority in the Marxist tradition for being suspicious of new-fangled developments. Nevertheless, it would seem possible to carry left-wing fuddy-duddyism too far. Consider the attitude toward technological progress exhibited by Terry Eagleton, a professor at the University of Manchester and arguably the world’s most prominent Marxist academic. If you are a prospective student hoping to drop Prof. Eagleton a line electronically, his Web page may come as something of a shock. Click on it looking for an email address, and you get the following message instead: “Terry Eagleton prefers conventional mail to email.”