Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Triumph of capitalism: The new world plague

Some time ago, while working on a bigger project concerning contemporary society, I took Slavoj Žižek as my point of departure to raise the question of the state of the “ethical” today. This morning, when I was looking at Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (Routledge 1994) in the context of this project, I noticed a confluence of ideas between the latter and Žižek, but also between Derrida and Manuel Castells’ theory of the “network society”.

Of the three thinkers, Derrida is undoubtedly the most complex. In Specters of Marx (1994: 81-84) he provides a list of “plagues” of the present world order, in the context of the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Derrida responded to this premature triumphalism by reminding people that “spectres” or ghosts — like that of Hamlet’s father in the well-known tragedy, or like that of Marx — have a way of exhorting human beings to act according to the responsibility they bear to (dead, or not yet born) others. (Significantly, he dedicated the book to South African Chris Hani, who was assassinated shortly before its publication.) It is impossible to do justice to this text in a mere blog post, so I will focus on the “plagues”, where, as part of his thoughtful response to people like Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed the “end of history” with the 1989 events, he raised questions of an ethical, economic, political and cratological (power-related) nature.

These “plagues” include unemployment, the exclusion of homeless citizens from participation in democratic processes, the “ruthless economic war” among nations worldwide, the insurmountability of the contradictions inherent to the concept of the “free market”, the connection between the worsening of foreign debt and economic hardship on the part of many millions of people, the apparently irreversible integration of the “arms industry” with economic activity worldwide, the spread of nuclear weapons, the global proliferation of inter-ethnic wars, the virtually invisible or seamless infiltration of states and economies by “phantom-States” (like the Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza) as a strictly capitalist phenomenon, and the present condition of international law and its institutions, in so far as it suffers from certain historical and state-specific cratological limitations. All of them are intimately connected to the nexus of economic and political power in the so-called capitalist states, and this implicates, in turn, what Žižek calls an “ethical vacuum”.

Even without elaborating on these “plagues”, it is apparent that Fukuyama’s solemn declaration of the advent of the “end of history” on the occasion of the collapse of the USSR — that is, the global realisation of the marriage between market capitalism and liberal democracy as the “final”, unsurpassable historical state — is hopelessly out of touch with the uninterruptable historical “process” itself. The plague of the “ruthless economic war” among nations (in accordance with capitalism’s founding anthropology, that we live economically by competing with others), for one thing, is a formula according to which an economic historian can decipher “historical” events post-1989, to which the worsening of foreign debt can be added, starting with that of the United States.

Moreover, these “plagues” would communicate to receptive minds that, if anyone had thought the world post-1989 would answer to the description of “paradise on earth” (as Fukuyama might make one think), they were in for a nasty surprise. Derrida wrote this book before 9/11, and before the 2008 financial crisis, and with hindsight one could possibly draw some connections between these two “historical” events and the “plagues” in question. Consider Derrida’s words (1994: 78), where he quotes American political thinker and Fukuyama’s teacher, Allan Bloom, to combat the naïve, unhistorical optimism in the air after 1989:

“But what is one to think today of the imperturbable thoughtlessness that consists in singing the triumph of capitalism or of economic and political liberalism, ‘the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the endpoint of human government,’ the ‘end of the problem of social classes’? [Think of the emergence of new classes around the Occupy Movement! BO] What cynicism of good conscience, what manic disavowal could cause someone to write, if not believe, that ‘everything that stood in the way of reciprocal recognition of human dignity [a reference to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic; BO], always and everywhere, has been refuted and buried by history’?”

For one thing, Derrida points out (p79), parliamentary liberal democracy is in a dysfunctional condition in so-called Western democracies. Where he elaborates on this claim, he moves towards the terrain of Castells’ thesis, in The Network Society (which appeared in 1996, two years after the English translation of Derrida’s Specters of Marx), that information technology has profoundly changed the very fabric of human experience through the fundamental transformation of space and time. Derrida was evidently acutely aware of this where he deals a blow to the vacuous optimism regarding liberal democracy supposedly being the apogee of historical political development (p79):

“Electoral representativity or parliamentary life is not only distorted … by a great number of socio-economic mechanisms, but it is exercised with more and more difficulty in a public space profoundly upset by techno-tele-media apparatuses and by new rhythms of information and communication, by the devices and the speed of forces represented by the latter, but also and consequently by the new modes of appropriation they put to work, by the new structure of the event and of its spectrality that they produce (both invent and bring up to date, inaugurate and reveal, cause to come about and bring to light at the same time … this transformation does not affect only facts but the concept of such ‘facts’. The very concept of the event. The relation between deliberation and decision, the very functioning of government has changed, not only in its technical conditions, its time, its space, and its speed, but, without anyone having really realized it, in its concept.”

What Castells would later call the “space of flows” and its temporal counterpart, “timeless time”, are here anticipated by Derrida in his perspicacious grasp of the modification of political decision-making by the structurally modifying reciprocity that the “new” media — television, for example — have inaugurated between parliamentary processes and politicians’ functions regarding governance, on the one hand, and the virtually instantaneous dissemination of any “news” in this domain, on the other. The strictly “political” functioning of legislative bodies such as parliaments cannot escape the effects of these profound transformations. Derrida summarises this state aptly where he remarks, comparing politicians before the advent of a media-dominated society with those of today (p80):

“However competent they may personally be, professional politicians who conform to the old model tend today to become structurally incompetent. The same media power accuses, produces, and amplifies at the same time this incompetence of traditional politicians: on the one hand, it takes away from them the legitimate power they held in the former political space (party, parliament, and so forth), but, on the other hand, it obliges them to become mere silhouettes, if not marionettes, on the stage of televisual rhetoric. They were thought to be actors of politics, they now often risk, as everyone knows, being no more than TV actors.” [Small wonder Ronald Reagan succeeded in winning the American presidency! BO]

Everyone who knows how people’s behaviour changes when there are television cameras trained on them, will know exactly what Derrida is getting at here. And everyone who understands this, will understand his scepticism in the face of claims, like Fukuyama’s, that history has ended because the whole world has finally embraced liberal, capitalist democracy. This is simply not possible, for in the age of media-hegemony, of the network society, democracy (liberal or otherwise) ain’t what it used to be. And neither are the conditions for ethical behaviour, as Žižek has argued (see the post linked above).

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    • Richard

      This is yet another description of the way humans are wired to read power relationships into a multiplicity of channels. The nature of power and how it is wielded has changed constantly throughout history, as people’s conditioning has changed according to circumstance. For instance, in early non-competitive societies (too few people to need to challenge each other for resources) the leader would perhaps be the physically strongest one, best able to spear a mammoth. Then, as humans proliferated and competed, it might be the one best able to lead fighters for battle. Then, as the size became too large for each competitor to fight it out, the power would need to be projected more abstractly to retain structures to keep order, so perhaps at that time somebody adept at managing rivalries and playing potential usurpers one against the other. At some point the tipping point came between rulers and ruled (people belonged to the ruler rather than the ruler belonging to the people). In the present time in order to wield power one must be adept at the new technologies, be telegenic, be seen to be “accessible” and “one of the people”, etc., etc. Those are the current proving grounds and high grounds to be conquered.

      Of course, the fundamental issue is that humans read power-relationships into everything. Why do women, say, see powerful men (expressed differently in different times) as sexually attractive? And is it not obvious that men will respond to this, and seek power?

    • Matoro

      The fraudulent criminals are operating in “full smoke and mirror mode,” promoting the illusion of prosperity while covering up their massive trail of lies and deceit.
      There is nothing honourable or trustworthy in anything they do.
      A recent admission by the USA Justice Department regarding crimes in the financial sector really exposes the truth. It tells us who is running the show. In the past month, the Justice Department released the stunning admission that in determining whether or not to prosecute crimes in the financial arena, it took into account the likely systemic effect of that prosecution.
      My head is still reeling from that admission. Most people would agree that that’s not a Justice Department’s role. And I think it’s caused a really reasonable, serious, and continued undermining of trust in our markets.
      Jim Chanos: “It really is amazing to the extent that lawmakers, despite all the evidence that major legislative initiatives that banks have asked for in the last 50 years have generally been harmful to the public purse, they’ve generally gotten what they’ve asked for. You can’t be too cynical”.

    • J.J.

      “Why do women, say, see powerful men (expressed differently in different times) as sexually attractive? And is it not obvious that men will respond to this, and seek power?”

      Thank you Richard, for pointing this out. It’s ironic and interesting how women also fuel the seeking of power by men – to be considered powerful by women – whatever that entails in the current era. So, in effect the enable and support “the patriarchy” that they are so against…

    • Bert

      Richard and Matoro – Thanks for those highly relevant comments. It is a testimony to Derrida’s insight into the complexity of power relations in our time that you can come in from different angles and both contribute comments that expand on his notion of ‘world plagues’.

    • Petrus

      Interesting that in the years when Derrida first published Spectres of Marx, some of the professional philosophers pulled up their noses and interpreted it for mostly philosophical speculative purposes. Meaning that they’d try to anal-yse the deconstructive approach to Marx, but conveniantly forgot about the real poltical-economic implications of Spectres… anyway

      The real economic implications of the financial crisis, and the social effect of communications tech development in the past two decades should also be read in the context of predictions (also ignored during the 1990s) that in the 21st century probably only +/- 20% of the world population will be needed to run the global economy.

      Bzerzinsky, in an elitist barb, at a conference in the US 1996, remarked something like – the only way to keep the excess 80% population in control is by supplying sufficient nutrition plus titty-tainment (tits + entertainment). This is the horror show of the 21st century, and also why the virtual universe of instantaneous global communication could be the biggest enemy of human perception of the hard reality we face today.

      So, if you are concerned about the shifting power matrices that come with communications media, it may also help to look beyond speculation about what it does to politicians, but maybe more importantly how the supporting structures of the disentangling global capital nexus is forcing behavioral change on society and all its constranly shifting power…

    • Maria

      @ Petrus: “This is the horror show of the 21st century, and also why the virtual universe of instantaneous global communication could be the biggest enemy of human perception of the hard reality we face today.”

      Well said. Derrida addresses this at length in his contribution to Borradori’s “Philosophy in a Time of Terror”, arguing in a finely nuanced fashion that the inscription of 9/11 into, and its domestication by mainstream discourses and the televisual imaginary, was what came between the American people and the elusive “event” that was 9/11.

      By the way, didn’t we meet at that conference in 1996? Petrus, the guy from South Africa, who was married to an American woman philosopher? I remember South Africans because my best friend ever, Bert, is South African.

    • Rene

      I’m afraid most people don’t have the means to understand what Derrida is talking about here – how there could be structural-conceptual changes to the process of governing itself.