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The discursive forces that shape our lives

The 21st-century world, and with it, our lives, are shaped by powerful discursive forces that are distinct from one another, but are nevertheless interrelated in complex ways. Sometimes they intertwine and reinforce one another, and sometimes they conflict, and the clash between discourses often spills over into the lives of ordinary (and sometimes high-profile) individuals who are mostly powerless to control such consequences.

I have written on discourses on this site before, but to recap briefly what it means to say that discourses — or discursive forces — shape us and our world, think of it this way. Most discourse-theorists (and those with the most sophisticated theories of discourse are, to my mind, Foucault, Lacan and, although he tends to use a different idiom, Ranciére) posit a link between language, power and agency, which simply means this: Our subjectivity, including our actions, is configured or “shaped” by the language and related images to which we are exposed from infancy.

Someone who is raised a Christian, for example, learns to view the world and their actions in it through the powerful discursive complex of Christian imagery and language — the death of Christ on the cross and what it means for humanity, backed up and reinforced by images depicting his suffering and the salvation of humankind. On the other hand, someone who grows up in present-day consumer societies (that means most people) are shaped by the discourse of neo-liberal capitalism, probably the most powerful and pervasive discourse structuring people’s behaviour today.

By this I mean that, even if it is intertwined with other discourses, such as that of Christianity, or of technology, the mass media, or of the military-industrial complex, or of patriarchy — and usually these interweavings do function in social relations — it seems to me that the dominant discourse is that of capitalism. This is debatable, of course, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say that certain complex intertwinements comprise the dominant discursive forces in global society today. The ones I would pick out are and amalgam of capitalism, technology, mass media, the military-industrial complex and patriarchy.

Existing in a kind of agonistic tension with this configuration of mutually-reinforcing discourses there are numerous counter-discourses that challenge their dominance. Different strands of feminism combat the excesses of patriarchy, different kinds of culture or religion-based discourses oppose and sometimes violently engage with the dominant discourses of capitalism and global military interventionism (which is driven by, and in turn drives the military-industrial complex). As Hardt and Negri point out in Empire (2001: 146-150), this happens when certain cultures perceive the dominant discursive regimes as threatening the destruction of their life-worlds, and turn to fundamentalist discourses.

What some people, like Paul Roberts, see as a worrying trend in the US, namely to subject its (in many ways still) democratic discursive foundation to increasing “police (or security) control”, is intimately connected to the discursive entanglement of military technological development and capitalism, being driven by the constant need for technological innovation for military purposes as well as for profit through consumerism. A case in point is the enormous recent growth in the development of so-called “drones”, not only for military purposes, but also for commercial and private use.

In Pakistan, where thousands of people have been killed by drone-attacks, constantly hovering US military drones have become such a ubiquitous feature of villagers’ lives that all kinds of detrimental psychological effects may be identified on the part of the villagers. And the military-interventionist discourse is so powerful that this continues, despite no formal permission having been granted to the US under international law. A recent TIME magazine (February 11) features a cover article that explores not only the military uses of drones, but also its use in businesses like real estate and photography. Clearly, what Foucault called “panopticism”, has been taken up a level or two. The point is that these practices of surveillance would not come into being without the discourses which justify and make them possible — and in the US these discourses are so powerful that even a wide spectrum of discursive opposition does not seem to have any impact on their global rule.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, the oldest and probably most pervasive discourse in the world — patriarchy — still exercises its lethal force, with women and children being at the receiving end. And don’t think that it is not connected with the other dominant discourses — the fascination that guns hold for many men is intimately connected to the military-industrial discursive complex, to the valorisation of hunting as a “manly” thing to do, as well as to capitalist profit from rifle, pistol and other arms manufacturing. It is no accident that the National Rifle Association in the US is such a powerful lobby group on Capitol Hill — unless the discourse of “the right to carry arms” were regularly reinforced in debates on gun control, the profits of the manufacturers would dwindle to unacceptable levels.

This discourse — where constitutional rights to carry guns and personal security converge — lurks behind many of the fatal shootings that so puzzle observers in the US. And it operates in South Africa too, for many complex reasons involving the media-valorisation of self-defence by means of guns, and reinforced by the discourse surrounding crime. Consider this: in mainstream Hollywood movies as well as many television series the discursive imperative that comes across explicitly and forcefully, is that problems are best resolved through the use of guns.

A discourse-analysis of films, and even of movie-posters advertising them, makes this unambiguously clear. I recall a recent poster for the film, Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise staring at the onlooker with a look of implacable resolve, holding a handgun, with a caption suggesting that Reacher (his character) is the one who will “reach” further than anyone to rectify and avenge wrongs and crimes — with a gun, of course.

If this is the image that holds people captive — that interpersonal problems should always be approached with a gun in your hand — is it at all surprising that people with heaven knows what personal grievances and resentments follow its discursive imperative to the letter, going to schools and other places where people gather, and allowing their bodies to become the instruments of these fundamental, inescapable discursive forces by raining bullets on the hapless victims?

Those among us who try to do our share in promoting a humane, tolerant society, where to be caring, reasonable and communicative is valorised — especially where women and children are concerned — and where human solidarity instead of private profit at all costs is promoted, had better speak up and act visibly in accordance with a different discursive complex, one that bears the imprint of what goes by an ancient name: love. Not just love of your lover, partner, wife or husband and children, but of all people, in the sense of care (caritas), and ultimately of all living things according to their natures. After all, we all belong to the same extended family.

For a more substantial treatment of this theme, see my “Discourse, agency and the question of evil” (A discourse-analysis of the so-called “ripper-rapist” case), in Philosophy and Psychoanalytic theory, Collected essays, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2009.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 18 February 2013

    Bert, while I concur with you on the “intertwinement” of a number of complicit discourses, among the ones you mention it is indeed difficult to select the true “master’s discourse.” From the angle of consumer activity driving the economy, as you recently argued in your TL post on Zygmunt Bauman (Homo and Gyna Consumens), it is tempting to agree about the current incarnation of capitalism having that dubious honor; given the tech-mindset of the current generation, it would appear to be the discourse on technology, and when I take cognizance of all the violent acts against women, not only in South Africa, but all over the world, I would be inclined to nominate patriarchy. Events in India and South Africa, of late, point in this direction. Is this still symptomatic of a “backlash” against the women’s movement, as Susan Faludi claimed in the book by that name, or was she closer to the target in “Stiffed”, that it is an expression of the impotence that men feel in a world where they are taught they should be “in control,” but are decidedly not, because the corporations are? If the latter, we’re back at capitalism, this time as the great emasculating force provoking a reactionary patriarchal self-affirmation. Do you agree with Faludi on this?

  2. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 19 February 2013

    Just a factual correction: A country’s military is not a privately run institute, it’s a government-run institute and it pre-dates capitalism by millennia. In fact, it’s only with the advent of capitalism that countries without a militia at all arose.

  3. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 19 February 2013

    @Bert: I agree that discourses play a significant role in shaping our lives (and most other things in the world too), but I feel it’s critical not to focus exclusively – or even primarily – on the discursive.

    As Foucault, Deleuze and others remind us, there are a whole host of non-discursive practices, arrangements of power, collective assemblages of enunciation and so forth that also intervene on our lives (and ‘partition the sensible’). In other words, it’s probably high time that what Manuel DeLanda calls ‘the theory of the primacy of linguisticality of experience’ (i.e., the still-dominant linguistic turn, with its tendency to reduce the salient elements of poststructuralist and critical theory to ‘discourse analysis’) was appropriately delimited in favour of a renewed materialism where the linguistic / discursive is just one of the many types of flows, processes, practices, arrangements and so forth that define, constrain and enable our capacity to understand and act meaningfully within the contemporary world. Capitalist exploitation, for example, is arguably not solely – or even primarily – discursive. Levi Bryant unpacks this well:

    “There is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me.” – Foucault

  4. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 19 February 2013

    @Maria & Bert: Seeing Maria’s comment about the discourse of the master in the context of a discussion of capitalist discourse reminded me of this piece by, again, Levi Bryant, on Lacan’s relatively unexplored discourse of the capitalist:

    If there has been a kind of rise to dominance of the discourse (and universe) of the capitalist, we can only hope that Lacan is at least partly right in his prognosis:

    “It is no less headed for a blowout. This is because it is untenable. It is untenable… in a thing that I could explain to you… because capitalist discourse is here, you see… [indicates the formula on the board]… a little inversion simply between the S1 and $ … which is the subject… it suffices to the extent that it runs as if on a roulette wheel, but it runs too fast, it consumes, it consumes so well that it consumes itself.” – Lacan

  5. Bert Bert 19 February 2013

    Maria, yes, I believe the interpretive analysis of Stiffed is accurate, so I do agree with Faludi. Her account of the reasons why she had to extend her research into the cultural conditions affecting men’s lives (after Backlash), are persuasive, and her diagnosis of American men’s position is largely applicable to men the world over, given the global expansion of corporate power.
    Aragorn, what I say about discursive practices in this post cannot be divorced from other forces, such as those you mention. But implicit in what I’ve said here is precisely the relationship between such discursive constraints and those other layers – without this relationship I could not talk cogently about the effect of discourses on ‘our lives’. For one thing, the shaping power of discourse is such that it becomes inscribed on the body, as it were, and as a result many of the practices in which people engage, although of discursive ‘origin’, soon surpass that and take on a life of their own, such as the physical abuse of women at a material level. I don’t think it can be separated from discourse, however – to talk routinely about women as ‘bitches’ in certain discursive domains, for instance, is intimately connected to the treatment women receive there. Besides, have you forgotten that the signifier itself is marked by ‘materiality’? In Lacan, for instance, there is no quasi-Hegelian discursive idealism – each of his four discourses has a material purchase on social reality.

  6. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 19 February 2013

    @Bert: Thanks for clarifying :-)

    I agree with most of what you’ve said, with the small provisio that we don’t fall prey to the all too common tendency to describe the relationship between the discursive and other layers in such a way as to render the discursive primary and all these other non-discursive practices, etc., secondary or merely emergent (i.e., a kind of one-way, base superstructure style arrangement).

    If I understand your last point correctly then I would also agree that the signifier is marked by – and marks – materiality (one can also think here of, say, D&G’s discussion of incorporeal transformations in ‘Postulates of Linguistics’), and is not in any sense, idealist or otherwise, separated from the non-discursive (there are exceedingly complex relations of reciprocal determinism involved in any real-world instance), but would again push for a kind of explanatory parity that sees both discursive and non-discursive layers as equally primary.

    PS: As a layperson in all this, it’s also the case that I may have missed one of your key points and am actually just disagreeing with a strawperson ;-)

  7. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 19 February 2013

    @Bert: Thanks for the link – I must have missed that piece. I did chuckle a bit when I saw that the Lacan quote I included in my earlier comment was the one you’d already used in your other article.

  8. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 20 February 2013

    The reason why the combination of free trade, democracy and Christianity (specifically the Protestant variety) has been so successful is that they are all built on the same premise: freedom of individual choice.

    Free trade is about producing what I want to, selling what I want to and buying what I want to. Democracy is about voting for who I want to and if there is no one that adequately represent my views, to have the freedom to start my own party. Christianity is about choosing Christ as your Savior.

    Capitalism should be seen as a form of specialization that increases productivity, it is not an economic system. Even under socialism (communism) you would have to provide sufficient capital for a large steel mill, only the government would provide it. The difference between the large steel mill producing steel and an individual trying to make steel with a coal fire and a hand operated bellow is the difference in productivity. As productivity is clearly desirable, capitalism has to be desirable too.

    Consumerism (which I abhor by the way) is only an indication that we have been too successful in producing and that we can afford to go higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy. Why you do not see spending (wasting) money on fine coffee or at an art gallery or at a restaurant in the same light as buying another pair of shoes is beyond me.

  9. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 20 February 2013

    The big problem with freedom is that there are not as many people who actually want to be really free as we might think. We are all too comfortable to cede our freedom in exchange for safety.

    Therefor I discard your notion that neo liberal capitalism is the driving force behind the drone attacks, but actually the opposite, the much more banal, the nanny state. As we give more freedom away to be safe, the state grows and grows. In my opinion it has already replaced patriarchy as it has taken responsibility for all the roles that the patriarch was supposed to fulfill, safety, welfare, housing, maybe health. The patriarch has nothing to offer in a modern safe city and as such he has lost much of his leverage and most of his power.

    The nanny state has to upheld it’s end of the bargain, ie. to fulfill the patriarch’s role, otherwise people would stop paying taxes and we can’t have that now, can we. Therefore the state needs to convince it’s citizens that they are safe and winning the war on terror. The drones are but one facet of that.

  10. Bert Bert 20 February 2013

    Chris, I did not designate neoliberal capitalism as the sole driving force behind drone attacks – far from it. Read my post again – I place a number of mutually reinforcing discourses together, of which neoliberal capitalism is certainly a major driving force, but in conjunction with military discourses on security, and, for that matter, the state as agency that somehow has to coordinate these. I would not call it the ‘nanny state’ any longer, though – the welfare state in the US is no longer what it was, nor is it in the UK. And you seem lamentably uninformed about capitalism if you think it is only about productivity – it is about monopolistic control of resources, about reckless investor behaviourthat impacts disastrously on ordinary people, and most importantly, about the myth of endless economic expansion or growth in a finite natural ecosystem, which is being systematically destroyed by capitalist growth and pollution of natural habitats. As the native American said – only when it has all been destroyed, will people realize they cannot eat money.

  11. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 20 February 2013

    @Bert, when I talk about a nanny state I do not only infer a state that only dispense welfare, but a state that involves itself and regulates all the aspects of our daily life.

    It is sometimes easy to confuse specialization and monopolistic behavior. A good example is a small town with only one doctor, one cafe, one restaurant. All of them theoretically have the monopoly in their trade, but they cannot exploit it because they would in turn be exploited and end back where they started. The benefits of their specialization is however immense as each person is a lot more productive in what they do than every person trying to be their own doctor, keep their own warehouse of consumables or trying to make gourmet food.

    Capitalism expands on this theme by adding savings to the mix. A person digging a hole with his bare hands will take x minutes to dig it. If he saves (capital) and buys a spade, I am sure you will agree he will be able to dig it a whole lot quicker, ie. increased productivity. Most of the economic growth in the twentieth century happened because of the combination of savings and technology (building a more efficient spade).

    The only monopolistic control of resources that I know of is by Governments, ie. oil by the Middle Eastern countries and rare earth minerals by the Chinese. Maybe you can enlighten me about others I do not know of.

    The only restraint on infinite economic expansion is our own imagination. The sun is radiating enough energy (cont

  12. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 20 February 2013

    Cont) on us to provide every single human being with the same lifestyle as the despicable Americans without the breaking our fragile ecosystem. All we need is brain power. The only thing we need is the freedom to improve all our lives.

  13. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 20 February 2013

    Bert, I would add religion (particularly those of Abrahamic origin), science and “the brand” to your list of dominant discourses.
    To me the interesting question is why we allow ourselves to be guided by these discourses and how the development of counter-discourses occurs. I would suggest that humans are inclined to conserve energy, we limit our activity in order have energy spare when threatened, we look for short-cuts, we adopt stereotypes – an approaching elephant = danger = run and this too shapes the way we think. Why question everything when we have a ready-made package of ideas and beliefs that fills in most of the gaps? Dominant discourses make us comfortable. Consumerism addresses that need very well, products are tailored to address the perception not the actual need. Religion brings a package of well developed beliefs and practices that addresses a number of our anxieties. Relax, sit back, as long as you follow the ten commandments, your next life is going to be a good one.
    Counter-discourses arise I believe because we are curious creatures, we know that stereotypes are of limited value and so we pick at the gaps in the dominant discourses until we have enough gathered to get the counter-discourse rolling. Dare I call it a “dialectic”, is then set in motion, which in my view is the engine for growth and how things become sustainable. If teens do not challenge the dominant discourse of their parents, how do they come to understand their own discourse?

  14. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 21 February 2013

    Too much common sense. If you can’t hide behind rhetoric and semantics, I’m afraid very few people will be able to get what you are saying.

  15. Bert Bert 21 February 2013

    Chris – I would not use the term ‘monopoly’ in your example of a small town with only one cafe, doctor, etc. In a manner of speaking they ‘have the monopoly’ in their respective fields of service, but that’s not what I was talking about. Such people (cafe owner, etc.) belong, arguably, to what, in Marxist terms are the petit bourgeosie, wedged in between the proletariat and the capitalists. Real capitalist monopolistic practices would begin to arise if another cafe opens in town, and the first cafe owner promptly makes the owner an offer she or he can’t refuse, and buys it, in this way ensuring that he or she would remain the sole source of goods you find at a cafe. And so on, and so on. You are probably aware of the fact that most media companies (most media, really, including radio, television, film and newspapers) in the US are part of only a few conglomerates, that is, are owned by a relatively small number of people, who therefore wield immense power. You attribute far too much power to the state/states; while, in principle, the state has power that it can wield over against corporations, for instance, the economic power represented by the latter makes them – as I’ve argued before on this site – the true source of power today. This is why I believe that the discourse of capitalism is the dominant one today, albeit in conjunction with other discourses. The reason why so little headway is made at COP conferences on climate change, lies here.

  16. Bert Bert 21 February 2013

    Gary, thanks for that – of course, although religion is, as far as I am concerned, the most anachronistic discourse on the planet, rooted as it is in a pre-modern, mythical set of beliefs, it still has immense power.

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 21 February 2013

    The reason why so little headway is made at COP conferences in climate change is because this is a complex matter. We simply don’t know what needs to be done, and we have no way to be certain how our actions are going to affect the bigger picture.

    There really is no difference between ‘real’ capitalist practices and owner businesses. By the way, the distinction between capitalists of any variety and all the other of Marx’s classes is that capitalists own the means of production. In this sense, any café owner would be a capitalist as they produce nothing, they merely sell goods. They are merchants dictating what gets produced by producers.

    For interest’s sake, the fact that capital begets capital is missed by Marx because of his discourse (more on that in Debunking Economics, which by the way agrees that governments don’t have as much sway when it comes to central banking at least). In Marx’s discourse, only labour produces value and the workers have the capitalists by the throat. This is of course not true, as the former employees of Hostess and Titan International have come to realise the hard way.

    One of the few good things I can say about Post-Modernism is its agnosticism towards discourse. Pity that this is often replaced with uninformed anti-capitalist tirades.

  18. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 21 February 2013

    Bert thank you for your reply but I am struggling to understand your rebuttal. The point I tried to make is that a monopoly does not naturally convert to power and exploitation. In your example we return to the situation I described, where no party can exploit the other due to mutual dependence.

    Your example about the media is no longer relevant due to the greatest liberator and changer of societies the world has ever known, namely the internet and the free and instant access to knowledge and information. This together with social media has changed human destiny forever.

    I do not think I can attribute too much power to Govenrments, we have given them the monopoly on violence after all (Police, Military, Taxation).

    You also misunderstand my objection, I do not deny that wealthy people are powerful, or that people in charge of large corporations are powerful, or that most of the interaction between the military industry and governments are as scary as hell.

    I do however object to you condemning people to forever live in boxes (classes) for the rest of their lives as if they have no way of changing or improving their lot.

    I do object to you ascribing basic human desires to capitalism as if you have never seen them manifest in politicians or in socialist societies.

    I do object to you implying that freedom is a bad thing.

  19. Maria Maria 21 February 2013

    @ Chris and Garg: disregarding for the moment your sidetracking Bert in your comments (his post concerns the major discursive forces affecting our lives, not the specific “internal workings” of just one of them), don’t you think you provide ample demonstration of the accuracy of his diagnosis of capitalism as the “master discourse” of the present by objecting so vehemently? You “protest too much,” and in doing so confirm his judgment. You also seem to think completely unhistorically – capitalism is no static thing; it changes with the times, and its current phase of development is, as Bert has argued on more than one occasion, not to be assessed merely as if “small” shop-owners, even when they cannot divorce themselves from the capitalist economy in which they participate, are capitalists in the true sense. The means of production Marx was talking about were things such as factories, on which the proletariat was dependent for meager wages. What are the means of production today – among the major ones are software developed by Microsoft, or tech production facilities owned by Apple in China. And Chris – where have you been? I don’t think there is a more staunch defender of freedom than Bert; trouble is, you seem to be in cahoots with the upholders of the Washington Consensus, who claim that so-called “economic freedom” (the freedom to export neo-colonialism to developing countries in economic guise) is the Holy Grail. Call that freedom?

  20. HD HD 22 February 2013


    It is pointless to argue economics 101 with Bert, Maria, Aragorn et al. They have a completely different understanding of concepts like “capitalism”, “neo-liberalism” and “monopoly” – theirs are instead an ideological caricature of these concepts draped in all sorts of negative connotations – instead of simply the technical meaning. Bert’s description of “capitalism” is suffice to illustrate the point.

    It is in fact a further example of discursive power (strange how this never applies to the discourse-theorists own ideological discourse). In fact, I think this is where left-intellectuals in general have been very successful, providing an alternative discourse to their political camp that functions as a type of intellectual terrorism – that makes these debates very difficult, but politically and rhetorically effective. Is it a pure political strategy or epistemology? I think it is a bit of both…

    @Bert. I agree that critical discourse analysis plays an important role, but I am wondering along the lines of Gary how you can actually avoid this – without giving humans extraordinary abilities at introspection or replacing one dominant discourse with another (why do intellectuals always seem to have the ability to resist getting duped but everyone else doesn’t…)?

    By, the way care to mention any straight forward examples where corporations exerted its influence over government?

  21. Bert Bert 22 February 2013

    Chris, I think you (and Garg) and I have completely irreconcilable understandings of capitalism. And I am astonished at your misreading of me as ‘implying that freedom is a bad thing’! It is to PROMOTE freedom that I write on TL, but I do not view ‘freedom’ as narrowly as you seem to. If you value only economic ‘freedom” which may masquerade as such, but hides a more subtle form of enslaving of people, you should go to China, where there is far more economic freedom than in the West, but hardly any other form of freedom, such as freedom of speech. Read the piece I wrote recently on Zygmunt Bauman’s book concerning consumer capitalism, and maybe you will understand that capitalism is far more complex than you seem to think:

  22. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 February 2013

    To return to the topic somewhat, what the thinker thinks the prover proves. This highlights the confirmation bias anyone has to protect their beliefs. It doesn’t matter whether these are religious beliefs, or socio-political beliefs.

    The same occurs on this forum, frequently, where those with a more independent capitalist mindset are eager to defend individual freedom against the more collectivist left-leaning thinkers. I believe it is good to be cognisant that any analysis may be wrong and will be wrong in some aspects.

    There’s no simple analysis that accurately sums up our current status quo, just like there’s no simple solution to perceived problems. I do agree with Bert: pre-modern, mythical sets of beliefs still have immense power. Most people still live in a demon-haunted world.

  23. Bert Bert 22 February 2013

    HD, ‘ideology’ is an outdated concept that belongs with the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. Think in terms of discourse, rather – it is far more productive of clarity because it allows for concrete analyses. And from that perspective, it is clear that you are thoroughly interpellated by the master’s discourse of capitalism. Discursively speaking, you, Garg and Chris simply adhere to an unhistorical, essentialist notion of capitalism, as if it does not change from era to era, as Maria has pointed out.

  24. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 February 2013

    Converting capitalism into a catch-all net is hardly helping matters. I can just as easily take the word discourse and convert it into my safe word for releasing myself from the usual trappings and bonds of rigour. Hiding behind semantics is no substitute for clarity or for substance. We’re merely calling your bluff.

    But if you are unhappy about our unhistorical notion of capitalism, please do reveal specifically what you do mean with capitalism. As someone with a background in economics, your usage of the term as a modernist boogeyman is foreign to me. Specifically because you apply the term as relevant to the 21st century (from your opening line) and reference sources from 2001.

    Also, my sister did her master’s on the topic of ideology as recently as 2010. I’m not sure if she’d agree that ideology is an outdated concept. There is a great deal of ideological content in your posts here and you do reference sources that are loaded with explicitly Marxist ideology.

  25. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 February 2013

    I’m not trying to defend capitalism in the slightest, rather I’m trying to get it across to you ivory tower academics that you are yet to provide a noteworthy critique of capitalism. It’s not that these are profound mysteries shrouded in enigma, it’s just that they do not hit their target. This is the value of the Sokal affair – Sokal is in fact an Old Lefty who tried to save the Left from ridicule. Sadly, he failed.

    To be more succinct, I’m not protesting because I take issue with capitalism being criticised. I take issue precisely because it’s not even understood, let alone criticised here. Same for psychoanalytical concepts, which take on a life of their own in the hermeneutics/post-structuralist departments that most trained psychologists would not recognise. This is my protestation: These blog posts usually do not engage their claimed topics, not even by proxy, which is why they are not taken seriously by their intended audience.

    I’ve searched long and hard for a relevant critique of our modern economic system and I’m yet to find a better one than Debunking Economics. He slaughters most of the holy cows and he’s not trying to defend capitalism. On the contrary. Point being his views are grounded and do not rely on reification, equivocation or ignoratio elenchi.

  26. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 February 2013

    @ Garg and the defenders of Capitalism’s virtues, all I think required to debunk the supposed value of the capitalist model, is journey to the outskirts of your local South African town to visit the occupants of your nearest “township”, yes the government located them there, but our consumer-capitalist model keeps them there. As to examples of Capital influencing governments, why has SA maintained its inflation targets at below 6%, what happens to the rand/dollar when matters like Marikana occur? Go North dear man, go north, Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, Northern Rhodesia/ Zambia, Malawi all feel the capitalist influence keenly. Look at value-chains such as coffee, tobacco, sugar, tea, etc. at who produces the product, what they receive, versus what the seller gets? So that we can debate the matter further for me when I refer to “capitalism”, I refer to our current economic model, whereby value is no longer dependent on substance but on perception, where people are consumers of products designed to create dependence, rather than exchangers of value. The capitalism of today, enslaves rather than frees, and rather than providing choice condemns us to a cycle of perpetual dependence on manipulators of the system who have the bottom line as their guide! To me the most chilling aspect of all of this, of this capitalist discourse, is that we are willing slaves, that all alternative models appear to have failed, and for ourselves, our children and our planet it is a no-win game!

  27. Bert Bert 25 February 2013

    Garg, Sokal may have bamboozled a gullible magazine editor, but he does not understand the first thing about Jacques Lacan’s powerful poststructuralist psychoanalytical theory. Read my post on Lacan and Fowles, just to get an inkling of Lacan’s pertinence for, among other things, matters epistemological.
    Gary – wonderful comment(s), which should go a long way towards disabusing readers of the illusion perpetuated by people like Garg, that capitalism can still be defended, despite its utter exploitation of ordinary people, especially in the devloping world.

  28. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 25 February 2013

    Firstly, I’m not a defender of capitalism. I’m a critic of ignorance. Secondly, South Africa’s history is a prime example of a centrally planned economy.

    Good thing you are a philosophy professor, so you can explain to the class why an appeal to pity is not a valid argument. If you’d like to blame the effects of a regime marked by governments bestowing privilege on select groups while denying select other groups the same equal rights on people privately owning property and their own labour, then perhaps you are unaware that even to this day people in townships are struggling to own their own property.

    Capitalism is merely a state where property and labour are privately owned. If you can demonstrate how South Africa ever had a state where most of the property and labour were privately owned, and this lead directly to the exploitation of ordinary people, your work would be done.

  29. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 February 2013

    @ Garg, now not to do Berts’ work for him, but I couldn’t resist, let me provide you with a prime example of the kind you appear to be requesting. In those self-same townships you speak of, people are selling their newly acquired RDP homes (built by the government), their now privately owned property, for as little as R2,000. This is the willing seller, willing buyer principle that I understand to be a core pillar of modern capitalism and embodies the free will principle spoken about earlier. Yet within a short period of time that family will have spent the R2,000 on consumer goods and be without a home. In the Western Cape, we have had farm workers turning violent in protest of their poor wages, their story, they cannot live off what the farmers pay them for their (privately owned) labour. Farmers were paying them what they believed the markets could sustain. Is this really the kind of economic model you think is best going forward? The capitalist project has failed – it would surely be ignorant to argue it is serving everyone equitably and fairly – as has the socialist, as has the communist models! What seems to be working is a hodgepodge of free market, state intervention and social equity ideas and practices. Multi-Nationals are not evil, they are human projects, Governments are not evil, they are human projects, capitalism is not evil, it is a human project too. Human projects have limits, vested interests, blind spots all kept safe by an uncritical discourse.

  30. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 26 February 2013

    Suggest my profit is 10 bags of money and I spend 60% of my profit on wages (which is not a far-fetched figure, it could be more on wine farms). That leaves me with 4 bags of money to spend on improving conditions on the farm and for my own effort. I hire wage workers at 1 bag of money each. Now government forces me to pay 2 bags of money each. Guess what happens? I have to get the same amount of labour’s worth but pay double for it. I can only afford to hire 3 people instead of 6. What’s more is even if I forego all my profit, I can still only afford to hire 5 people – still one less than before.

    You may see this as justice, but recall that there’s 1 person who is out of a job now, while my wine farm is still making the same amount of profit. Are the wage workers better off now? How am I going to keep my wine farm in business beyond the next season if I haven’t made any profit? I’d be forced to fire everyone and convert to subsistence farming.

    This is one of the real limits that you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what system we choose, it still has to be worthwhile for someone to hire someone else, or that someone else would be out of a job.

    It’s also not true that township people own their RDP houses outright. The majority of RDP houses are not legally recognised.

  31. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 27 February 2013

    @ Garg interesting illustration, but entirely constructed to serve your point and not based in the actual economics of wine production, what it ignores is the proportion of wages to salary, the increase in profit vs. the increase in wages since entering the global market, the proportion of wages to production in competing markets such as France, Italy, etc.. But, for the sake of the argument, lets assume the wage bill is a critically high input cost, two main options are open to the farmer if he/ she wishes to retain their margin, pass the cost onto the consumer (as most of the product is exported, a weakening rand makes this easier to do), or reduce the impact of the wage increase (by mechanizing, reducing labour). In the latter instance some workers gain, some lose. For those that lose their jobs, given unemployment levels this is a disastrous consequence. The current capitalist model/ discourse would take the view that this is an unfortunate but necessary consequence, collateral damage! Is this your view? Do you have a suggestion as to how the current model avoids this kind of consequence or do you agree that this is a unfortunate but necessary consequence of a “free” market?

  32. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 27 February 2013

    Of your 2 options, farmers are mechanising. In general, this results in wage labourers losing their jobs. The case is different for the wine industry, where higher productivity results in more wage earners being hired after mechanising, but for our agriculture sector in general it means machines replace wage labourers. Your 2 options do not result in a better position for wage labourers. Wages are a critically high external cost and government seems OK with passing the buck onto consumers – somehow poor people do not count as consumers so for them to pay more for basic goods isn’t an issue (collateral damage for you perhaps?).

    By the way, the notion of exploited wage workers forced to sell their labour to capitalists belongs to a different discourse (one that includes class conflict). The unfortunate but necessary consequences are due to limited resources and externalities like minimum wages and not due to any particular discourse. It is as you say a real limit. To illustrate, your 2 options take this limit as a given, even though you seem to oppose ‘capitalist’ discourse or free markets. The economics discourse attempts to gauge long term effects on all groups.

    What are the long term effects of keeping the majority of the poor in a position where their wages get higher but they still perform labour that can be performed more effectively by machines? As a case study, try comparing Japan and Cuba.

  33. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 27 February 2013

    @ Garg what I know about Japan and Cuba is only that Japan is the country of Cherry Blossoms, the Rising Sun and has a taste for whale and dolphin meat, that Cuba makes the best cigars and is home to Fidel Castro, so comparing their economic models is beyond my capability, even dangerous. I can however, if you allow, use my imagination, I would guess that workers being paid more for work that can be done by machines, makes the impact of being replaced by machines even more cataclysmic when the uber-capitalists eventually arrive and argue “margin above all else”. My argument is simple, capitalism in its current form doesn’t serve the interests of the poor, it doesn’t serve the interests of the environment, poor people eventually say “enough” and the planet will eventually stop sustaining our life form, so capitalism in it’s current form is not SUSTAINABLE. These are core pillars of the capitalist discourse I believe need re-working: short-term profits outweigh long-term value, margin above all else, your capital is not “working” unless % returns are in the double digits, brand above substance, products deliberately structured as consumables, labour is an input cost to be managed like any other cost, that markets best operate when they are free, and it is ok to let future generations pay for our excesses!

  34. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 28 February 2013

    What you are describing is runaway debt, which was criticised by both Marx and Adam Smith. Both of them had a similar cure.

    Your intuition is more or less correct as far as I can make out. Japan industrialised very quickly, while in Cuba jobs were artificially kept alive until the Cuban government ran out of donors. Both of these were forced by realities outside of their control to implement more measures of economic freedom – already a first step to obtain the other freedoms. Japan was quicker and although they’re one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, they also have amongst the highest employment rates.

    Your argument is not against capitalism per se but against our current mixed economy, which is more neo-mercantilist than anything else.

    This may be of interest, and more on topic, as it relates to different discourses shaping different lives:

    Of course you don’t actually need growth in order to maintain an economy at all, but that’s a discourse of another flavour.

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