[Appeared in Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 9-25 (pdf – paywall/subscription)]

[Abstract:] While liberal capitalism presents itself as anti-utopia embodied, and today’s neoliberalism as the sign of the new era of humanity, which left behind the utopian projects responsible for the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century, it is now becoming clear that there is a utopian core in the liberal project itself- the violence that accompanies the victories of liberal capitalism is the price we are paying for this utopia. In describing this utopian core, the text proceeds in three steps. First, it focuses on today’s China, an exemplary case of the socially disruptive effects of global capitalism; then, it articulates the basic structure of the liberal utopia; finally, it outlines the dimension missing in this utopia.

[Introduction:] There is something surprising in the predominantly hostile reactions to Naomi Klein’s new book: they are much more violent than one would expect – even the benevolent Left liberals who sympathize with.some of her analyses deplore how ‘her ranting obscures her reasoning’ (as Will Hutton put it in his review of the book in The Observer). Obviously, Klein touched some very sensitive nerve with her key thesis:

The history of the contemporary free market was written in shocks. Some of the most infamous human rights violations of the past thirty-five years, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms. (Klein, 2007: 3)

This thesis is developed through a series of concrete analyses, central among them that of the Iraq war: the US attack on Iraq was sustained by the idea that, following the ‘shock and awe’ military strategy, the country could be organized as a free-market paradise – the country and people will be so traumatized that they would offer no opposition. However, while one can claim that it was in Iraq that disaster capitalism had its purest impact, is the generalization of this case not all too fast and one-sided, a mirror image of the position of Milton Friedman and other market fundamentalists? Klein ignores the beneficent effects of market, she doesn’t (want to) see how market economy, when combined with democratic institutions and proper education, healthcare, etc., can do the job, so no wonder she doesn’t offer any alternate proposal. Convincing as it may appear, this critique nonetheless misses the point – the sore point of her analysis: the utopian core of neoliberal economics. While liberalism presents itself as anti-utopia embodied, and today’s neoliberalism as the sign of the new era of humanity, which left behind the utopian projects responsible for the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century, it is now becoming clear that the times of the true utopia were the happy Clintonite 1990s with their belief that we reached the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama), that humanity finally found the formula for the optimal socioeconomic order. The experience of the last decades clearly shows that market is not a benign mechanism, which works best when left alone to do its work – it requires a lot of extra-market violence to create the conditions for its functioning. The way the market fundamentalists react to the destructive results of implementing their recipes is typical of utopian ‘totalitarians’: they blame the failure on the compromises of those who enacted their visions (still too much state intervention, etc.), demanding an even more radical implementation of the market doctrine.

In describing this utopian core, we will proceed in three steps. First, we will focus on today’s China, an exemplary case of the socially disruptive effects of global capitalism; then, we will articulate the basic structure of the liberal utopia; finally, we will indicate the dimension missing in this utopia.

The Case of China

[…]

Freedom for a Race of Devils?

[…]

The Base of Freedom

[…]

References

Ferguson, Niall (2007) The War of the World. London: Penguin Books.

Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1985) The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworh Penguin Books.

Mauss, Marcel (1973) ‘Essai sur le don’, pp. 73-126 in Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris: PUF.

Michea, Jean-Claude (2007) L’empire du moindre mal. Paris: Climats.

Miller, Arthur (2004) ‘A Visit with Castro’, The Nation January 12

Pippin, Robert (2005) ‘The Ethical Status of Civility’, pp. 223-38 in The Persistence of Subjectivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall (1972) Stone Age Economics. Berlin and New York: Walter De Gruyter.

Zakaria, Fareed (2003) The Future of Freedom. New York: Norton.


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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