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Why the free market fundamentalists think 2013 will be the best year ever

Friday 22 February 2013

As communists once did, today’s capitalists blame any failures on their system being ’impurely’ applied

Slavoj Žižek

The Guardian, Sunday 17 February 2013 21.30 GMT

The Christmas issue of the Spectator ran an editorial entitled "Why 2012 was the best year ever". It argued against the perception that we live in "a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse". Here is the opening paragraph: "It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The west remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age."

The same idea has been developed systematically in a number of bestsellers, from Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. There is also a more down-to-earth version that one often hears in the media, especially those of non-European countries: crisis, what crisis? Look at the so-called Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, or at Poland, South Korea, Singapore, Peru, even many sub-Saharan African states – they are all progressing. The losers are western Europe and, up to a point, the US, so we are not dealing with a global crisis, but simply with the shift of progress away from the west. Is a potent symbol of this shift not the fact that, recently, many people from Portugal, a country in deep crisis, are returning to Mozambique and Angola, ex-colonies of Portugal, but this time as economic immigrants, not as colonisers?

Even with regard to human rights: is the situation in China and Russia now not better than it was 50 years ago? Describing the ongoing crisis as a global phenomenon, the story goes, is a typical Eurocentrist view coming from leftists who usually pride themselves on their anti-Eurocentrism. Our "global crisis" is in fact a mere local blip in a larger story of overall progress.

But we should restrain our joy. The question to be raised is: if Europe alone is in gradual decay, what is replacing its hegemony? The answer is: "capitalism with Asian values" – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asian people and everything to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to limit or even suspend democracy.

This tendency in no way contradicts the much-celebrated progress of humanity – it is its immanent feature. All radical thinkers, from Marx to intelligent conservatives, were obsessed by the question: what is the price of progress? Marx was fascinated by capitalism, by the unheard-of productivity it unleashed; but he insisted this success engenders antagonisms. We should do the same today: keep in view the dark underside of global capitalism that is fomenting revolts.

People rebel not when things are really bad, but when their expectations are disappointed. The French revolution occurred only once the king and the nobles were losing their hold on power; the 1956 anti-communist revolt in Hungary exploded after Imre Nagy had already been a prime minister for two years, after (relatively) free debates among intellectuals; people rebelled in Egypt in 2011 because there was some economic progress under Mubarak, giving rise to a class of educated young people who participated in the universal digital culture. And this is why the Chinese Communists are right to panic: because, on average, people are now living better than 40 years ago – and the social antagonisms (between the newly rich and the rest) are exploding, and expectations are much higher.

That’s the problem with development and progress: they are always uneven, they give birth to new instabilities and antagonisms, they generate new expectations that cannot be met. In Egypt just prior to the Arab spring, the majority lived a little better than before, but the standards by which they measured their (dis)satisfaction were much higher.

In order not to miss this link between progress and instability, one should always focus on how what first appears as an incomplete realisation of a social project signals its immanent limitation. There is a story (apocryphal, maybe) about the left-Keynesian economist John Galbraith: before a trip to the USSR in the late 1950s, he wrote to his anti-communist friend Sidney Hook: "Don’t worry, I will not be seduced by the Soviets and return home claiming they have socialism!" Hook answered him promptly: "But that’s what worries me – that you will return claiming USSR is not socialist!" What Hook feared was the naive defence of the purity of the concept: if things go wrong with building a socialist society, this does not invalidate the idea itself, it simply means we didn’t implement it properly. Do we not detect the same naivety in today’s market fundamentalists?

When, during a recent TV debate in France, the French philosopher and economist Guy Sorman claimed democracy and capitalism necessarily go together, I couldn’t resist asking him the obvious question: "But what about China?" He snapped back: "In China there is no capitalism!" For the fanatically pro-capitalist Sorman, if a country is non-democratic, it is not truly capitalist, in exactly the same way that for a democratic communist, Stalinism was simply not an authentic form of communism.

This is how today’s apologists for the market, in an unheard-of ideological kidnapping, explain the crisis of 2008: it was not the failure of the free market that caused it, but the excessive state regulation; the fact that our market economy was not a true one, but was instead in the clutches of the welfare state. When we dismiss the failures of market capitalism as accidental mishaps, we end up in a naive "progress-ism" that sees the solution as a more "authentic" and pure application of a notion, and thus tries to put out the fire by pouring oil on it.

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