Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Capitalism and Four Antagonisms

Last night I was chatting online with a thirty-something friend. I knew December 8, 2010 is was the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of John Lennon and there would be a buzz about it. So I asked my friend if he'd ever heard of John Lennon. The answer was that the name didn't ring a bell. I said that Lennon had been a member of the band called The Beatles. He said I follow music much more than he.

Next time we talk I'll have to ask if he's ever heard of Elvis Presley. I bet he has, going on music I know he likes and also the quite possibly wrong premise that Elvis is an international icon.

My friend David Pohl pursued art adventures exploring Elvis. David has an encyclopedic knowledge popular music. The Elvis adventures involved deep reading, travel and emersion in the subject. His Elvis Set provides a sample of some of the art he created (David's Etsy Shop, House of PingTing).

Here's what he says about the set:
This series of images reflects on the mythology of America's king Elvis Presley. 30 years after his death, Elvis continues to mirror the times, reflecting what is both good and bad about American society. The rise and fall of Elvis reflects what has happened or can potentially happen to us, both individually and collectively.
I'm afraid mentioning Elvis is quite off-topic from what I intend to talk about, it's just I can't quite figure out what people mean when they call Slavoj Žižek "the Elvis of cultural theory."

It's easy to associate only with people who share your interests online, in fact the social part of the Internet make this homophily inevitable to some degree. So I've heard words to the effect, "Everyone knows who Žižek is." I'm not so sure about that, what I am sure is people who think they know generally seem to have strong opinions about him. The comparison to Elvis or a rock star probably has less to do with his notoriety, while great doesn't extend so far as popular music artists, but rather to the strong reactions his speaking provokes.

I snagged the picture from the Zeitgeist Films page for the 2005 Astra Taylor film Žižek!. That page has some further links.

I haven't read any of his books so I can hardly provide very much useful commentary about Slavoj Žižek (SLA-voy ZHEE-zhek) but I recently watched a talk he gave posted at the Lacan Dot Com Blog. In the talk he spoke of four antagonism to capitalism and I thought I'd try to sketch those out briefly. The lecture is split among several videos and the bits I'm talking about are mostly in the 3rd and 4th videos at the Lacan blog.

Definitions are always tricky. A short definition of capitalism might be:
An Economic system based on private ownership of captial.
That's probably an noncontroversial definition and I suspect that people who would quibble with it would suggest that capitalism is not only an economic system but a social system as well. It's a good point, but that's where controversy floods in. I think definitions for "socialism" and "communism" are harder to find consensus about because the aspect of a social system seems baked into them. The simple definition for capitalism seems sufficient for understanding Žižek's antagonisms.

The first antagonism is Democracy.

The second antagonism is intellectual property which he also describes as "symbols of social substance."

The third antagonism is bio-genetic property, for example Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The forth antagonism are slums or apartheid.

Žižek notes that the first three antagonisms all represent conflict between the commons and capitalism's ownership of property.

Žižek points out that the prevalent way of linking capitalism to democracy is not a necessary linkage. He notes that China's market economy is not antagonistic to authoritarian governance. Democracy presumes a consensus with political power derived from the people which is not necessary to capitalism. Nevertheless democracy requires a commons to arrive at consensus.

The antagonism to capitalism by intellectual property is illustrated by noting Bill Gates as an anomaly. Likening market oscillations to a heart beat Žižek notes that extreme concentration or monopoly produce oscillations resembling a heart attack.

Bio-genetic property provides antagonism not only from the social ethics involved with the creation of new life forms, but internal changes to people themselves. Intellectual property provokes antagonisms in re external nature whereas bio-genetic property in re internal nature.

Each of these three present contradictions of what people hold in common and what is made private property. He also notes that governments as well as commerce make private property which intrudes on the commons.

Slums are where the excluded live, with the commons made property a chasm between the excluded and included create antagonisms. With each of the three antagonisms related to the commons, slums are the visible result of wide swaths of people not integrated into governance, the symbolic social substance of society nor the social ethics entailed in bio-genetic manipulations.

He does a much better job discussing these ideas than my summary suggests.

This week I've been obsessed with my Twitter feed. A good deal of that obsession stems form an interest about what people are saying about WikiLeaks. Titter is used by about 8% of online Americans with about of them viewing at least once a day. Lots of people, but a small percentage of Americans. What's more because people choose who they follow the content of Twitter streams are quite variable.

At Facebook I've got a few friends who follow and post Tea Party links. So I get to hear that "Obama is a socialist." presented with real acrimony.

Among the other subjects that has had me obsessed with Twitter this week involves fiscal issues and a tax deal which Obama made with the Republicans this week. I do get that social democracy has few followers in the USA. Nonetheless there is very broad support for Social Security. Among the political class there's a steady march towards very substantial restructuring of Social Security which alarms almost everyone paying attention to the issue.

American author Gore Vidal in a book, Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976, wrote:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party...and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
The observation, "there is no difference between the two parties" is kind of a sore spot for many, for one thing there was the role Ralph Nader's presidential campaign played in the 2000 election. There are many other reasons that a difference seems to make a difference even while admitting the kernel of truth that there is only one party, "the property party" or "the money party."

It seems absurd to think president Obama a socialist. The polarization of political rhetoric is extraordinarily frustrating. I'm not interested in arguing against Obama with Tea Party folks, because I'm none too happy with the present politics either. I am interested in discussing the some of the issue raised by Žižek's four antagonisms. I don't need to refer to Žižek, socialism nor communism in such discussions, but it's rather hard not to mention capitalism or the system of property. It's damned hard to get past the hollering about party politics. I'm still trying to dream up ways to initiate and participate in conversations. Mostly I fail.

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