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What We Talk About When We Talk About Capitalism

We could take Slavoj Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story to be indicative of anti-capitalist discourse at the moment. In these books we see an examination of thought, elites and activists as well as get a view of ideologies like Communism, Socialism and Anarchism. In regarding Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy together though one gets closer to what is happening at the level of Leftist ideas taken as a whole. However, despite inspiring examples, we do not necessarily get a practical handbook of how to act. We are then at a different moment, or in a different space, than when Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals in 1971. Since that time a lot has changed, including, in particular and to which these three writers respond, the rise of: neo-liberalism and global capitalism, mediated false consciousness; as well as the decline of the traditional Left in much of the developed world. What is compelling about Zizek, Klein and Roy though is how they offer a part of what may be a more cohesive imagination and vision for future directions. If we have a portrait of the world as it currently stands in these works, or a sense of different parts of the world, perhaps we need a corollary that suggests what an ethical life is now within a literary style that challenges our ideas of practical action.

It should be noted that in reading these books we must situate them in historical and contemporary context. For that I would recommend James Otteson’s What Adam Smith Knew. Ottseon has compiled extracts of famous writing about capitalism and its opponents with emphasis on Adam Smith and Karl Marx. This work is about presenting important texts to which a modern reader can refer for important historical debates about capitalism. It is suitable for general reading and will appeal to those with an interest in economics, politics, society and history. What I think is important about Otteson’s contribution is that it allows the other three books under consideration here to be read with some sort of lineage. Zizek, Klein and Roy are all original to some degree: Zizek for his combination of the philosophy of history and psychoanalysis; Klein for her thorough discussion of the contemporary issue of climate change; and Roy for her position as a post-colonial novelist who is a critic of mainstream India. But they are also part of a longer tradition that has seen capitalism as a hegemonic and oppressive material and ideational structure. Otteson enables us to think through some of history’s lasting and important debates, into which we can place the other three.

Through an analysis of popular and scholarly cultural artefacts Zizek presents a critique of capitalist ideology today as well as intimates what a different world could be in Trouble in Paradise. Indeed, the subtitle – ‘From the End of History to the End of Capitalism’ – invokes what may be said to be the aim of the book. In this work we see what Zizek is known for – a hyperactive, eclectic, funny, infuriating, dense discussion that goes up hill and down dale covering everything from psytrance to psychoanalysis. It is clear, entertaining and challenging. Zizek is not an ivory tower philosopher alone, well versed though he is in Jacques Lacan and George Hegel and employed as a European Graduate School staff member, or a pop philosopher intellectual lite. Between a dialectic of serious and fluff, his work has an inestimable, unmistakeable and inimitable frisson. As Terry Eagleton has noted, it is surprising that one of the most prominent zizektroubleintellectuals working today is a stated Communist. Perhaps Zizek proves to be the exception to the Capitalist rule and has merely found a niche Marxist angle in a market hungry for spectacle. At the level of thought though, Zizek is not a misty eyed Romantic, aiming to reinstate a particular set of circumstances. He thinks we need to take Communism seriously and critique and change it to burnish our critique of Capitalism. In Trouble of Paradise though we are short on the traditional Historical aspect of this, rather than the theoretical or the cultural. Zizek should not be faulted for this, but for readers intending to dive into Zizek for the first time they should be forewarned that this is a work of philosophy and cultural studies first and foremost rather than a work of history or a handbook of practical action. For practical advice you need to read it ‘slant’ in Emily Dickinson’s phrase. As an introduction to Zizek it is indicative of the whole, but I would look elsewhere too. One might find The Parallax View a better, if not easier, place to start. Or there is also the film The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema.

Naomi Klein’s detailed study of climate change This Changes Everything examines climate change deniers, green billionaires, ineffectual mainstream politics and remarkable activists. In focusing on one issue Klein is able to give us a nuanced portrait of what climate change is as well as ways to respond to it. One particularly compelling chapter is her discussion of how climate change deniers operate ideologically. It is important because it takes their position seriously and promotes the idea that science needs activists to counter this co-ordinated network of think tanks, big business and invested interests. Although Klein advocates at various points in time for a radical activism, nowhere does she suggest a sort of Zizekian Communism, which might be truly dangerous in an American context, where ‘communist’ is still a profound epithet and a strong labour movement has been lacking at least since The New Deal if not Eugene Debbs. Klein instead points to a transnational rising up of ‘the people’ that negates multinational corporations albeit with reference to a national regulatory framework like that of Germany or Denmark. One orienting issue, one way to frame, many of today’s activist movements is through the issue of violence. War may be foremost, but in thinking through a nonviolent response to the issue of violence against nature we get a different path of action, one that is implicitly advocated by Klein.

The sociologist Randall Collins has speculated previously that the reason why American rioters do not destroy cars, compared to the French, is because cars are too sacred in American life. In contrast we could suggest that they are not sacred enough and hence do not even warrant destruction. A riot may want to strike at the heart of the important and powerful. What we can see in This Changes Everything though is that the destruction of property is an under-utilised tool in the activist box. If the desire is to prove how costly new developments involving tar sands, fracking and a whole host of other natural resources actually are, one way to deny their fiscal suitability is to drive up costs, including putting in jeopardy the security with which they can be completed as well as the insurance that buttresses them. Direct action blockade involving property vandalism was integral to struggles in Tasmanian forestry and it also emerges in Klein’s sections on the ‘group’ Blockadia. But we should not see this as radicalism that does not involve a vast cross-section of society – Klein shows us that the elderly and women are key participants in Blockadia’s fight against global warming. Water rights, indigenous rights and the cautionary tale of what has happened to Nauru are used by Klein to draw us in and explain that we need to act now. Moreover Klein makes the analogy that climate change is similar to slavery and that the abolition of the slave trade offers a historical example of how we can get out of over consumption and environmental degradation. Building on this she claims we need a Marshall Plan for the Earth. In the closing chapters of This Changes Everything, Klein is adept at highlighting a truly global network of activism that may help create this. However, she overlooks the fact that slavery, both real indenture and wage slavery, still exists in many places around the world and that ordinary people who are the lumpen of the mining sector are accountable too. Mining workers in Canada need to take responsibility for literally extracting resources. These observations, vulgar Marxist though they may be, temper her arguments somewhat.

Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story gives us a view of activism in India that complements Klein, but it is altogether different at the level of length and style. Roy’s work is punchy, essayistic, sarcastic and covers a whole host of subcontinental issues from Kashmir to Adavasis to Maoism. India, in Roy’s telling, is thoroughly implicated with global politics and in the titular chapter we see the influence of corporations, philanthropy and NGOs coming, mainly, out of an American milieu. In Roy we get several interesting and passionate criticisms, including a dismantling of microfinance. Although these capitalist elements are her main target, ire is also reserved for the capitalismroyState. Indeed, the passion, ironic and real, that Zizek displays for Communism is met by complication in the work of Roy. India is a place where almost every political ideology exists in material, party form. There is, to name only a few: the Communist Party (Marxist), the Communist Party (Maoist), Maoist armed insurgents. It makes for a complicated scene and an altogether fractious Left. Zizek may romanticise and criticise as a theoretical Stalinist, but when we read of the lived, everyday context of India it is an altogether different set of historical conditions and social relations. What would Trouble in Paradise look like if it examined Bollywood or had to wrestle with the policies of MK Stalin rather than Joseph? At the very least, it would be different. From her experience though Roy explains well her disillusionment with the State. She is though not enamoured with liberalism either, levelling a criticism of lifestyle and consumerism characteristic of Klein’s America and to which the Indian middle classes are aspiring.

Caste is a matter of utmost importance too, but it cannot simply be mapped onto class. This is demonstrated by the tense relationship between Dalits, India’s literal shit kickers, and the Communist Party. What we get from this though is not only a disjuncture between supposedly natural affinities and alliances, but also the complexity of embodied coalitions. For coalitions we need a thoroughgoing sociological idea-method-praxis that attends to both production and consumption. Consumption and consumer identities, as Klein hints toward, are deficient as organising principles. One can witness the collapse of Ralph Nader as well as the lack of co-ordination – or even useful denotative categorisation – amongst shoppers. Lifestyle matters but so too does class still, even in America. That shopping has led to farmer’s markets as well as online meccas does not mean we can activate people other than via advertising, the false consciousness par excellence, of consuming more or at best substituting. It also bears thinking about where this apparently American desire to consume comes from – its relationship to the Protestant Work Ethic (Max Weber) and to the indigenous tradition of potlatch (Marcel Mauss) might bear thinking about.

This failure of consumer politics indicates the resilience and effectiveness of occupying workplaces. For whatever reason work is where meaning is shaped in Klein’s North America and Roy’s India. Much of the contemporary malaise in organising at work may have something to do with changes in how people work in the West – less factory floors, less face to face labour activity – as well as the discursive predilection in the US against organised labour. Class politics, including unionism there, to the small degree that it exists, is unnecessarily challenged by fractious micro-resistances of dedicated individual subcultures. The Internationale always had its problems but the global influence of America since the fall of the Wall has meant widespread cultural change in a way that has affected ideas and material. And while global warming is a global issue its lumpy inconsistency in meaning and effect makes actionable solidarity difficult, especially when the target is outside the nation. That is why a politics that takes seriously the legislative framework of the State is important. Fighting corporations without regulatory help is like being a single player in a doubles tournament. This is something gestured toward in all three books but which could have used more attention.

The response, of course, must be multiple – there has fractures on the Left for a long time about how to make the greatest political impact not least among Communists and Socialists and Anarchists. What is striking is that while these groups, or those who refuse to identify but are nonetheless sympathetic fellow travellers, argue, the real cause of concern is uncontested. Rather than debating the merits of say supporting legislative reform via the most appropriate political party or refusing to engage with the State at all, why not create as broad and as many forms of engagement as possible aimed directly at the Right? This is not to relativise every position, for some are more useful than others, but that to suggest that centrism and radicalism should not be entirely uncomfortable bedfellows as proposed by Roy and Klein. These two factions need each other to press against, as a helpmate and oppositional force. In that regard, we could consider how the very literal planting of trees or firebombing SUVs can go hand in hand with writing poetry or joining political parties.

For all the didacticism of the prose in Roy and Klein what emerges in Capitalism: A Ghost Story is the idea that poetry can comfort us in the diminishing light of the contemporary world. She has two lengthy quotes from Pablo Neruda, including his poem ‘Standard Oil’. Poetry though, even activist poetry, has moved on since Neruda. The Occupy movement, whom Roy addresses directly in her last essay, has a freely available online poetry anthology, which, despite being overly moral offers a newer engagement with the world. I do not expect Roy to quote post-conceptual poetry, but I was surprised that Neruda was invoked given his contested status and political sympathies (for more on this see Stuart Cooke’s Speaking the Earth’s Languages). Given Roy’s own reticence to articulate what a unifying activist front might look like now, we can assume with some certainty it is not the State as it once was for the Communist Party supporter Neruda. Indeed, as I made clear earlier the State and India’s assorted Communists are portrayed in a particularly damning light in Capitalism and perhaps only corporations are met with more disdain.

Surely though we should see poetry as the research and development wing of language, of thinking at the edge given that it is more outside the logic of the market and that it is the place where people experiment with words. The fact that very little money changes hands in the poetry industry allows it to be a far wilder place for experiment than many others. It does not have to be about beauty or emotion. But, a self-aware poetry, of a particular kind, can give us an idealism that has more chance of being outside the book royalties and literary festivals, the market logic, that so raise Roy and Zizek’s ire. What that means is the shape of anti-capitalist thought will be decided in part by people versed not only in the past history and present news of activist struggle, but by the utopian spirit of a materialist and critical poetry, despite its scepticism of such a hegemonic, and eminently contestable, idea. Indeed, it is utopianism that seems to be sorely lacking in anti-capitalism at the moment, especially when we compare it to the heady teleological narrative of Capitalism, even more so since the end of history. Onwards and ever upwards go corporations while activism, struggling against totalising narrative, clings to micro-resistances. But, I think, there needs to be a thorough examination of the methods by which imagination leading to a certain point can re-enable politics, and not simply in a utilitarian manner. This is where Zizek’s contribution is important, at least as a critical foil to the grounded nihilism and political uncommitment of many. Drawing on him, we might then get something more than a functional alliance bonded together by what needs to change. It is the processes that matter as much as where we are heading and as part of this we need to re-integrate a different sense of work and play in words and ideas. These three books are a good place to start. But, what they also imply is that poetry matters not as an epigraph but as the skeleton for the ghost in the machine. That is what may come in the next instalment of these sorts of works.

Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.