Economy as ideology
The state of permanent economic emergency does not mean that the left should abandon patient intellectual work, with no immediate ‘practical use’. On the contrary: today, more than ever, one should bear in mind that communism begins with what Kant, in the famous passage of his essay, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, called the ‘public use of reason’: with the egalitarian universality of thought. Our struggle should thus highlight those aspects of the current ‘re-structuring’ that pose a threat to trans-national open space. One example would be the EU’s ongoing ‘Bologna Process’, which aims to ‘harmonize the architecture of the European higher education system’, and which is in fact a concerted attack on the public use of reason.
Underlying these reforms is the urge to subordinate higher education to the task of solving society’s concrete problems through the production of expert opinions. What disappears here is the true task of thinking: not only to offer solutions to problems posed by ‘society’―in reality, state and capital―but to reflect on the very form of these problems; to discern a problem in the very way we perceive a problem. The reduction of higher education to the task of producing socially useful expert knowledge is the paradigmatic form of Kant’s ‘private use of reason’―that is, constrained by contingent, dogmatic presuppositions―within today’s global capitalism. In Kantian terms, it involves our acting as ‘immature’ individuals, not as free human beings who dwell in the dimension of the universality of reason.
It is crucial to link the push towards streamlining higher education―not only in the guise of direct privatization or links with business, but also in this more general sense of orienting education towards the production of expert knowledge―to the process of enclosing the commons of intellectual products, of privatizing general intellect. This process is itself part of a global transformation in the mode of ideological interpellation. It may be useful here to recall Althusser’s notion of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (PDF) . If, in the Middle Ages, the key ISA was the Church, in the sense of religion as institution, the dawn of capitalist modernity imposed the twin hegemony of the school system and legal ideology. Individuals were formed into legal subjects through compulsory universal education, while subjects were interpellated as patriotic free citizens under the legal order. The gap was thus maintained between bourgeois and citizen, between the egotist-utilitarian individual concerned with his private interests and the citoyen dedicated to the universal domain of the state. Insofar as, in spontaneous ideological perception, ideology is limited to the universal sphere of citizenship, while the private sphere of egotistical interests is considered ‘pre-ideological’, the very gap between ideology and non-ideology is thus transposed into ideology.
What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself―the logic of market and competition―has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology. In education, we are witnessing the gradual dismantling of the classical-bourgeois school ISA: the school system is less and less the compulsory network, elevated above the market and organized directly by the state, bearer of enlightened values―liberty, equality, fraternity. On behalf of the sacred formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, it is progressively penetrated by different forms of ppp, or public–private partnership. In the organization and legitimization of power, too, the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange where voters ‘buy’ the option that offers to do the job of maintaining social order, prosecuting crime, and so on, most efficiently.
On behalf of the same formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, functions once exclusive to the domain of state power, like running prisons, can be privatized; the military is no longer based on universal conscription, but composed of hired mercenaries. Even the state bureaucracy is no longer perceived as the Hegelian universal class, as is becoming evident in the case of Berlusconi. In today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits it as a means to protect his personal interests.
Even the process of engaging in emotional relations is increasingly organized along the lines of a market relationship. Such a procedure relies on self-commodification: for internet dating or marriage agencies, prospective partners present themselves as commodities, listing their qualities and posting their photos. What is missing here is what Freud called der einzige Zug , that singular pull which instantly makes me like or dislike the other. Love is a choice that is experienced as necessity. At a certain point, one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one already is in love, and that one cannot do otherwise. By definition, therefore, comparing qualities of respective candidates, deciding with whom to fall in love, cannot be love. This is the reason why dating agencies are an anti-love device par excellence .
What kind of shift in the functioning of ideology does this imply? When Althusser claims that ideology interpellates individuals into subjects, ‘individuals’ stand here for the living beings upon which ideological state apparatuses work, imposing upon them a network of micro-practices. By contrast, ‘subject’ is not a category of living being, of substance, but the outcome of these living beings being caught in the ISA dispositif , or mechanism; in a symbolic order. Quite logically, insofar as the economy is considered the sphere of non-ideology, this brave new world of global commodification considers itself post-ideological. The ISAs are, of course, still here; more than ever. Yet insofar as, in its self-perception, ideology is located in subjects, in contrast to pre-ideological individuals, this hegemony of the economic sphere cannot but appear as the absence of ideology. What this means is not that ideology simply ‘reflects’ the economy, as superstructure to its base. Rather, the economy functions here as an ideological model itself, so that we are fully justified in saying that it is operative as an ISA―in contrast to ‘real’ economic life, which definitely does not follow the idealized liberal-market model.
Der gesamte Artikel ist in der Juli/August-Ausgabe der New Left Review zu lesen.
Slavoj Žižek (* 21. März 1949 in Ljubljana) ist ein aus Slowenien stammender Philosoph, Kulturkritiker und nichtpraktizierender lacanianischer Psychoanalytiker. Bekannt geworden ist er insbesondere durch seine einflussreiche Übertragung und Weiterentwicklung der Psychoanalyse Jacques Lacans in das Feld der Populärkultur und der Gesellschaftskritik. Er wird häufig dem Poststrukturalismus zugerechnet, hat sich aber mehrfach von dieser Einordnung distanziert und bezeichnet sich selbst als „altmodischen Marxisten“ .