Friday, February 20, 2009

Obama avec Zizek?


...having nothing to do with Zizek's endorsement...

Last week, US President Barack Obama responded to the comparison of (or call for) current US plans regarding the banking system to ‘the Swedish model’ in what many economists describe as ‘ambiguous.’ Obama didn’t necessarily close the door on nationalization of financial institutions, but he did call into question its likelihood here in the US [check out the interesting interview with a Swedish central banker on the inappropriateness of the comparison here]. Here is his response:

“The scale of the US economy and the capital markets are so vast, and the problem in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale, I think...wouldn’t make sense. And we also have different traditions in this country and we want to retain a strong sense of private capital fulfilling the core investment needs of our country.”

There are a few things going on here that are worth noting above and beyond any ostensible ‘Swedish nationalization’ that might or might not be in the offing. First, Obama chalks up faith in market-response and of private capitalists righting what they have made oh-so wrong as a cultural artifact of the United States. But this is a rather static notion of culture, one which resists any sort of change even in the face of crisis. This of course is deeply wrong on a number of levels, but if nothing else an interesting example of the ‘cultural turn’ in politics – we are the product of traditions, not of ‘rational choices’ or calculations.

Obama then goes on to undermine his cultural determinism. “…we want to retain a strong sense of private capital fulfilling…” This is not the same sort of orthodoxy that we got with his inauguration speech, in which he announced the question of the ‘free market’ was not in point of fact a question at all in that it has ‘proven’ its unequaled ability to spread wealth and freedom (which triggered sincerely confused expressions on the faces of my students). Rather, this is Obama exposing the bald-faced ideological nature of the relationship to capitalism this country has: if you repeat something enough it is true. During the tech-bubble of the 1990s, I often heard people who were by no means benefiting directly from the assets boom repeat the “the economy is booming” conclusion aired 24-7 by media outlets, politicians and economists. Through the repetition of this mantra, the non-beneficiary takes part in the reproduction of capital. Put differently, it is an (or yet another) example of the excluded, poor or oppressed subject actively colluding in their own exclusion, dispossession or oppression.

‘The sense’ is here the obverse of the ‘as if’ of ‘false consciousness’ – where I act as if x were the case, even though it isn’t, because there is some sort of cultural production barring my access to ‘the truth’ (Superstructure hides base). Here, ‘the sense’ is not the illusory representation of reality, but is rather the act which allows the very constitution of reality. We desire ‘the sense’ that capital can unfuck us, and in so desiring we structure social reality itself.

There is an interesting postscript to this line of analysis, that only came up in the course of talking with Kim. I have noticed over the past few weeks an increase in this sort of speech on the part of politicians, pundits and economists: "We are a capitalist country"; "We believe in the free market"; and so forth (again, Obama's inauguration speech is a perfect example). This should be recognized for the phenomenon that it indeed is, in that it is a manifestation directly related to the crisis. Put differently, put symptomatically, we can echo Hamlet: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The repetition of 'we are the market' is meant to reassure the speaker, the iterated ideological reconstruction of reality speeds up in this moment of crisis -- as it must.

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