What if you held a protest and everyone came?
In the cases of gangster rap and Ellroy, capitalist realism takes the form of a kind of super-identification with capital at its most pitilessly predatory, but this need not be the case. In fact, capitalist realism is very far from precluding a certain anti-capitalism. After all, and as Žižek has provocatively pointed out, anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism. Time after time, the villain in Hollywood films will turn out to be the ‘evil corporation’. Far from undermining capitalist realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it. Take Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). The film shows an earth so despoiled that human beings are no longer capable of inhabiting it. We’re left in no doubt that consumer capitalism and corporations – or rather one mega-corporation, Buy n Large – is responsible for this depredation; and when we see eventually see the human beings in offworld exile, they are infantile and obese, interacting via screen interfaces, carried around in large motorized chairs, and supping indeterminate slop from cups. What we have here is a vision of control and communication much as Jean Baudrillard understood it, in which subjugation no longer takes the form of a subordination to an extrinsic spectacle, but rather invites us to interact and participate. It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience. But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism. A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it. Žižek’s counsel here remains invaluable. ‘If the concept of ideology is the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge’, he argues, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.
Capitalist ideology in general, Žižek maintains, consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange. According to Žižek, capitalism in general relies on this structure of disavowal. We believe that money is only a meaningless token of no intrinsic worth, yet we act as if it has a holy value. Moreover, this behavior precisely depends upon the prior disavowal – we are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.
Corporate anti-capitalism wouldn’t matter if it could be differentiated from an authentic anti-capitalist movement. Yet, even before its momentum was stalled by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the so called anti-capitalist movement seemed also to have conceded too much to capitalist realism. Since it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.
Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? And it is not that Live 8 was a ‘degraded’ form of protest. On the contrary, it was in Live 8 that the logic of the protest was revealed in its purest form. The protest impulse of the 60s posited a malevolent Father, the harbinger of a reality principle that (supposedly) cruelly and arbitrarily denies the ‘right’ to total enjoyment. This Father has unlimited access to resources, but he selfishly – and senselessly – hoards them. Yet it is not capitalism but protest itself which depends upon this figuration of the Father; and one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father, even though the ‘reality’ they impose on the young is substantially harsher than the conditions they protested against in the 60s. Indeed, it was of course the global elite itself – in the form of entertainers such as Richard Curtis and Bono – which organized the Live 8 event.
To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation. The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.
The ideological blackmail that has been in place since the original Live Aid concerts in 1985 has insisted that ‘caring individuals’ could end famine directly, without the need for any kind of political solution or systemic reorganization. It is necessary to act straight away, we were told; politics has to be suspended in the name of ethical immediacy. Bono’s Product Red brand wanted to dispense even with the philanthropic intermediary. ‘Philanthropy is like hippy music, holding hands’, Bono proclaimed. ‘Red is more like punk rock, hip hop, this should feel like hard commerce’. The point was not to offer an alternative to capitalism – on the contrary, Product Red’s ‘punk rock’ or ‘hip hop’ character consisted in its ‘realistic’ acceptance that capitalism is the only game in town. No, the aim was only to ensure that some of the proceeds of particular transactions went to good causes. The fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.