During the second presidential debate, on October 7, 2008, there was a point where Tom Brokaw asked both candidates whether they thought the economy was going to get worse before it got better. Each responded by essentially saying that no, things would not get worse, so long as he was elected president. They both lacked the courage to say what we all needed to hear: yes, things are going to get worse. A lot worse. I say this not only because of the clear pragmatic value of such a statement, in that things likely will get worse, and in promising the contrary, whoever is elected will be set up for a harsh backlash.
Why do I say we need to hear that things will get worse? Because, so long as we imagine everything will be fine, that no matter how bad it gets everything will ultimately stay the same, we will miss the great opportunity we are facing. The political question this crisis should be begging, and that may still find articulation in the weeks and months to come, is whether the very standard by which we can recognize better and worse, beneficial and harmful, status quo and crisis, should be replaced. Perhaps it is the standard itself, and not this situation to which we apply it, that is the true catastrophe. I am tempted to recall the Joker’s quasi-Benjaminian rant from The Dark Knight:
I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drops of gas and a couple bullets. You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because that’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds!
The point is not that this crisis is some karmic restoration of balance, repaying capitalism for its wild excesses, giving the reckless speculators ‘what they deserved’. There is no homeostatic balance that speculators violated; rather, capitalism was always excessive, it was spiraling out of control from the beginning, even when things seemed their most normal and stable. And when this excessiveness is registered in such crises, there is no balanced leveling of punishments. No, we will all suffer, we will all go down with it, explicitly guilty or ostensibly innocent. We were all complicit with the plan from the beginning, and this crisis is only the fulfillment of that plan.
What we are lacking now is not the expertise necessary to ‘fix the plan’, to get us back on track, curbing the excesses and preventing catastrophe. What we lack is the courage to follow this plan to the bitter end, to accept that there is no going back, there is no other way, and that all we can do is live with the consequences. Every ‘political’ measure to fix the crisis, to rescue the economy and restore the run of things, as far as possible, to the way it was – this is cowardice, in that it refuses to follow the plan to the end and own up to its consequences. To paraphrase the Joker: If tomorrow I tell the press that like a factory will be closed, or the workforce of a small town will be laid off, nobody panics, because that’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old bank will collapse, well then everybody loses their minds! This whole mindset, seized by utter fear and panic, is the result of the refusal to accept that this was the plan all along, that a deregulated economy would inevitably lead to monstrous excesses, whose unsustainability would eventually catch up with it and destroy those corporate entities that had grown too fat and careless, making way for a new breed of organization and a new mode of economy.
Of course it is easy to be a capitalist when the economy is booming, when we are prospering and happy. What takes courage is adhering to capitalism when the crisis comes. We must stand up and say Yes, this was bound to happen, and now we must see it through to the end. Many of those who oppose the bailout plan claim that we should just let the market correct itself, wiping away those banks and institutions that can no longer support themselves, and why not, even the very mode of exchange that allowed such institutions to exist and grow. The ethical dilemma here is that it is not enough to see the greedy speculators punished, because if Wall Street falls, so will we all. Yet perhaps this is what we must accept, this is the real ethical position: it is not that ‘the ingenuity and strength of the American workforce will see us through it’, because the result will be the dissolution of much of what remains of this workforce; without capital, there is no worker, because no one will employ him as such.
It is here, in such a collapse of the economic infrastructure, that we have the opportunity for a new solidarity to take root, a solidarity on the basis of utter abandonment to that no-man’s-land of capitalism sans capital. We must reject all compromise that would attempt to restore or rescue the last vestiges of this system, and insodoing, refuse to maintain those compromises that have held us together thus far. If it is fundamentally contradictory to promote the free market, and at the same time to allow the government to prop up industrial agriculture through massive subsidies, and to allow giant corporate entities to evade taxation, and to save a failing banking system with a ‘socializing’ bailout, then so be it – we must reject all of this. The problem is not that we have not been truly capitalist, not capitalist enough, but that capitalism by definition constantly averts its own intrinsic tendency toward self-destruction. And so a ‘true capitalism’ would amount to the end of capitalism.
Here, Slavoj Zizek’s infamous call to fully identify with the symbolic mandate, to reject the cynical/ironic distance that has passed for resistance thus far, gains a new meaning. We shouldn’t any longer try to resist capitalism, or try to live outside of capitalism, to show that ‘another world is possible’. Capitalism has only been able to sustain itself thus far by always resisting itself, by cynically applying a double standard to the developed and underdeveloped world, to capital and workers. We shouldn’t try to restrict the free flow of capital, but claim that real capitalism would grant just as much freedom of movement to workers. We shouldn’t strive for the right of greater subsidization and protection for underdeveloped countries, but totally reject the privilege of doing so that developed countries grant themselves. We shouldn’t prove we can live comfortably without engaging in capitalism, but accept that capitalism works by ‘refusing to engage in capitalism’. We must no longer deny our complete complicity with capitalism, and insodoing, deprive capital of its greatest defense mechanism.
Like the Joker says, we should take this plan – capitalism – and turn it on itself. We should follow the plan through to the bitter end. If this leads to massive unemployment, to increasing foreclosures, to an even more immense loss of wealth from retirement savings, to astronomical health care costs, then maybe the bailout should be one focused on investing in the lives of those who, now abandoned by capital, must begin to live outside it. In his recent essay on the crisis, Zizek says,
The real dilemma is not ‘state intervention or not?’ but ‘what kind of state intervention?’ And this is true politics: the struggle to define the conditions that govern our lives. The debate about the bailout deals with decisions about the fundamental features of our social and economic life, even mobilising the ghost of class struggle.
If we were to follow the prescriptions of ‘die-hard’ capitalists, and let the banks collapse, then this would inevitably leave workers and the so-called middle class in a terrifyingly precarious position. What we should say, with courage, is that we do not need to be rescued from this new position, but that state intervention should aim to allow us to live there, on the periphery, as we begin to rebuild our world anew.