The Ljubljana-born philosopher Slavoj Žižek – a commentator who is nothing if not inventive and prolific – recently caught the attention of our CSO with a Guardian piece entitled Why the free market fundamentalists think 2013 will be the best year ever (17th February 2013). One of the many points raised in this near-freestyle article is that free-market capitalists are utilising similar logic to that traditionally used by communists to explain away the inefficacious nature of a ‘collapsing’ system: capitalism is malfunctioning because its principles are being respected only in the breach. Ipso facto, if the ‘laws’ of capitalism were actually applied, then we would have no need to concern ourselves with an ultimately ‘impossible’ financial crisis.
Žižek is correct to point to the sometimes ludicrous measures that defenders of political or economic ideologies will employ when faced with the stark reality that their quasi-religious beliefs have been proven to be demonstrably false. But this picture of massed acolytes in denial – while worth contemplating – may not tell us as much as we first thought:
1. A Post-Capital Era. The fabled financial commentator Max Keiser has long noted that in many parts of the world – particularly savings-scarce economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but also bank-hobbled nations such as Japan – we are living in a post-capital era, with debt being the defining characteristic of the economy; the corollary of this is that it is difficult to define such systems as capitalist in the absence of capital. In fact, with their huge state subsidies to essentially unproductive enterprises, these economies are looking rather uncomfortably like the European communist ‘enemy’ that withered away a couple of decades ago.
2. A Wider Perspective. Like many theorists heavily influenced by Karl Marx, Žižek’s equates capitalism to the ‘modern’ (post-)industrial capitalism which first manifested itself in nineteenth-century Europe. But the history of capitalism and particularly the market economy is much, much longer and more interesting than this viewpoint permits. What both proponents and antagonists of both capitalism and the market economy tend to ignore is that systems are often shaped by the people who inhabit them far more than a theoretical abstraction would have us believe – and far more than many of us may feel comfortable with.