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End of Utopias

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Friday, Nov 13, 2009

Slavoj Žižek has a good essay in the LRB about the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He looks at the idea that the end of the socialism brought in its wake a realistic mind-set grounded in the “truth” that markets and capitalism are the only basis for a social order that works. He basically argues that after the Wall fell, the same sort of people maintained political control. Neoliberalism has its power elite, just as Warsaw Pact countries had their Politburos. What’s striking about the velvet revolutions, Žižek argues, is that after the fall of the Wall, these elites turned out to be the same people:


Indeed, one could argue that, when the Communist regimes collapsed, the disillusioned former Communists were better suited to run the new capitalist economy than the populist dissidents. While the heroes of the anti-Communist protests continued to indulge their dreams of a new society based on justice, honesty and solidarity, the ex-Communists were able without difficulty to accommodate themselves to the new capitalist rules. Paradoxically, in the new post-Communist condition, the anti-Communists stood for the utopian dream of a true democracy, while the ex-Communists stood for the cruel new world of market efficiency, with all its corruption and dirty tricks.


He sums up the ideological usefulness of this misrecognition: free marketeers can argue that their revolution was betrayed and demand more radical reforms.


In the 1990s, it was believed that humanity had finally found the formula for an optimal socio-economic order. The experience of the last few decades has clearly shown that the market is not a benign mechanism that works best when left alone. It requires violence to create the conditions necessary for it to function. The way market fundamentalists react to the turmoil that ensues when their ideas are implemented is typical of utopian ‘totalitarians’: they blame the failure on compromise – there is still too much state intervention – and demand an even more radical implementation of market doctrine.


Markets don’t exist by virtue of natural law; impersonal exchange is hardly inscribed into human genetic code. Violence, or its implied threat, establishes the terms of exchange, or worse, the arbitrary neutrality of a society governed by unimpeded markets fosters an anything-goes climate where violence between competitors is tolerated, and is inevitable.

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