Bureaucratic Socialism, or, Žižek and the Illusion of a Future

Slavoj Žižek has finally revealed his cards. Up to this point Žižek has given out various hints in talks and essays—which float in the digital ether like mushroom spore—that what must be theorized is not the exalted moment of revolt but what is to happen the day after. He has expressed this sentiment over the past year using the same trope. To paraphrase: “I would sell my mother into slavery if the last scene of the people rising up against the totalitarian state in the movie V for Vendetta was followed with a second installment showing us the consequence of this uprising. I want to know what happens the day after, as one says in English.” His fondness for sexual innuendo fails to state the obvious: the day after occasions no deep thinking.

The one thing needful for Žižek is thinking about what is to occur the day after a mass gathering or insurrection. Radicals have so far failed to think the post-coital situation. So what does the great man of Ljubljana have to tell us about this imminent day? In no uncertain terms, it must take the form of “bureaucratic socialism.” Talk about bathos.

Žižek now believes that efficient bureaucracy is the necessary corollary of any successful future state. While often alluding to the utopian impulse that imagines a political community beyond “what is”—including Derrida’s “democracy of the future”—such imagining should not exceed the strictures imposed on the world by technological complexity, sprawling populations and megalopolises. In fact one should be able to take utilities and health services for granted. Freedom of choice should not have to extend to one’s electricity vendor and Internet provider, or even what hospital one wants to convalesce in.

The smooth functioning of society and the provision of basic needs requires a state behemoth with its evolved institutions and apparatuses of governance. A strong bureaucracy must be included in any account of emancipatory politics. In voicing this demand it is as though Žižek imagines all radical leftists are convinced anarcho-primitivists promoting atavisms such as the “noble savage” or fellaheen. Yet even the anti-statist position of anarchism does not by definition dispense with the necessity of organization, including an efficient bureaucracy. The thing that matters for “radicals” is that bureaucracies be organized along thoroughly democratic lines. They must at the very least answer to the immediate will of those in whose name they incessantly calculate and command.

It is true that for anarchists the whole state machinery must be dismantled. But that is because to be truly democratic a bureaucracy must not administer people but only things. Marx’s Paris Manuscripts of 1844 is clear on the reversal of this relation under capitalism. Žižek, unfortunately, seems to equate all occupiers and dissenters with anti-bureaucratic libertarians. If there is an element of anti-bureaucracy in radical left circles it is because current governmental institutions are skewed toward excessive discipline, control and domination in the sense that critical theory has sought to prove, from Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler. Questioning “governmentality” does not mean dispensing with government or bureaucracy. There is no animus against bureaucracy in so far as it is a lever of freedom, as disalienation, care of the self, social emancipation, or however one wishes to define it.

In other respects Žižek is right to point out the contradiction between the imaginary of many radical democrats, in which political franchise is local and active, and the actuality under late capitalism, in which agency is both thoroughly mediated and pacified. The problem is that in taking such a stance Žižek is also leaving the direct concern of “the political” and encroaching on the terrain of “the social,” with its various functionalist, phenomenological and post-foundational analyses of structure. If Žižek wishes to embark on such a critique he must also engage the whole theoretical apparatus of Max Weber and post-Weberians, for whom modern society is only made possible through a strong impulse toward institutional and bureaucratic centralism and concentration of power. Of course it is true that Hegel has much to say about “civil society,” but the social in his work is overshadowed by philosophy and dialectics, including outmoded notions of history, consciousness and “spirit.”

Žižek is a philosopher first, and only then a political philosopher. He remains a robust thinker of ideology. But he is beyond his depth when he musters Hegel and Jacques Lacan in the defense of the structural needs of the modern state. Jürgen Habermas on the other hand spent many years mastering the literature and engaging in debates with prominent social theorists. Žižek would be wise to heed the lessons learned by Habermas. Engaging social theory depoliticizes philosophy and ontology. In the past three or four decades Habermas has softened his former, however muted, revolutionary aspirations. Indeed Habermas is now the philosopher par excellence of the European establishment. From being the foremost critical theorist of the second-generation Frankfurt School, with a keen interest in historical materialism and social class formation, Habermas has arrived at a defeatist position. The radical complexity, and indeterminacy, of contemporary society and global politics makes all hope of strong forms of individual and social emancipation moot, even redundant. Human emancipatory interests are no more. In fact if there is a thinker extolling the merits of what could be called “bureaucratic democracy” it is Habermas. The most that is now possible is a deliberative constitutionalism with a smattering of Kantian freedom. Theory must develop, or expand on, a modified systems theory.

It is singularly odd that of all the current thinkers on the radical left Žižek would exhort us to think in detail about what needs to happen the day after. One does not need to go as far as Marx, as quoted by Isaiah Berlin, and say: “To think of the conditions of the day after is reactionary.” Do contemporary square dwellers, occupiers and indignants even need pose the question? Is it within their remit to do anything more than imagine another possibility and engage the battles of the hour? Apparently there is a fact that makes Žižek a philosophical “realist.” He is no longer the famous pot-bellied Socrates posing the right questions, including never condescending to mere opinion (doxa) by actually offering solutions.

All the problems related to bureaucracy are ultimately problems of groups. All theories of government, institutions and bureaucracy can be reduced to the problem of dealing with larger and larger human groups while ensuring universal access to those things needed for a full human life. Political solutions to social aporia, especially when they concern material dimensions of everyday life, are I am arguing impossible. It is of course the Marxist line that “bourgeois” theory shrewdly separates the political from the social, and the social from the economic all the better to mystify the true motives of the “ruling classes.” And there is a grain of truth in this. But Žižek is proposing a social solution to a political aporia. By labeling the future “bureaucratic socialism”—an idea apparently necessary for any functioning society—Žižek is framing politics as the subjection of a population to institutional care. If anything it is a bold and normative sociological assertion. It lacks political or philosophical content in so far as it does not aim for an idea of what freedom is apart from the social duty of care, the provision of basic necessities and services.

What radical politics needs is not a solution for the day after but an integrated theory and practice of the power of the proletariat, including its current analogues, such as, for example, Antonio Negri’s “constituent power” and “the multitude.” Only through reflection on the current dimensions of labour’s agency against capital—in dialogue with the tradition of thinking this relation—will the heteronomous state, its powers, and its functions, come in for serious critical scrutiny.

In its global articulations and transformations the nation state continues to act as a channel for capital accumulation and its depredations. What actual arrangement the state will take, if at all, the day after the people miraculously rise up against it can surely only be resolved by heeding the multitude’s demands in the days, months and years after power has been fully transferred to factories, assemblies, councils and other living fractions of the “future state.” The shell of sovereignty will only in such a scenario give itself over fully to the life that is bursting within. Before that the most one can hope for are local acts of resistance, including through engaging the new modes of production and work to labour’s advantage.

Against positive social theory, the problems of organization are specific to time and place. The social imaginary is always contingent on historical “being.” Theory cannot therefore possibly predict what form the state or bureaucracy will take in the future. In fact such a line of inquiry has no meaning when so much power and control is vested in today’s state and its institutions; when the state form and its sovereignty is dispersed globally—or “deterritorialised”—via the mechanism of finance capital in what Michael Hardt and Negri call “empire;” when the state’s repressive state apparatuses nevertheless continue to violently quash any scintilla of dissent or civil disobedience.

Anyone who imagines that the contradiction between labour and capital has disappeared and that the state is the site of a neutral sovereignty (or worse the expression of a national genius) has not yet gained a clear conception of the continuing exploitation of labour and the commons; of capitalist economic cycles, both long and short; and of the lengths that capital goes to, via the armature of the government, to actively punish the legal non-compliance of labour. Of course when the shoe is on the other foot “class actions” against monopolies and corporations are near impossible to argue through. Especially in a time that is swiftly moving toward a permanent state of emergency—for a number of converging and related reasons, including terrorism and environmental catastrophe—it seems crucial to stand firm against both the moribund neoliberal state and the creeping “authoritarian statism” emerging under the tutelage of global capitalism.

Dissidents refrain from offering any kind of solution or prognosis because the idea that capital will revert wholesale to the sway and control of labour is a pie-in-the-sky notion. Many years ago Adorno spoke of “total administration” and the domination of “universal exchange,” not realizing that his conceptions applied more truthfully to the future state, namely our own, than to his. It is Žižek, ironically, and perhaps alone, who thinks a full-scale rebellion is in the offing. The gates of revolution are far from being wide open. Žižek is arguing against his own impatience for change. Perhaps he still dreams of revolution. In his brain the fetishistic disavowal of the hoped for “event” has taken the form of a longing for a strong socialist state. One recalls his reading of Star Wars. The Princess and her rebels are fighting for a reactionary feudal order. It is actually Darth Vader and his Imperial army that represent the better regime, presumably an efficient bureaucratic socialism.

Recent social movements cannot pose the question topmost on Žižek’s mind. The state is so far from being dismantled, or even dented, in its current form that all talk of revolution, let alone the day after, must be interpreted as soixante-huit chic. That is partly the reason why the remaining stalwart communist parties around the world, still rational to the core, are waiting in the shadows, not with bated but with stale breath. The grand symphony will be performed only when the people have finally learned to write it. Yet the masses are still being schooled in the theatre of parliamentary liberalism. The difficulty is that consent is also manufactured: even, or perhaps especially, in an age of digital reproducibility.

The extreme doctrine of naked capitalist self-interest, the Robinson Crusoe myth, has a shadow side: the collectivism of socialist ideology. The “tyranny of the majority” realizes an unmitigated utilitarian dream—that is, without its limiting principles. With cold calculation the government is made into an organ that can secure the greatest good for the greatest number, an equal and exact distribution of the total social capital. It can forcibly secure equal opportunity against the advantages and prejudices born of class, race, privilege and (according to some) aptitude. Unfortunately this distributive justice can also be realized through controlled civic-mindedness, ideological inculcation and state violence. These are the real dangers implicit in “bureaucratic socialism.” And Žižek’s jokes about Gulags and re-education camps no longer seem very funny in light of his current notion.

Yet Žižek himself has admitted in the past that the efficiency of the famous bureaucracies of the Eastern Bloc was an illusion conjured by the Nomenklatura. Far from working smoothly and efficiently these bureaucracies were chaotic and inefficient. As in all such monolithic or gargantuan institutions—take the Catholic Church or any national military—the appearance of order harbors a dark underbelly of repressed desire, escalating into acts of violence (including psychological games and sadism). Rene Girard believes desire is mimetic, a learned impulse that can get out of control and escalate into mortal violence. Girardians think capitalism and its legal foundations have so far been able to stem and sublimate such desire through market competition. A questionable conclusion if one takes a global perspective on mediated violence, especially through the so-called “military-industrial complex.”

If Žižek were truly keen to tackle the problem of organization he would foreground the continuing economic and political contradiction between labour and capital, in all its instantiations, at every level of society and geographical distribution. Of course he pays lip service to continuing forms of global exploitation, especially in the developing world, and understands acutely the role that both ideology and social and cultural capital play in reproducing exploitation there. But his theory lags far behind the tumult and acceleration of extractive and absolute surplus value. He remains within libidinal economies, not real political economies. He provides a Hegelian explanation for commodity fetishism before an empirical account of the profligate consumerism of the mall.

The fact is production at low wages proves the continuing exploitation of human nerves and brain and the equally abominable exploitation of the earth. The division of labour on national lines, and between geographical regions, has led to new and irresoluble contradictions between the various fractions of labour and the glaring infractions of capital. Geopolitics is about capital and labour. The “empire” is still dominated by capital. The ethical pall is easy enough to discern. Theories of libidinal economy, virtual and phantasmatic reproduction, even of the Anthropocene help not a jot in understanding the most pressing contradictions of late capitalism. The issue of class cohesion and class affiliation has further confounded the positive identification of economic profits out of labour and land within single sovereign states or regions. Globalization has eroded secure “popular” knowledge about exploitation. The fragmentation of such knowledge of harm done to labour and the earth has in turn fragmented the global labour movement. Economic impoverishment is no simulacra but the real deal.

The political ramifications of such problems surpass the importance of all theoretical discussions about the organization of the future state. We collectively face the depressing quandary if labour will ever overcome the political power that capital now globally underwrites. Governments and sovereign nations have been fully captured by “Monsieur Capital.” (The capitalist “class” as Marx realized was and is always capital “personified,” a mask of relations beyond its own possible self-understanding). As captives and subordinates any government must willy-nilly kowtow to capital’s demands. Nicos Poulantzas theorized that the capitalist state, even though “relatively autonomous” from all economic and political determinants, nevertheless “condenses” social class relations and the class struggle. Poulantzas also speaks of a “ruling class bloc.” These notions continue to resonate.

It is true that the issue of apportionment of blame is complicated by the fact that capital is mediated through digital instruments of accounting and market exchange. Fine legal instruments of law making and adjudication also misdirect it. The result: the people are left without a class enemy. And this has had the most unfortunate repercussions not only for the labour movement as a whole, but also for the welfare state. The stops and controls on the tendency for capital to exploit and maim in its search for profit have been removed. “Actually existing socialism” acted as a buffer between capital and its global exploitation of labour. Based on the example of worker’s states, the “international proletariat,” however disaggregated, was always clear about its collective demands to better the lives of the proletariat against the pressure from the “ruling class bloc” to extract more and more surplus value.

The problem today is not that there is no class-consciousness, or even that there is no working class. The problem today is that there is no class enemy! The only slogan that chimes is that the one percent has it over the ninety-nine percent. The one percent rule but with such resolve—and unaccountability—that they are kings without subjects. Too big to fail or fall. Meanwhile their poor subjects are benighted without kings. The enemy of the people has therefore become the government, a government whose institutions can be positively identified with the interests of the constituent power but which has nevertheless been captured and is driven by capital. The problem of political freedom and emancipation remains within the limits of the sovereign capitalist state. It is therefore the state-form, both as a symbolic center of power and as a moribund element in an increasingly global world that surfaces as the stumbling block to any real political change and transformation. The machinery of government may well be the ignorant instrument of capital against the people, and the unwilling servant of the people’s desires against those of capital. Yet capital still rules despotically—that is the terrible truth. The constitutionally legal government must therefore bear the brunt of the demos’ wrath. The anticipation of bureaucratic socialism takes away from today’s desideratum: power to the people.

1 thought on “Bureaucratic Socialism, or, Žižek and the Illusion of a Future”

  1. Hi there, interesting post. I’m glad you reference Foucault and Deleuze in this debate with Zizek. I have a different perspective on this, however. I like how you emphasize how the state is the necessary instrument of capital. However, would a state that isn’t a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie not get rid of this problem? Abolition of the state itself doesn’t necessarily get rid of capitalism.
    Secondly, I’m not sure what you mean by there is no class enemy. There is definitely still a class enemy, the elite. So I’m not sure what you mean- do you mean that in the First World, class struggle isn’t as powerful of a force as in the 19th century? Because I definitely have my critiques of that idea. Also, you have to remember, to be fair to Zizek, that Zizek does not just support a kind of neo-Stalinist “socialism in one nation”- he is for a new internationalism, not just a kind of “democratic local organization”. Not just new international movements, but new international means of organization to combat things like climate change, etc. I think Zizek’s theory about bureaucracy is a necessary foil to the kind of “idealistic pseudo-anarchism” that dominates today’s radical Left. And Zizek has been consistent in his critiques of authoritarian socialism as well- he was a dissident in Yugoslavia after all


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