Slavoj Žižek via London Review of Books
The evaluative procedure that qualifies some workers to receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacré, Jean-Pierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of the four procedures (‘dispositifs symboliques’) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure that demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merits and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’ Dupuy draws from this premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will thereby be free of all resentment: on the contrary, it is precisely in such a society that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.
Connected to this is the impasse faced by today’s China: the ideal goal of Deng’s reforms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (since they would be the new ruling class); now, however, China’s leaders are making the painful discovery that capitalism without a stable hierarchy (brought about by the existence of a bourgeoisie) generates permanent instability. So what path will China take? The former Communists, meanwhile, are emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism because their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class perfectly fits the tendency of today’s capitalism to become a managerial capitalism without a bourgeoisie – in both cases, as Stalin put it long ago, ‘cadres decide everything.’ (An interesting difference between today’s China and Russia: in Russia, university teachers are ridiculously underpaid – they are de facto already part of the proletariat – while in China they are comfortably provided with a surplus wage as a means to guarantee their docility.)
The notion of surplus wage also throws new light on the ongoing ‘anti-capitalist’ protests. In times of crisis, the obvious candidates for ‘belt-tightening’ are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recourse, if they are to avoid joining the proletariat. Although their protests are nominally directed at the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting against the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place. Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, which are mostly strikes on the part of a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their privilege (their surplus over the minimum wage). These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job has itself become a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers with guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.
At the same time it is clear that the huge revival of protests over the past year, from the Arab Spring to Western Europe, from Occupy Wall Street to China, from Spain to Greece, should not be dismissed as merely a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie. Each case has to be taken on its own merits. The student protests against university reform in the UK were clearly different from August’s riots, which were a consumerist carnival of destruction, a true outburst of the excluded. One can argue that the uprisings in Egypt began in part as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie (educated young people protesting about their lack of prospects), but this was only one aspect of a larger protest against an oppressive regime. On the other hand, the protest hardly mobilised poor workers and peasants and the electoral victory of the Islamists is an indication of the narrow social base of the original secular protest. Greece is a special case: in the last decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was created thanks to EU financial help and loans, and the protests were motivated in large part by the threat of losing this privilege.
Meanwhile, the proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is accompanied at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers. This remuneration is economically irrational since, as investigations have demonstrated in the US, it tends to be inversely proportional to a company’s success. Rather than submit these trends to moralising criticism, we should read them as signs that the capitalist system itself is no longer able to find any level of self-regulated stability – it threatens, in other words, to run out of control.
This ‘beggar-my-neighbor’ aspect of late stage industrial capitalism is perhaps its oddest feature. Shouldn’t the managerial elite see that they are accelerating instability by crushing the middle class into dust? They are hastening the day when the people will be willing to risk the little they have left to change the system from top to bottom.
But these are the same people who couldn’t see the impossible feedback loops in the global financial systems that led to our recent crash and the now ‘new normal’ depression.