Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Symptom of Globalization

I was listening to some random mp3 of a Zizek lecture at work today ("Why Sept 12 is more important than Sept 11," Jerusalem, January 12, 2003) and his discussion of the Lacanian symptom reminded me of debates over the way that sovereignty and globalization interact with each other.

To explain the symptom in the context of Western Buddhism, he brings up an example that occurs over and over again in his books (he's not too adverse to plagiarizing himself). He had a friend whose wife died of breast cancer. The friend surprised everyone by not shying away from the subject of her death. He would willingly discuss all of the painful moments leading up to her death in horrifying detail without even flinching.

It turned out that the friend kept a hamster in his pocket that had belonged to his wife. Whenever he discussed her, he would hold the hamster in his hand. This allowed him to create the guise of directly accepting the loss of his wife. However, a year later the hamster died and he had a break down. The hamster was a symptom that enabled him to cope with his situation and when it disappeared, he couldn't handle it anymore and had to be hospitalized.

Zizek uses this to explain why he thinks that various forms of Eastern mysticism act as supplements to capitalism. Western appropriations of Buddhism and their advocacy of resignation and withdrawal from materiality allow people to better cope with the excesses of capital. This allows one to be a more efficient participant in economic processes because their excessive features have been dulled. The CEO can calmly fire half of his staff in pursuit of the bottom line after spending an hour meditating in his office. This is the essence of ideology: the mental distance that you achieve towards violent processes enables your continued participation.

This reminded me of how globalization affects the state and its claim to sovereign authority. One of the banners of leftist activists in recent years has been the use of transnational forces to challenge that authority, including features such as the state's monopoly on violence and the existence of concrete borders that mark up the planet into separate jurisdictions.

However, I think a lot of this misses the point. Sure, the growth of the global economy has introduced a number of forces of deterritorialization, but a lot of that has been accompanied by reterritorialization. This is especially evident in the years since Sept 11, which have seen a reassertion of state authority against international institutions like the United Nations.

But it's even more radical than that. Globalization has been a dramatic process, but it is one that has been appropriated by sovereign power. See how the U.S. dismisses realist norms regarding the sanctity of sovereign power in its pre-emptive invasion of Iraq or its ability to detain individuals as enemy combatants at will. See how the U.S. uses its relationships with nations in Eastern Europe to "disappear" inconvenient prisoners to black sites beyond the oversight of humanitarian activists and organizations.

Neocleous talks about this effect in his book, Imagining the State, in the context of the monarchy in the 18th century. When movements struggled for and won the right to representative government, this created the illusion that the power of the monarch had been broken. Although this seemed to move power from one central pole to a more dispersed space, it merely moved the power that was imbued in the body of the king to a new pole, the "body of citizens." Feudal rule was replaced by the bourgeois rule of capital, allowing new forms of subjugation. In the same fashion that the metaphysical institution of the monarchy used to achieve immortality by transferring to new locations every time a particular king would die ("The king is dead, long live the king") the body of sovereignty merely moved to a new location. One was still subject to the demands of the body politic, including any measure deemed necessary for the health of that body, however reactionary or violent.

This is the same process we see now. The global dispersion of power is often far from liberating. In place of the United States' ability to exercise violence against the subjects of its rule, we find a state that can use international influence to indefinitely imprison anyone on the planet that it deems to be an unlawful combatant. People become subject to the whims of transnational firms that can utilize structural forces to compel them to forfeit absurd portions of their labor power while being unable to take care of their families. Refugees are reduced to the status of bare life, deprived of any possible form of subjectivity.

Although a lot of possibilities exist for using transnationalism to challenge subjugation, a lot of the rhetoric is little more than ideology. We glorify globalization as an abstract universal, ignoring a wide variety of specific manifestations with sharply different political stakes (compare the investor who uses trade liberalization to cement petroleum future deals as he flies around the planet to a refugee displaced from the Iraq conflict). We satisfy ourselves with the idea that we've somehow "broken down state power" when we've merely shifted its power into new spheres of life, allowing for more insidious violence on a planetary scale.

This is the definition of the symptom. We can cope with all of these processes because the illusion of progressive transnationalism has conflated contradictory forms of globalization with each other. In the same fashion as the Buddhist CEO, the neoliberal investor can associate his decisions with hip progressivism. He's not extracting surplus value from laborers, he's challenging the static nature of the state system. The idea that this is fundamentally altering social relations is the lie that speaks to the global truth whereby the hegemony of global capital is cemented and any kind of alternative is rendered impossible. Jacques-Alain Miller writes:
In this sense the symptom, as it is articulated and conveyed in the speech addressed to the analyst, formalized in the field of the Other, is a lie. It is, if I may say, an allegory of the symptom - the term allegory is for me irresistible since long ago, at the Section Clinique, I heard it used at its worst apropos of anxiety. The symptom is a lie - what does it mean? It doesn't mean that as soon as one enters analysis one becomes an imaginary sick person - even if the analysand tends to believe so, for he could willingly believe that nothing could happen to him as long as he is in analysis. To state that the symptom is a lie is not an insult to pain; on the contrary, it is to state that the parlĂȘtre of the symptom belongs to the dimension of truth, for it is only there that truth and falseness are posited. And it is in this sense that Lacan formulates that the symptom is truth, "made both of the same wood, if we posit materialistically that truth is what gets established from the signifying chain." We must understand what this assertion implies against the background of "truth having the structure of fiction". One has only to superimpose these two assertions to infer that for one's guidance, the symptom has the structure of fiction.
Although the sovereign is initially threatened by transnationalism, including its assault on the state's monopoly on violence and the introduction of transnational flows, like immigrant populations and terrorist networks, that threaten its territorial integrity, it finds ways to utilize those very processes to extend its power into new domains. The illusion of power dispersal is the devil's greatest trick, utilizing the lie of a new order in which any person on the planet has equal access to the proceeds of the global economy to conceal the re-emergence of very old forms of sovereign violence in very new contexts. The anxiety posed by the figure of the Mexican migrant is temporarily papered over, allowing one to ignore the sheer chaos that continues to exist at the periphery. We pass a guest worker plan and put up a wall, allowing the migrants to continue to work in the margins of society for scant wages, providing the cheap labor that bourgeois Americans rely on to enjoy their excessive lifestyles. We pass trade deals, allowing firms to locate manufacturing overseas. The violent conditions required to make my cheap PSP games are pushed out of view, so I can continue to play them without being overwhelmed by any of my liberal guilt. Even though the vision of a global market utopia is a lie, it reveals the truth of how sovereignty and capital interact with each other.

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