The Fragile Absolute

I’m currently working my way through Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? Coincidentally, The New Republic just published a scathing critique of Zizek by Adam Kirsch entitled “The Deadly Jester: Why Slavoj Zizek is the Most Despicable Philosopher in the West.” Cute title, huh?

I am not all that far into this book yet, but Zizek has lived up to his reputation so far. I’ve been particularly intrigued by his claim that “the Communist project was… not radical enough.” By which he means that Marx tried to keep the teleology of capitalism — that is, “completely unbridled productivity” — while discarding the framework in which that “mad dance of [the] unconditional spiral of productivity” can only play out. This a priori commitment to the Unlimited finds parallel in what Wendell Berry calls “Faustian economics.” In pure capitalism, there can be no limits because its “eschatology of profit” (Ben Kleis’ words) forces a perpetual quest for More. The insatiable need for more profit fuels the never-ending drive for higher productivity, greater efficiency, and newer markets (“the more profit you make, the more you want”).

Unfortunately our current recession is still not teaching the right people the right lessons. Obama, for one, still believes that unbridled growth is the key — that we can grow our way out of a recession (deficits be damned!). Zizek is absolutely right to note that “[Capital’s] solipsistic path of self-fecundation reaches its apogee in today’s meta-reflexive speculation on futures.” This meta-reflexive speculation occurs, in part, because the High Priests of Capitalism (our “new global theology,” says Ira Jackson) refuse to be beholden to limits. Herman Daly pointedly notes that our current crises are the predictable results of what happens when you prefer to trade in virtual wealth that isn’t beholden to the natural limits of real wealth (livestock, buildings, tools).

Thus, Zizek argues, capitalism is “the only possible framework of the actual material existence of a society of permanent self-enhancing productivity.” Marx’s mistake was to “assume that the object of desire (unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when it was deprived of the cause that propels it (surplus-value).” In other words, achieving that goal within another framework — communism — is inherently impossible. The very eschatology has to be questioned. I think this is part of what drives Jacques Ellul’s “ethics of non-power,” of which a key component is the blessedness of limits. I think he and Zizek are both onto something important. I buy Zizek’s argument, as I do much of Marx’s: even if we now shed dialectical materialism, Marx’s key “insight into the self-propelling vicious cycle of capitalist (re)production survives.” It doesn’t just survive, however: Marx’s critique is, in many ways, more clear-eyed today than 150 years ago.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

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