A longing common to both the wise and the foolish, to brave men and to cowards, is this longing for all those things which, when acquired, would make them happy and contented. Yet one element appears to be lacking. I do not know how it happens that nature fails to place within the hearts of men a burning desire for liberty, a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savor because of their corruption by servitude. Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired.
SLAVES BY CHOICE by Estienne de La Boetie,
Written in French around 1548
Reading Estienne de La Boetie’s treatise today one realizes that even during the early era of the emergence of Capitalism men were surprised at just how easily most humans will put themselves into servitude for pleasure, comfort, and security. He would make a study of both ancient and current forms of tyranny and see the same methods used over and over again. As he would state it: “My sole aim on this occasion is to discover how it can happen that a
vast number of individuals, of towns, cities and nations can allow one
man to tyrannize them, a man who has no power except what they
themselves give him, who could do them no harm were they not willing to
suffer harm, and who could never wrong them were they not more ready to
endure it than to stand in his way.”
Boetie was even more surprised that the tyrants of which he studied were not great and powerful beasts, but for the most part cowardly hen-pecked servants themselves:
And is he a Hercules or a Samson? No, he is a solitary weakling, and usually the
most cowardly and effeminate in the land, who is unaccustomed to the
dust of battle and has hardly even set eyes on the sand of the jousting
arena, and who has no authority to issue orders to men since he is an
abject slave of some pitiful little woman!
Lo and behold, he tells them, that they could end their servitude so easily, deny him what he wants from them. How? The Great Refusal: “Now there is no need to combat this solitary tyrant, no need to defeat him: he will be automatically defeated, provided only that the nation refuses to accept slavery. There is no need to take anything from him: simply refuse to give him anything.” And, yet, they continue in servitude. Why? – he asks. This is impossible that men, women, and children so willingly let themselves be bound to this enslavement. Yet, they do, and willingly to boot. It’s this that brings him to his knees: that humans are enjoy their own servitude. Yes, they “enjoy” it. But how, by what method did these cowardly tyrants enslave the people? Simple, he tells us,
No bird more readily succumbs to deception, no fish snatches the bait more rapidly, than entire nations succumb to the blandishments of servitude as soon as the most transparent trick is played upon them. It is incredible how rapidly
they let themselves be taken in, provided only that someone tickles them. Theaters, games, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, tableaux and other such drugs were the bait that lured ancient nations into servitude, they were the price at which freedom was sold, they were the instruments of tyranny: these were the methods, the procedures, the allurements which ancient tyrants could use to put their people to sleep, to place them under the yoke. Thus, these foolish people, finding these pastimes enjoyable, taken in by the idle pleasures which met their gaze, became accustomed to slavery: they were as gullible as little children who are induced to read by the colorful illustrations in books — but their gullibility is culpable.
Look around you my friends, open your eyes, what do you see here in America. Yes, we are those people Estienne de La Boetie’s treatise is describing. But the tyrant is no longer some visible icon, no specific man or group of men, no; but, rather it is the tyranny of the hidden despot of the world: the Capital-Market economy as an expansive and infinite debt-machine and profit-machine, an invisible tyrant who pervades the earth, the fully developed instrument of a hidden power: Capitalism. And the system of entertainment it dangles before the masses is its great instrument of tyranny. We are so mesmerized by this grand spectacle that we willing go to the house of slaughter, give up our liberties, allow ourselves to be plugged into its insidious systems of pleasure like 24/7 masochists seeking the pure jouissance of our own dark laughter through pain and pleasure.
Slavoj Žižek in book after book, from as many angles as one can think it, through the parallax vies of each aspect of high/low cultural frames we are enclosed in has documented the truth revealed in Estienne de La Boetie’s treatise. As Fabio Vighi will tell us in his On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation:
Žižek claims that the strength and originality of capitalism as an ideological apparatus – what marks it out as a historically unique phenomenon – is that it explicitly endorses its intrinsic imbalance. Its key injunction and substance can be summed up in one word: Enjoy! This means not only that capitalist ideology compels us to enjoy commodities, but also that we want capital to keep enjoying itself through us. Thus the two forms of enjoyment merge into one, making it difficult to distinguish between the two traditional categories of Hegelo-Marxist dialectics, namely “masters” and “slaves”. (Continuum 2012, p. 17)
This sense that both masters and slaves have become indistinguishable, even if the economics of the two classes remain imbalanced, is the sign of capitalism at its most insidious: a system in which the master/slave dichotomy includes both classes in its movement of enslavement by pure jouissance: it keeps the cycle of servitude going. Our fascination with the rich and famous, Hollywood, the elite and their fashions; our immersion in sports – Football, Baseball, Basketball, etc.; our love of boating, fishing BBQ, drinking, partying, alcohol, drugs; our love of travel – the exotic worlds of the other; our immersion in video games: violent MMOs, First-Person shooters, Strategy, etc.; our enjoyment of being plugged into music, news, fashion through the array of devices that keep us connected in an Onlife (Floridi) world 24/7. All these things that keep us entranced, entrained to the rhythms of Capital, to the power of its flows and blockages. All the things that allow us to enjoy our enslavement through a joyful-pain or painful-enjoyment, our jouissance!
To update I’ll only replace a few words in the passage below:
The modern worker in McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or any number of service industry jobs are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends. But the courtiers of the various mediatainment systems (News anchors, journalists, academics, politicians, policy makers, bureaucracies, etc.), the cognitariat or knowledge workers (economists, engineers, scientists, public intellectuals, researchers, etc.) of a new capitalism that ingratiate themselves to its higher echelons on Wall-Street(Financiers, Bankers, etc.) and beg favors of them, and the great tyrant – the Capital-Market itself, seeing this, requires them not just to do what is asked but to think the way it wants them to and, often, to anticipate its desires. It is not enough that these people obey this thing, they must also please it in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive themselves to the grave in carrying out its business; its pleasure must be their pleasure, its taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast off their natural disposition, they must hang on its (the Market’s) every word (flash trades, electronic walls of light, intelligence algorithms in speed-space (Virilio)), its tone of voice, its gestures, its expressions (semiotic capitalism: the signs of the master); their every faculty must be alert to catch its wishes and to discern its thoughts. Is that a happy existence? Can that be called living?
(Original passage: The farm laborer and the artisan are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends. But the courtiers
of a tyrant ingratiate themselves with him and beg favors of him, and
the tyrant, seeing this, requires them not just to do what he says but
to think the way he wants them to and, often, to anticipate his desires.
It is not enough that these people obey him, they must also please him
in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive
themselves to the grave in carrying out his business; his pleasure must
be their pleasure, his taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast
off their natural disposition, they must hang on his every word, his
tone of voice, his gestures, his expression; their every faculty must be
alert to catch his wishes and to discern his thoughts. Is that a happy
existence? Can that be called living?)
One sees how the notion of sovereignty, of tyranny, of Kings, etc, still remains among us; how it has only been formalized, abstracted out of its human element, codified and decoded from its flesh and blood into the abstract machine of the Market itself. We treat the Market as if it were a ‘person’, we treat corporations as if they were persons. We allow ourselves to be enslaved to the old systems of tyranny in the name of democracy. We are not now and have never been in a democracy. The United States is a Republic: a republic is a form of government in which power resides in elected individuals representing the citizen body and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law. In modern times, the definition of a republic is commonly limited to a government which excludes a monarch. Yet, even now we must admit that the people, the poor, the destitute, and above all the middle-classes were excluded from the founders meetings that formulated this nation based as it is not on democracy but on Federalism:
In the United States, federalism originally referred to belief in a stronger central government. When the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, the Federalist Party supported a stronger central government, while “Anti-Federalists” wanted a weaker central government. This is very different from the modern usage of “federalism” in Europe and the United States. The distinction stems from the fact that “federalism” is situated in the middle of the political spectrum between a confederacy and a unitary state. The U.S. Constitution was written as a reaction to the Articles of Confederation, under which the United States was a loose confederation with a weak central government.
The Articles were replaced with the United States Constitution but Articles Four, Five and Six entrench concepts of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments and of the states in relationship to the federal government.
One of the secrets of capitalism and its elites has been the effective staging or framing of the spectacle of this Republic Federalism. Allowing the conflicts and tensions of the Left and Right to become entertainment systems, with the actors (politicians, Moghuls, media, Hollywood assemblage, Musicians, etc.) visibly playing out the contradictions in capital as a staged event, a hyperevent of a reality that appears real rather than being real. This appearance of the appearance of reality in media keeps us attuned to the lies that pass us by in the real truth of our lived lives. Even Reality TV and the current craze for Dancing with Stars, Bachelorette, Big Brother series, America Idol etc. all these exposures of supposed real people acting as themselves in the spectacle are so much illusion of the real, pacifying spectacles of the real. All this is old hat to media critics from the Situationists to postmoderns like Buadrillard, Eco, etc. Yet, we still accept it, allow it to go on. Buy into this charade willingly. Continue to subsist in a world that is slowly melting before our eyes as if it will be alright, as if the leaders, the elites will find a way out of this quagmire: if only we agree to their plans of Austerity, ascetic feudalism and taxation, buy into the need to give them more money, more power… they’ll fix it, they’ll bring us happiness and security, jobs and lives filled with joy. Sorry to have to tell you this: no, they will not. It’s a lie, always has been a lie, and will never not be a lie… we sold ourselves to a system of jouissance that promised us the pursuit of liberty, happiness, justice etc. blah blah blah… that has never, and will never give it to us. Instead it sucks us dry like vampires, and feeds on our sweat and blood like wolves in a bad dream.
But Žižek tells us not to worry, not to fret too much, this is all as it should be, that even Marx in Volume 3 of Das Capital would remind us as much:
This is why we should remain faithful to Marx’s fundamental insight: unbridled capitalist expansion encounters its limit not in an external factor – the available resources, etc. – but in itself: the limit of capitalism is absolutely intrinsic to it – or, as Marx himself puts it: the limit of capitalism is capital itself. (Vighi, p. 20)
Vighi will tell us this should not be read in some progressive or evolutionary way in the sense that capitalism will move beyond itself and be replaced by other productive forces, etc.; no, this is a misreading of Marx. Instead what is meant is the notion that in our current financial capitalism there are certain contradictions that it can no longer indefinitely reproduce and continue in its present form. As Vighi will remind us the four antagonism of our era are: ecological catastrophes; the problem private property in a digital economy (property rights); biogenetic manipulation (medical, agribusiness, etc.); and, the problem of exclusion (slums, disaffected workers, unemployed, ultra-poor: the excluded…etc.). (p. 20)
For Žižek the only reason for the existence of such a term as ‘communism’ today is simple: “the principle task of the twenty-first century is to politicize – organize and discipline – the ‘destructured masses’ of slum-dwellers’. Only this task today justifies the use of the term communism” (Vighi, p. 21) The marginal, the disaffected, the excluded are the Lacanian lost object in the world today, the link that capital cannot include within its dynamic logic of excess value being recaptured. Instead it merely makes this exclusion invisible within its spectacle, displaces it from the arena of its enslavement to jouissance. It allows it to fester at the margins like a jungle beast biding its time. This sense of the inclusion-exclusion dynamic and dialectic drives Žižek’s central critique of capitalism as have more priority than the other three combined.
Only issue we have with this is Marx himself. It is never the poor, however, who make revolutions, as understood by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who disdained the revolutionary potential of the Lumpenproletariat. Marx and Engels correctly saw the Lumpenproletariat as providing the primary fodder for the goons, militias, and thugs employed by a discredited regime to hold on to power through violence. “The ‘dangerous class,’ the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”2
James Davies, in his essay “Toward a Theory of Revolution,” names the “intolerable gap between what people want and what they get” as the most important component of revolt. “The rapidly widening gap between expectations and gratifications portends revolution,” writes Davies. “The most common case for this widening gap of individual dissatisfactions is economic or social dislocation that makes the affected individual generally tense, generally frustrated. That is, the greatest portion of people who join a revolution are preoccupied with tensions related to the failure to gratify the physical (economic) needs and the needs of stable interpersonal (social) relationships.”(Hedges, pp. 3-4)
It’s this sense that the jouissance system itself is breaking down, the mediatainment empire is no longer satisfying its consumers, and is working overtime to counter this state of affairs.
However, like Marx, Engels, and Brinton, Davies adds that “socioeconomically deprived poor people are unlikely to make a successful rebellion, a revolution, by themselves.” It is rather a disenfranchised middle class and alienated members of the ruling class who orchestrate and lead a revolt. “Without the support of disaffected bourgeoisie, disaffected nobles, and disaffected intellectuals, the French Revolution might have been some kind of grand, episodic upheaval,” he notes. (Hedges, p. 4)
Will this not be true in the EU, America, or any other place on the real world? Today this key component of revolution— the gap between what people want, and indeed expect, and what they get— is being played out in the United States and many states in Europe during a new age of mounting scarcity, declining wages, joblessness, government-imposed “austerity” measures, and assaults on civil liberties. Let us be rich, the elites say, and you will share in the spoils. All you have to do is work hard, obey the rules, and believe in yourself. This myth is disseminated across the political spectrum. It is the essential message peddled by everyone from Oprah and the entertainment industry to the Christian Right and positive psychologists. But this promise, as the masses of underemployed and unemployed are discovering, is a fiction. (Hedges, p. 6)
It was Louis Auguste Blanqui who first used the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat.” 36 Blanqui’s call for a small, conspiratorial group to seize power in the name of the working class was a tactic that would be successfully employed by Lenin, who then set out to dismantle the autonomous soviets and workers’ committees. Lenin, with a handful of subordinates, carried out what became, in essence, a right-wing counterrevolution that introduced a system of repressive, centralized state capitalism and state terror. Marx never embraced Blanqui’s or Lenin’s call for a small group of disciplined revolutionaries to seize power. Marx hoped that a broad-based mass movement of industrial workers like the Chartists would organize to overthrow the capitalist order and usher in communism. The question of how to carry out a successful revolution, which occupied much of Lenin’s thought, brings with it the question of whether the ruthless tactics and a small, disciplined class of professional revolutionaries that make a revolution possible make an open society impossible. (Hedges, p. 14)
As Jehu recently said in his post Why must the organization of the proletarians be global? –
So long as the needs of production consume the greater portion of the time of individuals, society is condemned to poverty and the despotism. This poverty is not simply (or even primarily) the lack of means to satisfy wants, but the lack of opportunity for self-activity and self-development. Only when directly social production appears on the stage, does it become possible for the material needs of production to be so reduced that self-activity and self-development become ends in themselves. The measure of this state of society is the free disposable time enjoyed by all members of society.
A global association of the producers, therefore, sets as its immediate aim the constant expansion of free disposable time away from labor. But the constant expansion of free disposable time is nothing but the abolition of labor, the working class itself and classes generally.
It’s this vision of the global open society beyond the labor of enslavement that lies hidden below the surface of the old totalitarianisms, at the core of their initial investment in Marxian thought that interests us. This sense of what Jehu calls the “abolition of labor, the working class itself and classes generally”. This movement of the world toward a creative joyous existence beyond the serfdom of a capitalist economy. This is not an idealist utopia either. It’s something else altogether. Why was it allowed to be hijacked by power? Why do people continue to allow themselves to be enslaved to tyrannical systems of governance, control, obedience: self-inflicted chains – to the party, market, entertainment … blah blah blah? Is it perhaps desire or death – or the pleasure-pain of their inversion and reduplication within the world we live in? – their jouissance?
And, most of all, do we follow the path of Freud-Lacan-Marx or the Marxian Schzoanalysis of Deleuze-Guattari? Oedipus or Anti-Oedipus? Representation or Non-Representation? Dialectic or Non-Dialectic materialism? Or do we return to Marx himself and look at his work with fresh eyes?
I’ll continue this line of thought in another post…
1. Fabio Vighi. On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010)
2. Hedges, Chris (2015-05-12). Wages of Rebellion (pp. 2-3). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.