I’d Prefer Not To

Slavoj Žižek’s Bartleby Politics and the Economic Crisis | The Exception Magazine

The second and most popular response to the current crisis is to blame it on the greed of the bankers and financial speculators (‘looting stars’), and to call for a more moral form of capitalism that puts an end to ‘casino banking […] murdering honest-to-God commercial banking’ and ensures ‘that capitalism will be arranged more fairly in future’. Understandable as it is, to blame rapacious CEOs as the central causal agent of the current dilemma is politically misleading and factually wrong.

Indeed, the vast majority of “greedy” managers have acted in conformity with the imperatives of the system, insofar as their primary responsibility within this system is neither to serve their customers, nor to look after the common good, but to make profit (and enough of it to stay afloat and keep their shareholders happy). Far from being a pathological preference of the individual entrepreneur, ‘the production of surplus-value, or the making of profits, is the absolute law of this mode of production’. That the bankers dealt with “toxic credits”, rather than with “honest-to-God” products, did not matter so long as the going was good. On the contrary, their financial wizardry triggered waves of rapture while the social standing of hedge-fund managers reached staggering heights.

Now that things have turned sour, we ought to abstain from the ubiquitous lament over the usual suspects – greedy managers, incompetent government, the idle rich –, step back for a moment – ‘don’t just do something, talk!’, as Žižek puts it – and turn to the elementary question why the banks were able to act so irresponsibly in the first place, knowingly dealing with “toxic assets” from subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations to credit default swaps and other “derivatives.” In fact, why they had to act like this.

I added the bold. ‘Bartleby politics’ sounds a bit gimmicky for my tastes, but the article is a useful corrective to getting hung up on golden circles, politicians showing manly leadership, multi-million pound pension pots for senior executives, and so on.

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February 2009

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