Post-Debate - Happiness: Capitalism Versus Marxism

Battle for a New Horizon

Battle for a New Horizon

In my pre-debate meditation on the possible points of connection between Žižek and Peterson I emphasized four major dimensions that I thought could be productive for our collective conversation. These dimensions included:

  • (1) End of Neoliberal Pleasure Principle

  • (2) Affirmation of Intense Psychical Vicissitudes

  • (3) New Discourse on Individual-Collective

  • (4) Integrate Historical Darkness

Thinking a New Horizon

Thinking a New Horizon

I think that throughout the dialogue between Žižek-Peterson there was a broad consensus on these major themes and I think going into depth with this consensus can help our culture to articulate a new horizon for our historical becoming.

Let’s start with (1) End of Neoliberal Pleasure Principle:

In our current society we are all the time aligning our self-action and goals in life with simple pleasures. Whether it is the “Tinderization” of our dating lives, the abundance of low quality food and drink, the comforts of ubiquitous mindless entertainment, or any other forms of immediate gratification that comes without work, we are immersing our self in little “bubbles of happiness”.

Of course, these “bubbles of happiness” come at a huge cost. The first cost is enslavement to actual work functions that merely serve the excesses of capitalist reproduction at the expense of real humanist value. The second cost is an inability to really appreciate the meaning that comes from self-posited struggle and challenge.

To this point both Žižek and Peterson agree that a truly meaningful life can only come if one determines one self in relationship to a “Cause” above pleasure. In this model pleasure or happiness will come as a by-product, but not as directly aiming for this as a central goal. When one determines one self in relationship to a higher “Cause” above pleasure one is willingly assuming a responsibility for a tension or challenge that will prove difficult and possibly even painful. However, this difficult and painful path is the only path of meaning, and real self-definition.

To connect to this point such a pathway is a form of self-responsibility that allows us to overcome internal and unconscious pathological prohibitions. In the old traditional world we had “Master Figures” (embodying the moral superego) to tell us what to do in relation to a “Cause” which transcended pleasure. Now such “Master Figures” (embodying the moral superego) are negated. However, this negation did not open up a world of free subject’s enjoying their simple pleasures (as presupposed by 1960s counter-culture), but instead a world of self-enslaved subject’s who become frozen or static in relation to internal and unconscious pathological prohibitions coming only from their own head. Such a world can only be transcended through self-responsibility (not more rights), from becoming aligned with the inhuman Master (Death).

In the end what is at stake by ending the neoliberal pleasure principle is not only the negation of simple pleasures and alignment with capitalist exchange, but also an opening into real love. Real love is not contained by a little safe bubble of pleasure. Real love is uncontainable, real love is radical, real love is riding the crazy ups and downs that come with deep passionate commitment to something greater than one self. From this perspective we should see the end of the neoliberal pleasure principle as connected to the terrifying opening into the abyss of love where the absolute is self-evident.

Now onto (2) Affirm Intense Psychical Vicissitudes:

We may then say that the neoliberal pleasure principle is a shield (possibly self-imposed) guarding us from the immanent real of an intense, unpredictable, and chaotic becoming. Human beings in the end are free (despite all of the academic papers that would posture in the negative). However, this freedom, as known by some of the greatest 19th and 20th century philosophers, is not a romantic freedom where we get whatever we want. Our freedom is in the real of a terror or fear. The human subject is so radically free that we often do whatever we can to hide this fact from our self. What will we do with our freedom? It is a burden that we must carry into the future: we have no choice but to be free.

The key to understanding this immanent terrifying freedom is by reflecting on the strange nature of our “instincts”. In the biological world organisms are regulated by instincts (genetic programmings from natural selection). However, in the human world, all of our primordial instincts become retroactively channelled through the symbolic order of our language and thus “gain” a strange and paradoxical metaphysical dimension. Whether it is related to eating, sex, home building, or socialising, humans do not simply engage in such acts through the lens of genetic programming, but rather through the lens of a transcendent irrational passion. We develop complex rituals for our eating, sex, home-making, social life, and true freedom is not deconstructing this dimension, but developing a full responsibility and ownership of this dimension.

The big problem we may seem to have here is in relation to happiness. In all of our traditional rituals there was an explicit grounding of these forms in divinity. Divinity was often conceived (at least in the West) as a singular unified all-knowing entity. Now that we no longer have such a belief we deconstruct the metaphysics of our basic instinctual drives without knowing that they continue to move independent of our self-conscious negation. Towards addressing this problem we have to affirm that the fall means that we are separated, fundamentally. We are not on some climb back up to a unified God, we are separated, and so is God. This could be one of the reasons why happiness or pleasure as a direct goal does not work, we can only reach true happiness and pleasure indirectly by affirming a Cause beyond it which necessitates a struggle, a tension (a Fall).

From this we can work towards (3) New Discourse on Individual-Collective:

One of the central tensions in all of this mess is failing to articulate a discourse in regards to the individual and the collective. The pre-modern world was grounded in the collective, the modern world is grounded in the individual (to roughly simplify). Any attempt to develop a large-scale collectivist ideology, like communism, ended in absolute tragedy. The best solutions to this tension have tended to be “bottom-up” solutions that emphasise the individual and then work up from this foundation. However, there are paradoxes when we operate in this framework because there are serious collective problems that require real attention and organising principles.

One “symptom” of this situation is political correctness. In our contemporary social universe this manifests in a postmodern individualist ideology which reactively and hyper-moralistically categorizes everything in terms of identity categories. Of course “white cis males” are the “evil” force in this structure and various other identities are situated in opposition to this “heteronormative” category. The ultimate paradox of this structure is that it is often times middle class or upper middle class western white people who most vocally embody this perspective on the world. It could be that in a failure to confront serious collective issues (economics, ecology, etc.), ideology has condensed around surface level identitarian issues as an impotent reaction.

What seems to be structuring the tension on a more fundamental level is the battle between “leftist equality” and “rightest hierarchy”. In simplistic terms the extremist left emphasises absolute equality where all identity categories need to be equally represented in all sectors. In simplistic terms the extremist right emphasises absolute hierarchies where all traditional orders should be safe-guarded and protected from de/re-construction. The synthesis of this binary opposition can be found in a discourse which emphasises equality of access and opportunity; and also a discourse which emphasises dynamical spatial hierarchies that emerge from the expression of different potentiality.

What prevents this vision from becoming a reality is the large-scale regulation of capitalism. Capitalism as a universal international force transforms all traditional cultures (Protestant or otherwise) and subsumes all activity into a commodified market activity. This is a tragedy for the hallmarks of leftist thinking, universal health and education, for example. This is also a tragedy for large-scale ecological and social problems which have no resolution when profit is the sole motive for real action. In this sense, solving the problem of a collectivist narrative which does not infringe individual right is a problem of the commons: how to create a common world that is equal access and opportunity, and also open to expression of radically different potentials, while at the same time ensuring the activity of our socioeconomic structure does not destroy our planetary foundations?

Talk about a deadlock, and one that will require (4) Integrating Historical Darkness-Shadows:

In order to approach this problem we have to confront what lies beneath the narratives we tell our self about what we are and what we do: our actual action. There is most probably a gap or a distance in the large majority of people between what we say we do and what we actually do. Or at least there is a gap or a distance in the narrative we emphasise and choose to highlight and the uncomfortable real darkness that gets left out of our self-narratives. In this sense we need to work on a cognitive mapping process that includes the real of our darkness. Our narratives cannot be masks of the real, but must be tools to confront the real as a fundamental negativity. Otherwise the negativity will explode to the surface when certain social stressors reach a breaking point.

The ultimate philosophical point here is that we should not underestimate the force of evil. Of course we should strive to the good and we should develop narratives that help us reach the highest good we can: individual, familial, community, international and planetary (and across time as well). However, evil is a very potent force and always underlying any potential for good action. In fact, goodness is often a reaction to a horrible evilness. People are usually not good for goodness in-itself. People are usually good out of a fear of evil and its ubiquitous threat. Here is the location of politics and religion proper, the battle to maintain our goodness in the face of an irrational evil power that structures our species. Here we should definitely be skeptical of good sounding narratives, and pay close attention to actions.

This brings us to the climax of this network of issues: Marxism. The central problem with Marxism is its teleological nature. The Marxist knows the ultimate goal but does not have it and does not know how to reach it even if s/he thinks that s/he does know how to reach it. This makes the Marxist doctrine dangerous because the ends (World Communism) will always justify the means. According to Marxism the history of our species is regulated by laws that we know and by actions that are self-transparent. Any psychoanalytically informed thinker knows this to be false. This is why returning to Hegel over Marx is so important for today. In Hegel’s philosophy the truth of action is always in its constitutive failure. When we act, we don’t know what we are doing. History is not teleologically determined. That is, paradoxically, the meaning of absolute knowing.

Where do we go from here?

I have long claimed that a discussion between Žižek and Peterson would lead to a synthetic good for our society. In this article I have tried to make the claim that from this conversation there were some central points that help us orient towards a new horizon. This horizon is to go beyond pleasure for a Cause, to enjoy the struggle-tension-vicissitudes of real becoming, to think the dimension of common social discourse which synthesises equality and hierarchy, and to integrate the historical darkness which represents the real negativity of our existence. This not a light and happy horizon. This is not an easy pill to swallow. But it is a real pill.