Willing slaves?

I’m not a great fan of Melanie Phillips but she did make one good point on Question Time last week (26 Jan).  There was a question about the large salaries and bonuses being paid to corporate bosses, particularly in the light of the bonus that had just been paid to Stephen Hester, CEO of RBS (the bank we own), which was a little under £1m.  Although Phillips thought that this particular payout was excessive, she cautioned against making bankers scapegoats.  She pointed out that there were three groups of people who were culpable with regards to the financial crisis of 2008 (which looks set to continue until God knows when): the bankers, the politicians, and all those people who wanted credit and easy money, i.e. everyone.

She has got a point. It takes two (or rather three in this case) to create a banking crisis, and although it’s easy to blame the bankers, and almost as easy to blame the politicians (who seem to have a knack of ending up in Faustian pacts with all sorts of unsavoury characters), it’s perhaps less easy to take a closer look at ourselves and ask: where do we fit into all this?

Of course, this might seem a bit unfair.  After all, weren’t we all sold the dream of easy money, cheap mortgages, no more boom and bust and so on by the financiers and the politicians?  In other words, weren’t we all being taken for a ride?  Does this mean we are all victims?  And that the capitalists and their political servants are the perpetrators?  In other words, aren’t we just all victims of a consumer culture in which you can buy anything, a whole lifestyle, a whole identity even?  And capitalism has been only too willing to supply this culture, to nurture (and some would argue to create) our desires, our dreams and then to help us realise them – only for us to find we are still unsatisfied, that there is always something else…..

I’m sure there is a lot of truth in this….but do we have to be victims?  Do we have to be enslaved by capitalism?   Some might argue that everyone is now a victim, a slave, including capitalists and politicians.  After all, aren’t they slaves to their desire for money and power?  And isn’t it the case that capitalism – global, finance capitalism, is now so complex, so abstract, that it’s impossible to talk about individual capitalists as the driving force of capital.  The idea of the individual entrepreneur, the dynamic business man or woman, the charismatic CEO, is a nice fantasy, but in reality these individuals are all very much tied into the systems and structures that give them life and dynamism in the first place.

Lacan once said ‘we are all proletarians now’.  What he meant by this is that in a capitalist discourse there is no longer a relation between subjects – the classic one being the Hegelian master-slave dialectic (Declercq has written a very interesting paper on this1).  Rather, it is a relation between subjects and objects – and in fact, it’s the object that is in the position of the agent, not the subject.  So in this sense perhaps we are all enslaved – to capital-ism, rather than to capital-ists.   But you could equally say we are enslaved to our desires, to our lack, which is what, in our (post)modern age, capital-ism exploits.   This is not a defence of capitalism or of bankers being paid large bonuses for simply (but not always) doing their job.  Rather it is to suggest that perhaps we need to take a closer look at the role we all play in propping up capitalism, the consumer culture, rather than getting angry that some people are making money out of it.

  1. Declercq, F. (2006) Lacan on the Capitalist Discourse: its Consequences for Libidinal Enjoyment and Social Bonds. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, (11), p.pp.74-83. []