25 Jan

Žižek and the Paradoxical Privatization of… Communism

Posted By polity_admin_user

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Terrible predictions…

In 1879, the magnificently named Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff MP met with a little known German journalist called Karl Marx.
According to Francis Wheen’s biography, Sir Mountstuart, in a letter he wrote shortly after the meeting, was of the opinion that, although Marx was a nice chap:
‘It will not be he who, whether he wishes it or not, will turn the world upside down’.
As catastrophically bad predictions go, it’s up there with IBM president Thomas Watson’s confident assertion in 1943 that ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.’
It turns out that these two terrible prophecies are not altogether unconnected – as Slavoj Žižek’s new book, ‘The Relevance of the Communist Manifesto’, shows.

Why should we care about The Communist Manifesto now?

Sir Mountstuart might have been wrong about Marx’s impact. But surely Marx was not immune from the odd poor prediction himself? Hasn’t that sparse 23-page pamphlet, published into obscurity 170 years ago, been proven hopelessly wrong? Can a political manifesto so clearly falsified by subsequent historical reality be worth reading today?
The relevance of the Manifesto, argues Žižek, lies both in the ways that Marx was right… and the ways in which he was drastically wrong. His analysis begins by answering another, quite different, question….

Why are most of us still using Microsoft Windows, even though it’s so rubbish?

There are rather more than 5 computers in the world now – and millions of them use Microsoft software. Anyone who has ever used Windows will know that it’s not because Microsoft produces the highest quality software products at the lowest price. If that was that the criterion, everyone in the world would be using Linux…
So why are hundreds of millions still plugging away with Windows?

Privatizing… Communism

The answer lies, in part, in that slight pamphlet that Marx dashed off in a few weeks in 1848.
In it, he wrote, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

How?

It seems that this is exactly what shouldn’t happen. The rise of the collaborative commons and the ‘Internet of Things’, and the possibility of marginal zero costs, means that, in theory, it becomes increasingly impossible for capitalist firms to make a profit. The basis of capitalism – scarcity and private ownership – are gone. Workers even own the means of production – their own laptops.
So in a way, the Marx is vindicated: the development of new productive forces makes capitalist relations obsolete. Capitalism is producing the economic and social relations that are necessary to transcend it – it is growing, deep in its bowels, communism.
But this has gone in a direction Marx certainly didn’t predict.
That’s because, by means of creeping state control, intellectual property law, and new relations of personal domination, capitalists have managed to create the arbitrary legal conditions they need to monopolise and extract rent from this ‘general intellect’.
This is why so many of us still use Microsoft Windows. Microsoft imposed itself as a universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field: a kind of direct embodiment of the “general intellect.” Gates became the richest man in the world by appropriating the rent from allowing millions of intellectual workers to participate in the new form of the “general intellect” that he privatized – and controls.
The mega-tech magnates of 21st capitalism – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg – are taking this to new lengths. Personal contacts are privatized by Facebook, software by Microsoft, internet searches by Google.
Capitalists are still revolutionizing the process of production – it’s just that they’ve managed to do the one thing Marx thought impossible.
They’ve managed to privatize communism.

And this means one thing:
Welcome to capitalist slavery!

Slavoj Zizek is Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Read Žižek’s tantalising new book to find out what all this means for how The Communist Manifesto helps us understand freedom, ideology and revolution in the 21st century.

Order the paperback with 30% discount using code PY120 on our website. Code valid until 30 June 2019.