Infinite Demands

While heading to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, I read a very amusing essay by Slavoj Žižek on resistance to the hegemony of global capitalism and liberal democracy. Žižek winds up praising the masculinist clownofascist Hugo Chávez for reviving “democratic centralism,” which he evidently believes to be a new form of politics. But that’s not what I found most interesting. Žižek focuses most of his enmity on Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding, a book that sums up a familiar political persuasion.

For Critchley, the liberal-democratic state is here to stay. Attempts to abolish the state failed miserably; consequently, the new politics has to be located at a distance from it: anti-war movements, ecological organisations, groups protesting against racist or sexist abuses, and other forms of local self-organisation. It must be a politics of resistance to the state, of bombarding the state with impossible demands, of denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms. The main argument for conducting the politics of resistance at a distance from the state hinges on the ethical dimension of the ‘infinitely demanding’ call for justice: no state can heed this call, since its ultimate goal is the ‘real-political’ one of ensuring its own reproduction (its economic growth, public safety, etc).

Consider the endless denunciations of mortgage lenders we’ve seen in recent months, which posit that lenders are, in Bob Herbert’s words, “a swarm of swindlers.” (It’s interesting to imagine the role a Bob Herbert might play in contemporary Venezuela.) It’s only very rarely that the “mortgage crisis” is placed in context

Subprime loans are typically made to borrowers with credit histories that the mortgage industry considers less than prime. They can carry higher interest rates than traditional loans or adjustable rates that can make the mortgage difficult to repay once the interest rate resets. They can also carry higher fees and prepayment penalties and thus are at a high risk for foreclosure.

If anything, the mortgage industry has become less racist and more willing to give borrowers second and third chances. This is best described as a democratization of home finance, driven at least in part by well-intentioned government regulations.

And now government is being blamed for the fact that not all borrowers have been fully capable of keeping up with their payments. The loans were thus predatory. I have no doubt that some loans were pushed in misleading ways, and this merits serious attention. But when I read Herbert, I have to wonder if making any distinction between borrowers with flawless credit histories and those with less-than-flawless credit histories is in fact “predatory.” Is everyone entitled to the same (low) interest rates and fees and penalties?

This is one of those “infinite demands” that simply can’t be fulfilled in a market economy. Lenders need to make distinctions of some kind to make a profit. So perhaps the deeper game is to delegitimate any profit-making activity, or rather to only allow profit-making activities embraced by the creative class. These activities, after all, can’t be said to victimize the poor. The poor, in contrast, must take part in a parallel economy controlled by the state: Wal-Marts are not permitted, but overpriced and politically-connected mom-and-pops are; rental housing is either directly owned by or essentially controlled by the state, with all the attendant consequences; “private” homes are basically given to well-placed “buyers” on favorable terms; civil service jobs are created to replace private-sector jobs that are destroyed or driven away.

So naturally the “creative class economy,” which remains mostly free, flourishes. After all, the exploitation that does go on doesn’t tug at the heartstrings. The parallel economy, meanwhile, is profoundly dysfunctional. A thriving black economy soaks up all the entrepreneurial energy of the poor, driving high crime and incarceration rates. While the creative class feels pretty bad about all this, even its smartest members are incapable of seeing how they are implicated: the fact that many of our inner cities are divided between perfumed corridors of creative professionals and the very poor is somehow Their Fault.

Žižek, surprisingly enough, puts it best.

The ambiguity of Critchley’s position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way? Why limit oneself to a politics which, as Critchley puts it, ‘calls the state into question and calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect’?

These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles.

We face a choice between a society built on bottom-up entrepreneurship, in which some are allowed to fail and many more are allowed to thrive, and the status quo of hollowed-out cities, extreme inequality of skills and ambition, and steady infantilization. The politics of infinite demands, which appears to be thoroughly radical, is in fact about the conscience, and the narcissism, of the creative class. Its antipaternalism (“How dare you talk about morality/personal responsibility/marriage/fatherhood?”) is closely tied to its condescension (apparently every borrower is a victim who couldn’t possibly know any better). In their attempts to build an economy that lives up to their moral vision, the creative class radicals see themselves as the allies of the poor and vulnerable. But with friends like these …