As sometime fans of Slavoj Zizek it was with real disappointment that we read his latest contribution to the London Review of Books, ‘Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie.’ At his best, Zizek is a piercing and hilarious critic of contemporary ideology. This time, however, he seems to have been taken in. The piece contains more than one howler, a number of which were dissected over at Lenin’s Tomb. Zizek’s main point seems to be that current economic problems are not susceptible to orthodox Marxist analysis because the economy no longer functions by extracting ‘surplus-value’ from wage-laborers, but via the “privatisation of the general intellect.” This privatisation is represented by figures like Bill Gates, whose intellectual property rights give him “rent(s) appropriate through the privatisation of knowledge.” (Tell that to the Chinese workers at Foxconn…)
Zizek’s main piece of evidence in favor his his “post-industrial” analysis of this ‘information economy’ is that “any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.” But this is a silly argument. For one, it is Marxist economics 101 that value and price diverge. Moreover, all Zizek is really talking about is monopoly rents, which just about any economic theory can grasp, and which disproves none. Finally, any anti-sweatshop campaign can tell us that labor costs “are negligible as a proportion of” the final price of, say, a $30 Nike cap. There is little monopoly rent there.
More problematic, Zizek’s further point is that we can understand recent protests as the political activity of the “salaried bourgeoisie,” a strata of professionals and managers, whose salaries are paid by the rent-receiver, but who now feel the austerity squeeze. These are not a ‘revolutionary subject’ because they are indifferent to the plight of the real 99%, the globally jobless, the post-proletarians, who don’t even have the right to work.
In his rush to join the time-servers and declare a new era of informational capitalism, based on information and creativity on the one hand, and mass joblessness on the other, Zizek has missed the chance to make a potentially valid point in a more serious way. It is certainly true that the Occupy/Indignado phenomenon has a touch of the petty bourgeois element to it. In fact, as others like Jodi Dean have argued quite powerfully, this class element seems to be inscribed into the politics of Occupy itself: “The refusal to be represented by demands is actually the refusal or inability to make an honest assessment of the social composition of the movement so as to develop a politics in which different forces and perspectives do not simply neutralize each other.” This political analysis is available to us without having to trot out trite nostrums about the new economy.
Moreover, if there really is something new under the sun in the realm of surplus extraction, it probably has more to do with the development of debt and finance over the past thirty or forty years, not the (fake) disappearance of industrial production. The piles of debt under which so many workers sit represent yet another claim on their labor time. It is not just lower wages, but that a substantial amount of what they get paid is not theirs to control. They are paid less than what they produce, and then a further chunk of their means of subsistence is siphoned off. To be sure, debt burdens are a long-standing feature of the capitalist economy, and one should not overstate the novelty of the situation. Capitalism is an extremely dynamic economic system, and it is easy to get caught up in the dynamism and believe that everything has changed. But if we are looking for the distinctive features of surplus extraction in the present, it won’t be found in the heady, but superficial, claims that we have entered an informational age in which surplus is extracted through ‘rents.’ More promising is the attempt to grasp the role of debt and finance, not as replacing, but overlapping with the regular old wage-contract.