It’s the concentration, stupid!

Harper’s Magazine has an interesting interview with the Marxist political theorist Slavoj Ziizek.  There Ziizek makes what I think are some critical mistakes regarding the OWS movement. Ziizek labels criticism focusing on concentration and cooruption in the financial system as what he calls the “fascist trap”. In effect drawing strong lessons from the Anti-Semitism of Great Depression era fascism to conclude that curent critiques of the financialization of the economy could likely veer off in the same dangerous direction.
Now, any Anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of the OWSM, or any where else, should be condemned in the strongest terms, as should the overly simplistic demonization of capitalist generally. But that doesn’t imply that we should not be able to speak about the issue of financial and economic concentration, and its overall impact on both politics and the economy. Someone suggesting that perhaps the system would be more robust if the big banks were forced to be smaller, as the conservative Niall Ferguson has done, or that the revolving doorbetween Washington, Wall Street, and Academeia should be at least partially closed should not be bundled up with blind belivers in conspiracy theories or truly fascist maniacs. It is by openly talking about these issues, rather than avoiding them, that Anti-Semitism or any other idiotic simplificaction of the complex world in which we live can be cut off at the root.
Perhaps, as the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen points out in today’s NWT the real distinction that should be made is that between real capitalist, such as Apple, with crony capitalist such as agribusiness,with the real reform of the system being to unlock the grip of the former. Zizek does not want the OWS movement to draw a clear line between Wall Street and Main Street, but from my vantage point at least, the 99%ers, with their critique of capitalism generally, the way they have adopted communist artistic motifs, and their lumping together of the guy who owns the local car wash with multi-billion dollar companies, threatens to drive the so called petit-bourgeois, into the hands of it not reactionaries then at the very least of those uninterested in any systematic reforms. Zizek’s obstiancy in holding on the the communist label, to me at least, seems to show a lack of seriousness about getting the middle class behind any legitimate agenda of financial and economic reform. (Zizek is spot-on with one point, though. What we need is a good understanding of why communism, and I might add all other utopian movements, have ended as either monstrosity or farce.)
But, for now, what if concentration (bigness) and not capitalism itself is the real problem?
The picture above was produced by James Glattfelder et al  and shows the 1318 companies that dominate the global economy.  Studies by other complex systems theorists have also shown the vulnerabilities of complex systems with a high degree of concentration for systemic crises and collapse. The problem of concentration is what we really should be talking about, but what does Zizek suggest the OWSM and other critics of the current system do?
Zizek hopes the OWSM will focus on a clear goal such as universal health care. With that example he shows himself to be an old school statist, with the ultimate task of the OWSM to focus itself on asserting control over the state for the purpose of social justice. Social justice is a great end in itself,  but I think he misses what are the most amazing aspects of this movement which are 1) Its embodiment of participatory democracy, 2) The idea that networked groups can provide not just governance but social goods themselves, 3) Their international aspect, 4) Their critique of the current global economy as a system. What the OWSM shares with many “main-steam” Americans is not a desire for a more active state, but an innate suspicion of the state, and the perception that the system is not only rigged, but doesn’t really work- at least not for the majority. The reason the majority feel the system is broken is because of real-world concerns over unemployment and stagnant or falling living standards.
The question is whether or not falling living standards can be explained in terms of wealth concentration. That will be the subject of my next post…
Rick Searle
November, 13, 2011