On the Pitfalls of State-Sponsored, Trickle-Down Economics
June 17, 2022
One of the age-old tactics of the schoolyard bully is to take their victim’s arm and force them to punch themselves repeatedly in the face while innocently asking, “why are you punching yourself?”
This is the logic that I had in mind as I read a recent email sent from a local governing body that informed every working member of a film crew in my province that our region’s filmmaking economy was currently experiencing a “bubble,” due in part to local crew charging too much for their services, and that everyone would need to lower their rates lest the bubble burst. The gesture has repercussions not only for the film industry but for capitalism and its opponents, who will carry on punching themselves in the face if they fail to understand capitalism’s libidinal fantasies, as well as its contradictions.
Blaming the Victim
A basic examination of the economic policies enacted by this governing body over the past several years—controlling, as it does, our local film industry—reveals that the bubble is not the result of workers demanding too much pay. It is, rather, the inevitable downside of a corporate reliance on magical thinking, of propagandistic cover stories, and of the casting out of anyone bold enough to point out the glaring contradictions in a system created by this governing body that could never be sustained.
There is a more appropriate message that this letter could have contained: one that thanked local workers for the labor they have provided over many years, often for meager reward. They should have been congratulated for the role they played in elevating the province to global renown as a provider of a low-cost and professional workforce. They should have been saluted for having to work for state-sponsored external multinationals at the expense of building their own local infrastructure, ultimately sacrificing their future career prospects on the altar of corporate growth. They should have shared in the prestige garnered by the local body, in national awards, and other trappings of success.
Instead, of course, they were blamed.
The cover story was just too compelling: corporate media titans had been attracted to the province by this governmental organization, including the most successful international television series of all time.
Magically, the work of this quango “proved” that state-sponsored, trickle-down economics was finally the solution to all of capitalism’s pesky contradictions.
But the antagonisms of capital had to go somewhere. Many years down the line, they are revealing themselves in our filmmaking industry in an untenable system that has always relied on the sacrifice of workers and that has necessitated the exclusion of much work of artistic merit lest it puncture the predominance of the prevailing, oppositional ideology and expose the facile nature of that which was being corporately sustained.
The policies in question—so convoluted in their form and consequence that it would require another essay to explain them—are not the fault of individuals working for these governmental bodies. They have of course had an intense impact on people working in the industry over the course of many years, but the purpose of this essay is not to recount individual grievances.
These policies are not even beneficial to the winners. In fact, the greatest “wins” achieved in this order of things—both those financial and symbolic—augur by definition the winners’ own demise. They are born of an illogical system predicated on repressed contradictions, under the weight of which they will ultimately collapse.
The very fact that I am writing and publishing this article proves that I know I can survive any reprisals: “The apocalypse isn’t coming; it has already happened.”
The truth is that the film-making industry is at the leading edge of new-fangled dynamics designed to repress the worst of capitalism’s contradictions, contradictions that will always inevitably return all the more viciously, the more they are repressed. I hope that by outlining these dynamics I will perhaps provide a morality tale on the pitfalls of capital mobility and corporate subsidies, on the ways we lull ourselves to sleep with self-congratulatory fairytales of fictitious “growth” and mystifying “prestige”.
The following is a call to awareness that those whose purported role is to protect us from the worst ravages of a chaotic economic system have long since had no choice but to become meager performers, acting out promises of “equality” and “sustainability” when, in reality, self-immolatory policies have turned some of our regions into nothing more than state-lubricated corporate colonies.
What we are dealing with is not the result of unmet personal responsibilities, but of collective, uncritical approaches to unfavorable, growing forces in our economy: most especially, capital mobility and the subsequent impotence of states in the face of corporate might.
If, in the past, it was possible to point to corrupt individuals responsible for injustice within a system, today the corruption is located within the system as such. While there will continue to be inept and self-serving people within institutions, the problem is that, when we focus on sole figures, we avoid facing up to the more difficult truth that the ineptitude and self-interest is located within the system itself.
The neoliberal notion of individualism is a problem not simply because of the difficulty involved with rooting out all the corrupt individuals but lies in the fact that the idea itself functions ideologically insofar as it allows us to sustain the fantasy that the system is effectively neutral and that some individual is responsible, rather than the truth that the system is buckling under the pressure of its own repressed contradictions.
In fourteen years of stagnation and recession since the last major crisis in capitalism, we have not had the political stomach or philosophical will to confront reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Capitalism as Libidinal Structure
A psychoanalytic approach, one that clarifies the role of ideology and self-harm as it relates to human subjectivity, can help us understand that capitalism is not just a material structure, but also a libidinal one. Unless we have purchase on this libidinal dynamic of capitalism, we have no hope of building an economy that actually works for us.
Slavoj Žižek has frequently warned that the light we envision at the end of the tunnel during these depressingly unequal and materially untenable times is not in fact the dawning of a more moderate economic moment, but rather the headlights of an oncoming train: the impact of the catastrophe in which we already find ourselves. This is similar to Nietzsche’s image of the thunder still to arrive after the lighting has hit.
Returning to bullying for a moment, the logic at work there is that the oppressor is forcing the other to hurt themselves while feigning ignorance. However, in capitalism, the bully isn’t feigning ignorance. The bully is ignorant of their own actions. They are so bought into the ideology that justifies their bullying that they do not see themselves as bullies at all.
In a system of slavery, oppression is on the surface and is plain for everyone to see. The more powerful subjugate the less powerful because they can. It isn’t difficult to see how the contradiction within this system will eventually lead to its own collapse.
Marx, as a Young Hegelian, never saw this collapse as a type of movement into some lesser contradiction, but rather into a deeper, more intractable one. In feudalism, oppression was still at work, but now it is more hidden and stable than before. It does not result in mere brute power, but is protected and promoted by ideological apparatuses such as the church and promises of Heaven after life on earth. As the old hymn goes (in a verse that was later removed),
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
But, being a good Hegelian, Marx saw that when the contradiction of feudalism finally led to its own collapse, the result was not a removal of the contradiction, but rather another deepening of it. This time in the development of capitalism.
In capitalism, we enter a world where exploitation seems to be, in principle, able to be removed entirely. While it is true that there are corrupt politicians, inept CEOs and violent states, capitalism—when functioning "correctly”—ensures that we are equal under the law and liberated to buy and sell in the free market. Instead of attacking capitalism at its weakest—as we see in today’s liberal cries for representation—Marx critiqued an ideal form of capitalism.
At its best, everything we buy and sell gets its true value, determined by the free negotiation of free and equal subjects. However, Marx noted that there was one exception to this ironclad rule. The worker was compelled in the market system to sell their labor power for less than the value it produced.
When the worker enters the marketplace, they generally have only one thing to sell: their ability to work. The one who purchases this labor always attempts to pay as little as possible to get as much surplus value as they can. No matter how well paid the worker is, they will not get the full value of that labor, nor ownership of what they make.
A fact that is structural in nature.
The illogic in capitalism arises from the need for an ideological supplement to disguise this necessary contradiction. Fantasies of "meritocracy" veil the fact that the system isn’t really meritocratic at all. Those with eyes to see what is truly going on must be silenced and stupefied, cast as beings with a form of non-dialectical subjectivity, a dynamic similar to the famous master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—one that results, for that system, in catastrophe.
What we are witnessing here is an extraction of surplus value that goes beyond the mere exploitation of workers, an extraction, though, that of course doubly impacts these workers. We are dealing with the donation of taxpayer money to corporations, attracting them to our colony above any other. We are looking at the avoidance of tax payment by corporations through capital mobility and the subsequent impotence of states to be anything other than these corporations’ whipping boys. We are experiencing the plundering of resources, the poor management of production scheduling and the repression of small businesses and independent workers unable to compete.
Small businesses are, of course, not necessarily the solution, but even Marx himself indicated that they can provide a bulwark against the worst of monopolistic excesses. They are also part of what would make a local infrastructure viable once the colonizers are inevitably forced to move on to new, unplundered, still bountiful pastures.
In the condition in question, all that exists to sustain smaller enterprises outside the wells that quench the major corporations is a paltry public purse, access to which is predicated upon ideological alignment, personal connection, and the stifling of the kind of art that would otherwise confront its audience with complication and contradiction—philosophical dynamics that confound the kind of ideologies required to lull us into submission, to capture and distract us with endless culture wars.
All of this is enacted on our behalf by tax-funded bodies who, by their own definition, exist to serve and protect us. And they are manned by individuals who even themselves aren’t—relatively speaking—enormously well paid.
This is one of the reasons why Lacan, in his discussion of the "capitalists discourse” draws the following diagram to explore how the subject relates to their capitalist masters. It can be read as a way of understand how we relate to our employers.
The boss appears to us, and to themselves, as a divided subject, just like we are. But the truth is that they are undergirded by a system of power. The typical Silicon-Valley tech boss will wear casual clothes, has a favorite dive bar, and goes by their first name, just like their employees. But that seeming equality belies the fact that they are the incarnation of a rapacious system of exploitation, disguised by an ideology that—unlike feudalism—is itself disguised.
And through state-sponsored "trickle-down" economics, the clever ruse is becoming more and more difficult to grasp. In truth, we only seem to glimpse its actual dynamics once it is too late and the repressed contradiction has returned with glaringly obvious consequence.
This is the moment we currently find ourselves in.
If the legacies of Marx and Freud diverge, it is in the fact that Freud, who had little interest in Hegel, is more of a Hegelian than Marx, who himself was Hegel’s greatest disciple. For Marx, occasionally, seems to suggest that the contradiction can eventually be overcome in Communism, while a post-Freudian political approach would lead to the more disturbing conclusion that the contradiction cannot be overcome, but must be robbed of its sting through a conscious tarrying with it.
The conclusion is more disturbing because it questions our utopic fantasies. It is these fantasies that sustain soothing—but ultimately damaging—oppositional, identitarian politics.
Capitalism and Contradiction
Unless Communism is itself grounded in a tarrying with contradiction, it is nothing more than the dream of capitalism. As Žižek argues, the strongest religious capitalist in America—when asked of his vision of Heaven—will tend to paint the image of a society much like the one Marx briefly described when he wrote of Communism.
The nub of the problem, then, with capitalism, is that it denies the inherent, ontological contradiction within it, attempting to make it contingent. These contingencies can then be fiddled with and tweaked by "state-run" and "collective" bodies, high on an ideology of capitalism against which they should—at their best—make attempts to mitigate. Instead, their work now deepens the ontological contradiction and enhances its consequences.
In the words of Todd McGowan, the c-capitalist renders contradiction into opposition. Hence, identity politics is an inherently capitalist ideology. For it takes the legitimate suffering generated by the system and displaces it into personal blame, putting it onto the shoulders of some group whom we believe we can send out into the desert to bring back peace and harmony to the community.
Today, we see countless examples of oppositional “art,” foregrounding this scapegoating process and resisting the innate power of film to handle ambivalence, contradiction, and lack.
This scapegoating mechanism is what brings us into the domain of theology, precisely because the destruction of the scapegoat mechanism is—at least according to René Girard—the central modality of Christianity.
Girard makes the surprising claim that Christianity can be a technology that exposes the religious tendency in human subjects to lunge for ideological promises that soothe us from the sense of lack with which we are endowed upon our birth into language and the dawn of our subjectivity and the experience of contradiction which always inevitably marks our world.
In the Girardian sense, capitalism is precisely religious insofar as it denies the contradiction upon which its own "forward" motion is predicated.
Similarly, in Marx’s introduction to The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he famously describes the "religious" opium that distracts us from the chains in which we are bound. He indicates that we should abandon the opium so that we can confront our chains, remove the ersatz flowers that decorate them, pull off these chains, and pick the living flower.
But opium is not so easy a drug from which to detox. Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science that after the Buddha died, his shadow was cast on a cave wall for a thousand years. We have perhaps never been so religious, precisely because we are so confidently atheist: God, Lacan tells us, is unconscious.
In our state-sponsored confidence, we deny our even deeper libidinal investment in infinite growth through the repressed contradiction of the extraction of surplus value. We cling to ideologies as we used to cling to stories of Heaven after earth.
From Consciousness to Unconscious Raising
Ideology critique, open dialogue, reason, and philosophy are all extremely important in weaning us from these belief systems. Many of these activities, though, are impossible in a censorious environment that indicates we cannot raise our voices lest our opportunity to earn a wage be taken away from us.
In any case, though, consciousness-raising can only do so much when we are dealing with religious compulsions and consequences that are so deeply and thoroughly repressed.
Psychoanalytic practices can help us confront the contradiction in subjectivity itself: the unconscious. The fact is that, as long as we speak and think, we can never be religiously whole. In denying contradiction, we become the living dead.
The best of art—particularly film—confronts us with the dialectical nature of reality, in particular the not-at-oneness of human subjectivity. It, like psychoanalytic practice, is unconscious, rather than consciousness, raising. The terrible truth is, of course, that this kind of work has had to be cast out of the kingdom in the regime of the corporate quagmire. Art is so compelling precisely because it is able to handle contradiction. It’s no wonder that artists and audiences have been left feeling sickened and bereft by much of what has been created through this policy regime. The cultural products of this pernicious system operate ideologically to prevent a confrontation with it. They are often oppositional, reductive, and identitarian, sustaining the inevitable outrage and dissatisfaction that bubbles up within us as a result of the system’s economic incompetence at the level of the imaginary, rather than allowing us to alphabetize, symbolize, and intellectually digest what is really going on.
Ultimately, though, we will have no choice but to pick the living flower; the stakes on the returned repressed of our current system are too lethal not to confront. Indeed, their lethality, the blatant brokenness of their promises, are so obvious now as to allow filmmakers like me to talk publicly about these issues knowing that we have nothing more to lose.
We must find ways—in art, in psychoanalytic practices, in open dialogue and in true, not ersatz, politics—to come to terms with the mess we have created and to tarry with the inevitable, life-giving contradictions that mark everything—rather than repress them and have them toxically return—in order to build a political economy that is more liveable, more reasonable, more hospitable and fair.