The Liberal Utopia II: The Market Mechanism for the Race of Devils

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One of the "proofs" of my practice of fetishist disavowal is the alleged "perverse paradox" of me rejecting utopias and then nonetheless claiming that today "it is more important than ever to hold this utopian place of the global alternative open"(142) - as if I did not repeatedly elaborate different meanings of utopia: utopia as simple imaginary impossibility (the utopia of a perfected harmonious social order without antagonisms, the consumerist utopia of today's capitalism), and utopia in the more radical sense of enacting what, within the framework of the existing social relations, appears as "impossible" - this second utopia is "a-topic" only with regard to these relations. Utopia as simple imaginary impossibility (the utopia of a perfected harmonious social order without antagonisms, the consumerist utopia of today's capitalism), is not utopia in the more radical sense of enacting what, within the framework of the existing social relations, appears as "impossible" - this second utopia is "a-topic" only with regard to these relations.

The core of a Lacanian notion of utopia is: a vision of desire functioning without objet a and its twists and loops. It is utopian not only to think that one can reach the unencumbered full "incestuous" jouissance; it is no less utopian to think that one can renounce/sacrifice jouissance without this renunciation generating its own surplus-jouissance. In this sense, Marx's "scientific Socialism" itself has a clear utopian core. Marx perceived how capitalism unleashed the breath-taking dynamics of self-enhancing productivity - see his fascinated descriptions of how, in capitalism, "all things solid melt into thin air," of how capitalism is the greatest revolutionizer in the entire history of humanity; on the other hand, he also clearly perceived how this capitalist dynamics is propelled by its own inner obstacle or antagonism - the ultimate limit of capitalism (of the capitalist self-propelling productivity) is the Capital itself, i.e. the capitalist incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate flight forward to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction. Marx's fundamental mistake was to conclude, from these insights, that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible, an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and effectively fully release the potential of the self-increasing spiral of productivity which, in capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle/contradiction, is again and again thwarted by socially destructive economic crises. In short, what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the "condition of impossibility" of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its "condition of possibility": if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism - if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates... (Therein would reside a possible Lacanian critique of Marx, focusing on the ambiguous overlapping between surplus-value and surplus-jouissance). - Furthermore, utopian is not only the conservative dream of regaining some idealized Past before the Fall; no less utopian is the liberal-pragmatic idea that one can solve problems gradually, one by one. John Caputo recently wrote:

I would be perfectly happy if the far left politicians in the United States were able to reform the system by providing universal health care, effectively redistributing wealth more equitably with a revised IRS code, effectively restricting campaign financing, enfranchising all voters, treating migrant workers humanely, and effecting a multilateral foreign policy that would integrate American power within the international community, etc., i.e., intervene upon capitalism by means of serious and far-reaching reforms. /.../ If after doing all that Badiou and Zizek complained that some Monster called Capital still stalks us, I would be inclined to greet that Monster with a yawn. [1]

The problem here is not Caputo's conclusion: if one can achieve all that within capitalism, why not remain there. The problem is the underlying "utopian" premise that it is possible to achieve all that within the coordinates of the present global capitalism. What if the particular malfunctionings of capitalism enumerated by Caputo are not only accidental disturbances but structurally necessary? What if Caputo's dream is a dream of universality (the universal capitalist order) without its symptoms, without its critical points in which its "repressed truth" articulates itself?

So, after denouncing all the "usual suspects" for utopias, perhaps, the time has come to focus on the liberal utopia itself. For liberalism, at least in its radical form, the wish to submit people to an ethical ideal that we hold for universal is "the crime which contains all crimes," the mother of all crimes - it amounts to the brutal imposition of one's own view onto others, the cause of civil disorder. Which is why, if one wants to establish civil peace and tolerance, the first condition is to get rid of "moral temptation": politics should be thoroughly purged of moral ideals and rendered "realistic," taking people as they are, counting on their true nature, not on moral exhortations. Market is here exemplary: human nature is egotistic, there is no way to change it - what is needed is a mechanism that would make private vices work for common good (the "Cunning of Reason"). In his "Perpetual Peace," Kant provided a precise formulation of this key feature:

many say a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form. But precisely with these inclinations nature comes to the aid of the general will established on reason, which is revered even though impotent in practice. Thus it is only a question of a good organization of the state (which does lie in man's power), whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other. The consequence for reason is the same as if none of them existed, and man is forced to be a good citizen even if not a morally good person. The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils. [2]

One should follow this line to its conclusion: a fully self-conscious liberal should intentionally limit his altruistic readiness to sacrifice his own good for the others' Good, aware that the most efficient way to act for the common good is to follow one's private egotism. The inevitable obverse of the Cunning of Reason motto "private vices, common good" is: "private goodness, common disaster."

Here, however, we encounter the basic paradox of liberalism. Anti-ideological stance is inscribed into the very core of the liberal vision: liberalism conceives itself as a "politics of lesser evil", its ambition is to bring about the Èleast evil society possible,Ç thus preventing greater evil, since it considers any attempt to directly impose a positive Good the ultimate source of all evil. Churchill's quip about democracy as the worst of all political systems, the only problem being that all others are worse, holds even more for liberalism. Such a view is sustained by a profound pessimism about human nature: man is egotistic and envious animal, if one builds a political system which appeals to his goodness and altruism, the result will be the worst terror (both Jacobins and Stalinists presupposed human virtue). However, the liberal critique of the "tyranny of the Good" comes at a price: the more its program permeates society, the more it is turning into its opposite. The claim to want nothing but the lesser of evils, once asserted as the principle of the new global order, gradually takes over the very feature of its enemy it wanted to fight. The global liberal order clearly asserts itself as the best of all possible worlds; the modest rejection of utopias ends with imposing its own market-liberal utopia which will become reality when we will properly apply market and legal Human Rights mechanisms. Behind all this lurks the ultimate totalitarian nightmare, the vision of a New Man who left behind the old ideological baggage.

As every close observer of the deadlocks of Political Correctness knows, the separation of legal Justice from moral Goodness - which should be relativized-historicized - ends up in a stifling oppressive moralism full of resentment. Without any "organic" social substance grounding the standards of what Orwell approvingly referred to as "common decency" (all such standards are dismissed as subordinating individual freedom to proto-Fascist organic social forms), the minimalist program of laws which should just prevent individuals to encroach upon each other (to annoy or "harass" each other) reverts into an explosion of legal and moral rules, into an endless process of legalization/moralization called "the fight against all forms of discrimination." If there are no shared mores that are allowed to influence the law, only the fact of "harassing" other subjects, who - in the absence of such mores - will decide what counts as "harassment"? There are, in France, associations of obese people which demand that all public campaigns against obesity and for healthy eating habits be stopped, since they hurt the self-esteem of obese persons. And so on and so on: incest-marriage, consensual murder and cannibalism... The problem is here the obvious arbitrariness of the ever new rules - let us take child sexuality: one can argue that its criminalization is an unwarranted discrimination, but one can also argue that children should be protected from sexual molestation by adults. And we could go on here: the same people who advocate the legalization of soft drugs usually support the prohibition of smoking in public places; the same people who protest against the patriarchal abuse of small children in our societies, worry when someone condemns members of foreign cultures who live among us for doing exactly this (say, Gypsies - preventing children from attending public schools), claiming that this is a case of meddling with other "ways of life"... It is thus for necessary structural reasons that this "fight against discrimination" is an endless process endlessly postponing its final point, a society freed of all moral prejudices which, as Jean-Claude Michea put it, "would be on this very account a society condemned to see crimes everywhere." [3]

The ideological coordinates of such a liberal multiculturalism are determined by the two features of our "postmodern" zeitgeist: universalized multiculturalist historicism (all values and rights are historically specific, any elevation of them into universal notions to be imposed onto others is cultural imperialism at its most violent) and universalized "hermeneutics of suspicion" (all "high" ethical motifs are generated and sustained by "low" motifs of resentment, envy, etc. - say, the call to sacrifice our life for a higher Cause is either the mask for a manipulation of those who need war for their power and wealth, or a pathological expression of masochism - and this either/or is an inclusive vel, i.e., both terms can be true at the same time). Fighting "patriarchal" culture is the consequence of these premises. What Marx and Engels wrote more than 150 years ago, in the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations." - is still ignored by those Leftist cultural theorists who focus their critique on patriarchal ideology and practice. Is it not the time to start to wonder about the fact that the critique of patriarchal "phallogocentrism" etc. was elevated into a main target at the very historical moment - ours - when patriarchy definitely lost its hegemonic role, when it is progressively swept away by market individualism of Rights? What becomes of patriarchal family values when a child can sue his parents for neglect and abuse, i.e., when family and parenthood itself are de iure reduced to a temporary and dissolvable contract between independent individuals?

We encounter here again a coincidence of the opposites: in our predominant ideology, radical historicism coincides with ruthlessly measuring all the past with our own standards. It is easy to imagine the same person who, on the one hand, warns against imposing on the other cultures our Eurocentric values, and, on the other hand, advocating that classics like Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer - Huck Finn novels should be removed from school libraries because they are racially insensitive in their portrayal of Blacks and Native Americans...

Years ago, Habermas made a perspicuous critical observation about those who see as the predominant feature of our era a drift towards new forms of "totalitarian" bio-power (rise of torture, ethnic slaughters, police control, mass extermination in concentration camps, etc.): it is not only that there is more torture and killing in reality; in most of the cases, we simply perceive more of it because of the media coverage and, above all, because our normative standards are higher. Can we even imagine a World War II in which the Allies would have been measured by today's standards? We are now learning that there were serious tensions among the British and the US headquarters concerning the (predominantly British) tactics of ruthlessly bombing German civilian centers which were of no military value (Dresden, Hamburg...); even in the UK itself, many officers, priests and intellectuals were asking the question if, by doing this, the UK is not starting to resemble the Nazis. The whole debate was totally hushed up and never reached the public. On the US side, recall the ignominious dispossession and internment of the entire Japanese ethnic population: while today, there are even Hollywood films condemning this act, nobody, including the Left, protested in 1942. (Or, in the opposite direction, what if Colombia, Afghanistan, and other opium producing nations were to apply to the US the same logic as the British Empire and other Western powers did in the 1840s against China as a pretext for the Opium War? China was attacked for refusing to allow free import of opium, since opium was catastrophic for the health of the thousands of ordinary Chinese: those who reject free trade are barbarians who should be forced to accept civilization... Imagine, then, Colombia and others issuing the same ultimatum addressed at the USA!

The same goes not only for the historical dimension, but also for different countries today: the very fact that Abu Ghraib tortures turned into a public scandal which put the US administration in a defensive position was in itself a positive sign - in a really "totalitarian" regime, the case would simply be hushed up. (In the same way, let us not forget that the very fact that the US forces did not find weapons of mass destruction is a positive sign: a truly "totalitarian" power would have done what cops usually do - plant drugs and then "discover" the evidence of crime...) The widespread protests of the US public, especially students, against the US engagement in Vietnam was a key factor in causing the US withdrawal - however, is the very fact of such a protest in the middle of a war not in itself a proof of high US ethical and freedom standards? Imagine a similar movement, say, in England when it joined the World War I: Bertrand Russell was interned for his pacifism, and for years he had to submit the manuscripts of his books to a state censor. (He mentions this fact in the foreword to the later new edition of his popular History of Western Philosophy, ironically admitting that the censor's remarks where often insightful and helped him to make the manuscript better.) When Leftists today complain about the violations of human rights in Guantanamo, the obvious counter-question is: do we all not know that there must be dozens of much worse places in China, Russia, in African and Arab countries? The standard Rightist-liberal complaint that the critics of the US "apply different standards", judging the US much harsher than other countries, misses the point, which is that the critics tend to judge each country by its own standards.

The "regulative idea" that underlies today's global liberal justice is not only to bring out all past (acts which appear from today's standards as) collective crimes; it also involves the Politically Correct utopia of "restituting" past collective violence by payment or legal regulations (paying billions of dollars to the US Blacks for the consequences of slavery, etc.) This is the true utopia, the idea that a legal order can pay back for its founding crime, thereby retroactively cleansing itself of its guilt and regain its innocence. What is at the end of this road is the ecological utopia of humanity in its entirety repaying its debt to Nature for all its past exploitation.

There is a problem with this liberal vision of which every good anthropologist, psychoanalyst, or even perspicuous social critic like Francis Fukuyama, is aware: it cannot stand on its own, it is parasitic upon some preceding form of what is usually referred to as "socialization" which it is simultaneously undermining, thereby cutting off the branch on which it is sitting. On the market - and, more generally, in the social exchange based on the market - individuals encounter each other as free rational subjects, but such subjects are the result of a complex previous process which concerns symbolic debt, authority, and, above all, trust (into the big Other which regulates exchanges). In other words, the domain of exchanges is never purely symmetrical: it is an a priori condition for each of the participants to give something without return so that he can participate in the game of give-and-take. For a market exchange to take place, there has to be subject here who participate in the basic symbolic pact and display the basic trust in the Word. Of course, market is the domain of egotist cheating and lying; however, as Jacques Lacan taught us, in order for a lie to function, it has to present itself and be taken as truth, i.e., the dimension of Truth has to be already established.

Marcel Mauss, in his "Essai sur le don", [4] first described the paradoxical logic of potlatch, of the reciprocal exchange of gifts. A true gift is by definition an act of generosity, given without expecting something in return, while exchange is by definition reciprocal - I give something, expecting something else in exchange. The mystery here is: if the secret core of potlatch is reciprocity of exchange, why is this reciprocity not asserted directly, why does it assume the "mystified" form of two consecutive acts each of which is staged as a free voluntary display of generosity? Marshall Sahlins proposed a salient solution: the reciprocity of exchange is thoroughly ambiguous - at its most fundamental, it is destructive of social link, it is the logic of revenge, tit-for-tat. [5] If, upon receiving a gift, I immediately return it to the giver, this direct circulation would amount to an extremely aggressive gesture of humiliation, it would signal that I refused the other's gift - recall those embarrassing moments when old people forget and gave us next year the same present back... To cover up this aspect of exchange, to make it benevolent and pacifying, one has to feign that the gift of each of us is free and stands on its own. The key feature that opposes potlatch to direct market exchange is thus the temporal dimension. In the market exchange, the two complementary acts occur simultaneously (I pay and I get what I paid for), so that the act of exchange does not lead to a permanent social bond, but just to a momentary exchange between atomized individuals who, immediately afterwards, return to their solitude. In potlatch, on the contrary, the time elapsed between me giving a gift and the other side returning it to me creates a social link which lasts (for a time, at least): we are all linked together with bonds of debt. From this standpoint, money can be defined as the means which enable us to have contacts with others without entering in proper relations with them. This atomized society where we have contacts with others without entering in proper relations with them, is the presupposition of liberalism.

The problem of organizing a state thus cannot be solved "even for a race of devils," as Kant put it - that it can be is the key moment of the liberal utopia. There is in liberalism, from its very inception, a tension between individual freedom and objective mechanisms which regulate the behaviour of a crowd - it was already Benjamin Constant who formulated clearly this tension: everything is moral in individuals, but everything is physical in crowds; everybody is free as individual, but a cog in a machine in a crowd. Nowhere is the legacy of religion clearer: this, exactly, is the paradox of Predestination, of the unfathomable mechanism of Grace embodied, among others, in a market success. The mechanisms which will bring about social peace are independent of the will of individuals as well as of their merits - to quote Kant again:

The guarantee of perpetual peace is nothing less than that great artist, nature (natura daedala rerum). In her mechanical course we see that her aim is to produce a harmony among men, against their will and indeed through their discord.

This is ideology at its purest. One can claim that the notion of ideology was posited "for itself" only in the liberal universe, with its founding distinction between ordinary people immersed in their universe of Meaning, of (what appears from the properly modern perspective) the confusion between facts and values, and the cold rational realistic observers who are able to perceive the world the way it is, without moralistic prejudices, as a mechanism regulated by laws (of passions) like any other natural mechanism. It is only in this modern universe that society appears as an object of a possible experiment, as a chaotic field on which one can (and should) apply a value-free Theory or Science given in advance (a political "geometry of passions," economy, racist science). Only this modern position of a value-free scientist approaching society in the same way as a natural scientist approaches nature, is ideology proper, not the spontaneous attitude of the meaningful experience of life dismissed by the scientist as a set of superstitious prejudices - it is ideology because it imitates the form of natural sciences without really being one. "Ideology" in a strict sense is thus always reflexive, redoubled in itself: it is a name for neutral knowledge which opposes itself to common "ideology." (Even in Stalinist Marxism, which - in total opposition to Marx - uses the term "ideology" in a positive sense, ideology is opposed to science: first, Marxists analyse society in a neutral scientific way; then, in order to mobilize the masses, they translate their insights into "ideology." All one has to add here is that this "Marxist science" opposed to ideology is ideology at its purest.) There is thus a duality inscribed into the very notion of ideology: (1) spontaneous self-apprehension of individuals with all their prejudices; (2) neutral, "value-free" knowledge to be applied onto society to engineer its development - this latter is ideology because it presupposes that ideas can rule the world: one can master society by way of applying to it a theoretical project.

What is missing here is what, following Marx, one can call the "base" of freedom. The properly Marxist notion of "base" should not be understood as a foundation which determines and thus constrains the scope of our freedom ("we think we are free, but we are really determined by our base"); one should rather conceive it as the very base (frame, terrain, space) OF and FOR our freedom. "Base" is a social substance which sustains our freedom - in this sense, the rules of civility do not constrain our freedom, but provide the space within which our freedom can only thrive; the legal order enforced by state apparatuses is the base for our free market exchanges; the grammatical rules are the indispensable base for our free thought (in order to "think freely," we have to practice these rules blindly); habits as our "second nature" is the base for culture; the collective of believers is the base, the only terrain, within which a Christian subject can be free; etc. This is also how one should understand the infamous Marxist plea for "concrete, real freedom" as opposed to the bourgeois "abstract, merely formal freedom": this "concrete freedom" does not constrain the possible content ("you can only be truly free if you support our, Communist, side"); the question is, rather, what "base" should be secured for freedom. A classic example: although workers in capitalism are formally free, there is no "base" that would allow them to actualize their freedom as producers; although there is a "formal" freedom of speech, organization, etc., the base of this freedom is constrained.

In a perspicuous short essay on civility, Robert Pippin [6] elaborated the enigmatic in-between-status of this notion which designates all the acts that display the basic subjective attitude of respect for others as free and autonomous agents, equal to us, the benevolent attitude of making the step over the strict utilitarian or "rational" calculation of costs and benefits in relations to others, of trusting them, trying not to humiliate them, etc. Although, measured by the degree of its obligatory character, civility is more than kindness or generosity (one cannot oblige people to be generous), it is distinctly less than a moral or legal obligation. This is what is wrong in Politically Correct attempts to moralize or even directly penalize modes of behaviour which basically pertain to civility (like hurting others with vulgar obscenities of speech, etc.): they potentially undermine the precious "middle ground" of civility. In more Hegelian terms, what gets lost in the penalization of un-civility is "ethical substance" as such: in contrast to laws and explicit normative regulations, civility is by definition "substantial," something experienced as always-already given, never imposed/instituted as such. Pippin is right to link the crucial role of civility in modern societies to the rise of the autonomous free individual - not only in the sense that civility is a practice of treating others as equal, free and autonomous subjects, but in a much more refined way: the fragile web of civility is the "social substance" of free independent individuals, it is their very mode of (inter)dependence. If this substance disintegrates, the space of individual freedom is foreclosed.


  1. John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God, New York: Columbia University Press 2007, p. 124-125.
  2. Available online at
  3. See Jean-Claude Michea, L'empire du moindre mal, Paris: Climats 2007, p. 145.
  4. See Marcel Mauss, "Essai sur le don," Sociologie et anthropologie, Paris: PUF 1973.
  5. See Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Berlin and New York: Walter De Gruyter 1972.
  6. See Robert Pippin, "The Ethical Status of Civility," in The Persistence of Subjectivity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 223-238.