Perhaps a somewhat disturbing thought with respect to how we think about contemporary political struggles: In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously say that under capitalism “…all that is solid melts into air”. Contrary to Heidegger with his romanticism about rootedness– being a Black Forest peasant is probably much better from the standpoint of a philosopher contemplating their existence from afar than for Black Forest peasants themselves; just ask the people of the Limousin region of France –one of the great things about capitalism is that it erodes local customs, traditions, and superstitions, revealing subject as “void”. Every subject alternatively becomes “noone and everyone” because all essentialist identities (the Great Chain of Being where everyone has a place and function) are eroded under capitalism. From an economic, quantitative point of view, a child can do the same labor as a man and a woman and a black man and a Baptist and a Jew and… Well you get the idea. For the first time in history, universality is genuinely introduced as concrete universality insofar as everyone can equally be measured by the abstract dollar, thereby evacuating all identity (cf. Brian Rotman’s Signifying Nothing for the importance of this).
While concrete universality is instantiated at this point, we nonetheless get abstract equality. Cultural predicates have been evacuated of their determinative power over identity under capitalism. As Charles Taylor says of religion in A Secular Age we come to recognize religion as a belief, an option, whereas before it was an intrinsic determinate and the agency of the divine in the world was as obvious as the agency of germs in a men’s restroom. Now one can try on religions like so many outfits. One can opt to be a Tibetan Buddhist or jump from Catholicism to Unitarianism. Or one can opt out altogether and be an atheist. This happens more or less with everything. It all becomes custom. Just think, for a moment, how novel the concept of ones practices, identity, and culture as custom is. To call these things “custom” is to already note a minimal distance between subject and identity. Where before what we call custom would be invisible because that just is what someone is, now all of these things become outfits. Again, subject becomes void. If this gives us an abstract equality, it’s because the conditions of equality are all there by virtue of the voiding of the subject and the disambiguation between imaginary identity and status as an agent, but nonetheless this equality hasn’t been effectuated in the concrete. Paradoxically, capital reveals that equality is possible, while nonetheless maintaining the most profound inequality that’s ever existed (incidentally, this is why every discourse that romanticizes rootedness and historicity is necessarily reactionary. Such discourses seek to suture the status of subject as subject or void, filling them with a substantial content– no matter how contingent or thrown –when, in fact, subject means that every content fails).
The paradox of capitalism from the standpoint of Marxist inflected critical theory is that it sets up the conditions for emancipatory politics by revealing subject as void that is thereby capable of fashioning itself in opposition to all prior history and inherited traditions– as an empty square I can play Magister Ludi’s glass bead game –while nonetheless using this very nullification of all identity predicates as the ground of exploitation and alienation. The paradox of emancipatory politics is that it thereby aims for an emancipation of “nothing”– here I’m playing Heideggerian linguistic games –or that which is necessarily without identifying predicates precisely because it is without void. Of course, us materialists have a particularly difficult time with all of this because we’re under the obligation– cf. Adrian Johnston’s work that’s managed to ask the right question –of explaining how a material system can give rise to a void or empty square. The burning materialist question is how a nothing can emerge within matter creating a gap between predicates and (in)substantial beings we refer to as subject. Might this not also be why anarchism functions as a sort of vanishing mediator in political thought, oscillating between libertarian free market capitalist theory and emancipatory Marxist thought? Perhaps anarchism marks the place of subject qua subject as void and therefore finds itself perpetually oscillating between all of these political orientations. I would say that Marx’s repressed fantasy– that which simultaneously is the motor of his thought and what he must perpetually hold at bay to sustain his desire, the desire called Marx –is anarchism.
Now let’s add Lacan to the mix. The erosion of identity that takes place under capitalism, the revelation of subject as void, turns out to be an anxiety provoking structure. Subject wonders what it is for the Other. Che vuoi? From the standpoint of even vulgar psychology we can see how identity– which isn’t the same as subject –can be anxiety reducing. To be something is not only to know– in no matter how phantasmatic a manner –who you are, but is also to be able to answer to a set of questions of what you are for the Other. Put more concretely, knowing what you are for the Other– no matter how abject your position might be with respect to the Other –also means being capable of how others will respond to you. Identity is not so much about knowing yourself, but rather knowing what you are for other people and how they’re likely to respond with respect to you. As a consequence, being noone would be deeply anxiety provoking as it would entail never being able to anticipate how others will respond to us. Think here of Lacan’s famous example of the preying mantis before a female preying mantis that doesn’t know whether it’s wearing the mask of a male or female preying mantis. Will I be eaten or not? A subject as void has no answer to this question.
Lacan liked to say that the moment the unconscious opens– the revelation of being as void –it also closes. Don’t we see this same dynamic at work at the broader social level? With the revelation of subject as void, suddenly we see the emergence of all sorts of sutures over the void. In a desperate attempt to cover over this anxiety provoking void we see the rise of identity politics: Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, men’s right groups, white supremacy groups, sexual orientation groups, women’s right groups, gay rights groups, lesbian rights groups, etc, etc., etc. The capacity to name what we are sutures over our being as void, thereby pacifying the horrifying identity. In the context of homosexual politics, this is perhaps why the poly/bisexual is so horrifying. S/he upsets all those smooth and defined identities, refusing identity. What, then, if all the identity politics we see today isn’t rather an anxiety reducing mechanism arising from our inability to know what we are for the Other rather than a political issue. We would then face a paradox where we would simultaneously have to acknowledge that all of the politics that arise around these identities are indeed sites of struggle, while also recognizing that somehow they are obfuscations of struggle. How to navigate this?