The French neoliberal economist Guy Sorman admits that the market is full of irrational behaviour, but is quick to add that ‘it would be preposterous to use behavioral economics to justify restoring excessive state regulations. After all, the state is no more rational than the individual, and its actions can have enormously destructive consequences.’ He goes on:
An essential task of democratic governments and opinion makers when confronting economic cycles and political pressure is to secure and protect the system that has served humanity so well, and not to change it for the worse on the pretext of its imperfection. Still, this lesson is doubtless one of the hardest to translate into language that public opinion will accept. The best of all possible economic systems is indeed imperfect. Whatever the truths uncovered by economic science, the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.
Rarely was the function of ideology described in clearer terms: to defend the existing system against any serious critique, legitimising it as a direct expression of human nature.
It is unlikely that the financial meltdown of 2008 will function as a blessing in disguise, the awakening from a dream, the sobering reminder that we live in the reality of global capitalism. It all depends on how it will be symbolised, on what ideological interpretation or story will impose itself and determine the general perception of the crisis. When the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the late 1920s, Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic and the way out of it; in France in 1940 Maréchal Pétain’s narrative won in the contest to find the reasons for the French defeat. Consequently, to put it in old-fashioned Marxist terms, the main task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative that will not put the blame for the meltdown on the global capitalist system as such, but on its deviations – lax regulation, the corruption of big financial institutions etc.
Against this tendency, one should insist on the key question: which ‘flaw’ of the system as such opens up the possibility for such crises and collapses? The first thing to bear in mind here is that the origin of the crisis is a ‘benevolent’ one: after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, the decision reached across party lines was to facilitate real estate investments in order to keep the economy going and prevent recession – today’s meltdown is the price for the US having avoided a recession seven years ago.
The danger is thus that the predominant narrative of the meltdown won’t be the one that awakes us from a dream, but the one that will enable us to continue to dream. And it is here that we should start to worry: not only about the economic consequences of the meltdown, but about the obvious temptation to reinvigorate the ‘war on terror’ and US interventionism in order to keep the economy running. Nothing was decided with Obama’s victory, but it widens our freedom and thereby the scope of our decisions. No matter what happens, it will remain a sign of hope in our otherwise dark times, a sign that the last word does not belong to realistic cynics, from the left or the right. Slavoj Žižek is a dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst. He also co-directs the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck College. The Parallax View appeared last year. elsewhere