The merchant’s freedom: Žižek’s theory of the market in Less than nothing.

In a chapter in Less than nothing titled “Hegel versus Nietzsche”, pages 194-199, and later continued into “Struggle and Reconciliation”, pages 199-206, we’re able to find and read a few suprising passages by Žižek regarding a theory of the market. The term merchant itself is mentioned just three times in the entirety of this book spanning over 1010 pages, with two occurrences of it appearing in these two sub-chapters, which according to my knowledge ultimately comprise nothing less than Žižek’s theory of labor and consequently also the market as it relates to the Hegelian notion of freedom.

Now the specific section as developed in the book is by itself framed as a longer comment on the French philosopher’s Gérard Lebrun’s L’envers de la dialectique. The entire insertion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought into Less than Nothing thus stems from a reading of Lebrun. Anyone previously acquainted with Žižek’s work might be aware that he’s not considered as the biggest admirer of Nietzsche, although he approves of the efforts made by his fellow philosophers who can be said to be deeply engaged with Nietzsche’s thought at one point or another in their work, such as his friends Alenka Zupančič, the author of The Shortest Shadow, or the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who authored Nietzsche Apostle among many other works relating to this well-known German “anti-philosopher”.

His French philosophical friend Alain Badiou is also known for an extensive commentary in his various Lectures on Nietzsche delivered throughout the years, where Badiou has provocatively explicitly positioned himself “politically as centrist” with regard to the name of Nietzsche. With no surprise, his reason is the same as Žižek’s, to support the work of his fellow philosopher-friends who build their academic careers with a reference to Nietzsche’s work. But why do I designate this comment by Badiou as consciously provocative? Because I believe that anyone acquainted with the radical Leftist tradition into which both Badiou and Žižek very often ascribe themselves into, to the extent of explicitly self-designating themselves as Communist thinkers and famously organizing many different public conferences around the Idea of Communism in various urban centers of capital across the entire globe – London, Paris, New York, Seoul, etc. – should know that in the jargon of the radical Left “political centrism” is nothing more than a cover-up term for nothing less than the representatives of capitalist interest as such, whose politics is looked upon as often verging on fashistoid tendencies. For example, in Slovene parliamentary political space for example have a recently formed Party of the Modern Center occupying many parliamentary seats (even though it’s founder has officially resigned by now), together with a social-democratic president whole sole boring political import in the political space seems to be that of trying to “unify” different opposing political tendencies and discourses in a nationalist manner. His theory boils down to nothing more than the apolitical stance which says that political disagreements are in themselves counter-productive for the future of the country, thereby obfuscating any real political antagonisms of class division as they ultimately always emerge in any really existing capitalist society. In any case, an older great text by Badiou simply titled ‘Who is Nietzsche?’ also deserves to be mentioned at this point.

I’ve also recently stumbled upon a brief comment made online by someone which claimed that Žižek had an approving reading of Bruce Ellis Benson’s work Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith, although I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of this book just yet. This would led us to think that for Žižek, Nietzsche could also be considered as a deeply theological thinker, especially with regards to the famous Nietzschean idea of “The Death of God” as the main diagnosis of the entire predicament of the modern era, which is usually read as an atheist and not a pious claim. I find this insight very productive to think Nietzsche philosophically and the very same accusation of disavowed religiosity could ultimately also be aimed at Martin Heidegger’s work, another well-known philosophical reference in Žižek’s work throughout the decades.

Žižek has in the past made surprising brief comments that “he got rehabilitated about Nietzsche” by the philosophical work of his friends, although it’s not exactly clear if these remarks should be taken as merely ironic in nature or expressed and meant in a more serious manner. Why is this stance of his not so immediately clear? Because he also made reference in other places of his various lectures available online about the role Nietzsche’s work played in the 20th Century Nazi Germany, and how Nietzsche was elevated actually there to the status of “an official state philosopher”, something that can’t simply be downplayed in silence, just as the revelations made in the so-called Black notebooks by Heidegger can’t simply be shushed and swept under the table. I have myself had the unfortunate case of locally encountering a few individuals many years ago who approached me with the vague claim to be interested in Nietzsche and who intended to engage some kind of a dialogue with me, but turned out to be quite deeply invested in heavily right-wing political outlooks, with the town I live in actually still bearing the scars of the memory of the Nazi occupation here that occurred during WWII, so the seeming popularity of Nietzsche here struck me as something deeply worrying and problematic at the time. In any case, as far as my reading is concerned, Less than Nothing is, as far as I’m aware, one of the few places in Žižek’s philosophical work where he explicitly deals with Nietzschean thought, together with a few approving comments made in the recent work Like A Thief In Broad Daylight about Sloterdijk with regards to the notion of “philosophical prodding” also coming to mind.

As already mentioned, Žižek’s main interest in this specific part of Less than Nothing seems to be more specifically about a reading of Lebrun’s book about the German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel than it would really be about Nietzsche himself, but the lines of thought as developed in this specific section more precisely deal with the relations between the philosophical notion of freedom as Hegel developed it explicitly apropos the theory of the market in his Philosophy of Mind, with the expected reference to Marx’s critique of political economy also arising, and with the name Nietzsche itself being as more a detour through which to deal with his different popularized ideas of “The will to power” and “The Übermensch”, etc., something which can be ultimately subsumed under the name of “Nietzschean amoral ethics” as positioned against the notion of “The Last man”, who is supposedly still caught up in everyday morality. This entire passing through the name of Nietzsche then allows Žižek to develop a more precise general reflection on the nature of Hegelian dialectics and its seemingly overwhelming and all-consuming method of notional mediation. Another book by Žižek titled Disparities also begins with a quotation of Nietzsche himself, more specifically one that allows us to see the antagonistic nature of his work towards Hegel more explicitly:


“I believe there has been no dangerous vacillation or crisis of German culture this century that has not been rendered more dangerous by the enormous and still continuing influence of this philosophy, the Hegelian.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History


In any case, Žižek is known to have aligned his thought and attitude more towards a “moralist” kind of philosophy in the tradition of Immanuel Kant and his philosophical notions of duty, personal responsibility and the categorical imperative, together with Georg W. F. Hegel’s theory of morality (and already a quick glance at his Phenomenology of Spirit with regards to the notion of Bildung allows us to see he was very heavily invested upon this topic) than the more transgressive a-morality as advocated by Nietzsche. But what I’m trying to focus upon more here is how precisely Žižek uses the theoretical couple of Hegel versus Nietzsche which is then developed into the duality of “Nietzschean” Struggle and “Hegelian” Reconciliation in the next sub-chapter through the famous Hegelian “Master-Slave dialectics” to deliver us a completely unexpected theory of labor and the market. Lets just quote the entire passages by Žižek from the two sub-chapter found in Less than Nothing:


“The same insight underlies Hegel’s analysis of the passage from labor to thought in the subchapter on Master and Servant in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Lebrun is fully justified in emphasizing, against Kojève, that Hegel is far from celebrating (collective) labor as the site of the productive self-assertion of human subjectivity, as the process of forceful transformation and appropriation of natural objects, their subordination to human goals. All finite thought remains caught in the “spurious infinity” of the never-ending process of the (trans)formation of objective reality which always resists the full subjective grasp, so that the subject’s work is never done: “As an aggressive activity deployed by a finite being, labor signals above all man’s impotence to integrally take possession of nature.” This finite thought is the horizon of Kant and Fichte: the endless practico-ethical struggle to overcome external obstacles as well as the subject’s own inner nature. Their philosophies are the philosophies of struggle, while in Hegel’s philosophy, the fundamental stance of the subject towards objective reality is not that of practical engagement, of confrontation with the inertia of objectivity, but that of letting-it-be: purified of its pathological particularity, the universal subject is certain of itself, it knows that its thought already is the form of reality, so it can renounce enforcing its projects upon reality, it can let reality be the way it is.

This is why my labor gets all the more close to its truth the less I work to satisfy my need, that is, to produce objects I will consume. This is why industry which produces for the market is spiritually “higher” than production for one’s own needs: in market-production, I manufacture objects with no relation to my needs. The highest form of social production is therefore that of a merchant: “the merchant is the only one who relates to the Good as a perfect universal subject, since the object in no way interests him on behalf of its aesthetic presence or its use value, but only insofar as it contains a desire of an other.” And this is also why, in order to arrive at the “truth” of labor, one should gradually abstract from the (external) goal it strives to realize.

[…] Labor is simultaneously the (trans)formation of external objects and the disciplinary self-formation/education (Bildung) of the subject itself. Hegel here celebrates precisely the alienated and alienating character of labor: far from being a direct expression of my creativity, labor forces me to submit to artificial discipline, to renounce my innermost immediate tendencies, to alienate myself from my natural Self:

Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby unalloyed feeling of self. This satisfaction, however, just for that reason is itself only a state of evanescence, for it lacks objectivity or subsistence. Labour, on the other hand, is desire restrained and checked, evanescence delayed and postponed; in other words, labour shapes and fashions the thing.

As such, labor prefigures thought, it achieves its telos in thinking which no longer works on an external stuff, but is already its own stuff, or, which no longer imposes its subjective/finite form onto external reality but is already in itself the infinite form of reality. For finite thought, the concept of an object is a mere concept, the subjective goal one actualizes when, by way of labor, one imposes it onto reality. For speculative thought, on the contrary, thought is not merely subjective, it is in itself already objective―it renders the objective conceptual form of the object. This is why inner Spirit, certain of itself, “no longer needs to form/shape nature and to render it spiritual in order to fixate the divine and to make its unity with nature externally visible: insofar as the free thought thinks externality, it can leave it the way it is (kann er es lassen wie es ist).”

This sudden retroactive reversal from not-yet to already-is (we never directly realize a goal―we pass from striving to realize a goal to a sudden recognition that it is already realized) is what distinguishes Hegel from all kinds of historicist tropes, including the standard Marxist critical reproach that the Hegelian ideal reconciliation is insufficient, since it leaves reality (real pain and suffering) the way it is, and that what is needed is actual reconciliation through radical social transformation. For Hegel, the illusion is not that of the enforced “false reconciliation” which ignores the persisting divisions; the true illusion resides in not seeing that, in what appears to us as the chaos of becoming, the infinite goal is already realized: “Within the finite order, we cannot experience or see that the goal is truly achieved. The accomplishment of the infinite goal resides only in overcoming the illusion [Täuschung―deception] that this goal is not yet achieved.”

In short, the ultimate deception lies in the failure to see that one already has what one is looking for―like Christ’s disciples awaiting his “real” reincarnation, blind to the fact that their collective already was the Holy Spirit, the return of the living Christ. Lebrun is thus justified in noting that the final reversal of the dialectical process, as we have seen, far from involving the magical intervention of a deus ex machina, is a purely formal turnaround, a shift in perspective: the only thing that changes in the final reconciliation is the subject’s standpoint―the subject endorses the loss, re-inscribes it as its triumph. Reconciliation is thus simultaneously both less and more than the standard idea of overcoming an antagonism: less, because nothing “really changes”; more, because the subject of the process is deprived of its very (particular) substance.


To any reader somehow still designating themselves as “Communist”, “Marxist” or automatically ascribing to Žižek purely some kind of a naive anti-capitalist and thus automatically anti-market stance in the classical Marxist vein, as it often happens in the online commentary upon is work, these couple of passages from Less than Nothing should strike him or her as surprising and counter-intuitive at least, and prove his theoretical stance to be much more carefully refined in this area. What we get here is a variation of Žižek, who through a reading of Lebrun develops a positive account of the market, an unexpected turn in the development of his political thought.

Now of course these passages display no simple advocacy of the capitalist enterprise and we should always take Žižek’s assertion and desire for a “New 21st Century internationalist” kind of “Communism” seriously to some extent, as long as we remember that what he calls Communism is ultimately nothing more than a purely negative signifier which allows us to see the falsity of our every day capitalist ideology.

In short, the term Communism as it appears in Žižek’s work more closely resembles those kind of “ideology-critique sunglasses” as they appear in the cult-film They Live! from 1988, a reference to which Žižek often likes to return to. The main function of Žižek’s Communism is therefore to act as a kind of a suturing master-signifier, which discursively enables us to develop a real critique, to position ourselves in to an “alienating” distancing point from the spontaneous ideological frame of everyday ideology as sold to us by those in power, giving us the tools to develop a real kind of anti-capitalism which would ultimately not be able to be simply subsumed in the inner logic of the monstrous machine of the global capitalist enterprise. Or in other words, Žižeks work gives us nothing less than a ladder which enables his readers to climb out of Plato’s cave.

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