Globalization, Internationalism, and the
Class Politics of Cynical Reason

Teresa L. Ebert

“The working men have no
country”—Marx and Engels,
The Communist Manifesto

Suspecting globalization

Globalization is under suspicion not only epistemologically (because like all concepts it acts as a closure and points to a determinate referent) but also politically. Politically it has become a code name—among conservative cultural theorists—for declaring the end of socialism and the emergence of a new world community that is seen as based on the following:

1. The owning of private property as constitutive of the identity of citizens

2. The displacement of labor by knowledge

3. The death of class and end of class struggle as the dynamics of history

4. The emergence of cross-class reformist social movements (with cross-class itself a code for upper-middle-class coalitions) and thus the end of radical and revolutionary politics

5. The emergence of post-production service economies

6. The marginalization of production in favor of consumption


In a sense one can say that such terms as globalization are simply codes for the retreat from Marxist notions like imperialism and a substitution of cultural and political issues for what is actually at stake in the changes taking place in the world—changes that are, above all, in the social relations of production.

This theory of globalization I call transnationalism and will argue that it is a corporate theory whose purpose is to legitimate monopoly capital.

I contest this notion of globalization through a Marxist theory of globalization that is founded on the daily manifestations of what Marx and Engels described as the simplification of class antagonisms (1976b, 485). The class struggles that took place in Seattle are among the most recent articulation of this simplification. "Simplification" here, of course, means historical clarification under the pressures of material contradictions. This materialist theory of globalization, which points to the end of capitalism, is called internationalism.

Globalization, I argue, is, above all, about the structured inequality in the contemporary world, and contesting theories of globalization are really contestations over how to understand and engage this material inequality. Corporate theories of globalization (such as the ones put forth in Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree [1999] and supported on the public policy level by Third Way centrists such as Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Bill Clinton) attempt to mystify these structured inequalities by literally burying them under increasing levels of consumption. Their argument is that if you have a job and your wages enable you to buy a VCR in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh), this is in itself unsurpassable evidence that globalization is good for everyone and that class is no longer relevant in the global world. The question of the rate of exploitation—the exchange of human labor power for wages—is completely obscured. Class is displaced by income—any level of income that ensures consumption.

Globalization is a struggle over this very exchange and it is, in the last analysis, a theory of exploitation or human emancipation depending on how it deals with this objective class relation.


Those who have made this exchange the main issue of globalization range from Marxist theories to reformist left views (such as those of Lionel Jospin). In various ways, they foreground this structured inequality and attempt to change it, not by changing the levels of consumption, but by changing the relations of production.

Although my goal here is not a review of the literature on the theory of globalization, I need to situate my own position in the context of the various contesting theories.

Representations of globalization

The term globalization has been actively deployed only since the mid-1980s. In its commonsensical use, especially in the mass media and in popular debates over public policy and economics, globalization is represented as a brand new phenomenon, an almost natural event, inevitable and beyond our control—all we can do is adjust as quickly as possible or we will fall behind.

Scholarly debates, on the other hand, treat globalization as nothing new, as simply the most recent development in a gradual expansion and compression of the world that has been going on almost since the beginning of human history. Whether articulated in terms of the ancient Greek philosopher Polybius's notion of "common bundle," Kant's "universal cosmopolitan existence," or Marshall McLuhan's "global village"—this generalized sense of globalization is theoretically weak and rather trivial. All it really amounts to is the commonly agreed-upon view that the world is becoming smaller: various parts of the world that used to be unrelated are now related, and new means of communication have intensified what was a rather slow process.

The question is not that the world is now interrelated but what is the political and economic logic of these interconnections? How does such a logic legitimate certain class interests? When one moves away from the banal use of globalization in mass media and its broad, largely hollow use in scholarly debates to try to make more complex sense of the concept by taking into account its politics, history, and class interests, the logic of these interconnections becomes more clear. It becomes clear, for


example, how the global village is built, upon whose labor, and for whose pleasure.


The dominant theory of globalization in contemporary discourse is what I call transnationalism. It is based on the notion that a new world community is emerging from the old nation-states, and that this community—unlike the old one that was based on ideology and nationality—is based on shared attitudes, preferences, and tastes. In short, globalization is seen as the emergence of a new cosmopolitanism of interests—it is a matter of lifestyle. Lifestyle is, of course, a code for consumption. According to this theory, it is not what Marx called the "social relations of production" that shape human societies but what Angela McRobbie calls the "social relations of shopping" (1994, 34).

Theories of globalization-as-transnationalism take two distinct forms: theories that focus on "culture" and those that put the emphasis on the "state."

The cultural theories regard globalization as a new world order based on, in Malcolm Waters's words, "social arrangements for the production, exchange and expression of symbols that represent facts, affects, meanings, beliefs, preferences, tastes and values" (1995, 8). Waters's main argument for a cultural theory of globalization is the familiar postmodernist view that culture cannot be reduced to "economic or class relations" (1995, 17), and that "material exchanges localize; political exchanges internationalize; and symbolic exchanges globalize" (1995, 9). For Waters, globalization is a world order in which "material and power exchanges in the economic and political arenas are progressively becoming displaced by symbolic ones--that is, by relationships based on values, preferences and tastes rather than by material inequality and constraints" (1995, 124). Globalization, in short, is the progressive culturalization of social life.

The culturalist argument is renarrated and renamed neocosmopolitanism and cosmopolitics by Bruce Robbins. Robbins deploys the concept of the new cosmopolitanism to


distance the new globalism from the old detached and disengaged mode in order to produce a subject with "multiple attachments" and thus counter what he regards to be the "romantic localism of a certain portion of the left which feels it must counter capitalist globalization with a strongly rooted and exclusive sort of belonging" (1998, 3). To resist globalization is, in Robbins's word, "childish" because globalization is real and already happening (1998, 3). Robbins's notion of globalism as a form of cultural logic becomes more clear in his talk about multiculturalism, which he defines as "the genuine striving toward common norms and mutual translatability." He echoes Waters's notions of norms and feelings. In fact, he titles his book Feeling Global (1999).

Robbins's main focus is, of course, the relation of the local and the global and whether the time of the nation, nationality, and nation-state is over. As a pragmatist, he does not finally decide on the subject and argues that globalization does not mean the end of the nation, and the existence of the nation, in itself, does not mean that there is no globalization. He draws no conclusions, and this is one reason why Roland Robertson, in a rather impatient tone, says that globalization theories have become a "play zone" in contemporary cultural theory. By relying on influential poststructuralists, these zones of interpretive indulgence generate the logic of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand that finally leave things in a vague in-betweenness. This sort of hedging and undecidability is not a sign of subtle and nuanced understanding; it is a sign of not wanting to be on the losing side, which shows how much is at stake in globalization.

Political theory of globalization

While most political theories of globalization argue that "there has been rapid expansion of intergovernmental and transnational links," they also allow that "the age of the nation-state is by no means exhausted." The question, however, is not a formalist one over the existence of an entity called the nation-state; rather it concerns the nation's status as sovereign. David Held,


after all the customary qualifications that pass as subtlety and nuance in the academy, finally concedes that "the sovereign structure of individual nation-states" has in fact not remained "unaffected" by the rise of globalization (1991, 210, 212).

Nation-states are, of course, the invention of early modern times, institutions produced by the rise of capitalism. Capitalism required a jettisoning of the feudal regime with its patchwork of autonomous sovereignty. Difference was absorbed into the homogeneity of the nation-state, producing a unified legal code that protected private property and the investment of the capitalist and allowed for the circulation of a single currency. This economic act was, of course, represented as the creation of a harmonious community of people with a common language and a coherent culture and worldview.

The political theories of globalization argue that these very notions and practices—local legal codes, local currencies, local habits and customs—that enabled the rise of capitalism, have now turned into its fetters. Globalization is seen as the emergence of new transnational institutions more suitable to the new phase of capitalism, all represented to the people as progressive and enlightened institutions.

The materialist theory of globalization

Both cultural and political theories of globalization occlude the fundamental issues at stake in globalization. They both substitute matters of consumption and the market for production and labor questions. They use different idioms, but both claim that—in the words of George Ritzer, who describes the new world order as the "McDonaldization" of the world (1999, 1-26)—globalization is "revolutionizing the means of consumption." The cultural theories of globalization, to be more specific, offer as enlightened and inclusive a world culture that Lyotard critiqued as a hollow, transcultural, eclectic consumption regime. This is a culture in which, in Lyotard's words, "one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and `retro' clothes in Hong Kong" (1984, 76). In this parody,


Lyotard foregrounds the scene of consumption that is being naturalized as globalization. The new world community is a community of taste, preferences, and sensibilities. It violently erases the question of labor and production.

In a similar way but with different conceptual vocabularies, the political theory of globalization represents what is essentially a transborder territory of free movement of capital as a post-state world in which human rights are no longer a local issue but a transstate concern. It is argued that the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, by transcending the local nation-state sovereignty, put a stop to genocide. What is missing from this narrative is, of course, that the goal of the intervention made in the name of human rights was to liberate a huge market for global capital and an even bigger market of highly skilled but very cheap labor. Where there is no prospect of such profits for transnational capital, there is no intervention in the name of human rights; Rwanda is one case and Chechnya another. Political theories of globalization are, in the end, apologies for imperialism—a word that has become a taboo in transnational theory.

To understand what is really at stake in globalization and what causes its discontents one should go beyond culturalist and political theories and focus on materialist factors such as labor, inequality, class, and exploitation. Theorists who have focused on these issues argue from a number of contesting points of view.

The neoliberals have embraced globalization and have argued that it is the only route to growth and prosperity for everyone, the only way to increase income and reduce unemployment. To speed up globalization, they have advocated free trade, the removal of all market constraints, and the deregulation of labor and capital at all levels. Their views are daily circulated in such journals as the (London) Economist and the (New York) Wall Street Journal.

On the left, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, and other theorists associated with "world system" and "dependency" theories, although sympathetic to materialist


thinking, have basically regarded the issue of globalization as a matter of state, trade, and markets. Wallerstein, for instance, considers the capitalist world system to be divided into three zones: the core, the semiperiphery, and the periphery. Each is distinguished from the others by the degree and strength of the power of the state, since it is the power of the state that guarantees the transfer of surplus value and also stands behind capital. He writes, "Actors in the market" try to "avoid the normal operation of the market whenever it does not maximize their profit" by deploying state power (1979). Imperialism is the logic of the relation among states, and the powerful "core" systematically develops underdevelopment in the "periphery." It is, in short, the state that is the dynamic of social and economic relations. In "world system" theory, as is clear from even this limited outline, it is "trade" and not "class" that matters.

Globalization, I argue, is a struggle over the structured inequality in the world economy. The dynamics of globalization is not new means of communication such as CNN, fax machines, and e-mail. To see the means of communication as the cause of globalization is to make ideology the cause of social change; this is, of course, a right-wing notion of social change put forth by such ideologues as Ronald Reagan, who told the English Speaking Union: "The communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom," with the "David of the microchip," photocopiers, and fax machines bringing down the "Goliath of totalitarianism" (Rule 1989). Nor is globalization a matter of changing the status of states or the emergence of NGOs or other such groups; it is not the expansion of human rights and other legal, political, or cultural matters. These are all effects of the more fundamental processes of the relation of labor and capital.

Globalization, in other words, is the unfolding of the fundamental contradiction in capitalism—the separation of the worker from the product of her labor, which is appropriated by the capitalist. It is the exploitation of labor by capital that produces the structured inequality under capitalism, old or new. This is perhaps another way of saying that globalization begins not with


this or that geographical discovery that expands the world, or this or that communication technology that connects the unconnected, or with changing that status of sovereignty of the state. Keep in mind that the state, as Marx and Engels put it in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, is "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" (1976b, 486).

Rather, globalization begins with the commodification of labor power itself—when human labor becomes a commodity like all other commodities and is exchanged for wages. The commodification of labor is the condition of possibility for "profit." In chapter six of the first volume of Capital, Marx gives a sustained analysis of this historical-economic matter and writes that labor power is the only commodity "whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor and consequently a creation of value" (1954, 164).

With the commodification of labor, the ownership of the means of production is privatized and the stage is set for competitive capitalism. Capitalism is the accumulation of profit, and profits are obtained on two fronts: by fighting the workers to lower the cost of labor (for example, lowering wages, extending the working hours, and digitalizing labor) and by fighting other capitalists to produce cheaper goods. Both require that the capitalist invest in machinery (that is, constant capital). The more advanced is capitalism, the more investment is made in machinery. As a result, the organic composition of capital—the ratio between C (constant capital=machinery) and V (variable capital=labor) changes, and C becomes higher (Marx 1954, 574ff.). But profit is not produced by machines; it is produced by labor, which means the capitalist must have access to cheap labor in order to compete successfully.

"Profit and wages," Marx writes, are "in inverse proportion" (1976, 39). Globalization is the process by which capitalists get access to cheap labor and maintain their competitive rate of profit. Contrary to "world system" theory, which places the market and consumption at the center, Marx writes that profit is "the


main factor, not of the distribution of products, but of their production" (1991, 1022).

This process of the globalization of exploitation—the ready access to surplus labor—sets in motion a highly complex set of secondary processes that require, for example, changes in the status of the sovereignty of the state and its transformation into a poststate; the development of global postnational banking and investment laws; deregulation of markets, changes in environmental regulations, and so on. The cultural and political changes that mark globalization are effects of this internationalization of the social relations of production. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, which, among other things, is the first sustained theorization of globalization, discusses these cultural and political changes at length. According to Marx and Engels:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great


chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, their arises a world literature. (1976b, 487-88)

Globalization, as Marx and Engels describe it, is a dialectical process. Contrary to its official propaganda, globalization is in no way a remedy for inequality. It reinforces inequality: the fact that it provides jobs for the jobless in no way means that it changes the social relations of production. In fact, globalization is the internationalization of these social relations of production—the internationalization of class structures.

However, it is part of the contradictions of global capitalism that the internationalization of class relations unleashes and unites the forces that were previously separate. The artificial boundaries of "nation" and "nationality" that so far have separated the workers of the world are transformed, and people see what capitalist ideology has effectively prevented them from seeing: class and not nation is the basis of human solidarity. Globalization, in spite of itself, gives rise to internationalism, which is the basis of solidarity for constructing a classless


society not because this is the aim of globality but because this is the law of history.

Globalization, cynical consciousness, and the political

The struggle against globalization and for international class solidarity, however, is not an "automatic" effect of history. It requires the development of class consciousness. But ours is a time of cynicism and suppression of class consciousness. In fact, supporting corporate globalization has become the mark of progressiveness in the academy through the use of a cynical reason that champions neoliberalism, free trade, and the interests of big business, all in the name of progress.

Cynicism today is a sign of what Hegel, in his discussion of ethics and principled practice in his own time, called the "unhappy, inwardly disrupted consciousness" (1977, 126). The "unhappy consciousness" is rent within itself because of the conflicts between its knowledge of the "unchangeable"—the principled truth—and its practice, which is derived from the "changeable"—the "things of this world." The "unhappy consciousness," Hegel argues, always locates itself in "things of this world" but never forgets its yearnings for the unchangeable—the principled truth. "Unhappy consciousness," I argue, is the consciousness of the divided subject—the subject torn between the contradictions of what it "knows" and what it "does." In a sense, this is the schism that Marx and Engels (in German Ideology, 1976a) reunderstand as constitutive of bourgeois consciousness, which is oscillating in the gap between "theory" and "praxis." In other words, cynicism is the logic of a pragmatism that opportunistically deploys ideas and beliefs in order to secure its place in the "things of this world"—that is to say, in order to get things done within the existing structures of access and privilege.

But the existing structures of access and privilege are founded upon the unequal relations of labor and capital and preserve their hegemony by concealing this inequality—by representing the unequal exchange of wages for labor power as if it were equal. Cynical reason gets things done within these structures of privilege by working to occlude the reality of class and structured


inequality. Cynicism is, thus, the other of class consciousness, and, I will argue, it also becomes the other of the political. I am aware, of course, that in the common sense, the political is considered to be the pragmatic: a set of strategies and tactics deployed to get things done. However, I understand the political not as the art of the possible—that notion of the political eventually leads to opportunism and to cynical accommodation with existing inequalities. The political, I believe, is the praxis necessary to carry out what Lenin called "what is to be done" (1961)—what is to be done to eliminate inequality and exploitation.

The formation of cynical consciousness

In Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk writes that "cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored. . . . Well-off and miserable at the same time" (1987, 5). Earlier I described the cynical as the effect of a divided consciousness--a conflicted consciousness--and, by drawing on Hegel, implied a critique of that disrupted consciousness. Sloterdijk, however, seems to suggest here that the cynic is not simply a divided consciousness but rather a complex consciousness, a double consciousness. Hegel anticipates such a reading and argues that, among other things, "the unhappy consciousness itself is the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both" (1977, 126). The point here, of course, is not to annotate Hegel but to unpack, as much as possible, the formation of the cynical mind and its thick layering.

The layered and self-reflexive, enlightened false consciousness supersedes its own falseness by knowing that it is false. In elaborating on this metaconsciousness, Slavoj Zizek writes that

with disarming frankness one "admits everything," yet this full acknowledgement of our power interests does not in any way prevent us from pursuing these interests—the formula of cynicism is no longer the classic Marxian "they do not know it, but they are doing it"; it is "they know


very well what they are doing, yet they are doing it." (1994, 8)

To unpack the working of this cynicism, I would like first to map out briefly the main strategy of the cynical mind in its approach to politics and then read the theoretical work of Zizek himself as an act of cynicism—a cynicism that protects itself from being known as cynical by theorizing the cynical. His writings, I will argue, are consummate acts of the metacynical political imaginary in contemporary theory. They are very apolitical acts that are cynically circulated as heightened moments of politics in theory.

Let me repeat my own notion of the political: the political, for me, is to undertake praxis—that is, to carry out "what is to be done" to end exploitation. At the core of this praxis is class struggle. A politics without class, in other words, is a hollow slogan.

To act politically in theory—as my brief theorizing of the political shows—is to commit oneself to a practice founded on a principle. It is to take a risk. In contrast, the cynic depoliticizes theory by representing the political in theory itself as a naive performance. It is naive, the cynic argues, because to act politically one has to act according to principles, and principles, like all foundationalist practices, are epistemologically questionable. In other words, the cynic depoliticizes theory by translating politics into epistemology and turning the question of class into a matter of difference. I will return to this later on. Here let me add that having posited politics in theory as a species of naive foundationalism, the cynic then proceeds to textualize the epistemological and further reduce all claims of politics to mere tropes and figures of speech. If textualizing politics was all that the cynic did, he would not be a cynic but a rhetorician who was perhaps committed to the principle of a semiotic politics and theorized politics as representation. But the cynic, as I said, is marked by a divided consciousness; there is a gap between what she knows and what she does. It is a sign of this divided consciousness that at the same time that the cynic renders the political an


ungrounded practice to be regarded with great suspicion, he declares himself to be political.

The cynic covers the gap between declaring herself political and doing the apolitical by resorting to what Sloterdijk calls "kynicism"—a playfulness that blurs the lines between the cynical and a cynicism about cynicism and transforms the whole question into an elaborate ludic performance. Politics, in short, becomes a highly elaborate playful mimicry and a ludic masquerade.

An example of such a highly sophisticated depoliticization of politics in theory through the play of kynicism is Judith Butler's writing on the political and her parody of classical Marxism.

In her widely circulated and popular attack on "Left Conservatism"—her code name for orthodox Marxism—in her essay "Merely Cultural," Butler claims the Marxist insistence on class in the realm of sexuality is a direct suppression of sexuality, in general, and queer sexuality, in particular. According to Butler, the "charge . . . that a unified and progressive Marxism must return to a materialism based in an objective analysis of class . . . marks," for her, "the resurgence of a certain kind of theoretical anachronism" and leads to the "resurgence of a leftist orthodoxy" that she says "work[s] in tandem with a social and sexual conservatism that seeks to make questions of race and sexuality secondary to the `real' business of politics, producing a new and eerie political formation of neo-conservative Marxisms" 1997, 268).

Her alternative to this left orthodoxy with its "objective analysis of class" is a political parody in which she deploys mimicry to empty Marxism of its revolutionary class politics. Butler performs what she calls a "temporary identification" that involves, she says, a "certain ability to identify, approximate, and draw near, it engages an intimacy with the position it appropriates that troubles the voice, the bearing, the performativity of the subject such that the audience or reader does not quite know where it is you stand" (1997, 266). Butler is engaging here in a kind of political cross-dressing—a Marxism in drag—in which she temporarily dons Marxist positions and materialist principles,


only to shed them even before her performance ends. She flirts with historical materialism—taking "the mode of production as the defining structure of political economy" and arguing "that sexuality must be understood as part of that mode of production" (1997, 273)—and then in a cynical, parodic move, turns Marxism on its head, when she attributes to Marxism a "remanufacturing" of the "distinction between the material and the cultural . . . that jettisons sexuality from the sphere of fundamental political structure!" (1997, 274). In other words, she turns Marxism into a caricature, erasing its complex dialectical understanding of the relation of culture and the material base in order to project onto Marxism the very critique made of poststructuralist feminists and queer theorists for their isolation of culture and sexuality in an autonomous realm cut off from the material reality of people's labor.

One defense of Butler is that she is performing kynicism—for Sloterdijk kynicism is the resistance to cynicism; it is the provocative resistance of "pantomimic, wily" "individualism" (1987, 218) and the cheeky, irreverent actions of a defiant body. But as a viable political strategy, kynicism is indeterminate. As Andreas Huyssen points out, "the kynic can no longer be distinguished from the cynic. Is Sloterdijk displaying kynical strategies or cynical attitudes? It is anybody's guess" (1987, xxi).

Both the cynical and the kynical empty class out of politics and separate out theory from praxis. We end up with parodic performances that cannot effect change because they cannot recognize the real material relations of exploitation—the exploitation of surplus labor, that is, class exploitation—underlying all forms of oppression, in however complex and dialectical ways. Class struggle is the Other of cynicism.

As I have already argued, cynical reason critiques class as a metaphysical fiction without any grounding in the truth of the social. Through various reading strategies, it has also textualized class and posits that, as Paul de Man has written in Allegories of Reading, class, like all concepts, is simply an errant trope, a metaphor without referent. From a poststructuralist perspective, therefore, the differences that class attributes between the


proletariat and the bourgeoisie are displaced onto a difference within each class itself. In other words, there is more difference within the proletariat, in this view, than differences between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. By transposing the difference from between to within, poststructuralist social theory has effectively rendered class a textual construct. This is another working of kynicism. This play of/with class is perhaps nowhere more on display in contemporary cynicism than in the writings of Zizek. What is interesting politically here is that he, unlike Butler, has extensively written about cynicism. His writings on cynicism act to preempt and render ridiculous any critique such as mine that reads his own political writings as performances in cynicism. His are metacynical cynicisms. But before reading his writings, I need to say a few words about class, which I have invoked several times in this text.

Class has not only been dismissed as a metaphysical fiction by poststructuralists and cynics alike, but from the within the Left itself (mostly from neo- and post-Marxist positions), class has also come under attack—not as a textual construct but as a concept whose time is past. According to this argument, capitalism has gone through a structural transformation as a result of which the concept of class can no longer explain social differences. Adopting a broadly neo-Weberian concept of class as life chances in the market, this left position eventually replaces the concept of class with the concept of lifestyle. And furthermore—this is the main political issue here—it substitutes consumption and the consuming behavior of the subject for production. If the poststructuralist critique of class is conducted in the slippages of kynicism and pleasure, the left critique of class is carried out in a space of panic, the panic of "enlightened people" who do not want to be "taken for suckers," as Sloterdijk says (1987, 5), and who thus, as a mode of survival, develop a "permanent doubt about their own activities" (1987, 5).

Class is neither an errant trope nor life chances in the market. Rather, class is the place of the subject of labor in the social relations of production. Class is produced at the point of production and is only tangentially related to lifestyle. The fundamental


division determining—in quite complex and dialectical ways—all other social differences is the division of labor and the unequal appropriation of people's labor. The enormous edifice of capital accumulation and unequal power, privilege, social order, and cultural production is all built on the exploitation of workers' surplus labor. Class is the place of the subject in the structure of exploitation—the place of exploited and exploiter, those who own nothing but their labor power and those who own the means of production. There is no capital, no bourgeois society without the exploitation of the workers' surplus labor—in short, without the inequalities of class.

Class struggle, as Marx tells us, is the engine of history; it is the ground of social practice and thus the root dynamic of any politics that aims at social transformation. This is the reality the unhappy bourgeois consciousness knows but cannot act on—especially the unhappy bourgeois Left.

We see the acting out of this cynical erasure of class in such examples of the post-Marxist Left as Slavoj Zizek. For all his appropriations of Marxist vocabulary and disclaimers against poststructuralism, Zizek acts out a cynic-kynic performance as parodic and indeterminable as those by any post-al critic. (By post-al I mean a bourgeois mode of thinking that assumes a radical break in capitalism and, therefore, posits that we have entered a post-historical, post-ideological, post-class, post-work, post . . . era.) Zizek mimes Marx in an effort to turn a materialist ideology critique upside down into a Hegelian idealism and dissolves class struggle into the symbolic surplus of the Lacanian Real.

Specifically, Zizek insists on the "interpretation of social antagonism (class struggle) as Real not as (part of) objective social reality" (1994, 25). Class struggle is dissolved here into an ahistorical Lacanian Real of "social antagonism," which Zizek describes, in his own words, as "absolute constant," a "primordial repression" "the non-symbolizable traumatic kernel that found expression . . . in the very distortions of reality, in the fantasized displacements of the `actual' . . . in the guise of spectral apparitions" (1994, 25-26). Zizek's cynical-kynical miming,


what he calls "this `return to Marx' entails," he declares, "a radical displacement of the Marxian theoretical edifice: a gap emerges in the very heart of historical materialism" (1994, 28). This kynical gap, of course, is the dissolution of class struggle into "spectrality." For "class struggle," Zizek declares, "is none other than the name for the unfathomable limit that cannot be objectivized" (1994, 22).

In the name of answering the cynical, Zizek gives us perhaps the most cynical performance of all. He seeks to rescue ideology critique from the cynical but, in a quite remarkable display of enlightened false consciousness, sinks us more deeply into cynical reason as he dissolves the ground of class struggle on which a transformative politics stands.

"Cynical reason," Zizek argues, following Sloterdijk, "renders impossible--or, more precisely vain--the classic critical-ideological procedure. The cynical subject," he says, "is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less insists upon the mask" (1989, 29, 30). Ideology critique has become impossible for post-al critics because the other of ideology--the possibility of truth--is considered unattainable today. The outstanding mode of cynicism is, as Zizek declares, "lying in the guise of truth" (1989, 8).

This understanding of ideology imprisons ideology in the cognitive and the rhetorical, in a formalist logic of a true-false dichotomy, that ends up positing a spectral supplementarity. As Zizek argues, "the extra-ideological point of reference that authorizes" a critique of ideology "is not `reality' but the `repressed' real of antagonism" (1994, 25)--not the materiality of class struggle but the "unfathomable," idealist "constant" of a "non-symbolizable traumatic kernel."

In a quite remarkable cynical twist, Zizek has distorted the historical real of capitalism, turning it upside down into yet another ideological phantom. The real of capitalism is not some Lacanian "unfathomable" "traumatic kernel." It is the concrete, tangible materiality of the expropriation of the worker's surplus labor in the relations of production under capitalism. Class struggle is not a specter; it is the very real struggle "carried on [in] an


uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight," that as Marx and Engels write in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, has "each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes" (1976b, 482).

Class consciousness as the other of cynical consciousness

Why this compulsion to cynically erase class struggle, even among the best intentioned of left bourgeois critics? Because, as Lukács has argued, "the objective limits of capitalist production become the limits of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie," producing an "irreconcilable antagonism between ideology and the economic base. . . . In consequence theory and practice are brought into irreconcilable opposition to each other" (1971, 64). The unhappy bourgeois consciousness, split by the schism between knowledge and class struggle, between what it knows and what it does, cannot allow itself to recognize the reality of class struggle without being forced to recognize her or his own class position, without being forced to either recognize her own exploitation and place among the workers or conversely become one of the "portion of bourgeois ideologists who," Marx and Engels argue, "have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement" of class society "as a whole" and join that "small section of the ruling class [that] cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class" (1976b, 64).

Class consciousness is the other of the cynical, enlightened false consciousness. In the "class consciousness of the proletariat," as Lukács writes, "theory and practice coincide" (1971, 69) because of the proletariat's struggle to grasp historically and dialectically the concrete totality of the workings of private property and the extraction of surplus labor through all levels and strata of society so that the proletariat, Lukacs argues, "is able to act in such a way as to change reality . . . so it can consciously throw the weight of its actions onto the scales of history" (1971, 69). Red theory is a cultural politics aimed at developing class consciousness. "Working-class consciousness," however, is not a


narrow economic awareness. As Lenin argues in What Is to Be Done?

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected . . . unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population." (1961, 412)

Class consciousness is the crux of the international struggle for the emancipation of all from the exploitation of global capitalism.

An earlier version under the title "Globalization, Class and Cynical Reason: A Forum on Contemporary Theory and Transcultural Critique," was published in the Working Papers Series, Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington (2000).

Department of English
State University of New York at Albany


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SOURCE: Ebert, Teresa L. “Globalization, Internationalism, and the Class Politics of Cynical Reason,” Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 12, no. 4 (1999) [published 2001], pp. 389-410.

Note: Boldfacing in text added by R. Dumain.

©1999, 2001 Marxist Educational Press. All rights reserved. Article re-published by The Autodidact Project by special permission of MEP.

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