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  • The Capitalist Gaze
  • Todd McGowan (bio)

The Image of Neutrality

In The Usual Suspects (directed by Bryan Singer, 1995), Roger “Verbal” Kint (played by Kevin Spacey) describes the mysterious villain Keyser Söze by comparing him to the devil and quoting, without citation, Baudelaire. Kint declares that “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”1 By hiding his existence, the Devil can operate stealthily through seemingly self-motivated human actions. Although many on the Left equate capitalism with the Devil, capitalism operates in exactly the opposite fashion. Its basic trick consists not in hiding its existence but rather in proclaiming it. This trick proves so effective that it blinds not just the true believers but even some of the system’s most thoughtful detractors. Of course, capitalism really exists in the sense that it functions as today’s controlling economic system, but it does not exist as the substantial ground of our being and is not the default economic system that results from the failure to decide politically on some alternative. Capitalism is political through and through. Its existence depends on the collective decision that brought it into being and that continues to sustain its development. But this decision is difficult to see. Whereas a link can easily be made between the existence of communism and a revolutionary decision that [End Page 3] creates its rule, no such decision inaugurates capitalism. No one would mistake the communist system that arose in Russia in 1917 with the natural order of things. But capitalism appears as a neutral background that emerges out of being itself, as an economic system that simply develops on its own and continues unabated unless it encounters political interference.

Capitalism owes much of its strength as an economic system to its guise of neutrality, to its illusion of belonging to the order of existence. If it isn’t a system at all or even a way of life but just the way of life, then the idea of contesting it is nonsensical and doomed to failure. According to this way of thinking, the communist revolutions of the twentieth century ran aground not because of their own internal contradictions but because they attempted to violate the economic laws of nature. The idea of capitalism’s natural status or its correlation with human nature provides the fundamental obstacle to any attempt to contest capitalism’s dominance. Before capitalist relations of production can be challenged, people must believe that capitalism doesn’t exist, that it results from a break within the structure of being itself rather than simply deriving from that structure. The key to taking this step lies in an investigation of how the existence of capitalism becomes evident. It does so only at moments of crisis, which is what gives crisis its fecundity.

Although subjects within the capitalist universe experience themselves as free (free to make money, free to consume what they want, and so on), the system spares them the weight of the decision. We make numerous decisions every day concerning what to do, where to go, and what to buy, but none of these decisions occur outside the confines of the narrow limits of our given possibilities. The political decision, the decision concerning our way of life itself, disappears within the capitalist horizon. None of our everyday choices involve the risk of a radical transformation; instead, all offer the security of a well-known terrain. This security is the direct result of the belief in the substantial existence of capitalism, a belief that the system itself requires and sustains.

Belief in the existence of capitalism has become especially pronounced in the absence of any economic alternative. Political theorists today often lament the absence of political engagement among subjects within the capitalist economy. The problem is not just that few actively engage in political struggle but that it is difficult to conceptualize the world in political terms. Rather than seeing themselves as incessantly confronted by political questions, subjects today accept the given order as the natural state of things. This acceptance represents a retreat from politics, because politics necessarily involves a rupture with what is given. By conceiving [End Page...


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