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  • The Culture of Capitalism and the Crisis of Critique
  • Jason Hickel and Arsalan Khan


As over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in October, 2010 for the Rally to Restore Sanity, more than a few of Jon Stewart’s fans were confused as to why exactly he had summoned them there. In fact, many people on the left end of the political spectrum felt distinctly uneasy about the whole project, as Stewart’s call for reasonable and polite dialogue seemed to vitiate his voice as a political critic in the face of increasingly volatile bombast from the Right. During the weeks leading up to the event, Stewart mobilized a vision of “the 70–80 percenters” sitting down to discuss the nation’s issues in a gracious, civil manner regardless of their party affiliation. This approach to the political process bears a striking resemblance to that which President Obama has promoted since taking office in 2009. During his campaign, Obama became famous for the sentiment that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America…there’s not a black America and a white America; there’s the United States of America,” as he stated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Over the past few years, this call to civil agreement has taken the form of numerous failed attempts to reach across the aisle in the spirit of mutual [End Page 203] cooperation. Indeed, Obama has even sought to solve several major crises of capitalism—such as the financial meltdown of 2008 and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—with respectful and sometimes even jocular meetings with the CEOs of the corporations in question. Like Stewart, Obama seems to believe that if he can just get everyone together at the same table Americans will be able to tackle these “challenges” (as he calls them) in a sort of win-win exchange. In the process, he has seen fit to rely on the advice of neoliberal stalwarts like Lawrence Summers and Paul Volcker, the very men whose economic policies have helped create the crises at hand.

How is it that, during a moment of unprecedented social inequality and a massive recession generated by elite overaccumulation (see Harvey 2011), the Left has failed to articulate a compelling challenge to the economic status quo? How have we arrived at a place where the Left’s only plan for change is to further facilitate market deregulation and advance the consolidation of monopoly capitalism? How has neoliberalism triumphed even among those who should be its fiercest critics? Part of this can be explained by understanding the conception of politics typified by Stewart and Obama. As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have put it, the problem is that “the notion of antagonism has been erased from the political discourse of the Left” (2001:xiv). This is where the main problem lies, namely, that the Left in America today promotes a depoliticized politics as it attempts to distance itself from socialism, reclaim the center, and establish a “modern” identity. The prevailing model of deliberative democracy and rational consensus on how to solve America’s “challenges” dispenses with the notion that capitalist society is shot through with deeply incompatible interests, choosing instead to believe that issues such as poverty, exploitation, and racism can be solved with multicultural tolerance and interpersonal goodwill. This model reduces structural violence to questions of individual sentiment, and places capitalism firmly in the non-moral realm of “science” where it remains insulated from serious political scrutiny (Ferguson 2006:69ff). The result, as Laclau and Mouffe have put it, is that “the forces of globalization are detached from their political dimensions and appear as a fate to which we all have to submit” (2001:xvi).

The Left’s departure from antagonism and hegemony in favor of inclusion and reconciliation proceeds in part from the ethic of multiculturalism, which rejects “fundamentalism” as the repugnant Other of the modern subject (Harding 1991). Liberal multiculturalism seeks a “safe” Other, an [End Page 204] Other devoid of fundamentalisms, an Other that matches up with the basic tenets of a “generic,” egalitarian human nature; in other words, an experience of...