Zizek on Clinton's budget

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Mon Feb 22 13:44:02 PST 1999

[I wouldn't get carried away with the virtuality of finance, at the expense of occluding the real relations of power and subordination finance embodies, but as for the psychology of debt paydown, I like it. Clinton's budget takes the reconciliation of accounts for real; we'll see if the reality is as rich as the fantasy. This is from Zizek's Tarrying with the Negative, pp. 79-80.]

As we know from Keynes onwards, the capitalist economy is "virtual" in a very precise sense: Keynes's favorite maxim was that in the long term we are all dead; the paradox of the capitalist economics is that our borrowing from the (virtual) future, i.e., our printing of money "uncovered" in "real" values, can bring about real effects (growth). Herein lies the crucial difference between Keynes and economic "fundamentalists" who favor the actual "settling of accounts" (reimbursing the credits, abolishing the "borrowing from the future").

Keynes's point is not simply that "unnatural" crediting by way of "uncovered" money, inflation, or state spending can provide the impulse which results in actual economic growth and thus enables us eventually to achieve a balance whereby we settle accounts at a much higher level of economic prosperity Keynes concedes that the moment of some final " settling of accounts" would be a catastrophe, that the entire system would collapse. Yet the art of economic politics is precisely to prolong the virtual game and thus to postpone ad infinitum the moment of final settlement. In this precise sense capitalism is a "virtual" system: it is sustained by a purely virtual keeping of accounts; debts are incurred which will never be cleared. However, although purely fictitious, this "balancing" must be preserved as a kind of Kantian "regulative Idea" if the system is to survive. What Marx as well as strict monetarists commonly hold against Keynes is the conviction that sometimes, sooner or later, the moment will arrive when we actually shall have to "settle accounts," reimburse debts and thus place the system on its proper, "natural" foundations." Lacan's notion of the debt that pertains to the very notion of the symbolic order is strictly homologous to this capitalist debt: sense as such is never "proper"; it is always advanced, "borrowed from the future"; it lives on the account of the virtual future sense.

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