Mexico as symptom

24 01 2011

…Thus the dream is that, since the excess was introduced from outside, i.e. is the work of an alien intruder, its elimination would enable us to obtain again a stable social organism whose parts form a harmonious corporate body, where, in contrast to capitalism’s constant social displacement, everybody would again occupy its own place. The function of the Master is to dominate the excess by locating its cause in a clearly defined social agency: “It is they who steal our enjoyment, who, by means of their excessive attitude, introduce imbalance and antagonism.” With the figure of the Master, the antagonism inherent in the social structure is transformed into a relationship of power, a struggle for domination between us and them, those who cause antagonistic imbalance.

Perhaps this matrix also helps us grasp the reemergence of nationalist chauvinism in Eastern Europe as a kind of “shock-absorber” against sudden exposure to the capitalist openness and imbalance. It is as if, in the very moment when the bond, the chain preserving free development of capitalism, i.e. a deregulated production of excess, was broken, it was countered by a demand for a new Master who will rein it in. What one demands is the establishment of a stable and clearly defined social body which will restrain capitalism’s destructive potential by cutting off the “excessive” element; and since this social body is experienced as that of a nation, the cause of any imbalance “spontaneously” assumes the form of a “national enemy”.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

The book from which this quote was taken was not an easy one to read. As in many of Zizek’s books, this wasn’t so much a book that held to one theme, but used certain themes from Kant and Hegel to elaborate upon a number of themes. For example, the chapter that preceded the one where this quote is found takes its inspiration from a theme from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. In the last chapter, “Enjoy your nation as yourself”, Zizek tries to break open a matter near to the history he was living: the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s. Zizek uses the tools of Lacanian analysis and critical theory to discuss why these countries broke apart the way they did, often in violent and genocidal blood baths. As you can see from the above, Zizek attributes this to the re-entrance of these regions into the capitalist sphere. The shock from this transition led to these peoples trying to find stability again in the midst of the societal chaos re-introduced with generalized commodity production.

When reading this particular section, I see another application of this idea. I see that the United States has a similar issue, particularly when it fails to see its intricate relationship with Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Indeed, the figure of the immigrant plays this role on and off within American history, especially the Catholic immigrant. The immigrant both is a threat to and a thief of our enjoyment: he is simultaneously lazy and stealing our work, he is both atavistically clannish and sexually deviant, etc. Of course, we have now the irony of anti-immigrant Catholics who think that the United States is becoming too heterogeneous, not able to absorb the new immigrants from Latin America into “our culture”. This echoes the anti-Catholic fears of Protestant pundits from a couple of generations ago.

Indeed, one could say that the United States – Mexico border is a perfect example of the Lacanian Real in American consciousness. The idea of a fortress-style America is betrayed by the existence of a four thousand mile border to the south. Many Americans have to pretend that such a thing does not exist, that it has always been an impermeable wall between two completely different dimensions. The realities of capitalism and the flow of goods are too traumatic to consider in the face of the interconnectedness of the two nations. Nor do Americans want to think about the imperialist relations that exist between the United States and Latin America. Indeed, the chaos caused in Mexico by the insatiable American taste for illegal drugs is a mirror reflection of the American political id: people being found with their heads cut off in broad daylight is the inverted vision of the gun-toting, tough-talking American patriot – his dream turned nightmare by his desire.

Indeed, the anti-immigrant sentiment now in vogue (not new by any means, but a constant theme that won’t die) may also be the result of having to create another “national enemy” in the face of a more absurd stage of late capitalism. Now that the manufacturing base has been decimated and the working class is running for its life, a new (or rather, old) enemy must be devised to make it seem that the antagonism and instability caused by capitalism is somehow caused by agents from the outside: in this case, the terrorist, the Washington bureaucrat, and the Mexican immigrant standing outside the Home Depot (it doesn’t matter if they are actually Salvadoran or Dominican, “they’re all Mexican to us”).

It is capitalism, however, with its constant innovation, its lack of concern for borders when they get in the way of the flow of capital, and its lust for profitability in the face of human desire that truly is the revolutionary force in society, one that overturns all “values and morals”. Indeed, along with the rhetoric of the foreign innovator, the other aspect of mystification is the apotheosis of the Founders of the Republic, constitutional literalism, the faith that “Americaness” trumps all class and racial distinctions, and so on. Like cocaine, these ideas are a drug that veils the reality of our own situation. As I have said of late, the antagonism is within; it is not cause by intruders from without.

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6 responses

28 01 2011
Leah

I honestly don’t see how the War on Drugs (either the US or Mexican one) can keep going with the situation as bad as it is. The idea of seeing crack or heroin sold next to Flintstones chewable vitamins is disturbing (i.e., total legalization), but so are mass beheadings and execution style murders. The ideal course of action would be to drastically reduce demand, but people seem to love being high and/or stoned, so that’s unlikely.

28 01 2011
Dave

Interesting discussion. I still don’t know what to make of all of this, but it just became very real to me yesterday when I learned that the wife of one my relatives, a missionary in Mexico, was murdered by the drug cartels. It’s all over the news now. It’s odd how, as an American, what happens elsewhere can begin to seem like a movie– something fictional. It’s such a disconnect from my comfy suburban existence. Lord have mercy.

25 01 2011
sancrucensis

I think the case you bring up is even more illuminating than Zizek’s case since, as you indicate, the increase in Latino immigration is itself caused by capitalism. In way what you say about the immigrant being seen as both “a threat to and a thief of our enjoyment” is really a statement one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, namely that its need for endless supplies of cheap labor hinders its need for cash-flush consumers. There is a clever talk by David Harvey where he analysis how capitalism tries to overcome this problem through moving it geographically:

25 01 2011
Manuel

Is it really capitalism? Isn’t it just human nature that a large wave of immigrants will change the landscape (in every respect) of a nation and that the the people already there will resent that?
I mean, that’s the history of US/Latin American relations isn’t it? “We like what you got so we’ll just invade/ encourage mass numbers of people to move to your place. But don’t go around violating our national sovereignty/borders.”

25 01 2011
sortacatholic

Arturo, while I appreciate your Lacanian view of the Mexican and Central American Other in our midst, I suspect that there is a different and simpler dynamic that courses through this particular socio-anthropological debate.

My father’s family came to the US in the 1880’s. His families were poor ethnic Poles but certainly not destitude. They were farmers on Long Island, back when Long Island was one long moor. Back then, the Slavic, Jewish, and southern European immigrants were viewed with deep suspicion by the wasp ascendancy. One hundred years later, the “ethnics” are the ascendancy in regional politics and business, though not in the Presidency.

The success of the “ethnics” in wasp American society of the latter 20th century certainly included a reversal of fortune: the newcomers eventually worked their way into positions of power. Do all new immigrant groups need to pay their dues before acceptance into American society? Some immigrant groups do eventually earn gravitas through the sweat of their brow and later higher education. The Latino influence in American society predates the waves of European immigrants that reshaped American culture in the 20th century. I suspect that the animosity lower income white and African-American workers exhibit towards Latino competition, especially in areas of deep Mexican influence such as the Southwest, betrays a cultural chasm much deeper than the relatively late and quick assimilation of European immigrants. Surely nativism, racism, and prejudice directed at Latinos in today’s US might have an immediate capitalist motive. We as a nation, and especially Southwestern Americans of all backgrounds, must tap into the long history of struggle between cultural groups in that region before the creation of peaceable economic and social cooperation between different ethnic groups. It’s not all about big box corporations and AM talk conspiracy theories.

24 01 2011
Leah

It’s interesting that many anti-immigration Catholics are also adherents or fellow travelers of the Austrian school of economics. Total free trade would involve the free transfer of individuals as well as capital and goods. In this regard, the pre-WWI world economy was freer than today, because immigration laws were practically non-existent. Prior to 1921, all you had to do to be a US citizen was to show up (and not be Chinese or a member of some other non-white group, but that’s another story). So shouldn’t all good free marketers be in favor of open borders?

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