Capitalism Without Symptoms: Protest in the Developed World

Slavoj Žižek sees the vagueness of recent protests in Turkey, Brazil and the U.S. as a symptom of a deeper problem with the goals of revolt in prosperous countries.

The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.


In Žižek's Lacanian psychoanalytic view, protests in late capitalist states are always about something else. Their political ends, like objects of desire, will always be elusive. Protests over bus fare hikes are really about protests against corruption, which is to say democracy, by which they mean economic egalitarianism, which means soccer players are paid too much.

Essentially what protesters want is capitalism without symptoms. Occupy Wall Street was never really about destroying Wall Street. It was the expression of frustration at all the absurdities and unresolvable irrittants that come with our affluence. These frustrations are symptoms of the complex and often contradictory ways capitalism has developed in a certain country. Wall Street was a potent symbol because it's not a place so much as a process–specifically, of money forever moving elsewhere, but never back to your own pocket for keeps. Hence the stubborn immobility of Occupy Wall Street: the protesters were trying to become a symptom to be interpreted by the middle class conditioned to believe easy explanations. 

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