I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s short book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (see my Tumblr for a brief summary of what Fisher means by “capitalist realism”). In one chapter, “All that is solid melts into PR”, Fisher looks at the purpose of the PR, branding and marketing activity that pervades contemporary capitalism, and discusses Slavoj Žižek’s concept (originally from Lacan) of “the big Other”:
The big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead we only confront its stand-ins. (p.44)
These “stand-ins” include not only political leaders but (perhaps even more so) the media. It is this “big Other” towards which PR is directed:
One important dimension of the big Other is that it does not know everything. It is this constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function. Indeed, the big Other could be defined as the consumer of PR and propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe even when no individual can. (p.44)
It is easier to grasp what is meant by the “big Other” when we look at it in the context of a society whose illusions we are now able to see through: the Communist states of eastern Europe that proclaimed themselves to be examples of “Really Existing Socialism”:
Who was it … who didn’t know that Really Existing Socialism (RES) was shabby and corrupt? Not any of the people, who were all too aware of its shortcomings; nor any of the government administrators, who couldn’t but know. No, it was the big Other who was the one deemed not to know – who wasn’t allowed to know – the quotidian reality of RES. (pp.44f.)
The distinction between what the big Other knows and “what is widely known and experienced by actual individuals” is more than “‘merely’ emptily formal”. If the distinction is lost – if the big Other is suddenly made aware of what it previously did not know – the social system itself can disintegrate.
Fisher argues that this was the real significance of Krushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalinism. He wasn’t telling his audience anything they didn’t already know, as individuals, about the brutality and corruption of Stalin’s regime, but:
…Krushchev’s announcement made it impossible to believe any more that the big Other was ignorant of them. (p.45)
So that’s Really Existing Socialism; but what about Really Existing Capitalism? Fisher argues that the prevalence of PR, branding and advertising shows that capitalism can only operate if Capital’s true nature – “rapacious, indifferent, inhuman” – is masked by “various forms of sheathing”:
Really Existing Capitalism is marked by the same division which characterised Really Existing Socialism, between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc. (p.46)
Or as we might put it: Capital devours widows’ houses and for a show makes lengthy Corporate Social Responsibility statements.
A small-scale capitalist equivalent to Krushchev’s collapsing of Stalinism’s “big Other” can be seen in the fate of Gerald Ratner:
Ratner precisely tried to circumvent the Symbolic and “tell it how it is”, describing the inexpensive jewellery his shops sold as “crap” in an after-dinner speech. But the consequence of Ratner making this judgment official were immediate, and serious – £500m was wiped off the value of the company and he lost his job. Customers might previously have known that the jewellery Ratners sold was rather poor quality, but the big Other didn’t know; as soon as it did, Ratners collapsed. (pp.46f.)
All this makes me wonder what it is today that the “big Other” in our society does, and doesn’t, know. Further thoughts on this are invited.
One practical political point, though: as Labour seeks to defend its legacy from Tory/Lib Dem attacks, we do need to clear with ourselves about what were genuine achievements that were “widely known and experienced by actual individuals”, and what were things that perhaps only the “big Other” knew about.