Tag Archives: #slavojzizek


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Who would have thought that American liberals (unlike leftists) would be rooting for a scenario in which the military would be mobilized by Democrats to remove Trump from the White House if Biden gets elected, Trump calls the election rigged, and then refuses to leave. How far would we be at that point from a military coup?

In reality, the arbiters of a scenario in which Trump refuses to acknowledge a Biden win in November could well be the State electors who are supposed to be ratified by state legislatures in December to represent the majority vote of a State. State electors should, by convention, pledge their support to the majority candidate in a given state. But state electors can be technically “faithless” and pledge their votes to the minority winner in a state. There are many reasons why the U.S. constitution does not have a high standing in the world, and why even American constitutional scholars do not recommend it as a model for a new constitution in fledgling democracies. While such a move by electors would end up being challenged in court, the ensuing chaos, and Trump’s ability to instrumentalize it, would be devastating. Trump is all about the performative gesture. He needed only a few days of camouflage-clad unidentified federal agents invading Seattle protests to instill the fear of “radical anarchists and leftists” in his die-hard or potential voters.

Once again, in November, the survival of even a long-flawed democracy in the U.S. will come down to just how successfully Trump and other right-wing demagogic Republicans can fan the flames of white working-class and middle-class resentment to re-elect the “blue-collar billionaire.” Decades of Republican and Democratic allegiance to unregulated globalized capitalism resulted in massive work disenfranchisement. For Republican politicians this is just about the inevitable winners and losers in a zero-sum game. Democratic politicians purport to care. But rather than address the problems through wealth-redistribution policies, the majority of them have long gamed elections to try to win by razor-thin margins. For decades they gambled that there was no harm in having a college education be accessible to only 35% of the U.S. population at the same time that industrial and unionized jobs disappeared, agri-business closed down hundreds of thousands of family farms, and automation pushed people into unemployment or the precarious gig economy. It’s no coincidence that when Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, it was via the two states with huge numbers of tech jobs.

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Democratic inaction in a nutshell. (click on image.)

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ ”

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

The mass paranoia and the obsession on the part of his base with conspiracy theories, which have been so useful to Trump in the last five years, is built into the populist imagination because, as Zizek points out, political populism requires a disavowal of knowledge and a projection toward an enemy somewhere out there. It requires that the populist subject refuse (and I would argue be unable): “…to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, [giving] rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.” Some agent lurking behind the scenes – hence, the rants about the “deep state,” the rigged elections, the crooked media, etc., and the scary rise of QAnon.

  • “1% of the global population possess 46% of available resources.

  • 10% of the global population possess 86% of the available resources.

  • 50% of the global population possess nothing.

“…so we have an oligarchy of 10%, and then we have a destitute mass of almost half of the global population, the mass of the destitute population, the overwhelming majority of the African and Asian masses. …There remain the other 40%. These 40% are the middle classes…who laboriously share out between them the remaining 14% of the world’s resources. It is largely a Western class. It is the mass support for local democratic power…I think that we can say that a very important aim of this group is not to fall back into, not to be identified with, the immense mass of the destitute.

…This is why this class, taken as a whole, is porous to racism, to xenophobia, to hatred of the destitute. These are the subjective determinations that threaten this median mass which defines the West in the broad sense, or the representation it has of itself; and they are determinations that fuel a sentiment of superiority.”

Our Wound is Not So Recent, Alain Badiou, 2016

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60% of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump in 2016. That most of them may be racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-arab, etc., is unquestionable. But it is their inability to understand how they are positioned in relation to capital that makes them particularly vulnerable to demagogic manipulation by the political right. It is their paranoid projections that embolden the Republican politicans who are primarily out to consolidate corporate power and push wealth ever upward, but will actively exploit racism and other deadly prejudices if that provides a cover for the destruction of the “administrative state.” If state legislatures wreak havoc in November, it will be because Republicans overtly fan the flames of resentment, while Democrats have done so by default for decades.

“Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing. They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the “thin blue line” between the haves and the have-nots.”

The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale, 2017

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Globalized capital is making billions off of mass pandemic suffering – shorting investments that depend on bankruptcies and loss of jobs and climate disasters, consolidating markets, and getting unlimited federal stock market subsidies.  Chaos is the operative word. Capital always welcomes chaos because there is profit in lawlessness (the ultimate deregulation), as long as militarized police are willing to protect the privileged. Global corporations and finance capital have long set the stage for the election of a lawless crook. If Trump hadn’t arrived on the scene, it would have been someone like him. Why else have the 1% been so eerily silent during the pandemic – even during the anti-racism uprisings? They need not do anything public while corporate political hacks and  inchoate right-wing resentment do the dirty work for them. And even if the Democrats manage to win this November, 2024 will be the ultimate nightmare if they don’t manage to attend to mass precarity.

According to Freud, it is when people’s self-love is threatened that they resort to extremes. Far from being humbled, they tend to lash out in narcissistic self-defence. We are in a vicious circle if it is true that there are no limits to what people will do to hold onto their belief in themselves…A group is nothing if not the struggle to preserve its ideal image of itself…In psychoanalytic terms, you might say that narcissists are so frantic and demanding because of the extent of the internal damage they are battling to repair.

Jacqueline Rose, “In Our Present Day White Christian Culture,” 2004

Coda: Following the Republican Convention I notice the usual befuddled and astonished references by Democratic pundits, politicians on news shows, and journalists to the irrationality of a Trump base that is willing to follow him to the death, given Trump’s failure to curtail the pandemic and its ensuing economic collapse, etc. But those who do not include the recognition of an unconscious in their analyses cannot understand that self-destructive behavior often has its own logic beneath the surface. It is the group identification aspect of that base that keeps itself coherent, hence the unwavering 42% approval rating that Trump has had for four years. It will take actual capital-challenging policies to dislodge that mass identification over time, but it will also take an understanding of mass psychology – either self-consciously or instinctively – for politicians and mass cultural producers to create fissures in that seemingly unmovable base. Liberals and centrist democrats can delude themselves into thinking that we don’t need to budge that base, but rather just continue to game the electoral system. But that is one very dangerous game to play.

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occupy brainsPopulism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

There are many things I’m afraid of in this world, but wrestling with a theoretical text that is beyond my intellectual capacity is not one. Over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of displaced aggression from students who felt overwhelmed by theoretical texts. But the problem seems to be a top-down one. The attitude of a culture toward theory (or toward intellectuality in general) is felt at every level, including at the level of curating-by-poll, or in the sweeping under the rug of museum education departments some of the thornier issues confronting art. Anti-intellectualism occupies brains; it values the skimming of surfaces and it reduces complexity to slick slogans; it compromises democracy, particularly at a moment of extreme political and ideological complexity. It isn’t surprising that in the 1970s Derrida was intensely involved in opposing a move toward “rationalizing” education in France by arguing for the value of philosophy, and was also successfully involved with others in pushing for philosophy to be taught at the high school level in France [Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?].

The U.S. academic world, as well as the so-called art world, has had a love/hate relationship with theory. Theory – that writing which concerns itself with a structural understanding of history, language, phenomena, events, and subjectivity – seems to be under intermittent attack in the US. The right posits it as elitist, and the left and liberal-left often posit it as useless in relation to politics. The spoken and unspoken assumptions of the anti-theoretical are that theory consists of jargonistic language written and spoken by charlatans. For the anti-theoretical left in particular, theory shirks its political and historical responsibilities. Noam Chomsky’s recent attack on Slavoj Zizek is classic in this regard. He complains that Zizek’s type of theory is frivolous because it’s not “scientific” or “serious.” There’s no question in my mind that Zizek “won” that debate. Frankly, Zizek won even before he responded to Chomsky’s attack, because it’s apparent from his comments that Chomsky has never read Zizek’s books. It seems to be the case that many disparage Zizek’s writings without reading him (i.e. “I did read a book of his, about fifteen years ago…). It’s clear that Chomsky hasn’t read Zizek because if he had he would know that Zizek’s writings incorporate history, and apply theory to contemporary political events, and that his writing is quite clear, albeit requiring some understanding of terminology which I would think Chomsky could manage to master if he were interested in any writing that was not positivist. The same disregard for reading seems to apply to disparagers of Derrida (who Chomsky also threw into the mix when he sent out the first volley in the exchange).

Left and liberal pragmatists and positivists who are allergic to theory evade examining the complexities of political subjectivity, and thus have to resort to platitudes when questions are raised as to how new political subjects might arise in the midst of the seemingly totalizing political and economic crises we now face. The only way positivists can explain why those who suffer often don’t rebel is to overemphasize the raw power of the oppressor, an explanation that leads to closure.

And then there’s the most anti-intellectually derided category of theory, “pure” theory, that writing – usually of the philosophical type – that does not incorporate history and does not apply itself except very obliquely to contemporary phenomena, and may – what a horror – actually involve the learning of a vocabulary, or an acclimation to a writer’s particular use of language. That kind of writing is hard for the uninitiated and undereducated to penetrate, but it’s in that kind of writing that I often find glimmers of insight into painfully contorted ideological knots. I was sent such a text recently, for advice on where it might be published. I understood only about a quarter of the text, with effort, and I can’t personally think of where it could be published here, but it reminded me of the relationship of such texts to concepts of democracy. Because although I value and benefit from the kinds of philosophical writings and other kinds of theory that are applied and co-mingled with history, such texts are largely directive. “Pure” theory creates a different space; it asks you to move toward your own applications and references. It produces just the sort of subjectivity that governments such as ours are at pains to foreclose with their technocratic and plutocratic education “reforms.”

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