Thursday, December 02, 2004

Going So Far Over the Rainbow As To Jump the Shark

Now that I'm fully moved and the desk is assembled, I can finally get to a lot of the articles that I long ago bookmarked and printed, in hopes that they'd inspire me and Silentio on to bigger and brighter posts. One can always count on Slavoj Zizek for a little inspiration, if nothing else.

In his most recent piece, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow!', he uses Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America as a means to return to beating his nearly dead hobby-horse: liberalism. I've been reading some very interesting interesting blog posts about this book ([1] [2]), so I maybe it's high time to finally check it out. As is usual with Zizek's book reviews, he doesn't spend much time talking about the book itself. (N.b., I really wish I could get away with that!) Also as usual, there's a lot that's worth reflecting on and quite a bit to question pretty vigorously.

First the stuff worth reflecting on, no matter how repetitious the theme:

The first thing to note here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological topic of the "enlightened" liberals whose politics is focused on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance. The key question is thus: why is "culture" emerging as our central life-world category? We no longer "really believe," we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the "life-style" of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules "out of respect for tradition," etc.). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December - "culture" is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously."

I don't have much to add to this, except to say that I think it's pretty spot-on and a recurrent theme of this particular blog, especially when it comes to popular manifestations of religion.

He goes on to add:

The second thing to note is how, while professing their solidarity with the poor, liberals encode culture war with an opposed class message: more often than not, their fight for multicultural tolerance and women's rights marks the counter-position to the alleged intolerance, fundamentalism, and patriarchal sexism of the "lower classes." The way to unravel this confusion is to focus on the mediating terms the function of which is to obfuscate the true lines of division. The way "modernization" is used in the recent ideological offensive is exemplary here: first, an abstract opposition is constructed between "modernizers" (those who endorse global capitalism in all its aspects, from economic to cultural) and "traditionalists" (those who resist globalization). Into this category of those-who-resist are then thrown all, from the traditional conservatives and populist Right to the "Old Left" (those who continue to advocate Welfare state, trade unions ...).

[. . .]

The third thing to take note of is the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other -- even if not a direct physical annihilation, class struggle aims at the annihilation of the other's socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and strivings. In one case, we have a "horizontal" logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.

The paradox here is that it is the populist fundamentalism which retains this logic of antagonism, while the liberal Left follows the logic of recognition of differences, of "defusing" antagonisms into co-existing differences: in their very form, the conservative-populist grass-roots campaigns took over the old Leftist-radical stance of the popular mobilization and struggle against upper-class exploitation. This unexpected reversal is just one in a long series. In today's US, the traditional roles of Democrats and Republicans are almost inverted: Republicans spend state money, thus generating record budget deficit, de facto build a strong federal state, and pursue a politics of global interventionism, while Democrats pursue a tough fiscal politics that, under Clinton, abolished budget deficit. Even in the touchy sphere of socio-economic politics, Democrats (the same as with Blair in the UK) as a rule accomplish the neoliberal agenda of abolishing the Welfare State, lowering taxes, privatizing, etc., while Bush proposed a radical measure of legalizing the status of the millions of illegal Mexican workers and made healthcare much more accessible to the retired. The extreme case is here that of the survivalist groups in the West of the US: although their ideological message is that of religious racism, their entire mode of organization (small illegal groups fighting FBI and other federal agencies) makes them an uncanny double of the Black Panthers from the 1960s.

Again, I think Zizek is spot-on. However ... the manner in which he fleshes this out, or fails to do so adequately, is pretty problematic. The upshot of his review is:

Are [today's liberals] not getting back from the conservative populists their own message in its inverted/true form? In other words, are conservative populists not the symptom of tolerant enlightened liberals? Is the scary and ridiculous Kansas redneck who explodes in fury against liberal corruption not the very figure in the guise of which the liberal encounters the truth of his own hypocrisy? We should thus (to refer to the most popular song about Kansas, from The Wizard of Oz) reach over the rainbow - over the "rainbow coalition" of the single-issue struggles, favored by radical liberals - and dare to look for an ally in what appears as the ultimate enemy of tolerant liberalism.

This is all well, good and 'radical', but I can't help but think that it is a line of thought that is not especially embodied in anything resembling practical reality. That is to say, how exactly does the 'alliance' of the Right and Left against liberalism actually effect the Leftist socio-economic agenda that Zizek clearly advocates? This is a philosopher, one recalls, who appropriately chides liberals of various stripe and hue as being devotees of the 'Beautiful Soul'-syndrome, whereby they have radical visions (e.g., freedom for Palestine, etc.) but lack the fortitude to deal with the radical consequences of those visions actually taking place. In other words, political / practical reality is pretty damn important. To this end, even though Zizek would undoubtedly not align himself with it, does not Timothy Burke's vision of the possible alliance of the anti-capitalist Left and Right if the Democrat party were to choose the path of communitarianism and 'moral values' as the means to resurrect itself (pp. 6-8), give us a clue as to how Zizek's position might be fleshed out?

Now, I'm not inclined to use the term sophistry too often, as I think it is often a non-starter that could easily be used on me, too; but when a philosopher of Zizek's political zeal is saying something he probably does not truly believe is the case or even practically viable, the accusation seems appropriate. The problem isn't that Zizek doesn't believe anything ... but that in this instance his political vision, i.e., his incessant need to always blast liberalism by praising the Right with a backhand bitch slap, does not seem to match the reality of the Leftist 'impossible actions' he advocates.

To be fair, as noted elsewhere, it may be significant to note that Zizek wrote this in mid-September, some six weeks before his Republican 'allies' swept back into power with a moralistic fury. I'm very curious to see how/if this changes his perspective.