Use Your Illusions

Slavoj Žižek

Noam Chomsky called for people to vote for Obama ‘without illusions’. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will make only some minor improvements, turning out to be ‘Bush with a human face’. He will pursue the same basic policies in a more attractive way and thus effectively strengthen the US hegemony, damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.

There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction – a key dimension is missing from it. Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. This is why an American friend of mine, a hardened leftist with no illusions, cried when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

In The Contest of Faculties, Kant asked a simple but difficult question: is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress, not just material development.) He concluded that progress cannot be proven, but we can discern signs which indicate that progress is possible. The French Revolution was such a sign, pointing towards the possibility of freedom: the previously unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality. For Kant, even more important than the – often bloody – reality of what went on on the streets of Paris was the enthusiasm that the events in France gave rise to in the eyes of sympathetic observers all around Europe and in places as far away as Haiti, where it triggered another world-historical event: the first revolt by black slaves. Arguably the most sublime moment of the French Revolution occurred when the delegation from Haiti, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, visited Paris and were enthusiastically received at the Popular Assembly as equals among equals.

Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements. The scepticism displayed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives – what if, in the privacy of the voting booth, the publicly disavowed racism will re-emerge? – was proved wrong. One of the interesting things about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, is how utterly wrong most of his predictions were. When news reached the West of the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, for example, Kissinger immediately accepted the new regime as a fact. It collapsed ignominiously three days later. The paradigmatic cynic tells you confidentially: ‘But don’t you see that it is all really about money/power/sex, that professions of principle or value are just empty phrases which count for nothing?’ What the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions.

The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm is not only that, against all odds, it really happened: it demonstrated the possibility of such a thing happening. The same goes for all great historical ruptures – think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we didn’t really believe that they would disintegrate – like Kissinger, we were all victims of cynical pragmatism. Obama’s victory was clearly predictable for at least two weeks before the election, but it was still experienced as a surprise.

The true battle begins now, after the victory: the battle for what this victory will effectively mean, especially within the context of two other more ominous events: 9/11 and the current financial meltdown, an instance of history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as comedy. President Bush’s addresses to the American people after 9/11 and the financial meltdown sound like two versions of the same speech. Both times, he evoked the threat to the American way of life and the need for fast and decisive action. Both times, he called for the partial suspension of American values (guarantees to individual freedom, market capitalism) to save those very values. Where does this similarity come from?

The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 marked the beginning of the ‘happy 1990s’. According to Francis Fukuyama, liberal democracy had, in principle, won. The era is generally seen as having come to an end on 9/11. However, it seems that the utopia had to die twice: the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of global market capitalism, which has now come to an end.

The financial meltdown has made it impossible to ignore the blatant irrationality of global capitalism. In the fight against Aids, hunger, lack of water or global warming, we may recognise the urgency of the problem, but there is always time to reflect, to postpone decisions. The main conclusion of the meeting of world leaders in Bali to talk about climate change, hailed as a success, was that they would meet again in two years to continue the talks. But with the financial meltdown, the urgency was unconditional; a sum beyond imagination was immediately found. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, finding a cure for Aids, saving the starving children … All that can wait a bit, but ‘Save the banks!’ is an unconditional imperative which demands and gets immediate action. The panic was absolute. A transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established, all grudges among world leaders momentarily forgotten in order to avert the catastrophe. (Incidentally, what the much-praised ‘bi-partisanship’ effectively means is that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.) The sublimely enormous sum of money was spent not for some clear ‘real’ task, but in order to ‘restore confidence’ in the markets – i.e. for reasons of belief. Do we need any more proof that Capital is the Real of our lives, the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing demands of our social and natural reality?

Compare the $700 billion spent on stabilising the banking system by the US alone to the $22 billion pledged by richer nations to help poorer nations cope with the food crisis, of which only $2.2 billion has been made available. The blame for the food crisis cannot be put on the usual suspects of corruption, inefficiency or state interventionism. Even Bill Clinton has acknowledged that ‘we all blew it, including me,’ by treating food crops as commodities instead of a vital right of the world's poor. Clinton was very clear in blaming not individual states or governments, but the long-term Western policy imposed by the US and European Union and enacted by the World Bank, the IMF and other international institutions. African and Asian countries were pressured into dropping government subsidies for farmers, opening up the way for the best land to be used for more lucrative export crops. The result of such ‘structural adjustments’ was the integration of local agriculture into the global economy: crops were exported, farmers were thrown off their land and pushed into sweat-shops, and poorer countries had to rely more and more on imported food. In this way, they are kept in postcolonial dependence, vulnerable to market fluctuations – soaring grain prices (caused in part by the use of crops for biofuels) have meant starvation in countries from Haiti to Ethiopia.

Clinton is right to say that ‘food is not a commodity like others. We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.’ There are at least two things to add here. First, developed Western countries have taken great care to maintain their own food self-sufficiency through financial support for their farmers (farm subsidies account for almost half of the entire EU budget). Second, the list of things which are not ‘commodities like others’ is much longer: apart from food (and defence, as all patriots are aware), there are water, energy, the environment, culture, education, health – who will make decisions about these, if they cannot be left to the market? It is here that the question of Communism has to be raised again.

The cover story in Time magazine on 5 June 2006 was ‘The Deadliest War in the World’ – a detailed account of the political violence that has killed four million people in Congo over the last decade. None of the usual humanitarian uproar followed, just a couple of readers’ letters. Time picked the wrong victim: it should have stuck to Muslim women or Tibetan monks. The death of a Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is worth thousands more column inches than the death of a nameless Congolese. Why? On 30 October, Associated Press reported that Laurent Nkunda, the rebel general besieging Congo's eastern provincial capital Goma, has said he wants direct talks with the government about his objections to a billion-dollar deal giving China access to the country's vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway. Neo-colonialist problems aside, this deal poses a vital threat to the interests of local warlords, since it would create the infrastructural base for the Democratic Republic of Congo as a functioning united state.

In 2001, a UN investigation into the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that the conflict in the country is mainly about access to, control of and trade in five key minerals: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. According to this investigation, the exploitation of Congo's natural resources by local warlords and foreign armies was ‘systematic and systemic’. Rwanda's army made at least $250 million in 18 months by selling coltan, which is used in cellphones and laptops. The report concluded that the permanent civil war and disintegration of Congo ‘has created a “win-win” situation for all belligerents. The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people.’ Beneath the façade of ethnic warfare, we thus discern the contours of global capitalism.

Among the greatest exploiters are Rwandan Tutsis, the victims of the genocide 14 years ago. Earlier this year, the Rwandan government published documents that demonstrated the Mitterrand administration’s complicity in the genocide: France supported the Hutu plan for the takeover, even supplying them with arms, in order to regain influence at the expense of the anglophone Tutsis. France’s outright dismissal of the accusations as totally unfounded was, to say the least, itself unfounded. Bringing Mitterrand to the Hague tribunal, even posthumously, would cross a fateful line, for the first time bringing to trial a leading Western politician who pretended to act as a protector of freedom, democracy and human rights.

There has been in recent weeks an extraordinary mobilisation of the ruling ideology to combat the threats to the current order. The French neoliberal economist Guy Sorman, for example, recently said in an interview in Argentina that ‘this crisis will be short enough.’ By saying this, Sorman is fulfilling the basic ideological demand with regard to the financial meltdown: renormalise the situation. As he puts it elsewhere, ‘this ceaseless replacement of the old with the new – driven by technical innovation and entrepreneurialism, itself encouraged by good economic policies – brings prosperity, though those displaced by the process, who find their jobs made redundant, can understandably object to it.’ (This renormalisation coexists with its opposite: the panic raised by the authorities in order to make the public ready to accept the proposed – obviously unjust – solution as inevitable.) Sorman admits that the market is full of irrational behaviour, but is quick to add that ‘it would be preposterous to use behavioral economics to justify restoring excessive state regulations. After all, the state is no more rational than the individual, and its actions can have enormously destructive consequences.’ He goes on:

An essential task of democratic governments and opinion makers when confronting economic cycles and political pressure is to secure and protect the system that has served humanity so well, and not to change it for the worse on the pretext of its imperfection. Still, this lesson is doubtless one of the hardest to translate into language that public opinion will accept. The best of all possible economic systems is indeed imperfect. Whatever the truths uncovered by economic science, the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.

Rarely was the function of ideology described in clearer terms: to defend the existing system against any serious critique, legitimising it as a direct expression of human nature.

It is unlikely that the financial meltdown of 2008 will function as a blessing in disguise, the awakening from a dream, the sobering reminder that we live in the reality of global capitalism. It all depends on how it will be symbolised, on what ideological interpretation or story will impose itself and determine the general perception of the crisis. When the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the late 1920s, Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic and the way out of it; in France in 1940 Maréchal Pétain’s narrative won in the contest to find the reasons for the French defeat. Consequently, to put it in old-fashioned Marxist terms, the main task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative that will not put the blame for the meltdown on the global capitalist system as such, but on its deviations – lax regulation, the corruption of big financial institutions etc.

Against this tendency, one should insist on the key question: which ‘flaw’ of the system as such opens up the possibility for such crises and collapses? The first thing to bear in mind here is that the origin of the crisis is a ‘benevolent’ one: after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, the decision reached across party lines was to facilitate real estate investments in order to keep the economy going and prevent recession – today’s meltdown is the price for the US having avoided a recession seven years ago.

The danger is thus that the predominant narrative of the meltdown won’t be the one that awakes us from a dream, but the one that will enable us to continue to dream. And it is here that we should start to worry: not only about the economic consequences of the meltdown, but about the obvious temptation to reinvigorate the ‘war on terror’ and US interventionism in order to keep the economy running. Nothing was decided with Obama’s victory, but it widens our freedom and thereby the scope of our decisions. No matter what happens, it will remain a sign of hope in our otherwise dark times, a sign that the last word does not belong to realistic cynics, from the left or the right.