Over the Rainbow
Slavoj Žižek on Populist Conservatism
In Kansas and other states in the American heartland, economic class conflict (poor farmers and blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) has been transposed into an opposition between honest, hard-working, Christian Americans on the one hand, and decadent latte-drinking liberals who drive foreign cars, mock patriotism and advocate abortion and homosexuality on the other: so Thomas Frank argues in What’s the Matter with America? The main economic interest of populist conservatism is to get rid of the strong state, which taxes the population in order to finance regulatory interventions, and to introduce an economic programme whose slogan might be ‘less tax, fewer regulations’. From the standard perspective which holds that economic agency is based on the rational pursuit of self-interest, the inconsistency of this stance is obvious: populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and increased deregulation means more freedom for the corporations that are driving impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help for small farmers, and so on. In the eyes of the evangelical populists, however, the state is an alien power and, together with the UN, an agent of the Antichrist: it relieves the Christian believer of the responsibility of stewardship, and thus undermines the need for individual morality that makes each of us the architect of our own salvation.
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Vol. 26 No. 23 · 2 December 2004
My comments on the paradoxes of US populist conservatism were made just before the US election (LRB, 4 November). The result, it seems to me, poses the basic paradox of democracy itself. In The History of the VKP(b), Stalin (who ghost-wrote the book) describes the outcome of the voting at a party congress in the late 1920s: ‘With a large majority, the delegates unanimously approved the resolution proposed by the Central Committee.’ If the vote was unanimous, where then did the minority disappear? Far from demonstrating some perverse totalitarian twist, this anecdote lays bare the nature of democracy. It is based on a short-circuit between majority and the totality: the majority accounts for everyone and the winner takes all, even if his majority is merely a couple of hundred votes among millions.
‘Democracy’ is not merely the ‘power of, by and for the people’; it is not the salient feature of democracy that the will and interests (the two do not automatically coincide) of the large majority determine state decisions. Democracy – in the way the term is used today – means that, whatever electoral manipulation takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were, despite appearances, effectively ‘democratic’: in spite of obvious electoral manipulation, and of the absurdity of the fact that a couple of hundred votes in Florida decided who would be president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. When, in the weeks of uncertainty after the election, Bill Clinton said, ‘The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said,’ the remark should have been taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don’t know the ‘true’ result – and maybe this is because there was no substantial ‘message’ behind the result. Those old enough to recall the attempts of ‘democratic socialists’ to oppose to the miseries of ‘really-existing socialism’ a vision of authentic socialism will know that such attempts deserve the standard Hegelian response: the failure of reality to live up to its notion bears witness to the inherent weakness of the notion. Why should the same not hold for democracy? Isn’t it all too simple to oppose to ‘really-existing’ liberal capitalo-democracy a more true ‘radical’ democracy?
This is not to say, however, that Bush’s victory was just an accident or a mistake, the result of fraud and manipulation. Hegel wrote apropos of Napoleon that it was only after his second defeat, at Waterloo, that it became clear to him that his defeat was the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: he had to win twice in order for liberals to perceive that we are entering a new era.
And, in this respect, thinking leftists should be glad that Bush won. It’s better this way because the contours of the confrontations to come will be drawn in a much clearer way. Had Kerry won, it would have been a historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division; he didn’t have a global vision that presented a viable alternative to Bush’s. Besides, Bush’s victory is paradoxically better for the economic prospects of both Europe and Latin America: in order to win the support of the trade unions, Kerry had promised more protectionist measures.
However, the main advantage has to do with international politics. If Kerry had won, liberals would have had to face up to the consequences of the Iraq war, and the Bush camp would have been able to ascribe to them the results of its own catastrophic decisions. In 1979, in her essay ‘Dictators and Double Standards’, Jeanne Kirkpatrick elaborated the distinction between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes which served as the justification for the US policy of collaborating with rightist dictators while attempting to destabilise Communist regimes: authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent to ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big idea. In contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless ideological fanatics who are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals. Authoritarian rulers react rationally and predictably to material and military threats – they can be dealt with. Totalitarian leaders are much more dangerous and have to be confronted directly. The irony is that this distinction perfectly encapsulates what went wrong with the US occupation of Iraq: Saddam was a corrupt authoritarian dictator guided by brutal pragmatic considerations. The US intervention has generated a much more uncompromising, ‘fundamentalist’ opposition which rejects pragmatic compromises.
Bush’s victory will dispel any illusions there may have been about the solidarity of interests among developed countries; it will also give new impetus to the painful but necessary process of building new alliances such as the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. It is a journalistic cliché to praise ‘postmodern’, dynamic US capitalism at the expense of old Europe’s regulatory illusions. However, Europe is now going much further than the US towards constituting itself as a properly ‘postmodern’ unity in which there is room for everyone, independent of geography or culture, including Cyprus and Turkey.
No reason to despair, then. Even if today the prospects look dark, we should remember one of the great Bushisms: ‘The future will be better tomorrow.’
Vol. 26 No. 24 · 16 December 2004
Slavoj Žižek misunderstands the lesson of the recent American election as an injunction to move beyond the multiculturalist politics represented by the Rainbow Coalition in favour of a more class-oriented approach (LRB, 4 November). In the United States, as in most of the postcolonial world, class and race (and gender) are never that far apart. Where there were significant concentrations of working-class voters – in cities, for example – the vote was strongly for Kerry in both blue and red states. Where Kerry lost significant support, as compared to Gore in 2002, was among Latinos, of whom there are now more than 40 million in the US. ‘Cultural values’ issues such as gay marriage (and the attack on Kerry by the Catholic hierarchy) undoubtedly played a part here; but so did the fact that Kerry and his advisers chose not to play the ethnic card by appealing to Latinos on issues of special concern to them, such as the relaxing of immigration rules. Bush, by contrast, had no compunction about doing just this, cynically perhaps, but certainly effectively. When it has been possible, in US politics, to forge a Rainbow-style coalition between African Americans, Latinos, labour, women in the workforce, the white-collar liberal professional class and gays, the Democrats – and usually the left rather than the centre of the party – win. When that alliance is rejected (as relying too much on appeals to ethnic identity) in favour of broad ‘middle-class’ entitlement programmes, as in the post-9/11 mayoral election in New York City or the Kerry campaign, the Democrats lose, even where they have the majority of registered voters.