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.

No wonder large corporations are delighted at the evangelical attacks on the state, when the state tries to regulate media mergers or the actions of energy companies, to strengthen air pollution regulations, to protect wildlife and limit logging in national parks, and so on. It is a terrible irony that radical individualism serves as the justification for what the large majority of individuals experience as a vast anonymous power regulating their lives.

As to the ideological aspect of their struggle, Frank states an obvious truth which, nonetheless, needs to be restated: the populists are fighting a war that cannot be won. If Republicans were effectively to ban abortion, if they were to prohibit the teaching of evolution, if they were to impose federal regulation on Hollywood, this would lead not only to the global mobilisation of their ideological opponents, but also to a large-scale economic depression in the US. The outcome is thus a debilitating symbiosis: although the ruling class disagrees with the populist moral agenda, it tolerates it as a means to keep the lower classes in check. The ‘moral war’ allows the lower classes to articulate their fury without disturbing dominant economic interests. Culture war, in other words, is class war by other means: the one is a displacement of the other.

However, this only makes the enigma more impenetrable: how is such a displacement possible? ‘Stupidity’ and ‘ideological manipulation’ are not good enough answers; it clearly won’t do to say that the lower classes are brainwashed by ideological apparatuses to the extent that they are unable to identify their true interests. If nothing else, one should remember that, decades ago, Kansas was a hotbed of progressive populism – and people have certainly not become more stupid in the years since. Nor is Ernesto Laclau’s explanation sufficient: there is no ‘natural’ link between socio-economic and ideological positions, so it is meaningless to speak of ‘deception’ and ‘false consciousness’ as if there were a degree of ideological awareness ‘appropriate’ to one’s socio-economic situation. Every ideological edifice is the outcome of a fight to establish or impose a hegemonic chain of equivalences between multiple struggles – economic, democratic, ecological, feminist, anti-racist etc – and this outcome is thoroughly contingent, not guaranteed by an objective socio-economic position.

The first thing to note here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological concern of ‘enlightened’ liberals, whose fight is against sexism, racism and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance. What ‘culture’ means today is closely connected with the status of belief. We no longer really believe, but merely observe certain religious rituals and mores as a gesture of respect for the community to which we belong: non-believing Jews obey kosher rules out of respect for tradition, and so on. The statement ‘I don’t really believe in it, it’s just part of my culture’ captures the disavowed, or displaced, belief characteristic of our times. Although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and public place every December. ‘Culture’ is the name we use for all those things we practise without really believing in them, without taking them seriously.

The second thing to note is that, while they profess their solidarity with the poor, liberals’ fight for multicultural tolerance and women’s rights opposes them to the ‘lower classes’ with their supposed intolerance, fundamentalism and sexism. The true lines of division are obfuscated by the careful use of terminology. The way ‘modernisation’ has been used in the recent ideological offensive is exemplary. First, an abstract opposition is constructed between ‘modernisers’ (those who endorse global capitalism in all its aspects, from the economic to the cultural) and ‘traditionalists’ (those who resist globalisation). Into the category of those-who-resist can then be thrown a mixture of traditional conservatives, the populist right and elements of the ‘old left’ – those who continue to advocate the welfare state, trade unions and so on. This does constitute an aspect of social reality – a coalition of church and trade unions prevented the legalisation of Sunday opening in Germany last year – but it does not account for the entire social field just because it cuts across different strata and classes. ‘Modernisation’ fails to function as the key to social totality – it is an abstract universal notion – whereas the wager of Marxism is that there is one antagonism (class struggle) which determines all others and is therefore a concrete universal. Feminism is similarly abstract: it can be articulated with the struggle for emancipation of the lower classes, or it can (and certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper middle classes used to assert their superiority over the supposedly patriarchal and intolerant lower classes. Class antagonism is, as it were, doubly inscribed here: it is the specific constellation of class struggle itself that explains why feminism was appropriated by the upper classes. (The same goes for racism; it is the dynamics of class struggle itself that explain why racism is strongest among the white working class.)

The third thing to note is a fundamental difference between the goals of feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist struggles on the one hand, and class struggle on the other. In the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference (the peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), but the goal of class struggle is precisely the opposite: to aggravate class difference into class antagonism. To set up a series of equivalences between race, gender and class is to obscure the peculiar logic of class struggle, which aims at overcoming, subduing, even annihilating the other – if not its physical being, then at least its socio-political role and function. In the one case, we have a horizontal logic involving mutual recognition among different identities; in the other, we have the logic of struggle with an antagonist.

The paradox is that populist fundamentalists retain this logic of antagonism, while the liberal left persists with the logic of the recognition of differences. While the liberal preference is for defusing antagonisms, the populist conservative grassroots campaigns took over the old radical left stance of popular mobilisation and struggle against upper-class exploitation. This unexpected reversal is just one in a long series. In the US, the traditional roles of Democrats and Republicans can seem to have been inverted: quite apart from their new global interventionism, the Republicans have spent state money, thus generating a record budget deficit and de facto building a strong federal state. The Democrats, on the other hand, pursue a tough fiscal politics which, under Clinton, abolished the budget deficit. Even in the touchy sphere of socio-economic politics, the Democrats (like Blair) have a neoliberal agenda of abolishing the welfare state, lowering taxes, privatisation and so on; while Bush has proposed radical measures to legalise the status of millions of Mexican workers and has made healthcare much more accessible to the retired. The extreme case of such inversion is that of survivalist groups. Although their ideological message is that of religious racism, their mode of organisation (small illegal groups fighting the FBI and other federal agencies) makes them uncannily reminiscent of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

We should therefore refuse not only easy liberal contempt for populist fundamentalists (and, even worse, patronising regret at their supposed manipulation), but also the very terms of the culture war. Although radical leftists will, of course, support the liberal position on such issues as abortion, racism and homophobia, they should never forget that it is the populist fundamentalist, not the liberal, who is, in the long term, their ally. For all their anger, the populists are not angry enough – not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore. Recall Robert Bork’s infamous lament in Slouching towards Gomorrah (1996):

The entertainment industry is not forcing depravity on an unwilling American public. The demand for decadence is there. That fact does not excuse those who sell such degraded material any more than the demand for crack excuses the crack dealer. But we must be reminded that the fault is in ourselves, in human nature not constrained by external forces.

Bork performs an ideological short-circuit here: instead of pointing towards the logic of capitalism, which, in order to sustain itself, has continually to create new demands, he blames consumerist ‘decadence’ on ‘human nature’, which, left to itself, ends up in depravity, and is therefore in need of constant control and censorship. ‘The idea that men are naturally rational, moral creatures without the need for strong external restraints has been exploded by experience. There is an eager and growing market for depravity, and profitable industries devoted to supplying it.’

Such a view, however, presents a difficulty for the Cold Warriors’ ‘moral’ crusade against Communism, since the Eastern European Communist regimes were overthrown by a combination of the three great antagonists of conservatism: youth, the intellectuals of the 1960s generation, and the workers, who continued to believe in solidarity as opposed to individualism. This problem returns to haunt Bork: in his book, he tells us that at a conference he ‘referred, not approvingly, to Michael Jackson’s crotch-clutching performance at the Super Bowl. Another panellist tartly informed me that it was precisely the desire to enjoy such manifestations of American culture that had brought down the Berlin wall. That seems as good an argument as any for putting the wall back up again.’ Bork is aware of the irony in his position, but obviously misses its deeper aspect.

According to Lacan’s definition of successful communication, I get back from the other my own message in its inverted form, which is to say with its true meaning, the truth about myself that I had repressed. Are today’s liberals getting back from the populist conservatives their own message in its inverted/true form? In other words, is conservative populism the symptom of liberal tolerance? Is the Kansas redneck exploding in fury against liberal corruption the very figure who enables the liberal to encounter the truth behind his own hypocrisy? Perhaps we should learn from the most popular song about Kansas, and look for our allies somewhere over the rainbow: beyond the ‘rainbow coalition’ of radical liberals and their single-issue struggles, and towards those who they see as their enemy.