Anj — Zizek — Use Your Illusions

Topic(s): 2008 Election | Comments Off on Anj — Zizek — Use Your Illusions

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
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
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.
Slavoj Žižek is a dialectical-materialist philosopher and
psychoanalyst. He also co-directs the International Centre for
Humanities at Birkbeck College. The Parallax View appeared last year.