Taking on America

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek examines the failure of political opposition after 11 September.

Slavoy Zizek

Topics Politics

According to the Ancient Greek myth, Europe was a Phoenician princess abducted and then raped by Zeus in the guise of a bull – no wonder that her name means ‘the dismal one’.

Is, effectively, this not Europe? Did Europe (as an ideological notion) not arise as the outcome of two such abductions of an Eastern pearl by the barbarians from the West: first, the Romans abducted and vulgarised the Greek thought; then, in the early Middle Ages, the barbarian West abducted and vulgarised Christianity?

And is something similar not going on today for the third time? Is the recent ‘war on terror’ not the abominable conclusion of the long, gradual process of the American ideological, political and economic colonisation of Europe? Was Europe not again kidnapped by the West, by the American civilisation which is now setting the global standards and de facto treating Europe as its province?

After the World Trade Centre attacks, the big story in the media was the rise of the anti-American schadenfreude and the lack of sympathy with the American suffering among the European intelligentsia.

However, the true story to be told is exactly the opposite one: the total lack of an autonomous European political initiative. In the aftermath of 11 September the key states of the European Union (EU) took the path of ‘unconditional compromises’, giving ground to US pressure.

The war in Afghanistan, the plans for the attack on Iraq, the new explosion of violence in Palestine: each time, there were muffled voices of discontent heard in Europe which concerned particular points, calls for a more balanced approach. However, there was no formal resistance, no imposition of a different global perception of the crisis. No official European institution risked a friendly but clear distantiation from the American position.

No wonder, then, that these voices of protest died away – they were of no consequence, just empty gestures whose function was to enable us, Europeans, to say to ourselves ‘You see, we did protest, we did our duty!’, while silently endorsing the fait accompli of American politics.

The true politico-ideological catastrophe of 11 September was that of Europe. The result of 11 September is the unheard-of strengthening of the American hegemony in all its aspects. Europe succumbed to a kind of ideologico-political blackmail of the USA: ‘What is now at stake are no longer different economical or political choices, but our very survival – in the war on terror, you are with us or against us…’. And at this point where the reference to mere survival enters the stage as the ultimate legitimisation, that we are dealing with political ideology at its purest. On behalf of the ‘war on terror’, a certain positive vision of global political relations is silently imposed on us Europeans.

And if the emancipatory legacy of Europe is to survive, one should take the 11 September fiasco as the last warning that the time is running up, that Europe should move fast to ascertain itself as an autonomous ideological, political and economic force with its own priorities. The Left should unabashedly appropriate the slogan of unified Europe as a counterforce to Americanised globalism.

After 11 September, many American liberals voiced their suspicion of why Europeans do not fully share America’s pain. Along the same lines, the American reproach to European criticism of its politics is that this is a case of envy and frustration at being reduced to the secondary role, of the European inability to accept one’s limitation and (relative) decline. But is it not the opposite which holds even more? Is not the surprise at why are they not loved for what they are doing to the world the most fundamental American reaction since the Vietnam War? ‘We just try to be good, to help others, to bring peace and prosperity, and look what we get in return’, says America….

These complaints are sustained by the unspoken reproach that Europeans do not really share the American Dream. The reproach is in a way fully justified: the Third World cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American Dream; in the present constellation, it is only Europe which can do it.

The true opposition today is not the one between the First World and the Third World, but the one between the Whole of the First and Third World (the American global Empire and its colonies) and the remaining Second World (Europe).

Apropos Freud, Adorno claimed that what we are getting in the contemporary world is no longer the old logic of repression of the Id (illicit aggressive drives), but a perverse direct pact between the Superego (social authority) and the Id at the expense of the Ego. Is not something structurally similar going on today at the political level, in the weird pact between the postmodern global capitalism and the premodern societies at the expense of modernity proper?

It is easy for the American multiculturalist global Empire to integrate premodern local traditions. The foreign body which it effectively cannot assimilate is the European modernity.

The tension between America and Europe is discernible even within (what remains of) the political Left: the ‘Americanisation’ is here under the guise of the notion that the Left should fully endorse the dynamics of globalisation, the deterritorialising multitude of late capitalism.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, authors of Empire, discern two ways to oppose the global capitalist Empire: either a return to the strong nation state, or the deployment of the even more flexible forms of multitude. In his analysis of the Porto Alegre anti-globalist meeting, Hardt emphasises the new logic of the political space there: it was no longer the old ‘us versus them’ binary logic with the Leninist call for a firm singular party line, but the coexistence of the multitude of political agencies and positions that are ideologically incompatible (from ‘conservative’ farmers and ecologists worried about the fate of their local tradition and patrimony, to human rights groups and agents standing for the interests of immigrants, advocating global mobility).

It is effectively today’s opposition to global capital which seems to mirror Deleuze’s claim about the inherently antagonistic claim of the capitalist dynamics (a strong machine of deterritorialisation which generates new modes of reterritorialisation). Today’s resistance to capitalism reproduces the same antagonism: calls for the defence of particular cultural or ethnic identities being threatened by the global dynamics coexist with the demands for more global mobility against the new barriers imposed by capitalism, which concern above all the free movement of individuals. Can these tendencies coexist in a non-antagonistic way, as parts of the same global network of resistance?

One is tempted to answer this claim by applying to it Laclau’s notion of the chain of equivalences: this logic of multitude still functions because we are still dealing with resistance. However, what about when – if this really is the desire and will of these movements – ‘we take it over’? What would the ‘multitude in power’ look like?

There was the same constellation in the last years of the decaying Really-Existing Socialism. The non-antagonistic coexistence, within the oppositional field, of a multitude of ideologico-political tendencies, from liberal human-rights groups to ‘liberal’ business-oriented groups, conservative religious groups and leftist workers’ demands. This multitude functioned well as long as it was united in opposition to ‘them’, the Party hegemony. Once they found themselves in power, the game was over….

Furthermore, is today the state really withering away (with the advent of the much-praised liberal ‘deregulation’)? Is, on the contrary, the ‘war on terror’ not the strongest yet assertion of the state authority? Are we not witnessing now the unheard-of mobilisation of all (repressive and ideological) state apparatuses?

These state apparatuses play a crucial role in the obverse side of globalisation. The EU has announced a plan to establish an all-European border police force to secure the isolation of EU territory and thus to prevent the influx of immigrants. This is the truth of globalisation: the construction of new walls safeguarding the prosperous Europe from the immigrant flood.

One is tempted to resuscitate here the old Marxist-humanist opposition of ‘relations between things’ and ‘relations between persons’. In the much celebrated free circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is ‘things’ (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of ‘persons’ is more and more controlled.

This new racism of the developed world is in a way much more brutal than the previous one’s: its implicit legitimisation is neither naturalist (the ‘natural’ superiority of the developed West) nor any longer culturalist (we in the West also want to preserve our cultural identity), but unabashed economic egotism. The fundamental divide is between those included into the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it. What lies beneath these protective measures is the simple awareness that the present model of late capitalist prosperity cannot be universalised – the awareness formulated with a brutal candour more than half a century ago by George Kennan:

‘We – the USA – have 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period… is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality… we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.’ (1)

What underlies these ominous state strategies is the fact that democracy (the established liberal-democratic parliamentary system) is no longer ‘alive’ in the Paulinian sense of the term. The tragic thing is that the only serious political force which is today ‘alive’ is the new populist Right.

Insofar as we play the democratic game of leaving the place of power empty, of accepting the gap between this place and our occupying it (which is the very gap of castration), are we – democrats – all not ‘Fidel Castros’, faithful to castration?

Apart from anaemic economic administration, the liberal-democratic centre’s main function is to guarantee that nothing will really happen in politics: liberal democracy is the party of non-Event. The line of division is more and more ‘Long live… Le Pen/Haider/Berlusconi!’ versus ‘Death to…/the same/!’ – with the opposition life/death distributed between the two poles.

Or, to put it in Nietzschean terms: today, the populist Right Acts, sets the pace, determines the problematic of the political struggle, and the liberal centre is reduced to a ‘reactive force’ – it limits itself to reacting to the populist Right’s initiatives, either opposing them radically from an impotent Leftist posturing, or translating them into acceptable liberal language (‘while rejecting the populist hatred of the immigrants, we have to admit they are addressing issues which really worry people, so we should take care of the problem, introduce tougher immigration and anti-crime measures…’).

The Lacanian notion of the radical political Act as the way out of this democratic deadlock, of course, cannot but provoke the expected reaction from the liberals. The standard critique concerns the Act’s allegedly ‘absolute’ character of a radical break, which renders impossible any clear distinction between a properly ‘ethical’ act and, say, a Nazi monstrosity. ‘Is it not that an Act is always embedded in a specific socio-symbolic context?’, they ask.

The answer to this reproach is clear. Of course, an Act is always a specific intervention within a socio-symbolic context; the same gesture can be an Act or a ridiculous empty posture, depending on this context (say, making a public ethical statement when it is too late changes a courageous intervention into an irrelevant gesture).

But there is something else which disturbs the critics of the Lacanian notion of an Act. An Act always involves a radical risk, what Derrida, following Kierkegaard, called the madness of a decision. It is a step into the open, with no guarantee about the final outcome.

Why? Because an Act retroactively changes the very coordinates into which it intervenes. This lack of guarantee is what the critics cannot tolerate: they want an Act without risk – not without empirical risks, but without the much more radical ‘transcendental risk’ that the Act will not only simply fail, but radically misfire. In short, to paraphrase Robespierre, those who oppose the ‘absolute Act’ effectively oppose the Act as such; they want an Act without the Act.

What they want is homologous to the ‘democratic’ opportunists who, as Lenin put it in the autumn of 1917, want a ‘democratically legitimised’ revolution, as if one should first organise a referendum, and only then, after obtaining a clear majority, seize power.

It is here that one can see how an Act proper cannot be contained within the limits of democracy (conceived as a positive system of legitimising power through free elections). The Act occurs in an emergency when one has to take the risk and act without any legitimisation, engaging oneself in a kind of Pascalean wager that the Act itself will create the conditions of its retroactive ‘democratic’ legitimisation.

Say, when, in 1940, after the French defeat, de Gaulle called for the continuation of the warfare against the Germans, his gesture was without ‘democratic legitimisation’ (at that moment, the large majority of the Frenchmen were unambiguously supporting Marshall Petain). However, in spite of this lack of democratic legitimisation, the truth was on de Gaulle’s side, and he effectively was speaking on behalf of France, of the French people as such.

This also enables us to answer the ultimate democratic reproach. The absolute (self-referential) Act is deprived of any external control which would prevent terrifying excesses – cannot anything can be legitimised in a self-referential way? The answer is clear: as the case of France in 1940 demonstrates, democracy itself cannot provide such a guarantee; there is no guarantee against the possibility of the excess. The risk has to be assumed – it is part of the very field of the political.

And, perhaps, the ultimate aim of the ‘war on terror’ – of the imposition of what one cannot but call the ‘democratic state of emergency’ – is to neutralise the conditions of such an Act. According to an old Marxist topos, the evocation of the external enemy serves to displace the focus from the true origin of tensions, the inherent antagonism of the system.

There is, however, also the opposite ideological operation – the false evocation of internal causes of failure. In 1940, when Petain became the French leader, he explained the French defeat as the result of the long process of degeneration of the French state caused by the liberal-Jewish influence. So, according to Petain, the French defeat was a blessing in disguise, a shattering and painful reminder of one’s weaknesses and thus a chance to reconstitute French strength on a healthy base.

Do we not find the same motif in many a conservative critic of today’s permissive-consumerist Western societies? The ultimate threat does not come from out there, from the fundamentalist Other, but from within, from our own lassitude and moral weakness, loss of clear values and firm commitments, of the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. In their first reaction to 11 September, Christian conservatives Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson claimed that the USA had got what it deserved.

What, then, if exactly the same logic sustains the ‘war on terror’? What if the true aim of this ‘war’ is ourselves, our own ideological mobilisation against the threat of the Act?

What if the terrorist attack, no matter how ‘real’ and terrifying, is ultimately a metaphoric substitute for this Act; for the shattering of our liberal-democratic consensus?

Slavoj Žižek is professor of philosophy at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include The Ticklish Subject (buy this from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (buy this from Amazon UK).

Read on:

Forgetting the evils of Empire, by James Heartfield

(1) George Kennan in 1948, quoted in The New Rulers Of the World, John Pilger, London, Verso Books, 2002, p98

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Topics Politics


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