Drew Beck brings my attention to this Žižek essay (also here) on the book everyone has been talking about since even before election day: Thomas Frank’s <a href=“http://www.addall.com/New/LinkToUs.cgi?isbn=0805073396&dispCurr=USD&title=What” onclick=“_gaq.push([‘_trackEvent’, ‘outbound-article’, ’http://www.addall.com/New/LinkToUs.cgi?isbn=0805073396&dispCurr=USD&title=What’, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’]);” s+the+Matter+With+Kansas:+How+Conservatives+Won+the+Heart+of+America”>What’s the Matter with Kansas?. What I like about Žižek’s essay is that, perhaps because he is an outsider, he is able to express the contradictions inherent in red-state populism, contradictions which I tried to articulate in a post the week of the election, but did not do nearly as good a job as Žižek. Specifically, I was unable to articulate my discomfort with Timothy Burke’s claim that populism necessarily meant a rejection of “modernity.” Not because Burke is wrong, he isn’t, but rather because this kind of liberal discomfort is part of the problem. Here is what Žižek has to say:
while professing their solidarity with the poor, liberals encode culture war with an opposed class message: more often than not, their fight for multicultural tolerance and women’s rights marks the counter-position to the alleged intolerance, fundamentalism, and patriarchal sexism of the “lower classes.” The way to unravel this confusion is to focus on the mediating terms the function of which is to obfuscate the true lines of division. The way “modernization” is used in the recent ideological offensive is exemplary here: first, an abstract opposition is constructed between “modernizers” (those who endorse global capitalism in all its aspects, from economic to cultural) and “traditionalists” (those who resist globalization).
What Žižek is getting at is the ways in which the cultural values associated with modernity are used by liberals to assert their superiority over the working class, their right to lead — exactly the kind of technocratic patriarchalism that we see as the basis of the Democratic party. Moreover, this cultural superiority is linked to the “enlightened” position of liberals on a wide range of social issues: feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, etc. When Rush Limbaugh talks about the “liberal elite” it is exactly this attitude that he is referring to. This is not to say that Rush Limbaugh is right, but simply to understand why his style of populism works! After all, it is not enough to claim, as George Lakoff does, that this is merely an issue of “framing” and that Republican populism works because they have better spin-doctors. I simply don’t believe that people are so stupidly blinded by rhetoric. Rather, Rush Limbaugh’s attacks work because there is enough of an element of truth embedded within them for his message to work. Žižek is able to tease this out by making explicit the class-warfare element of Rush Limbaugh’s populism. While the identity-based values affirmed by liberalism seek to create horizontal relationships, the class struggle is necessarily antagonistic. (And if you don’t think attacks on “latté drinking liberals” are class based, you are fooling yourself.) By harnessing this populist anger, the Right seeks to direct these antagonisms directly at those who traditionally claimed to represent those class interests, but now no longer do.
The paradox here is that it is the populist fundamentalism which retains this logic of antagonism, while the liberal Left follows the logic of recognition of differences, of “defusing” antagonisms into co-existing differences: in their very form, the conservative-populist grass-roots campaigns took over the old Leftist-radical stance of the popular mobilization and struggle against upper-class exploitation. This unexpected reversal is just one in a long series. In today’s US, the traditional roles of Democrats and Republicans are almost inverted: Republicans spend state money, thus generating record budget deficit, de facto build a strong federal state, and pursue a politics of global interventionism, while Democrats pursue a tough fiscal politics that, under Clinton, abolished budget deficit.
Did you ever hear the Democrats talk about any class other than the “middle class” in recent years? Here Žižek, Burke, and myself are all in agreement: This is not a game that the Republicans can win. They don’t want to win the class war, because they are the ruling class.
As to the ideological aspect of their struggle, Frank states the obvious which, nonetheless, needs to be stated: 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 and mass culture, this would mean not only their immediate ideological defeat, but also 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 their “moral war” as a means to keep the lower classes in check, i.e., to enable them to articulate their fury without disturbing their economic interests. What this means is that CULTURE WAR IS CLASS WAR in a displaced mode — so much for those who claim that we leave in a post-class society…
But the question is whether the Democrats want to win this war either? Burke doesn’t seem to want to, he fears anti-modernist communalism, but he understands that liberalism offers very little to those in the red states we wish to reach out to. But I, like Žižek, feel that there is a third option: radicalism.
Although, of course, as to the positive content of most of the debated issues, a radical Leftist should support the liberal stance (for abortion, against racism and homophobia…), one should never forget that it is the populist fundamentalist, not the liberal, who is, in the long term, our ally. In all their anger, the populists are not angry enough — not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore.
Why risk radicalism? Because the alternative is fascism.