(Courtesy of Jodi Dean)
Use Your Illusions
by Slavoj Žižek
London Review of Books
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 years.
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.
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