Over the Rainbow Coalition - Slavoj Žižek

Philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek reveals the intolerant kernel of liberal multiculturalism - tolerant of all except antagonism, that is the class antagonism that is the basis of capitalist society.

Submitted by aacammy5 on November 23, 2006

The credentials of those who, even prior to its release, virulently criticize Mel Gibson's Passion seem impeccable: are they not fully justified in their worry that the film, made by a fanatic Catholic traditionalist with occasional anti-Semitic outbursts, may ignite anti-Semitic sentiments? More general, is Passion not a kind of manifesto of our own (Western, Christian) fundamentalists and anti-secularists? Is then not the duty of every Western secularist to reject it? Is such an unambiguous attack not a sine qua non if we want to make it clear that we are not covert racists attacking only the fundamentalism of other (Muslim) cultures?

The Pope's ambiguous reaction to the film is well known: immediately after seeing it, deeply moved, he muttered "It is as it was!" - and this statement was quickly withdrawn by the official Vatican speakers. A glimpse into the Pope's spontaneous reaction was thus quickly replaced by the "official" neutral stance, corrected in order not to hurt anyone. This shift is the best exemplification of what is wrong with liberal tolerance, with the Politically Correct fear that anyone's specific religious sensibility may be hurt: even if it says in the Bible that the Jewish mob demanded the death of Christ, one should not stage this scene directly, but play it down and contextualize it to make it clear that Jews are collectively not to be blamed for the Crucifixion... The problem of such a stance is that, in this way, the aggressive religious passion is merely repressed: it remains there, smoldering beneath the surface and, finding no release, gets stronger and stronger. (And, incidentally, is this compromise-stance not the same as that of today's enlightened anti-Semite who, although he does not believe in Christ's divinity, nonetheless blames Jews for killing our Lord Jesus? Or as the typical secular Jew who, although he does not believe in Jehova and Moses as his prophet, nonetheless thinks that Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel?)

Within this horizon, the only "passionate" response to the fundamentalist passion is aggressive secularism of the kind displayed recently by the French state where the government prohibited wearing all too conspicuous religious symbols and dresses in schools (not only the scarves of Muslim women, but also the Jewish caps and too large Christian crosses). It is not difficult to predict what the final result of this measure will be: excluded from the public space, the Muslims will be directly pushed to constitute themselves as non-integrated fundamentalist communities. This is what Lacan means when he emphasized the link between the rule of post-revolutionary fraternite and the logic of segregation. Jacques Lacan's definition of love is "giving something one doesn't have" - what one often forgets is to add the other half which completes the sentence: "...to someone who doesn't want it." This is confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declared passionate love to us - is not the first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us? This is why, ultimately, passion as such is "politically incorrect": although everything seems permitted, prohibitions are merely displaced. Recall the deadlock of sexuality or art today: is there anything more dull, opportunistic, and sterile than to succumb to the superego injunction of incessantly inventing new artistic transgressions and provocations (the performance artist masturbating on stage or masochistically cutting himself, the sculptor displaying decaying animal corpses or human excrements), or to the parallel injunction to engage in more and more "daring" forms of sexuality... In some "radical" circles in the US, there came recently a proposal to "rethink" the rights of necrophiliacs (those who desire to have sex with dead bodies) - why should they be deprived of it? So the idea was formulated that, in the same way people sign permission for their organs to be use for medical purposes in the case of their sudden death, one should also allow them to sign the permission for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with them... Is this proposal not the perfect exemplification of how the PC stance realizes Kierkegaard's old insight into how the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor? A dead neighbor - a corpse - is the ideal sexual partner of a "tolerant" subject trying to avoid any harassment: by definition, a corpse cannot be harassed...

Does this mean that, against the false tolerance of the liberal multiculturalism, we should return to religious fundamentalism? The very ridicule of Gibson's film makes clear the impossibility of such a solution. Gibson first wanted to shoot the film in Latin and Aramaic and to show it without subtitles; under the pressure of distributors, he later decided to allow English (or other) subtitles. However, this compromise on his part is not just a concession to the commercial pressure; sticking to the original plan would rather directly display the self-refuting nature of Gibson's project. That is to say, let us imagine the film without subtitles shown in a large American suburban mall: the intended fidelity to the original would turn it into its opposite, into an incomprehensible exotic spectacle.

Gibson's Passion thus its pays the ultimate dialectical price for its attempt to do a fundamentalist Christian film: what it loses it precisely the trace of any authentic Christian experience, and, at the level of its cinematic texture, rejoins its official opponents. That is to say, what is Passion if not the ultimate sacrilege, the staging of Christ's suffering and death as the ultimate sado-maso gay spectacle? What remains of the film is that a naked young and beautiful male body is slowly tortured to death (and, ironically, the film cheats here on its own "realist" terms: in all probability, Christ was naked at the cross...).

Totally absent from the film is any kind of inquiry into the meaning of crucifixion: why did Christ have to die? There are three main versions: (1) a gnostic-dualist one: Christ's death was a chapter in the struggle between Good and Evil, i.e., Christ's death was the price to be paid by God to Devil for the redemption of humanity; (2) the sacrificial one: Christ paid the price for our sins - not to the Devil, but just to satisfy the sense and balance of justice; (3) the exemplary one: by his example of ultimate act of love, Christ inspires people to follow him, to act good... There is, of course, something missing here, the FOURTH version, which is the truth of the first three: what if Christ's death was a way for God-the-Father to repay his own debt to humanity, to excuse himself for having done such a botched-up job, creating an imperfect world full of suffering and injustice?

But there is a third position, beyond religious fundamentalism and liberal tolerance. Instead of trying to redeem the pure ethical core of a religion against it political instrumentalizations, one should thus ruthlesly criticize this very core - in ALL religions. Today, when religions themselves (from the New Age spirituality to the cheap spiritualist hedonism of Dalai Lama) are more than ready to serve the postmodern pleasure-seeking, it is paradoxically only a consequent materialism which is able to sustain a truly ascetic militant ethical stance.

The enigmatic spectacle of a large-scale collective suicide is always fascinating - recall hundreds of Jim Jones's cult followers who obediently took poison in their Guyana camp. At the level of economic life, the same thing is going on today in Kansas. Thomas Frank1 aptly described the paradox of today's US populist conservatism, whose basic premise is the gap between economic interests and "moral" questions. That is to say, the economic class opposition (poor farmers, blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) is transposed/coded into the opposition of honest hard-working Christian true Americans versus the decadent liberals who drink latte and drive foreign cars, advocate abortion and homosexuality, mock patriotic sacrifice and "provincial" simple way of life, etc. The enemy is thus perceived as the "liberal" who, through federal state interventions (from school-busing to ordering the Darwinian evolution and perverse sexual practices to be taught), wants to undermine the authentic American way of life. The main economic interest is therefore to get rid of the strong state which taxes the hard-working population in order to finance its regulatory interventions - the minimal economic program is thus "less taxes, less regulations"... From the standard perspective of enlightened rational pursuit of self-interests, the inconsistency of this ideological stance is obvious: the populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and deregulation means more freedom for the big companies that are driving the impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help to small farmers; etc. In the eyes of the US evangelical populists, the state stands for an alien power and, together with UN, is an agent of the Antichrist: it takes away the liberty of the Christian believer, relieving him of the moral responsibility of stewardship, and thus undermines the individualistic morality that makes each of us the architect of our own salvation - how to combine this with the unheard-of explosion the state apparatuses under Bush? No wonder large corporations are delighted to accept such evangelical attacks on the state, when the state tries to regulate media mergers, to put strictures on energy companies, to strengthen air pollution regulations, to protect wildlife and limit logging in the national parks, etc. It is the ultimate irony of history that radical individualism serves as the ideological justification of the unconstrained power of what the large majority of individuals experience as a vast anonymous power which, without any democratic public control, regulates their lives.2

As to the ideological aspect of their struggle, it is more than obvious that the populists are fighting a war that simply cannot be won: if Republicans were effectively totally 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... This, however, makes the enigma only more impenetrable: how is this displacement possible? "Stupidity" and "ideological manipulation" are not an answer; that is to say, it is clearly not enough to say that that the primitive lower classes are brainwashed by the ideological apparatuses so that they are not able to identify their true interests. If nothing else, one should recall how, decades ago, the same Kansas was the hotbed of progressive populism in the US - and people certainly did not get more stupid in the last decades... And neither would do a direct "psychoanalytic" explanation in the old Wilhelm Reich style (people's libidinal investments compel them to act against their rational interests): it confronts too directly libidinal economy and economy proper, failing to grasp their mediation. It is also not enough to propose the Ernesto Laclau solution: there is no "natural" link between a given socio-economic position and the ideology attached to it, so that it is meaningless to speak of "deception" and "false consciousness," as if there is a standard of "appropriate" ideological awareness inscribed into the very "objective" socio-economic situation; every ideological edifice is the outcome of a hegemonic fight to establish/impose a chain of equivalences, a fight whose outcome is thoroughly contingent, not guaranteed by any external reference like "objective socio-economic position"... In such a general answer, the enigma simply disappears.

The first thing to note here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological topic of the "enlightened" liberals whose politics is focused on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance. The key question is thus: why is "culture" emerging as our central life-world category? With regard to religion, we no longer "really believe," we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the "life-style" of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules "out of respect for tradition," etc.). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times. What is a cultural life-style, if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, the "non-fundamentalist" notion of ãculture" as distinguished from "real" religion, art, etc., IS in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal beliefs - "culture" is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously."

The second thing to note is how, 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 the term "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). Into this category of those-who-resist are then thrown all, from the traditional conservatives and populist Right to the "Old Left" (those who continue to advocate Welfare state, trade unions...). This categorization obviously does comprise an aspect of social reality - recall the coalition of Church and trade unions which, in Germany in early 2003, prevented the legalization of stores being open also on Sunday. However, it is not enough to say that this "cultural difference" traverses the entire social field, cutting across different strata and classes; it is not enough to say that this opposition can be combined in different ways with other oppositions (so that we can have conservative "traditional values" resistance to global capitalist "modernization," or moral conservatives who fully endorse capitalist globalization); in short, it is not enough to say that this "cultural difference" is one in the series of antagonisms which are operative in today's social processes. The failure of this opposition to function as the key to social totality does not only mean that it should be articulated with other differences. It means that it is "abstract," and the wager of Marxism is that there is one antagonism ("class struggle") which overdetermines all others and which is as such the "concrete universal" of the entire field. The term "overdetermination" is here used in its precise Althusserian sense: it does not mean that class struggle is the ultimate referent and horizon of meaning of all other struggles; it means that class struggle is the structuring principle which allows us to account for the very "inconsistent" plurality of ways in which other antagonisms can be articulated into "chains of equivalences." For example, feminist struggle can be articulated into a chain with progressive struggle for emancipation, or it can (and it certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper-middle classes to assert their superiority over the "patriarchal and intolerant" lower classes. And the point here is not only that the feminist struggle can be articulated in different ways with the class antagonism, but that class antagonism is as it were doubly inscribed here: it is the specific constellation of the class struggle itself which explains why the feminist struggle was appropriated by upper classes. (The same goes for racism: it is the dynamics of class struggle itself which explains why direct racism is strong among the lowest white workers.) Class struggle is here the "concrete universality" in the strict Hegelian sense: in relating to its otherness (other antagonisms), it relates to itself, i.e., it (over)determines the way it relates to other struggles.

The third thing to take note of is the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other - even if not a direct physical annihilation, class struggle aims at the annihilation of the other's socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and strivings... In one case, we have a "horizontal" logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.3 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. Insofar as, in the present US two-parties system, red designates Republicans and blue Democrats, and insofar as populist fundamentalists, of course, vote Republican, the old anti-Communist slogan "Better dead than red!" now acquires a new ironic meaning - the irony residing in the unexpected continuity of the "red" attitude from the old Leftist grass-root mobilization to the new Christian fundamentalist grass-root mobilization...

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. Even in the touchy sphere of socio-economic politics, Democrats (the same as with Blair in the UK) as a rule accomplish the neo-liberal agenda of abolishing the Welfare State, lowering taxes, privatizing, etc., while Bush proposed a radical measure of legalizing the status of the millions of illegal Mexican workers and made healthcare much more accessible to the retired. The extreme case is here that of the survivalist groups in the West of the US: although their ideological message is that of religious racism, their entire mode of organization (small illegal groups fighting FBI and other federal agencies) makes them an uncanny double of the Black Panthers from the 1960s. - According to an old Marxist insight, every rise of Fascism is a sign of a failed revolution - no wonder, then, that Kansas is also the state of John Brown, the KEY political figure in the history of US, the fervently Christian "radical abolitionist" who came closest to introducing the radical emancipatory-egalitarian logic into the US political landscape:

"John Brown considered himself a complete egalitarian. And it was very important for him to practice egalitarianism on every level. /.../ African Americans were caricatures of people, they were characterized as buffoons and minstrels, they were the butt-end of jokes in American society. And even the abolitionists, as antislavery as they were, the majority of them did not see African Americans as equals. The majority of them, and this was something that African Americans complained about all the time, were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North. /.../ John Brown wasn't like that. For him, practicing egalitarianism was a first step toward ending slavery. And African Americans who came in contact with him knew this immediately. He made it very clear that he saw no difference, and he didn't make this clear by saying it, he made it clear by what he did."

His consequential egalitarianism led him to get engaged in the armed struggle against slavery: in 1859, Brown and twenty-one other men seized the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, hoping to arm slaves and thus create a violent rebellion against the south. However, after thirty-six hours the revolt was suppressed and Brown was taken to jail by a federal force led by no other than Robert E. Lee. After being found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. And, today even, long after slavery was abolished, Brown is the dividing figure in American collective memory - this point was made most succinctly by Russell Banks, whose magnificent novel Cloud-splitter retells Brown's story:

"The reason white people think he was mad is because he was a white man and he was willing to sacrifice his life in order to liberate Black Americans. /.../ Black people don't think he's crazy, generally -- very few African Americans regard Brown as insane. If you go out onto the street today, whether you are speaking to a school kid or an elderly woman or a college professor, if it's an African American person you're talking to about John Brown, they are going start right out with the assumption that he was a hero because he was willing to sacrifice his life -- a white man -- in order to liberate Black Americans. If you speak to a white American, probably the same proportion of them will say he was a madman. And it's for the same reason, because he was a white man who was willing to sacrifice his life to liberate Black Americans. The very thing that makes him seem mad to white Americans is what makes him seem heroic to Black Americans."

For this reason, those whites who support Brown are all the more precious - among them, surprisingly, Henry David Thoreau, the great opponent of violence: against the standard dismissal of Brown as blood-thirsty, foolish and insane, Thoreau4 painted a portrait of a peerless man whose embracement of a cause was unparalleled; he even goes as far as to liken Brown's execution (he states that he regards Brown as dead before his actual death) to Christ. Thoreau vents at the scores of those who have voiced their displeasure and scorn for John Brown: the same people can't relate to Brown because of their concrete stances and "dead" existences; they are truly not living, only a handful of men have lived.

And, when talking about the Kansas populists, one should bear in mind that they also celebrate John Brown as their saint.5 We should thus not only refuse the easy liberal contempt for the populist fundamentalists (or, even worse, the patronizing regret of how "manipulated" they are); we should reject the very terms of the culture war. 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, etc.), 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, they are not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore. Recall how Robert Bork's infamous lament about our "slouching towards Gomorrah" ends up in a deadlock typical of ideology:

"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."6

In what, exactly, is then this demand grounded? Here Bork performs his ideological short-circuit: instead of pointing towards the inherent logic of capitalism itself which, in order to sustain its expanding reproduction, has to create new and new demands, and thus admitting that, in fighting consumerist "decadence," he is fighting a tendency which insists in the very core of capitalism, he directly refers to "human nature" which, led to itself, ends up in wanting depravity, and is thus in a need for 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."7

This, however, throws an unexpected light onto the Cold Warriors' "moral" crusade against Communist regimes: the embarrassing fact is that the Eastern European Communist regimes were overthrown by forces which "represented the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the '60s generation, and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism." This feature returns to haunt Bork: at a conference, he "referred, not approvingly, to Michael Jackson's crotch-clutching performance at the Super Bowl. Another panelist 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."8 Although Bork is aware of the irony of the situation, he obviously misses its deeper aspect.

Recall Jacques Lacan's definition of successful communication: in it, I get back from the other my own message in its inverted - i.e., true - form. Is this not what is happening to today's liberals? Are they not getting back from the conservative populists their own message in its inverted/true form? In other words, are conservative populists not the symptom of tolerant enlightened liberals? Is the scary and ridiculous Kansas redneck exploding in fury against liberal corruption not the very figure in the guise of which the liberal encounters the truth of his own hypocrisy? We should thus - to refer to the most popular song about Kansas, from The Wizard of Oz - definitely reach over the rainbow: over the "rainbow coalition" of the single-issue struggles, favored by radical liberals, and dare to look for an ally in what often appears as the ultimate enemy of multi-culti liberalism.

  • 1See Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, New York: Metropolitan Books 2004.
  • 2How come that conservative evangelicals who, against Darwinism, like to insist on the literal truth of the Bible, are never tempted to read literally Christ's "Sell all that you have, and give to the poor"(Mark 10:21)?
  • 3However, the pure difference of antagonism has nothing to do with the difference between two positive social groups one of which is to be annihilated, i.e., the universalism that sustains antagonistic struggle is not exclusive of anyone - which is why the highest triumph of the antagonistic struggle is not the destruction of the enemy, but the explosion of the "universal brotherhood" in which agents of the opposite camp change sides and join us (recall the proverbial scenes of police or military units joining the demonstrators). It is in such explosion of enthusiastic all-encompassing brotherhood from which no one is in principle excluded, that the difference between "us" and "enemy" as positive agents is reduced to a PURE formal difference.
  • 4See Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, New York: Dover Publications 1993.
  • 5Some anti-abortionists draw parallel between Brown's fight and their own: Brown acknowledged as fully human blacks, i.e., people who, for the majority, were less-than-human and as such denied basic human rights; in the same way, anti-abortionists acknowledge as fully human the unborn child...
  • 6Robert H.Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, New York: ReganBooks 1997, p. 132.
  • 7Bork, op.cit., p. 139.
  • 8Bork, op.cit., p. 134.