Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

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On ‘identity politics’

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

The Funny Games Presidency

Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games portrays a bourgeois family that is gradually destroyed by two anonymous men with an appetite for cruelty. In the face of these destructive nihilists, all the victims’ instincts — negotiation, compromise, and submission — serve only to prolong their suffering. The invaders have no long-term goal, hence there is no “getting it over with” or “meeting their demands.” They cannot be paid off or otherwise satisfied. All they want is dominance and control for its own sake.

We are now entering into the Funny Games presidency. There have been many attempts to make sense of Trump’s beliefs and strategies, and in the thinkpiece literature, he seems to alternate between being an undefeatable genius and an incompetent child. The truth, in my view, is that he is something like a genius in one very narrow field: asserting dominance. The baseline condition for that dominance is that Trump should be the center of attention, with everyone reacting to him.

As long as people are responding to him, he has control over the situation — and as long as he has control over the situation, there is no way out, because he has no other end goal. He cannot be bought off or satisfied and made to go away. As soon as he recognizes that you want something, that gives him leverage over you, and since he is a total nihilist, there is no reciprocal leverage over him. He will only give to you in the context of maintaining his dominance and control. Hence his tendency to tell his followers “what they want to hear,” which always turns out to be Trump’s brazen lies. What is most shocking in this context is how casual those lies most often are. If we review the infamous speech where he proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, he does not particularly emphasize that remark. It’s as though he’s “just throwing it out there,” almost like he’s brainstorming.

Trump uses language as a weapon. His utterances are all tactical moves to maintain initiative and destroy his opponents. Hence his tendency, on display last night, to simply throw an accusation back at the accuser. Trump won the election under dubious circumstances, so he hallucinates a situation where Hillary won the popular vote under dubious circumstances. Trump is one of the most corrupt men alive, so he coins the nickname Crooked Hillary. We could multiply examples. The goal is not counterargument — I don’t know if he expects people to take his words literally, or indeed if he’s even thinking consciously to that extent — but to make argument impossible, to take away that weapon from his opponent. If there is no truth, then everything returns to his home territory of aggression and dominance.

He seems to know how to control himself — for instance, to use flattery as he did in his NYT meeting, or to let his opponent twist in the wind, as he did after the Comey revelations. He knows how to string people along and give them false hope. But he cannot sustain those behaviors because they are not where he lives. They are indirect means to dominance, and he prefers to achieve that goal more directly.

How does one deal with Trump? If we stick with the Funny Games example, it seems that the only solution is not to let him into your house in the first place. Once that initial bridge is crossed, he may come to control reality to such an extent that even extreme action proves ineffective.

On taking the Electoral College literally

A lot of stupid things have been said about the Electoral College since it apparently handed Trump the presidency. Much of it is in the vein of Federalist Papers fan-fiction, as in an article that is so stupid that I refuse to link it, which argues that the Electoral College was designed to save us from demagogues like Trump — ignoring the fact that it’s only because of the Electoral College that we’re even in this situation to begin with. In discussions I’ve had on Facebook, there is also a lot of talk of how the popular vote is not a good rallying cry because the campaigns would have behaved differently under a non-EC regime. And of course, there’s also the fact that the popular vote has no binding legal significance.

All these discussions seem to me to elide the distinction between legality and legitimacy. On the Federalist Papers fan-fiction side, we see the position that since the EC is legal, it must be legitimate — i.e., it must have a positive purpose (saving us from demagogues, for instance), despite its negative effects (actually giving us two demagogues within our lifetimes). And the reluctance to use the popular vote mismatch as a rallying cry makes a similar mistake from the opposite direction: since there is no such thing as abstract legitimacy apart from legal reality, we had best accept our fate.

I refuse to accept the EC result as legitimate, in this case or in the 2000 case. George W. Bush never should have been president, full stop. The fact that he was ultimately elected to a second term does not validate the injustice that he took office in the first place — giving him a position that made it much easier for him to mislead and manipulate the American people into giving him power again after he illegitimately seized it. The popular vote is flawed due to the EC regime, but it obviously has greater democratic legitimacy from any perspective. Gore should have been inaugurated in 2000, and Clinton should be inaugurated now. I utterly refuse to concede on that “should.”

Of course, there seems to be very little chance that the current EC result will be overturned. Even if Stein’s recount efforts — for which she is being mocked and derided by fatalistic, defeatist Democrats — wind up changing some state results, hitting the trifecta seems unlikely. And of course, relying on partisan Republicans to “do the right thing” is a fool’s errand in the best of circumstances. And while we’re being “realistic,” it’s probably not politically feasible to amend the Constitution to remove the Electoral College — due to absurd constraints that are themselves illegitimate in my view. The Founders themselves ignored the provisions for replacing the Articles of Confederation when designing the current Constitution; some day, we need to have the courage to do the same.

What should happen in the meantime, then? Admittedly, this is not actionable — I am not an Elector and am in no position to influence any of them — but it’s interesting to play out the possibilities. The most intellectually satisfying way to think of it, in my view, is the way that some Electors reportedly are viewing their activities: if they take the Constitution at its word and act like independent agents exercising their own discretion, then that in itself will delegitimate the Electoral College, regardless of whether the overall result is changed.

What allows the EC to function is the fact that convention (and often state law) has tended to treat it as a purely mechanistic affair. The winner of each states just “gets” the EC votes of that state. The actual vote of the EC usually does not garner significant media coverage, as most citizens seem content with the idea that the news media plays the de facto role of announcing who won. But it remains the case that there are 538 nameable individuals who in fact select the president. They are chosen for their promise to behave in a machine-like way in ratifying the official EC result, backed by a lifetime of partisan loyalty, which reinforces the impression of a purely impersonal mechanism, but they are living, breathing human agents who are in fact selecting the president.

If this fact became vividly undeniable, then the EC would suddenly be intolerable. Actualizing the EC as “originally intended” would immediately delegitimate it — which shows that it is de facto illegitimate right now. Taking it literally breaks the spell. From a Schmittian perspective, breaking that spell is indeed a risky move, and I don’t pretend to know what would happen if, for instance, the Electoral College did choose Hillary Clinton. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth it. Maybe it would break a much bigger spell. But the fact is that the Electoral College is a ticking timebomb, a standing affront to all common sense democratic instincts. All that allows it to keep happening is a constant charade that it isn’t happening — that it’s an impersonal mechanism, that it fulfills some valuable function, that it isn’t 538 individual flesh-and-blood human beings who have the privilege of choosing the president every four years.

Love Trump’s Hate

In my initial reflections on the election result, I said that I felt ashamed. I was not the only one — anecdotally, that word showed up a lot in people’s gut reaction. In some ways, it’s a strange thing to say, especially when we look closely at the phrasing. I didn’t notice anyone saying that they were “ashamed to be an American” or “ashamed to be part of a country that could elect a man like that.” They were just “ashamed,” full stop.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the presence of shame indicates that enjoyment has taken place. And oh, how we loved to hate Trump! And how we loved to perform that hate! It gave us every kind of political satisfaction. He was at once a horrible danger to the republic, meaning we were righteous and even brave for denouncing him, and a clown, so that linking regularly to his hate speech functioned as a kind of joke. It’s like we were all living in an episode of Family Guy, where racist and misogynist rhetoric is flying around and the audience is expected to laugh at it (i.e., to enjoy it on some level) while maintaining the plausible deniability of disapproval. Can you imagine? In this day and age? Best of all, we could indulge this hate more and more, because it was what would guarantee us victory. We wanted, needed him to go further — no matter how much it coarsened an already appalling public discourse, no matter how much it risked legitimating the very sentiments we hoped would delegitimate him.

After the initial shock, a similar cycle seems to be starting up. There are important differences, of course, now that it appears that he will actually assume office — though we get to continue writing our Electoral College fan fiction, hoping that the hated and antiquated institution will somehow save us. Now we point and laugh at his ignorance of what the presidency even entails, at his utter lack of planning for winning, etc. All of his transparently incompetent cabinet picks and advisors serve an analogous function — they show how he is simultaneously a horrible threat and that he’s an incompetent who can’t achieve anything. His promise to deport millions of people is at once the definitive proof that he’s a racist who means what he says and a logistical nightmare he can’t possibly carry out.

In a weird way, it’s as though the way we deal with him hasn’t fundamentally changed. And I bet we will one day look back at this reaction, at the ease with which we were able to fall into the familiar pattern of Trumpertainment, with shame.

On the Abortion Trump Card

A lot has been written about evangelical support for Trump, including this excellent piece by Hollis Phelps. I share Phelps’s cynical view of the leadership, but for many everyday evangelicals, the picture is not so stark. They are not political nihilists seeking power and recognition for themselves, at least not primarily, and they do not have elaborate theories of how Trump is a modern-day Cyrus annointed by God to bring the chosen people to the promised land. Rather, for most of them, I imagine that what led them to hold their nose and vote for a man like Trump is the same thing that leads them to vote for Republicans every time: abortion.

That is the moral trump card, and now that it has literally led to Trump, I think it’s past time to ask whether it is really a moral trump card at all, or whether it’s just a convenient excuse to do what feels comfortable and familiar.

I will concede that the fetus is alive and is a member of the human species biologically. I don’t want to debate “when life begins” — it seems indisputable that some kind of biological life is beginning at conception. But does a life begin then? Does the fetus begin to live its life from the moment it is conceived? Is it the kind of being that even has a life yet?

If that question seems abstract, I’ll give an example of the kind of biologically human entity that has a life: a Latina teenager who is allowed to stay in the United States under Obama’s DACA program. It is stated in Trump’s plan for his first 100 days that he will summarily end that program, and that will ruin lives. This Latina teenager will be uprooted — whether immediately or over a grace period — from the life she knows in the US and sent to a place she likely has no memory of. All the hopes and dreams she has for her life here will be radically over, and she will have to start over from scratch. Maybe she will have relatives there to take care of her, and maybe her life will somehow be even better. But the plan does not take any of those contingencies into account — she’s here illegally and needs to be gone.

This policy shift will not directly kill her — though again, the policy doesn’t evince any actual concern for whether she lives or dies once she’s out of the country — but it will definitely uproot and destroy everything she has known as her life. And to support Trump on pro-life grounds is effectively to say that her life, which is actually unfolding, which she is currently experiencing, which she had planned and dreamed and hoped for, is worth less than the purely biological life of someone who hasn’t even been born yet. Is this the moral high ground, or a sick parody of moral deliberation?

Worse: the certainty that her life will be ruined is less important than the outside chance that a future Supreme Court justice will tip the balance in favor of someone who hasn’t been born yet, who has never yet experienced or thought or loved or hoped. Because the irony is that there have been Republican majorities on the Supreme Court more often than not in the time since Roe v. Wade, and yet they somehow never got around to doing what is ostensibly the most important thing.

And why should they? As soon as it’s repealed, suddenly the pro-life movement is no longer a monolithic voting bloc and can start considering other options. They have their locked-in votes from the evangelicals as long as Roe v. Wade stands, and they can get away with anything else they want to do — including nominating a man who is a virtual embodiment of everything that Christians supposedly oppose, and who barely bothers to give lip service to the pro-life position.

It should be a rule of thumb: when someone presents you with an absolute, non-negotiable moral trump card, they are not appealing to your moral sense. They are trying to blind it. They are trying to fool and manipulate you. And evangelicals have let themselves be fooled and manipulated for over 40 years.

No, “we” are not collectively responsible for anything

This afternoon, Chris Hayes — whom I’ve always had pleasant interactions with, who is obviously really smart, who does good work in pushing for genuine policy debate in the media, etc., etc. — tweeted the following:

I was so moved by my utter rejection of this claim that I broke my Twitter hibernation and went on a tweetstorm, which I copy here for posterity.

  • “We” don’t have the capacity for collective deliberation and action, therefore CANNOT be morally responsible for anything collectively.
  • The elites who make and enforce policy decisions do have collective deliberation and action, therefore are collectively responsible.
  • “We’re ALL responsible” presupposes the existence of a collective subject that does not exist, then blames it for whatever is happening.
  • And in so doing, it obscures the actual-existing collective subjects who effectively are responsible for big systemic decisions.
  • “We” as a whole are not responsible for Trump getting the nomination. The Republican Party is the entity that had control over that.
  • “We” are not collectively responsible for gun violence. Gun manufacturers, advocacy groups, and gun-friendly lawmakers are.
  • The spurious collective responsibility of “us all” is absolutely toxic to rational political discourse. Absolutely, 100% obscurantist.