Friday, October 23, 2020

Power, Appearance, and Obscenity: Five Reflections

ONE: The New Obscene Master

The obscene public space that is emerging today changes the way the opposition between appearance and rumor works. It is not that appearances no longer matter since obscenity reigns directly; it is, rather, that spreading obscene rumors or acting obscenely paradoxically sustain the appearance of power. Things are in a way similar to what happened in the last decades with the figure of detective in crime fiction: he or she can be crippled, half-crazy, or whatever, but his/her authority as the infallible detective remains untouched. In the same way, a political leader can act in undignified ways, make obscene gestures, etc., but all this, by contrast, strengthens his position of a master.

It is similar with Trump who surprises us again and again with how far he is ready to go with his vulgar obscenities. As a climax of Trump’s attacks on the ex-FBI lawyer Lisa Page, at a Minneapolis rally in October 2019, he performed a mock re-enactment of her texts with Mr Strzok, her ex-lover, as though the couple were in the middle of sexual act, imitating her orgasmic throes. Lisa Page understandably exploded with rage. But the same story seems to repeat itself: Trump survives yet again what his enemies consider the final straw, which will destroy him.

We are here at the opposite end of Stalinism where the figure of the Leader should be kept unblemished at any price. While the Stalinist leader fears that even a minor indecency or imperfection would destroy his position, our new leaders are ready to go pretty far in renouncing dignity. Their wager is that this renunciation will work somewhat like the short note on the back cover of a book by a famous contemporary writer, the note intended to demonstrate that the author is also an ordinary human being like us (“in X’s free time, X likes collecting butterflies”). Far from undermining the greatness of the author, such a note strengthens it by way of contrast (“you see, even such a great person has ridiculous hobbies…”). We are fascinated by such notes, precisely and only because he or she is a great author; if such a note was about an average ordinary person, we would be indifferent towards it (“who cares what a nobody like that is doing in free time”).

The difference is, nonetheless, that these kinds of leaders are like the Kim Kardashians of politics. We are fascinated by Kim because she is famous, but she is famous just for being famous; she is not doing anything significant apart from ordinary things. In a similar way, Trump is famous not despite his obscenities but on account of them. In the old royal courts, a king often had a clown whose function was to destroy the noble appearance with sarcastic jokes and dirty remarks (thereby confirming by contrast the king’s dignity). Trump doesn’t need a clown; he already is his own clown, and no wonder that his acts are sometimes more funny or tasteless than the performances of his comic imitators. The standard situation is thus inverted: Trump is not a dignified person about whom obscene rumors circulate; he is an (openly) obscene person who wants his obscenity to appear as a mask of his dignity. Alenka Zupančič elaborated the contrast between this logic and the classic logic of domination in which

“the smear of the king’s image is simultaneously the smear of the king himself and as such inadmissible. The new logic is: let the image be castrated in all possible ways while I can do more or less everything I want. Even more, I can do what I want precisely because of and with the help of this new image.”[1]

This, again, is how Trump functions: his public image is smeared in all possible ways, people are surprised at how he again and again manages to shock them by reaching a new depth of obscenity, but at the same time he governs in the full sense of the term, imposing presidential decrees, etc. – castration is here turned around in an unheard-of way. The basic fact of what Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is the gap that separates me, my (ultimately miserable) psychic and social reality, from my symbolic mandate (identity): I am a king not because of my immanent features but because I occupy a certain place in the socio-symbolic edifice, i.e., because others treat me like a king. With today’s obscene master, “castration” is displaced onto his public image. Trump makes fun of himself and deprives himself of almost the last vestiges of dignity, he mocks his opponents with shocking vulgarity, but this self-depreciation not only in no way affects the efficiency of his administrative acts; it even allows him to perform these acts with utmost brutality, as if openly assuming the “castration” of the public image (renouncing the insignia of dignity) enables the full “non-castrated” display of actual political power. It is crucial to see how the “castration” of the public image is not just a signal that this image doesn’t matter, that it is only actual administrative power that counts. Rather, the full deployment of administrative power, of enforcing measures, is only possible when the public image is “castrated.”

But what about a politician who acts like an efficient no-nonsense administrator and also publicly assumes such an image (“a matter-of-fact guy who despises empty rituals and is only interested in results…”)? The gap between public image and actual person is still at work in such an identity, so that one can easily detect the difference between a really efficient administrator and the one who plays this role. But more important is the fact that assuming the image of an efficient administrator seriously constrains the space of what I am able to do in reality, of how I can exercise my power: I have to obey certain rules. Why, then, do I have to renounce the dignity of my power-role in order to exercise full power? Trump’s exercise of presidential power involves three and not just two elements: his ruthless exercise of power itself (enforcing decrees), his clownish-obscene public image, AND the symbolic site of power. Although this site is emptied of its positive content (dignity), it remains fully operative, and it is precisely its emptiness that enables Trump to exercise fully his administrative power.

TWO: Rumor and the Big Other

Rumors[2] are a specific mode of the big Other; they are in some sense the other side, the obverse, of the big Other which stands for the dignity of public space. Recall the typical situation of a small group of people who all know some embarrassing secret about one of them, plus they all know that every single one of them knows that they all know it. Nonetheless, a radical break occurs when one of them says it publicly. Nobody learned anything new, why then such an embarrassment? Because they can no longer pretend (act as if) they don’t know it. Now the big Other knows it…

This is the big Other of appearances, and the domain of rumors is precisely its opposite. Rumors do not deal with factual truth as opposed to appearances. They are both outside factual truth (to save the appearance of dignity we are ready to keep silent on the truth). Anonymous rumors are excluded from public space, and they remain strangely efficient even if not true. Their narration is usually prefaced with: “I don’t know if this is really true, but I was told (or, rather, the impersonal “one says that”) X did that and that…”.

A blistering case of rumours spread in the form of disavowal was provided by one of the main Russian national TV networks, Channel One, which launched a regular slot devoted to coronavirus conspiracy theories on its main evening news programme, Vremya (“Time”). The style of the reporting was ambiguous, appearing to debunk the theories while leaving viewers with the impression that they contain a kernel of truth. The message (shadowy Western elites and especially the US are somehow ultimately to blame for coronavirus epidemics) is thus propagated as a doubtful rumour: it’s too crazy to be true, but nonetheless, who knows…

The suspension of actual truth strangely doesn’t annihilate its symbolic efficiency. Rumors and appearance thus share a distance towards factual truth. Sometimes, the respect for another’s dignity even demands of us to declare publicly something we ourselves (as well as the ones we address know) is not factually true.

THREE: Donald Trump as an Obscene Patriot

Let us recapitulate where we are at. Not such a long time ago, in a galaxy that now appears far, far away, public space was clearly distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges. Politicians, journalists and other media personalities were expected to address us with a modicum of dignity, talking and acting as if the common good is their main preoccupation, avoiding vulgar expressions and references to personal intimacies. There were, of course, rumors about their private vices, but they remained just that – private matters mentioned only in the yellow press. Today, however, not only can we read in the mass media about the intimate details of public personalities, but also populist politicians themselves often regress to shameless obscenity. It is the very PUBLIC domain in which “fake news” circulate, in which rumors and conspiracy theories abound.

One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of shameless obscenity of the alt-right so well noted and analyzed by Angela Nagle in her Kill All Normies.[3] Traditionally (in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless obscenity worked as subversive, as an undermining of traditional domination, as depriving the Master of his false dignity. I remember from my own youth how, in the 1960s, protesting students like to use obscene words or make obscene gestures to embarrass figure of power and, so they claimed, denounce their hypocrisy. However, what we are getting today, with the exploding public obscenity, is not the disappearance of authority, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance: we are getting something unimaginable decades ago, obscene Masters.

Donald Trump is the emblematic figure of this new type of obscene populist Master, and the usual argumentation against him – that his populism (worry for the well-being of the poor ordinary people) is fake, that his actual politics protects the interests of the rich – is all too short. The followers of Trump do not act “irrationally”; they are not victims of primitive ideological manipulations, which make them vote against their interests. They are quite rational on their own terms: they vote for Trump because in the “patriotic” vision he is selling around, he also addresses their ordinary everyday problems – safety, permanent jobs, etc.

When Trump was elected president, I was asked by a couple of publishers to write a book, which would submit the Trump phenomenon to a psychoanalytic critique, and my answer was that we do not need psychoanalysis to explore the “pathology” of Trump’s success. The only thing to psychoanalyze is the irrational stupidity of the Left liberal reactions to it, the stupidity which makes it more and more probably that Trump will be reelected. To use what is perhaps the lowest point of Trump’s vulgarities, the Left has not yet learned how to grab Trump by his p…

Trump is not winning just by shamelessly bombarding us with messages that generate obscene enjoyment at how he dares to violate the elementary norms of decency. Through all his shocking vulgarities, he is providing his followers with a narrative which makes sense – a very limited and twisted sense, but, nonetheless, a sense that obviously does a better job than the Left-liberal narrative. His shameless obscenities serve as signs of solidarity with the so-called ordinary people (“you see, I am the same as you; we are all red under our skin”), and this solidarity also signals the point, at which Trump’s obscenity reaches its limit. Trump is not thoroughly obscene: when he talks about the greatness of America, when he dismisses his opponents as enemies of the people, etc., he intends to be taken seriously, and his obscenities are meant to emphasize by contrast the level, at which he is serious. They are meant to function as an obscene display of his belief in the greatness of America.

This is why, in order to undermine Trump, one should begin by displacing the site of his obscenity and treat as obscene his “serious” statements. Trump is not truly obscene when he uses vulgar sexist etc. terms; he is truly obscene when he talks about America as the greatest country in the word, when he imposes his economic measures, etc. The obscenity of his speech masks this more basic obscenity. One could paraphrase here the well-known Marx brothers’ dictum: Trump acts and looks as a shamelessly obscene politician, but this should not deceive us – he really is a shamelessly obscene politician.

Public obscenity proliferating today constitutes a third domain between the private and the public space: it is private space elevated into the public sphere. It seems to be the form that fits best our immersion into cyberspace, our participation in all possible chatrooms, twitting, instagramming, facebooking… No wonder Trump makes most of his decisions public through Twitter! However, we don’t get here the “real Trump.” The domain of public obscenities is not that of sharing intimate experiences; it is a public domain full of lies, hypocrisies and pure malevolence, a domain, in which we engage in a way similar to that of wearing a disgusting mask. The standard relationship between my intimacy and the big Other of public dignity is thus turned around. Obscenities are no longer limited to private exchanges; they explode in the public domain itself, allowing me to dwell in the illusion that it’s all just an obscene game while I remain innocent in my intimate purity. The first task of a critic is to demonstrate how this purity is fake in all domains, not only in politics, but also in entertainment.

Let’s take a look at the latest example:

“Gwyneth Paltrow has made a strong business out of her vagina. She – through her wellness platform Goop – introduced us to the concept of vaginal steaming, jade vaginal eggs and, of course, the elusive sex dust moon juice. Now, new for January 2020, we have the vagina candle, which has already sold-out, prompting a waitlist. /…/ The goal, the Goop description optimistically reads, is “to put us in mind of fantasy, seduction, and a sophisticated warmth”. If you do manage to buy one through the waitlist, it’ll cost $75 or £58.”

Again, it appears that Paltrow is just playing an obscene game while she retains her intimate dignity. And this is what one should reject: no, her intimate dignity is a false mask concealing the fact that she is openly merchandising her vagina.[4] And one can easily imagine someone from an agency charged with protecting customers raising the question: how does the customer knows that the product really smells like Paltrow’s vagina? Is there a way to verify it?

FOUR: New Populism Is Not Fascism

Trump’s inconsistencies exploded with the Covid-19 pandemic. The confused improvisations in Trump’s reaction to the pandemic were widely noticed: first he praised China’s measures, then he blamed China and the Democrats for America’s woes, all this mixed with personal eccentricities about possible cures and calls for a fast return to normal… This mixture of obscenities, political paranoia and folk wisdom perfectly exemplifies the nature of today’s new Right populism, but it also shows the difference between traditional “totalitarian” populism and today’s new Right populism. So, let’s use this opportunity to make a step back and analyze more closely the unique nature of today’s populism. (I rely extensively here on Yuval Kremnitzer’s work[5].)

Like any populism, today’s variety also distrusts political representation, pretending to speak directly for the people. It complains about how its hands are tied by the “deep state” and financial establishment, so its message is: “if only we didn’t have our hands tied, we would have been able to do away with our enemies once and for all.” However, in contrast to old authoritarian populism (like Fascism) which is ready to abolish formal-representative democracy and really take over and impose a new order, today’s populism doesn’t have a coherent vision of some new order. The positive content of its ideology and politics is an inconsistent bricolage of measures to bribe “our own” poor, to lower the taxes for the rich, to focus hatred on immigrants and our own corrupted elite outsourcing jobs, etc.

That’s why today’s populists don’t really want to get rid of established representative democracy and fully take power: “without the ‘fetters’ of the liberal order to struggle against, the new right would actually have to take some real action,” and this would render obvious the vacuity of their program. And that’s the first feature of today’s populists: they can only function in the indefinite postponement of achieving their goal, since they can only function as opposing the “deep state” of the liberal establishment: “The new right does not, at least not at this stage, seek to establish a supreme value – for instance, the nation, or the leader – that would fully expresses the will of the people and thereby allow and perhaps even require the abolition of the mechanisms of representation.”

How, then, do they deal with this immanent antagonism of their project, with not really wanting to destroy their proclaimed enemy? Here, style replaces the lack of political substance – namely, the style of direct appeal to obscenity. Every order of culture implies its specific underground of unwritten rules that regulate what one is not allowed to talk about publicly. These unwritten rules operate at multiple levels,  from rumors about the dark side of the private life of political leaders and the use of dirty language and indecent insinuations to cases that are much more “innocent” and as such even more crucial, because they imply the prohibition of publicly stating the obvious. In the last years of his life, Deng Hsiao-Ping officially retired, but everybody knew that he continued to pull the strings of power. When one of the high Chinese party apparatchiks referred to Deng as the de facto leader of China in an interview with a foreign journalist, he was, nonetheless, accused of publicly disclosing a state secret and severely punished. So, a state secret is not necessarily what only a few are allowed to know: it can also be something that everybody knows, everybody except what Lacan calls the big Other, the order of public appearance.

What one has to bear in mind here is that obscenity is not co-substantial with unwritten rules, and it also does not take place when we make the unwritten rules explicit. Obscenity emerges when we violate (not the explicit rules but) the unwritten rules, when we do or say something that is not explicitly prohibited but is treated as something we all know we shouldn’t do or say. For example – and it is a sad terrifying example – , although one doesn’t talk about this a lot, it is clear that not only Brasil but also many rich countries from the US to Sweden decided to sacrifice thousands of lives, especially those of the old and the sick, to keep the economy going and to maintain the appearance of a normal daily life. A more ridiculous example: everybody knows that flatulence in public is considered extremely tasteless, but to state this rule publicly is in itself an obscene act… Only Trump did it: when he once praised Melania as a refined lady in a public talk, he said that in all their life together he never heard her emit a flatulence.

With new Right populism, something unique happens: it has become possible

“for the political, which is supposed to reside on the side of the decent, to drastically switch sides and appeal directly to the obscene /…/ what makes this new form of authority so challenging to comprehend is the explicit way in which it makes exposure operate perversely as illusion; the act of taking off the mask functions as a mask.”

Note Kremnitzer’s precise formulation: the very gesture of taking of the mask and brutally stating what one means functions as a mask. Why? Because the obscene form masks the vacuity of its content. The function of obscenity is here very precise: it is supposed to be the indicator of “medial sincerity” (as opposed to liberal sticking to formal rules). Trump endlessly varies this motif: he admits he is constantly breaking the rules (not just) of politeness, resorting to vulgar insinuations, throwing at his enemies unverified or even blatantly false accusations (recall what he said about McCain, Obama…). But he presents this as a proof that he really means it, in contrast with liberal formal politeness. In a quasi-Marxist way, today’s populists denounce a political bias in the very formal procedures of representative politics: the rules of the game aren’t really neutral and equal for all participants; they are made to prevent and manipulate the direct adequate expression of the people’s will.

This is the game populists are playing: while remaining within the “representational logic” of liberal political space, they constantly evoke its lies and try to “bring forward that which eludes the representational logic.” The populists’ vulgar excesses

“mark the polite liberal opposition as one that hypocritically denies that which the right is no longer afraid to parade publically for all to see. The truth exposed by the right – the revelation that the symbolic order is nothing but a show of sanctimony put on to conceal violent reality – is congruent with the anti-ideological project of critical thinking, and therefore criticism finds itself powerless to oppose it.”

In this sense, while populist critique is symmetrically opposed to the Politically Correct disclosure of the illusions of liberal neutrality, they supplement and reinforce each other: “the left’s moral outrage feeds the right’s appetite for transgression, which feeds the left’s moral outrage, and the cycle continues.” Let’s be more precise here: we have three positions. First, there is the liberal-formal legalism, which trusts the neutrality of the procedures of political representation. Then, there are the three critical positions towards this stance, including the Politically Correct analysis, which reads official liberal neutrality with suspicion and tries to bring out its racial, cultural and gender biases. The PC stance remains within the basic liberal coordinates; it just wants to fully actualize them by abolishing their hidden biases. The problem, though, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. With moralist zeal, it analyzes the details of the subject’s behavior, searching for traces of racism and sexism. But its domain is that of cultural and sexual identity, not of radical economic and social change. It exorts you to change your behavior, to get rid of racial and sexist clichés, not to analyze the society, which gives birth to them.

The shocking power of obscene populists resides in their readiness to state openly what the PC critic is trying to unearth through refined analysis. They assert their innocence by way of admitting in advance (what is in the eyes of the PC critic) their guilt. This, in a way, renders PC analysis useless, as though trying to break through an open door, so no wonder that PC critics spend a lot of their time analyzing each other, discovering traces of racism and sexism in apparently respectful statements and gestures.

PC puritan moralism and the new Right’s populist public display of obscenity are two sides of the same coin. The problem with both is that they do not really do what they promise. The problem with populist obscenity is not that it’s morally irresponsible, but that it is not really obscene: the daredevil stance of ignoring the rules of decency and openly, without constraints, saying whatever comes to one’s mind is a fake façade, which conceals a thick underworld of unwritten rules prescribing what one can say and what one cannot say.

In a homologous way, it’s not that the PC stance is too rigidly moralistic and lacks the liveliness of obscenity. No, PC excessive moralism is fake, because it covers up opportunist calculus, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. It is full of its own unwritten rules: minorities that count more than others; subtly different criteria for what is prohibited and what is allowed, criteria which change quickly like fashions; anti-racism based on hidden racist arrogance (a white guy who asks others to assert their identity renounces his identity and thereby reserves for himself the position of universality); and, especially, the awareness of which questions are NOT to be raised (radical social change, etc.). There should be more women in positions of power, but the power structure itself should not change; we should help the poor, but we should remain rich; positions of power at the university should not be abused for sexual favors of those subordinated to us, but power which doesn’t get sexualized is OK.

Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey were right to see the main reason of Sanders’s defeat in his struggle for the Democratic nomination in the fact that his campaign moved from popular class insurgency to liberal anti-Trump resistance, from class war to culture wars: eager to please the Democratic Party’s liberal Left, he more and more subordinated class insurgency to cultural topics, i.e., he silently endorsed the Left liberal view that the main danger is not global capitalism but Trump’s “Fascism” against which we should all unite. No surprise that Biden is playing this game quite well. There are now rumors that even George Bush will support him against Trump.

FIVE: The Crisis of New Populism

The world order as we knew it is disintegrating. Countries are cutting ties to WHO and other international organizations, while revoking old armament agreements. Trump announced his intention to use the army on the streets of US cities; China talks about a possible military invasion of Taiwan; Putin said that Russia may use nuclear arms even if it is attacked with conventional arms. Along these lines, nationalist populists were expected to seize the opportunity of the Covid-19 pandemic and change their countries into isolated fiefdoms directed against foreign enemies. But it didn’t work, as their bravados turned into a display of blatant impotence and incompetence.

Let’s take the three big authoritarian populists in the world today. As Angela Dewan put it, “Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro find their populist playbooks are no match for coronavirus” (and neither is Boris Johnson’s, he, too, playing the populist card):

“The coronavirus pandemic could have been a moment of glory for the world’s populist leaders. This is a period of heightened fear and anxiety — emotions that typically allow them to thrive. Instead, some populists are finding themselves powerless against the outbreaks ravaging their countries. The US, Brazil and Russia now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and as their death tolls continue to rise, their economies are taking devastating blows.”

Donald Trump found himself in a special predicament when Covid-19 crisis was amplified by the protests against the killing of George Floyd. The pandemic clearly echoes in these protests: Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” are also often the last words of a dying Covid-19 patient. The link is obvious: a much higher percentage of blacks than whites is affected by police violence and by the new coronavirus infection. In this mess, Trump is simply out of his league: unable to impose a unifying vision, to perform the gesture of a leader in a situation, calling for a leader who would provide a sincere description of the gravity of the situation with some kind of hope and vision. Or, as Robert Reich wrote: “You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed. His verbal bombshells are louder than ever, but Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States.” When he threatened that, if police and National Guard could bring calm, he would send the regular army to crush protests with its “infinite force,” he became the agent and instigator of a civil war.

But what is this war? One thing about the ongoing protests in the US is not emphasized enough, although it is absolutely crucial: there is no place for the dissatisfaction fueling the protests within the space of “culture wars” between Politically Correct liberal Left and populist neo-conservatives. The liberal Left’s stance towards the protests is: yes to dignified peaceful protests, but no to extremist destructive excesses and looting. In some elementary sense they are right, of course, but they miss the meaning of violent excesses, which are a reaction to the fact that the liberal peaceful way of gradual political change didn’t work, that systemic racism persists in the US. What emerges in violent protests is an anger that cannot be adequately represented in our political space.

This is also why so many representatives of the establishment, not only liberals but also conservatives, are openly critical of Trump’s aggressive stance towards the protesters. The establishment desperately wants to channel protests into the coordinates of the eternal “struggle against racism,” one of liberal endless tasks. They are ready to admit that we didn’t do enough, that there is a long and difficult work ahead… just to prevent a quick radicalization of the protests, not even towards more violence but towards their transformation into an autonomous political movement with a platform clearly demarcated from the liberal establishment. As Matthew Flisfeder wrote: “What we need to learn is not how to be post-human, but how to be equitably post-capitalist.”[6] Post-humanism is ultimately just another version of our inability to think post-capitalism: to paraphrase Fred Jameson, it is easier to imagine all of humanity digitally connected with their brains wired and sharing their experiences in a global self-awareness than to envision a move beyond global capitalism.

Violent protests are the return of the repressed of our liberal societies, a symptom which enacts what cannot be formulated in the vocabulary of liberal multiculturalism. Usually, we accuse people that they just speak instead of doing something. The ongoing protests are the exact opposite: people act violently because they don’t have the right words to express their grievance.

To paraphrase yet again Brecht’s good old saying “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank!”: What is a direct racist obscenity compared to the obscenity of a liberal who practices multiculturalist tolerance in such a way that it allows him to retain racist prejudices. Or, as Van Jones put it: “It’s not the racist white person who is in the Ku Klux Klan that we have to worry about. It’s the white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter walking her dog in Central Park who would tell you right now, ‘Oh, I don’t see race, race is no big deal to me, I see all people the same, I give to charities’ but the minute she sees as black man whom she does not respect, or whom she has a slight thought against, she weaponizes race like she had been taught by the Aryan Nation.”

Yet, the example evoked by Jones is more complex. If a white woman feels uneasy when she notices that a black man is approaching her and grabs tightly her bag, afraid that she would be robbed, a PC critic would accuse her of acting on her racial prejudices. To this, a new Right populist would snap back that, probably, her fear was justified since she was already robbed by a black man. It is not enough to reply that one should raise the question of what social causes pushed the black man to eventually act like this. Even when PC critics do this, they use this argument in order to disculpate and thus desubjectivate the black robber: the robber is not guilty because he is not fully responsible for his acts but a product of unfortunate circumstances (while the white racist is treated as morally fully responsible and, for this reason, treated as despicable). It’s a sad choice for the oppressed black: either you are subjectively deficient (racism) or you are a product of objective circumstances (PC liberal). How to break out of this deadlock? How to transform blind rage into new political subjectivity?

The first step in this direction was made by some members of the police themselves. Many police officers, including NYPD chief Terence Monahan, “took the knee” alongside the protesters – a practice which was introduced decades ago by American athletes when they won a gold medal and the national anthem was played at sporting events. The message of this gesture is to signal racial injustice in their own country, and since it is a sign of disrespect towards the national anthem, it means that one is not ready to fully identify oneself with the US – “this is not my country.” No wonder the Chinese gleefully report on the protests in the US, reading them as a repetition of the Hong Kong protests, where one of the main demands of the Chinese authorities was that Hong Kong should not allow disrespectful treatment of the Chinese national anthem and of other state symbols of China.

Taking the knee also has another meaning, especially when done by those who act on behalf of the repressive apparatus of power: it is a signal of respect for the protesters, even with a touch of self-humiliation. If we combine this with the basic message “this America (for which it is my job to act) is not my country,” we get the full meaning of the gesture: not the standard anti-Americanism, but a demand for a new beginning, for another America. So, the title of a recent CNN comment “Is the US still the world’s moral leader? Not after what Trump just did this week” should be sharpened: now we see that the US has never been the world’s moral leader and that it needs a radical ethico-political renovation way beyond the liberal-Left vision of tolerance.

One should draw a clear contrast here between anti-quarantine protesters and the Black Lives Matter protesters. Although anti-quarantine populists protest on behalf of universal freedom and dignity, while the Black Live Matter protests focus on violence against a particular racial group, and although some in the police probably sympathize with anti-quarantine protests, “the idea of asking the police to join the former is laughable, despite the professed universality, whereas the latter welcomes the police even though it appears as a particular struggle.”[7] In short, the “universal” anti-quarantine protests contain a hidden spin towards white identity, while the Black Lives Matter protests are effectively universal: the only way to fight against racism from a truly universal position today in the US is to see anti-black racism as a “singular universal,” as a particular case, which provides the key to universality.

In my books, I often quoted an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic: a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West – the only thing unavailable is red ink.” This is what the protest movement should look for: the “red ink” to properly formulate its message, or, as Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark and son of the great black poet Amiri Baraka, put it: we cannot win with guns; to have a chance to win, we have to use books.

Many orthodox Leftist critics dismissed my idea of a Communist prospect opened up by the ongoing epidemic with the standard Marxist argument that there is no revolution without a revolutionary party, (an organized force, which knows what it wants) and that such a force is nowhere to be seen these days. However, this critique ignores two unique features of our present predicament. First, that the situation itself – in health and economy – demands measures, which suspend market mechanisms and obey the maxim “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities,” so that even conservative politicians in power are obliged to impose things resembling Universal Basic Income. Second, global capitalist system is approaching a perfect storm, in which a health crisis is combined with an economic crisis, an ecological crisis, international conflicts, and anti-racist protests. These last protests are not limited to the US but are emerging all around the world; it is as if we are entering a new stage of our ethical awareness where racism is simply deemed intolerable. The combination of all these struggles, the awareness that they are linked in an intrinsic way, has an immense emancipatory potential.

Notes:

[1] Quoted from unpublished manuscript.

[2] I rely here on Malden Dolar who elaborated the concept of rumor in all its dimensions.

[3] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies, New York: Zero Books 2017.

[4] And now the trend goes on: singer Erykah Badu announced that she will sell vagina incense made from her used underwear… See https://www.msn.com/en-gb/lifestyle/style/erykah-badu-to-sell-vagina-incense-made-from-her-used-underwear/ar-BBZIHxr?ocid=spartanntp.

[5] The uncredited quotes that follow are from Yuval Kremnitzer, “The Emperor’s New Nudity: The Media, the Masses, and the Unwritten Law” (manuscript).

[6] Personal communication.

[7] Todd McGowan, private communication.

The Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic is one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time. Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist after the 1989 publication of his first book in English, “The Sublime Object of Ideology“. He is a regular contributor to newspapers like “The Guardian”, “Die Zeit” or “The New York Times“. He has been labelled by some the “Elvis of cultural theory“ and is the subject of numerous documentaries and books.

This piece was first published in thephilosophicalsalon.com. Reprinted with permission. 

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