To end our global political crisis, the left needs to learn from Donald Trump

Today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts – even when it is in power, it worries all the time. But it needs to fight to build a new consensus around the social democratic welfare state

Slavoj Zizek
Monday 29 October 2018 13:14
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Donald Trump breaks the rules of political engagement. It's time the left did the same
Donald Trump breaks the rules of political engagement. It's time the left did the same

A series of things took place in the US recently: the mess with Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, suspicious packages sent to outstanding liberal Democrats, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the sharpening of Trump’s rhetoric – from characterising the main public media in the US as the enemies of the people, to the hints that if Republicans will lose the midterm electoral results, he will not recognise them since they will be based on fraud.

Since all these phenomena occurred on the Republican side of the US political space, and since the colour of the Republican Party is red, one can see how the old anti-Communist motto from the days of the Cold War – “Better dead than red” – acquires an unexpected new meaning today. But one should be more precise here: what really goes on in this eruption of vulgarity in our political space?

As Yuval Noah Harari noted in his Homo Deus, people feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don't understand my feelings and don't care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bind, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. When this agreement on basics falters, the only procedure at our disposal (outside outright war, of course) are negotiations. That's why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations.

However, the growing lack of the agreement on the basics in the US and elsewhere does not concern primarily ethnic or religious diversity, it cuts across the entire body politic: it confronts two visions of social and political life, populist-nationalist and liberal-democratic. This confrontation mirrors class struggle, but in a displaced way: the rightist populists present themselves as the voice of the oppressed working class, while the left liberals are the voice of the new elites.

There is ultimately no resolve of the tensions through negotiation possible: one side has to win or the entire field has to be transformed.

A rupture is thus taking place in what philosophers call the “ethical substance” of our life. This rupture is getting too strong for normal democracy, and it is gradually drifting towards a kind of civil cold war. Trump’s perverted “greatness” is that he effectively acts – he is not afraid to break the unwritten (and written) rules to impose his decisions. Our public life is regulate by a thick web of unwritten customs, rules which teach us how to practice the explicit (written) rules. While Trump (more or less) sticks to explicit legal regulations, he tends to ignore the unwritten silent pacts which determine how we should practice these rules. The way he dealt with Kavanaugh was just the latest example.

Instead of just blaming Trump, the left should learn from him and do the same. When a situation demands it, we should shamelessly do the impossible and break the unwritten rules. Unfortunately, today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts – even when it is in power, it worries all the time: “If we do this, how will the world react? Will our act cause panic?” Ultimately, this fear means: “Will our enemies be mad and react?” In order to act in politics, one has to overcome this fear and assume the risk, make a step into the unknown.

Politicians such as Andrew Cuomo are making desperate appeals for return to civility, but this is not enough: it doesn’t take into account the fact that the rise of brutal populism filled in the lack opened up by the failure of the liberal consensus.

So what are we to do? We should quote Samuel Beckett here. In Malone Dies, he wrote: “Everything divides into itself, I suppose.” The basic division is not, as Mao Zedong claimed, that of the one which divides into two; it’s the division of a nondescript thing into one and its rest. Til the recent populist explosion, the “one” into which our societies divided was the liberal consensus with respect for established unwritten customs of democratic struggle shared by all; the excluded “rest” were the so-called extremists on both sides – they were tolerated, but precluded from participating in political power. With the rise of alt-right populism, the hegemony of liberal centre was undermined; a different political logic (not so much with regard to its content but primarily with regard to its style) asserted itself as part of the mainstream.

Such a situation cannot last indefinitely, there is a need for new consensus, the political life of our societies should divide itself into a new "one", and it is not determined in advance which this one will be. The situation comes with real dangers – who can guess the consequences if the victory of Borsonaro in Brazil not only for Brazil but for all of us? – but instead of losing nerves and resigning ourselves panic, we should gather the courage and use this dangerous moment as an opportunity.

To quote Mao again: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”

The one, the new common space, that the left should offer is simply the modern Europe's greatest economic-political achievement: the social democratic welfare state. According to Peter Sloterdijk, our reality is - in Europe, at least - “objective Social Democracy” as opposed to the “subjective” Social Democracy: one should distinguish between social democracy as the panoply of political parties and Social Democracy as the “formula of a system” which “precisely describes the political-economic order of things, which is defined by the modern state as the state of taxes, as infrastructure-state, as the state of the rule of law and, not last, as the social state and the therapy state”: “We encounter everywhere a phenomenal and a structural Social Democracy, a manifest and a latent one, one which appears as a party and another one which is more or less irreversibly built into in the very definitions, functions, and procedures of the modern statehood as such.”

Are we thereby just returning to the old? No: the paradox is that, in today’s new situation, to insist on the old social-democratic welfare state is an almost revolutionary act. The proposals of Sanders and Corbyn are often less radical than those of a moderate Social Democracy half a century ago, but they are nonetheless decried as socialist radicals.

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Although the populist right is nationalist, it is much better than left in organising itself as an international network. So the new leftist project can only come alive if it will match the populist internationalism and organise itself as a global movement. The emerging pact between Sanders, Corbyn, and Varoufakis is a first step in this direction. The reaction of the liberal establishment will be violent. The campaign against Corbyn’s alleged anti-Semitism is just a first indication of how the entire movement will be the victim of a campaign to discredit it. But there is no other way – risks will have to be taken.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative TS Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what has to be done today: the only way to really defeat Trump and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse.

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