Slavoj Zizek’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. Transcript here.
Ideologies at their purest: 1) Capitalism is bad, Socialism is good. Or, 2) Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good. Ideology is political drive minus fact and substance, the excrement of whatever you believe regardless of reality. I fully support the Occupy Wall Street protest. My concern is that it will only be left-wing version of inane populism that has infected the American right over the past three years. We don’t need more of this kind of populism. But that brings me to the question of how to define populism. What is it? How does it function?
A full two years before the Tea Party came onto the scene, Zizek predicted a post-Bush utlra-right populist movement, defined their characteristics, and gave a rough timeline of their rise and decline. I thought that was a little bit impressive. So while pondering the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and populism, I stumbled across Zizek’s article Against the Populist Temptation.
“The field of politics is thus caught in an irreducible tension between “empty” and “floating” signifiers: some particular signifiers start to function as “empty,” directly embodying the universal dimension, incorporating into the chain of equivalences which they totalize a large number of “floating” signifiers.” – Slavoj Zizek
The definition used here for populism is purely ideological- it depends on ambiguous signifiers. Politics within a democracy depends on ambiguous signifiers- it’s why we don’t trust the same politicians we campaign for. “Change We Can Believe In” was ambiguous- you could plug whatever meaning you want into it, but all it definitely meant was that you had already made up your mind you would be voting for Obama. Birtherism is another ambiguous signifier- it meant less that people were foolish enough to believe Obama was born in Kenya and more that they voted Republican.
Zizek doesn’t go into this in the article, but this type of belief in the signifier is the clinical definition of neurosis. It is the fixation on the symbol with indifference to the Real. Another way to say it is that the symbol holds the place of belief for you. Hashtag your social media with #some-cause, and you won’t have to define your own opinions. The opposite condition of neurosis is psychosis- the belief that your symbol is one and the same with the Real. The catch? You never know whether a belief is more neurotic or psychotic until evidence is irrefutable. Until the birth certificate was released, we had no way of knowing whether Birthers were truly insane or simply affirming their political loyalties. The result? Of the more than fifty percent of Republicans that said they doubted the President’s citizenship, a only a little more than a third were still Birthers after the birth certificate was released. Those people are the psychotics- the ones you should stay away from. The rest were just delving into neurosis- as we all do. What we will see in coming weeks is whether the Occupy movement has legitimacy and staying power, or else is just a psycho/neurotic blip on the radar.
“The first thing to note is that today’s populism is different from the traditional version – what distinguishes it is the opponent against which it mobilizes the people: the rise of “post-politics,” the growing reduction of politics proper to the rational administration of the conflicting interests… there is a constitutive “mystification” that pertains to populism: its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudo-concrete “enemy” figure (from “Brussels bureaucracy” to illegal immigrants). “Populism” is thus by definition a negative phenomenon, a phenomenon grounded in a refusal, even an implicit admission of impotence.” -Zizek
The far right took a number of long-standing and arguably legitimate concerns but finally mobilized them against a mythical Marxist Muslim from Kenya-the shelf-life of a ridiculous founding myth makes for a quick expiration date. If Occupy Wall Street devolves into a psychotic blaming of bankers and stockbrokers, it will fail. If it blames an unqualified term like “capitalism” and advocates some extreme alternative, it will fail. If if continues to focus on policies to address and raises awareness among a public misguided by 24 hour propaganda masquerading as news, it just might get somewhere. I don’t mean to defend capitalism- we would do well to integrate a good dose of socialism into our irrevocably capitalist economy. And I do not at all mean we need to “find a third way” or any ridiculous nonsense such as this- I absolutely believe we need an actual left in this country to check the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll put it this way: the bank CEO’s are praying to Mammon that you will demonize bank CEO’s- scapegoating keeps the system stable.
And please, remember to panic. Because SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT!
by Tad Delay