A colleague of mine alerted me to this interview with Chris Hedges, author of American Fascism, which discusses the danger of far right extremist fundamentalist movements. Of particular interest, I think, is his focus on the relationship between economic woes and growing economic anxiety, and the emergence of these apocalyptic movements, which I find to be both an interesting and important observation:
In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?
When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts.” That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.
When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.
People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There’s a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I’d met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn’t exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.
You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don’t understand how radically changed our country is, don’t understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.
As I argue in the conclusion to my recent paper on apocalypticism, the central feature of apocalyptic narratives seems to be that they present the time of action as deferred, as if we are powerless in the present, unable to do anything now to transform our social conditions as the forces of capital are too strong to be resisted and fought against. The time of the now, of the present, has disappeared. Or, put otherwise, the present no longer appears as an actable space. The middle class worker working for the corporation encounters lay-offs every few years as a result of stockholder decisions, shifts in global economy that require downsizing, and changes in technology, making them much like the Stoic slave Epictetus who can only endure his fate and turn inward, rather than change life under empire. So too with lower class workers who increasingly find themselves in competition with outsourcing and technologies that render their jobs obselete. This echoes, Poetix’s, K-Punk’s, and Jodi Dean’s thesis that today it is impossible to imagine a beyond or alternative to life under contemporary global capitalism. Fundamentalist apocalyptic narratives become powerfully attractive under such conditions, as they promise the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world where these antagonisms are resolved and the disruption at the heart of the social is finally pacified. The problem, of course, is that in being seduced by these narratives, the followers are led to endorse a number of other downright frightening things at the level of policy… Policies that are often directly against their own self-interests.
It seems to me that an element commonly missing from these discussions is the role played by the contemporary hegemony of the “discourse of the victim”. One of the uncanny points of identity between both left and right is the primacy of victim discourses as the only authentic position from which to formulate an ethics and politics. Thus we have victimhood as minority status on the left, and the perceived persecution of Christians and white heterosexual males as the dominant trope on the right. One question worth asking is why politics must today take the form of a discourse of the victim. I haven’t come up with any answers to this question, yet it does seem that “being-a-victim” confers one a minimal ontologically substantiality or identity in a world where identity has progressively been virtualized and rendered precarious by the collapse of the big Other. The dangers of rightwing discourses of the victim are, I think, readily apparent in terms of the sorts of action they thereby authorize.
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