In his introduction to the work of Mao, Žižek writes,
The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao On Practice and Contradiction, 17)
In what sense is this to be understood as the true victory? After all, the simple fact that the enemy is using your “language” does not count as much of a victory if the structure of power remains the same. However, perhaps we can understand Žižek’s point in terms of making alternatives available, of creating possibilities within the social space that were not there before.
This thesis can be illustrated in terms of games. For the last thirty years it could be said that the reigning economic assumption behind American politics has been that of Friedmanian, unregulated, free trade economics. The net result is that all sides engaged in economic discussions surrounding the political assume this framework as the ground of their policy proposals. Here only one option is available and participants take stands within the framework of this set of rules. The situation is thus analogous to a game of chess. Within a game of chess, the rules themselves aren’t up for debate or discussion. Rather, the rules are themselves agreed upon and remain largely invisible for the players. If a debate does take place, this debate takes place not in terms of a dispute over the rules of the game, but over the tactics as to how best play the game within the framework of those rules. Such has been the case with non-academic political discourses in the United States.
A shift in the game thus does not occur at the level of a single game, but only when an entirely new game becomes available, challenging the discourse of the existing game. In this regard, Republicans made a strategic blunder when they chose to brand Obama as a socialist during the last election. In situating Obama as a socialist within the context of the current economic meltdown, they implicitly suggested that another game, another set of possibilities was possible. Rather than simply suggesting that Obama plays the game of chess (neoliberal economics) poorly, they instead suggested that Obama plays an entirely different game, perhaps go, composed of entirely different rules (socialism). In making this move, they undermined their own claim, built up painstakingly over the course of economics, that capitalism today reigns supreme and there are no other credible alternatives.
My suggestion here isn’t that Obama is a socialist or that he will depart from neoliberal economic policies (I’m skeptical). Rather, what I find interesting is that news shows, editorials, and various pundits are suddenly raising questions of whether unfettered capitalism is the best possible system. What we increasingly hear today is a popular space in which capitalism is being contested or questioned, and a halting groping towards other possibilities is unfolding. It is only when the game itself becomes an object of critique, when it comes to be seen as contingent or something that could be otherwise, that it becomes possible to overturn that game. Absent that we simply have competing tactics within one and the same game, assuming the same rules, goals, and aims.