I’m still reeling from last Tuesday’s election results and am trying to think of the questions that it raises going forward. I don’t know that I have much that’s original to add, but here goes:
First, and foremost, so much comes down to the role that corporate money plays in the democratic party. 6 million fewer democrats voted in this election than in 2012. I think this lack of turnout has to be put in context. To be sure, democrats had a candidate that had appalling favorability likings. These are things that have to be taken seriously in the age of the politics of affect. Democrats simply can’t run candidates on the basis of impressive resumes, but who fail to excite and hope to win. This is the third time they’ve done this in recent history (Gore and Kerry before).
However, more importantly, this was an election that followed the ’08 financial collapse and the Occupy Wall Street protests. While the stock market has recovered and jobs have slowly returned, people feel extreme economic precariousness, that they will never be able to retire, and that it is impossible to get ahead or send their children to college. They are drowning in debt and are struggling to make ends meet every month. The decision to run Clinton– and don’t kid yourselves, it was a foregone conclusion on the part of the party from the beginning –was nothing short of bizarre as she lacked credibility on all of these key issues. Her husband had played a key role in deregulating business in the ways that led to the financial collapse, he played a key role in the trade agreements that destroyed jobs and livelihoods, she made hundreds of thousands of dollars giving speeches to Wall Street, pushed TPP, and had larger corporate campaign contributions than any other presidential candidate in history. She could talk until she was blue in the face about the economy and many still would not trust her because of these things.
The democratic party finds itself in a very difficult position. In order to run general elections these days, massive amounts of money are needed (though Trump put the lie to this axiom). This means that they’re convinced they need these corporate campaign contributions. However, if they take those contributions they can’t address the issues that bring voters to the polls because doing so in a meaningful way threatens the interests of the banks and corporations. Take a close look at Clinton’s platform. I defy you to find a single proposal that in any way significantly threatens the interests of big moneyed interests. During the primaries and the general election I watched democratic partisans and true believers insist that big money doesn’t corrupt the political process. Yet is it a mistake that there’s no aspect of her platform that significantly challenges the interests of banks, insurance companies, energy companies, private prisons, pharmaceutical companies, the growing educational industry (charter schools and testing companies), etc., etc., etc? While clearly racism, Comey, and sexism all played key roles in Clinton’s loss, I think that the democratic party’s ability to meaningfully represent people in terms of their economic interests is what, more than anything, lost the election.
In a recent interview, Zizek draws on Chomsky’s concept of “manufacturing consent” with an interesting twist, to make the point that in our current age consent has disappeared. By “manufactured consent” Zizek has in mind the shared reality that belongs to society. In this respect, he shifts the Chomskyian meaning of the concept from propaganda to the construction of shared social reality. In every community there’s a base of “facts” that go without question that form the horizon or ground for interactions among people. One feature of a society or community is that there is something like a shared set of “facts” as to what is real; regardless of whether or these things really are facts or not. People might disagree as to what is to be done about these things or what might be the best way to address them, but they don’t disagree, at least, that these things are real. In other words, it is not just communication or shared symbols that define a society, but a shared world.
What has disappeared today is anything like a world. We live and work amongst one another, yet it’s clear that we have entirely different conceptions of what the facts are, of what’s real, of what’s happening. How is anything like governance or politics possible when there isn’t any shared reality? How can we pierce these bubbles of other worlds when these worlds are largely invisible to one another? Incommensurability is no longer an intriguing philosophical hypothesis, but is the reality we today live in.
The Place and Practice of Critique
If there is one thing that marks the great materialist tradition of thought– Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Freud, Deleuze, etc –it’s the critique of the illusions that haunt thought and send practice astray. These illusions lead people to misrecognize the source of their suffering and therefore to engage in forms of practice contrary to their interests. In some contexts this has taken the form of a critique of superstition. In Lucretius, for example, superstition or religion will function as both a mechanism of oppressive social control, but will also fill people with terror, leading them to believe, for example, that the natural disaster is divine punishment for something they are doing. Spinoza will make similar observations. Premised on these beliefs, people will be led to acts that further their oppression. In other contexts, this will take the form of a critique of ideology or distorted beliefs about the nature of society that ultimately benefit the ruling groups. In yet other contexts this will take the form of a critique of illusions produced by desire, by our loves and hatreds, and how desire leads us to misidentify the good. This will be particularly salient in Spinoza’s Ethics where thought is not animated by the pursuit of knowledge, but by confused ideas about love that animate our minds.
We can see how this works in the space of a psychoanalysis. A woman has a crushing fear of weasels. She thinks that her fear is about weasels. She recognizes that there’s something irrational about her phobia of weasels, but even the mere word “weasel” fills her with dread. Perhaps she’s of a net-rationalist philosophical bent, so she decides to go see a cognitive behavioral therapist to get treated. The therapist first tells her all of the ways in which weasels are really no danger (he tries to cure her of her false beliefs). Once he’s gotten a little traction he then instructs her to carry around a plush stuffed animal weasel so that she can habituate herself to being around weasels. She then is shown pictures of weasels and then, eventually, she even goes to a petting zoo. But it’s all to no avail. The anxiety remains. She knows very well her fear is irrational, but it continues nonetheless.
Filled with despair she decides to go to another therapist who happens to be a psychoanalyst. After a long time she gradually remembers a childhood experience on the farm where she grew up. She walked into the chicken coup and saw blood everywhere and parts of dismembered chickens. But this isn’t the source of her phobia either. For some reason her associations lead her to thoughts about her parents. Around this time her parents went through a terrible divorce because of her father’s– who she loved very much –infidelity. The fights between her parents were intense and ugly. Her mother referred to him as “that lying weasel”. Her fears about weasels weren’t really about weasels at all, but were about her father who largely disappeared from her life at this point. Just as we put toxic chemicals and radioactive materials in special containers to quarantine their dangerous effects, a phobia contains a trauma in a special box so we don’t have to confront it directly. In this woman’s case, the toxic materials were her anger towards her father that she loved so deeply and grief at his disappearance from her life. She couldn’t face these things directly and wasn’t even aware she thought these things, but instead placed them in the box of the phobia. In working through that grief and anger the phobia disappeared (and her troubled relationships with men also changed significantly). This is the true rationalism… One that works through the real causes of our affective states.
This is how it is with a critique of ideology. The beliefs that populate haunt the social world such as racism, misogny, hyper-nationalism, hostility towards immigrants, etc., aren’t really about these things but are about some deeper antagonism that people only dimly sense. We misrecognize the sources of our suffering and oppression. A critique of ideology aims at both dissipating these sad passions and getting at the true causes of our suffering and oppression. Rather than sterile action that attacks minorities or immigrants leaving everything the same, the working through afforded by an ideology critique opens a space practice where our action might be truly efficacious because it confronts real or true causes.
However, there’s a question of just how something like an ideology critique is supposed to work. A critique of ideology can be perfectly correct and true, it can be based on adequate ideas, yet still produce little to no effects in the social world. There’s a major difference between a psychoanalysis and a critique of ideology. In a psychoanalysis the transference is operative. The analysand or patient forms a love attachment with the analyst that gives the analyst’s words a power and authority that other people– who say exactly the same things –don’t possess. In the transference, the analysand repeats their history with respect to the person of the analyst and the analyst is able to maneuver in such a way as to undo this repetition. For example, an analysand might incessantly speak of their symptoms in medical terms, in a medicalized discourse. “I just can’t concentrate anymore. Perhaps I’ve damaged my brain somehow!” The analysand might notice that the patient was situated by her parents as the sick one and every remedy provided was in the form of some sort of medicine. The analysand is repeating, in the present, the object of love she was for her parents. To undo this repetition the analyst might cleverly try to shift the discourse from medicine to ethics; to questions of how her symptom might mark a betrayal of her desire, of who she aims to be in her conatus. Her lack of concentration at work arises not from brain damage, but from the fact that in taking that job she betrayed her desire of what she wished to be. In confronting her symptom as an ethical question of whether she’s been true to her desire her medical repetition might be undone and she might instead seek to remedy this ethical betrayal. The symptom is a sort of acephalous knowledge in the subject, an unknown knowledge, a knowledge without reflexivity that marks her ethical repudiation of how she’s compromised herself in the choice that’s she made. There are more effective and satisfying ways of registering that protest.
We don’t find anything analogous to the transference in the social world. This begs the question of how ideology critique is supposed to function in the social world to produce efficacious shifts in the fabric of society. What strategies might we devise so that words might hit the mark and produce change?