Features » July 7, 2014
Broken Eggs, But No Omelet
All austerity has wrought in Europe is a messy kitchen
Walter Benjamin's old thesis that behind every rise of fascism, there is a failed revolution, not only still holds today, but is more pertinent than ever.
After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant Eurosceptic parties in France and the United Kingdom in May, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naiveté in their indignation and wonder at the Right victories. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant Right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen—founder of the French far-right National Front party that triumphed in France’s recent European Parliament elections—made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French pop singer of Jewish descent, his daughter Marine Le Pen, the party leader, publicly criticized him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant whether this family conflict is staged or real—the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilized one, is what defines today’s populist Right. Beneath the civilized public mask lurks its brutal, obscene real face, and the difference between the two is only the degree to which the hidden face is openly exposed. Even if this underside remains totally out of sight, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s specter, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.
There is no surprise in Marine Le Pen’s message: It’s the usual anti-elitist, working-class patriotism that targets transnational financial powers and the alienated Brussels bureaucracy. She rejects the unelected Brussels financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interests of international financial capital and prohibit individual states from prioritizing the welfare of their own people. She thus advocates a politics that connects with the worries and cares of ordinary working people. Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: While her party’s Fascist outbursts are a thing of the past, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumb to the temptation to defend her. What unites Le Pen and her European leftist sympathizers is their shared rejection of a strong Europe and their desire for a return to sovereignty of nation states.
The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. Instead of trying to discern the antagonisms of today’s global capitalism, she focuses on easy targets like immigrants whose presence is visible to everyone on our streets. Le Pen’s message begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practiced by the Brussels experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist trying to convince him of the need for violence against enemies of the state evoked the proverb, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” To which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Brussels technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs around Europe, but where’s the omelet you have promised us?”
The least one can say about the crisis, which has lasted since 2008, is that it offers proof that it is not the people but these experts themselves who, for the most part, don’t know what they are doing. In Western Europe we are witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite; they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. In June 2013 the Wall Street Journal leaked internal International Monetary Fund (IMF) documents showing that the economic damage to Greece from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling out the IMF’s previous prescription of austerity as the solution to the Eurozone crisis. Now, after hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost because of such “miscalculations,” the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive.
The ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures fits perfectly with what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent that bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them. However, the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives to his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU commands: They don’t even give a chance to Greece; the Greek failure is part of the game. It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt.
Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests across Europe: The protesters know very well what they don’t know; they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers. But what their instincts are telling them is nonetheless true: that those in power also don’t know. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition—a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffer, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less.” Austerity is not “too radical,” as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.
The dark corner
Can the idea of a united Europe be reduced to the reign of the Brussels technocrats? The proof that this is not the case is that the United States and Israel, two nation-states obsessed with their sovereignty, at some deep and often obfuscated level perceive the EU as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double. In Israel, crazy stories about the country’s right to throw out Palestinians are grounded in Exodus, in particular God’s command to the Jews, as they approached their land after 40 years of wandering around, to mercilessly slaughter the tribes that were living there. In the United States, the vision is doubled by the extreme Right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order, as exemplified in the works of Tim LaHaye. The title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in this direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The enemies of the United States are not Muslim terrorists; they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists—the true forces of the Antichrist who want to weaken the United States and establish the New World Order under the domination of the UN. In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision that is ultimately incompatible with nation-states, a vision of a transnational order that guarantees certain rights (welfare, freedom, etc.) to all the world’s people. This is why the EU has the propensity to expand well beyond the frontiers of old Europe. This is why the European dream still has universal appeal. This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness”: there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power.
So what is wrong with the Brussels technocrats? Not only their measures and their false expertise, but even more their modus operandi. The basic mode of politics today is a depoliticized administration and coordination of interests by an elite corps of experts. The only way to introduce passion into this politics-free zone, to actively mobilize people, is through fear: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself (with its burden of high taxation), fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by populist racism. However, a closer look soon reveals how their multicultural tolerance of and respect for (ethnic, religious, sexual) others share with anti-immigrants a basic premise: the fear of others as clearly discernible in the liberals’ obsession with harassment. Health harassment when I am disturbed by a shameless smoker, verbal harassment when I overhear a lower-class guy telling a dirty joke. … The Other is fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really Other.
No wonder the topic of “toxic subjects” has gained ground recently. The predicate “toxic” covers a series of properties that belong to totally different levels—natural, cultural, psychological, political. A “toxic subject” can be an immigrant with a deadly disease who should be quarantined; a terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs in Guantánamo (an empty zone exempted from the rule of law); a fundamentalist ideologist who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; or a parent, teacher or priest who abuses and corrupts children. What is toxic is ultimately the foreign Neighbor as such, so that the ultimate aim of all rules of interpersonal relations is to quarantine, or at least neutralize and contain, this toxic dimension.
On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on. The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) becomes warfare without warfare; the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration becomes politics without politics; up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism, which becomes an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness. Is this detoxification of the immigrant Other not the main point of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party program? Farage repeatedly emphasizes that he is not against the presence of foreign workers in the United Kingdom—that he highly appreciates the hard-working Poles and their contribution to the British economy. This is the stance of the “civilized” anti-immigrant Right: the politics of detoxified neighbor—good Poles versus bad immigrants. This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbor presents a clear passage from abject barbarism to barbarism with a human face. In what conditions does it arise?
Walter Benjamin’s old thesis that behind every rise of Fascism there is a failed revolution not only still holds today, but is more pertinent than ever. Rightist liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al Qaeda. But does this not indicate how Fascism takes the place of a failed leftist revolution? Its rise is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously proof that there was a revolutionary potential that the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “Islamo-Fascism”? Does the rise of radical Islamism not correlate with the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who remembers that, 36 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, including a powerful Communist party that took power there independently of the Soviet Union? As Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas: The very state that was, until the 1970s, the bedrock of radical leftist populism is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. And the same goes for Europe: The failure of the leftist alternative to global capitalism has birthed anti-immigrant populism.
Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror—however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, the New York Times reported that they engineered a class revolt that exploited profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants. If, by taking advantage of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal, what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the United States from similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy. And, mutatis mutandis (changing only those things that need to be changed), the same goes for Farage and Le Pen: Their rise is the obverse of the demise of the radical Left.
The lesson that frightened liberals should learn is this: Only a radicalized Left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy. The sad prospect that lurks if this will not happen is the unity of the two poles—the rule of nameless financial technocrats wearing a mask of populist pseudo-passions.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.