Features » August 24, 2016
Slavoj Žižek: Clinton, Trump and the Triumph of Global Capitalism
Why the Hillary Clinton consensus is a threat to democracy—and the Left.
Trump is not the dirty water one should throw out to keep safe the healthy baby of U.S. democracy. He is the dirty baby who needs to be thrown out to make us believe that we got rid of the dirt.
Roger Ebert once said that a film is as good as its villain. Does this mean that the forthcoming U.S. elections will be good since the “bad guy” (Donald Trump) is almost an ideal villain? Yes, but in a very problematic sense. For the liberal majority, the 2016 elections represent a clear-cut choice: Trump is ridiculous, excessive and vulgar. He exploits our worst racist and sexist prejudices such that big-name Republicans are abandoning him in droves. If Trump remains the Republican candidate, we will get a truly “feel-good election.” In spite of all our problems and petty squabbles, when there is a real threat to our basic democratic values we come together, just like France did after the terrorist attacks.
But this comfortable democratic consensus should worry the Left. We should take a step back and turn the gaze on ourselves. What is the exact makeup of this all-embracing democratic unity? Everybody is there, from Wall Street bankers to Bernie Sanders supporters and veterans of the Occupy movement, from big business to trade unions, from army veterans to LGBT+ activists, from the ecologists horrified by Trump’s denial of global warming and the feminists delighted by the prospect of the first woman president to the “decent” Republican establishment figures terrified by Trump’s inconsistencies and irresponsible “demagogic” proposals. These very inconsistencies make his position unique.
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, observed in a personal e-mail to me:
After Orlando, he came out all warm and fuzzy about LGBT victims/people—in a manner that no other Republican would have dared. Also, it is common knowledge that he is not a “faithful” Christian and that he only says that he is for show—and by ‘common knowledge’ I mean that this is known by the … Christian sects that make up the U.S. fundamentalist front. Lastly, his position on abortion has for decades been a liberal one and it is, again, common knowledge, that he does not favour a repeal of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. In short, Trump has managed to change the cultural politics of the Republican Party for the first time since [Richard] Nixon. By adopting a crass, misogynist, racist language he has managed to release the Republican Party from its traditional reliance on the Fundamentalist, the homophobic and the anti-abortion ideological straitjacket. It is a remarkable contradiction that only a Hegelian can grasp!
His reference to Hegel is justified. Trump’s vulgar racist and misogynist style is what enabled him to undermine the Republican conservative-fundamentalist dogma. Trump is not simply the candidate of conservative fundamentalists. (He is perhaps an even greater threat to them than to “rational” moderate Republicans.) The paradox is, thus, that within the ideological space of the Republican Party, Trump was only able to undermine its fundamentalist core through racist and sexist populist vulgarities. This complexity, of course, disappears in the standard left-liberal demonization of Trump. Why? To see this, we should again turn our gaze towards the Hillary Clinton consensus.
The popular rage that gave birth to Trump also gave birth to Sanders. Both express widespread social and political discontent, but they do it in opposite ways—one engaging in rightist populism and the other opting for the leftist call for justice. And here’s the trick: The leftist call for justice tends to be combined with struggles for women’s and gay rights, for multiculturalism and against racism. The strategic aim of the Clinton consensus is clearly to dissociate all these struggles from the leftist call for justice, which is why the living symbol of this consensus is Tim Cook. Cook, the CEO of Apple, proudly signed a pro-LGBT letter to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and can now easily forget about hundreds of thousands of Foxconn workers in China assembling Apple products in slave conditions. He made his big gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged by demanding the abolition of gender-segregated bathrooms.
If Cook is one living symbol of this consensus, Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be U.S. secretary of state, is another embodiment. On CBS’s 60 Minutes (May 12, 1996), Albright was asked about the Iraq War: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Albright calmly replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”
Let’s ignore most of the questions this reply raises (including the interesting shift from “I” to “we:” I think it’s a hard choice but we think the price is worth it) and focus on just one aspect: Can we imagine all the hell that would break out if the same answer were said by somebody like Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping or the Iranian president? Would they not be denounced immediately in all our headlines as cold and ruthless monsters? Campaigning for Clinton, Albright said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” (Meaning: women who vote for Sanders instead of Clinton.) Maybe we should amend this statement. There is a special place in hell for women—and men—who think half a million dead children is an affordable price for a military intervention that ruins a country, while wholeheartedly supporting women’s and gay rights at home.
Trump is not the dirty water one should throw out to keep safe the healthy baby of U.S. democracy. He is the dirty baby who needs to be thrown out to make us believe that we got rid of the dirt, i.e., in order to make us forget the dirt that remains, the dirt that lurks beneath the Hillary consensus. The message of this consensus to the Left is: You can get everything, we just want to keep the essentials, the unencumbered functioning of the global capital. With this frame, President Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!” acquires a new meaning: Yes, we can concede to all your cultural demands, without endangering the global market economy—so there is no need for radical economic measures. Or, as University of Vermont professor Todd McGowan put it (in a private communication to me): “The consensus of ‘right-thinking people’ opposed to Trump is frightening. It is as if his excess licenses the real global capitalist consensus to emerge and to congratulate themselves on their openness.”
This is why WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is right in his crusade against Clinton, and the liberals who criticize him for attacking her, the only person who can save us from Trump, are wrong: The thing to attack and undermine now is precisely this democratic consensus against the villain.
And what about poor Bernie Sanders? Unfortunately, Trump hit the mark when he compared Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton to an Occupy partisan backing Goldman Sachs. Sanders should withdraw and remain silent in dignity so that his absence will weigh heavily over the Clinton celebrations, reminding us what is missing and, in this way, keeping the space open for more radical alternatives in the future.
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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.