Views » March 3, 2017
Slavoj Zizek: We Must Rise from the Ashes of Liberal Democracy
Trump is a threat to global stability—only a new Left international can beat him.
Donald Trump's January 20 inaugural address was ideology at its purest, its simple message relying on a series of obvious inconsistencies. At its most elementary it sounded like something that Bernie Sanders could have said: I speak for all you forgotten, neglected and exploited hardworking people. I am your voice. You are now in power. However, beyond the obvious contrast between these proclamations and Trump’s early nominations (Rex Tillerson, the voice of exploited, hardworking people?), a series of clues give a spin to his messaging.
Trump talked about Washington elites, not about capitalists and big bankers. He talked about disengaging from the role of the global policeman, but he promises the destruction of Muslim terrorism. At other times, he has said he will prevent North Korean ballistic tests and contain China’s occupation of South China Sea islands. So what we are getting is global military interventionism exerted directly on behalf of American interests, with no human-rights and-democracy mask. Back in the 1960s, the motto of the early ecological movement was “Think globally, act locally!”
Trump promises to do the exact opposite: “Think locally, act globally.” In the 20th century, one need not proclaim “America first!” It was a given. The fact that Trump proclaimed it indicates that in the 21st century American global interventionism will go on in a more brutal way. Ironically, the Left, which has long criticized the U.S. pretension to be the global policeman, may begin to long for the old days when, in all its hypocrisy, the United States imposed democratic standards onto the world.
Yet, the most depressing aspect of the post-electoral period in the United States is not Trump’s policies, but the Democratic Party establishment’s reaction to its historic defeat: an oscillation between two extremes, the horror at the Big Bad Wolf called Trump and its obverse, the normalization of the situation, the idea that nothing extraordinary happened. On the one hand, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said he detected in Trump’s inaugural address something “Hitlerian.” On the other, Politico’s John Bresnahan reported that Nancy Pelosi “repeatedly brings up the events of a decade ago. For her, the lesson is clear—past is prologue. What worked before will work again. Trump and the Republicans will overreach, and Democrats have to be ready to jump at the opportunity when they do.”
In other words, Trump’s election is just another reversal in the normal exchange of Republican and Democratic presidents—Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump. Such a stance totally ignores the real meaning of Trump’s election: the weaknesses of the Democratic Party that rendered this victory possible and the radical restructuring of the entire political space that it announces.
But what if his project of moderate protectionism, large public works and job creation, combined with anti-immigrant security measures and a new perverted peace with Russia, somehow works and gives some short-term results? That is what horrified left liberals really fear: that Trump will somehow not be a catastrophe.
We should not succumb to such panic. Even if Trump will appear successful, the results of his politics will be ambiguous at best for ordinary people, who will soon feel the pain of this success. The only way to defeat Trump— and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy—is to detach ourselves from liberal democracy’s corpse and establish a new Left. Elements of the program for this new Left are easy to imagine. Trump promises the cancellation of the big free trade agreements supported by Clinton, and the left alternative to both should be a project of new and different international agreements. Such agreements would establish public control of the banks, ecological standards, workers rights, universal healthcare, protections of sexual and ethnic minorities, etc. The big lesson of global capitalism is that nation states alone cannot do the job—only a new political international has a chance of bridling global capital.
An old anti-Communist leftist once told me the only good thing about Stalin was that he really scared the big Western powers, and one could say the same about Trump: The good thing about him is that he really scares liberals.
After World War II, Western powers responded to the Soviet threat by focusing on their own shortcomings, which led them to develop the welfare state. Will today’s left-liberals be able to do something similar?
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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.