The Liberal Waterloo

(Or, finally some good news from Washington!)

Slavoj Žižek

The first reaction of progressives to Bush’s second victory was that of despair, even fear: The last four years were not just a bad dream. The nightmarish coalition of big business and fundamentalist populism will roll on, as Bush pursues his agenda with new gusto, nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court, invading the next country after Iraq, and pushing liberalism in the United States one step closer to extinction. However, this emotional reaction is precisely what we should resist — it only bears witness to the extent liberals have succeeded in imposing their worldview upon us. If we keep a cool head and calmly analyze the results, the 2004 election appears in a totally different light.

Many Europeans wonder how Bush could have won, with the intellectual and pop-cultural elite against him. They must now finally confront the underrated mobilizing power of American Christian fundamentalism. Because of its self-evident imbecility, it is a much more paradoxical, properly postmodern phenomenon than it appears.

Take the literary bestsellers of U.S. Christian fundamentalism, Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind” series of 12 novels on the upcoming end of the world that have sold more than 60 million copies. The Left Behind story begins with the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of millions of people — the saved souls whom God calls to himself in order to spare them the horrors of Armageddon. The Anti-Christ then appears, a young, slick and charismatic Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia, who, after being elected general secretary of the United Nations, moves U.N. headquarters to Babylon where he imposes an anti-American world government that disarms all nation-states. This ridiculous plot unfolds until the final battle when all non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, et al — are consumed in a cataclysmic fire. Imagine the outcry in the Western liberal media if a similar story written from the Muslim standpoint had become a bestseller in the Arab countries! It is not the poverty and primitivism of these novels that is breathtaking, but rather the strange overlap between the serious” religious message and the trashiest conventions of pop culture commercialism.

My next reflection concerns the basic paradox of democracy as revealed in The History of the VKP(b)—the Stalinist bible. Stalin (who ghost-wrote the book) describes the vote at a party congress in the late 20s: With a large majority, the delegates unanimously approved the resolution proposed by the Central Committee.” If the vote was unanimous, where then did the minority disappear? Far from betraying some perverse totalitarian” twist, this paradox is built into the very structure of democracy. Democracy is based on a short-circuit between the majority and the All.” In it, the winner takes all and the majority counts as All, obtaining all the power, even if this majority is merely a couple hundred votes among millions.

Democracy” is not merely the power of, by and for the people.” It is not enough to claim that in a democracy the majority’s will and interests (the two do not automatically coincide) determine state decisions. Today, democracy is above all about formal legalism — the unconditional adherence to a set of formal rules that guarantee society’s antagonisms are fully absorbed into the political arena. Democracy” means that whatever electoral manipulation takes place all politicians will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the 2000 U.S. presidential election was effectively democratic”: In spite of obvious electoral manipulations and the patent meaninglessness of the fact that several hundred votes in Florida decided who would be president of the entire nation, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the election, Bill Clinton made an appropriate acerbic comment: The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said.” This comment should be taken more seriously than it was meant. To this day, we still don’t know what they said — perhaps because there was no message” behind the result at all.

Those old enough still remember the boring attempts of democratic socialists” to oppose the miserable really-existing socialism” by holding up the vision of authentic socialism. To such attempts, the standard Hegelian answer provides the sufficient response: The failure of reality to live up to its notion bears witness to the inherent weakness of the notion itself. Why shouldn’t the same hold for democracy? Isn’t it too simple to oppose the really-existing” liberal capitalist-democracy to a more true radical democracy?

This is not to imply that Bush’s victory was an accidental mistake, a result of fraud or manipulation. Hegel wrote apropos Napoleon that he had to lose two times: Only after Waterloo did it become clear to him that his defeat was not a military accident but the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: He had to win two times in order for liberals to perceive that we are all entering a new era.

On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers were hit. Twelve years earlier, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. November 9 announced the happy 90s,” the Francis Fukuyama dream of the end of history,” the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, and that the only obstacles to this ultra-Hollywood happy ending were merely local pockets of resistance where the leaders did not yet grasp that their time was over. In contrast, 911 symbolizes the end of the Clintonite happy 90s, heralding an era of new walls — between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

In their recent The War Over Iraq, William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan wrote, The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there … We stand at the cusp of a new historical era … This is a decisive moment … It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the twenty-first century.” One cannot but agree with them. It is effectively the future of the international community that is at stake now — the new rules that will regulate it, what the new world order will be.

A new vision of the New World Order is thus emerging as the effective framework of recent U.S. politics: After September 11, America basically wrote off the rest of the world as a reliable partner. The ultimate goal was no longer the Fukuyama utopia of expanding universal liberal democracy, but the transformation of the United States into Fortress America,” a lone superpower isolated from the rest of the world, protecting its vital economic interests and securing its safety through its new military power. This new military not only includes forces for rapid deployment anywhere on the globe, but also the development of space weapons that enable the Pentagon to control the global surface from above. This strategy throws a new light on the recent conflicts between the United States and Europe: It is not Europe that is betraying” the United States. The United States no longer needs to rely on its exclusive partnership with Europe. In short, Bush’s America pretends to be a new global empire but it is not. Rather, it remains a nation-state ruthlessly pursuing its interests. It is as if U.S. politics is now being guided by a weird reversal of the ecologists’ well-known motto: Act globally, think locally.

Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush’s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush’s politics. Further, Bush’s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

However, the main advantage involves international politics. If Kerry had won, it would have forced liberals to face the consequences of the Iraq war, allowing the Bush camp to blame Democrats for the results of their own catastrophic decisions. In her famous 1979 Commentary essay, Dictators and Double Standards,” Jeanne Kirkpatrick elaborated on the distinction between authoritarian” and totalitarian” regimes in order to justify the U.S. policy of collaborating with Rightist dictators, while actively subverting Communist regimes. Authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers concerned with power and wealth and indifferent towards ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big cause. In contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless, ideology driven fanatics who put everything at stake for their ideals. So while one can deal with authoritarian rulers who react rationally and predictably to material and military threats, totalitarian leaders are more dangerous and must be directly confronted. The irony is that this distinction encapsulates perfectly what went wrong with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Saddam was a corrupt authoritarian dictator striving for power and guided by brutal pragmatic considerations (which led him to collaborate with the United States throughout the 80s). But in removing him, the U.S. intervention has led to the creation of a fundamentalist” opposition that precludes any pragmatic compromises.

Bush’s victory will dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. It is a journalistic cliché to praise the postmodern” dynamic of U.S. capitalism against the old Europe” stuck in its regulatory Welfare State illusions. However, in the domain of political organization, Europe is now going much further than the United States has toward constituting itself as an unprecedented, properly post-modern,” trans-state collective able to provide a place for anyone, independent of geography or culture.

No reason to despair, then. The prospects may be dark today, but remember one of the great Bushisms: The future will be better tomorrow.”

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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.
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