Monday, August 1, 2011

The Ideological Function of Bogeymen

We're resting on the edge of total Armageddon. Everything of value hangs in the balance. In order to "protect the American way of life", we have to do something, anything, quickly. This is no time for politics. No, we need to set all of that aside for "higher ends". We need "effective" solutions that will enable us to swiftly do what's "best for America". Hurry! Time is running out! Don't think, don't talk. Just act!

Now just reflect on the character of this absurd narrative. How many times since you've been alive have you been subjected to it in one form or another? What function does it serve? I can count at least three obvious examples, which I'll discuss in turn.

There is, first of all, the hurried run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a post-9/11 media landscape absolutely saturated with images of nuclear destruction, weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare and the like, we were forcefully prodded into hastily, unreflectively endorsing a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. If you so much as stopped to ask questions regarding feasibility, you were branded as naive or, worse, as seeking to aid the "dark forces" working to obliterate us any moment. Importantly, the fear-mongering had a strongly anti-political streak running through it. If you so much as suggested that politics had anything to do with what was going on, you were excoriated for having done something vulgar and "divisive". This, we were constantly told, was supposed to a "time to set politics aside and do what's best for the 'Nation'". In other words: stop thinking critically, don't pay any attention to politics, economic interests, relations of power, or the like. Just buy into a bunch of meaningless jingoistic group-think. Of course, it is supposed to be the case that we know better these days. This whole debacle has been widely commented on, and it is now more or less commonplace, even within the ranks of the still bellicose Democratic Party, to say that the arguments for invasion were more or less groundless fear-mongering.

The second example that comes to mind is more recent and has been less widely commented upon. It is the financial meltdown in 2007-08 and the bailout that quickly followed. As Slavoj Zizek has astutely noted, the refrain at the time was "don't just talk- do something!", but, in fact, we should have done precisely the opposite: stopped to reflect and talk about how we got into this mess in the first place. Given that any sober answer to that question reflects rather poorly on capitalism and, accordingly, on the ruling classes who have a firm stake in its continued existence, this discussion was never had within the halls of power nor within the corporate media. So instead we were subjected to a scare campaign that reeked of same fear-mongering that characterized the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. We were told, just as before, that civilization would collapse if we didn't something quick. And, most importantly, we were constantly lectured about why this was "not a time for politics". Rather than living in a society divided along class lines, we were suddenly all living in a harmonious, egalitarian community known as the "the Nation". Within the confines of "the Nation", all of us, from Donald Rumsfeld to high-school janitors, supposedly had the same basic interests. Thus, any appeal to "politics" was nothing more than an attempt to divide "the Nation" and to give in to "partisan bickering". And, of course, such "bickering" did nothing more than block the noble efforts of the heads of both corporate parties to do "what's best for America". It was in this context that the massive bailout, the largest of its kind in the history of the world, was pushed through by way of back-room, midnight deals. We now know that it was a massive conversion of private losses into public losses, thus priming the pumps for record-breaking profits. The terms of the deal were so lopsided in favor of industry that it even upset the likes of the Economist and the Financial Times. Although I have my issues with his work, Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: A Love Story does a remarkably good job of chronicling this whole process by stringing together news clips.

Well, now we have a third example of a noble "defensive struggle" against a bloodthirsty Bogeyman. Holding the threat of a default over our heads, we were made to think that the coming historic assault on US living standards was unavoidable. Even worse, the Bogeyman of the national debt has even led left-liberals to celebrate the arrival of the harsh, punishing axe of austerity.

We do well not to forget that the US is already undergoing structural adjustment at the municipal, county and state levels, as millions continue to endure deep cuts to education, infrastructure, health care, social services, public transit and the like. But although austerity has been all the rage -among Republican and Democrats alike- at the city and state level, it has yet to make it's definitive debut at the Federal level. That is what this "debt debate" was really all about. It is about finding a way to push through and legitimate Federal-level austerity, or, if you like, Federal-level structural adjustment that will exacerbate the state-level crises considerably.

As we know from countless historical examples, structural adjustment is never popular with the masses. It always provokes resistance from ordinary people, for the simple reason that it means unemployment, wage cuts, elimination of vital social services, axing public transit, privatization of public wealth, and the destruction of public social institutions (e.g. schools, libraries, arts organizations, and the like). In short, "structural adjustment" means taking an axe to the living standards of ordinary people in order to create a "good business climate", i.e. conditions maximally favorable to the highest possible accumulation of short-term profits. For this reason, structural adjustment, in every single case, had to be imposed from above on an unwilling populace.

Given the unpopular nature of cuts to popular social programs, the overlapping milieu of ruling class and political elite was in the position of having to find some way to make these policies appear to be legitimate. This was especially pressing for the Democrats who, on the face of it at least, are supposed to be a political formation that stands up for the interests of ordinary Americans.

Enter here the language of impending crisis and Armageddon. Enter the anti-political distortions that purge all discussions of substance. Enter the vapid, apolitical discourse of "bipartisanship", "consensus", and the like. The result: we now supposed to celebrate the axe coming down on us as a historic example of "compromise", of "putting politics aside for the greater good of all". What should have been a disaster is now a triumph. It's not just that criticism of austerity is silence in the short-term: now we are supposed to enjoy and celebrate our own oppression. As a fellow left blogger put it: "they want you scared so you'll back down".

This may have staved off discontent in the short-run (or, maybe it hasn't... still too early to tell). But this is no long-term legitimation strategy for a policy cocktail that will devastate the lives of millions of Americans by eroding our living standards for years to come. Public transit is facing huge cuts amidst an environmental and energy crisis. Foreclosures continue amidst massive mortgage bank profits, public sector layoffs, furloughs, and wage-cuts continue as the rich enjoy obscenely low levels of taxation. Schools are being closed, university departments decimated, teachers harassed, tuition increased, and scholarships cut. Our domestic infrastructure continues to crumble at the very same time that the US continues to spend billions blowing up buildings and people in foreign countries. This is no recipe for long-term stability. People will stand up and resist this at some point- Wisconsin was only a warning shot in what is likely to be a protracted period of political and economic struggle. The burning questions for the Left (not the faux-Left apologists for the Democrats, but the real Left, the independent, grassroots Left of Debs and Hampton) then become: How can we prepare ourselves for these struggles? How can we participate in existing struggles at the same time that we initiate new ones? How can our side win? How can we learn from recent and past defeats? What kinds of organization do we need?


JM said...

Zizek's at least right about one thing there,right now, people are getting more mad at his honestly incoherent analysis than at the cause of the crisis. If it would please the court, an example of this phenomenon

t said...

I think Richard Seymour did a nice job of skewering some of the problems with Zizek's recent interventions:

But I think this piece (the one linked in the post from LRB) is actually quite good.

W. Kasper said...

JM -

You seem to read everything in terms of wrestling face-offs, top tens, awards ceremonies or something. However you read anything, it's clearly in the wrong way.

Where exactly did I - or any other commentator - get "more mad" at Zizek than the cause of the crisis? Did you just hear this in your head, because it simply isn't there.

Seriously - take some classes in remedial comprehension. Skip the module about 'concern trolling' if you can too. Those of us with basic reading skills can smell it a mile off.

JM said...

My point really, was that even if Zizek is wrong headed most of the time, he has made good points such as that cited above. I was just tired of you and chabert wringing hands over one philosopher in the world who apparently, but not really is worse than Hitler.

W. Kasper said...

When the fuck did I ever say he was "worse than Hitler"?? It really is wrestling match stuff with you, isn't it? Did you learn these disinformation tricks from Zizek?

Richard said...

Zizek also wrote a good piece in the New Left Review about a year or year and a half ago which rightly emphasized the failure of the social democratic left in Europe to move beyond the defense of the existing provision of social welfare by the state as a response. Perhaps, he says something similar in the LRB piece, haven't had time to read it yet.

Anonymous said...

Was riding the bus today, and saw two stickers on the back of a pickup truck. One said "what if there was an emergency...and nobody showed up?". It was a "support your local fire department" sticker. But just below it, was a brand new shiny sticker with "debt" crossed out.

I thought to myself: this is a travesty. All this brouhaha about debt is an excuse to impose austerity, which will mean punishing cuts for local fire departments among other things. For firefighters it will mean layoffs, wage cuts, furloughs, pay freezes, pension "reform", and all the rest of it. Yet, all this hysteria about "debt" and "balancing the books", "fiscal discipline", etc. has been taken up by sectors of the working class. Of course, this same individual, presumably, will be tempted to resist these policies when the axe of austerity comes down on her/his fire department. But in the meantime, it does seem as though the ideology of debt-hysteria is functioning beautifully for the ruling class.