As Hegel already knew, the masses are very well capable of gaining bad insights on their own, with the political priesthood only pairing these bad insights with a good dose of bad intentions.
Simon Hajdini is a research fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of numerous research articles in psychoanalysis, German idealism, and contemporary continental philosophy, as well as two books in Slovene: On Boredom, Laziness and Rest (Analecta 2012) and What’s That Smell? Toward a Philosophy of Scent (Analecta 2016). Below is the ILNA's interview with this authoritative philosopher on the rise of far-right in today world.
ILNA: What is the reason for the increasing interest in nationalism in today's world and its success among the masses?
I think the simplest way to answer this question is by relating it to the two innate contradictions in the functioning of the neoliberal state. The first, obvious contradiction has to do with the neoliberal state’s aversion to the state. This aversion takes the form of the four horsemen of the neoliberal apocalypse, namely: deregulation, financialization, privatization, and fiscal sustainability. As such, the neoliberal state supposedly functions as a technocratic intermediary, whose sole role is to free the free market from the corrupting interventions of the state, that is, ultimately: from itself. Paraphrasing Alain Badiou, we can thus speak of the primacy of economic management as characteristic of a depoliticized state. At the same time, however, this withdrawal of the state into a technocratic role is underpinned by the state’s new, or at least unprecedented, interventionism (including, and most notably, by its preemptive use of the military), which is intended to safeguard “a good economic climate” on a continuous and expanding scale.
This first contradiction implies a second one, namely the neoliberal state’s principled “internationalism,” or its aversion to the nation-state. David Harvey has noted how, as a competitor in the global market, the neoliberal state is faced with the problem of assuring its inner cohesion by guaranteeing citizen loyalty. The example that he provides of this is the Falklands war that stirred up nationalist sentiments necessary for Margaret Thatcher’s reelection and hence her further implementation of neoliberal reforms. The road to neoliberalism’s final global victory is structurally paved with its local “defeats” in the form of recurring outbursts of nationalism.
The global financial crisis of 2008 challenged the neoliberal consensus to an unprecedented degree, forcing its minions to play the nationalist card so as to safeguard the said consensus. Angela Merkel’s critique of multiculturalism, for instance, can be seen as an example of this, but so can Brexit, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the rise of the Alt-right, as well as the election of Donald Trump. This may sound counterintuitive, but I don’t think that Trump has truly fractured the neoliberal hegemony. Regardless of the liberal, as well as conservative, protestations of outrage at his “despotic” style, he is the symptom of the neoliberal hegemony’s innate and innately conflicting desires.
As far as nationalism’s morbid sex-appeal goes, or its success among the masses, the old scapegoating argument applies. A systemic contradiction is “resolved” by being blamed on a particular social, ethnic, religious, etc., group: the Arabs, the Jews, the emigrants, the refugees… But we shouldn’t foster any naïve illusions about the innocence of the so-called masses and their good intentions, supposedly only led astray by the evil interests of those in power. As Hegel already knew, the masses are very well capable of gaining bad insights on their own, with the political priesthood only pairing these bad insights with a good dose of bad intentions.
ILNA: Today, the extreme right has seized many of the slogans of the left, such as egalitarianism, improving the living conditions of the general public, and so on. Why has the Left not been able to defend its legacy in this field?
The first thing to note is that slogans travel by air, are not necessarily tied to a specific group, and hence are easily recuperated, depending on who is shouting them out. To a large extent, their meaning is dependent on the position of enunciation, that is, on the socio-political place from which they are shouted out. To give you a quick example: I have a friend whose grandfather is certifiably racist, but would occasionally mention Sidney Poitier films as proof of his supposed egalitarian antiracism. The point is not that he is an outright liar. He does truly love Sidney Poitier and his films, it is just that this truth about his true love for the actor is a direct embodiment of a lie—an egalitarian fantasy that supports the racist reality. Similarly, the extreme Right’s love for “ordinary people” may well be perfectly genuine, which, within a greater scheme of things, does not prevent it from being a blatant lie.
As things stand today, the radical Left must practice negative criticism rather than affirmative obscurantism, the latter being the mark of the extreme Right. And it is the character of negative criticism that prevents the Left from engaging in simple and debilitating story-telling, or from proposing a believable ideological fairytale that could serve as a simplistic cognitive map of our current socio-economic predicament. But there is a real problem here: posing the question in this way is already symptomatic of the Left’s defensive political practice that precludes any offensive reimagining of what the Left should become.
ILNA: Many theorists, including Slavoj Žižek, regard the wave of nationalism as a chance for the left to review their values. How can this revision take place?
Let me continue where I left off. The Left is being robbed of its ideological substance, we are told. Leftists are decrying the fact that their ideas are successfully recuperated by the far Right—recuperated in a way that endows these ideas with criminal implications. But all the while, the Left is also expected to abstain from engaging in such recuperations, and abstain it must with almost fanatical asceticism. Žižek was one of the rare Leftist public figures to have proposed recuperating elements of the Right’s ideology. He understood very well, of course, that to recuperate is not to copy, but to shift the place of enunciation so as to undermine the meaning of the initial ideological message. Here, I am thinking of his proposal for recuperating the notion of Leitkultur, or “guiding culture,” first introduced by Bassam Tibi. It was clear that Žižek was not advocating a monocultural vision of Europe, infused with anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of forced assimilation, but rather redefined this nationalist notion in egalitarian terms. But regardless of this, he was attacked by the liberal Left for supposedly fostering anti-immigrant sentiments and for promoting racial, religious, and ethnic divisions.
It is very curious that Žižek’s modest proposal for recuperation was met with such symptomatic refusal and universal condemnation. And did he really say anything even remotely radical? In a 1966 interview for Playboy, a musician, who has since become a Nobel laureate—you guessed his name: it was Bob Dylan—said as much. When asked about his role in the struggles for universal equality, he replied: “I do believe in equality, but I also believe in the distance.” And like Žižek’s Leftist commentators, Dylan’s interviewer, too, immediately jumped the gun: “Do you mean people keeping their racial distance?” And to this Dylan gave a brilliantly literal response: “I believe in people keeping everything they’ve got,” thus returning the message to the interviewer in its inverted form. Along the same lines, Žižek’s proposal was intended to foreground the need to move beyond the deflated liberal notion of multicultural tolerance. He states the reasons for this very clearly: regardless of what our liberal sentiments tell us, multiculturalism is multiracism. I would even extend this statement to humanism as such and claim that universal humanism is universal racism. For psychoanalysis has taught us that the Other’s otherness has nothing to do with identity (which we can very well tolerate), but rather with one’s particular mode of enjoyment as the point of impossibility of any identity. That is why the managing of this core of toxic enjoyment (including our own!) must be pragmatic and not only juridical. Accordingly, what we need is an anti-humanist pragmatic system of egalitarian distance that would let “people keep everything they’ve got,” meaning: their symptomatic mode of enjoyment. That is to say: it would enable them to retain their differences within a system of universalized cultural indifference.
Let me put it yet another way. During the Cold War, the MAD-doctrine (standing for “mutually assured destruction”) was set in place to safeguard the atmosphere of cold peace. Today, to avoid mutual destruction, a new, pragmatic version of MAD is required, that is: a system of mutually assured distance. And so as to be absolutely clear: this does not mean building walls and scraping protection status for asylum seekers. If anything, the new love of walls testifies to the opposite: a total lack of distance on the part of those proposing to build them.
ILNA: Nationalism has played an anti-colonial role in many Middle Eastern countries, as well as some Asian countries. And in history, nationalist movements have put the fight against capitalist colonialism in their propaganda. What is the reason for the alignment of this kind of nationalist approach and left ideology?
The historical aligning that you mention suggests that nationalism is not inherently opposed to anticolonial and anti-capitalist struggles, or even to Leftist egalitarianism, just like the notion of a “guiding culture,” or a Leni Riefenstahl film, for that matter, are not inherently fascist. And speaking of Riefenstahl: rather than stating the obvious and analyzing the fascist form of her Nazi propaganda films, we should not overlook the ideological character of her later projects, supposedly politically redeeming her as an artist and a filmmaker. Susan Sontag famously attacked her book of photographs of the African Nuba tribes as a prime example of fascist aesthetics. But if anything, I rather think that Riefenstahl’s photographs point to the already mentioned racism of universal humanism, celebrating the common core of all humanity, while simultaneously reproducing the divide between the developed and the undeveloped. If Riefenstahl was “rehabilitated,” it was because her Africa-projects legitimized liberal ideology. Is it not clear that in obscenely aestheticizing the African Other, she is subtly practicing the old colonial and imperialist humanitarianism?
I am altogether skeptical of the idea of the so-called “nations without nationalism,” to quote the title of Kristeva’s book. To put it bluntly, and somewhat haphazardly: I don’t think that the fact that Mohamed Atta (right before becoming one the ringleaders of the September 11 attacks) traveled to Chechnya to fight for national sovereignly against the Russians can be dismissed as simply coincidental. On the other hand, even though I can see the relevance of the Leftist claim that internationalist politics in the communist sense of the term can result from nation-state programs, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the formation of a new nation is the precondition of such political internationalism. So, if by “the Left” you mean the radical Left, then the reasons for such alignments are, and can only be, very limited, and strategic rather than structural.
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran