02 December 2009

Zizek on Populism

From page 61 of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. I wonder whether this describes all too much of the tea-party/anti-Obama opposition.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry"I don't know what's going on, but I've just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!" Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess -- which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism....what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. That is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.

Zizek goes on to identify this perceived "refusal-to-know" with what his master Lacan described as "a disproportionate growth [of knowledge as an instrument of power] in relationship to the effects of power." In practical terms, Zizek refers to the anti-democratic tendency to reserve important decisions to experts on the basis of their superior if not exclusive knowledge. He sees a contradiction between knowledge as an argument for deference, an apparently increasing inability of common people to make informed decisions in the political realm, and the liberal capitalist affirmation of freedom of choice. People are pressured to exercise their agency and make choices "when we lack the basic cognitive coordinates needed to make a rational choice....We thus find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge." By adopting what Zizek describes as the fetish of the imagined external enemy (e.g., the Jew), populists too often simply abandon the task of understanding the situation. In the U.S. today, that fetishism takes the vaguest of forms in tirades against "the Elite." We are still tempted to blame people or factions instead of an overarching system that might only be amenable to radical change. Obsessing over whom to blame may leave us all to blame for what happens in the long run.

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