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Steve Corcoran

Reinscribing Political Antagonism

    The questions I would like to address in this paper concern universality as the horizon of politics and the prevailing representation of current political antagonism as precisely a struggle for universal human rights against fundamentalist intolerance. It seems to me that the 'self-evidence' that this antagonism is constituted by two radically opposed sides has become problematic in the light of recent events. Suffice it to note a few recent phenomena: the intertwining of post-colonial imperialist strategies with a logic of humanitarian intervention which attempts to depoliticise conflict, aptly described by Ulrich Beck as 'military humanism'; the complicity underlying the apparent opposition between terrorism and the proclaimed fight for democracy, in which both sides mutually justify each other's actions; the progressive institution of right-wing extremism in most 'democratic' countries and the concomitant communitarisation of public space by our 'democratic' leaders; and the abandonment of the universal figure of the people or the worker from public discourse in favour of a nationalist figure of the people produced through opinion polls. In the light of such phenomena the radicality of the opposition seems questionable to the extent that one has to ask oneself just what this portrayal of events serves. In drawing on various arguments from the recent writings of Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, I will touch on the following issues: Can we really say that today's opposition lies in an opposition between fundamentally different regimes (democratic vs. totalitarian) or at least in a difference of sensibility (authentically democratic vs. blind fundamentalist following, proto-fascism). If not this is not the case, what does this logic of a difference of regime serve to occult? And how can we orientate ourselves in the situation to better understand it? And, finally, if it is true that the universal remains the ultimate horizon of politics, then how should it be conceived to tear it away from its current cynical manipulation?
Now, the point in investigating a possible complicity of a 'self-evident' antagonism is not to flatten out all the differences between the various positions. The aim is rather threefold: first, to problematise the dominant narrative and those who bear it, as to their methods, aims, and objects of thought. Since it becomes apparent that the dominant narratives constructed in and through these names obfuscate important issues which they render unthinkable. Instead, I will argue that this antagonism must be situated against the logic of global capital and that this is the only way to make sense of what it going on. Consequently - this is the second point - the aim is to show how the dominant names used to designate the situation operate a count of the situation which displaces the real lines of political division, obscuring the real effectivity of force relations. For example: What, exactly, do we consent to when we consent to these narratives? Is there a real sense to the unities they forge? Thirdly, the task is to orientate ourselves politically so that authentic political universality is wrenched from the forces which seek to foreclose it and to instrumentalise the effects of this foreclosure. I will argue that the false presupposition of a radical difference of regime implies, and has as its main function, the colonising of a more radical moment of democratic equality. Otherwise put, behind the kind of false universality - the universality of equality before the commodity, of the equality of opinion, of relations of exchange - promoted by globalisation we should locate the hostile attempt to foreclose the appearance of every instance of authentic political equality.
Now, the dominant liberal-democratic representation of the situation has, it seems, to be located in an appeal to the self-evidence of a kind of democratic, consensual sensibility, defined in radical opposition to the intolerant and intolerable subjective ideologies which appeal to a native habitat and to relations of proximity (of blood, race etc). The idyllic of liberal-democratic consensual politics is one of an ongoing debate of interests between equal interlocutors freed of the metaphysical illusions which dominated most of last century, and therefore a politics dealing with the "necessities" of economic reality; its pretence to universal inclusiveness is belied by its exclusionary logic towards its more exclusionary other: identities based on a logic of sameness which posit themselves in a relation of violent exclusion to a supposed other. Thus, more precisely, this representation supposes a radical split in the realm of identity politics as such: on the one hand, the liberal democratic individual, unbound to any specific ties or bonds, free to choose and indulge in the latest democratic pleasures and consensual bargaining; and, on the other, those who advocate a return to the plenitude of the organic community, against the indeterminacy and tolerance of the so-called Nietzschean Last Men, and whose claim is that insofar as one speaks in universal terms one doesn't aim to please everyone. There is thus seemingly a kind of mutual miscomprehension of sides: for advocates of consensual politics, with their promotion of cultural relativism, fundamentalist identifications can only take on the guise of Evil rooted in metaphysical illusion: the unthinkable image of those who have refused freedom; on the other side, the fundamentalists advocate a return to fundamental values which is explicitly conceived as a reaction to the moral lassitude of contemporary identity politics and the senseless pursuit of pleasure in the market. The opposition, in this way, is rendered strictly unthinkable, which, of course, is the problem.
This problem is not helped when one notices the large gaps between this prevailing representation and the effective political space informing it and which it shapes. Let's take, as an example, last year's French Presidential elections . You will recall that the surprise of this election was that the extreme right-wing candidate, Le Pen, thwarted the hopes of the socialist-left by usurping the presidential aspirations of Jospin, the incumbent prime minister. This shock was not caused in itself by the sheer numbers of voters for Le Pen - as the analysts pointed out at the time, the number of voters for the extreme right had remained constant relative to the previous presidential elections. It was rather caused by the fact that Le Pen had been elected to a place not reserved for him, a place coded for those considered to be real 'democrats'.
Le Pen's election at the time had the strange effect of uniting the left and the right in their opposition to this supposed enemy. No doubt, they were right to oppose Le Pen's openly racist declarations; and yet, from another point of view, the fact that this vocally violent opposition resorted to easy denunciations by labelling Le Pen a 'racist' and a 'facho' was ultimately suspect in that it failed to ask more penetrating questions about the rise and spread of Lepenism in France (and we should add here, the specificity of the French situation notwithstanding, that this situation is generalisable to most of the democratic West). By placing Le Pen in the same series as Hitler and fascism in the 30's and 40's, what is thereby obfuscated are questions pertaining to the concrete social practices in which Lepenist politics are allowed to thrive, and consequently, any thoughts about what serious remedies might be proposed to combat this situation. The serious mistake of all those (and they were overwhelming) leftists who argued for a vote for Chirac as a means of fending off the 'monster in our midst' and to restore democracy and defend 'La République' was precisely that they failed to see that their approach to the situation took refuge in ultimately meaningless abstractions….in relation to which their abstract proclamations of 'love' for foreigners were equally suspicious.
Against such abstractions, the only way to deal with the situation was to identify Lepenism proper by asking oneself why and how - i.e. through what concrete practices - it has been able to attain such a large diffusion, and that within the space of 15 years. Rather than seeing in it a purely abstract hate of others, the specificity of Lepenism should be located in the re-imposition of the nationalist question as a reaction to globalisation. As Žižek has pointed out, what disturbs people like Le Pen (or Buchanan in the States) is precisely that France, and the French people, have been subordinated to the logic of global capital, to the extent that French industrialists themselves treat the local French population simply as another labour force to be exploited. But this reference to worker's interests is, of course, ultimately cynical insofar as what is more important is not the worker as such but a certain national image. And the effective consequence of re-instituting nationalist questions can only be the persecution of those who are not from 'here', and particularly of those foreigners arbitrarily ranked lower in the world order. In this sense, the passage through the French parliament of harsh laws against what they call les sans papiers and the general objectification of the so-called 'immigrant problem' is perfectly congruent with Lepenism - or as Badiou ventures to say it is the essence of Lepenism. Such facts permit one to say that if the major parties were really against Le Pen then they would start by not doing his politics. And to those of the civilian population who so fervently proclaimed their love for foreigners against the hateful politics of Le Pen after his election one simply has to ask the question: What have they done to help the struggle of the sans papiers over the past 15 years? It should be evident that descending into the street, voicing violent opposition to racism and hateful politics and then voting for Chirac is altogether insufficient.
The pertinent question seems rather to be: What does one consent to when one consents to effective Lepenism? It is here that Badiou locates the real substance of our democratic devotion. Is not the effective and increasing persecution of foreigners in our democratic societies - which seems to have gained an even greater legitimacy post 9/11 - that which maintains our societies in their relative affluence, which enables us to persist in our relative comfort? Is this not the real unconscious sustaining our 'democratic' sensibility and enabling us to pursue our individualistic pursuits in a political climate where all political programs have been consensually discredited? Is this comfort not that which Le Pen threatened in openly declaring discriminatory ideas even more discriminatory than the practices on which we depend?
There is, in this way, a very real and effective homogeneity of the two sides (in terms of their objects, methods, practices) which a few dominant names and their associated images attempt to dissimulate through abstract proclamations. Moreover, rather than dismissing it as a metaphysical illusion from yesteryear, this extreme form of abased oppositional ideology has the perfectly contemporary function of openly declaring the very politics modern Democracies presuppose to persevere in their being. The spectre of figures like Le Pen is like the persistent annoyance of an unconscious element that just won't stay unconscious, but which it suffices to purge from time to time in the form of a violent "No!" to "racism". What is able to be reaped from such bellowing is the good non-racist democratic sensibility which descends into the street to say "No!"
Given such a gap between the dominant names and real political diffusion, between the declaration of democratic experience and intentions of those who protested against Le Pen and the real political effects of today's French parliamentary system, the question that must be asked is what is the emotional content sustaining this gap? Badiou's conclusion: This "No!" loudly proclaimed, was just the easiest way to have a clear conscience and not to disturb the underlying enjoyment, or the underlying subjective formula of consensual politics: moi, ma petite jouissance, et qu'on me foute la paix!
The lesson here is an old one: namely, that each time such proclamations remain abstract they can only be there to serve the particular interests of a dominant regime. And, furthermore, that failing to index them to some kind of political real, leaves one ensnared in blind passivity. Today, that passivity is the passivity which expulses all political programs and allows Lepenism to effectively structure our political space. More precisely, what Badiou effectively shows is that, the extremism notwithstanding, Lepenist ideas constitute the very interiority of contemporary French parliamentarism. And ultimately that is the interiority we remain subject to if we fail to index the dominant names to real content.
Here I think one should fully endorse Badiou's claim that such returns to substance, whether they are of a nationalist or communitarism type, are ultimately impotent in the face of the march of global capital and will not slow down the devastation. As the Le Pen example suggests, such 'returns' involve a form of problematisation in reaction to the loss of identity engendered by the deterritorialising tendencies of capital; but, by the same token, capital requires the promotion of particular forms of identity based on an identification with a set of positive, exhibitable features in order to function. Indeed, today inscribing one's identity within such a set of positive features can only mean that one desires to display oneself, which is achieved, as one knows, via the abundant paraphernalia supplementing each marketable identity. There is nothing more captive for capitalist functioning. This goes equally for closed communitarian ideals as it does for those who pursue their own "freely chosen" individuality, and who not finding anything on the inside to choose, find assistance in any number of help-yourself guides! We can thus say, with Badiou, that the naïve truisms promoted by liberalist ideology about the irreducible multiplicity of contingent identities, habits, ways of life etc, miss the point: what is left out is precisely the influence of global capital, the way it generates its own reactionary identities as an excess of the system. All of which means that rather than figuring the contemporary situation as a clash of values, in which those who prefer multiplicity are pitted against those who repose in the delusional figure of the One of the community, it should be refigured as "an oscillation between monetary abstraction and closed subjective identities". A further proof of this closure resides in the fact that today the dominant political struggle is not directed so much against particular practices (such as imperialism, or even totalitarianism as such) which are potentially all-inclusive, but more against specific groups. Such movements are thus closed off to universality, not the universality which hides particular interests, but the universality which inscribes itself within a logic of equality, and which thus abhors particularity.
Let's take another example: Did we not also see a mutual contamination of apparent opposites -revealing a different state of underlying force relations to the official one - in the apparent heterogeneity between "Islamic terrorism" and "Democratic legitimation"? As one knows, the powers that be staged a radical opposition between the Democratic West and the barbarous Islam, only, those who were a little more attentive were quick to point out that the so-called democratic West, and particularly the United States, has itself instrumentalised and promoted the development of the worst reactionary attitudes when their own geo-political interests were perceived to be at stake: the list is endless here and ranges from the support and finance of the Taliban against the Russians in Afghanistan sweeping them to power in the region, to the CIA orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh in Iran in 1953.
Here again, then, the enormous gaps between the predicates assigned to the various names by the dominant interpretation and the political real that their functioning permitted leads one to ask about what the use of these oppositions could have been? Rather than ask what these terms signify, and to tie this signification to the self-evidence of our superior democratic values, the task today is to show how they function within a given historical assemblage. Do they signify real political orientations? What do they render visible or invisible?
One of the primary functions of such names is to create unity. Depending on the situation at hand, the term "democracy" is able to unite the most unlikely unities and this is the ultimate political utility of such an unreadable term. It should be noted that this political utility is all the more crucial today for the powers that positive political projects have largely been abandoned. Thus, after 9/11, united in their hatred of the barbarous enemy in our midst, were feminists, the extreme right-wing, and petit bourgeois intellectuals: lurking beneath the simulation of noble democratic intentions, was the rallying of various subjective identities, each pursuing their own agendas without relation to the real conditions of production of the disaster of 9/11 or the effects of the riposte.
Such considerations should undo the fetishism we have in our democratic rituals, and lead us instead toward a logic of situations, or of events. It follows that if the promotion of multiple and fluid shifting identities, and its corporatist reactions, find their common articulation against the background of global capital, then what we need to do is to think the conditions of political situations or events capable of extracting us from the vicious oscillation between the increasing homogenisation of monetary abstraction and the promotion of closed identities.
It must also be said that the logic of human rights is itself incapable of promoting a universality that would effectively oppose the devastation of capitalist homogenisation and its culturalist ideology, because in itself it does no more than promote the development of closed identities. In essence the kinds of claims made today from or on behalf of certain identities, oppressed or otherwise, are simply that: claims for particular identities - all the more authentic when that identity bears the image of the depoliticised suffering other - which are always reducible to their national, sexual, religious etc., predicates. That is, the very form of such claims automatically forecloses the very universality they claim to protect.
Now, the other major feature of the contemporary political landscape I mentioned at the beginning is the disappearance over the last 30 years of references to the people conceived as the power of democracy; or to the Rousseauist figure of the people as the subject of sovereignty, or to the Marxian figure of the worker or the proletariat as the figure of the overcoming of politics in its truth. And it is significant that the new democratic sensibility is want to dismiss calls for the re-institution of such references, conveniently lumping them together with returns to Moral Majority community values as reactionary ideologies. For liberalism, the proper democratic passion resides in the element of a lack which is able to transcend all the calls it perceives as trapped in the web of spatio-temporal belonging. But, as we have seen, this lack is always filled: the marked resurgence of ethnic identities is not a decision to cling irrationally to images of the past - as regressive as it may be, it rather constitutes the return in the real of the foreclosed universal figure of the people. According to Rancière, the logic of this foreclosure is that when the people understood as a purely symbolic universality without positive features as such, and therefore irreducible to any socio-economic category, is foreclosed from politics, The people returns in the real as the people linked to a certain habitat and with a certain proximity, that is the people with a set of specific ontological predicates necessarily defined in opposition to its other. Precisely because this becomes the only way to articulate political dispute.
Liberals actively foreclose this dimension - perceiving it as steeped in metaphysical illusion - by promoting the objectification of politics problems through identity claims. But the point I want to make here, following Badiou and Rancière, is that calls to re-institute a figure of the worker or of the people are entirely asymmetrical to calls for fundamentalist identification. The universality of the worker or the people opposes itself to the habitat and to relations of proximity. It is a properly supernumerary figure, which does not mean that is it democratic lack, but rather a symbolic excess which involves the introduction of a visible into the political field which splits that field and modifies it. One of the examples Rancière gives of this democratic procedure is that of Jeanne Deroin. In the France of 1849, she embodied the fight for democratic equality. By presenting herself at the legislative elections, something which, were she to obey the codes of the day, she should not have done, she was able to render visible the gap between the notion of universal suffrage, written in the constitution, and the exclusion of her sex from that universality. The supernumerary figure, however, cannot however be placed on the side of any particular historical subject: it is a properly excessive figure which is variously incarnated at different historical moments, and which opposes itself to all regimes or ontological orders. What supernumerary figures embody is, for Rancière, precisely the moment of authentic democratic equality, by which the order of the visible - which delimits a set of political interlocutors in excluding others and trying to reduce them to obedience - is interrupted in its effectivity. The supernumerary subject reveals the arbitrary nature of the political order and the exclusions it operates and works to suspend that reality and re-inscribe it.
Certainly, contemporary democracy posits its own version of the people, but it is a people based on a lack, which has been wrested from its universality and subjected to a communitarisation of social space. Analysing this consensual replacement of the old "mythical" figure of the people is particularly instructive. This new figure is not the figure of the overcoming of politics, it is rather the nationalist figure, the French, the Germans, the Americans…incessantly polled and constantly reflected back to itself. It is the people of opinion, a people constituted in part in its reflection to itself of its own opinion. This new, consensual sovereign people is not the subject of politics but the sovereignty of the majority opinion deduced from the calculation of voices. That is, a sovereignty forged solely from the apparent virtue - which is no virtue at all - of the numerical effectivity of the majority; an effectivity which comes, moreover, only from the constant prodding and provoking of the opinion polls and the constant reflection of this community to itself. It is, in other words, the figure of the people reduced to passivity. Contemporary politics, what we may call along with Rancière post-politics, is in this way a radical attempt to reduce the figure of the people to the sum of its parts. The supernumerary figure of the people always works against such inscriptions striving to suspend them. But without the dimension of universality proper to it, each part of the community becomes identified with the opinion which is suited to it; and reciprocally each opinion can be broken down into or identified by its real: that is, its socio-professional categories and age groups. Broken down, that is, by an operation of biopower into the nudity of its ethnic, religious, sexual, and professional components. Each part of the community has its part of opinion, and the opinion which suits it. From that a totalised image of the people is drawn.
The mode of reflection of the law is exemplary here. The law today openly renounces any pretension to universality, and operates a communitarisation of public space. Two or three zones of the law have been created wherein the identification of the categorial features of an individual identity precede the application of the law. The first zone includes those who are constituted as the interiority of the nation; the second those whose presence in the host Nation is welcome at least to some degree; and the third, a mass whose presence is totally undesirable. This mode of reflection of the law is justified with reference to justice: by separating the desirable from the undesirable elements of the amalgam of foreigners the law wants to break the racism which feeds on the amalgam. Rigorous systems of classification are supposed to undo the racism of the worker who blames the foreigner for stealing work, and for entrusting the care of his family and the expense of that care to the host community and so on. And yet - as Rancière points out - the problem is precisely this: in separating good from bad foreigners, the law nonetheless borrows and reproduces the very object of hatred (the ultimately indefinable other or "the immigrant problem") on which the racism feeds, by positing it under the unity of a concept. It is thus that it creates a series of temporary figures constitutive of the identity of the National community. For once it is no longer linked by any political commitment or program, this National community can only find unity in the very opposition made to the foreigner. Once more, then, between the resurgence of racism and the mode of reflection of the law there remains an unacknowledged complicity: the law attempts to undo racism at the price of borrowing its object. Evil and remedy make a circle. Thus Rancière can say that this foreigner or immigrant is simply a worker who has lost his or her second name. Deprived of the space of political appearance which even 30 years ago constituted a sort of double reality, the immigrant is reduced to arbitrariness of bare anthropological givens. It is this remainder of the consensual operation which is proper correlate to the racism of the worker. This is not to say, of course, that 30 years ago there was no racism amongst workers, but that there was a space of political appearance which doubled reality, a sort of double reality, in which no matter what worker could inscribe him or herself. Today, that space of symbolic inscription has been rigorously foreclosed by a State logic which attempts to capture individuals in the nudity of their anthropology: and it returns in the real as the split figure of the immigrant, the clandestine worker, the Afghan refugee and so on, on the one hand; and, on the other, the figure of the worker with ever-diminishing rights.
Against this ad hoc creation of inauthentic unities one should endorse Rancière's thesis: real political unity belongs to an entirely other figure, an entirely other political moment. Not the pursuit of particularity, but the local appearance of universality. Real politics does not oppose itself to reality, but divides and refigures it as double. It measures the gap separating the universal claims made by the order from the codes structured by the dominant names. Real politics, according to Rancière, properly opposes itself to the police logic of every order, a logic - prevalent today - which attempts to reduce what is to the necessity of reality, according to each part of the community a value by virtue of its part.
Is sum, this political appearance of the people is not to be confused with the people of the organic community: it is a peculiar people not definable by its belonging to a specific community (ethnos), just and irreducible to sociologically determinable characteristics or properties; nor should it be identified by the summation of groups constituting a population. The people by which there is democracy is a unity which does not consist in any social group but in the superimposition on the count of the community, of a political appearance in which a part of the community which belongs to that community but is not included in it or is included in it in a way that it protests/resists, institutes itself as the whole of the community. Only real political appearance has the paradoxical effectivity by which it is able to reduce the very inequality on which every order rests, and which those in power invariably seek to inscribe in right, to the arbitrary effects of wealth and power, to the relativity of privilege. It is this people and this unity which consensual politics tries to foreclose through its always false count, and which ultimately motivates the current political narratives. This, I want to suggest, is the irreducible political antagonism which the contemporary consensual idyllic hopes to dissimulate by dressing itself up as a figure of multiplicity which is really a new figure of the One of the community.

[1] I rely on Alain Badiou’s analysis of the electoral campaign here. See Philosophical considerations of the very singular custom of  voting: an analysis based on recent ballots in France, trans. Steven Corcoran. Theory and Event, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2002. Web address: muse.jhu.edu/journals/tae/toc/index.html
See Jacques Rancière, La Mésentente : Politique et Philosophie, p. 66 Galilée, 1995
See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: la fondation de l’universalisme. Chapter one. PUF, 1997
See Jacques Rancière La Mésentente  pp. 163-4 ; and more generally Chapter 5.