Today, in the time of continuous swift changes, from the “digital revolution” to the retreat of old social forms, thought is more than ever exposed to the temptation of “losing its nerve”, of precociously abandoning the old conceptual coordinates. The media bombard us with the need to abandon the “old paradigms”: if we are to survive, we have to change our most fundamental notions of personal identity, society, environment, etc. New Age wisdom claims that we are entering a new “posthuman” era; psychoanalysts hasten to concede that the Oedipal matrix of socialization is no longer operative, that we live in times of universalized perversion, that the concept of “repression” is of no use in our permissive times; postmodern political thought tells us that we are entering a postindustrial society, in which the old categories of labor, collectivity, class, etc., are theoretical zombies, no longer applicable to the dynamics of modernization… Third Way ideology and political practice is effectively the model of this defeat, of this inability to recognize how the New is here to enable the Old to survive. Against this temptation, one should rather follow the unsurpassed example of Pascal and ask the difficult question: How are we to remain faithful to the Old in the new conditions? Only in this way can we generate something effectively New.
Habermas designated the present era as that of the neue Unübersichtlichkeit – the new opacity.1 More than ever, our daily experience is mystifying: modernization generates new obscurantisms, the reduction of freedom is presented to us as the arrival of new freedoms.
Today, in the era of “risk society”, the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the very insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms. Do you have to change jobs every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as a liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize the hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you must pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or “second modernity” ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the “escape from freedom”, of the immature sticking to old stable forms … Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then I as it were automatically interpret all these changes as the result of my personality, not as the result of me being tossed around by market forces.
In these circumstances, one should be especially careful not to confuse the ruling ideology with ideology which seems to dominate. More than ever, one should bear in mind Walter Benjamin’s reminder that it is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself with regard to social struggles – one should also ask how it effectively functions in these very struggles. In sex, the effectively hegemonic attitude is not patriarchal repression, but promiscuity; in art, provocations in the style of the notorious Sensation exhibitions are the norm, an example of the art fully integrated into the establishment. I am therefore tempted to reverse Marx’s thesis 11: the first task today is precisely not to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly intervene and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul-de-sac of debilitating impossibility: “What can one do against global capital?”), but to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates. If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space – it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates: those who “really want to do something to help people” get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Medecins sans Frontieres, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated, but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly enter the economic territory (say, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions or which use child labor) – they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit.
Let us take two predominant topics of to day’s American radical academia: postcolonial and queer (gay) studies. The problem of postcolonialism is undoubtedly crucial; however, “postcolonial studies” tend to translate it into the multiculturalist problematic of the colonized minorities’ “right to narrate” their victimizing experience, of the power mechanisms which repress “otherness,” so that, at the end of the day, we learn that the root of postcolonial exploitation is our intolerance toward the Other, and, furthermore, that this intolerance itself is rooted in our intolerance toward the “Stranger in Ourselves,” in our inability to confront what we repressed in and of ourselves. The politico-economic struggle is thus imperceptibly transformed into a pseudo-psychoanalytic drama of the subject unable to confront its inner traumas … The true corruption of American academia is not primarily financial, it is not only that they are able to buy many European critical intellectuals (myself included – up to a point), but conceptual: notions of “European” critical theory are imperceptibly translated into the benign universe of Cultural Studies chic.
My personal experience is that practically all of the “radical” academics silently count on the long-term stability of the American capitalist model, with the secure tenured position as their ultimate professional goal (a surprising number of them even play on the stock market). If there is a thing they are genuinely horrified of, it is a radical shattering of the (relatively) safe life environment of the “symbolic classes” in the developed Western societies. Their excessive Politically Correct zeal when dealing with sexism, racism, Third World sweatshops, etc., is thus ultimately a defense against their own innermost identification, a kind of compulsive ritual whose hidden logic is: “Let’s talk as much as possible about the necessity of a radical change to make sure that nothing will really change!” Symptomatic here is the journal October: when you ask one of the editors to what the title refers, they will half-confidentially signal that it is, of course, that October – in this way, one can indulge in the jargonistic analyses of modern art, with the hidden assurance that one is somehow retaining the link with the radical revolutionary past … With regard to this radical chic, the first gesture toward Third Way ideologists and practitioners should be that of praise: they at least play their game straight and are honest in their acceptance of global capitalist coordinates, in contrast to the pseudo-radical academic Leftists who adopt toward the Third Way the attitude of utter disdain, while their own radicality ultimately amounts to an empty gesture which obligates no one to anything determinate.
II. From Human to Animal Rights
III. The Mobius Strip of Politics and Economy
[Appeared in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (January, 2008).]
- See Jürgen Habermas. Die neue Unübersichtlichkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985.