The Palestinian question: the couple symptom/fetish

There are two different modes of ideological mystification which should in no way be confused: the liberal-democratic one and the Fascist one. The first one concerns false universality: the subject advocates freedom/equality, not being aware of implicit qualifications which, in their very form, constrain its scope (privileging certain social strata: rich, male, belonging to a certain race or culture). The second one concerns the false identification of the antagonism and the enemy: class struggle is displaced onto the struggle against the Jews, so that the popular rage at being exploited is redirected from capitalist relations as such to the “Jewish plot.” So, to put it in naively-hermeneutic terms, in the first case, “when the subject says ‘freedom and equality,’ he really means ‘freedom of trade, equality in front of the law’ etc.,” and, in the second case, “when the subject says ‘Jews are the cause of our misery,’ he really means ‘big capital is the cause of our misery’.” The asymmetry is clear – to put it again in naïve terms, in the first case, the “good” explicit content (freedom/equality) covers up the “bad” implicit content (class and other privileges and exclusions), while in the second case, the “bad” explicit content (anti-Semitism) covers the “good” implicit content (class struggle, hatred of exploitation).

For anyone versed in psychoanalytic theory, the inner structure of the two ideological mystifications is that of the couple symptom/fetish: the implicit limitations are the symptoms of liberal egalitarianism (singular returns of the repressed truth), while “Jew” is the fetish of anti-Semitic Fascists (the “last thing the subject sees” before confronting class struggle). This asymmetry has crucial consequences for the critico-ideological process of demystification: apropos liberal egalitarianism, it is not enough to make the old Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it – as is so common amongst politically-correct critics on the Left. The counter-argument that the form is never a “mere form,” but involves a dynamic of its own which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, made by theoreticians such as Claude Lefort1 and Jacques Rancière,2 is fully valid – it was the bourgeois “formal freedom” which set in motion the process of altogether “material” political demands and practices, from trade unions to feminism. One should resist the cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality. That would be to fall into the trap of the old Stalinist hypocrisy which mocked “merely formal” bourgeois freedom: if it was so merely formal and didn’t disturb the true relations of power, why, then, didn’t the Stalinist regime allow it? Why was it so afraid of it?

The interpretive demystification is thus here relatively easy, since it mobilizes the tension between form and content: to be consequent, an “honest” liberal democrat will have to admit that the content of his ideological premises belies its form, and thus radicalize the form (the egalitarian axiom) by way of implementing it more thoroughly onto the content. (The main alternative is the retreat into cynicism: “we know egalitarianism is an impossible dream, so let us pretend that we are egalitarians, while silently accepting necessary limitations…”). In the case of “Jew” as the Fascist fetish, the interpretive demystification is much more difficult (thereby confirming the clinical insight that a fetishist cannot be undermined through interpretation of the “meaning” of his fetish – fetishist feel satisfied in their fetish, they experience no need to get rid of it). In practical-political terms, this means that it is almost impossible to “enlighten” an exploited worker who blames “Jews” for his misery, explaining him how “Jew” is a wrong enemy, promoted by his true enemy (the ruling class) to blur the lines of the true struggle, and thus getting him to move from “Jews” to “capitalists.” (Even empirically, while many Communists joined Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and while many disappointed Communists in France in the last decades turned into partisans of le Pen’s National Front, the opposite process was extremely rare.) To put it in crude political terms, the paradox is thus that, although the subject of the first mystification is primarily the enemy (the liberal “bourgeois” who thinks he fights for universal equality and freedom), while the subject of the second mystification are primarily “our own,” the underprivileged themselves (who are seduced into redirecting their rage at a wrong target), the effective-practical “demystification” is much easier in the first case.

With regard to today’s situation of ideological struggle, this means that one should at least view with profound suspicion those Leftists who argue that the Muslim fundamentalist-populist movements are basically “ours,” emancipatory anti-imperialist movements, and that the fact that they formulate their program in directly anti-Enlightenment and anti-universalist terms, sometimes getting close to direct anti-Semitism, is just a confusion that results from their being caught into the immediacy of struggle (“when they say they are against Jews, what they really mean is just that they are against the Zionist colonialism”). One should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” the Arab anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians: there should be no “understanding” for the fact that, in many, if not most, of the Arab countries, Hitler is still considered a hero, the fact that, in the primary school textbooks, all the traditional anti-Semitic myths, from the notorious forged Protocols of the Zion Elders to the claims that Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes, are attributed to them. To claim that this anti-Semitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it: displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification. What this claim does involve is the idea that, in the long term, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is not to preach liberal tolerance, etc., but to articulate the underlying anti-capitalist motive in a direct, non-displaced, way. Once we accept this logic, we make the first step on the path at the end of which is the quite “logical” conclusion that, since Hitler also “really meant” capitalists when he spoke of “Jews,” he should be our strategic ally in the global anti-imperialist struggle, with the Anglo-American empire as the principal enemy. (And this line of reasoning is not a mere rhetorical exercise: the Nazis did promote anti-colonialist struggle in Arab countries and in India, and many neo-Nazis do sympathize with the Arab struggle against the State of Israel. (What makes the unique figure of Jacques Verges, the “advocate of terror,” a universal phenomenon is that he embodies this option of “solidarity” between Fascism and anti-colonialism.) It would have been a fatal mistake to think that, at some future moment, we will convince the Fascists that their “real” enemy is the capital, and that they should drop the particular religious/ethnic/racist form of their ideology and join forces with egalitarian universalism. So one should clearly reject the dangerous motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which leads us to discover “progressive” anti-imperialist potential in fundamentalist Islamist movements. The ideological universe of movements like Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neo-imperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within the Hezbollah ideological space, women’s emancipation, gay rights, etc., are nothing but the “decadent” moral aspect of Western imperialism… Badiou concedes that “there is an internal limitation to these movements, bound as they are to religious particularity” – is, however, this limitation only a short term one, as Badiou seems to imply, something that these movements will (have to) overcome in the proverbial “second, higher” stage of their development, when they will (have to) universalize themselves? Badiou is right to note that the problem here is not religion as such, but its particularity – and is this particularity not now a fatal limitation of these movements, whose ideology is directly the anti-Enlightenment one?

[Extract. Appeared on in 2009.]


  1. Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge: MIT Press 1986.
  2. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso Books 2007.