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The Foundation of Freedom of Choice
A famous philosoper speaks of the 2012 election, the significance of the health care law, Norway as an economic model, and Donald Trump's rejection of democracy.
By Slavoj Zizek
How did Barack Obama win re-election? The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner recently proposed the notion of the "stabilising class": not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change. The key to electoral success in today's developed states is winning over this class. Far from being perceived as a radical transformer, Obama won them over, and that's why he was re-elected. The majority who voted for him were put off by the radical changes advocated by the Republican market and religious fundamentalists.
But long term, is this enough? In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great British conservative TS Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its corpse. Something like this is needed to break out of the debilitating crisis of western societies here Obama clearly did not deliver. Many disappointed by his presidency held against him precisely the fact that the core of his much-publicised "hope" proved to be that the system can survive with modest changes.
So should we write Obama off? Is he nothing more than Bush with a human face? There are signs which point beyond this pessimistic vision. Although his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises they amounted to almost nothing, the debate triggered was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly realist, feasible and legitimate, disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction how else to explain the panic and fury they triggered in the Republican camp? They touched a nerve at the core of America's ideological edifice: freedom of choice.
Obama's healthcare reforms effectively deliver a large part of the population from the dubious "freedom" to worry about who will cover their illnesses. Being able to take basic healthcare for granted, to count on it like one counts on water or electricity without worrying about choosing the supplier, means people simply gain more time and energy to dedicate their lives to other things. The lesson to be learned is that freedom of choice only functions if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic and other conditions is present as the invisible background to the exercise of our freedom. This is why, as a counter to the ideology of choice, countries like Norway should be held up as models: although all the main agents respect a basic social agreement and large social projects are enacted in a spirit of solidarity, social productivity and dynamism are at extraordinary levels, contradicting the common wisdom that such a society should be stagnating.
In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts before decisions or choices are made there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the "freedom to choose".
Obama is often accused of dividing the American people instead of bringing them together to find bipartisan solutions but what if this is what is good about him? In situations of crisis, a division is urgently needed between those who want to drag on within old parameters and those who are aware of necessary change. Such a division, not opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity. When Margaret Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: "New Labour." And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies. True victory over your enemy occurs when they start to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field. Today, when neoliberal hegemony is clearly falling apart, the only solution is to repeat Thatcher's gesture in the opposite direction.
Yurodivy is the Russian Orthodox version of the holy fool who feigns insanity so he can deliver a message so dangerous for those in power that, if stated directly, it would cause a brutal reaction. Do Donald Trump's post-election tweets not sound precisely like a holy fool's ramblings? "Let's fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy! We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. We should have a revolution in this country!"
Although Trump is in no way a radical leftist, it is easy to discern in his tweets the doubt about "bourgeois formal democracy" usually attributed to the radical left: superficial freedoms mask the power of elites that enforce their will through media control and manipulations. There is a grain of truth in this our democracy effectively has to be reinvented. Every opening should be exploited to bring us closer to this goal, even the tiny cracks through which some light shone in Obama's first term. Our task in his second term is to maintain constant pressure to widen these cracks.
Slavoj iek is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. This article appeared in the Guardian.
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