Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush’s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush’s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush’s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

Leave a Reply