/ 16 November 2012

Obama rocks foundations and opens up welcome cracks

George W Bush with a human face?
George W Bush with a human face?

How did Barack Obama win re-election? The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner recently proposed the notion of the "stabilising class" – all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order. Even when they call for change, they ensure nothing will really change.

The key to electoral success in today's developed states is winning over this class. The majority who voted for Obama disliked the radical changes advocated by the Republican market and religious fundamentalists.

But is this enough in the long term? In his Notes towards the Definition of Culture, the great British conservative TS Eliot remarks that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is a sectarian split. Something like this is needed to break out of the debilitating crisis of Western societies, and here Obama clearly did not deliver.

So should we write Obama off? Is he nothing more than George W Bush with a human face? There are signs pointing beyond this pessimistic vision. Although his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises that they amounted to almost nothing, the debate was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a demand that, although thoroughly realistic and legitimate, disturbs the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction. They touched a nerve at the core of the United States's ideological edifice: freedom of choice.

Obama's reforms would release a large part of the population from worrying about who will cover their illnesses – freeing them from this "freedom of choice". Being able to take basic healthcare for granted means people simply gain more time and energy to dedicate their lives to other things.

Complex network
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 such as 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. In the US, the first floor is at 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. Although 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.

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 demo-cracy! 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 the "bourgeois formal democracy" usually attributed to the radical left – superficial freedoms mask the power of elites who enforce their will through media control and manipulations.

There is a grain of truth in this – democracy in effect 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 pressure to widen these cracks. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Slavoj Zizek is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London. His most recent book is Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism