The enigmatic spectacle of a large-scale collective suicide is always fascinating - recall hundreds of Jim Jones's cult followers who obediently took poison in their Guyana camp. At the level of economic life, the same thing is going on today in Kansas - and this is the topic of Thomas Frank's new outstanding book.
His simple style should not blind us for his razor-sharp political analysis. Focusing on Kansas, the bedrock of populist conservative uprising, Frank aptly describes the basic paradox of its ideological edifice: the gap, the lack of any cognitive link, between economic interests and "moral" questions. If there ever was a book that needs to be read by anyone interested in the strange twists of today's conservative politics, it is What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank.
What happens when the economic class opposition (poor farmers, blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) is transposed/coded into the opposition of honest hard-working Christian true Americans versus the decadent liberals who drink latte and drive foreign cars, advocate abortion and homosexuality, mock patriotic sacrifice and "provincial" simple way of life? The enemy is perceived as the "liberal" who, through federal state interventions (from school-busing to ordering the Darwinian evolution and perverse sexual practices to be taught), wants to undermine the authentic American way of life. The main economic interest is therefore to get rid of the strong state which taxes the hard-working population in order to finance its regulatory interventions - the minimal economic program is thus "less taxes, less regulations"... From the standard perspective of enlightened rational pursuit of self-interests, the inconsistency of this ideological stance is obvious: the populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and deregulation means more freedom for the big companies that are driving the impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help to small farmers; etc. In the eyes of the US evangelical populists, the state stands for an alien power and, together with UN, is an agent of the Antichrist: it takes away the liberty of the Christian believer, relieving him of the moral responsibility of stewardship, and thus undermines the individualistic morality that makes each of us the architect of our own salvation - how to combine this with the unheard-of explosion the state apparatuses under Bush? No wonder large corporations are delighted to accept such evangelical attacks on the state, when the state tries to regulate media mergers, to put strictures on energy companies, to strengthen air pollution regulations, to protect wildlife and limit logging in the national parks, etc. It is the ultimate irony of history that radical individualism serves as the ideological justification of the unconstrained power of what the large majority of individuals experience as a vast anonymous power which, without any democratic public control, regulates their lives.
As to the ideological aspect of their struggle, Frank states the obvious which, nonetheless, needs to be stated: the populists are fighting a war that cannot be won. If Republicans were effectively to ban abortion, if they were to prohibit the teaching of evolution, if they were to impose federal regulation on Hollywood and mass culture, this would mean not only their immediate ideological defeat, but also a large-scale economic depression in the US. The outcome is thus a debilitating symbiosis: although the ruling class disagrees with the populist moral agenda, it tolerates their "moral war" as a means to keep the lower classes in check, i.e., to enable them to articulate their fury without disturbing their economic interests. What this means is that CULTURE WAR IS CLASS WAR in a displaced mode - so much for those who claim that we leave in a post-class society...
This, however, makes the enigma only more impenetrable: how is this displacement possible? "Stupidity" and "ideological manipulation" are not an answer; that is to say, it is clearly not enough to say that that the primitive lower classes are brainwashed by the ideological apparatuses so that they are not able to identify their true interests. If nothing else, one should recall how, decades ago, the same Kansas was the hotbed of progressive populism in the US - and people certainly did not get more stupid in the last decades... It is also not enough to propose the "Laclau solution": there is no "natural" link between a given socio-economic position and the ideology attached to it, so that it is meaningless to speak of "deception" and "false consciousness," as if there is a standard of "appropriate" ideological awareness inscribed into the very "objective" socio-economic situation; every ideological edifice is the outcome of a hegemonic fight to establish/impose a chain of equivalences, a fight whose outcome is thoroughly contingent, not guaranteed by any external reference like "objective socio-economic position."
The first thing to note here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological topic of the "enlightened" liberals whose politics is focused on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance. The key question is thus: why is "culture" emerging as our central life-world category? We no longer "really believe," we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the "life-style" of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules "out of respect for tradition," etc.). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times: although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December - "culture" is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without "taking them seriously."
The second thing to note is how, while professing their solidarity with the poor, liberals encode culture war with an opposed class message: more often than not, their fight for multicultural tolerance and women's rights marks the counter-position to the alleged intolerance, fundamentalism, and patriarchal sexism of the "lower classes." The way to unravel this confusion is to focus on the mediating terms the function of which is to obfuscate the true lines of division. The way "modernization" is used in the recent ideological offensive is exemplary here: first, an abstract opposition is constructed between "modernizers" (those who endorse global capitalism in all its aspects, from economic to cultural) and "traditionalists" (those who resist globalization). Into this category of those-who-resist are then thrown all, from the traditional conservatives and populist Right to the "Old Left" (those who continue to advocate Welfare state, trade unions...). This categorization obviously does comprise an aspect of social reality - recall the coalition of Church and trade unions which, in Germany in early 2003, prevented the legalization of stores being open also on Sunday. However, it is not enough to say that this "cultural difference" traverses the entire social field, cutting across different strata and classes; it is not enough to say that this opposition can be combined in different ways with other oppositions (so that we can have conservative "traditional values" resistance to global capitalist "modernization," or moral conservatives who fully endorse capitalist globalization). The failure of "modernization" to function as the key to social totality means that it is an "abstract" universal notion, and the wager of Marxism is that there is one antagonism ("class struggle") which overdetermines all others and thus serves as the "concrete universal" of the entire field. Feminist struggle can be articulated into a chain with the struggle for social emancipation of the lower classes, or it can (and it certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper-middle classes to assert their superiority over the "patriarchal and intolerant" lower classes; and class antagonism is as it were "doubly inscribed" here: it is the specific constellation of the class struggle itself which explains why the feminist struggle was appropriated by upper classes. (The same goes for racism: it is the dynamics of class struggle itself which explains why direct racism is strong among the lowest white workers.)
The third thing to take note of is the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other - even if not a direct physical annihilation, class struggle aims at the annihilation of the other's socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and strivings... In one case, we have a "horizontal" logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.
The paradox here is that it is the populist fundamentalism which retains this logic of antagonism, while the liberal Left follows the logic of recognition of differences, of "defusing" antagonisms into co-existing differences: in their very form, the conservative-populist grass-roots campaigns took over the old Leftist-radical stance of the popular mobilization and struggle against upper-class exploitation. This unexpected reversal is just one in a long series. In today's US, the traditional roles of Democrats and Republicans are almost inverted: Republicans spend state money, thus generating record budget deficit, de facto build a strong federal state, and pursue a politics of global interventionism, while Democrats pursue a tough fiscal politics that, under Clinton, abolished budget deficit. Even in the touchy sphere of socio-economic politics, Democrats (the same as with Blair in the UK) as a rule accomplish the neoliberal agenda of abolishing the Welfare State, lowering taxes, privatizing, etc., while Bush proposed a radical measure of legalizing the status of the millions of illegal Mexican workers and made healthcare much more accessible to the retired. The extreme case is here that of the survivalist groups in the West of the US: although their ideological message is that of religious racism, their entire mode of organization (small illegal groups fighting FBI and other federal agencies) makes them an uncanny double of the Black Panthers from the 1960s.
We should thus not only refuse the easy liberal contempt for the populist fundamentalists (or, even worse, the patronizing regret of how "manipulated" they are); we should reject the very terms of the culture war. Although, of course, as to the positive content of most of the debated issues, a radical Leftist should support the liberal stance (for abortion, against racism and homophobia...), one should never forget that it is the populist fundamentalist, not the liberal, who is, in the long term, our ally. In all their anger, the populists are not angry enough - not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore. Recall Robert Bork's infamous lament about our "slouching towards Gomorrah":
The entertainment industry is not forcing depravity on an unwilling American public. The demand for decadence is there. That fact does not excuse those who sell such degraded material any more than the demand for crack excuses the crack dealer. But we must be reminded that the fault is in ourselves, in human nature not constrained by external forces.
In what, exactly, is then this demand grounded? Here Bork performs his ideological short-circuit: instead of pointing towards the logic of capitalism itself which, in order to sustain its expanding reproduction, has to create new and new demands, and thus admitting that, in fighting consumerist "decadence," he is fighting a tendency which insists in the very core of capitalism, he directly refers to "human nature" which, led to itself, ends up in wanting depravity, and is thus in a need for constant control and censorship: "The idea that men are naturally rational, moral creatures without the need for strong external restraints has been exploded by experience. There is an eager and growing market for depravity, and profitable industries devoted to supplying it."
Such a view, however, presents a difficulty for the Cold Wariors' "moral" crusade against Communism, since the Eastern European Communist regimes were overthrown the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the '60s generation, and the workers who continued to believe in solidarity against individualism. This feature returns to haunt Bork: at a conference, he "referred, not approvingly, to Michael Jackson's crotch-clutching performance at the Super Bowl. Another panelist tartly informed me that it was precisely the desire to enjoy such manifestations of American culture that had brought down the Berlin wall. That seems as good an argument as any for putting the wall back up again." Although Bork is aware of the irony of the situation, he obviously misses its deeper aspect.
Recall Jacques Lacan's definition of successful communication: I get back from the other my own message in its inverted (true) form - is this not what is happening to today's liberals? Are they not getting back from the conservative populists their own message in its inverted/true form? In other words, are conservative populists not the symptom of tolerant enlightened liberals? Is the scary and ridiculous Kansas redneck who explodes in fury against liberal corruption not the very figure in the guise of which the liberal encounters the truth of his own hypocrisy? We should thus (to refer to the most popular song about Kansas, from The Wizard of Oz) reach over the rainbow - over the "rainbow coalition" of the single-issue struggles, favored by radical liberals - and dare to look for an ally in what appears as the ultimate enemy of tolerant liberalism.