Why Cynics Are Wrong
Slavoj Zizek

Obamaback image

Days before the election, Noam Chomsky told progressives that they should vote for Obama, but without illusions. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: From a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will just do some minor face-lifting improvements, turning out to be “Bush with a human face.” He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus effectively even strengthen U.S. hegemony, which has been severely damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.

There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction — a key dimension is missing in it. It is because of this dimension that Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggles for majority with all their pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good, American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, in that moment of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

What kind of sign am I talking about? In his last published book The Contest of Faculties (1798), the great German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant addressed a simple but difficult question: Is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress in freedom, not just material development.) He conceded that actual history is confused and allows for no clear proof: Think how the 20th century brought unprecedented democracy and welfare, but also the Holocaust and gulag.

Nonetheless, Kant concluded that, although progress cannot be proven, we can discern signs that indicate progress is possible. Kant interpreted the French Revolution as a sign that pointed toward the possibility of freedom: The hitherto unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality. For Kant, even more important than the — often bloody — reality of what went on in the streets of Paris was the enthusiasm that those events engendered in sympathetic observers all around Europe:

The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race.

One should note here that the French Revolution generated enthusiasm not only in Europe, but also in faraway places like Haiti, where it triggered another world-historical event: The first revolt of Black slaves, who fought for full participation in the emancipatory project of the French Revolution. Arguably the most sublime moment of the French Revolution occurred when the delegation from Haiti, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, visited Paris and was enthusiastically received at the Popular Assembly as equals among equals.

Obama’s victory belongs to this line; it is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense ofsignum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. That is, it is a sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements. No wonder that Hegel, the last great German Idealist, shared Kant’s enthusiasm in his description of the impact of the French Revolution:

This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.

Did Obama’s victory not give birth to the same universal enthusiasm all around the world, with people dancing on the streets from Chicago to Berlin to Rio de Janeiro? All the skepticism displayed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives (what if, in the privacy of the voting booth, publicly disavowed racism reemerges?) was proven wrong.

There is one thing about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, that strikes the eye of all observers: How utterly wrong most of his predictions were. To take only one example, when news reached the West about the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, he immediately accepted the new regime (which ignominiously collapsed three days later) as a fact. In short, when socialist regimes were already a living dead, Kissinger was counting on a long-term pact with them.

The position of the cynic is that he alone holds some piece of terrible, unvarnished wisdom. The paradigmatic cynic tells you privately, in a confidential low-key voice: “But don’t you get it that it is all really about (money/power/sex), that all high principles and values are just empty phrases which count for nothing?” What the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom that ignores the power of illusions.

The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm is not only the fact that, against all odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing to happen was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures. Recall the fall of the Berlin Wall: Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we somehow did not “really believe” that they will disintegrate. Like Kissinger, we were all too much victims of cynical pragmatism.

This attitude is best encapsulated by the French expression “je sais bien, mais quand meme” (I know very well that it can happen, but nonetheless… I cannot really accept that it can happen). This is why, although Obama’s victory was clearly predictable at least for the last two weeks before the election, his actual victory was still experienced as a shock. In some sense, the unthinkable did happen, something that we really didn’t believe could happen. (Note that there is also a tragic version of the unthinkable really taking place: holocaust, gulag… how can one really accept that something like that could happen?)

The true battle begins now, after the victory: The battle for what this victory will effectively mean, especially within the context of two other much more ominous signs of history: 9/11 and the financial meltdown. Nothing was decided by Obama’s victory, but his victory widens our freedom and thereby the scope of our decisions. But regardless of whether we succeed or fail, Obama’s victory will remain a sign of hope in our otherwise dark times, a sign that the last word does not belong to “realist” cynics, be they from the Left or the Right.

In These Times, November 13, 2008.


  1. adam
    Posted November 17, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    here here!

  2. Posted November 20, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Remarkable, indeed.

  3. Bryan L. Jones
    Posted November 21, 2008 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree that “The true battle begins now, after the victory”

    What will mark this moment in terms of true change will be the ability to critique Obama, not from the right, but from the left.

    That point seems obvious, but I want to point out that, here in America, when things don’t go the way the left wants them to, the left falls silent. It is well known, or at least well whispered, that there is a vast Left-wing MAJORITY in America. Obama’s victory proves that when the left get a candidate they believe in, that candidate wins BIG. The problem here is that when the left feel like they can believe in either candidate they JUST STAY HOME. There is always a low turn-out in votes when a republican wins. This is because the left make a statement my NOT voting.

    If Obama can successfully be criticized from the left, for not delivering true change, then it will be a true victory for the left. We will know that the numbers support us, and the system will have to listen.

    The true question in all of this is will the American left-wing just fall into their old cynical ways. Will they just bend over and take it like they have been, or will they stand up and demand true freedom.

    Obama’s cabinet already looks a lot like Clinton’s. And Clinton did quite a bit to strengthen big business’ “right” to have as many sweat shops as it needs to maximize profit. And Hillary Clinton sure talked a lot about free healthcare before she started getting paid not to.

    The test of Obama will be what he does to change those cynics that think American politics is all a sham and stay home instead of vote. Those that think America is waiting to crash the market after he is inaugurated, so they can cut social programs with a clear conscience.

    After all, a democrat will only cut social funding if they really, really had to.

    Still, I don’t count myself as a cynic, because I will be in the front line of protesters if Obama doesn’t deliver the change WE WANT.

    Obama says he supports the unions, and wants to fix those social programs that don’t work and keep funding the ones that do.

    Let’s make sure he does just that.

  4. Bryan L. Jones
    Posted November 21, 2008 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    my third paragraph should read:

    when the left feel like they have a choice between two candidates they CAN’T believe in they just stay home.

    hope I didn’t confuse too many.

    My main point is that votes in American often just stay home as a form of protest and that usually give the victory to the right.

  5. Hussein Mahmud
    Posted December 3, 2008 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    To be honest I totally disagree with Zizek on this point. As a black male and a Muslim here what I felt about Obama’s victory.

    When Zizek says “that the possibility of such a thing to happen was demonstrated” what he does not take into account is how this very question was reshaped during Obama’s campaign. If we cross over from the position of observer to one of participant our perception changes radically and we see an element that is missing in Zizek’s analysis. Obama’s campaign represented not the coming to being of the impossible, but rather, in Badiou’s language, the resituating of the impossible within the language and imagery of possible.
    Example: Obama fought very hard to highlight his ‘racial’ make up but in very negative way. Regardless of the real relationship between his father and him, what many people saw was the bad black/Muslim father constantly contrasted with the good/white mother. This side of him, the constant ‘talking down’ to black males, was something many African Americans felt even though they chose to ignore it (recall here Jesse Jackson’s comments). Listening to Obama speak about his parents one always gets the feeling that he would have been much better person if he was full white.

    Another way that Zizek misses the point is that he still stuck to old notions of racism: one reduced to simply about colour. If we take colour as the founding of race we can then make all this associations between Obama and the history of slavery etc etc. However, I honestly believe racism (here see Balibar on neo-racism) no longer signifies just colour. There is also the dimension of cultural belonging, and other forms of distinguishing the insider from the outsider (Zizek here should know better as he alluded to this new aspect of racism many times in the literature). Also I should add Obama here historically has no tie of African American Slavery.

    There is another dimension here of modern Western democracies that Obama is subject to. Here is what Ghassan Hage, Australian academic, has called “Phallic Democracy”. Here is a notion of modern democracy as not something people participate in but something they show as a possession against the Other, the Barbarian. This element of it is why so many progressive Americans and Westerns across the globe love Obama: he represents the fact that we ‘as white people’ can elect a black president, even though we like him because he is least black guy out of all the blacks. Here is obama as a possession, a symbol of American progress as opposed the realisation of the impossible.

    I honestly fail to see this dimension of Obama that Zizek is highlighting. Instead all I can see is how, much closer to relationship between Thatcher and Tony Blair that Zizek discusses in many places, Obama he has occluded any possibility of meaningful difference, the impossible, within the framework of the same and the possible.

  6. Tim Themi
    Posted December 13, 2008 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    Some recent comments by Chomsky following the election:

    “The word that immediately rolled off of every tongue after the presidential election was “historic.” And rightly so. A Black family in the White House is truly a momentous event.

    There were some surprises. One was that the election was not over after the Democratic convention. By usual indicators, the opposition party should have had a landslide victory during a severe economic crisis, after eight years of disastrous policies on all fronts including the worst record on job growth of any post-war president and a rare decline in median wealth, an incumbent so unpopular that his own party had to disavow him, and a dramatic collapse in US standing in world opinion. The Democrats did win, barely. If the financial crisis had been slightly delayed, they might not have.

    A good question is why the margin of victory for the opposition party was so small, given the circumstances. One possibility is that neither party reflected public opinion at a time when 80% think the country is going in the wrong direction and that the government is run by “a few big interests looking out for themselves,” not for the people, and a stunning 94% object that government does not attend to public opinion. As many studies show, both parties are well to the right of the population on many major issues, domestic and international…

    The two candidates in the Democratic primary were a woman and an African-American. That too was historic. It would have been unimaginable forty years ago. The fact that the country has become civilized enough to accept this outcome is a considerable tribute to the activism of the 1960s and its aftermath.

    In some ways the election followed familiar patterns. The McCain campaign was honest enough to announce clearly that the election wouldn’t be about issues.. Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” offered a blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes. One could search websites for position papers, but correlation of these to policies is hardly spectacular, and in any event, what enters into voters’ choices is what the campaign places front and center, as party managers know well.

    The Obama campaign greatly impressed the public relations industry, which named Obama “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008,” easily beating out Apple. The industry’s prime task is to ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices, thus undermining market theories. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy the same way.

    The Center for Responsive Politics reports that once again elections were bought: “The best-funded candidates won nine out of 10 contests, and all but a few members of Congress will be returning to Washington.” Before the conventions, the viable candidates with most funding from financial institutions were Obama and McCain, with 36% each. Preliminary results indicate that by the end, Obama’s campaign contributions, by industry, were concentrated among Law Firms (including lobbyists) and financial institutions. The investment theory of politics suggests some conclusions about the guiding policies of the new administration.

    The power of financial institutions reflects the increasing shift of the economy from production to finance since the liberalization of finance in the 1970s, a root cause of the current economic malaise: the financial crisis, recession in the real economy, and the miserable performance of the economy for the large majority, whose real wages stagnated for 30 years, while benefits declined..

    Reactions to the election from across the spectrum commonly adopted the “soaring rhetoric” that was the hallmark of the Obama campaign. Veteran correspondent John Hughes wrote that “America has just shown the world an extraordinary example of democracy at work,” while to British historian-journalist Tristram Hunt, the election showed that America is a land “where miracles happen,” such as “the glorious epic of Barack Obama” (leftist French journalist Jean Daniel). “In no other country in the world is such an election possible,” said Catherine Durandin of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. Many others were no less rapturous.

    The rhetoric has some justification if we keep to the West, but elsewhere matters are different. Consider the world’s largest democracy, India. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is larger than all but a few countries of the world and is notorious for horrifying treatment of women, is not only a woman, but a Dalit (“untouchable”), at the lowest rung of India’s disgraceful caste system.

    Turning to the Western hemisphere, consider its two poorest countries: Haiti and Bolivia. In Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990, grass-roots movements organized in the slums and hills, and though without resources, elected their own candidate, the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The results astonished observers who expected an easy victory for the candidate of the elite and the US, a former World Bank official.

    True, the victory for democracy was soon overturned by a military coup, followed by years of terror and suffering to the present, with crucial participation of the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the US (contrary to self-serving illusions). But the victory itself was a far more “extraordinary example of democracy at work” than the miracle of 2008.

    The same is true of the 2005 election in Bolivia. The indigenous majority, the most oppressed population in the hemisphere (those who survived), elected a candidate from their own ranks, a poor peasant, Evo Morales. The electoral victory was not based on soaring rhetoric about hope and change, or body language and fluttering of eyelashes, but on crucial issues, very well known to the voters: control over resources, cultural rights, and so on. Furthermore, the election went far beyond pushing a lever or even efforts to get out the vote. It was a stage in long and intense popular struggles in the face of severe repression, which had won major victories, such as defeating the efforts to deprive poor people of water through privatization.

    These popular movements did not simply take instructions from party leaders. Rather, they formulated the policies that their candidates were chosen to implement. That is quite different from the Western model of democracy, as we see clearly in the reactions to Obama’s victory.

    In the liberal Boston Globe, the headline of the lead story observed that Obama’s “grass-roots strategy leaves few debts to interest groups”: labor unions, women, minorities, or other “traditional Democratic constituencies.” That is only partially right, because massive funding by concentrated sectors of capital is ignored. But leaving that detail aside, the report is correct in saying that Obama’s hands are not tied, because his only debt is to “a grass-roots army of millions” – who took instructions, but contributed essentially nothing to formulating his program.

    At the other end of the doctrinal spectrum, a headline in the Wall Street Journal reads “Grass-Roots Army Is Still at the Ready” – namely, ready to follow instructions to “push his agenda,” whatever it may be.

    Obama’s organizers regard the network they constructed “as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The movement, organized around the “Obama brand” can pressure Congress to “hew to the Obama agenda.” But they are not to develop ideas and programs and call on their representatives to implement them. These would be among the “old ways of doing politics” from which the new “idealists” are “breaking free.”

    It is instructive to compare this picture to the workings of a functioning democracy such as Bolivia. The popular movements of the third world do not conform to the favored Western doctrine that the “function” of the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” – the population — is to be “spectators of action” but not “participants” (Walter Lippmann, articulating a standard progressive view).

    Perhaps there might even be some substance to fashionable slogans about “clash of civilizations.”

    In earlier periods of American history, the public refused to keep to its assigned “function.” Popular activism has repeatedly been the force that led to substantial gains for freedom and justice. The authentic hope of the Obama campaign is that the “grass roots army” organized to take instructions from the leader might “break free” and return to “old ways of doing politics,” by direct participation in action. … ”

    Excerpts from “The Election, Economy, War, and Peace”, November 25, 2008. Full transcript at: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19749

  7. Among the corn field
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate Zizek’s move away from Plato. We sophists may have been right all along, gasp.

  8. Posted January 28, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    The great problem with Obama is people are already speculating over the results of his presidency before they have revealed themselves…

    Rather than to suggest that we must adopt a pragamatic wait and see approach to his administration, I see this as already a priori encoded into the Obama liberal democratic project. Much as Bush wielded anti-war protesting as proof of the value of the democracy he exported by bomb and blade, Obama has begun to speculatively encode his presidency as the anti-Bush years, and as such all pragmatic/factual criticism will be encoded into the historical period of “Obama-Time”.

    Think about his retaking of the oath… This was not the action of a man unconcerned with the historically recorded legitimacy of his time in office. He has and is working to secure control, not over the level of dissent to his office, but against the recording of his presidency, and the inherent capacity for remembrance embodied by such technologies.

    He is perpetrating a great archiveing project, putting into place objects and rhetoric that will live on beyond his own agendas and age and will guard him against any potential (posthumous) criticism…

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