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The Guardian
February 19, 2005

The Empty Wheelbarrow
By Slavoj Zizek

From my communist youth, I still remember the formula, endlessly repeated in official proclamations to mark the "unity of all progressive forces": "workers, peasants and honest intellectuals" - as if intellectuals are, by their very nature, suspicious, all too free-floating, lacking a solid social and professional identity, so that they can only be accepted at the price of a special qualification.

This distrust is alive and well today, in our post-ideological societies. The lines are clearly drawn. On the "honest" side, there are the no-nonsense experts, sociologists, economists, psychologists, trying to cope with the real-life problems engendered by our "risk society", aware that old ideological solutions are useless. Beyond, there are the "prattling classes", academics and journalists with no solid professional education, usually working in humanities with some vague French postmodern leanings, specialists in everything, prone to verbal radicalism, in love with paradoxical formulations that flatly contradict the obvious. When faced with fundamental liberal-democratic tenets, they display a breathtaking talent to unearth hidden traps of domination. When faced with an attack on these tenets, they display a no less breathtaking ability to discover emancipatory potential in it.

This cliche is not without truth - recall the numerous fiascos of the 20th-century radical intellectuals, perhaps best encapsulated by the French poet Paul Eluard's refusal to demonstrate support for the victims of Stalinist show trials: "I spend enough time defending the innocent who proclaim their innocence, to have any time left to defend the guilty who proclaim their guilt." But hysterical over-reaction against"free-floating" intellectual renders such a critique suspicious: distrust of intellectuals is ultimately distrust of philosophy itself.

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the "unknown knowns", things we don't know that we know - which is precisely the Freudian unconscious. If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns", the threats from Saddam we did not even suspect, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the main dangers actually are in the "unknown knowns", the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values. To unearth these "unknown knowns" is the task of an intellectual.

On September 11 2001, the Twin Towers were hit. Twelve years earlier, on November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. November 9 announced the "happy 90s", the Francis Fukuyama dream of the "end of history", the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search is over, that the advent of a global, liberal world community lurks just around the corner, that the obstacles to this Hollywood happy ending are merely contingent - local pockets of resistance where leaders did not yet grasp that their time was over. By contrast, 9/11 is the symbol of the end of the Clintonite happy 90s, of an era in which new walls are emerging everywhere, in the West Bank, around the European Union, on the US-Mexico border. The prospect of a new global crisis is looming: economic breakdowns, military and other catastrophes, states of emergency.

In their recent The War Over Iraq, William Kristol and Lawrence F Kaplan wrote: "The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there... We stand at the cusp of a new historical era... This is a decisive moment... It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the US intends to play in the 21st century." One cannot but agree: it is effectively the future of the international community that is at stake now - the new rules that will regulate it, what the new world order will be.

The ruling ideology appropriated the September 11 tragedy and used it to impose its basic message: it is time to stop playing around, you have to take sides - for or against. This, precisely, is the temptation to be resisted: in such moments of apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total. Today, more than ever, intellectuals need to step back. Are we aware that we are in the midst of a "soft revolution", in the course of which the unwritten rules determining the most elementary international logic are changing?

The danger the west is courting in its "war on terror" was clearly perceived by GK Chesterton who - in the very last pages of his Orthodoxy, the ultimate Catholic propaganda piece - exposed the deadlock of the pseudo-revolutionary critics of religion: they start by denouncing religion as the force of oppression that threatens human freedom; but in fighting religion, they are compelled to forsake freedom itself, thus sacrificing precisely what they wanted to defend: the atheist radical universe, deprived of religious reference, is the grey universe of egalitarian terror. Today the same holds for advocates of religion themselves: how many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking secular culture and ended up forsaking religion itself, losing any meaningful religious experience?

And is it not that, in a strictly homologous way, the liberal warriors against terror are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy? They have such a passion for proving that non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to limit our own freedom here and now, in our allegedly Christian societies. If the "terrorists" are ready to wreck this world for love of the other, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Thus the American commentators Jonathan Alter and Alan Derschowitz love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture - the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it.

Does the same not hold for the postmodern disdain for great ideological causes and the notion that, in our post-ideological era, instead of trying to change the world, we should reinvent ourselves by engaging in new forms of (sexual, spiritual, aesthetic) subjective practices? Confronted with arguments like this, one cannot but recall the old lesson of critical theory: when we try to preserve the authentic intimate sphere of privacy against the onslaught of "alienated" public exchange, it is privacy itself that gets lost. Withdrawal into privacy means today adopting formulas of private authenticity propagated by the contemporary cultural industry - from taking lessons in spiritual enlightenment a to engaging in body building. The ultimate truth of withdrawal into privacy is public confessions of intimate secrets on TV shows. Against this kind of privacy, the only way to break out of the constraints of "alienated" public life is to invent a new collectivity.

Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing. Every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but it was always empty - till, finally, the guards got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This is the trick that those who claim today "But the world is none the less better off without Saddam!" try to pull on us: they forget to include in the account the effects of the very military intervention against Saddam. Yes, the world is better without Saddam - but it is not better with the military occupation of Iraq, with the rise of Islamist fundamentalism provoked by this very occupation. The guy who first got this point about the wheelbarrow was an arch-intellectual.