As the year 2016 concludes, both the political and theological terrain have shifted dramatically at a global level, even as most academics and sundry pundits continue to obsess, sometimes even to the edge of outright pathology, over the results of the American Presidential election.
The endlessly proliferating fears and fantasies among so much of the Western intelligentsia concerning what Donald Trump might actually do once the inauguration is over on January 20, 2017 drain vital energy and distract thoughtful attention from the more far-reaching, underground forces that produced the political earthquake that first rumbled with the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last summer, and is already manifesting in a swarm of conjugate shocks not only in Europe but in many, many other parts of the world.
As the prestigious magazine The Economist recently wrote, it is time to call a time-out on such preoccupations. The real issue is neither the personalities nor the presumptive policies – let alone the new socio-cultural environment – of an impending Trump administration, although for the American electorate such concerns remain certainly relevant. To paraphrase Voltaire rather badly, “if Donald Trump did not exist, he would have to be invented.”
The Trump phenomenon, according to The Economist, is but a regional index – albeit one that somehow become “iconic” – of something far more congenital and consequential, namely that
a populist, nationalist wave is sweeping the West. It has to do with the economic crisis, globalisation, automation, immigration, stagnant wages, social media and a less deferential culture; albeit in drastically varying proportions in different countries. Each instance of this shift spurs on the next.
The wave trope is apt, because what has happened in the last nine months is comparable to a worldwide tsunami, which by definition can rarely be predicted with any accuracy. But we do know that tsunamis are apt to strike in certain areas of the world where earthquake faults abound. The current trend of analysis is ironically akin to focusing only on the wave and not the factors that ultimately caused it.
The preferred explanation among so much of our conceptually impoverished commentariat is to trundle out a standardized invocation of certain incredibly imprecise categories of moral opprobrium that are supposed somehow to adhere intuitively and by pure logical necessity to the political actors who have imparted momentum to the wave itself – e.g., nationalism, conservatism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, or bigotry in general – as if the symptoms themselves, the measure of which has never been convincingly quantified, were the major causal factors.
The exercise itself seems to smack of a cheap sort of late Medieval theologism, which tends to blame everything on the sin of Adam, or some rendering of the notion of total human – or at least in this instance “class” – depravity. Even in this age of relentless and contentious “fact-checking,” facts rarely seem to matter when it comes to settling arguments.
For example, even in the face of the received wisdom that Trump won the electoral college because of a surge of racist resentment among the white working class, political analyst David Paul Kuhn writing in The New York Times assembles various post-election studies to show that they voted for him not on account of, but in spite of, his inflammatory comments about immigrants and African-American resistance to urban policing. Kuhn argues that “bluntly put, much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side — that is, on the issues that most concerned them.”
So what really is going on? The article in The Economist goes on to stress that what we are calling “populism” represents a large spectrum with various interlocking, but also dissimilar, sources of dissatisfaction with the prevailing order of things. Both currently and historically, it cuts both ways, to the left as well as to the right, as we saw not only in the Trump but also in the Sanders phenomenon.
Populism, which has become a swear word for privileged professionals of all stripes in many different cultural contexts, actually signifies a many-faceted and multi-pronged revolt in a truly “multicultural” context against the planetary hegemony of transnational neoliberalism, what I have elsewhere termed the new planetary “corporate-university-financial-information complex,“ inexorably liquidating the utility of material labor while reducing what Marx termed an “immiserated” former middle class to sheer demographic or statistical tokens that can be alternately seduced or demonized to preserve a new cosmopolitan order of symbolic justice masking economic exploitation.
The familiar narrative of the new populism as equivalent to fascism constitutes a polemical sleight of hand that amounts to the pot calling the kettle black, as social theorists Raphaële Chappe and Ajay Singh Chaudhary brilliantly demonstrate in a searing piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. One does not need to worry about the advent of fascism, the authors argue, because it is already upon us in the guise of the “progressive” neoliberal status quo.
Rejecting what they term a cartoonish pop cultural image of Nazism in the 1930s, they draw eerie parallels between “the supermanagerial Reich” of that era and the way in which neoliberalism today holds sway over divergent populations. If, as Lenin argued during the Bolshevik coup that Communism is simply the power of the soviets plus electrification, then neoliberalism in this day and age is historical fascism minus racism.
Chappe and Chaudhary conclude that “by focusing only on the threat of our homegrown Hitler caricature we have failed to notice the facts right in front of our faces: the uniquely parallel structures, the same winners, the similar losers, the crimes, the human degradation” that bind the 1930s with the 2000s.
Populism may not be “real” revolution, but it is far more revolutionary in the historical sense of the word than the neoliberal Erewhon that is dangled before our eyes through the empty sort of jingle-mongering captured in such familiar pedagogical expressions as “education for global citizenship” or “critical cosmopolitanism.”
As the distinguished political philosopher Ernesto Laclau shows, populism is neither a “movement” nor a reaction, but a “political logic” that comes into full operation once a particular social order experiences a “crisis of representation” whereby the part is no longer seen to speak for the whole, while at the same time once-resonant emancipatory, or egalitarian, rhetorics are suddenly unmasked as a self-serving subterfuges to maintain bureaucratic or oligarchic interests, precisely what happened in this past election cycle with both the Republican and Democratic Party in the United States.
At the same time, as Laclau shows in his monumental work On Populist Reason, it is not the content but the procedure that produces a sense of a new populus, disrupting as well as displacing prior strategies for articulating political communities. In Laclau’s words, “the emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. This transgression is the emergence of a new order.”(228)
Laclau employs a variant of the paradigm of an “evental” rupture that is well-known in both the epistemological and political philosophy of Alain Badiou, which in turn derives from Jacques Lacan’s construct of the passage à l’acte, a disruptive “acting out” among patients in psychoanalysis, which could also explain the appeal among the “angry” segment of the electorate of Trump’s own brand of transgressive political theater.
Every political instance of what Badiou and others have termed l’eventement (“the event”) corresponds to a sudden, and usually unpredictable, recrystallization of what Laclau refers to as the populist “frontier.” That is certainly what happened in 2016 on a massive scale, and will probably continue until we have witnessed a substantive, system-wide break with neoliberalism, even if it retains many of the less desirable traits of the latter.
One of the problems with us political theologians is that we tend to judge historical change by its conformance with our own, timeless sense of moral and social propriety (which is really more time-bound than we care to recognize), a tendency which the great political theorists from Hobbes through Marx to Nietzsche and Gramsci both ridiculed and warned against. After all, it was Mao Tse-Tung who wrote in 1927:
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.
History is messy, but it is not anywhere near as calculable as we “experts” have convinced ourselves it is. The new populism certainly has, and will have, its ugly side. Whether it will become as “dark” as many anticipate remains to be seen. But it is also an epochal, not matter how distorted, cry for economic justice – a cry which has fallen all too repeatedly on deaf ears.
How ugly, or not-so-ugly, it might prove to be certainly should not be left to the sages who basically got it wrong repeatedly during these tumultuous last twelve months.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.