The Axis of Negation

Image: Ales Uscinau
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

The immediate task on Ukraine is to counter the new left-right populists, and this may require aligning with exponents of liberal capitalist democracy.

A drunk's wife is in bed with her lover when her husband stumbles in and crawls under the covers. “Baby, I'm so drunk I can see six legs at the foot of the bed,” he says. "Don't worry," she replies, "Go over there to the door and look again from there." And when he does, he's relieved "You're right, it only has four legs!"

This joke may seem vulgar, but it touches on an important phenomenon. Generally, we expect to see a situation more clearly from the outside than if we were immersed in it. However, sometimes it is precisely this external position that blinds us to the truth. In the joke, the husband's exclusion (looking from the doorway) creates a false sense of inclusion, in which he mistakes his lover's legs for his own.

We find a similar dynamic in Western support for Ukraine. We turn a blind eye to the fact that a domestic group of oligarchs is likely to emerge as the biggest winner of the Ukrainian conflict. Still, we shouldn't be surprised if post-war Ukraine turns out to be similar to pre-war Ukraine: a place corrupted by oligarchy and colonized by big western corporations that control the best lands and natural resources. While making our own sacrifices for the war effort, we fail to see that the gains will be appropriated by others, just like the drunk who mistakes another man's feet for his own - perhaps because, deep down, he doesn't want to recognize the difference. true.

Can we avoid this pitfall? From 20 to 22 June this year, the pan-European organization Europe, the patient (Europe, a patient) hosted discussions in London on the need to protect Ukrainian communities from economic exploitation after the war. Initiatives like this are needed more than ever, as support for Ukrainian defense must go hand in hand with ecological and social justice concerns. All are equally important for the future of the country. We, for example, can only fully support Ukraine if we also free it from the yoke of the fossil fuel industry, which depends on Russian oil.

The combination of military, environmental and socioeconomic conflicts is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Military and ecological issues collided dramatically with the destruction of the Kakhova dam near Kherson in early June.

But Ukraine is by no means alone. At about the same time, wildfires in Canada ended up suffocating New York in a haze of brown smoke, giving the city's inhabitants a taste of something that people in the Global South already know all too well. While chattering about the climate crisis and ecological collapse, rich Western countries continue to do little about it.

This reduced perspective is not restricted to the right and the corporatist sector. Many on the left today say they support peace, while at the same time coming to terms with brutal, revisionist and authoritarian regimes.

To understand this "peaceful" opposition, we have to go back to the situation at the beginning of World War II, when there was also a right-left coalition that opposed American involvement in foreign wars. Both then and now, “pacifists” argued that the situation in Europe was not the concern of the United States. They strangely sympathized with the aggressor and maintained that going to war would only enrich the military-industrial complex. When Nazi Germany told Britain in the summer of 1940 that they wanted peace, they thought Britain should have accepted Hitler's generous offer.

Like all good lies, this one contains some grain of truth. American conservative political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan offered a version of this argument in 2008, arguing that if Winston Churchill had accepted Hitler's 1940 proposal, the Holocaust would have been less severe.

Furthermore – the argument goes – just as Winston Churchill brought the British Empire to ruin by provoking unnecessary wars, US President George W. Bush brought the United States to ruin by following Churchill's example. Like many on the left, Patrick J. Buchanan does not believe that the United States should offer guarantees to countries where it does not have vital interests.

We hear a new variation of this motif in the context of the Ukrainian war. Supposedly, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had the same effect as the Treaty of Versailles: it created a predictable desire for revenge against the victors of the last war. As in the past, this new right-left alliance is guided by conspiracy theories, such as those propagated about vaccines by Robert Kennedy Jr and the followers of Donald Trump. She denounces measures against COVID as an instrument of control. She refuses to help Ukraine, as that would serve NATO's military-industrial complex. And, in an exemplary case of denial, it dismisses the biggest threats we face as if they were mere ploys by big corporations to exploit the working class.

The policy of denial – of seeing only four legs – is, of course, overtly optimistic. It implies that we need not face any new dangers; we can go on as if they didn't exist. It is a product of populism on both the right and the left, and is one of the main reasons we are now in a “democratic recession”. As Grace Blakely of the Tribune: "Authoritarianism is growing despite the liberal prediction that the expansion of free markets would result in more democracy - this is because capitalism will always defend social hierarchies in the face of the threat of economic equality".

We can take this claim further: the threat to democracy also comes from the false populist resistance to corporate capitalism, which is well illustrated in the “pacifist” refusal of the left to support Ukraine, as this would “only” benefit defense companies . After all, Ukraine has long since been colonized by Western corporations, and can only be liberated through a “green” and equitable reconstruction.

To escape our predicament, we cannot just cling to multi-party liberal democracy. Rather, we must seek new ways to build social consensus and establish active links between political parties and civil society. The immediate task is to oppose the new left-right populists, and this may require aligning with exponents of capitalist liberal democracy – just as in World War II communists fought alongside Western “imperialist” democracies against fascism, knowing full well that imperialism was their ultimate enemy. They were curious fellows, but at least they could see what was really going on.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

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