Slavoj Žižek, writing in the London Review of Books, asks (and answers) a fascinating question about the violence of Revolutionary Islam:
Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy.
This dichotomy — or hypocrisy, if you will — is one of the reasons for the success of liberalism. Indeed, as my friend Sean Foley pointed out to me this morning, the ability of a given political and social system to claim one thing and be another thing entirely is something that truly successful political and social arrangements have mastered.
The freedom, equality, and democracy that Žižek describes here is not a lie. Or rather, it’s not entirely a lie. There’s a solid substance to it, though it’s also vapor, fog, and illusion around the edges. But so is the exploitation and subjugation. It too is solid, hard, even sharp, at its center, but just as ephemeral around the fringes. Because the truth is that liberalism cannot escape the reality of ruling others against their will even as it rules most with something ranging from active participation to passive consent. Ruling others is an act of domination and violence, and liberalism cannot escape that violence. Even as it claims to.
As I think about my last post, about liberalism and meaning, the reality is that only a small group of people — malcontents like me — are going to care enough about meaning to dissent from the liberal telos. For example, I simply cannot square the circle between the profession of freedom, equality, and democracy with the reality of exploitation and violent domination. Something must be a lie, and while I really like(d) the ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy, I long ago concluded they were the lies. That the truth — the actual moral truth of liberalism — was the violence and subjugation. I cannot hold both truths, both realities of liberalism, in tension. My life experience doesn’t really allow me to. And perhaps that is the great weakness of my worldview.
I am a distinct minority, someone who seeks a meaning bigger than a comfortable life and an easy belonging to some community of people. I’m an even smaller minority for not being happy with any of the prepackaged, so-called alternatives to liberalism. Whether that makes me really interesting, or utterly irrelevant, I’m not sure yet. Perhaps both.