Broadly speaking, we seem to be confronting two major threats today. On the one hand, there is the confluence of capitalism and science, which, in a way made obvious during the pandemic, has foregrounded biological and medical interventions. On the other hand, there has been an attempt to reinstate patriarchal authority, indexed most obviously by the rise of neo-fascism. The danger is to presume that these are distinct and opposing threats. It seems to me that the latter is a problematic response to a truth made more obvious by the former: neo-fascism exists within the context of an erosion of social bonds (whereby commodities provide fleeting and unsustainable social links). The problem is that pragmatic capitalism is presented as the alternative to totalitarianism (but always from a disavowed universal position). This leads to a rather unsettling conclusion: the critical task is not to seek out alternatives to capitalism but rather to recognize that capitalism is the alternative.
Put differently, the epistemological justification which sustains pragmatic capitalism operates through exceptionalism, that is, a doctrine of segregation. Thus, capitalist rationalizations often come in the following form: ‘pragmatic capitalism is the only alternative to tyranny, totalitarianism, and so on.’ The irony is that pragmatic capitalism also gives rise to tyranny. This was a point made very well many years ago by David Harvey. Harvey claimed that the strength of neoliberal capitalism was its potential to acclimate to resolutely diverse cultural environments. Like tofu, it can be marinated by a culture, taking on a wide variety of flavours. Hence, we often discuss ‘Russian capitalism,’ ‘Chinese capitalism,’ ‘American capitalism,’ ‘Indian capitalism,’ and so on. The problem, however, is much deeper, since fascism does not only arise in extension, out there in ‘those other countries,’ but also here, at home: neo-fascist movements appear within liberal democratic societies. These new fascist movements attest to the new universe of exception.
We might claim that contemporary fascism is appealing precisely because it seems to offer a remedy for loneliness. This was in fact the position of Hannah Arendt. It is in this qualified sense that we should follow Walter Benjamin’s widely quoted argument that fascism arises as a consequence of a failed revolution. We should make the extra effort though to distinguish modern fascism from its contemporary mutation. Contemporary fascism operates within an environment that has transformed quite fundamentally. For this reason, modern fascism is distinguished from contemporary or ‘neo-’ fascism, though both are always by definition homologous with their environment (rather than being counter-environment, as in leftist revolutionary movements). The Nazis harnessed ‘universal prohibitions’ from within their modern environment, while neo-fascists increasingly harness the ‘permissiveness’ of contemporary capitalism. Hence, whereas the Nazis relied upon an antisemitic ideology, it is clear that today’s racism does not in of itself require ideological support. Two statements from Lacan support our thesis: first, Lacan claimed that fascists are the ones “who are the most committed to the process of the discourse of capitalism,” and; second, “there is no need of ideology for racism to be constituted” (13.1.1971: 44).
The Nazi’s universal prohibitions against the Jews, Freemasons, Communists, and Homosexuals, were specifically concretized in legislation (e.g., the antisemitic legislation of 1933-39) and supported through media propaganda. The critical task was to expose those discourses as frauds through critical interpretive techniques. Not long after, we saw a wonderful version of this technique from Roland Barthes, who popularly deconstructed an image of a Black Soldier saluting the French flag. Racism occurs within neo-fascism without any inherent need for explicitly antisemitic legislation (which is not to deny the existence of hate laws). Thus, mythologies, interpretive techniques, deconstruction, are not going to get us very far. Neofascism operates more essentially at the level of jouissance; not a logic of ‘universal prohibitions’ but rather a logic of ‘particular affirmations.’ Particular affirmations (in contrast to universal prohibitions) leave the jouissance in its place, without negativizing it through the signifier.
The obscene epistemology of ‘particular affirmations’ retains this link with jouissance, even when it reaches the domain of legislation and law. Since the law does not function to negativize the jouissance, it simply accommodates it. The clearest case of this in recent history (where the symbolic law quite literally becomes replaced by particular affirmations) is in the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, an act which does not explicitly prohibit citizenship for Muslims but rather permits citizenship for particular religious identities except for Muslims (e.g., Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, etc). The result is nonetheless the same, and it could have the same disastrous consequences: the jouissance of Muslims is rejected, eradicated, as a part of the national project of India. Incidentally, Zygmunt Bauman once claimed that the holocaust was the full realization of the ideology of modernity. Admittedly, it is a very controversial thesis, but does it not point toward a truth about fascism? Similarly, is it not possible that neo-fascism operates as a realization of post-modernity?
This implies that we should be suspicious (or, rather, cautiously supportive) of naive appeals to ‘anti-racism’ that are situated within the coordinates of our contemporary environment. The prevalence of institutional diversity committees in the United States today demonstrates that it frequently performs the opposite function: neutralizing real inconsistencies and challenges to contemporary capitalism by providing an internal series of atomized/tokenized ‘ones’ who each have their place within a series. The price that one pays for admission is to foreclose any possible analysis of the overarching racist system. The implicit axiom might very well be: each is permitted to have their place here, provided that the basic authorizing framework is preserved. In every case, pragmatic capitalism remains the only possible alternative capable of curing our loneliness, the only possible manner of forming bonds for racialized bodies. Yet, it ultimately cannot deliver on what it promises: the bonds it establishes are fleeting, provisional, and perhaps even traumatic.
In such conditions, racism exists in the very form through which bonds are established. This is the conclusion that we are supposed to avoid at all costs. I am even tempted to claim that there are today foolish racists and knavish racists: the fools cling to their belief that they can (personally) avoid the constitutive racism of the system through grandiose appeals to the virtues of ‘anti-racism,’ while the knaves stubbornly cling to simple-minded notions of ‘equality for all,’ ‘all lives matter,’ and so on. Therefore, it seems to me that there are only two possible conclusions: first, that racism occurs as an inability to tolerate the jouissance of the Other, thereby indicating a pervasive foreclosure (which shifts race from the symbolic into the real register), and; second, racism exists as a regressive or reactionary attempt to reinstate prohibitions in a world whose environment has fundamentally shifted (e.g., the strong calls against immigration, discussions about building a wall between Mexico and the United States, etc.).
How could we not see in this a parallel logic in our societal attitudes toward the pandemic? Well-reasoned calls to return to patriarchal authority (e.g., by shutting down the borders, restricting the movement of people, instituting new rules that prohibit jouissance, etc.) have co-existed alongside liberal pragmatic attempts to develop and administer vaccines, face masks, form social bubbles, and so on. Ultimately, the liberal pragmatic solution wins out over the tyrannical solution (e.g., vaccines mean that people are beginning to live normal lives again in some parts of the world), but in either case there is always a question of how to form a social link within a context of uncertainty, chaos, and/or trauma. Contemporary racism is therefore fundamentally a problem of and not in discourse (since, as Lacan put it, ‘discourse is what constitutes a social bond’).
We should nonetheless examine the precise solution offered by liberal pragmatics: a social bond is formed on the basis of something like a negative identification, ‘we are not that …,’ ‘we are not racist, …’ Anti-racism does not anymore operate as an interrogation of one’s repressed racism, indicating a critical gesture operating through the conduit of doubt (e.g., one doubts one’s own racism, engaging in a conflict with one’s own presuppositions). Rather, anti-racism operates today through foreclosure through the conduit of certainty, since the racists are ‘out there’ and it is supposed to be obvious that this is the case. It is a move from anti-racism to the racism of the anti, or, rather, ‘alter-racism.’ Since jouissance is fundamentally enigmatic, the only way to therefore achieve a sense of consistency, is to locate it in the real of our environment. Eric Laurent described this logic in the following way:
The collective logic is grounded on the threat of a primordial rejection, on the menace of a form of racism: a man knows what is not a man. And this is a question of jouissance. He whom I reject for having a jouissance distinct from my own is not a man.
It is not therefore a question of whether or not another is actually racist (indeed, in many cases, it is most certainly true) but rather a question of the function of this accusation for the consistency of our group formation(s). The rejection of the other evokes a fear which, according to Jorge Assef, is at the root of all segregation: “one’s own jouissance remains misrecognized; it is when something of this jouissance returns from the other that the most fundamental denial sets a drive into motion in order to attack it.”
Contemporary racism is without a doubt extremely cunning. It operates within a context that has moved us from feelings of doubt to those of certainty. Whereas one used to wonder about the way in which we were implicated in a system of racial and religious superiority, that is, the precise manners by which it has been internalized, today we suppose ourselves to be anti-racist from the beginning. It is simply a matter of pointing at the other who is racist to confirm this fact. The fear of contending with our own racism is what fabricates for us a social bond based on a logic of ‘we are not that (although we do not know what we in fact are).’ My risk proposing that these techniques are unsustainable, although they are often felt to be urgently required. We must at some point have the courage to face our loneliness directly.
Duane Rousselle is a Lacanian psychoanalyst and American Sociologist who has published numerous books including Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity: A Lacanian Perspective on Language, Identity and Queer Theory (London: Routledge, 2020), Jacques Lacan & American Sociology: Be Wary of the Image (London: Palgrave, 2019), Lacanian Realism: Political and Clinical Psychoanalysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and Post-Anarchism: A Reader (London: Pluto Press, 2012).