Consider this tale by philosopher Slavoj Zizek: as a ten-year-old boy in the sixties, every few months you would be ordered to visit your grandmother. You weren’t really given a choice. It was something that you had to do. Your father would tell you the time you had to be up, get ready and leave for your nana’s place. You had to be on your best behaviour or there would be consequences. Sounds terrible. Now think of a neo-liberal father of the modern century. No longer is it an obligation to make that trip. It is up to you to make the decision. You only have to do it if you like it. Sounds almost too good to be true. The reason it makes you suspicious is because it is. Beneath that mask of tolerance and free choice is an implicit message. The little manipulative message hinting that not only do you now have to visit your grandmother, but you have to like it. It’s a truly wonderful way of doing things.
As again illustrated by Zizek, these apparent in-built paradoxes are now no longer the exception to most social and economic systems that have been established, but actually the norm. The neo-liberal capitalist of the early seventies and eighties (read George Soros), was a man who literally destroyed the world in the morning and tried to use the money he earned to fix it in the evening. What we have now is an in-built mechanism that tries to counterbalance the evils of the system within that structure. Take any of the millions of different schemes that corporations put out to try and make consumers feel that they are doing their bit for society within their consumerist acts. For every Starbucks coffee that you buy, some percentage goes to the advocates of free trade coffee in trying to build a more transparent mechanism so that coffee growers all around the world are compensated fairly. Campaigns by stationery manufacturers where some percentage of profits goes to providing education to children from poor backgrounds. Or some shoe manufacturers that claim that for every pair you buy, another pair goes to the little children in some sub-Saharan country walking around in their bare feet. These are classic examples of what researchers are calling cultural capitalism.
The paradox of tolerance is a very interesting one. The earlier civil movements against racial discrimination were never about tolerance. It was a fight for basic rights in society, a fight for social justice and a fight for equality. It was never about one race being more “tolerant” of another. The use of the word “tolerance” to try and solve problems of inequality, racism and other acts of oppression is a step backwards. Signs of such paradoxes are becoming more apparent day by day. Take the example of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who went on a mass killing rampage in Norway. Breivik very clearly in his manifesto points out his anti-Semitic views. He says that the Jews aren’t really a problem in continental Europe as their numbers have been kept in control, but their lobby in the United Kingdom and the U.S. is a sign of worry and has to be controlled. And yet, Breivik is a complete Zionist. He believes that the Israeli state has a right to protect its culture and race from the neighbouring Arab fundamentalists. Or the more recent example of Glenn Beck, the news anchor who got fired for his anti-Semitic comments on national television, is very well known for his public pro-Zion stance. If an anti-Semitic Zionist isn’t an oxymoron, I don’t know what is!
The elephant in the room is of course China. For all the fervour that was built up by Thatcher and Reagan around capitalism and democracy going hand in hand. Combining Stalin’s authoritarianism with Milton’s free market capitalism, China has beaten the West at its own game. Double digit GDP growth for the past twenty years is something that cannot be imagined in any other democratically governed nation. How has the Party then managed to do this? One of the ways is close monitoring of the way China’s history and legacy is presented. For all of Mao’s excesses and errors, which are officially documented in Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote of “seventy percent positive and thirty percent negative”, Mao’s image is still celebrated as that of the founding father of the nation. This way the Chinese can have their cake and eat it too – economic liberalisation combined with party rule.
Looking at these seemingly individual paradoxical phenomenon through a larger ideological prism also throws up some interesting results. No longer is the prevalent ideology in the world a need to sacrifice oneself for a collectivist cause. Neither is it a sort of completely hedonistic approach advocated by the likes of Uncle Milton, where greed and self interest are the tools taking the world forward through new innovation. The thought process is more of the form where you are told to be true to yourself, lead a good life and so on. A sort of spiritualised hedonism where the neo-liberal capitalist approach has been dressed up in seemingly Buddhist like concepts of Zen, happiness and prosperity.
What are the consequences of such a prevailing sinister ideology that Zizek alludes to? The most apparent one is a more apathetic, individualistic society. If I’m already convinced that my act of consumerism is itself solving the problem that it creates, why should I bother to do a bit more? At a broader level, it hands over the initiative of bringing about social movements back to the multinational corporations that are the reason for us being in this position. Power centers that treat catastrophes and disasters as unique buying opportunities are the same ones being handed the responsibility of making sure that such situations do not arise. It is a classic case of a conflict of interest.
Artwork by Joanne Leong
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