Marx’s formula of religion as the opium of the people needs some serious rethinking today. It is true that radical Islam is an exemplary case of religion as the opium of the people: a false confrontation with capitalist modernity which allows some fundamentalist Muslims to dwell in their ideological dream while their countries are ravaged by the effects of global capitalism – and exactly the same holds for Christian fundamentalism. However, there are today, in our Western world, two other versions of the opium of the people: the opium and the people.
As Laurent de Sutter demonstrated, chemistry (in its scientific version) is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterised by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers; our very emotions are “outsourced” to chemical stimulation.
The stakes of this chemical intervention are double and contradictory: we use drugs to keep external excitement (shocks, anxieties and so on) under control, i.e., to desensitise us for them, and to generate artificial excitement if we are depressed and lack desire.
As the rise of populism demonstrates, the opium of the people is “the people” itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms. However, I want to add to this series: anti-fascism itself.
A new spectre is haunting progressive politics in Europe and the US, the spectre of fascism. Trump in the US, le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary – they are all demonised as the new evil towards which we should unite all our force. Every minimal doubt and reserve is immediately proclaimed a sign of secret collaboration with fascism.
In a remarkable interview for Der Spiegel published in October 2017, Emmanuel Macron made some statements received enthusiastically by all who want to fight the new fascist right: “There are three possible ways to react to right-wing extremist parties. The first is to act as though they don’t exist and to no longer risk taking political initiatives that could get these parties against you. That has happened many times in France and we have seen that it doesn’t work. The people who you are actually hoping to support no longer see themselves reflected in your party’s speeches. And it allows the right wing to build its audience.
“The second reaction is to chase after these right-wing extremist parties in fascination… and the third possibility is to say, these people are my true enemies and to engage them in battle. Exactly that is the story of the second round of the presidential election in France.”
While Macron’s stance is commendable, it is crucial to supplement it by a self-critical turn. The demonised image of a fascist threat clearly serves as a new political fetish, fetish in the simple Freudian sense of a fascinating image whose function is to obfuscate the true antagonism.
Fascism itself is immanently fetishist: it needs a figure like that of a Jew, elevated into the external cause of our troubles – such a figure enables us to obfuscate the real antagonisms which cut across our societies.
Exactly the same holds for the figure of “fascist” in today’s liberal imagination: it enables people to obfuscate deadlocks which lie at the root of our crisis.
When, in the last elections in France, every leftist scepticism about Macron was immediately denounced as a support for le Pen, the elimination of the left was the true aim of the operation, and the demonised enemy was a convenient prop to sustain this elimination.
The fear not to make any compromises with the alt-right can muddy the degree to which we are already compromised by it. One should greet every sign of this self-critical reflection which is gradually emerging and which, while remaining thoroughly anti-fascist, casts also a critical glance on the weaknesses of the liberal left.
When I drew attention to how parts of the alt-right are mobilising working class issues neglected by the liberal left, I was, as expected, immediately accused of pleading for a coalition between radical left and fascist right, which is exactly what I didn’t propose. The task is to cut off the working class oxygen supply to the alt-right by addressing their voter. The way to achieve this is to move more to the left with a more radical critical message – in other words, to do exactly what Sanders and Corbyn were doing and what was the root of their relative success.
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The same goes for the topic of refugees. Refugees mostly don’t want to live in Europe; they want a decent life back at home. Instead of working to achieve that, Western powers treat the problem as a “humanitarian crisis” whose two extremes are hospitality and the fear of losing our way of life. They thereby create a pseudo-“cultural” conflict between refugees and local working class populations, engaging them in a false conflict which transforms a political and economic struggle into one of the “clash of civilisations”.
The sad prospect that awaits us is that of a future in which, every four years, we will be thrown into a panic, scared by some form of “neo-fascist danger,” and in this way blackmailed into casting our vote for the “civilised” candidate in meaningless elections lacking any positive vision.
In between, we’ll be able to sleep in the safe embrace of global capitalism with a human face. The obscenity of the situation is breath-taking: global capitalism is now presenting itself as the last protection against fascism, and if you try to point this out you are accused of complicity with fascism.
Today’s panicky anti-fascism doesn’t bring hope, it kills hope – the hope that we’ll really get rid of the threat of racist populism.