There are two different modes of ideological mystification which should in no way be confused: the liberal-democratic one and the fascist one. The first concerns false universality: the subject advocates freedom/equality, not aware of implicit qualifications which, in their very form, constrain its scope (privileging certain social strata: rich, male, belonging to a certain race or culture). The second concerns the false identification of the antagonism and the enemy: class struggle is displaced onto the struggle against the Jews, so that the popular rage at being exploited is redirected from capitalist relations as such to the “Jewish plot.” So, to put it in simple terms, in the first case, when the subject says “freedom and equality,” he really means “freedom of trade, equality in front of the law, etc.,” and in the second case, when the subject says “Jews are the cause of our misery,” he really means “big capital is the cause of our misery.” The asymmetry is clear—in the liberal-democratic case, the “good” explicit content (freedom/equality) covers up the “bad” implicit content (class and other privileges and exclusions); in the fascist case, the “bad” explicit content (anti-Semitism) covers the “good” implicit content (class struggle, hatred of exploitation).
For anyone versed in psychoanalytic theory, the inner structure of the two ideological mystifications is that of the couple symptom/fetish: the implicit limitations are the symptoms of liberal egalitarianism (singular returns of the repressed truth), while “Jew” is the fetish of anti-Semitic fascists (the “last thing the subject sees” before confronting class struggle). This asymmetry has crucial consequences for the critico-ideological process of “demystification.” Apropos of liberal egalitarianism, it is not enough to make the old Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it (as is so common among politically correct critics on the left). Rather, the counterargument (made by theoreticians such as Claude Lefort and Jacques Rancière) that the form is never a “mere” form, that it involves a dynamic of its own that leaves traces in the materiality of social life, is fully valid. After all, the “formal freedom” of the bourgeoisie sets in motion the process of altogether “material” political demands and practices, from trade unions to feminism. Rancière rightly emphasizes the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the gap between formal democracy—with its discourse of the rights of man and political freedom—and the economic reality of exploitation and domination.
This gap between the “appearance” of equality/freedom and the social reality of economic and cultural differences can either be interpreted in the standard symptomatic way—that is, the form of universal rights, equality, freedom and democracy is just a necessary but illusory expression of its concrete social content, the universe of exploitation and class domination—or it can be interpreted in the much more subversive sense of a tension in which the “appearance” of egaliberté is precisely not a “mere appearance,” but has a power of its own. This power allows it to set in motion the process of rearticulating actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive “politicization”: why shouldn’t women also vote? Why shouldn’t conditions at the workplace also be of public political concern? And so on. One is tempted here to use that old Levi-Straussian term “symbolic efficiency”: the appearance of egaliberté is a symbolic fiction which, as such, possesses an actual efficiency of its own. One should resist the cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality. That would be to fall into the trap of the old Stalinist hypocrisy that mocked “merely formal” bourgeois freedom. If it was so “merely formal” and didn’t disturb the true relations of power, why, then, didn’t the Stalinist regime allow it? Why was it so afraid of it?
The interpretive demystification is thus here relatively easy, since it mobilizes the tension between form and content: to be consistent, an “honest” liberal democrat will have to admit that the content of his ideological premises belies its form, and thus will radicalize the form (the egalitarian axiom) by way of impressing it more thoroughly onto the content. (The main alternative is the retreat into cynicism: “We know egalitarianism is an impossible dream, so let us pretend that we are egalitarians, while silently accepting necessary limitations…”)
In the case of “Jew” as the fascist fetish, the interpretive demystification is much more difficult, thereby confirming the clinical insight that a fetishist cannot be undermined through interpretation of the “meaning” of his fetish. Fetishists feel satisfied in their fetish; they experience no need to get rid of it. In practical-political terms, this means that it is almost impossible to “enlighten” an exploited worker who blames “Jews” for his misery, explaining to him how “Jew” is the wrong target (promoted by his true enemy, the ruling class, to blur the lines of the true struggle), and thus getting him to move from “Jews” to “capitalists.” (Even empirically, while many Communists joined the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and while many disappointed Communists in France in the last decades turned into partisans of Le Pen’s National Front, the opposite process was extremely rare.)
We are led to this paradox: although the subject of the first mystification is primarily the enemy (the liberal “bourgeois” who thinks he fights for universal equality and freedom), while the subject of the second mystification is primarily “our own” (the underprivileged themselves who are seduced into redirecting their rage at a false target), the effective-practical “demystification” is much easier in the first case.
With regard to today’s situation of ideological struggle, this means that one should at least view with profound suspicion those Leftists who argue that Islamic fundamentalist-populist movements are basically “ours”—emancipatory anti-imperialist movements—and that the fact that they formulate their program in directly anti-Enlightenment and anti-universalist terms, sometimes getting close to direct anti-Semitism, is just a confusion that results from their being caught in the immediacy of struggle (“when they say they are against Jews, what they really mean is just that they are against Zionist colonialism”). One should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” Arab anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians. There should be no “understanding” for the fact that in many, if not most, of the Arab countries, Hitler is still considered a hero; the fact that primary school textbooks espouse all the traditional anti-Semitic myths, from the notoriously forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion to claims that Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes.
To claim that this anti-Semitism articulates in a displaced mode the resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it: displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification. What this claim does involve is the idea that, in the long term, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is not to preach liberal tolerance, but to articulate the underlying anti-capitalist motive in a direct, non-displaced way. Once we accept this logic, we make the first step on the path at the end of which is the quite “logical” conclusion that, since Hitler also “really meant” capitalists when he spoke of “Jews,” he should be our strategic ally in the global anti-imperialist struggle, with the Anglo-American empire as the principal enemy. (And this line of reasoning is not a mere rhetorical exercise: the Nazis did promote anti-colonialist struggle in Arab countries and in India, and many neo-Nazis do sympathize with the Arab struggle against the state of Israel. What makes the unique figure of Jacques Verges, the “advocate of terror,” a universal phenomenon is that he embodies this option of “solidarity” between fascism and anti-colonialism.)
It would be a fatal mistake to think that, at some future moment, we might convince fascists that their “real” enemy is capital, and that they should drop the particular religious/ethnic/racist form of their ideology and join forces with egalitarian universalism. So one should clearly reject the dangerous motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which leads us to discover “progressive” anti-imperialist potential in fundamentalist Islamic movements. The ideological universe of movements like Hezbollah is based on the blurring of distinctions between capitalist neo-imperialism and secular progressive emancipation: within Hezbollah’s ideological space, women’s emancipation, gay rights, etc., are nothing but the “decadent” moral aspect of Western imperialism. Alain Badiou (in an unpublished seminar) concedes that “there is an internal limitation to these movements, bound as they are to religious particularity.” But is this limitation only a short term one, as Badiou seems to imply, something that these movements will (have to) overcome in the proverbial “second, higher” stage of their development, when they will (have to) universalize themselves? Badiou is right to note that the problem here is not religion as such, but its particularity—but is this particularity not now a fatal limitation of these movements, whose ideology is directly the anti-Enlightenment one?
More precisely, one should specify that the internal limitation of these movements is not their religious character as such, no matter how “fundamentalist” it is, but their practico-ideological attitude toward the universalist emancipatory project based upon the axiom of equality. To make this key point clear, let us recall the tragic case of the Canudos community in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century: this was a “fundamentalist” community if there ever was one, run by the fanatic “Counselor,” advocating theocracy and a return to monarchy—but at the same time an enacted Communist utopia with no money or laws, communal property, full egalitarian solidarity, equality of men and women, free right to divorce, etc. This dimension is lacking in Islamic “fundamentalism,” no matter how “anti-imperialist” it pretends to be. Moishe Postone makes this point clearly:
The disastrous nature of the Iraq war and, more generally, of the Bush administration, should not obscure that in both cases progressives found themselves faced with what should have been viewed as a dilemma—a conflict between an aggressive global imperial power and a deeply reactionary counter-globalization movement in one case, and a brutal fascistic regime in the other. … Anti-Semitism, consequently, can appear to be anti-hegemonic. This is the reason why a century ago August Bebel, the German Social Democratic leader, characterized it as the socialism of fools. Given its subsequent development, it could also have been called the anti-imperialism of fools. … Rather than analyzing this reactionary form of resistance in ways that would help support more progressive forms of resistance, however, many on the Western Left have either ignored it or rationalized it as an unfortunate, if understandable, reaction to Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. … Their opposition to the United States has not been in the name of a more progressive alternative. On the contrary, the Baath regime in Iraq—a regime whose oppressive character and brutality far exceeded that of, for example, the murderous military regimes in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s—could not be considered progressive or potentially progressive in any way.
The political consequence of this paradox is the properly dialectical tension between long-term strategy and short-term tactical alliances: although, in the long term, the very success of the radical-emancipatory struggle depends on mobilizing the lower classes which are today often in the thrall of fundamentalist populism, one should have no problems with concluding short-term alliances with egalitarian liberals as part of the anti-sexist and anti-racist struggle.