Voyou Désœuvré

When Žižek wants to support mainstream leftish politicians, he argues that they make clearer the essential indistinguishability of mainstream candidates; when the right is in power, the superficial differences make arguments for the necessity of radical change appear false (we certainly saw this with Bush). But when Žižek wants to oppose these politicians, he argues that they, precisely because of their left-wing appearance, are better placed to implement right-wing policies than right-wing politicians. How might this look in the case of Obama?

Žižek’s examples here are Clinton and Blair, who carried out welfare cutbacks Reagan or Thatcher might not have been able to get away with. It’s a mistake, though, to conclude from this, as some on the left do, that Blair and Thatcher are simply equivalent. Reagan and Thatcher were crucial because their aggressive and ideological neoliberalism created the space in which third-way policies came to appear as a rational, pragmatic or technocratic, form of neoliberalism (this is especially clear in the work of Blairite academics writing on governance, such as Rod Rhodes). Might Obama likewise represent the “rational” mode of neoconservative foreign policy?


  1. Tom, 2:04 am, November 26, 2008

    Which welfare cutbacks are you thinking of from Tony Blair?


  2. Owen, 6:29 am, November 26, 2008

    I can’t speak for Tim, but only yesterday there was this. One of the earliest acts of the government was a cut in lone parent benefit. Neither Blair nor Brown have ever ‘abolished’ a benefit – neither did Thatcher. Like her, they’ve rebranded them, remaking them into something more limited and punitive, via ‘New Deal’ (ie, Welfare to Work), the current attempts to rename and limit Incapacity Benefit, etc etc. This is all pretty commonplace stuff.

  3. bat020, 2:23 am, December 2, 2008

    A better way of putting it would be that Obama represents the “rational” mode of US imperialism, and is as such a step away from the neoconservative mode. There’s an important structural difference between neoliberalism and neoconservatism – the former term is wide enough to accommodate a “pragmatic” version (Blair, Clinton etc), while the latter is _defined_ precisely by its ideological zeal (that’s what makes it “neo” in the first place).

  4. Tom, 11:37 am, December 3, 2008

    While I admire the way this line of thinking enables the most ultra-left argument ever for voting Labour [vote Blair because he will actually implement right-wing policies which will aggravate people which will foment revolution], I don’t think it stands examination.

    The Labour government has quite substantially increased the incomes of the poorest lone parents. The cut to the lone parent rate of child benefit was rather bad publicity for Labour in 1997 but the old benefit was actually a poor poverty reduction measure because it wasn’t income based. The newer tax credits system directs much greater sums to the poorest families.

    And while ESA [to take the other example] is worse and meaner in some ways than IB, it is also better and more generous in other ways, especially towards the poorest claimants. The ‘fit note’ stuff is really just window-dressing.

    I don’t know in any detail about the welfare policy of the Clinton administration, but then, I suspect, neither does Zizek.

  5. Tom, 11:44 am, December 3, 2008

    Looking more carefully at your note, Tim, which obviously I only did after clicking ‘post’, I suppose we are actually agreed on the conclusion – that what you call ‘rational neoliberalism’ can usefully be distinguished from ideologically aggressive neoliberalism. But I think you need to pick your examples of overlap between the two better to make the case meaningfully that both are ‘neoliberal’.

  6. voyou, 12:36 pm, December 3, 2008

    You’re right, “welfare cutbacks” was lazy (although I think I picked up my laziness from Zizek); “a scaling back of the welfare state” is probably more accurate, although what I really want is a word that means “scaling back through reorganizing.” I bet there is a word for that in German. Anyway, particularly foolish of me to say “welfare cutbacks” because, as you say, I want to say that New Labour really are different in form (if in some way similar in content) to what preceded them.

    bat, I wonder if there’s a similarity between Bush and Obama that’s a bit more specific than imperialism, a mode of imperialism in the same way that neoliberalism would be a particular mode of capitalism? This might depend on whether or not the war on terror actually involves something qualitatievely new in imperialism, which I don’t really have a firm opinion on.

  7. Irene, 4:00 am, December 5, 2008

    Off piste – apologies. My query is, what happened to that hilarious yet touching feature about Zizek’s last (?) marriage which the wonderful “Wrong Side of Capitalism” put up shortly after the Royal Wedding? Can’t seem to track it down.

  8. voyou, 11:01 am, December 5, 2008

    The photos are over here. Now with 80 comments!

  9. bat020, 7:48 am, December 11, 2008

    I think it’s difficult to argue that the ‘war on terror’ involves something qualitatievely new in imperialism without conceding that 9/11 was some sort of rupture in world history, an Event-with-a-capital-E – something I’m reluctant to accept.

  10. Rob, 12:04 pm, December 12, 2008

    It’s especially difficult to the consider the War on Terror as anything particularly new when it is counterposed to the ‘humanitarian imperialism’ of the preceding period (as exemplified by the Kosovo intervention). In both situations the US (and its allies) has positioned itself as defender of the world system as a whole. In both situations the US positions itself as having a special right of action to ‘protect’ the world system. Finally, in both situations this is manifested as either ‘disregard’ of the law or the crafting of a ‘special’ hegemonic international law.

    Perhaps the only differences are that the US alienated (some) of its allies more in the latter period and that the Bush administration more obviously had recourse to force (although this may be a matter of perception, the Bush administration has clearly engaged in a lot of ‘soft-power’ initiatives).

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