Slavoj Žižek often evokes two images to represent the kinds of critique of ‘Capitalism and the State’ we have today: the fool and the knave. The fool refers to left-wing intellectuals who criticise the system but is not only ineffective in effecting real transformation, he ends up serving the powers that be. To illustrate, Žižek often tells the obscene joke about the peasant and his wife who encounters a Mongol emperor along the road. The emperor proceeds to rape the wife but tells the husband to hold on to his (the Emperor’s) testicles whilst he’s performing the act. After the Emperor leaves, the peasant jumps up and down in delight. When asked by the traumatised wife what the mini-celebration is all about, especially as she has just been raped, the peasant replies that he actually let the Emperor’s testicles touch the sand.
Does this not represent every political strategy which does NOT have the forceful removal of the State and the transformation – as opposed to the mere tweaking - of the system as its goal? Is this not the problem about struggles for particular rights, identities, causes and so on? Doesn’t protesting about, say, the Lynas issue or the rights of the migrants or the state of education exemplify precisely this attempt to ‘soil the Emperor’s testicles’ without removing him i.e. changing the very nature of the system itself? That an anti-Lynas group wanted to trade their Bersih 3.0 participation for a government decision to scrap the rare earth plant project would illustrate EXACTLY the complicity of such protests. In fact, has the the Malaysian government not often sought to (superficially) address these specific concerns, even setting up new ministries or committees, and further claimed to have done a good job, implying they should be voted back into power?
At this point, one might say, well, most activists take elections very seriously, don’t they? Does this not represent an attempt to remove the present ruling regime? A Žižekian (and, to some extent, Rancièrian) response would be that privileging elections as a channel for political change is like saying that the best way to achieve football victories is by watching matches on TV. Žižek at one time even characterised elections as the time when those in power politely pretend they don’t really hold power and ask us to decide freely who to grant it to. An overwhelming focus on elections not only valorizes passivity, it also neglects the complicity of Democracy with Capitalism itself, as if our present ‘democratic’ arrangements are not the hand-maidens of business moguls, as if it’s not precisely ‘freely elected’ governments which are the greatest oppressors, as if poverty and inequality – the entire class conflict – are not the direct results of a Capitalistic system endorsed by democratic rulers and the ruled.
The knave, on the other hand, is the neo-conservative who preaches acceptance of the system. Aagain, there’s also a joke which usually precedes the idea itself: A man walks into a bar, orders a whiskey. A monkey comes along and washes its testicles in the man’s whiskey. The man complains to the bartender and asks why the monkey does this despicable thing. The bartender directs the man’s complain to a gypsy, whose response is to begin singing a melancholic song, “Oh, why does the monkey wash his balls in my whiskey…oh why…?” In essence, the gypsy, just like the right-wing knave, when faced with a negative instance does nothing but croons the acceptance of the system itself.
The most straight-forward examples include the discourse of apolitical concerns, always cautious of being ‘partisan’ yet expressing (the obligatory) concern that things aren’t all that rosy but, well, we need to ‘work with what we have’, ‘discuss the issues’, ‘listen carefully’, etc. A more blatant example would be key players of Opposition parties who’ve jumped ship to the ruling regime, essentially dropping their complaints and preaching ‘moderation’ instead.
At the heart of these two images is essentially the refusal of politics qua politics. What both models miss is the fact that politicisation proper only emerges when a group in society, that ‘part of no part’ excluded so that society can carry on its normal operations, refuses their role in the current system and rises up to assert their place. During Marx’s time, these were the proletariat i.e. the working classes who had nothing to sell except their labour and thus their freedom. In our time, perhaps the bourgeoisie/proletariat distinction seems outmoded, especially with the rise of what we call the ‘middle-classes’. Then again, Žižek insists that the concept of middle-class (the class which is neither a bourgeoisie or a proletariat) precisely embodies the impossibility of class conflict i.e. the fact that we try to deny the existence of class conflict by referring to a ‘middle’ class (which is not a class or is only a pseudo-class) only proves the existence of class conflict. For what is class conflict if not the inherent antagonism of society?
What is Malaysia’s “part of no part”? Which group is systematically excluded – in order that the rest of us can live fat happy lives - yet with adequate organisation of its substantial population may ‘rise up’ to take over the system completely? What about the urban cross-ethnic poor? Or an amalgamation of groups like HINDRAF and migrants workers? The point to be stressed here is that politicisation proper requires the mobilisation of such groups, creating in them the conviction that a) society needs them yet treats them like refuse, a discarded remainder and b) that they need to take matters into their own hands.
This is authentic politicisation, a politics which isn’t about putting in place a better guardian of the system or about stopping the system’s abuses, but about over-hauling the system entirely and about invigorating into action that very group which at present embodies the antagonism in Malaysian society.
In contrast, the phenomenon known as post-politics (the philosophy which Žižek claims characterises today’s Capitalism) seeks to cover over social fissues, trying to project some non-ideological common ground, the best example being ‘economic growth’. To raise a point made elsewhere, could economic growth, in fact, be the grand cover-up for the political void at the heart of today’s capitalist nations? Could national wealth be that which, according to Kenneth Surin, keeps “politicians and their attendant logos and slogans (continually) advertised and marketed to their somewhat bemused and docile constituencies like hard-to-differentiate fizzy beverages typically found in vending machines”?
Perhaps, then, the most dangerous question in Malaysian politics is: When will ‘vending machine’ politics be wiped away by the very people who can barely afford to patronise them? Do we want to continue dirtying the Emperor’s testicles or can we just tear them, the heck off?