McKenzie Wark on Tue, 22 Feb 2000 01:26:48 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Wark, Criticism, Democracy

As Phil quite rightly points out, the rhetoric of the
'third way' has a long and dubious history. He's quite
right that it was a rhetoric used by fascists, but it
has been used really by a range of political movements
that have tried to break out of binary political

I've written about the third way, but i would have hoped
with some irony. In Celebrities, Culture ans Cyberspace,
i played with its meaning, trying to introduce some
sceptism about this particular kind of rhetorical triangulation.

But what Phil is doing is also an old wrinkle. The "if you are
not A then you must be B" line. If i'm critical of the
'infantile disorder' of leftism, then i must be a 'third way'
person. It's argument by categories. First put things in
boxes, then say bad things about whoever ends up in the bad
box. Its a fun game, and any one can play, but best played,
i think, with some wit. 

One thing i notice about the response to the 'Austrian situation'
is the way intellectuals respond to it the same way as they did
to the rise of One Nation in Australia. The focus is immediately
on the racist expressions of the populist movement. Now, of
course, racism is a bad thing. And its a worthy, feel-good cause
to be an anti-racist. But why is this element of populism
singled out? 

It provides a way of attacking populism, without understanding
what might motivate its supporters. Racism is taken to be the
alpha and omega of populism, and the suppression of racism
becomes the rallying call of the liberal forces. 

NOw, to Zizek, the problem is that populism arises because the
social democratic and liberal democratic forces really are the
same. The third force arises as a way of expressing dissatisfaction
with this apparent sameness.

Where i differ from Zizek's column, and man y expressions like it,
is that i think it concedes too much to populism to agree with its
contention that social democracy has become indistinguishable for
the liberal/conservative forces. It hands populism yet another
stick with which to beat social democracy. Those familiar with the
history of One Nation in Australia will be aware of the selective
use it makes of the critiques of the left. 

So it seems to me to be important to do two things:

1. listen to what the grievances are that give rise to populism.
As it turns out, it isn't some abstract, universal psychodrama
of race, but usually quite specific problems that lead to people
breaking their links to the mainstream parties.

2. insist on the difference social democracy makes. Parliamentary
politics may not be the answer to everything. there's a role for
extra-parliamentary politics. There's a role for the critique of
social democracy. (If Phil knew my work he would know that i have
never been an advocate of silencing anyone). 

It may well be that social democracy needs critics, and criticism.
I have only a passing knowledge of Austrian politics, but i would
not want to leap to the defense of its brand of social democracy.
You could ask some serious questions about what needs to change to
make social democratic politics there meet the needs of an increasingly
alienated electoral base. But this is the real work: grappling
with institutions and changing them, from within or without. The
kind of criticism of the leftists just ends up agreeing with populism
that its all fucked. 

It may well be that the immediate demands of disenfranchised sections
of the electorate can't be met in the terms in which those people
want them. Protectionism and anti-immigration policies only arrest
growth, increase unemployment, erode t he tax base and thereby limit
the redistributive capacity of the state. But, on the other hand,
participation in an open economy need not be on economic-liberal
terms of "let 'er rip, no social nets". There's a lot social democracy
can do not only to socialise the burden of econoic development, 
but to create the capacity with a people to get benefits from
develoment for themselves. 

And of course, there is a rhetoric at work here. Social democracy and
its conservative opponents in mainstream politics are not, contrary
to both populist and leftist prejudice, the same. But what is striking
is how close populist and leftist thinking is on this sameness, and
in their common rejection of pragmatic, piecemeal, experiments in
overcoming injustice and inequality. Both are epxressions of the same
fantasy -- a purification of the messy, complex, chaotic world of


McKenzie Wark
Guest Scholar, American Studies, New York University
"We no longer have origins we have terminals"

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