Politics and the feared ‘other’

OCTOBER 5 — You see this in populist slash nationalist doctrines which target foreign elements. You see it in Chinese discourse on the USA and vice-versa. 

You see it in extremist MAGA components which uphold white supremacy, and Antifa sloganeering. 

You see it in religious fundamentalism (which targets liberals) and liberalism (which targets fundamentalists). All Malaysians see it once a year during the Umno General Assembly.

It’s all about what the “other” has taken away from us, how we must fight back, and even sacrifice, to regain that which was lost. Political leaders have a tendency to insinuate and then later manipulate the loss experienced by their supporters.

According to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, loss creates society. What follows is an elaboration of this concept with reference to three other political/philosophical thinkers.

Girard’s scapegoat

Rene Girard’s notion of the sacrificial catharsis talks about a scapegoat or sacrificial victim being targeted to clean communities of the mimetic violence which threatens to annihilate it from within. 

When loss and suffering is so great, somehow a certain “someone” will need to pay the ultimate price to get society back on its feet i.e. someone will need to “represent” society’s loss in order to deal with it.

Mimesis is that particular quality of human beings which allows us to imitate the behaviour of others and shape our consciousness and inner lives based on what we “read” of other minds. 

This creates the dangerous potential of exponentially replicating violence among members of any community in the face of even suspected negative intentions, let alone real offences.

As such, communities easily become fragile loci of retaliatory violence in which murderous acts take on the power of contagion. Just follow any fiery Twitter thread.

Thus, again, in order to prevent all-out destruction, a person or minority group is singled out to suffer the consequences of all the irrational violence thus discharging retribution among members of the entire group. 

The violence visited upon these scapegoats is redemptive, it “clears the air” and re-establishes peace. 

I’m even tempted to think that today US President Trump (or, at the very least, his haters’ perception of who he is) ironically reflects such scape-goating. 

Talk to some folks and you get the impression that everything will be okay the moment Trump is removed from office. Where previously there was discord among all, now there is unity because the sacrificial victim provides the focal point for the community’s hatred.

The community is reconciled with each other precisely by retaliating against that “special” member within it.

Schmitt’s enemy

The Lacanian notion of loss as constitutive of society is also seen in German political theorist Carl Schmitt who asserted that the concept of the enemy must always be potentially available to ground political sovereignty. 

This is to say that without a scary “enemy”, the support for political leaders may start to wane.

The political sovereign is he who decides and thus sustains the borders of political imagination that re-establishes the norms in the act of going beyond them; it is the sovereign who takes the process from abstract norms to an actual ordering of events. 

The very idea of a constituted nation at peace requires imagining (if not actualising) a threat. Without deciding who one’s enemy is, one cannot call anybody a friend and, most critically, one has no target to focus on in defence of the nation.

This is why in politics, people spend a majority of the time focusing on what the “bad guys” do instead of what the “good guys” should be doing. 

Our WhatsApp groups are filled more with the stupidities and cruelties of personalities we despise, rather than the achievements of leaders we’d vote for.

This is also surely why Malaysian supremacist leaders continually target ethnic groups to whip up support from their own groups. Without the “anchor” of an enemy, such parties tend to drift away and lose backing.

Freud’s tribal horde

Finally, the motif of loss also resonates with the Freudian idea of the tribal horde which murders its leader or common all-powerful father, only to be haunted by the guilt of their deeds which in turn results in a taboo against incest. 

The myth goes something like this. There was a tribe controlled by a powerful leader, called the Father. 

Unlike ordinary male members, the Father could have any woman he wanted. The jealousy and strife created by this unequal state of affairs led to the members murdering the Father in order to enjoy his excesses. 

However, paradoxically, the killing of the Father creates so severe a sense of guilt among the members — the Father’s “ghost” continually haunts them — that these members feel compelled to follow the laws originally set down.

The people thought that with the Father gone, they’d be free to enjoy whatever they want. But, in fact, the opposite happened. 

The Father “refused to be refused” and thus a taboo is built around the death of the Father i.e. no one should talk about his murder.

An example of such a taboo would be the unwillingness of parties on the global Left to honestly talk about the violence, rioting and looting committed in the name of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and so on. 

Some news portals will jump on any story involving the death of a black person during an incident with white cops, but fall silent amid the sheer amount of carnage caused by riots ostensibly meant to “protest systemic racism.”

Nearer to home, am I the only one who suspects that our “social contract” is a taboo subject? It’s like either people don’t dare to discuss it seriously or skim past it quickly or, worse, wield it in a manner meant to shut down discussion? 

It’s almost as if something not very good was done and the guilt remains.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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