Friday, October 30, 2009

Zizek on Health Care and Ideology

Just having acquired First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, I found, via Verso UK's blog, an interview with Slavoj Zizek. I've found some of his latest work to be somewhat uneven. Read, for instance, his list of demands at the end of In Defense of Lost Causes, and try and figure out how these points are supposed to be implemented. Lately, however, Zizek has returned to analyzing ideology, which is always his strong point. For all the right reasons, he states (see also the comments of this co-star of The Examined Life):
This is was the point of my big fight with Simon Critchley. I think it's too easy to play this moralistic game - state power is corrupted, so let's withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power. Here, I'm an old Hegelian. I hate the position of "beautiful soul", which is: ""I remain outside, in a safe place; I don't want to dirty my hands." In this ironic sense, I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. That's what I miss in today's left. When you get power, if you can, grab it, even if it is a desperate situation. Do whatever is possible. This is why I supported - ok, my support doesn't mean anything, but as a public gesture- Obama. I think the battle that he is fighting now for healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The real core of the anti-Obama campaign is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is how freedom of choice is something beautiful, but works only against a very thick background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. This is the problem. As I like to emphasise here in the States, there are freedoms of choice which I am glad to renounce. I like to do a parallel between healthcare and water and electricity. Yes, you can say I don't have a choice in choosing my water provider. It's imposed by where I live. But, my god, I gladly renounce this choice. I prefer to have some basic choices made by society - water, electricity, and some elementary healthcare.
What Zizek doesn't mention is that the Democrats seem to be the only people who don't understand the debate over health care to be an ideological battle.(of course, some of them have been well paid off by the insurance industry). The Republicans know that, which is why they have spent so much time trying to defeat it. The very core of conservative ideology is that, with the exception of the military, the government is bad, and that it should (although they don't say it like this) force public property into private markets. The very basic step of fighting this position is to show why water, electricity and health care are public goods that need to be distributed in a regulated and more egalitarian manner. If there were disagreements between my friends and I on the left during the election season, it was about whether Obama being elected mattered. They said no. I still say that, with a few of his legislative plans, his administration can overturn the ideological coordinates that have dominated American political life for 40 years. This is a positive step. It is still capitalism with a human face, but it is also a failure on the left to not show how civil and cultural struggle is also connected to economic struggle. And on this point, I agree with Zizek: it's not only a practical failure but also a theoretical failure. Which is why I started reading up again on economics.

Which is also why we should question the expectation that the legislative process can accomplish this without popular support. Recall that Jim Clyburn called health care a civil right. The comparison is apt, because Clyburn is really saying that if people want change, it cannot be fully accomplished without popular demonstration. The precise point: history is made from below, not by politicians. We didn't have civil rights legislation in the 1960s because politicians felt like they should be more egalitarian, we had civil rights legislation because people were out in the streets showing that the system oppressing African Americans could no longer function without open and explicit violence. But Clyburn also noted the the backlash is going to be ugly, as it was in the town hall disruptions over the summer.

Now there is a limit to the comparison, but the point is that the public option rises or falls on people's involvement. The good part is that people have been getting out to convince others that the public option is the key component of making it health care reform and not insurance industry reform. Not only in practice, but in theory.

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