It’s Zizek’s world, we just live in it

18/05/2012 § Leave a comment

Do you read BagNews? It provides a different perspective on the media because it is all about the visuals. I can’t read visuals explicitly — not my forte — so I’m impressed by people who can.

They did a post about a photo series on the growth of the KKK in Virginia, my home state. I was intrigued by the on-stage/backstage photographic commentary. The text from the photographer says:

[The Klansmens'] admissions seemed to provide fodder for an unlikely prospect: could the recent rise in KKK membership in Virginia be as much a result of Bush-era economic policies—which many economists believe contributed to the recession, and which House Republicans appeared set on maintaining—as of the ascendancy of a black man to the presidency?

Yes, yes it could. And Slavoj Zizek has told us why:

Walter Benjamin’s old thesis ‘every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution’ not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right ‘extremisms’: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al Qaida – yes, but what does all this mean? It can also be read as an indication of how Fascism literally replaces (takes the place of) the Leftist revolution: its rise is the Left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize.

Southwestern Virginia is a poorer part of the state. It is mountainous and relatively isolated from major cities and ports. The mountains that make infrastructure difficult also provide coal, but mining is only part of the economy. In Lee County (pdf), for example,  education and health services are over 30% of employment, and transportation and utilities are about 20%. The median household income in Lee County (2010) was about $30k, while the state median was about $60k. By contrast, the richest part of the state, Northern Virginia, is a suburb to Washington, D.C. and has some of the highest median incomes in the country. It has benefited not only from government employment (the Pentagon — largest office building in the world — is there), but also from the tech/dotcom boom (AOL — remember them?).

These statistics paint a picture of an area falling behind, being left out of the economic growth in other parts of the state. And, just as in the Depression, people are looking for two things: an explanation and a solution. Setting aside for a moment the talk of ‘failed revolutions’ and the easy opposition of Left and Right, there is this important observation from Benjamin and Zizek: when people can’t figure out how to live, thrive, and survive in the economy, they become both angry and depressed. They want to know why this is happening and what they can do about it.

That can be a ‘teachable moment’. But the lesson plan has to be ready. It needs both a grand vision of how things can be better and the concrete steps that can be taken right now to get there. The rise of the Klan suggests that one lesson plan was already prepared. Where is the alternative?

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