The Four Subjective Trajectories in the Israeli Social Justice Uprising of 2011

[This text was translated in part from a short essay written for a local newspaper in 2013.]

The 2011 Israeli social justice uprising was an ongoing political event composed of a series of demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds, relating to issues such as social justice and power structures in Israel. The uprising started on July 2011 with a protest opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. As a result, thousands of people started to establish tents in the centre of the city of Tel-Aviv, and soon after, in other major cities in Israel. The largest protest took place on the 3rd of September and included approximately half a million protesters – it was named the “March of the Million”. Its primary rallying call was: “The people demand social justice!”

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The uprising of 2011 had undeniably sparked a new kind of political discourse in Israel, one that the agents of consensus had long ago forcefully foreclosed. The imminence of the objective, the heterogeneity of the political body materialising in the streets, the unbridgeable gap between the governmental response and the affirmative capacity of the masses, all testified that we are facing an unprecedented opportunity for positivistic change. These were all essential for the political struggle of the summer of 2011. As well as the fact that the maxim demanded exactly what was not yet possible to articulate at the time, something which was so radically different from what was offered by the contemporary democratic jargon that it necessarily took form in a single question – “are you with us or not?”

In this post I will attempt to read this political event while correspondingly reading the theory of the event as it is disclosed by the renowned philosopher Alain Badiou.  Badiou is one of the most original French philosophers of our time; a philosopher which stands being a vast philosophical endeavour which seeks to identify and characterise the potential rooted in transformative processes in the human situation. In this essay I do not intend to criticise Badiou, but walk in the path he has paved for us – not plodding along, but accompanying him – while depicting the struggle of the summer of 2011. I will be discussing three “formulations”, or in Jacques Lacan’s words “mathèmes” which represent the formal dimension Badiou recognises in the different subjective positions manifest in a political body during a political event. They compose the theoretical kernel I intend to convey by using examples and knowledge drawn from the struggle of 2011 itself. Nevertheless, this essay encompasses an additional value which exceeds its formal dimension – a lesson, in the form of a tale, which entails its own kind of knowledge. A knowledge, which in our time, almost six years after the struggle, in an era where the political domain is radically questioned (in theory and practice), might teach us something of the possibility of justice and emancipation; a knowledge which can progress us in understanding our persistent loses in these kinds of struggles, in which way we are faithful to them? and what are the conditions which enable the reaction which finally obscures them completely?

That being the case, we will start with a hypothesis, a hypothesis rooted in the logic of the event and is quite simple: we will hypothesise that in the summer of 2011 a political event took place and started a procedure – which we will name “Social Justice” – manifest in the political body we saw marching in the streets of Israel. Moreover, we will assume that the fact that this body was so vast, united so many people, was so diverse, and pointed to such a deep fracture in Israeli political reality, testifies to its relation to a universal political truth. The different positions this body took in relation to this truth are integrated in, what Badiou calls, “subjective positions” which he divides into three ethical trajectories: that which works for the production of truth (the faithful subject), its denial (the reactive subject), or its total occultation (the obscure subject). Let us begin with the first.

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Alain Badiou

The Faithful Subject:

The subjective position of the faithful subject characterises the political body at the points where it is subjected to the production of the truth of the event. And indeed, in the summer of 2011, this subjective position was composed by the material actions of the many individuals (half a million in number) which found themselves occupying the streets of Israel, sleeping in tents. Those who opened discussion circles, and committed to alternative cultural gatherings. Those who allowed the truth of the event to sink through their bodies, and were devoted to the possibility of the creation of a new reality in Israel today.

Because the outcomes of the event cannot be clear as it unravels, the fidelity to the event has to take form in a decision which is not based on odds, opinions, nor on self-interest, but has to take form in a singular act of the subordination of the political body to a procedure aiming at the constitution of a new present. It entailed saying “yes” to the concrete possibility of a new positive idea – that the people do not have to live in a constant state of “injustice”, to adopt the bleak present as the smallest evil, but can create “justice” in a new political present. In Israel of 2011, this fidelity was mobilised in accordance to a fundamental maxim marking this new possibility – “The people demand social justice” – but was only truly manifest in the material actions the political body took. These actions were all rooted in many singular decision – “yes” / “no” – should we protest peacefully? should we jostle with the police? how do we provide new protest tactics? should we adopt the parliamentary solution? etc. These oppositions, and the way they were decided upon, eventually unraveled the effectiveness of the political body, and the subjective position it embodied.

One of these major questions in late 2011 revolved the inclusion of the National Workers Union (NWU) in the political body. While the struggle started from the work of a group of young and privileged individuals, its development brought about the inclusion of many other facets of the Israeli society. The question that was asked was, “can the NWU be part of the political body? can they take part in the struggle?” When the answer was positive the NWU was subjected to the same political body and the same political truth. This act created concrete repercussions for the continuation of the struggle: as more factions of workers joined the protests, the body grew in size, changed, and could address more issues and political realities. Other factions soon followed: teachers, mothers, senior citizens, Palestinians, and even orthodox Jews. We were all sharing discussion circles, inventing a new language or politics, approaching and deciphering an unforeseeable present.

These chance encounters which expanded the political body were manifold, and were also diverse, they directed the political body to handling different aspects of the political reality. The heterogeneity of the body – the fact that the maxim was relevant to so many in the Israeli domain – emphasises the universality of the struggle and its direct relation to a political truth. That is why Badiou names the political body a “divided body”, which is never universally homogeneous and all-encompassing, but is always in a process of inclusion and adaptation.

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The Reactive Subject

Let us take into account the vast amount of individuals which did not join the political struggle. Those who felt related to the cause, but insisted on arguing that the growing political body is composed of nothing but a group of young and spoiled citizens which need to either accept their fate, or find proper retribution under the law. For instance, regarding the demand for affordable housing, one of the main reactionary responses offered protestors to find lower prices on housing in secluded and unpopulated areas of the country. Another response, which represented the vast majority of the neo-liberal reactionaries during the struggle, was to adhere to the democratic electoral system and in the next election vote for better representation.

Although it is easy to identify these individuals as conservatives seeking to perpetuate the ways of the “old world”, we must take into account the novelty of their line of argumentation. And indeed, the Israeli reactionary lexicon was going through a process of revitalisation in the days of the struggle, relating the political demand for justice to elitism, privilege, and childishness – calling it “the struggle of the hookah smokers of Tel-Aviv”. These demonstrate another fundamental theme in the reactionary subjective position – the acknowledgement of the political truth of the struggle on the one hand, but the classification of the political body and its actions as irresponsible, and even destructive.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the reactive individual does not aim at the complete negation of the maxim, but attempts to create something new out of it. Under the guise of “modernity” or “realism”, the reactive individual creates reactionary novelty which usually manifests in a solution which makes the current state of affairs a little less horrible than it was. This is a reality which does not pretend to actualise the eminent call for social justice, but by resisting its catastrophic facets, it offers a more measured and diluted solution – a present which is not in actuality new, but in Badiou’s words, only “partial”.

The most successful reactive invention in the struggle of 2011 was rooted in the calls to stop the protests and let the government deal with its goals. These were calls opposing any change in the electoral structure and any redistribution of wealth or goods. These forces were calling to stick with midway solutions like a governmental investigative committee, and minute changes to existing laws. Correspondingly, the most compelling reactionary figure in the political sphere of 2011 was Yair Lapid – a newspaper reporter and son of a very wealthy Israeli politician. His newly formed party “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future), stood behind a very successful campaign calling for the transformation of the struggle for “social justice” to a struggle for an “equality in burden”. Lapid’s party was very successful in the following Israeli elections, gaining much power, but in actuality focusing on populist issues such as mandatory army service for religious Hasidic jews. These minute “improvements” driven by the reactionary forces are of course negligible in comparison to the universal demand for social justice which characterises the faithful subject. They bestow on the reactive individual the feeling of taking part in change, while at the same time sophisticatedly avoiding its attribution to the rebelling masses.

The Obscure Subject:

Ideological economists, major stock holders, political lobbyists, and opportunistic parliamentarians, taking notice of the extraordinary social unrest, as well as the growing political body manifest in the giant protests all over the country, could not settle for a reactionary response. In order to preserve the current state of affairs and prevent future devastating losses a procedure aiming at the total demise of the political body had to be put into work. Therefore, in response to the growing mass of protestors, consumerist organised boycotting, and the potential unraveling of newly formed political practices, the imperative of the obscure trajectory was twofold: first, it had to firmly determine that the maxim “the people demand social justice” is an utter lie. Second, it had to demonstrate that no proper political body can be the legitimate carrier of this fictitious call. Thus the obscure trajectory took form on two levels, on the level of the idea – by negating the political truth of the struggle – and on the material level – by forcefully dismantling the political body itself.

Evidently, the obscure subjective position can only gain momentum with the help of reactionary novelty – out of the newly formed practices of denial. With its help, and in spite of the growing political divided body, the obscure subjective position situates the “full body” in the guise of race, the state, god, etc. The essence of the full political body is the violent erasure of the newly forming political present up until its total occultation. This position can be identified with the fascist ideology for instance, which positions the eternal sign of the state contrary to any other political organisation, thus justifying violent measures taken against it.

One of the major obscurantist narratives implemented in Israel of 2011 was the nationalist one. In regards to the pure body of the “Jewish State”, the struggle for social justice began to be perceived as a radical leftist movement, undermining national solidarity against the enemy, especially coinciding with the newly unfolding military skirmishes on the Palestinian border. Wars are not rare before elections in Israel, and are known to effect the masses and manipulate their political priorities. In the end of 2011, things were not very different. In the face of rocket attacks, and the ongoing sound of alarms, protesters found it hard to go out to the streets. The struggle, perceived at this time as illegitimate, was specifically scrutinised in relation to the full body at stake – the state. In its shadow the event was reduced to a silence. The remaining few which kept their stand as the political body, were violently scattered by the use of police violence, heavy vehicle destruction of the tents, and the arrests of students and protesters even in the confines of university campuses. This political atmosphere has plagued the Israeli social discourse up until this day. It became deeply rooted in the general consensus, and made many changes to the social fabric, all apparent today in its high levels of corruption, poverty, and social division.

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Summary and Resurrection:

Let us then summarise. Badiou describes three subjective positions, and accordingly, three subjective trajectories in any true political struggle. The faithful position functions in the production of a new present, the reactive in its denial, and the obscure in its occultation. Nevertheless, Badiou claims that there is another subjective trajectory that cannot be discerned by investigating each position by itself, but only by tackling the subjective domain as a whole. Moreover, Badiou argues that the transition from fidelity to reaction to the obscure characterises every emancipatory struggle in human history. Accordingly, he claims, that this circuit testifies to the fact that the faithful subject can reincorporate into contemporary political reality the same obscured truths violently erased in former struggles. This reincorporation of a political truth in the contemporary political situation is named by Badiou “resurrection” and is the fourth subjective trajectory in his schema.

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Badiou, Alain. Logic of Worlds. 2009.

Accordingly, if we are faithful to Badiou, we have to assert that the Israeli political struggle of 2011 was in actuality a contemporary manifestation of political struggles for justice up until this day. We have to assume that its manifestation in Israel is another testimony to the crucial hypothesis of a world free from the exploitation and oppression rooted in profit and capital. Moreover, it forces us to stay faithful to this hypothesis even in the face of reactionary scrutiny and obscurantist violence; in the face of the pressing demand to renounce the idea that emancipatory politics is possible. It forces us to protect the essence of our maxim – that the current state of affairs is not inescapable, that “the people demand (and can fulfil) social justice”. It teaches us that only this fidelity to a universal truth can keep the current wave of populist agenda at bay.

Badiou remarks that Louis Saint-Just asked an important question at the time of the French revolution: “What do those who want neither Virtue nor Terror want?”. His answer was “Corruption.”. According to Badiou, that is exactly what the world is asking from us today – to accept the corruption of thought and the idea under the bondage of capital and commodity. If so, we have to answer this demand with a brave negating call – “no” – to bravely protect our ideas even in the face of the private companies hired by our own universities to dismantle our convictions.

“Life After Trump”: Imaginary and Symbolic Identification in the U.S.A

We are witnessing the populist decline of our democracies. As Angela Merkel put it quite bluntly, we have entered a “post-factual” age, where the anonymous votes of the masses are conducted by collective convergences of affective identification. Enlightenment and scientific scrutiny have become dull, the numbers useless beyond garnishing straightforward rewarding messages (“We’re great!”). Nevertheless, we must not be fooled. It was not sheer foolishness that drove us to vote for these ‘Brexits’, but something deeply rooted in the way we invest ourselves in the social domain.

And now the Americans have demonstrated it quite as well again. Of course, not to be blamed for the apparent lack of choice they had (as the creators of the animated series, South Park, have put it – “between a giant douche and a turd sandwich”). Just like Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Israel, and many other ideological contemporaries, the American elections have demonstrated yet again, that in our current political climate – a  corrupt and conservative form of parliamentary plutocracy – the populist-right always has the crucial advantage of at least outwardly expressing the obscene repressed desires of the masses.

In the Berlin coffeeshops we are regularly appalled: how can these racist, misogynic narcissists gain the trust and support of their voters? How can an American woman vote for a man calling to “grab women by their pussy”? Well, Jacques Lacan once said that in politics there are only “fools and knaves”. Unfortunately, it seems that the knaves of the populist-right have quite intuitively grasped the structures which mediate our investment in the social domain. By very efficiently, but most probably unknowingly, utilising the well founded Lacanian distinction between two forms of identification – ‘imaginary identification’ and ‘symbolic identification’ – they keep on gaining power.

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Kena Betancur, 2016

We tend to characterise ‘identification’ as the act of adopting a nobler quality, value, or distinct characteristic, of a prominent role model. For instance, in the identification with Beyonce’s unique form of feminine demeanour, or queen Victoria’s table manners. We believe that identifying with these figures necessarily revolves what is good in them by becoming similar to them. Nevertheless, philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that this approach is misguided on two crucial levels, a mistake which, to my opinion, stands behind the crucial political errors furthering us from progressing our democracies to a place beyond corruption and capital.

1. Identifying With the Abominable:

First of all, we must understand that the character or quality with which we identify with in a person is quite occasionally not so positive or glamorous and not necessarily conspicuous but is usually hidden. For instance, in the charming 70’s of British Punk-Rock, many Britons chose to identify with wild and dirty musicians such as Johnny Rotten – lead singer of the Sex Pistols. And indeed, Mr. Rotten did represent something that was surly “rotten” in the British culture of that time.

Another very relevant example is the case of Donald Trump’s 2016 run for presidency. It was Trump’s problematic personality – an indecent vulgar speaker, an advocate of xenophobia and misogyny, and more – which has been used as a direct target for the competing American parties. These were convinced that directing their propaganda on the abashment of Trump’s character – on his dubious corrupt past, or his inability to admit to any wrong doing or lack of experience – would hand them the presidency on a silver plater. But what these parties did not take into account was the fact that Trump’s obscene features are exactly the ones that will make so many individuals identify with him.

American culture is deeply rooted in the repression of its dubious corrupt past, on an inherent xenophobia, and an inability to admit to any wrong doing in its capricious military adventures. Accordingly, it was exactly Trump’s brute and shameless character – set on the background of a story of an actually unaccomplished businessman with simple desires, vulnerable in his attempt to portray himself as a success story – that was the site for the identification of the american masses sharing that standpoint. These actual features, and their centrality in both the Republican and Democratic debate, were a big factor in Trump’s being elected to be, maybe quite astonishingly, the 45th president of the United States of America.

The first lesson learned here is that the strength of identification is not necessarily rooted in a positive and glamorous disposition of a character, but can also be rooted in pathetic, crude, and mundane nature of an individual. Therefore we should not be surprised in November 2016 that focusing the campaign on the abominable qualities of Trump did not limit the capacity of our identification, but strengthened it.

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2. Imaginary Identification is Conditioned by a Symbolic One:

The second mistake is rooted in ignoring the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ identifications. Simply stated, ‘imaginary identification’ is an identification with an ideal or a characteristic of an individual – somebody we would have wanted to be. ‘symbolic identification’ is the identification with the place from which we perceive this person as valued; the perspective from which we see ourselves as loved, or as deserving love.

Different people have different ideals. For instance, some see the patriotic soldier as the manifestation of a universal good, while others see the ascetic, peace-seeking pacifist as taking that same place. Some will define the patriotic soldier as a cruel oppressive figure which signifies self destruction and despair, while others will define the ascetic pacifist as the personification of blind and childish idealism. There are different types of ideals, which entail different standpoints or perspectives from which to be judges as ideal. The critical point which cannot be ignored is that every ‘imaginary (ideal) identification’ is always preliminarily rooted in a perspective from which it is perceived. This perspective rules and defines our ‘imaginary’ form of identification, it is from these perspectives that we can see ourselves as deserving to be loved and thus choose to identify as someone which deserves that love. The identification with a certain perspective, and not an ideal character, is called ‘symbolic identification’.

Accordingly, whenever we are trying to asses the identification with an ideal figure we should always ask ourselves what is the perspective which is taken into account when the subject identifies with this figure?

This point was not taken into account by the American Democratic party and its notorious delegate, Hilary Clinton. They have failed to supply the political domain with an alternative symbolic platform from which a different form of ‘imaginary identification’ can take place, but were only relying on Clinton being a better object of ‘imaginary identification’ judged from the same perspective.

American politics have always been rooted in the domain of ‘imaginary identification’, it is this stagnation in political dynamism of the symbolic domain which has dictated the repetitive reelection of charismatic and easy-to-relate-to figures. Some times figures like Barak Obama, which are identifiable thanks to their very elegant and admirable conduct (being a talkshow star and sometimes a standup comedian), and other times like the vulgar Trump. But because ‘Imaginary identification’ relies on its symbolic designation, Americans can hope to see real change in its conduct only when its politics start to address the symbolic grounds that enable these identifications to thrive, and provide a different one.

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Tony Pro, 2016

This gap between the way I perceive myself as loved (imaginary identification), and the place from which I am perceived as deserving love (symbolic identification), is taken under great scrutiny in the course of an analysis. Žižek gives us the example of the case of the obsessive-neurotic (and here we might deal with a confession as well): for the obsessive-neurotic ‘imaginary identification’ conditions the masochistic logic of his compulsive behaviour. He humiliates himself, prevents his our success, prearranges his failures, etc. The critical question asked in the course of analysis is where can this cruel oppressive tendency (super-ego) be located? How can the obsessive prearrangement of his failure gain him pleasure? In other words, from where does his ‘symbolic identification’ function?

When considering the surprising success of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign we should take into account these two factors. One, that identifying with an individual does not necessarily rely on him or her being a positive or admirable person, on the contrary, it is sometimes the very decadent negative aspect of an individual that will make us identify. Two, that identification does not only manifest on its ‘imaginary’ level; that every ‘imaginary identification’ is rooted in a ‘symbolic’ perspective from which it is scrutinised. While ‘imaginary identification’ leaves us in the place of the obsessive – of an impossible and oppressive identification – the psychoanalytical clinic teaches us that ‘symbolic identification’ is the one that enables living. Accordingly, when assessing the causes of the massive identification with Trump we must take into account the place which enabled it, the symbolic site from which it is evaluated in the American cultural domain. Maybe the direct and brave interrogation of that ‘symbolic’ perspective in its cultural history and contemporary politics might enable “life after Trump”, even in the traumatic and grotesque U.S of A.