In the previous episodes of this series, we discussed how the resentment of the less educated, ‘uncultured’ segments towards the ‘enlightened-progressive elite’ that began in the second half of the 20th century has solidified and crystallized in the 21st century.
Why did this phenomenon wait until the 21st century, and what role did technological changes (cell phones, the internet, social media) play in it? This is the topic of the fourth and final part of this series. In this section, I will remind you of the concrete manifestations of the contradiction between the ‘ordinary’ material demands of ‘ordinary’ people and the ‘enlightened-educated’ class’s global-inclusive-‘noble’ demands that I have been discussing from the beginning, and I will attempt to show that this contradiction has taken the form of a plain ‘class struggle’ in recent years.
The last sentence of the previous article was: “With a few articles, Zizek seems to defend the ideas of the ‘forces of progress and enlightenment’ against ‘reactionary bigots and authoritarians,’ but his views and suggestions will be the subject of the next article…”
Let’s continue from there…
Getting angry at the masses that brought populist leaders to power, condemning their “reactionary,” “conservative,” “racist,” “small-minded,” “lumpen” character will not lead to anywhere; faced with such a widespread phenomenon on an international level, it can be somewhat understandable to provide only a reactive response at first. Still, we must now muster the courage to move beyond mockery and condescension and ask questions like “how is this happening” and “why is this happening.”
The connection I made five years ago between these attitudes and the rise of populist leaders, I will reiterate here.
Were the Yellow Vests’ demands lacking in vision?
In late 2018, the French government decided to significantly increase taxes on diesel and gasoline as part of its program to combat global warming by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Tax increases that meant a heavy burden for low and middle-income earners were met with outrage by the French who would later be called the Yellow Vests. For months, tens of thousands of people took to the streets every weekend, demanding the reversal of the tax hikes, and clashed with the police. Many French liberals and leftists accused the Yellow Vests of ‘lack of vision’ and ‘narrow-mindedness’ because of their protests.
(In France, there was already a substantial carbon tax on diesel and gasoline. Starting at 7 euros per ton during François Hollande’s era in 2014, the carbon tax had risen to 14 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 30 in 2017, and 44 euros in 2018. If it hadn’t been changed due to the Yellow Vests’ resistance, this figure would have been 55 in 2019, 65 in 2020, 75 in 2021, and 86 euros in 2022.)
What did the Yellow Vests feel?
Let’s revisit the questions we asked in the first two episodes of this series in the context of the Yellow Vests: What might the Yellow Vests have felt about liberal and leftist intellectuals who accused them of ‘lack of vision’ and ‘narrow-mindedness’? Could they have seen the educated and literate as people who, for decades, pursued ‘noble’ demands like freedom, the environment, sexuality, climate change, etc., while dismissing their vital demands as ‘ordinary’ and ‘sordid’?
I think this sentiment extends not only to them but also to the masses worldwide who follow authoritarian leaders. Of course, this reaction is directed not only at intellectuals who have abandoned ‘noble’ demands in favor of more ‘elegant’ ones but also at the political powers close to them. They also benefit from the reaction, ultimately favoring populist leaders.
Zizek also found the Yellow Vests’ demands ‘outdated’
Zizek wrote an article titled “How Mao would have evaluated the Yellow Vests” for the RT News website to evaluate the Yellow Vests movement as the protests intensified.
In his article, Zizek points out Mao’s distinction between the “principal contradiction” and “secondary contradictions” made half a century ago and, after working on this distinction with other examples, brings the discussion to today’s “principal contradiction” through the Yellow Vests.
According to Zizek, the “contradiction between the Yellow Vests and the state” was secondary. The principal contradiction was between the protesters’ “outdated” demands that “should no longer be on the agenda” and the common future of humanity:
“Their demands emerge from the existing system. The real contradiction is not between the protesters and the state, but between the forms of social organization we live in and the new society (vision) articulated in the protesters’ demands.”
The “visionless” demands of the Yellow Vests
Zizek explained that some demands from the public could be “visionless” and unable to progress, and in such cases, the correct attitude would be not to pay attention to those demands. He exemplified this using the behaviors of businessman Henry Ford and the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs:
“When old Henry Ford introduced his first mass production car, he was right to claim that he did not ask people what they wanted. As he succinctly put it, if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have answered, ‘A faster and stronger horse for our carriage.’
“This insight finds an echo in Steve Jobs’ motto: ‘People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’
“Although Jobs’ actions deserve criticism, he was almost a true master in how he understood this motto. When asked how much feedback Apple took from customers, he replied, ‘It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want… we decide what they want.’
“So the power lies in the loyalty to your own vision, not giving it up.
“The same goes for the political leader needed today. In France, protesters want a better (faster and more powerful) horse – ironically, cheaper fuel for their cars.
“Yet, what they need is a vision of a society where the price of fuel is no longer significant, just as the price of horse feed became irrelevant after cars.”
Who should make the “right decision” for the people?
The parallel drawn by Zizek between the “customer-company” equation and the “entire socio-political system” brings to mind the question of who or what is the equivalent of the customer in the second equation: who or what makes the “right” and “visionary” decisions for the people.
You can find the answer to this question in a mini-series episode titled “How to Watch the News” on the YouTube page of the Russian Today news channel, where Zizek served as a guest. While evaluating the Yellow Vests movement, Zizek proposed a system he described as bureaucratic socialism instead of democracy:
“It is very difficult to say this, but we need intellectual leadership. I am not afraid to say it. I do not believe in direct democracy.
“I will go a step further to provoke people. I do not believe in what most leftists advocate as ‘non-representative direct democracy.’ My solution, I’m not joking, is bureaucratic socialism. I would like to live in a society where state bureaucracy, well, what I don’t understand, the basic things of life are somehow regulated. Water comes as it is, electricity, healthcare services, too. I don’t need to know how all these things work; I can live my life in my corner. I think this will be the future. And we should not be afraid to define it as our motto: Effective bureaucracy and a bit of alienation.”
On July 9, 2023, Zizek wrote an article for Serbestiyet titled “Now, the Left Must Embrace Law and Order,” in which he addressed the recent uprisings in France. In this article published in the Newstatesman, he stated, “It does not seem likely that violent uprisings will result in any progressive solution for the poor people of the world. If law and order are not immediately restored, the ultimate outcome appears to be the election of Le Pen as the new president.”
I won’t get into the discussion of whether Zizek is right or wrong; it is clear that he said something very important that deserves a discussion. I am just pointing out, using the example of Zizek, how far the gap that began to open between ‘intellectuals’ and the public 60-70 years ago has come in our time.
And now we come to the final question: Why did the crystallization of the resentment of less-educated classes towards the ‘enlightened elite’ wait until the 21st century? And a more specific question: Could this resentment and anger have been avoided if there were no mobile phones, internet, and social media?
In the final episode of the series, we will seek to answer this question.
* Ahmet Görmüş is a Turkish journalist and writer. He previously worked as a columnist for Taraf and Yeni Aktüel. He also served as the editor-in-chief of the news weekly Nokta.
This article originally appeared on Serbestiyet.com and has been translated into English by Politurco.