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Hysterical Populism

The ideology of liberalismsubjectivizes the causes of social problems. The dominant order of the social system is raised to the dogma of a natural law above all criticism. Everyone is guilty in his/her private unhappiness or failure. Social crises and catastrophes can only be caused by subjectively guilty persons or groups. The system itself cqn never be the error. In this essay translated from the German, Robert Kurz sees the main scapegoats in the terrorist, the speculator and the child molestor.
Hysterical Populism

The Confusion of Middle Class Feelings and the Search for Scapegoats

By Robert Kurz

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.krisis.org.]

The most popular social game is the search for culprits. When something goes wrong on a great scale, the cause itself is not usually probed. The focus must be on the persons. Deficient will, competence or malice of the subjects are made responsible, not hybrid goals, destructive social relations and contradictory structures. Allowing heads to roll is easier than overthrowing conditions and changing social forms.

The ideology of liberalism opposes this spontaneous tendency of unreflected problem-solving through subjective apportioning of blame. The question of the causes of social problems is subjectivized. For liberalism, the dominant order of the social system is raised to the dogma of a natural law above all evaluation. The causality of negative experiences can always be reduced to subjects in their immediate existence. Everyone is guilty in his/ her private unhappiness or failure. Social crises and catastrophes can only be caused by subjectively guilty persons or groups. The system itself can never be the error. Someone always commits a mistake or crime.

This way of looking at things is deeply irrational but is relieving for the consciousness since it does not need to critically examine the conditions of one's existence. By their nature impersonal problems of the social structure and their development are identified with certain persons, social groups etc or are symbolically projected on them. In the Old Testament of the Bible, this mechanism is described as the function of the "scapegoat" to which society symbolically transfers its sins and then chases into the wilderness. This method of the superficial personalization of problems and disasters can take two forms.

The first consists in accusing individuals of the respective group or institution itself. Either the leading persons and groups are denounced by the rank and file as incompetent failures or these turn the tables and accuse the infantry of being underachievers, not pulling themselves together and so forth. In modern politics, a mechanism for apportioning blame is a principle of functioning. The people insult politicians and politicians insult the people. Every oppositional political party never refers back a social problem to the system of politics as such and the underlying production method. Their rivals are at the rudder of the state and make "bad politics".

The second method is much more irrational and dangerous. Social problems are generally projected on one or several groups of persons who must symbolize evil and take the rap as a universal stereotype. Thus all ideologies which according to Marx always represent a "false consciousness"" a caricature of reality, and operate with such personalized stereotypes. If liberalism as a primal modern ideology is oriented pragmatically in changing personal qualities (for example the "irrational claims" and the laziness of the poor, the "bad upbringing" of criminals and so forth), the worldviews emerging later from liberalism are more strongly committed to one-dimensional stereotypes. The most malicious and most momentous of these mad social ideas is modern anti-Semitism which climaxed in the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis.

The opposite of the irrational search for culprits would be an emancipatory criticism of society which does not aim at certain categories of persons but seeks to transform the dominant forms of social reproduction and social relations. The theory of Marx doubtlessly still has the greatest potential of becoming effective in this regard. The thinking of the modern working class movement pushed to its limits is personalized so that social contradiction refers less to the blind fanatical laws of the modern goods-producing system than to a kind of common "will to exploitation" by the "private owners of the means of production". Ironically this abridgment of criticism refers back to the inheritance of the liberal ideology in the working class movement/ marxism which dissolves all problems in mere states of will. However marxist theory also includes a far-reaching "system criticism" and no longer confuses the crisis of the structure with the "bad will" of persons or social groups.

Nevertheless social criticism did not develop in this direction but was almost completely silenced after the downfall of state capitalism and the victorious advance of neoliberal ideology. The social system and its structures were made tabu more strongly than ever. But when the dominant form of social relations can no longer be criticized and social problems intensify, then irrational conspiracy theories are given free rein. Thus racist and anti-Semitic ideologies which explain the misery of the world with diverse personifications of the evil are in ascendancy in the last 20 years parallel to the decline and fall of marxism.

"Scapegoats" are sought more and more shamelessly even in the official centers of democratic societies. In Germany, a book of the economic journalist Gunter Ogger titled "Washo9uts in Pin-Stripes" became a best-seller by branding local managers as failures and declaring their collective incompetence the cause of the growing socio-economic problems. The rescuers and heroes of today are only the losers and accused of tomorrow. Some media even publish charts with the "ascending and descending of the week" in politics, economy, sports and show business. The personnel carousel turns ever faster. In the rhythm of crises, breakdowns and bankruptcies, the "personally responsible" have to go and be replaced by new ones who cannot make any improvements.

The gloomy feeling of a universal threat cannot be appeased by either sacrifices of peasants or kings. This threatening mood seeks a more far-reaching symbol and orders specters. The western societies which can no longer critically reflect themselves have produced anonymous mythical figures to symbolize the incomprehensible evil of their own structures.

The terrorist is such a mythical form of the negative. The more inscrutable and arbitrary are the bomb attacks of the bewildered, frustrated, warriors of God and Mafia-bands, the more they correspond in their blindness to the subjectless "terror of the economy". The borders between terror groups, state machinery and secret service have long been blurred. The democratic society sees terrorists when it looks in the mirror. Still the terrorist as a shadowy dark figure transfers the evil in the "society of respectable citizens" into an abstract stereotype.

The mechanism of projection is a reflective mechanism. Like the ideologically motivated terrorist, the evil of capitalism is seen in the personal existence of elites. The democratic politicians explain social insecurity as "threat by terrorism". Both sides, terrorists and security forces, operate by literally "shooting down" individuals and publically presenting their corpses in the proud "terror of virtue" (Robespierre). In the meantime, the existence of real or hallucinated terrorists has become the legitimating condition for the free enterprise-democratic world.

The myth of the speculator is very similar, blossoming in the 90s parallel to the inflating of the global financial bubble. As everybody knows, the musty hatred against speculative profits is not far removed from the anti-Semitism that identifies the Jews with the negative side of money. If this myth received a personal face with George Soros, it still stands simultaneously for an anonymous threat. The capitalist work society senses how it becomes obsolete and projects this problem on a subject of evil which supposedly smashes "honest work". The clearer it is that work abolishes itself and that the era of speculation is only a consequence, the greater becomes the need for the mythical subject as the apparent causal agent. That this irrational explanation germinates in the consciousness of people who themselves have bet away their last money on the stock exchange is a condition for the projection gaining form. After the slump on the new markets, the media stylize the "deceived small investor" as the victim of the dark financial powers in the background.

In the last years, the child molester as another mythical figure of evil has appeared as an exaggeration of irrational projections alongside the terrorist and the speculator. No magical invocation of the devil can renounce on sexual components. Thus the so-called sexual abuse has become a fashionable theme parallel to the alleged "abuse of income support" by (mainly foreign) "social frauds". There is hardly a therapist who does not want to persuade his clients that they were "sexually abused" in their childhood. While the classification "wicked uncle" is vague, the nearness to anti-Semitism cannot be ignored here. As the nazis claimed that it was the Jew who made people into commodities, this figure of the Jew was simultaneously always presented as the lecherous monster who hunts innocent young children of the majority culture.

The official society personifies a moment of itself as a symbol of evil. Most sexual crimes were always committed on children in the intimate family circle. The Belgian child murderer Dutroux introduced his victims to the highest circles as objects of curiosity. That the capitalist society generally is hostile to children has long been clear. At the same time in its core, it is hostile to pleasure. The slogan of "sexual liberation" of 1968 whose protagonists did not go beyond the dominant social forms only led to an abstract sexualization of the media and advertising while the actual sexual life of the commodity-subjects was more pathetic than ever.

The manifestation of sexual offense as an irrational symbol of social contradictions is all the more ugly and malicious. Every distinction in the actual phenomenon is leveled to awaken the spirit of the pogrom. The erotic tension between mature and youthful individuals represented literarily by Vladimir Nabokov in his novel "Lolita", by Thomas Mann in his novel "Death in Venice" is recognized in the critical sexual-political debates of the 70s as one variant in the spectrum of sexual feelings encountered in many cultures and presupposing nonviolence and loving affection. Here the media equates this side of eroticism with child prostitution, rape or the killing of little children by sex offenders.

The legitimate motive for denouncing and combating intensified violence against women and children is reversed in its opposite and becomes a means for demonizing conditions instead of criticizing and putting a stop to the violent criminals. Even children themselves stamp the projective mania as "child molestation". In the US, an 18-year old who was burned together with his 14-yearold friend was brought in handcuffs to the committing magistrate like an 11-year old who observed an inhibited neighbor in a harmless "doctor's game" with his five year old half-sister.

The mythical figures of evil are needed to release the negative energy of the social crisis in an irrational and anti-emancipatory way. The terrorist, speculator and child molester all strike from the dark like the anonymous powers of competition. No one and everyone is described. With his film classic "M", a city hunts a murderer, Fritz Lang shows in an oppressive way how the chase for an unknown sexual murderer in the Berlin metropolis on the backdrop of the worldwide economic crisis fused into a mass psychological syndrome producing a general climate of suspicion, denunciation and blind violence. The society shows a grimace which is hardly less alarming than that of the murderer himself.

In the present world crisis, the same syndrome is intensified through the electronic means of communication. Politics and the media increasingly pursue an hysterical populism ultimately engendering mob law. When the popular press in England published the names and addresses of alleged child molesters, a furious mob drove the charged to suicide and ravaged the practice of a pediatrician because he did not separate the terms "pedophilia" and "pediatrics" (a discreet reference to the state of the British school system). Such incidents demonstrate how advanced is the social paranoia. A society that refuses to tradce its own mystery is condemned to arrange witch-hunts.

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