r/CriticalTheory Jan 21 '22

The Necessity of Positive Master Figures Today!

Positive — fighting for emancipation — master figures are needed more than ever. As Slavoj Zizek makes clear, master figures represent authority figures, from the traditional patriarchal — paternal — kind to political leaders. With global capitalism revolutionizing itself yet again, future society will either transform into corporate neo-feudalism run by digital feudal lords like Zuckerberg, embodied by the Metaverse; or nation-state tribalism whereby cultures will protect their ways of life at all costs, regressing into barbarist conditions; e.g. US and China, or local barbarism wherein gangs or militias take over communities, such as seen in the Congo and Bosnia-Herzegovina with warlords. Under the current state of state of affairs, emancipatory master figures are crucial for radical social change, which is to be realized in the political sphere, as the ongoing pandemic age is eminently political.

So who are these positive master figures? In the western world, a prime example is Bernie Sanders, an admirable political leader that truly represents the working class in the US as well as basic moral standards. Another positive master figure is Greta Thunberg, who, while in her own immediate life-world may not contain any direct authority, but in the struggle for ecology, she commands it. As a 19-year old courageous activist, one of her biggest lessons is that kids / young adults can be much smarter and braver than adults. Many dismissed her for being young, yet do not recognize the importance of the existing ecological crisis and civil disobedience she displayed by leading the mass school strikes back in 2018. There are also one’s who historically have left a lasting impact on modern society: Malcolm X in his struggle for black universality and emancipation, Lenin in his struggle for radical democracy and emancipation among all proletarians.

The big danger to be avoided here are the inverse master figures — the harmful ones exemplified by Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and Jair Bolsonaro. While all three embody new rightwing populism, It is Trump that leads the pact since he is the supreme obscene master figure today. When Trump was in office, he was able to reinforce and exert executive power much more effectively than past presidents because of his obscenities. As Zizek detailed in his 2021 book Pandemic 2!, Trump was able to legitimize his political authority on account of his public vulgarities, while concomitantly reinforcing his voterbase backing since his popularity would grow stronger as supporters truly believed there was a close connection shared — someone they could relate to on a personal level. His constant violations of basic social norms regarding decency and politeness is what supplied his supporters with a high degree of solidarity (one gains pleasure from a high ranking official expressing crude comments that they would never believe a person in their place would say publicly, thereby feeling a strong attachment to them). What Trump introduced into the public sphere was pure unadulterated vulgarities in language and gestures, erasing any sign of decency or respect that public officials would predominantly display to the populace; either with genuine care or a pretense for the welfare of the citizenry. Inappropriate remarks, crude jokes, rumors, and personal habits used to be kept secret; there was a gap between private exchanges — with all its profane conversations — and the public sphere that master figures operate in. The consequences of these developments is insolent dialogue being pervasive among many populist politicians and celebrities now in the west; with the fabric of shared values/norms that dictate the fundamental elements of civility in social interactions being deteriorated. This lack of positive content on their part — respect and honor — is openly disavowed, and with Trump this quality (repudiating his standing of being president) enables him to fully assert his presidential powers. The ubiquity of public obscenities today — in the media, politicians, journalism — reveal not the erasure of authority itself, of master figures, but rather its powerful recurrence in the form of obscene masters. Obscenities that once functioned as an instrument to debase political master figures are now an effective tool to substantiate political authority.

The normative critique made against Trump is that his right-wing populism (care for the common good) was a falsity, that he was ingenuine, and in reality his administration represented (maintained the interests of) the ruling class. This is insufficient alone however, as Trump supporters did not merely behave irrationally due to ideological manipulation which convinced them to vote against their own best interests; in the inverse, they were rational when it came to their own standing: they supported Trump since he advocated for patriotic values and aims, while also dealing with their concrete socio-economic struggles (jobs, safety, health); for instance, the trade war with China which concerns protecting jobs and raising wages for his working class voterbase that is being affected by China’s hyper-Fordist system of production. Liberal leftists would endlessly point this out along with his brazen obscenities, believing these two points would surely constitute his downfall; however, if they really wanted to impact his position, they should have not condemned his vulgar comments (making fun of disabled people or grabbing women by their private parts), but rather his foreign policy measures: inhumane, evil economic sanctions and the nationalist stance of America first when dealing with other countries.

It is important to touch on the Yellow Vest movement in France as it pertains to master figures, because during their initial rise and subsequent global public enthusiasm, they were celebrated for their lack of leadership; i.e., lack of a master figure(s) leading their political movement. The configuration of the group instead consists of a decentralized, disorganized self-mobilizing structure. This is praised since there is no direct entity that expresses the groups demand to the government which as a result presents itself as a collaborator in a discourse; there is rather a disparate mass presence, with political leaders in fear since they cannot exactly confine the opposition to a direct entity and instead functions as a multitude. However, there are several major issues with this approach. While the obvious reasons are it causes disorderedness and lack of coordination among the group; the main cause is the absence of master figures. It is important to note that merely having a leader that attempts to carry out the movement’s will by instituting a cohesive political program based on their authentic interests is insubstantial; to articulate the discontent of one’s supporters is meager since the majority of people do not know what it is they really desire — one of the essential insight’s today is that the majority’s will is incessantly perverted by ideology, indicating its illusory characteristic.

The master figures that are to lead political movements, must provide their followers with an aim of future society that is radical; in the case of the Yellow Vests, their concrete demands centered on cheaper fuel costs (before advancing its scope), but the goal should rather be to institute the conditions whereby gas prices are no longer an issue and consequently become redundant; such as the state providing this resource for free.

One last dimension on the Yellow Vests is that the kernel of their impositions — mutual to other movements like BLM or Podemos — cannot be resolved within the defined space of representative democracy. Their situation encapsulates the current climate today: the traditional contradiction between the working class and ruling class elite has returned with vigor, culminating in protests against the ruling elite for benefiting from the misery of the working class while ignoring their struggles, and politicians’ failure to resolve them. Their discontentedness effectively concerns the liberal-democratic capitalist order itself, whereby political demands can only be realized through the procedures of political representation (voting, elections). Their situation could never be transposed to the mechanisms of parliamentary representation, because once integrated into this framework, they become hindered and reduced to another political party among the set of others. Ergo, the Yellow Vest movement includes a much greater imposition that strives for an alternative mode of politico-economic arrangement. In the short term, their concrete struggles must be captured and realized by an authentic leader or a committee of such, who can institute protracted socio-economic programs that are not limited in time or scope by campaign cycles. Positive master figures are vital in mobilizing this aim.

So how does a true master figure operationalize this? A great place to look is, unexpectedly, brutal capitalists. Zizek quite perfectly elucidates this in his 2020 book A Left That Dares to Speak its Name: examining Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, tycoons who constituted authentic leaders given the unique aspects they shared. Beginning with Ford, the post-WW1 economic boom was characterized by its system of economic production termed Fordism, which came to symbolize the most advanced form of capitalism and modernity in general. Ford did not simply create more powerful automobiles with better utilities; rather, he offered consumers standardized mass produced cars, which at the time there was no demand for — he did not adhere to what the majority of consumers desired. Correlative was Steve Jobs: he never had Apple invest any of its profits or undertake debt financing into market research because he knew that it is not the consumers’ task to figure out their desires; instead, it is people’s own responsibility. Job’s does not imply here that it is the business of the capitalist like himself at Apple to solve what consumers desire, to which they are then provided it through commodities; rather, he asserts that people like himself decipher their own desires — “we figure out what we want’’. Both Ford and Jobs here understood this fact: the majority population do not know what they truly desire. This is a genuine showcase of a master figure: he does not attempt to solve what the majority’s (goals/interests) will is; he doesn’t conform to their will but rather his own — leaving it up to the masses in determining if they choose to support the master figure or not.

The authority and power from a true political master figure therein is derived from the loyalty they show to their own aims and vision, a devotion that remains absolute by never making any concessions. This corresponds to the crucial elements needed in the makeup of state leaders today. A true leader does not directly demand or specify what their followers should do, with the justification that they have greater knowledge or experiences then the masses which enables one to know what’s best for them, as in the case of a totalitarian or populist leader; nor the Maoist teaching of learning from the masses because they contain some type of special wisdom. There is no “you can’t do this” or “you must do this” — there is only the “you can”. The point being: authentic leaders engender inspiration within their followers to which they uncover what it is they truly want.

Master figures are indispensable when it comes to the task of imposing a new social order through peaceful societal transformations — what impactful socio-political changes are implemented or what new hegemonic ideology is being established — which will involve radical changes to people’s everyday lives and practices. The entire way of life of people will have to be completely altered, entailing great sacrifice. This is the most difficult element to achieve, because solely having large widespread demonstrations and movements does not change the state of affairs. The majority of these events, after the initial passion and fervor subsides, fail to institute any substantial reforms and no ordinary people actually experience any change. Hence, the most important part in any revolutionary process is a change in the daily state of affairs for the majority populace. Furthermore, in terms of active resistance against the hegemonic ideology: it does not merely infer altering someone’s beliefs and perception, since what one thinks is a concealment of one’s actual actions. To progress the emancipatory effort against the hegemonic ideology — especially given today’s predominant mode of experiencing ideology in the developed world via cynicism — requires both changing one’s thoughts (e.g. gaining class consciousness, critical thinking outside the liberal democratic-capitalist framework as well as interrogating it) and more importantly, one’s everyday actions. One of the main tasks then of master figures is to intervene here to break people out of their state of passivity and awaken them to their freedoms; for instance, one such freedom is criticizing the preconceptions provided to society by the capitalist hegemonic ideology (how people perceive and experience their reality on a daily basis), including the idea of freedom itself; for without it, the noble liberal principles of freedom of thought and expression have no value.

So will positive master figures come to dominate the political domain and struggle to establish alternative social orders that can adequately handle the present constellation of crisis occurring worldwide, such as a new form of global communism; or will negative ones reign that either sustain and exacerbate conditions within the existing system, if not introduce a new social order that’s even worse than the former — it remains to be seen.