In the past two years, there has been an extraordinary amount of political polarization brought on by the election of he-who-shall-not-be-named. Throughout my efforts to make sense of this madness, the political theory of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has been particularly useful. Zizek, who applies Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to the study of ideology, has allowed me to draw interesting conclusions about the state of U.S. politics today. Having spent the past four years in Ann Arbor, I’m inclined to take as my object of analysis the primarily left-leaning politics of our campus. Unfortunately, my discoveries have been less than favorable.
I think it’s safe to say that liberal activism is based on the dynamic between the oppressor and the oppressed. Over in the gender studies department, we learn that a cis-normative orthodoxy has been harassing transgender and gender-fluid students. Racial studies paint the picture of an America that is dominated by white supremacists and emphasize the difficulties of living as a minority under this hegemonic rule. Even perspectives on foreign policy are built along these lines: The Syrian situation is reduced to a struggle between a demonic government and a democratic opposition, while discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quite literally take the form of a colonizer/colonized dichotomy.
It isn’t my intention to debate the accuracy of these claims. A single one alone would require more than an article’s worth of discussion, and there are certainly dedicated and good-hearted people who can make convincing arguments for their viewpoints. Instead, I want to analyze the role that the concept of oppression itself plays in these diverse topics, and in the overarching liberal ideology to which they belong. To do this, we’ll need to discuss the concept of the master signifier.
In his book “The Sublime Object of Ideology,” Zizek contends that an ideological struggle is really the struggle to unite multiple issues under the framework of a single notion. Under communism, for example, both feminism and environmentalism are distilled into separate but homologous struggles between an exploited class and their bourgeoisie masters. The effect of this on an individual level is the belief that one is taking on these issues in the name of this greater pursuit. In reality, however, the only function of this single notion — which Lacan refers to as the master signifier — is to “quilt together” these diverse struggles, thereby fixing their meaning. A communist activist might believe that he fights for feminism and environmentalism because he is a communist; in actuality, the function of the label ‘communist’ itself is to lend coherency to the ideological position which deals with these issues in its own specific way.
I think we see a similar phenomenon in the Democratic Party today. The movement claims as its adversary all instances of systemic oppression — it’s the self-proclaimed party for minorities, party for women, party for transgender rights, etc. Implicit in this narrative, then, is the idea that being opposed to oppression lends itself to these particular positions; a Democrat falls on one side of these issues because they are against oppression in all its forms. However, we ought to consider a more cynical interpretation: The Democratic Party has certain political aims, and these aims are best fulfilled by taking particular positions in these struggles, and the word “oppression” works as a master signifier, linking these positions together in a coherent way. Zizek says in his book, “It is the reference to a ‘pure’ signifier which gives unity and identity to our experience of historical reality itself.” Ask the average Democratic activist what concept unifies their efforts towards trans rights, minority rights and so on, and they will most certainly cite a fight against oppression as the common factor. But what is the precise definition of ‘oppression’ in this case? It cannot be defined besides its use in these particular struggles, and this is the self-referential nature which categorizes the master signifier: Oppression refers to “that which organizes the similarity between trans rights, minority rights, etc., on the part of the subject,” it has no positive content of its own. Its use is purely structural; its “meaning” arises from its relation to the struggles in question.
Using the terminology we’ve established, then, I think we can confidently propose that liberal activism is founded on an ideology which takes “oppression” as its master signifier, devoid of any real positive content. “But Farid –,” you might object, “oppression is hardly an empty concept. First of all, its definition is right there in the dictionary; moreover, those who dedicate their time and effort towards these political struggles are certainly cognizant of its meaning in their work.” There’s no denying that oppression exists, and that in these particular political struggles which I’ve cited, forms of oppression are most definitely involved. When I say that oppression has no positive content, I mean that oppression as a term which unites the standard Democratic position towards certain struggles has no positive content. A transgender activist can claim to be against oppression and mean something definite — Democrats who say that being against oppression is the reason for the multitude of their positions, I claim, cannot.
Two examples, I think, illustrate most concisely that the term “oppression” is operating on the left as a master signifier, whose purpose consists only of binding separate struggles together under the banner of a single ideological effort. The first is the following: If oppression truly meant something beyond its structural function, creases in the intersectional paradigm would have been seriously considered and debated. Take, for instance, the curious predicament that contemporary gender studies poses for feminism: Whereas feminism stresses the unique and untranslatable quality of a woman’s experience, gender studies maintains that self-identification is sufficient to earn the qualifier “woman.” This was especially relevant during the transition of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn: An individual who had spent their whole life enjoying the benefits of being a man could suddenly take on a status as female without objection. Regardless of where you might fall on that particular issue, I think it’s fair to say that this theoretical question deserved some time in the arena of public discourse. Instead, much to the dismay of prominent feminist voices like Germaine Greer, the issue was more or less steamrolled and forgotten, not at all what we would expect from a political side which constructed its position, rationally, from a consideration of the meaning of oppression.
Here is a second example which suggests that the left’s use of “oppression” is simply a signifier without signified, devoid of any substantial content. Who can look at the state of America today and not conclude that the rural poor are among the most heavily oppressed class in our country? This is a population which has been crippled by an opioid crisis brought on largely by big pharmaceutical companies, and struggles greatly under the increased urbanization of America. And yet the political left has still focused on racial politics above all else, choosing not to emphasize these issues which face a sweeping number of poor rural Americans, regardless of race. In fact, Bernie Sanders may have lost the Democratic primaries in part because of his willingness to frame the problem primarily as a class issue, rather than one of identity politics. I claim there is a strong contradiction to be found here, which illustrates that the Democratic position is not one that is rationally committed against oppression in all forms. To reiterate, the term seems to function more as a master signifier, whose only purpose is to lend coherency to a series of political positions that are currently advantageous to the party.
I hope these remarks can encourage us to analyze the role that “oppression” as a buzzword plays in the political left. Investigating the language that we use is an important and revealing method for understanding political movements. And this is undoubtedly true for the times we live in today.