Why is the West so fascinated by the recent events in Eastern Europe? The answer seems obvious: what fascinates the Western gaze is the re-invention of democracy.footnote It is as if democracy, which in the West shows increasing signs of decay and crisis, lost in bureaucratic routine and publicity-style election campaigns, is being rediscovered in Eastern Europe in all its freshness and novelty. The function of this fascination is thus purely ideological: in Eastern Europe the West looks for its own lost origins, for the authentic experience of ‘democratic invention’. In other words, Eastern Europe functions for the West as its Ego-Ideal: the point from which the West sees itself in a likeable, idealized form, as worthy of love. The real object of fascination for the West is thus the gaze, namely the supposedly naive gaze by means of which Eastern Europe stares back at the West, fascinated by its democracy. It is as if the Eastern gaze is still able to perceive in Western societies its agalma, the treasure that causes democratic enthusiasm and which the West has long lost the taste of.

The reality now emerging in Eastern Europe is, however, a disturbing distortion of this idyllic picture of the two mutually fascinated gazes. It is best illustrated by the strange destiny of a well-known Soviet joke about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why. Rabinovitch answers: ‘There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that the Communists will lose power in the Soviet Union, and the new forces will blame us Jews for the Communist crimes. . .’ ‘But,’ interrupts the bureaucrat, ‘this is pure nonsense, the power of the Communists will last forever!’ ‘Well,’ responds Rabinovitch calmly, ‘that’s my second reason.’ In The Sublime Object of Ideology, published in 1989,footnote1 it was still possible to count on the efficacy of this joke; however, according to the latest information, the main reason cited by Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union is Rabinovitch’s first reason. They fear, in effect, that, with the disintegration of Communism and the emergence of nationalistic forces openly advocating anti-Semitism, the blame will again be put on them. So today we can easily imagine the reversal of the joke, with Rabinovitch answering the bureaucrat’s question thus: ‘There are two reasons why. The first is that I know that Communism in Russia will last forever, nothing will really change here, and this prospect is unbearable for me. . .’ ‘But,’ interrupts the bureaucrat, ‘this is pure nonsense, Communism is disintegrating all around!’ ‘That’s my second reason!’ responds Rabinovitch.

The dark side of the processes current in Eastern Europe is thus the gradual retreat of the liberal-democratic tendency in the face of the growth of corporate national populism with all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism. The swiftness of this process has been surprising: today, we find anti-Semitism in East Germany (where one attributes to Jews the lack of food, and to Vietnamese the lack of bicycles) and in Hungary and in Romania (where the persecution of the Hungarian minority also continues). Even in Poland we can perceive signs of a split within Solidarity: the rise of a nationalist-populist faction that imputes to the ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ (the old regime’s codeword for Jews) the failure of the recent government’s measures.

To explain this unexpected turn, we have to rethink the most elementary notions about national identification—and here, psychoanalysis can be of help. The element that holds together a given community cannot be reduced to the point of symbolic identification: the bond linking its members always implies a shared relationship toward a Thing, toward Enjoyment incarnated.footnote2 This relationship toward the Thing, structured by means of fantasies, is what is at stake when we speak of the menace to our ‘way of life’ presented by the Other: it is what is threatened when, for example, a white Englishman is panicked because of the growing presence of ‘aliens’. What he wants to defend at any price is not reducible to the so-called set of values that offer support to national identity. National identification is by definition sustained by a relationship toward the Nation qua Thing. This Nation-Thing is determined by a series of contradictory properties. It appears to us as ‘our Thing’ (perhaps we could say cosa nostra), as something accessible only to us, as something ‘they’, the others, cannot grasp, but which is nonetheless constantly menaced by ‘them’. It appears as what gives plenitude and vivacity to our life, and yet the only way we can determine it is by resorting to different versions of an empty tautology: all we can say about it is, ultimately, that the Thing is ‘itself’, ‘the real Thing’, ‘what it really is about’, and so on. If we are asked how we can recognize the presence of this Thing, the only consistent answer is that the Thing is present in that elusive entity called ‘our way of life’. All we can do is enumerate disconnected fragments of the way our community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation ceremonies—in short, all the details by which is made visible the unique way a community organizes its enjoyment. Although the first, so to speak, automatic, association that arises here is of course that of the reactionary, sentimental Blut und Boden, we should not forget that such a reference to a ‘way of life’ can also have a distinctive ‘leftist’ connotation. Note George Orwell’s essays from the war years, in which he attempted to define the contours of an English patriotism opposed to the official, puffy-imperialist version of it: his points of reference were precisely those details that characterize the ‘way of life’ of the working class (the evening gathering in the local pub, and so forth).footnote3

This paradoxical existence of an entity that ‘is’ only in so far as the subjects believe (in the other’s belief) in its existence, is the mode of being proper to ideological Causes: the ‘normal’ order of causality is here inverted, since it is the Cause itself that is produced by its effects (the ideological practices that it animates). However, it is precisely at this point that the difference separating Lacan from ‘discursive idealism’ emerges most forcefully: Lacan is far from reducing the (national, etc.) Cause to a performative effect of the discursive practices that refer to it. The pure discursive effect doesn’t have enough ‘substance’ to exert the attraction proper to a Cause; and the Lacanian term for the strange ‘substance’ that must be added to enable a Cause to obtain its positive ontological consistency—the only ‘substance’ acknowledged by psychoanalysis—is, of course, enjoyment (as Lacan states explicitly in his Le Séminaire xx—Encore). A nation exists only as long as its specific enjoyment continues to be materialized in certain social practices, and transmitted in national myths that structure these practices. To emphasize, in a ‘deconstructivist’ mode, that the Nation is not a biological or transhistorical fact but a contingent discursive construction, an overdetermined result of textual practices, is thus misleading: it overlooks the role of a remainder of some real, nondiscursive kernel of enjoyment which must be present for the Nation qua discursive-entity-effect to achieve its ontological consistency.footnote4

It would, however, be erroneous simply to reduce the national Thing to the features composing a specific ‘way of life’. The Thing is not directly a collection of these features; there is ‘something more’ in it, something that is present in these features, that appears through them. Members of a community who partake in a given ‘way of life’ believe in their Thing, where this belief has a reflexive structure proper to the intersubjective space: ‘I believe in the (national) Thing’ is equal to ‘I believe that others (members of my community) believe in the Thing.’ The tautological character of the Thing—its semantic void, the fact that all we can say about it is that it is ‘the real Thing’—is founded precisely in this paradoxical reflexive structure. The national Thing exists as long as members of the community believe in it; it is literally an effect of this belief in itself. The structure here is the same as that of the Holy Spirit in Christianity. The Holy Spirit is the community of believers in which Christ lives after his death; to believe in Him is to believe in belief itself—to believe that I’m not alone, that I’m a member of the community of believers. I do not need any external proof or confirmation of the truth of my belief: by the mere act of my belief in others’ belief, the Holy Spirit is here. In other words, the whole meaning of the Thing consists in the fact that ‘it means something’ to people.

Nationalism thus presents a privileged domain of the eruption of enjoyment into the social field. The national Cause is ultimately nothing but the way subjects of a given ethnic community organize their enjoyment through national myths. What is therefore at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing. We always impute to the ‘other’ an excessive enjoyment; s/he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what really bothers us about the ‘other’ is the peculiar way it organizes its enjoyment: precisely the surplus, the ‘excess’ that pertains to it—the smell of their food, their ‘noisy’ songs and dances, their strange manners, their attitude to work (in the racist perspective, the ‘other’ is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labour; and it is quite amusing to note the ease with which one passes from reproaching the other with a refusal to work, to reproaching him for the theft of work). The basic paradox is that our Thing is conceived as something inaccessible to the other, and at the same time threatened by it; this is also the case with castration, which, according to Freud, is experienced as something that ‘really cannot happen’, but we are nonetheless horrified by its prospect. The ground of incompatibility between different ethnic subject positions is thus not exclusively the different structure of their symbolic identifications. What categorically resists universalization is rather the particular structure of their relationship towards enjoyment: