Those who still remember the good old days of Socialist Realism, are well aware of the key role played by the notion of the ‘typical’: truly progressive literature should depict ‘typical heroes in typical situations.’ Writers who presented a bleak picture of Soviet reality were not simply accused of lying; the accusation was rather that they provided a distorted reflection of social reality by depicting the remainders of the decadent past, instead of focusing on the phenomena which were ‘typical’ in the sense of expressing the underlying historical tendency of the progress towards Communism. Ridiculous as this notion may sound, its grain of truth resides in the fact that each universal ideological notion is always hegemonized by some particular content which colours its very universality and accounts for its efficiency

In the rejection of the social welfare system by the New Right in the us, for example, the universal notion of the welfare system as inefficient is sustained by the pseudo-concrete representation of the notorious African-American single mother, as if, in the last resort, social welfare is a programme for black single mothers—the particular case of the ‘single black mother’ is silently conceived as ‘typical’ of social welfare and of what is wrong with it. In the case of the anti-abortion campaign, the ‘typical’ case is the exact opposite: a sexually promiscuous professional woman who values her career over her ‘natural’ assignment of motherhood—although this characterization is in blatant contradiction to the fact that the great majority of abortions occur in lower-class families with a lot of children. This specific twist, a particular content which is promulgated as ‘typical’ of the universal notion, is the element of fantasy, of the phantasmatic background/support of the universal ideological notion. To put it in Kantian terms, it plays the role of ‘transcendental schematism’, translating the empty universal concept into a notion which directly relates and applies to our ‘actual experience’. As such, this phantasmatic specification is by no means an insignificant illustration or exemplification: it is at this level that ideological battles are won or lost—the moment we perceive as ‘typical’ the case of abortion in a large lower-class family unable to cope with another child, the perspective changes radically.footnote1

This example makes clear in what sense ‘the universal results from a constitutive split in which the negation of a particular identity transforms this identity in the symbol of identity and fullness as such’:footnote2 the Universal acquires concrete existence when some particular content starts to function as its stand-in. A couple of years ago, the English yellow press focused on single mothers as the source of all evils in modern society, from budget crises to juvenile delinquency. In this ideological space, the universality of ‘modern social Evil’ was operative only through the split of the figure of ‘single mother’ into itself in its particularity and itself as the stand-in for ‘modern social Evil’. The fact that this link between the Universal and the particular content which functions as its stand-in is contingent means precisely that it is the outcome of a political struggle for ideological hegemony. However, the dialectic of this struggle is more complex than in its standard Marxist version—of particular interests assuming the form of universality: ‘universal human rights are effectively the rights of white male property owners...’ To work, the ruling ideology has to incorporate a series of features in which the exploited majority will be able to recognize its authentic longings. In other words, each hegemonic universality has to incorporate at least two particular contents, the authentic popular content as well as its distortion by the relations of domination and exploitation. Of course, fascist ideology ‘manipulates’ authentic popular longing for true community and social solidarity against fierce competition and exploitation; of course, it ‘distorts’ the expression of this longing in order to legitimize the continuation of the relations of social domination and exploitation. However, in order to be able to achieve this distortion of authentic longing, it has first to incorporate it... Etienne Balibar was fully justified in reversing Marx’s classic formula: the ruling ideas are precisely not directly the ideas of those who rule.footnote3 How did Christianity become the ruling ideology? By incorporating a series of crucial motifs and aspirations of the oppressed—truth is on the side of the suffering and humiliated, power corrupts, and so on—and rearticulating them in such a way that they became compatible with the existing relations of domination.

One is tempted to refer here to the Freudian distinction between the latent dream-thought and the unconscious desire expressed in a dream. The two are not the same: the unconscious desire articulates itself, inscribes itself, through the very ‘perlaboration’, translation, of the latent dream-thought into the explicit text of a dream. In a homologous way, there is nothing ‘fascist’ (or ‘reactionary’ and so forth) in the ‘latent dream-thought’ of fascist ideology (the longing for authentic community and social solidarity); what accounts for the properly fascist character of fascist ideology is the way this ‘latent dream-thought’ is transformed and elaborated by the ideological ‘dream-work’ into the explicit ideological text which continues to legitimize social relations of exploitation and domination. And is it not the same with today’s right-wing populism? Are liberal critics not too quick in dismissing the very values populism refers to as inherently ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘proto-fascist’?

Non-ideology—what Fredric Jameson calls the utopian moment present even in the most atrocious ideology—is thus absolutely indispensable: ideology is in a way nothing but the form of appearance, the formal distortion/displacement, of non-ideology. To take the worst imaginable case, was Nazi anti-Semitism not grounded in the utopian longing for an authentic community life, in the fully justified rejection of the irrationality of capitalist exploitation? Our point, again, is that it is theoretically and politically wrong to denounce this longing as a ‘totalitarian fantasy’, that is, to search in it for the ‘roots’ of fascism—the standard mistake of the liberal-individualist critique of fascism: what makes it ‘ideological’ is its articulation, the way this longing is made to function as the legitimization of a very specific notion of what capitalist exploitation is (the result of Jewish influence, of the predominance of financial over ‘productive’ capital—only the latter tends towards a harmonious ‘partnership’ with workers) and of how we are to overcome it (by getting rid of the Jews).

The struggle for ideological and political hegemony is thus always the struggle for the appropriation of the terms which are ‘spontaneously’ experienced as ‘apolitical’, as transcending political boundaries. No wonder that the name of the strongest dissident movement in the Eastern European Communist countries was Solidarity: a signifier of the impossible fullness of society, if there ever was one. It was as if, in Poland in the 1980s, what Laclau calls the logic of equivalence was brought to an extreme: ‘Communists in power’ served as the embodiment of non-society, of decay and corruption, magically uniting everyone against themselves, including the disappointed ‘honest Communists’ themselves. Conservative nationalists accused the Communists of betraying Polish interests to the Soviet master; business-oriented individuals saw in them an obstacle to unbridled capitalist activity; for the Catholic Church, Communists were amoral atheists; for the farmers, they represented the force of violent modernization which threw rural life off the rails; for artists and intellectuals, Communism was synonymous with oppressive and stupid censorship; workers saw themselves not only exploited by the Party bureaucracy, but even further humiliated by the claims that this was done on their behalf; finally, old disillusioned leftists perceived the regime as the betrayal of ‘true Socialism’. The impossible political alliance between all these divergent and potentially antagonistic positions was possible only under the banner of a signifier which stands, as it were, on the very border which separates the political from the pre-political, and ‘Solidarity’ was the perfect candidate: it is politically operative as designating the ‘simple’ and ‘fundamental’ unity of human beings which should link them beyond all political differences.footnote4

What does all this tell us about Labour ’s recent electoral victory in the uk? It is not only that, in a model hegemonic operation, they reappropriated ‘apolitical’ notions like ‘decency’; what they successfully focused on was the inherent obscenity of the Tory ideology. The Tories’ explicit ideological statements were always supported by their shadowy double, by an obscene, publicly unacknowledged, between-the-lines message. When, for example, they launched their infamous ‘back to basics’ campaign, its obscene supplement was clearly indicated by Norman Tebbitt, ‘never shy about exposing the dirty secrets of the Conservative unconscious’:footnote5 ‘Many traditional Labour voters realized that they shared our values—that man is not just a social but also a territorial animal; it must be part of our agenda to satisfy those basic instincts of tribalism and territoriality.’footnote6 This, then, is what ‘back to basics’ was really about: the reassertion of ‘basic’ egoistic, tribal, barbarian ‘instincts’ which lurk beneath the semblance of civilized bourgeois society. We all remember the (deservedly) famous scene from Paul Verhoeven’s film Basic Instinct (1992) in which, in the course of a police investigation, Sharon Stone for a brief moment spreads her legs and reveals to the fascinated policemen what is (or is it?) a glimpse of her pubic hair. A statement like Tebbitt’s is undoubtedly an ideological equivalent of this gesture, allowing a brief glance into the obscene intimacy of the Thatcherite ideological edifice. (Lady Thatcher herself was too ‘dignified’ to perform directly this ideological Sharon-Stone-gesture too often, so the poor Tebbitt had to act as her stand-in.) Against this background, the Labour emphasis on ‘decency’ was not a case of simple moralism—rather, its message was that they are not playing the same obscene game, that their statements do not contain, ‘between the lines’, the same obscene message.