April 14, 2016 by James Crossley
In contemporary analyses of neoliberalism, there is a standard argument that neoliberalism absorbs or tolerates critque as just another aspect of a series of endless and ultimately non-threatening identities. Žižek, for instance, argued that the privileged leftist academic will make demands about immigration or welfare that they really know will never be met and would damage the privileged position of the leftist academic if they were. This way the ‘radical’ academic can (hypocritically) maintain their radical posture while capitalism continues effectively untroubled. Variants on this argument are common in Žižek’s publications. Put another way, the dogs bark and the caravan goes by (a straightforward saying that the British press pretend, for reasons of clickbait, is cryptic or bizarre).
Whether this is a fair argument is for another day (is it outdated in light of post-2008 developments?). But decades before neoliberalism, and just before the emergence of the post-war settlement, George Orwell was making a similar case. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell argued the following (while breaking his later rules on the English language). The final line could be mistaken for Žižek:
Unfortunately it is nowadays the fashion to pretend that the glass is penetrable. Of course everyone knows that class-prejudice exists, but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it. Snobbishness is one of those vices which we can discern in everyone else but’ never in ourselves. Not only the croyant et pratiquant Socialist, but every ‘intellectual’ takes it as a matter of course that he at least is outside the class-racket; he, unlike his neighbours, can see through the absurdity of wealth, ranks, titles, etc., etc. ‘I’m not a snob’ is nowadays a kind of universal credo. Who is there who has not jeered at the House of Lords, the military caste, the Royal Family, the public schools, the huntin’ and shootin’ people, the old ladies in Cheltenham boarding-houses, the horrors of ‘county’ society, and the social hierarchy generally? To do so has become an automatic gesture. You notice this particularly in novels. Every novelist of serious pretensions adopts an ironic attitude towards his upper-class characters. Indeed when a novelist has to put a definitely upper-class person–a duke or a baronet or whatnot–into one of his stories he guys him more or less instinctively. There is an important subsidiary cause of this in the poverty of the modern upper-class dialect. The speech of ‘educated’ people is now so lifeless and characterless that a novelist can do nothing with it. By far the easiest way of making it amusing is to burlesque it, which means pretending that every upper-class person is an ineffectual ass. The trick is imitated from novelist to novelist, and in the end becomes almost a reflex action.
And yet all the while, at the bottom of his heart, every-one knows that this is humbug. We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.