Something is happening to authority these days. In politics, a shift from legal, procedural authority to charismatic, personal authority is discernible, epitomised by Trump, Johnson, and others. Along similar lines, intellectual authority is also changing. Partly through what sociologist Gil Eyal (2019) calls ‘the crisis of expertise’, the way was paved for the rise of post-truth, fake news, and alternative facts.
As intellectual authority in today’s post-codex era (when intellectual labour is done not only by intellectuals and not solely on paper) is scattered across the internet rather than concentrated in the Ivory Tower, conspiracy theory and unfounded ‘knowledge’ predominate. Hence, while revisiting anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial as the template for post-truth, Matthew d’Ancona (2017) reminds us that algorithms, such as Google search, are indifferent to veracity. A particular example of this heinous tendency is the Labour anti-Semitism controversy.
Anti-Semitism became a centre-stage issue in the recent British election. An organized international campaign repeatedly accused both the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn personally for supporting anti-Semitic stances, or at least for insufficiently condemning them. A few Jewish civil organizations and renowned intellectuals stood their ground and tried to clear these allegations. Nonetheless, the controversy remained. Actually, the status of this Labour anti-Semitism phenomenon is akin more to that of a rumour—neither to that of knowledge (episteme, logos) nor of opinion (doxa, mythos). As a rumour, Labour anti-Semitism is all the stickier and harder to shake off, operating entirely in a symbolic frame and without the factual content to buttress it.
As the saying goes, ‘rumour has it…’ Yet, what is this ‘it’, and how does the rumour get to have it? Rumours are authorless but, as such, authoritative: impersonal and anonymous, lacking an identifiable origin, they carry somewhat inscrutable authority. So, because rumours lack substantiation, they are an effective force, almost impossible to resist. ‘Everybody knows that… [the Labour Party is anti-Semitic]’ is exactly what prevents rumours from being factually refuted. It is a small step from here to a ‘fetishist disavowal’ with the motto: ‘I know very well [that proponents of socialist policies aren’t anti-Semites], but… [I act as if I don’t know]’.
‘Logos is helpless against rumours’, says philosopher Mladen Dolar, since rumours always leave a stain nearly impossible to remove. This excessive force of the rumour interrupts the consistency of the regime of knowledge. Many supporters of Labour’s or Corbyn’s leftist positions considered him a problematic leader, not really on par with ‘Party values’. The rumour (say, that Corbyn is an anti-Semite) is not about truth, fact, or knowledge. It is about introducing a ‘hole’ in knowledge, since nobody has to believe the symbolic rumour for it to have material and practical efficiency. Like with Santa Clause, the objectivity of belief here is that no one has to really believe (that Corbyn is anti-Semite), but only to project that belief onto the Other, the anonymous ‘everyone’ (playing the game axiomatically postulating that he is one).
Though rootless, rumours’ efficiency is rooted in the production of enjoyment. It is always at work because it works on our subjective libidinal-emotional economy: we explain away the lack in our own self-enjoyment (why we cannot enjoy ourselves fully, as Labour supporters or British Jews) by locating surplus enjoyment among the other (those British or Muslims who are secretly anti-Semites and thus enjoy at our expense), preventing us from having the complete and fulfilled enjoyment we deserve. This social unconscious mechanism is called ‘the theft of enjoyment’, and it is repeatedly used by politicians to explain national problems, especially around the ultimate national ritual, i.e., election.
Contrary to the facts-based Labour manifesto, election qua ritual means emotional investment rather than rational argumentation, and our capitalistic spectacle societies intensify and exploit this aspect to the utmost. Hence, the famous queue selfie or the ‘voted’ Facebook post. These are subjective reactions of non-thinking to the objective conditions that make thinking impossible, and where the performative experience of the election takes precedence over the reason behind it. Among those subjective reactions we also find the racist and paradoxical framing of the other (Jews, immigrants, etc.): both too lazy (having bad work ethics) and too industrious (planning to steal our jobs); both too scrimpy (they never shower and are thus filthy) and too wasteful (they spend too much water to shower their big families). Such racist framing always finds the other to blame for whatever is wrong with the self, and this emotional exploitation is extremely and dangerously effective. Riding the nationalistic-identitarian horse, it will perhaps lead to Scotland and Ireland leaving the UK, isolating the latter even further, with all the economic consequences of this isolation.
However, by over-simplifying the complexity of the political-economic situation, the social unconscious mechanism condenses many causes of problems in social life into a single figure—the anti-Semite—, and there goes the Liberal and Jewish electorate. Even Brexit got thrown into this ideological mix with Labour’s unclear position, which resulted in losing the working people electorate. Moreover, the UK is definitely not alone in this predicament, as noted by author of The Capitalist Unconscious (2014), Samo Tomšič, who noted: ‘Other parts of Europe, too, are currently in a situation in which people tend to vote in accordance with their resentment, only in order to obtain small bits of their nationalistic enjoyment’.
Despite numerous attempts, rumours, such as the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism, cannot be resolved on a factual level of knowledge; they cannot just be consciously refuted. Rather, they should be dissolved through a change in the social unconscious itself. Anti-Semitism is on the rise not because of some incidental quips of Labour members, but due to the systemic contradiction of capitalistic expansion: neo-liberal economy pushes for globalisation, while nationalist politics re-enforces localised anti-EU and anti-immigrant discourse about the other. In fact, the rise of right-wing politics around the world today is accompanied, as a matter of course, by an increase in anti-Semitic incidents. This is barely surprising, as anthropologist David Graeber explained recently in a viral video: ‘if Corbyn is crushed, those are the guys who are going to profit from it: the extreme right’.
So, what is to be done when facing such heinous rumours in politics? This burning question should be answered by distinguishing between the two sides of intellectual authority: first, the socio-symbolic frame that guarantees the consistency of our knowledge, namely the rule of experts like, for example, the IHRA that conflates a legitimate critique of Zionism with anti-Semitism; and, second, the real social authority that spawns knowledge based, like rumours about Labour’s anti-Semitism, on nothing at all. In other words, we should recognise the implicit connection between the ideological pseudo-struggle against anti-Semitism and the rise in the very thing it struggles against.
Aside from obfuscating the economic part of the struggle, the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is there to repress the discordance between the two: Zionism can be considered anti-Semitic because it claims to offer a voice for all Jews of the world, collapsing them into one people with one goal in the same generalising and stereotypical way of (even biologically) identifying ‘who is a Jew’ and who is not. While the ideological fight against anti-Semitism represses the real capitalist causes of the racist-fascist-sexist policies that pervade our polities and societies, which by extension means supporting the Zionist expansion and occupation of Palestine, it also guarantees the return of the repressed—blunt and explicit violent attacks against all minorities, including, but not restricted to, Jewish people.