A Secretary of Dangerous Questions

What was so striking about last night's Obama-McCain television debate was how the great structural crisis of American capitalism and society still hasn't infiltrated mainstream American consciousness. In spite of the Wall Street meltdown and it profound implications for America's role in the world, it was still taken for granted -- by Obama, McCain,moderator Tom Brokaw and by the majority of the Nashville audience -- that US remains the dominant global power, that it should confront Russia over the Ukraine, that it should fight wars on Israel's behalf against Iran, that it should lower taxes for the majority of its citizens, that the American economic and political model essentially works.

Apart from the question from an audience member at the end of the debate asking the two candidates what they "didn't know", there were neither dangerous questions asked nor dangerous answers given. This disconnect between reality of America in early October and the memory of America in the mid September is surreal. The world of early October 2008 is moving swiftly to a place we've never been before, but the America of last night's debate remains petrified in the certainties of mid September.

Fortunately, there are a few brave souls whose words aren't lagging behind reality and who are afraid neither of dangerous questions nor dangerous answers. John Gray, for example, has already announced the end of American global dominance. Then there's Slavoj Zizek, the iconoclast of iconoclasts, whose dangerous questions about the current crisis can heard on Chris Lydon's excellent Open Source podcast show.

Given Zizek's mastery of both Marxist and postmodern theory, today's perfect storm of capitalism -- with its cheeky, all-knowing Sarah Palin style wink at the 1929 Wall Street crash -- could have been invented by the brilliant Slovenian theorist. But Zizek's most dangerous thought is the confession that he no longer knows the question:

Dangerous moments are coming. Dangerous moments are always also a chance to do something. But in such dangerous moments, you have to think, you have to try to understand. And today obviously all the predominant narratives — the old liberal-left welfare state narrative; the post-modern third-way left narrative; the neo-conservative narrative; and of course the old standard Marxist narrative — they don’t work. We don’t have a narrative. Where are we? Where are we going? What to do? You know, we have these stupid elementary questions: Is capitalism here to stay? Are there serious limits to capitalism? Can we imagine a popular mobilization outside democracy? How should we properly react to ecology? What does it mean, all the biogenetic stuff? How to deal with intellectual property today? Things are happening. We don’t have a proper approach. It’s not only that we don’t have the answers. We don’t even have the right question.

In the debate last night, Brokaw asked the two Presidential candidates the identity of their Treasury Secretary. Wrong question. What Brokaw should have asked is who their Secretary of Dangerous Questions would be. Zizek is right: things are happening. But American liberals and conservatives are stuck in the past. More than anything else, what this petrified country needs now is a Secretary of Dangerous Questions.