In the last pages of his monumental Second World War, Winston Churchill ponders on the enigma of a military decision: after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple “Yes” or “No”.
We shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision.
The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.
Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm. When Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies – the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.
So what remains today of Thatcher’s legacy today? Neoliberal hegemony is clearly falling apart. Thatcher was perhaps the only true Thatcherite – she clearly believed in her ideas. Today’s neoliberalism, on the contrary, “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing” (to quote Marx). In short, today, cynicism is openly on display. Recall the cruel joke from Lubitch’s To Be Or Not to Be: when asked about the German concentration camps in the occupied Poland, the responsible Nazi officer “concentration camp Erhardt” snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.”
Alain Badiou recently pointed out how horizontal networking undermines the classic Master, but it simultaneously breeds new forms of domination which are much stronger than the classic Master. Badiou’s thesis is that a subject needs a Master to elevate itself above the “human animal” and to practice fidelity to a Truth-Event:
“The Master is the one who helps the individual to become subject. That is to say, if one admits that the subject emerges in the tension between the individual and the universality, then it is obvious that the individual needs a mediation, and thereby an authority, in order to progress on this path. One has to renew the position of the master – it is not true that one can do without it, even and especially in the perspective of emancipation.”
Badiou is not afraid to oppose the necessary role of the Master to our “democratic” sensitivity: “This capital function of leaders is not compatible with the predominant ‘democratic’ ambience, which is why I am engaged in a bitter struggle against this ambience (after all, one has to begin with ideology).”