In politics, the motto larvatus prodeo (“I go forward masked”) is often quite appropriate: A revolutionary force, when it takes over, at first doesn’t show its true colors but merely claims it wants to improve the existing system. But isn’t it even more appropriate to turn the saying around: larvatus recedo? When I am forced to retreat, I assume a deceiving mask to cover up the depth of my defeat and present it as a fresh advance. Then again, what if the naked face itself is already a mask, so that when I retreat, I pretend to drop my mask and offer my true face—the ultimate deception? Just recall politicians who (often late in their age) betray their radical roots and claim that they are now no longer possessed by false visions: “I renounce my ideological illusions, now I am just who I truly am…”

This version of larvatus recedo perfectly fits the fetishist function of ideology in its cynical mode, which includes a distance toward itself—or, to repeat Peter Sloterdijk’s old formula of cynical reason, “I know what I am doing, but I am nonetheless doing it.” The fetishist disavowal “I know very well, but… (I don’t really believe it)” is raised to a higher reflexive level: Fetish isn’t the element to which I hold so that I can act ignoring what I know—fetish is this knowledge itself. The cynical reasoning is: “I know very well what I am doing, so you can’t reproach me that I don’t know what I am doing.”

This is how, in today’s capitalism, the hegemonic ideology includes, and thereby neutralizes, critical knowledge. Critical distance towards the social order is the very medium through which this order reproduces itself. Just think about today’s explosion of art biennales (Venice, Kassel, and the like): Although they usually present themselves as a form of resistance against global capitalism and its commodification of everything, they are in their mode of organization the ultimate form of art as a moment of capitalist self-reproduction. Or recall the big conference about global warming in Glasgow two years ago: The urgent need for international cooperation and green action was publicly embraced, but all this declarative blah-blah had no real effect. And it is quite probable that the same will happen with anti-capitalist talk: Very little will really change; a threat to the system will be effectively neutralized.

“The predominant critical stance in our big media still avoids capitalism.”