Stupid Like a Fox by Aimee Brown

Last week, the Anna Cento Bull article introduced the related concepts of the ‘empty signifier’ and the ‘chain of equivalence’. This week, they’re everywhere. To review, empty signifiers are symbols invested with a different meaning for multiple groups through a chain of equivalence. Thus, A also means B and C so TERM X means whatever you want it to mean. Empty signifiers are necessary for populism because if a signifier (a word, term, or symbol) had a fixed meaning (if it only meant one thing), then it would only be able to capture the imagination, or represent the interests, of one group. Populism needs to be popular with multiple groups by being all things to all men. It does this by taking a term and abstracting it until it loses all actual substance, so that it can then be invested with multiple diverse significations simultaneously.    

For example, the Kalmar article describes how, in Hungary, ‘George Soros’, a signifier accurately representing one very rich man, has come to signifier ‘the Jews’, Freemasons, the Illuminati, immigrant hordes, being anti-Christian, and being anti-Hungarian. ‘George Soros’ has been emptied of its particular meaning through a chain of equivalence (now this guy means all of these things), until it has been rendered a universal negative. As Kalmar says, “Orban and Fidesz blamed George Soros for just about everything they opposed” (189).

This is all pretty boilerplate European antisemitism, but the Moses article explicates a less familiar linguistic taxonomy in Indonesia. There, a complicated history of colonialism has resulted in ‘antisemitism’ being emptied of meaning and conflated with anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. Actual Jewish people are a very, very small minority in the country, so ‘the Jew’ becomes ‘the colonist’ becomes ‘the foreigner’ becomes a rationale for violence against Chinese people.

Finally, in the Vice video about Germany, being opposed to Covid vaccinations is, through a chain of equivalence, connected to a shadowy cabal plotting to enact a new world order, which leads to antisemitism, because the shadowy cabal is Jewish, because of course it is. And herein lies the power of a movement like QAnon. It’s not ridiculous and nonsensical, it’s an infinitely big tent constructed to accommodate all of the empty signifiers in the world. It’s stupid like a fox.

2 Replies to “Stupid Like a Fox by Aimee Brown”

  1. Empty signifiers and chains of equivalence are something we discussed last class and I like how you’ve applied them here. In previous decades, “socialism” was the empty signifier and anything someone didn’t like was somehow “socialist.” Now that that Cold War era mentality is fading, it seems those on the extreme right have given steroids to the same concept, as you’ve explained. “An infinitely big tent” is a great way to describe it, since anything can mean anything and anything means a scary new world order.

  2. That Indonesian chain of equivalence seems so unnecessary! Couldn’t they just hate the Chinese directly? Unless antisemitism is so strongly embedded in their thinking that this is the only natural way for them to go. (Mostly kidding…?)
    I found the Suharto-claimed Zionist conspiracy the most bizarre turn in that part of the article. His gambit was totally out of step with the reality that Israel had supported his regime.

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