‘Whether dost thou profess thyself, a knave or a fool?’ is a question is asked by Lafeu of the Clown in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Jacques Lacan discusses the distinction in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, and, in a move similar to Freud’s essay ‘The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’, finds a trajectory towards similarity – if not synonymy – in both words in relation to their political bearings. ‘The “fool”’, Lacan says, ‘is sometimes clothed in the insignia of the jester’ – as is often the case in Shakespeare – and his fundamental foolery ‘accounts for the importance of the left-wing intellectual.’ The knave on the other hand is ‘an “unmitigated scoundrel”[,] he doesn’t retreat from the consequences of what is called realism; that is, when required, he admits he’s a crook’; this ‘constitutes part of the ideology of the right-wing intellectual’.
Slavoj Žižek irons out a few of the creases for us in further describing ‘the fool [a]s a simpleton, a court jester who is allowed to tell the truth, precisely because the ‘performative power’ (the socio-political efficiency) of his speech is suspended’, and ‘the knave [a]s the cynic who openly states the truth, a crook who tries to sell as honesty the open admission of his crookedness, a scoundrel who admits the need for illegitimate repression in order to maintain social stability’. With the former this is so often the case in Shakespeare in that the fool will advise queen or king (such as Lear) unabashedly truthfully, though the veil of jest disallows their statements’ symbolic efficacy to make any mark in the real. With the knave, the odd short-circuit is that there is a risk to the maintenance of their dominant stance in not admitting to being a crook – as Richard Milhous Nixon was quick to find out – suggesting something of a compulsion in the that-way-voting electorate (who are not the elite) to will their own abjection and subjugation at the hands of the crooked.
Lacan’s lesser-discussed qualification of these designations might assist in suggesting the whys and wherefores of this compulsion. The result for Lacan of gathering knaves who are crooks ‘into a herd’ is it ‘inevitab[ly] leading to a collective foolery’, and, ‘by a curious chiasma, the “foolery” which constitutes the individual style of the left-wing intellectual gives rise to a collective “knavery.”’ David Cameron is undoubtedly a knave, as are his party cronies, as all the increasingly-overt rich-privileging and racist-courting Tory policy-making can attest, the crookedness of which is often openly admitted, but admitted, as Žižek says, ‘as honesty’, which is its lie. The government’s collective foolery is hinted at in the coalition by the Lib Dems’ impotent scramblings to disagree with certain policies a posteriori, but this is in fact only a weak middle position, failing to attain to the a priori point of principle that constitutes the fool’s ‘jest’; as Jonathan Haynes demonstratively tweeted: ‘so Nick Clegg has now laid into the “go home” vans. If only he was deputy prime minister and was able to stop them…’ So it might be that the only element of collective foolery that actually comes about in the herd of crooked knaves and their lackeys that is the coalition is the constitutive inability of the fool’s position to emerge anywhere in their efficacious discourse. For the collective knavery resulting from the herding of fools in recent times, Tony Blair and New Labour are its epitome, with their hegemonic aspiration to an ideal of ‘we’re all middle-class now’ in the midst of all their grave exploitations in this country and the world over; ‘thou art both knave and fool’ as Lafeu says.
The point here is, however, not to disrecommend politics, as some sort of lost cause, or to promote apathy by suggesting all politicians are fundamentally ‘the same as one another’, but it is rather to prompt us to ask again the question that was always key for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: ‘Why does desire desire its own repression?’, and to always be on guard against that which is at the heart of its answer, which Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton point out: ‘desiring oppression also operates on a global scale, when ‘the workers of the rich nations actively participate in the exploitation of the Third World, the arming of dictatorships, and the pollution of the atmosphere’’; even ‘most leftist organizations such as trade unions and workers’ movements are not immune to desiring oppression or microfascism.’ In fact, little could speak as convincingly in favour of political engagement as this very lack of such inherent immunity; beware, then, the false foolery in knavery, but so too the knavery in foolery!