The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’
Once you have reduced the Tahrir Square protests to a call for Western-style democracy, as Applebaum does, of course it becomes ridiculous to compare the Wall Street protests with the events in Egypt: how can protesters in the West demand what they already have? What she blocks from view is the possibility of a general discontent with the global capitalist system which takes on different forms here or there.
‘Yet in one sense,’ she conceded, ‘the international Occupy movement’s failure to produce sound legislative proposals is understandable: both the sources of the global economic crisis and the solutions to it lie, by definition, outside the competence of local and national politicians.’ She is forced to the conclusion that ‘globalisation has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.’ This is precisely what the protesters are drawing attention to: that global capitalism undermines democracy. The logical further conclusion is that we should start thinking about how to expand democracy beyond its current form, based on multi-party nation-states, which has proved incapable of managing the destructive consequences of economic life. Instead of making this step, however, Applebaum shifts the blame onto the protesters themselves for raising these issues:
‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.
So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.
There is no shortage of anti-capitalist critique at the moment: we are awash with stories about the companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, the bankers raking in fat bonuses while their banks are saved by public money, the sweatshops where children work overtime making cheap clothes for high-street outlets. There is a catch, however. The assumption is that the fight against these excesses should take place in the familiar liberal-democratic frame. The (explicit or implied) goal is to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control over the global economy, through the pressure of media exposure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, police investigations etc. What goes unquestioned is the institutional framework of the bourgeois democratic state. This remains sacrosanct even in the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’ – the Porto Allegre forum, the Seattle movement and so on.
Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.
The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’ So far, the protesters have done well to avoid exposing themselves to the criticism that Lacan levelled at the students of 1968: ‘As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.’