Democracy is the enemy

Slavoj Žižek

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.’


  • 28 October 2011 at 6:54pm
    Bob Beck says:
    When I read Anne Applebaum, I have the sensation my head is slowly filling up with glue. In that piece, which also ran on Slate (owned by the Washington Post), she wrote:

    "In New York, marchers chanted, 'This is what democracy looks like,' but, actually, this isn't what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary, and many unglamorous, time-consuming activities, none of which are nearly as much fun as camping out in front of St. Paul's cathedral or chanting slogans on the Rue St. Martin in Paris."

    So, by avoiding those "boring" institutions and activities, and engaging in -- by Applebaum's lights -- harmless irrelevancies, the Occupy movement is somehow threatening those institutions and activities. It's like blaming the imminent death of a whale on barnacles instead of drift nets.

  • 29 October 2011 at 7:50am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    All of this talk about the Occupiers 'undermining' democratic systems is nonsense, just as the calls that they should tell 'us' how to fix the system are meaningless double talk. We can't 'fix' capitalism, capitalism is the problem.
    "‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline." Well, thank you very much Ms. Applebaum, we'll think of something, just give us time.
    As a start, we might try and work out how the banks and hedge funds around the world have got detached from the real world of production, distribution and consumption and exist in a parallel universe, generating vast profits for each other, completely detached from the real world and real people. It would only be a start but it would help if we can find out.

    • 12 November 2011 at 9:11pm
      in2it says: @ Geoff Roberts
      "As a start, we might try and work out how the banks and hedge funds around the world have got detached from the real world of production, distribution and consumption and exist in a parallel universe, generating vast profits for each other, completely detached from the real world and real people. It would only be a start but it would help if we can find out."

      The detachment of certain financial institutions from the real world is, like any other insular institutional behavior, due to the primitive tribal mentality that we are all still subject to. Conservative and liberal political parties, for instance, behave toward one another as tribal enemies. Each seeks the destruction of the other. The whole society they are supposed to serve and represent is merely seen as their battleground. They view the world outside them as either for or against them and it is only their survival that matters.

      If I am part of an investment bank I belong to a tribe whose culture is all about self-interested profiteering and that would represent the real world to me because i am also pursuing my own self-interest, that is, making as much money as I can. Within the tribe it all makes sense. And isn't that what the real world is all about - making money? So, it all seems perfectly justified. Also, isn't everyone pursuing their own self-interest.

      All the occupiers have a self-interest in changing things for their own benefit which they also see as benefitting society as a whole. It's problematical at this point whether or not they are benefitting society but that is the crux of the whole enchilada - how do we benefit, or at least not harm, society as a whole while operating out of self-interest as we are wont to do?

      So, getting down to naked basics we see that every social system that ever was and ever will be is formed from one fundamental dynamic, and that is, self-interest/collective-interest.

      In the natural realm the organizing factor in the formation of primitive groups was individual self-interest. That is all primitives had to guide them. The ultimate self-interest is survival or self-preservation and in order to survive in the wild one had to belong to a group. Survival on one's own was not a viable option. So, individual self-interest formed cohesive coherent collectives that provided the best prospect for survival for all of its members. Collective-interest, then, was served by self-interest and vice versa.

      This basic dynamic is also evident in our civilized societies where one's self-interest in survival is still fostered through collectives. Money is the way to survive and so it is in one's self-interest to make money. One does this by getting a job. That is, one becomes part of a collective called a business and contributes to the survival or profitability of that collective and is rewarded with a paycheck satisfying one's self-interest.

      The synergy between self and collective-interest is not, however, as palpably evident in civilized settings as it is in primitive ones and we can and do lose sight of that crucial dynamic. We have separate ideologies that favor and promote the one or the other. Capitalism is in the self-interest camp and socialism is all about the collective. And the reason neither can serve as a stand-alone operating system for a society is because they represent only one aspect of the social dynamic.

      In losing sight of this dynamic one can come to believe that serving one's self-interest is all that matters. Like those employed by an investment banking firm and are immersed in a culture of self-serving profiteering.

      On the other hand an emphasis on living for the collective can squash individual initiative and become an obstacle to economic vigor.

      The basic social dynamic, self-interest/collective-interest, must be ever in our sights and all of our institutions must seek to establish and maintain the necessary synergy that dynamic requires. This can only be accomplished in a social system that is generated and managed more from the microcosm.

  • 29 October 2011 at 10:31am
    Dave Boyle says:
    Zizek seems to be arguing for more worker co-operatives, something which would benefit from him actually pointing out meet the terms he calls for, of a change in social relations of production and democracy over ownership, control and management within workplaces. It'd be great if he would actually endorse this!

    • 30 October 2011 at 1:56am
      REB says: @ Dave Boyle
      A significant change in the 'social relations of production' (and I would add 'consumption' too) would come if you break the dependency of income from work. That is possible with mechanisms like the basic income guaranteed, or citizen's income. It will provide the strongest foundation for building, bottom-up, a redefinition of the values of society: the ability to say 'no' to the current corporate capitalism 'choices'.

  • 30 October 2011 at 10:52am
    patrick hutchinson says:
    So we are back to worker control and direct democracy. But if anything is to be learned from the history of the Twentieth century, is it not that there is no way of preventing the clutch of direct democracy slipping into Totalitarianism and neo-elitist (leninist) tyranny, without the exterior, 'transcendent' reference to a code of rights guaranteed by the Rule of Law? Zizek writes as though humanity had not already recoiled in horror from the vertigo of this bottomless abyss...
    So Lacan or no Lacan, we've heard it all before, and Zizek's fundamentalism again yearns to take the global protest movements down the wrong garden path. The problem is not to sink back into portraying democracy as an enemy - it already is that of neo-liberalism's contemporary lurch towards slavery and growing support for the return of fascism - but in providing its crucial struggle and resistance with the right institutional scale and constitutional framework...which, of course, and there we agree, is no longer the Nation-state!
    To confront Global Capitalism, we need world-regions capable of autonomy and effective resistance!

    • 31 October 2011 at 10:02am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ patrick hutchinson
      "To confront Global Capitalism, we need world-regions capable of autonomy and effective resistance!" And that's where the trouble starts. By 'confront' I assume that you mean to fight capitalism - how do you do that when capitalism is off and running to make profits out of the new set of conditions that it has given itself - 'dark pools' and 'Chi-X' is the jargonese for the new instruments that they have developed. 'They' in this sentence are the major banks and hedge funds, running completely free of all constraints. Then, this term 'world region' - what is that? 'Autonomy', yes but it sounds strangely like the autarchy that Hitler fought his war for. So it sounds as if you agree with the Occupiers who say 'we need a new solution, but don't ask us yet what this means.'

    • 1 November 2011 at 4:38pm
      patrick hutchinson says: @ Geoff Roberts
      As I see it, autonomy means you are big enough to give yourself your own laws, or, for that matter, the economic basis for agreeing democratically on your own federal constitution - so, for instance, to be ready and able to bale out Greece,not buy it out or, as in your inference, worse still, invade it...
      Scale is thus all. Once you've got the right scale, through a duly insurrectional constitutional process, tax 'em out!

    • 7 November 2011 at 4:22pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ patrick hutchinson
      Well, that might be true for the USA, China and maybe India, but otherwise I see no chance of any sort of autonomy.

    • 10 November 2011 at 9:20pm
      in2it says: @ patrick hutchinson
      I say yes to autonomy, but at the local level. The world cannot be managed on a global basis. Or even a state or national basis as we see.

      Communities, however, can be managed within a global context.

      Autonomous communities as centers of power that look inward to see how they can best organize and function and look outward along with other communities to create the organs they deem necessary to form a social system wherein every community, town, village, neighborhood can prosper.

      So, the microcosm forms the macrocosm. That is how everything is formed, from the universe to life forms. Social systems should be no exception.

      We can see social systems as information processing systems, which is what they have become by virtue of electronic/information age technologies. Such technologies would favor small discrete localities networking together to fashion a society that works for them.

      One of the seemingly hidden reasons for current socioeconomic problems is that things are moving too fast for old deliberative government bodies to keep up with. Social systems are information processing systems operating at light speed and governments treat them like plodding machines.

      Anyway, I refer to the human body as a model for a social system. First of all they are both information processing systems and the body is formed from trillions of microscopic cells that might be comparable to localities in a social body constantly networking to manage a functioning system.

      Now, a society needs to define the purpose of money as energizing the work that needs to be done for its health and well-being. This is comparable to blood in the body energizing the work that needs to be done for the health and well-being of the body. In the body blood is circulated to every cell providing the nutrients for work they do.

      This is how money should be circulated in a social body. Localities would be where the money supply originates and from where it is distributed to the larger organs of their creation.

      The banking system then would also be formed from local banks. It would be a banking system aligned to the economic system and its purpose would be to support a viable vigorous economy, thus creating plentiful jobs.

      This is just a few threads of a whole tapestry. For a look at the whole picture
      start here

  • 31 October 2011 at 1:42pm
    lproyect says:
    Zizek's take on democracy has little to do with the Leninist tradition.

  • 31 October 2011 at 6:40pm
    lproyect says:

  • 2 November 2011 at 1:45pm
    Roy Madron says:
    What foxes me is that people seem to assume that they all know what each other means by 'Democracy'. Shouldn't we try to define our terms? Are we talking about the Athenian model? The Competing Elites model? or if not what? and do we all know what'direct democracy' is or should be? Elsewhere, according to Hilary Wainwright and Oscar Reyes in the Guardian, the Spanish 15M movement seems to think it knows what 'real democracy' is, and thet real democracy has to be separated from government. Which seems to me to be bizarre.

    Defining our terms is not pedantry, it is a basic requirement of developing a shared understanding of both the unjust, unsustainable, unviable present and a shared vision of a viable, just and sustainable future. Otherwise its just empty blah.

  • 3 November 2011 at 1:04am
    Milan_Rakas says:
    Every sentence in this article deserves to be carefully and decently commented. Nevertheless, I choose to comment on exactly what is missing - a gap.

    Almost at the level of a weird intellectual taboos - all avoid talking about the post capitalist society and economy. In particular, no one talks about the power that now, in front of our eyes, the pressure to perform historical epoch change. What is that power? Is it the will of many people? Or is it a biological reaction to the existential threat to many people? Or is it the mental pain and feeling of an accident because of injustice and oppression? Some of us believe that capitalism is a self-destruct, and that revolution is not necessary. But something will have to exist as a social organization after capitalism. What is it? It? This is a gap in the text that cries for answers. I still look back around ... But it is time to look "up". Thank you Mr. Slavoj Zizek on inspiration.

  • 3 November 2011 at 2:10am
    in2it says:
    "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."

    ok, the space is open

    for new content I offer this;

  • 7 November 2011 at 9:33pm
    JPierre33 says:
    Democracy is the enemy (and "the enemy is us") simply because we see it as a static concept. For it to work it must be dynamic. One solution to all of those impacted by 'gas exploration' in US would have been Barry Commoner's proposal for some degree of regional autonomy through "bio-regions".

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