06 February 2010

Leftist philosophers advocate criticism of democracy

The influential leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have long been ambivalent in their position toward democracy, neither heartily endorsing it nor being deeply critical, torn between (neo-)Marxism/communism and radical democracy. They prefer therefore to be mostly mute on the subject.

A new book, "Philosophy in the Present" (Polity Press, November 2009), transcribes a discussion between Badiou and Žižek on occasion of a public event at the French Cultural Institute in Vienna, Austria, in 2004. While the topic of the book is whether philosophy should intervene in the world, their short exchange on democracy (and the possibility of criticizing it) may be the clearest statement either of them has dared to make on this.


Here the relevant excerpts: "BADIOU: [...] Today there is an entire strand of political literature which carries out a radical critique of the economic order, but which contains a no less radical support for a certain political form. This is absolutely common. Today, innumerable people are fierce anti-capitalists: capitalism is frightful, it is an economic horror, and so on. But the same people are great defenders of democracy, of democracy in the precise sense that it exists in our societies. In truth, we are dealing with the same paradox [...]: one develops a sort of radical, objective critique of the economic form, while remaining a great supporter of the representative democracy.

"There is a statement by [Richard] Rorty that really struck me, a very important statement, which says that 'democracy is after all more important than philosophy'. While this statement may appear banal, its propaganda content is truly remarkable. Can a philosopher affirm that a political form is more important than his own activity? I think that in fact this strange statement carries a repressive content. It is intended to prohibit philosophy from asking what the veritable essence of that which today goes under the name 'democracy' is.

"I would absolutely invert the traditional approach of critique. Today's great question is not the critique of capitalism, on which more or less the whole world is in agreement with regard to the appalling material injustices, the thirty million dead in Africa because they do not receive medications, the atrocious disparities in the planet, and so on. All of this can be referred back to capitalism, in the wish for a capitalism that is better, a more moderate capitalism, and so on, without advancing an inch. Because the real question is not there, it does not lie in the negative and verbal critique of capitalism.

"The real question is that of an affirmative proposition regarding democracy, as something other than the consensus on the parliamentary form of politics. This is what the paradox [...] tries to conceal, in other words, that the truly risky philosophical imperative, the one that really poses problems for thought, is the critique of the democratic form as we know it. That is the heart of the problem. And it is altogether more difficult than acknowledging along with everyone else the extent of capitalism's injustice.

"ŽIŽEK: Now, I think, we are touching the really delicate theme – God, it's becoming boring – of our agreement: delicate, because I have paid dearly for the agreement in this case. Do you know how much this book on Lenin cost me? I lost two-thirds of my friends because of it. You can refer to Marx without any problems: Capital – what a brilliant description of the capitalist dynamic, of the 'fetish-character of the commodity', of 'alienation'. But if you refer to Lenin, that is another story, a completely different story. It is unbelievable how everybody said to me afterwards that it was merely a cheap provocation.

"Excuse me, but when I organized a colloquium in Essen, as I later found out, the German secret service popped up and asked my secretary what we were doing. You see: it is not as tolerated as it seems. That is the paradox of today's situation: according to the official ideology, everything is allowed, there is no censorship, and everything goes off neatly. But we shouldn't be deceived. [...] As we have seen, all possible excesses seem to be allowed. Just try once, however, to touch the fetish of democracy and you will see what happens.

"And I agree with you: we should try to do that today, at least – to express myself briefly – for three reasons. First, we have to ask ourselves: what does democracy really mean today? How does it function? What we can least overlook is not, for example, that it is of the people and for the people, but rather that we accept determinate rules that we obey – whatever the result may be. For me Bush's election victory in 2000, if it was that, was the apex of democracy. Why? Because no democrat in any moment even thought of not acknowledging the election result and going to the streets – even though everybody knew that they had cheated in Florida. It was clear the whole time that despite the manipulations there were rules that had to be upheld no matter what. And therefore democracy means today in the first place, even in the case of vulgar injustice, 'injustice rather than disorder', as Goethe is supposed to have said. So much for the first concrete meaning of democracy and the first reason for laying hands on it.

"I would see a second reason in the fact that there is an opportunism within democracy, an opportunism in the sense of a flight from the act. Here I would like to cite respectfully the German theoretician of the risk society, Ulrich Beck. He gives us to understand that the risks that confront us today are radical risks. It is not a case of breaking the influence of the great entrepreneurs, those who are responsible for environmental destruction, and of bringing in specialists in order to manage to take the correct decision; rather, it is about having to make a choice. We are all continuously confronted with a choice in which we must decide without any reason. Often the democratic representatives, however, speak only to the fetish of democracy.

"A way of avoiding the risk of decision is to barricade oneself behind the voters: it is not my decision, even if I legitimate it; we are all in the same boat ... Our second point of critique thus aims at the fact that democracy – as process of decision – is a way of concealing decisions. That looks roughly like this: 'I am not the one who really decides; I only make suggestions. You, the people, are the ones who make the decisions.' Here one would rather follow [Jacques] Lacan, who said that also in the political act one must take the risk completely upon oneself.

"On the third reason: in The Communist Manifesto, Marx famously wrote that communism was accused of abolishing private property: but capitalism itself had already done that. Something similar, I think, is happening today with democracy. There is a whole series of symptomatic indications of this; for example, the renewed popularity of Ralf Dahrendorf or Leo Strauss. The usual story goes like this: democracy? Yes – but only for those who are also mature for democracy. Now, we all know what sort of a dead-end the US is facing in Iraq. If they introduce democracy – and with democracy I don't mean any authentic form of democracy, but rather, our beautiful, corrupt
multi-party democracy – that would probably mean the electoral victory of the Shiites. And one notes all the current 'rethinking'; it is a key word: some US philosophers, Alan Dershowitz for example, are of the opinion that we should rethink human rights and change them to the extent that in certain cases torture is permissible.

"Here it is not just a case of the question: democracy or not. It is decisive to see what actually goes on in democracy. If there is a symbolic meaning – I hate the idea – of September 11, then in my opinion we should look for it in connection with the date 1989. For me, 1989 was not the end of utopias, as it is commonly claimed, not the end of communism, but rather the unleashing of the great utopia of liberal capitalism, marked by Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History'. And September 11 is the answer to it; if it means anything at all, it means that this utopia is today dead. The Americans, I think, are paying the price in the meantime: look at American politics – it has been completely transformed.

"We don't have to believe their phrases about democracy any more. They want to combine their world, their power to be able to intervene militarily in the world wherever they want, with a new isolationism, new walls, etc. And democracy is defined in such a radically new way in this process that only its name remains.

"Something similar happens with the economy, namely, with the WTO and the IMF. Here I agree in part with a book that, in other respects, I fundamentally reject: Hardt and Negri's Empire. People like [Oskar] Lafontaine in Germany were fooling themselves if they believed that decisions could be democratized that are made on this economic level. How do you democratize the banking institutions? That is impossible already for structural reasons: should for example four and a half billion people elect the supervisory board of the IMF? We would have to conclude: economic growth and global-capitalist processes structurally exclude democracy – even in the form that capitalism itself ascribes to it.

"We should consider all this if we are supposed to come to a decision for or against democracy. I'm inclined here to bring in [Georg/György] Lukács, who said in History and Class Consciousness that it is a question of tactical consideration. Sometimes great things are achieved in a democratic way, for example when there is a completely unexpected result in an election. That is for me a beautiful, almost sublime moment: when we leftists support a good thing, but secretly believe however that the people are too manipulated, and yet there is ultimately a miracle and the thing goes well. My problem is, however, another one: I am prepared to advocate my views in a democratic way; but not, however, to allow others to decide democratically what my views are – here I confirm my philosophical arrogance."

Responding to a follow-up question from the audience regarding his "critique of democracy", Badiou revealed: "I can speak to you about my personal case: I haven't voted since June 1968. I am a long-term non-voter".

Žižek, on the other hand, in 1990 ran as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia.

Alain Badiou is a French philosopher, formerly chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris.

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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