< >   perfume   lacanian ink   symposia   messageboard   sitemap    links   bibliographies  


London Review of Books
December 2, 2004

Hooray for Bush!
By Slavoj Zizek

My comments on the paradoxes of US populist conservatism were made just before the US election. The result, it seems to me, poses the basic paradox of democracy itself. In The History of the VKP, Stalin (who ghost-wrote the book) describes the outcome of the voting at a party congress in the late 1920s: "With a large majority, the delegates unanimously approved the resolution proposed by the Central Committee." If the vote was unanimous, where then did the minority disappear? Far from demonstrating some perverse totalitarian twist, this anecdote lays bare the nature of democracy. It is based on a short-circuit between majority and the totality: the majority accounts for everyone and the winner takes all, even if his majority is merely a couple of hundred votes among millions.

"Democracy" is not merely the "power of, by and for the people"; it is not the salient feature of democracy that the will and interests (the two do not automatically coincide) of the large majority determine state decisions. Democracy - in the way the term is used today - means that, whatever electoral manipulation takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were, despite appearances, effectively 'democratic': in spite of obvious electoral manipulation, and of the absurdity of the fact that a couple of hundred votes in Florida decided who would be president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. When, in the weeks of uncertainty after the election, Bill Clinton said, "The American people have spoken; we just don't know what they said," the remark should have been taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don't know the 'true' result - and maybe this is because there was no substantial "message" behind the result. Those old enough to recall the attempts of "democratic socialists" to oppose to the miseries of "really-existing socialism" a vision of authentic socialism will know that such attempts deserve the standard Hegelian response: the failure of reality to live up to its notion bears witness to the inherent weakness of the notion. Why should the same not hold for democracy? Isn't it all too simple to oppose to "really-existing" liberal capitalo-democracy a more true 'radical' democracy?

This is not to say, however, that Bush's victory was just an accident or a mistake, the result of fraud and manipulation. Hegel wrote apropos of Napoleon that it was only after his second defeat, at Waterloo, that it became clear to him that his defeat was the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: he had to win twice in order for liberals to perceive that we are entering a new era.

And, in this respect, thinking leftists should be glad that Bush won. It's better this way because the contours of the confrontations to come will be drawn in a much clearer way. Had Kerry won, it would have been a historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division; he didn't have a global vision that presented a viable alternative to Bush's. Besides, Bush's victory is paradoxically better for the economic prospects of both Europe and Latin America: in order to win the support of the trade unions, Kerry had promised more protectionist measures.

However, the main advantage has to do with international politics. If Kerry had won, liberals would have had to face up to the consequences of the Iraq war, and the Bush camp would have been able to ascribe to them the results of its own catastrophic decisions. In 1979, in her essay "Dictators and Double Standards", Jeanne Kirkpatrick elaborated the distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes which served as the justification for the US policy of collaborating with rightist dictators while attempting to destabilise Communist regimes: authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent to ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big idea. In contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless ideological fanatics who are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals. Authoritarian rulers react rationally and predictably to material and military threats - they can be dealt with. Totalitarian leaders are much more dangerous and have to be confronted directly. The irony is that this distinction perfectly encapsulates what went wrong with the US occupation of Iraq: Saddam was a corrupt authoritarian dictator guided by brutal pragmatic considerations. The US intervention has generated a much more uncompromising, "fundamentalist" opposition which rejects pragmatic compromises.

Bush's victory will dispel any illusions there may have been about the solidarity of interests among developed countries; it will also give new impetus to the painful but necessary process of building new alliances such as the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. It is a journalistic cliché to praise 'postmodern', dynamic US capitalism at the expense of old Europe's regulatory illusions. However, Europe is now going much further than the US towards constituting itself as a properly "postmodern" unity in which there is room for everyone, independent of geography or culture, including Cyprus and Turkey.

No reason to despair, then. Even if today the prospects look dark, we should remember one of the great Bushisms: "The future will be better tomorrow."

Slavoj Zizek
Ljubljana, Slovenia