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• 09/12/04 - The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle
• 05/21/04 - What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib
• 01/10/04 - Iraq's False Promises
• 11/04/03 - The Iraqi MacGuffin
• 03/13/03 - THE IRAQ WAR


- 4/14/03 - Columbia University - TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY?

by Slavoj Zizek

"Democracy" is not merely the "power of, by, and for the people," it is not enough just to claim that, in democracy, the will and the interests (the two in no way automatically coincide) of the large majority determine the state decisions. Democracy - in the way this term is used today - concerns, above all, formal legalism: its minimal definition is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. "Democracy" means that, whatever electoral manipulation took place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were effectively "democratic": in spite of obvious electoral manipulations, and of the patent meaninglessness of the fact that a couple hundred of Florida voices will decide who will be the president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriate acerbic comment: "The American people have spoken; we just don't know what they said." This comment should be taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don't know it - and, maybe, because there was no substantial "message" behind the result at all. This is the sense in which one should render problematic democracy: why should the Left always and unconditionally respect the formal democratic "rules of the game"? Why should it not, in some circumstances, at least, put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure?

Interestingly enough, there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or, at least, a substantial part of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: what if the formally free elections are won by an anti-democratic party whose platform promises the abolition of formal democracy? (This did happen, among other places, in Algeria a couple of years ago, and the situation is similar in today's Pakistan.) In such a case, many a democrat would concede that the people was not yet "mature" enough to be allowed democracy, and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim will be to educate the majority into proper democrats is preferable.

This strategic suspension of democracy is reaching new heights today. The US were putting tremendous pressure on Turkey where, according to opinion polls, 94% of the people are opposed to allowing the US troops' presence for the war against Iraq - where is democracy here? Every old Leftist remembers Marx's reply, in The Communist Manifesto, to the critics who reproached the Communists that they aim at undermining family, property, etc.: it is the capitalist order itself whose economic dynamics is destroying the traditional family order (incidentally, a fact more true today than in Marx's time), as well as expropriating the large majority of the population. In the same vein, is it not that precisely those who pose today as global defenders of democracy are effectively undermining it? In a perverse rhetorical twist, when the pro-war leaders are confronted with the brutal fact that their politics is out-of-tune with the majority of their population, they take recourse to the commonplace wisdom that "a true leader leads, he does not follow" - and this from leaders otherwise obsessed with opinion polls...

When politicians start to directly justify their decisions in ethical terms, one can be sure that ethics is mobilized to cover up some dark, threatening prospects. It is the very inflation of abstract ethical rhetoric in George W. Bush's recent public statements (of the "Does the world have the courage to act against Evil or not?" type) which manifests the utter ETHICAL misery of the U.S. position - the function of ethical reference is here purely mystifying, merely serving to mask the true political stakes (which are not difficult to discern). In order to trace these stakes, recall how the geopolitic hardliners like to compare today's situation of the US to that of a patient on dialysis: the US ªway of life´ in all its aspects, including the ideological ones, crucially depends on the availability of a certain minimal amount of the oil supply, only one third of which can be provided by the US themselves. The US are thus like a patient on dialysis whose survival depends on the influx of oil mostly controlled by the Muslim population which is antagonistic to the US values and might - in short, a patient whose dialysis machine is controlled by a crazy doctor who hates the patient... The only way to avoid the permanent threat is to directly take control of the key oil suppliers in the Middle East. The gradual limitation of democracy is clearly perceptible in the attempts to "rethink" the present situation - one is, of course, for democracy and human rights, but one should "rethink" them, and a series of recent interventions in the public debate give a clear sense of the direction of this "rethinking." In The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria, Bush's favored columnist, locates the threat to freedom in "overdoing democracy," i.e., in the rise of "illiberal democracy at home and abroad" (the books subtitle). He draws the lesson that democracy can only "catch on" in economically developed countries: if the developing countries are "prematurely democratized," the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism - no wonder that today's economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule. The immediate lessons for Iraq is clear and unambiguous: yes, the US should bring democracy to Iraq, but not impose it immediately - there should first be a period of five or so years in which a benevolently-authoritarian US dominated regime would create proper conditions for the effective functioning of democracy... We know now what bringing democracy means: it means that the US and its "willing partners" impose themselves as the ultimate judges who decide if a country is ripe for democracy.

As for the US themselves, Zakaria's diagnosis is that "America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy. /.../ The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty." The remedy is thus to counteract this excessive "democratization of democracy" (or "deMOREcracy") by delegating more power to impartial experts insulated from the democratic fray, like the independent central banks. Such a diagnosis cannot but provoke an ironic laughter: today, in the alleged "overdemocratization," the US and the UK started a war on Iraq against the will of the majority of their own populations, not to mention the international community. And are we not all the time witnessing the imposition of key decisions concerning global economy (trade agreements, etc.) by "impartial" bodies exempted from democratic control? Is the idea that, in our post-ideological era, economy should be de-politicized and run by experts, today not a commonplace shared by all participants? Even more fundamentally, is it not ridiculous to complain about "overdemocratization" in a time when the key economic and geopolitic decisions are as a rule not an issue in elections: for at least three decades, what Zakaria demands is already a fact. What we are effectively witnessing today is a split into ideological life-style issues where fierce debates rage and choices are solicited (abortion, gay marriages, etc.), and the basic economic policy which is presented as a depoliticized domain of expert decisions - the proliferation of "overdemocracy" with the "excesses" or affirmative action, the "culture of complaint," and the demands for financial and other restitutions of victims, is ultimately the front whose back side is the silent weaving of the economic logic.

The obverse of the same tendency to counteract the excesses of "deMOREcracy" is the open dismissal of any international body that would effectively control the conduct of a war - exemplary is here Kenneth Anderson's "Who Owns the Rules of War?" (in The New York Times Magazine, April 13 2003), whose subtitle make the point unambiguously clear: "The war in Iraq demands a rethinking of the international rules of conduct. The outcome could mean less power for neutral, well-meaning human rights groups and more for big-stick-wielding states. That would be a good thing." The main complaint of this essay is that, "for the past 20 years, the center of gravity in establishing, interpreting and shaping the law of war has gradually shifted away from the militaries of leading states and toward more activist human rights organizations;" this tendency is perceived as unbalanced, "unfair" towards the big military powers who intervene in other countries, and partial towards the attacked countries - with the clear conclusion that the militaries on the "big-stick-wielding states" should themselves determine the standards by which their actions will be judged. This conclusion is quite consistent with the US rejection of the authority of the Hague War Crimes tribunal over its citizens. Effectively, as they would have put it in Lord of the Rings, a new Dark Age is descending upon the human race.


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Comment On This Article





comments gif
Democracy is the power of the whole of the demos of any given area. This implies the necessity of ideologicaly creating a demos that excludes aspects of the individual or minorities... Also democracy is undermined by the need to rule, to leadership and efficiency... Thus the one who can lead, will rule... to rule with confidence and charisma, a leader has to be unfair and exclude democracy from the intricacies of power.
ramon maņes <equinda@hotmail.com>
Madrid, - Friday, July 25, 2003 at 02:58:10 (EDT)
Anuradha Bhattacharyya,

You've hit that ugly nail right on the head.
"Unfortunately democracy becomes a farce in any case of emergency."

Are we not now witnessing the implementation of a permanent state of emergency in the US?

In this reign of the rule of exception also means that the object of revenge will change as soon as the public becomes bored or distracted (or is told its bored or distracted) by the former menace.

If you ask me, democracy has been permanently sent off to 'summer camp' while its parents/children raze the neighbourhood. While the cameras are at home, I can only wonder what's happening at camp.

Peter Chambers <pingsquawk@yahoo.com>
Tokyo, - Monday, July 21, 2003 at 21:19:45 (EDT)
Amartya Sen said something interesting in 99: No where do we believe that a country is not "ready" for democracy. He said, This indeed is a monumental achievement.

So we find an interesting cultural shift rightwards, while ignoring of course the geopolitical developments. We're right now willing to wait indefinitely for Iraq to be "ready" (Friedman). So that's an interesting change.

The psychology is pretty straightforward.

Gandhi <Kenneth_shores@hotmail.com>
Texas!, - Wednesday, July 02, 2003 at 23:46:08 (EDT)
I mostly agree; the level of "democracy" post 9/11 led to a labeling of the outgroup and justified a type of patrio-fundamentalism against people of arabic ethnicity. That mindset was partially responsible for the imperialist intervention in the middle east and the iraq genocide. "Democracy" in my opinion was what caused 9/11 in the first place. Hegemony misused.
Zak Schaller <reborn_56@yahoo.com>
Kuna, Idaho, - Thursday, June 12, 2003 at 15:48:46 (EDT)
Zizek, tell me, then, what is the alternative?
What is the alternative to democracy? market economy?
All of your critical comments are interesting but remains empty until you present something concrete as an alternative.

Ken Tchakiwa
Brighton, - Monday, April 21, 2003 at 13:54:31 (EDT)
Democracy, at the practical level, is exercised by the public only until the new president is elected.

Unfortunately democracy becomes a farce in any case of emergency. It is not that the situation in Iraq showed its ugly face only now. But this subject was not one of the agendas discussed before the public elected Bush. The attack on the world trade centre created a sense of emergency for the US to now take up the subject of Muslim states being that of an exploitative/undemocratic kind.

It is only when we see all the Muslim states together as one set of ideology and the Cristian communities as the opposite set, that the war becomes a perrenial danger to the world. For, with Bin Laden's disappearence, Bush's sense of revenge remains unappeased and he seems to see Saddam as Bin Laden's alibi. The main cause of it is their identical ethnicity.

Anuradha Bhattacharyya <anubya@yahoo.co.in>
Mumbai, - Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 18:47:03 (EDT)
This piece was read at Columbia University, Monday 4/14/03
The Editors
New York, NY, - Tuesday, April 15, 2003 at 17:38:56 (EST)