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The Guardian
June 4, 2005

The Constitution is Dead - Long Live Proper Politics
By Slavoj Zizek

Amish communities practise the institution of rumspringa. At 17 their children, until then subject to strict family discipline, are set free. They are allowed, solicited even, to go out and experience the ways of the modern world - they drive cars, listen to pop music, watch TV and get involved in drinking, drugs and wild sex. After a couple of years they are expected to decide: will they return to be full members of the Amish community or leave it forever and become ordinary American citizens?

But far from being permissive and allowing the youngsters a truly free choice, such a solution is biased in a most brutal way. It is a fake choice if ever there was one. When, after long years of discipline and fantasising about the illicit pleasures of the outside world, the adolescent Amish are thrown into it, of course they cannot help but indulge in extreme behaviour. They want to test it all - sex, drugs and drinking. And since they have no experience of regulating such a life they quickly run into trouble. There's a backlash that generates unbearable anxiety, so it is a safe bet that after a couple of years they will return to the seclusion of their community. No wonder that 90% of Amish children do exactly that.

This is a perfect example of the difficulties that always accompany the idea of a "free choice". While the Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they find themselves in while they are making that choice make the choice itself unfree. In order for them to have an effectively free choice they would have to be properly informed on all the options. But the only way to do this would be to extract them from their embeddedness in the Amish community. So what has all this to do with the French no to the European constitution, whose aftershock waves are now spreading all around, immediately giving a boost to the Dutch, who rejected the constitution with an even higher percentage? Everything. The voters were treated exactly like the Amish youngsters: they were not given a clear symmetrical choice. The very terms of the choice privileged the yes lobby. The elite proposed to the people a choice that was effectively no choice at all. People were called to ratify the inevitable. Both the media and the political elite presented the choice as one between knowledge and ignorance, between expertise and ideology, between post-political administration and the old political passions of the left and the right.

The no was dismissed as a short-sighted reaction unaware of its own consequences. It was charged with being a murky reaction of fear of the emerging new global order, an instinct to protect the comfortable welfare state traditions, a gesture of refusal lacking any positive alternative programme. No wonder the only political parties whose official stance was no were those at the opposite extremes of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we are told, the no was really a no to many other things: to Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism, to the present government, to the influx of migrant workers, and so on.

However, even if there is an element of truth in all this, the very fact that the no in both countries was not sustained by a coherent alternative political vision is the strongest possible condemnation of the political and media elite. It is a monument to their inability to articulate the people's longings and dissatisfactions. Instead, in their reaction to the no results, they treated the people as retarded pupils who did not understand the lessons of the experts.

So although the choice was not a choice between two political options, nor was it a choice between the enlightened vision of a modern Europe, ready to embrace the new global order, and old, confused political passions. When commentators described the no as a message of befuddled fear, they were wrong. The real fear we are dealing with is the fear that the no itself provoked within the new European political elite. It was the fear that people would no longer be so easily convinced by their "post-political" vision.

And so for all others the no is a message and expression of hope. This is the hope that politics is still alive and possible, that the debate about what the new Europe shall and should be is still open. This is why we on the left must reject the sneering insinuations of the liberals that in our no we find ourselves with strange neo-fascist bedfellows. What the new populist right and the left share is just one thing: the awareness that politics proper is still alive.

There was a positive choice in the no: the choice of choice itself; the rejection of the blackmail by the new elite that offers us only the choice to confirm their expert knowledge or to display one's "irrational" immaturity. Our no is a positive decision to start a properly political debate about what kind of Europe we really want.

Late in his life, Freud asked the famous question Was will das Weib?, admitting his perplexity when faced with the enigma of female sexuality. Does the imbroglio with the European constitution not bear witness to the same puzzlement: what Europe do we want?

To put it bluntly, do we want to live in a world in which the only choice is between the American civilisation and the emerging Chinese authoritarian-capitalist one? If the answer is no then the only alternative is Europe. The third world cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American dream. In the present world constellation, it is only Europe that can do it. The true opposition today is not between the first world and the third world. Instead it is between the first and third world (i.e. the American global empire and its colonies), and the second world (i.e. Europe).

Apropos Freud, Theodor Adorno claimed that what we are seeing in the contemporary world with its "repressive desublimation" is no longer the old logic of repression of the id and its drives but a perverse pact between the superego (social authority) and the id (illicit aggressive drives) at the expense of the ego. Is not something structurally similar going on today at the political level: the weird pact between the postmodern global capitalism and the premodern societies at the expense of modernity proper? It is easy for the American multiculturalist global empire to integrate premodern local traditions. The foreign body that it cannot effectively assimilate is European modernity.

The message of the no to all of us who care for Europe is: no, anonymous experts whose merchandise is sold to us in a brightly coloured liberal-multiculturalist package will not prevent us from thinking. It is time for us, citizens of Europe, to become aware that we have to make a properly political decision about what we want. No enlightened administrator will do the job for us.