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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 state decisions. Democracy—in the way the 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 “rules of the game.”’’’

“Democracy” means that, whatever electoral manipulation actually takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 were effectively “democratic.” Despite obvious and patent electoral manipulations in Florida, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriately acerbic comment: “The American people have spoken. We just don’t know what they said.” This comment should have been taken more seriously than it was meant, for it revealed how the present machinery of democracy can be problematic, to say the least. ‘’’Why should the left always and unconditionally respect the formal “rules of the game”? Why should it not, in some circumstances, put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure?’’’[1]

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek’s thinking with regard to political democracy is ambivalent, or nuanced, in several ways. It has gone through two broad phases. In his earliest works published in English, principally The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek appears to advocate a form of radical democracy, close to the positions of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Yannis Stavrakakis. Since the mid-1990s, however, Žižek has become increasingly critical of democracy as a political regime, and “democracy” as a signifier around which any radical politics worthy of the name might be organized.

Žižek’s early advocacy of radical democracy is rooted in his wider Lacanian premises and theory of political power. According to this position, subjects’ commitments to political regimes are never wholly symbolic, or explicable in terms of their complete identification with the regimes’ symbolic ideals (like freedom, the party, the nation …). Th is identification is rooted in what he terms a “disidentification”, wherein the subject abides by the symbolic regime on the basis of accepting a set of more or less unconscious fantasies about political enjoyment. Centrally, such fantasies posit some Others supposed to enjoy, or threatening to thieve, “our” jouissance or “way of life” – like the Muslims who George W. Bush assured us after September 2001 “hate our freedoms”, but one can think also of single mothers, the unemployed, new immigrants, and so on. For Žižek, such fantasies are always internally inconsistent and often factually erroneous, since they are really there to cover over the lack in our big Other or symbolic order: the fact that our regime, nation or community does not exist as a fully coherent, just, content and solidary symbolic order. The task of a Lacanian critique of ideology then becomes to show how these fantasies are inconsistent, in order to attack the real, motivating foundations of subjects’ identifications with them, rather than simply unmasking their symbolic ideals. In this light, The Sublime Object of Ideology defends a radical political democracy as, paradoxically, the only political regime that can institutionalize its own lack. Following Claude Lefort, Žižek describes this in terms of democracy’s keeping empty of the place of power, formerly occupied by theologically or absolutely sanctioned monarchs. Thus, Žižek writes:

It is against this background of the emptying of the place of power that we can measure the break introduced by the “democratic invention” (Lefort) in the history of [political] institutions: “democratic society” could be determined as a society whose institutional structure includes, as a part of its “normal”, “regular” reproduction, the moment of dissolution of the socio-symbolic bond, the moment of eruption of the Real: elections. Lefort interprets elections … as an act of symbolic dissolution of [the] social edifice. (SO: 146–7)

Yet Žižek’s defence of a radical democratic position was, even in his early works, qualified by deep criticisms of really existing Western liberal democracies. In particular, from early works like Sublime Object of Ideology, Looking Awry and Tarrying with the Negative onwards, Žižek argued that the growing consumerism of Western liberal democracies after the Second World War – as against its political institutions – represents a fairly pure, and powerful, form of ideology. Far from allowing us to express our freedom, consumerism embodies a superego imperative to enjoy without cease, which punishes us should we fail to meet its demands. In more recent works, this critique is developed in terms of a wider critique of consumerist capitalism as a “post-Oedipal” regime, wherein the decline of subjects’ faith in public, symbolic authority engenders a deeply perverse, cynical mode of subjectivity. Th e flipside of today’s “politically correct” commitment to multiculturalism and value pluralism, Žižek argues, is anxiety about the over-proximity of Others formerly kept at bay by shared symbolic commitments. We are hence today more subjected than ever to a host of cloying, maternal prohibitions – one can drink coffee, so long as it is decaff einated; have open sexual relationships, so long as one uses contraception; smoke only in designated areas, and so on. Frustration at this “political correctness”, and its repression of all social antagonism, Žižek suggests, goes a long way to explaining the recent decades’ resurgence of right-wing “parapolitics”, aiming to reinstate by authoritarian means a sense of symbolic, cultural boundaries.

Žižek’s more openly para-Marxist turn between 1997 and 1999 has seen a larger shift in his attitude, both towards really existing liberal democracies and towards radical democratic politics as a proposed critical alternative to them. Broadly speaking, Žižek has embraced a version of the old Marxist critique of liberal democracies, for which the “superstructure” of liberal freedoms (of press, conscience, association; from arbitrary arrest) is to be considered an ideological veil. What it conceals is the way that economic liberty, the freedom to trade in markets, together with the power of money and “market forces” in shaping public life, undermines the other liberal freedoms or renders them eff ectively empty or “formal”, while itself being far beyond the possibility of political contestation – if not itself an avatar of the Lacanian Real that always returns to the same place.

Th is criticism of the really existing capitalist democracies has implications for how Žižek has come to understand what might truly oppose today’s hegemonic neo-liberal regimes. His claim is that advocacy of “radical democracy” is bound to remain inefficacious – indeed, it will simply imitate liberalism’s own ideological obfuscation of the determinant role of the economy – unless it politicizes the economy. As Žižek has written:

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. (“Democracy is the Enemy”)

Yet, he complains, the cultural turn in much Western “postmoderntheory has insulated economics from critical and political concern every bit as thoroughly as neo-liberalism itself: “The depoliticised economy is the disavowed ‘fundamental fantasy’ of postmodern politics – [hence] a properly political act would necessarily entail the repoliticisation of the economy” (TS: 355). It is this reason that underlies Žižek’s increasingly polemical break with figures advocating radical democracy like Laclau, Simon Critchley and Stavrakakis. Indeed, in writings since 2006, particularly around the time of the global financial crisis, Žižek has increasingly drawn upon Alain Badiou’s much more hostile post-Maoist stance towards a form of nominally “democratic” radical politics, instead advocating for the “idea of communism”, or even a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and claiming that “the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy” (“Democracy is the Enemy”).