Saturday, November 10, 2007

Democracy as dictatorship

I thought I'd interrupt my Stakhanovite labours to bring you a quick summary of one of the most interesting sessions at the ongoing Historical Materialism conference yesterday. It was about the relationship between democracy and dictatorship. When I arrived, Zizek was summing up a case he's made here. The argument is that a new proletarian subjectivity can emerge from the point of exclusion. Not exclusion in terms of "these disgusting liberal games where you pay, what, twenty dollars and they send you a photograph of the child and so on. You pay to feel good - even better, you feel good that the child is safely over there!" Zizek argues that forms of intellectual property, biogenetic manipulation, environmental devastation and global apartheid ('planet of slums' style) should form the basis of a new commons: this shit affects us all, so rather than focusing on market-driven or ethical solutions, why not make it common property? In this new political universe, we are all potentially excluded, including from our own genetic code. Zizek has made this argument before, with respect to multiculturalism and gay rights - for example, that we should support gay rights not because we all have narratives and we have to make space for each to tell their story, but because their exclusion says something important about the injustice of the existing political order. This exclusion has a universalising tendency, since it is about social justice rather than tolerance. There was much else in Zizek's sum up, which was more problematic, but I'll leave that aside for a second.

Masimilliano Tomba from Padua University took up what I supposed to be the main theme of the discussion: democracy is a form of dictatorship. How so? The assumptions of the modern liberal state are organised around the dual poles of freedom and sovereignty. I am free in that no one has a right to rule over me, and sovereign in that the only authority in the land is one that I consent to in some fashion. This is the philosophy outlined by Thomas Hobbes, and it contains some interesting implications - for example, since the state is authorised to act on behalf of the people by the people, its legitimacy is assured because it is unthinkable that the people would act iniquitously toward themselves. It is the unity of the sovereign, representative power that makes the multitude one. As such, there are no limits to the sovereign's power, since there is no power to limit it. And power can always exceed its own limitations. Tomba illustrated this surpassing tendency in modern states by reference to the 1941 state of emergency declared by Franklin Roosevelt: in theory a temporary suspension of certain limitations, wartime discipline became the norm thereafter. George W Bush's policies permitting the indefinite detention or expulsion of 'terror suspects' is only the beginning of the possibilities opened up by the suspension of habeus corpus. Further, Tomba argues, the suspension of the law is a normal part of police action. We suppose there is a private sphere protected from and separable from the public sphere of activity, but in any emergency, police can and do frequently invade the private sphere in quite brutal ways, and everything they do is legitimised by popular sovereignty. To imagine that the police normally act within the law is to fail to understand the nature of the polity. The conception of justice as an agent of the popular sovereignty is one of the chief blocks to rethinking the political order itself: it forecloses radical change as, of all things, undemocratic.

Peter Thomas took issue with Zizek's focus on exclusion as inadequate to a situation in which the hollowing out of democracy is coextensive with its export in the form of imperialism, and with Tomba's critique of formal democracy. The inclusions and exclusions of formal democracy have been a concern of communist movements past, exemplified by Amadeo Bordiga who, demurring from both Stalinism and social democracy, also attacked the ideology of liberal democracy. He argued that the liberal state had a unique capacity for neutralising and including dissent, as well as for composing itself against an alleged external threat. However, there is a problem with valorising the subjective position of absolute otherness toward democracy, in part because the ideology of capitalist democracy now depends on defining an excluded point and including it - hence, one sends airplanes and tanks to 'include' Iraq in the global democratic order. The terms of democracy and its exclusions become an almost sacred reference for imperialism - who can question a mission to give democracy to a hitherto excluded margin? To overcome the limits of this discourse, it is necessary to return to and rethink some older questions and formulae - such as 'direct democracy', 'participatory democracy' and 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. The regnant, very bourgeois, conceptions of democracy can best be counteracted by reinvesting the notion with its class content - a transitional demand might be "for a workers' government".

The best discussion by far was by Alberto Toscano. The ubiquity of notions of exclusion and inclusion, he argued, are a function of the present philosophical conjuncture, and point to a gaping absence: any account of exploitation. The concept of exclusion splits investigation of the issue into purely political and purely social realms: one is either included or excluded from the state, or included or excluded from the market. The historical processes accounting for this absence perhaps also accounts for the fact that Ranciere and Badiou in their different ways try to conceptualise the role of the proletariat in a political contest, eschewing the social question. This has its advantages: for example, it helps to escape a certain nostalgic, or 'ethnic', account of the working class. However, there is a congruent tendency among economists and others to turn to the 'informal' sector and various forms of casualisation as a source of repoliticising economics - a gesture criticised in Mike Davis' 'Planet of Slums', which is really the book about casual labour and global apartheid. What the focus on exclusion misses is the fact that exploitation is not simply an economic transaction: it is political through and through. For example, the treatment of the Roma by the Italian state is part of a Europe-wide ordering of labour around the migrant/indigenous dichotomy. It is part of the exploitation process. Additionally, the focus on exclusion fetishises the issue of democratic means - as when Badiou argues that the name of the enemy today is not Capital or Empire, but Democracy. Zizek has defended Badiou's claim, arguing that what prevents a reinvigoration of radical thought today is the belief in the democratic form. In retort, Toscano cites Balibar's argument in his reading of Lenin: that only communist social relations can provide substantive democracy precisely because they do not try to occupy the democratic state.

Zizek was given a substantial (but for him, evidently constraining) time to retort to these contributions and questions from the floor. He took plenty of opportunity to repeat his favourite themes, with the habitural refrain that "I will probably be lynched for this, but", as if to preemptively disarm criticism. Responding to Toscano, he agreed that exploitation was political, but argued that we don't have an adequate conception of it, because (ha ha) on the basis of the labour theory of value, you could argue Venezuela is exploiting the West by monopolising the control of its oil resources to extract surplus. You may argue that there is a democratic argument that Venezuelans should control their oil resources, "but then, I am sorry, this has nothing to do with marxism!" "I love Chavez!" Zizek exulted. "No wonder Negri hates him, and thinks that Lula is the great guy. But I love Chavez because he didn't play this game of avoiding state power: be brutally grabbed for power and..." etc etc. The preference for Chavez over Lula is all to the good - however, why didn't Zizek simply raise the critique of formal democracy here? His constant refrain is how leftist nostrums are coopted (so that, for example, the language of direct democracy has been usurped by capitalism - Royal's election campaign would be a case in point). Okay, but the critique of 'formal democracy' is also usurped, is it not? Yes, Chavez is elected, but nevertheless he is a 'dictator'. Yes, there was a coup, but substantially it was a restoration of democracy. And so on. (Relatedly - yes, the Iran president is elected, but he is a 'tyrant' etc.) So, instead of celebrating in sort of macho fashion the willingness to use power, it surely makes more sense to point out the irony that it was Chavez who was defending 'formal democracy'. In the same way, Bush's opponents defend 'formal democracy' when they try to expose vote-rigging. As a defensive and sometimes offensive step in the class struggle, the defense of 'formal democracy' can be quite effective. Actually, one of the key talking points for New Labour is the lack of substantive democracy. In this discourse, 'globalisation' becomes a Blairite shibboleth explaining his caution on the one hand, and his aggressive radicalism in attacking the public sector infrastructure on the other: these impersonal forces have sucked real representative power from the nation-state, and all we can do is adapt to them. Tellingly, the Tories frequently resort to the same arguments. Asked why we couldn't tax the wealthy to alleviate poverty, one Conservative MP argued that if we did so, all the owners of capital would run away and take their factories with them. One reasonable step in the face of this is to assert the full formal powers of the democratic state: of course you can nationalise whatever you want, set a high minimum income, raise taxes on the rich and corporate profits, properly regulate the City of London, etc etc. The IMF is unlikely to come and take your toys away, and even if it tries, you don't need IMF approval. To raise this, of course, is to question the real distribution of power in a capitalist society, to test the limits of representation.

Zizek went on to claim that the antiwar movement had been trapped in the logic of democracy, detecting a "strange satisfaction" not only in the big crowds, but also in the Blairite inner circles because it would achieve no change in policy, but would demonstrate the very democratic form that was supposedly being exported. He backed this up with a reference to Bush's retort to the protests against him in London: "I like em, cuz that's what we're trying to give the Eye-rackians". I was tempted to get trapped in the logic of democracy and start a vocal protest from the third row against this absurd contrarian-sectarianism, but instead registered my dissent with a private grimace. No laughter, no applause - no matter, Zizek moves on. Commenting on Badiou's anti-statism, he suggested that the logic of a particular kind of exclusion actually undermines the anti-statist position: namely, his activism with the sans papieres, the purpose of which is to integrate refugees into the French state (this is of a piece with Zizek's previous arguments against "revolutionary a priori anti-statism"). And, in another "you're going to hate me for this" moment, he argued that direct democracy was not only appropriated by capital, but it was never universalisable anyway. It is a parasitic form: it always relies on something else, terror or a constituent assembly etc. (Did he really argue for the Menshevik position? I'm pretty sure he did, but am open to correction). I don't see it myself: that is, I don't see why direct democracy is inherently parastic. Perhaps someone can enlighten me. The finale: "I'm sorry if this was all a bit confused, but it is because the situation is objectively confusing!"

There was also an interesting meeting on biopolitics/Negri/immaterial labour, but you don't want to see me try to sum that up: it won't be pretty.