When Alain Badiou claims that democracy is our fetish, this statement is to be taken in the precise Freudian sense, not just to mean that we elevate democracy into an untouchable Absolute. ‘Democracy’ is the last thing we see before confronting the ‘lack’ constitutive of the social field, the fact that ‘there is no class relationship,’ the trauma of social antagonism. When confronted with the reality of domination and exploitation, of brutal social struggle, we say, ‘Yes, but we have democracy!’ as if that were enough to ensure that we can resolve or at least regulate struggle, preventing it from exploding. An exemplary case of democracy as fetish is provided by such bestsellers and blockbusters as The Pelican Brief or All the President’s Men, in which a couple of ordinary guys uncover a scandal that reaches all the way to the president, eventually forcing him to step down. Corruption is everywhere in these stories, yet their ideological impact lies in their upbeat takeaway message: what a great democratic country this is where a couple of ordinary guys like you and me can bring down the mightiest man on earth!
This is why it is so inappropriate to give a radical new political movement a name that combines socialism and democracy: it combines the ultimate fetish of the existing world order with a term that blurs the key distinctions. Everyone can be a socialist today, even Bill Gates: it suffices to profess the need for some kind of harmonious social unity, for a common good and for the care of the poor and downtrodden. As Otto Weininger put it more than a hundred years ago, socialism is Aryan and communism is Jewish.
An exemplary case of today’s ‘socialism’ is China, where the Communist Party is engaged in a campaign of self-legitimisation which promotes three theses: 1) Communist Party rule alone can guarantee successful capitalism; 2) the rule of the atheist Communist Party alone can guarantee authentic religious freedom; and 3) continuing Communist Party rule alone can guarantee that China will be a society of Confucian conservative values (social harmony, patriotism, moral order). These aren’t simply nonsensical paradoxes. The reasoning might go as follows: 1) without the party’s stabilising power, capitalist development would explode into a chaos of riots and protests; 2) religious factional struggles would disturb social stability; and 3) unbridled hedonist individualism would corrode social harmony. The third point is crucial, since what lies in the background is a fear of the corrosive influence of Western ‘universal values’: freedom, democracy, human rights and hedonist individualism. The ultimate enemy is not capitalism as such but the rootless Western culture threatening China through the free flow of the internet. It must be fought with Chinese patriotism; even religion should be ‘sinicised’ to ensure social stability. A Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said recently that while ‘hostile forces’ are stepping up their infiltration, religions must work under socialism to serve economic development, social harmony, ethnic unity and the unification of the country: ‘Only when one is a good citizen can one be a good believer.’
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on July 16th 2015.]