“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…

[Extract. Lecture given at Columbia University on April 14th 2003. Full text available on lacan.com.]

 


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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