< >  home  lacanian ink  bibliographies  symposia  messageboard  sitemap  perfume  links
© lacan.com 1997/2004
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only.
It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.


• 09/12/04 - The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle
• 05/21/04 - What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib
• 01/10/04 - Iraq's False Promises
• 11/04/03 - The Iraqi MacGuffin
• 09/25/03 - HOMO SACER AS THE OBJECT OF THE DISCOURSE OF THE UNIVERSITY
• 04/14/03 - TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY?
• 03/13/03 - THE IRAQ WAR

 

 
- 09/25/2003 - HEINER MUELLER OUT OF JOINT

by Slavoj Zizek

The documentary on Heiner Mueller and his staging of Hamlet in 1989, "Zeit aus den Fugen," deploys the entire scope of his reticence to embrace German unification and the simple direct transposition of the BRD model on the DDR. What distinguishes Mueller is that he went much further than those who just complained how the unique chance of developing a third way beyond state socialism and global capitalism was missed: Mueller questioned the a priori legitimacy of free elections themselves, proposing a risked comparison with 1933 ("free elections also brought Hitler to power"). What this just the display of the arrogance of a fake dissident whose narcissism was hurt when the masses rejected the alternative of democratic socialism? Was Mueller himself thrown out of joint? Or can his stance be defended? these terms. Now that the 10th anniversary of Mueller's death is approaching, it is perhaps the time to revisit this question. My aim here is to take Mueller's stance seriously as a THEORETICO-POLITICAL position, not just as a pseudo-radical chic allowed and excused in advance to the eccentric artist, and to see if it can be justified on The case against Mueller seems clear.

The first thing one can reproach him with is that he succumbed to the temptation of catastrophism, of perceiving the situation (in 1989) as one of utter despair (recall his statements from those years that he just wants to drown himself in alcohol and drugs). A lot of today's claims on how the XXth century was the most catastrophic in the entire human history, the lowest point of nihilism, the situation of extreme danger, etc., forgets the elementary lesson of dialectics: the XXth century appears as such because the criteria themselves changed - today, we simply have much higher standards of what constitutes the violation of human rights, etc. The fact that the situation appears catastrophic is thus in itself a positive sign, a sign of (some kind of) progress: we are today much more sensitive to the things which were going on also in the previous epochs. Recall feminism: only in the last 200 years was the situation of women progressively perceived as unjust, although it was "objectively" getting better. Or recall the treatment of disabled individuals: even a couple of decades ago, the special entrances which enable them the access to restaurants, theatres, etc., would have been unthinkable.

More specifically, is Mueller's stance not emblematic of the privileged "official dissidents" with free visas to travel to the West, angry at the stupid crowd for betraying their dreams? One can make even a more general point here: what about pro-Castro Western Leftists who despise what Cubans themselves call "gusanos/worms/," those who emigrated? But, will all sympathy for the Cuban revolution, what right does a typical middle class Western Leftist have to despise a Cuban who decided to leave Cuba not only because of political disenchantment, but also because of poverty (so severe as to involve genuine hunger)? In the same vein, I myself remember from the early 1990s dozens of Western Leftists who proudly threw in my face how, for them, Yugoslavia still exists, and reproached me for betraying the unique chance of maintaining Yugoslavia — to which I always answered that I am not yet ready to lead my life so that it will not disappoint the dreams of Western Leftists. There are few things more worthy of contempt, few attitudes more ideological (if this word has any meaning today, it should be applied here) than a tenured Western academic Leftist arrogantly dismissing (or, even worse, "understanding" in a patronizing way) an Eastern European from a Communist country who longs for Western liberal democracy and some consumer goods.

It is here that the Frankfurt School miserably failed: what cannot but strike the eye is the almost total absence of the theoretical confrontation with Stalinism in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, in clear contrast to its permanent obsession with the Fascist anti-Semitism. The very exceptions to this rule are tell-tale: Franz Neumann's Behemoth, a study of National Socialism which, in the typical fashionable style of the late 30s and 40s, suggests that the three great world systems - the emerging New Deal capitalism, Fascism, and Stalinism - tend towards the same bureaucratic, globally organized, "administered" society; Herbert Marcuse's Soviet Marxism, his least passionate and arguably worst book, a strangely neutral analysis of the Soviet ideology with no clear commitments; and, finally, attempts by some Habermasians who, reflecting upon the emerging dissident phenomena, endeavored to elaborate the notion of civil society as the site of resistance to the Communist regime - interesting politically, but far from offering a satisfactory global theory of the specificity of the Stalinist "totalitarianism."

The standard excuse (the Frankfurt School classical authors did not want to oppose Communism too openly, since, by doing this, they would play into the hands of their domestic Cold War warriors) is obviously insufficient - the point is not that this fear of being put in the service of the official anti-Communism proves how they were secretly pro-Communist, but rather the opposite: if they were to be really cornered as to where they stand in the Cold War, they would have chosen Western liberal democracy (as Max Horkheimer explicitly did in some of his late writings). "Stalinism" (really existing socialism) was thus for the Frankfurt School a traumatic topic apropos of which it HAD to remain silent - this silence was the only way for them to retain their inconsistent position of the underlying solidarity with the Western liberal democracy, without losing their official mask of its "radical" Leftist critique. Openly acknowledging this solidarity would deprive them of their "radical" aura, changing them into another version of the Cold War anti-Communist Leftist liberals, while showing too much sympathy for the "really existing Socialism" would force them to betray their unacknowledged basic commitment.

This ultimate solidarity with the Western system when the latter was really threatened displays a clear symmetry to the stance of the "democratic socialist opposition" in the German Democratic Republic. While its members criticized the Communist Party rule, they endorsed the basic premise of the GDR regime, the thesis that the Federal Republic of Germany is a neo-Nazi state, the direct inheritor of the Nazi regime, and that, therefore, the existence of the GDR as the anti-Fascist bulwark must be protected at any cost. For that reason, the moment the situation got really serious and the Socialist system was effectively threatened, they publicly supported the system (Brecht apropos of East Berlin workers' demonstrations in 53, Christa Wolf apropos of the Prague Spring in 68). They sustained the belief in the inherent reformability of the system - but for this true democratic reform to take place, time and patience are needed, i.e. a too fast disintegration of Socialism would return Germany to the capitalist-fascist regime and thus strangle the Utopia of Other Germany for which, in spite of all its horrors and failures, the GDR continued to stand for… Herefrom the deep distrust of these intellectuals for "people" as opposed to Power: in 1989, they openly opposed free elections, well aware that, if free elections were to be held, the majority would have chosen the despised capitalist consumerism. Heiner Mueller was quite consequent when, in 1989, he claimed that free elections also brought Hitler to power... (Some Western Social Democrats played the same game, feeling much closer to the "reform-minded" Communists than to dissidents - the latter somehow embarrassed them, appearing as an obstacle to the process of detente.) Along the same lines, it was also clear to perceptive dissidents like Havel that the Soviet intervention in a way saved the myth of the Prague Spring of '68, i.e. the utopian notion that, if the Czechs were to be left alone, they would effectively give birth to a "socialism with a human face," to an authentic alternative to both Real Socialism and Real Capitalism. That is to say, what would have happened if the Warsaw pact forces were NOT to intervene in August of '68? Either the Czech Communist leadership would have to impose restraint, and Czechoslovakia would remain a (more liberal, true) Communist regime, or it would turn into a "normal" Western capitalist society (maybe with a stronger Scandinavian social-democratic flavor).

One should thus fully admit the falsity of what one is tempted to call the "interpassive Socialism" of the Western academic Left: what these Leftists displace onto the Other is not their activity, but their passive authentic experience. They allow themselves to pursue their well-paid academic careers in the West, while using the idealized Other (Cuba, Nicaragua, Tito's Yugoslavia) as the stuff of their ideological dreams: they dream through the Other, and explode against it if it disturbs their complacent dream (by way of abandoning Socialism and opting for liberal capitalism). What is of special interest here is the basic misunderstanding, the lack of communication, between the Western Left and the dissidents in late socialism - it is as if it was forever impossible for them to find a common language. Although they felt that they should somehow be on the same side, an elusive gap seemed forever to separate them: for the Western Leftists, Eastern dissidents were all too naive in their belief in democracy - in their rejection of Socialism, they unknowingly threw out the baby with the dirty water; in the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played patronizing games with them, disavowing the true harshness of the totalitarian regime - the accusation that dissidents were somehow guilty for not seizing the unique opportunity of the disintegrating socialism and inventing an authentic alternative to capitalism was hypocrisy at its purest. However, what if this lack of communication was effectively an example of successful communication in the Lacanian sense of the term? What if each of the two positions received from its other its own repressed message in its inverted and true form?

However, the constellation is not as simple as it may appear. As Alain Badiou pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, the "really existing Socialism" was the only political force that - for some decades, at least - seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really scaring its representatives, driving them into paranoiac reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization, every "Communist" territory was and is - again, in spite of its horrors and failures - a kind of "liberated territory," as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the Space and the positive content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself. What the anti-Communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the everyday terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough, by its attempt to escape the logic of the Capital. In short, when dissidents like Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by Communist itself - which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the "really existing capitalism" does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle. Perhaps, Vaclav Klaus, Havel's pragmatic double, was right when he dismissed Havel as a "socialist"...

This externality to capitalism also compelled dissidents to question the incessant drive to productivity shared by capitalism and state socialism. The obverse of this drive are the growing piles of useless waste, piled mountains of used cars, computers, etc., like the famous airplane "resting place" in the Mojave desert… in these ever-growing piles of inert, dysfunctional "stuff," which cannot but strike us with their useless, inert presence, one can, as it were, perceive the capitalist drive at rest. Therein resides the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Stalker, of its post-industrial wasteland with wild vegetation growing over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water and wild overgrowth in which stray cats and dogs wander. Nature and industrial civilization are here again overlapping, but through a common decay - civilization in decay is in the process of again being reclaimed (not by idealized harmonious Nature, but) by nature in decomposition. The ultimate irony of history is that an author from the Communist East displayed the greatest sensitivity for this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. Perhaps, however, this irony displays a deeper necessity which hinges on what Heiner Mueller called the "waiting-room mentality" of the Communist Eastern Europe:

"There would be an announcement: The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20 -- and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: The train will arrive at 20.10. And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting room, thinking, It's bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation. Basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah's impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won't be coming. And yet somehow, it's good to hear him announced all over again."1

The point of this Messianic attitude was not that hope was maintained, but that, since the Messiah did NOT arrive, people started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings, in contrast to the West where people, engaged in permanent frantic activity, do not even properly notice what goes on around them: because of the lack of acceleration, people enjoyed more contact with the earth on which the waiting room was built; caught in this delay, they deeply experienced the idiosyncrasies of their world, all its topographical and historical details…

Our first result is thus that there are good reasons to take Mueller's reticence seriously. There are three motifs, three topics, around which his political stance is crystallized: the rejection of the unconditional drive to productivity, the distrust of democracy, the theatralization of politics, the inevitability of violence — three features which directly contradict the three dogmas of today's postpolitics: the focus on economic growth, liberal democracy, non-theatrical pragmatism, nonviolent tolerance.

Let us begin with the key role of theatralization. Recall the staged performance of "Storming the Winter Palace" in Petrograd, on the third anniversary of the October Revolution (November 7th, 1920). This event (directed by Nikolai Evreinov who, in 1925, emigrated to France) involved 8000 direct participants and an audience of 100,000 (a quarter of the city's population, in spite of heavy rain). The underlying idea was formulated by Anatoli Lunatcharsky, People's Commisar for Enlightenment, in the spring of 1920: "In order to acquire a sense of self the masses must outwardly manifest themselves, and this is possible only when, in Robespierre's words, they become a spectacle unto themselves."2 Thousands of workers, soldiers, students, and artists worked round the clock, living on kasha (tasteless wheat porridge), tea, and frozen apples, preparing the performance at the very place where the event "really took place" three years earlier. Their work was coordinated by Army officers, as well as by avant-garde artists, musicians, and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold. Although this was acting and not "reality," the soldiers and sailors were playing themselves - many of them not only actually participated in the event of 1917, but were also simultaneously involved in the real battles of the Civil War that were raging in the nearby vicinity of Petrograd, a city under siege and suffering from severe shortages of food. A contemporary commented on the performance: "The future historian will record how, throughout one of the bloodiest and most brutal revolutions, all of Russia was acting."3 And, the formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovski noted that, "some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical."4

We all remember the infamous, self-celebratory First of May parades that were one of the supreme signs of recognition of the Stalinist regimes. If one needs proof of how Leninism functioned in an entirely different way, are such performances not the supreme proof that the October Revolution was definitely NOT a simple coup d'état by the small group of Bolsheviks, but an event which unleashed a tremendous emancipatory potential? Does the "Storming of the Winter Palace" staging not display the force of a sacred (pagan?) pageant, of the magic act of founding a new community? It is here that, perhaps, one should look for the realization of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, of what he aimed at with the designation of his Parsifal as Buehnenweihfestspiel ("sacred festival drama"): if ever, then, it was in Petrograd of 1919, much more than in the Ancient Greece, that, "in intimate connection with its history, the people itself that stood facing itself in the work of art, becoming conscious of itself, and, in the space of a few hours, rapturously devouring, as it were, its own essence." This aestheticization, in which the people quite literally "plays itself," certainly does not fall under Benjamin's indictment of the Fascist "aestheticization of the political" — instead of abandoning this aestheticization to the political Right, instead of a blanket dismissal of every mass political spectacle as "proto-Fascist," one should perceive, in this minimal, purely formal, difference of the people from itself, the unique case of "real life" differentiated from art by nothing more than an invisible, formal gap. The very fact that, in historical documentaries, movie shots from this reconstruction (as well as from Eisenstein's 1927 October) of the storming of the Winter Palace are often presented as documentary shots is to be taken as an indication of this deeper identity of people playing themselves.

The archetypal Eisensteinian cinematic scene rendering the exuberant orgy of revolutionary destructive violence (what Eisenstein himself called "a veritable bacchanalia of destruction") belongs to the same series: when, in October, the victorious revolutionaries penetrate the wine cellars of the Winter Palace, they indulge there in the ecstatic orgy of smashing thousands of the expensive wine bottles. In Behzin Meadow, the village Pioneers force their way into the local church and desecrate it, robbing it of its relics, squabbling over an icon, sacrilegiously trying on vestments, heretically laughing at the statuary... In this suspension of goal-oriented instrumental activity, we effectively get a kind of Bataillean "unrestrained expenditure." Recall the classic reproach of Robespierre to the Dantonist opportunists: "What you want is a revolution without revolution!" - the pious desire to deprive the revolution of this excess is simply the desire to have a revolution without revolution.

However, this "unrestrained expenditure" is not enough: in a revolution proper, such a display of what Hegel would have called "abstract negativity" merely, as it were, wipes the slate clean for the second act, the imposition of a New Order. The tautology "revolution WITH revolution" has thus also another aspect, it also signals the urge to repeat the negation, to relate it to itself — in its course, a true revolution revolutionizes its own starting presuppositions. Hegel had a presentiment of this necessity when he wrote, "It is a modern folly to alter a corrupt ethical system, its constitution and legislation, without changing the religion, to have a revolution without a reformation."5 He thereby announced the necessity of what Mao Ze Dong called the "Cultural Revolution" as the condition of the successful social revolution. What, exactly, does this mean? The problem with hitherto revolutionary attempts was thus not that they were "too extreme," but that they were not radical enough, that they did not question their own presuppositions. In a wonderful essay on Chevengur, Platonov's great peasant Utopia written in 1927 and 1928 (just prior to forced collectivization), Fredric Jameson describes the two moments of the revolutionary process. It begins with the gesture of radical negativity:

this first moment of world-reduction, of the destruction of the idols and the sweeping away of an old world in violence and pain, is itself the precondition for the reconstruction of something else. A first moment of absolute immanence is necessary, the blank slate of absolute peasant immanence or ignorance, before new and undreamed-of-sensations and feelings can come into being.6

Then follows the second stage, the invention of a new life — not only the construction of the new social reality in which our utopian dreams would be realized, but the (re)construction of these dreams themselves:

a process that it would be too simple and misleading to call reconstruction or Utopian construction, since in effect it involves the very effort to find a way to begin imagining Utopia to begin with. Perhaps in a more Western kind of psychoanalytic language /…/ we might think of the new onset of the Utopian process as a kind of desiring to desire, a learning to desire, the invention of the desire called Utopia in the first place, along with new rules for the fantasizing or daydreaming of such a thing — a set of narrative protocols with no precedent in our previous literary institutions.7

The reference to psychoanalysis is here crucial and very precise: in a radical revolution, people not only "realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams"; rather, they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming. Is this not the exact formula of the link between death drive and sublimation? It is ONLY this reference to what happens AFTER the revolution, to the "morning after," that allows us to distinguish between libertarian pathetic outbursts and true revolutionary upheavals: these upheavals lose their energy when one has to approach the prosaic work of social reconstruction — at this point, lethargy sets in. In contrast to it, recall the immense creativity of the Jacobins just prior to their fall, the numerous proposals about new civic religion, about how to sustain the dignity of old people, and so on. Therein also resides the interest of reading the reports about daily life in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, with the enthusiastic urge to invent new rules for quotidian existence: how does one get married? What are the new rules of courting? How does one celebrate a birthday? How does one get buried? It is precisely with regard to this dimension that revolution proper is to be opposed to the carnivalesque reversal as a temporary respite, the exception stabilizing the hold of power.

And this brings us to the key question: how are we to construct a social space in which revolution can stay, can stabilize itself? Perhaps, one of the options is to pursue the trend of self-organized collectives in areas outside the law. Arguably the greatest literary monument to such a utopia comes from an unexpected source — Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World (1981), the novel about Canudos, an outlaw community deep in the Brazilian backlands which was a home to prostitutes, freaks, beggars, bandits, and the most wretched of the poor. Canudos, led by an apocalyptic prophet, was a utopian space without money, property, taxes, and marriage. In 1987, it was destroyed by the military forces of the Brazilian government.

The echoes of Canudos are clearly discernible in today's favelas in Latin American megalopolises: are they, in some sense, not the first "liberated territories," the cells of futural self-organized societies? Are institutions like community kitchens not a model of "socialized" communal local life? The Canudos liberated territory in Bahia will remain forever the model of a liberated space, of an alternative community which thoroughly negates the existing state space. Everything is to be endorsed here, up to the religious "fanaticism." It is as if, in such communities, the Benjaminian other side of the historical Progress, the defeated ones, acquires a space of their own. Utopia EXISTED here for a brief period of time — this is the only way to account for the "irrational," excessive, violence of the destruction of these communities (in Brasil of 1897, ALL inhabitants of Canudos, children and women included, were slaughtered, as if the very memory of the possibility of freedom had to be erased — and this by a government which presented itself as "progressive" liberal-democratic-republican…) Till now, such communities exploded from time to time as passing phenomena, a sites of eternity that interrupted the flow of temporal progress — one should have the courage to recognize them in the wide span from the Jesuit reduciones in the 18th century Paraguay (brutally destroyed by the joint action of Spanish and Portuguese armies) up to the settlements controlled by Sendero Luminoso in Peru of the 1990s. Can one imagine a utopian point at which this subterranean level of the utopian Other Space would unite with the positive space of "normal" social life?

The key political question is here: is there in our "postmodern" time still a space for such communities? Are they limited to the undeveloped outskirts (favelas, ghettos), or is a space for them emerging in the very heart of the "postindustrial" landscape? Can one make a wild wager that the dynamics of "postmodern" capitalism with its rise of new eccentric geek communities provides a new chance here? That, perhaps for the first time in history, the logic of alternative communities can be grafted onto the latest state of technology?

The main form of such alternative communities in the XXth century were so-called councils ("soviets") - (almost) everybody in the West loved them, up to liberals like Hannah Arendt who perceived in them the echo of the old Greek life of polis. Throughout the age of the Really Existing Socialism (RES), the secret hope of "democratic socialists" was the direct democracy of the "soviets," the local councils as the form of self-organization of the people; and it is deeply symptomatic how, with the decline of RES, this emancipatory shadow which haunted it all the time also disappeared - is this not the ultimate confirmation of the fact that the council-version of "democratic socialism" was just a spectral double of the "bureaucratic" RES, its inherent transgression with no substantial positive content of its own, i.e., unable to serve as the permanent basic organizing principle of a society? What both RES and council-democracy shared is the belief in the possibility of a self-transparent organization of society which would preclude political "alienation" (state apparatuses, institutionalized rules of political life, legal order, police, etc. — and is the basic experience of the end of RES not precisely the rejection of this SHARED feature, the resigned "postmodern" acceptance of the fact that society is a complex network of "sub-systems," which is why a certain level of "alienation" is constitutive of social life, so that a totally self-transparent society is a utopia with totalitarian potentials.8 (In this sense, it is Habermas who is "postmodern," in contrast to Adorno who, in spite of all his political compromises, to the end remained attached to a radically utopian vision of revolutionary redemption.)

Are, however, things really so simple? First, direct democracy is not only still alive in many places like favelas, it is even being "reinvented" and given a new boost by the rise of the "postindustrial" digital culture (do the descriptions of the new "tribal" communities of computer-hackers not often evoke the logic of councils-democracy?). Secondly, the awareness that politics is a complex game in which a certain level of institutional alienation is irreducible, should not lead us to ignore the fact that there is still a line of separation which divides those who are "in" from those who are "out," excluded from the space of the polis — there are citizens, and there is the spectre of homo sacer haunting them all. In other words, even the "complex" contemporary societies still rely on the basic divide between included and excluded. The fashionable notion of "multitude" is insufficient precisely insofar as it cuts across this divide: there is a multitude WITHIN the system and the multitude of those EXCLUDED, and to simply encompass them within the scope of the same notion amounts to the same obscenity as equating starvation with dieting to loose weight. And those excluded do not simply dwell in a psychotic non-structured Outside — they have (and are forced into) their own self-organization one of the names (and practices) of which was precisely the "council-democracy."

But should we still call it "democracy"? It seems politically much more productive and theoretically much more adequate to limit "democracy" to the translation of antagonism into agonism: while democracy acknowledges the irreducible plurality of interests, ideologies, narratives, etc., it excludes those who, as we put it, reject the democratic rules of the game — liberal democrat are quite right in claiming that populism is inherently "antidemocratic." "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 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.

At this point, it is crucial to avoid the "democratic" trap. Many "radical" Leftists accept the legalistic logic of "transcendental guarantee": they refer to "democracy" as the ultimate guarantee of those who are aware that there is no guarantee. That is to say, since no political act can claim a direct foundation in some transcendent figure of the big Other (of the "we are just instruments of a higher Necessity or Will" type), since every such act involves the risk of a contingent decision, nobody has the right to impose his choice on others — which means that every collective choice has to be democratically legitimized. From this perspective, democracy is not so much the guarantee of the right choice as a kind of opportunistic insurance against possible failure: if things turn out wrong, I can always say we are all responsible… Consequently, this last refuge must be dropped; one should fully assume the risk. The only adequate position is the one advocated already by Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness: democratic struggle should not be fetishized; it is one of the forms of struggle, and its choice should be determined by a global strategic assessment of circumstances, not by its ostensibly superior intrinsic value. Like the Lacanian analyst, a political agent has to commit acts which can only be authorized by themselves, for which there is no external guarantee. An authentic political act can be, as to its form, a democratic one as well as a non-democratic one. There are some elections or referendums in which "the impossible happens" — recall, decades ago in Italy, a referendum on divorce where, to the great surprise also of the Left which distrusted the people, the pro-divorce side convincingly won, so that even the Left, privately sceptical, was ashamed of its distrust. (There were elements of the event even in the unexpected first electoral victory of Mitterand.) It is only in SUCH cases that one is justified in saying that, beyond and above the mere numeral majority, people effectively have spoken in a substantial sense of the term. On the other hand, an authentic act of popular will can also occur in the form of a violent revolution, of a progressive military dictatorship, etc.

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.) 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. 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? This gradual limitation of democracy is clearly perceptible in the attempts to "rethink" the present situation — one is, of course, for democracy and human rights, but one should "rethink" them, and a series of recent interventions in the public debate give a clear sense of the direction of this "rethinking." More than a year ago, Jonathan Alter and Alan Derschowitz proposed to "rethink" human rights so that they include torture (of suspected terrorists). In The Future of Freedom,9 Fareed Zakaria, Bush's favored columnist, already draws a more general conclusion: he locates the threat to freedom in "overdoing democracy," i.e., in the rise of "illiberal democracy at home and abroad" (the books subtitle).

In a recent TV interview, Ralf Dahrendorf linked the growing distrust in democracy to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a "valley of tears": after the breakdown of socialism, one cannot directly pass to the abundancy of a successful market economy — the limited, but real, socialist welfare and security had to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessarily painful; and the same goes for Western Europe, where the passage from the post-WWII Welfare State to new global economy involves painful renunciations, less security, less guaranteed social care. For Dahrendorf, the problem is best encapsulated by the simple fact that this painful passage through the "valley of tears" lasts longer than the average period between (democratic) elections, so that the temptation is great to postpone the difficult changes for the short-term electoral gains. For him, the paradigmatic constellation is here the disappointment of the large strata of post-Communist nations with the economic results of the new democratic order: in the glorious days of 1989, they equated democracy with the abundance of the Western consummerist societies, and now, ten years later, when the abundance is still missing, they blame democracy itself… Unfortunately, he focuses much less on the opposite temptation: if the majority resists the necessary structural changes in economy, would NATO (one of) the logical conclusion(s) be that, for a decade or so, an enlightened elite should take power, even by non-democratic means, to enforce the necessary measures and thus to lay the foundations for the truly stable democracy? Along these lines, Zakaria points out how democracy can only "catch on" in economically developed countries: if the developing countries are "prematurely democratized," the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism — no wonder that today's economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule. And does the predicament of today's Germany not point in the same direction? In Federal Republic of Germany, the welfare state survived more or less intact, rendering its economy less competitive and flexible; the necessary "restructuring" of the economy (the dismantling of the welfare state) meets with strong opposition from the majority of voters (workers, old retired people…), so it can only be enacted by non-democratic means.

The exemplary economic strategy of today's capitalism is outsourcing — giving over the "dirty" process of material production (but also publicity, design, accountancy…) to another company via a subcontract. In this way, one can easily avoid ecological and health rules: the production is done in, say, Indonesia where the ecological and health regulations are much lower than in the West, and the Western global company which owns the logo can claim that it is not responsible for the violations of another company. Are we not getting something homologous with regard to torture? Is torture also not being "outsourced," left to the Third World allies of the US which can do it without worrying about legal problems or public protest? Was such outsourcing not explicitly advocated by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek immediately after 9/11? After stating that "we can't legalize torture; it's contrary to American values," he nonetheless concludes that "we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty."10 This is how, today, the First World democracy more and more functions: by way of "outsourcing" its dirty underside to other countries…

This inherent crisis of democracy is also the reason of the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the key feature which makes his political thought relevant today is the elitist notion of democracy, i.e., the idea of a "necessary lie," of how elites should rules, aware of the actual state of things (brutal materialist logic of power, etc.), and feeding people with fables which keep them satisfied in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, the lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens' loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of all human endeavors. The resolution of this conflict is that the philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing "between the lines." The true, hidden message contained in the "Great Tradition" of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature…11

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? All democratic Leftists venerate Rosa Luxembourg's famous "Freedom is freedom for those who think differently." Perhaps, the time has come to shift the accent from "differently" to "think": "Freedom is freedom for those who think differently" - ONLY for those who REALLY THINK, even if differently, not for those who just blindly (unthinkingly) act out their opinions… What this means is that one should gather the courage to radically question today's predominant attitude of anti-authoritarian tolerance. It was, surprisingly, Bernard Williams who, in his perspicuous reading of David Mamet's Oleanna, outlined the limits of this attitude:

A complaint constantly made by the female character is that she has made sacrifices to come to college, in order to learn something, to be told things that she did not know, but that she has been offered only a feeble permissiveness. She complains that her teacher /…/ does not control or direct her enough: he does not tell her what to believe, or even, perhaps, what to ask. He does not exercise authority. At the same time, she complains that he exercises power over her. This might seem to be a muddle on her part, or the playwright's, but it is not. The male character has power over her (he can decide what grade she gets), but just because he lacks authority, this power is mere power, in part gender power.12

Power appears (is experienced) "as such" at the very point where it is no longer covered by "authority." There are, however, further complications to Williams' view. First, "authority" is not simply a direct property of the master-figure, but an effect of the social relationship between the master and his subjects: even if the master remains the same, it may happen, because of the change in the socio-symbolic field, that his position is no longer perceived as legitimate authority, but as mere illegitimate power (is such a shift not the most elementary gesture of feminism: male authority is all of a sudden unmasked as mere power?). The lesson of all revolutions from 1789 to 1989 is that such a disintegration of authority, its transformation into arbitrary power, always precedes the revolutionary outbreak. Where Williams is right is in his emphasis on how the very permissiveness of the power-figure, its restraining from exercising authority by directing, controlling, his subject, makes it that authority appears as illegitimate power. Therein resides the vicious cycle of today's academia: the more professors renounce "authoritarian" active teaching, imposing knowledge and values, the more they are experienced as figures of power. And, as every parent knows, the same goes for parental education: a father who exerts true transferential authority will never be experienced as "oppressive" — it is, on the contrary, a father who tries to be permissive, who does not want to impose on his children his views and values, but allows them to discover their own way, that is denounced as exerting power, as being "oppressive"…

The paradox to be fully endorsed is here that the only way to effectively abolish power relations leads through freely accepted relations of authority: the model of free collective is not a group of libertines indulging in their pleasures, but the extremely disciplined revolutionary collective. The injunction which holds together such a collective is best encapsulated by the logical form of double negation (prohibition) which, precisely, is NOT the same as the direct positive assertion. Towards the end of Brecht's Die Massnahme, the Four Agitators declare:

"It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill, but ourselves too if need be
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.
It is still, we said
Not given to us not to kill."13

The text does NOT say "we are allowed to kill," but "it is still not permitted (an adequate paraphrase of vergoennen) to us not to kill" — or, simply, it is still prohibited to us not to kill. Brecht's precision is here admirable: the double negation is crucial. "It is allowed to kill" would amount to simple immoral permissivity; "it is ordered to kill" would transform killing into an obscene-perverse superego injunction that is the truth of the first version (as Lacan put it, the permitted jouissance inexorably turned into a prescribed one). The only correct way is thus the reversal of the biblical prohibition, the prohibition NOT to kill, which goes to the end, to the anti-Antigonean prohibition to provide for the proper funeral ritual: the young comrade has to "vanish, and vanish entirely," i.e., his disappearance (death) itself should disappear, should not leave any (symbolic) traces.

Bernard Williams can again be of some help here, when he elaborates that forever separates MUST from OUGHT: "Ought is related to must as best is related to only."14 We arrive at what we must do after a long and anxious consideration of alternatives, and "can have that belief while remaining uncertain about it, and still very clearly seeing the powerful merits of alternative courses."15 This difference between must and ought also relies on temporality: we can reproach somebody for not having done what he "ought to have done," while we cannot say to someone "you must have done it" if he did not do it — we use the expression "you must have done it" for consoling somebody who DID a thing which he found distasteful (like "Do not blame yourself, even if you loved him, you must have punished him!"), while the standard use of the expression "you ought to have done it" implies, on the contrary, that you did NOT do it.

This reference to a "must" also opens up the space of manipulation, like when a bargaining partner or outright blackmailer say that "deplorably," this leaves him with no alternative to taking an unpleasant action — and, we may add, like the ruthless Stalinist who "cannot but" engage in terror. The falsity of this position resides in the fact that, when we "must" do something, it is not only that, within the limits that our situation sets to deliberation, we "cannot do otherwise but this": the character of a person is not only revealed in that he does what he must, but also "in the location of those limits, and in the very fact that one can determine, sometimes through deliberation itself, that one cannot do certain things, and must do others."16 And one IS responsible for one's character, i.e., for the choice of coordinates which prevent me from doing some things and impel me to do others. This brings us to the Lacanian notion of act: in an act, I precisely redefine the very coordinates of what I cannot and must do.

"Must" and "Ought" thus relate as the Real and the Symbolic: the Real of a drive whose injunction cannot be avoided (which is why Lacan says that the status of a drive is ethical); the Ought as a symbolic ideal caught in the dialectic of desire (if you ought not do something, this very prohibition generates the desire to do it). When you "must" do something, it means you have no choice but to do it, even if is terrible: in Wagner's Die Walkuere, Wotan is cornered by Fricka and he "must" ("cannot but") allow the murder of Siegmund, although his heart bleeds for him; he "must" ("cannot but") punish Brunhilde, his dearest child, the embodiment of his own innermost striving. And, incidentally, the same goes for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the Bayreuth staging of which was Mueller's last great theatrical achievement: they MUST, they CANNOT BUT, indulge in their passion, even if this goes against their Sollen, their social obligations.

In Wotan's forced exercise of punishment, Wagner encounters here the paradox of the "killing with pieta" at work from the Talmud (which calls us to dispense Justice with Love) to Brecht's two key Lehrstuecke, Der Jasager and Die Massnahme, in which the young comrade is killed by his companions with loving tenderness. And although Mueller disagreed with Die Massnahme, proposing, in his Mauser, a critique of its political logic, his critique is strictly internal: his reproach to Brecht is precisely that he did not draw all the consequences from the stance of "killing with pieta," of killing without dehumanizing the enemy. And this is what today, in our time in which the abstract humanitarian rejection of violence is accompanied by its obscene double, the anonymous killing WITHOUT pieta, we need more than ever.

1. Heiner Mueller and Jan Hoet, "Insights into the Process of Production: A Conversation," documenta IX, Vol.I, Stuttgart: Edition Cantz 1992, p. 96-97.

2. Quoted in Richard Taylor, October, London: BFI 2002.

3. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2001, p. 144.

4. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, op.cit., p. 144.

5. G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopaedie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, Hamburg 1959, p. 436.

6. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press 1994, p. 89.

7. Jameson, op.cit., p. 90.

8. For a clear articulation of this stance, see Martin Jay, "No Power to the Soviets," in Cultural Semantics, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1998.

9. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, New York: Norton 2003.

10. Newsweek, November 5 2001, p. 45.

11. Furthermore, does Strauss' notion of esoteric knowledge not confuse two different phenomena: the cynicism of power, its unreadiness to admit publicly its own true foundations, and the subversive insights of those who aim at undermining the power system? Say, in Real Socialism, there is a difference between a critical intellectual who, in order to get through his message, has to cide it in the terms of official ideology, and the cynical top member of nomenklatura who is aware of the falsity of the basic claims of the ruling ideology — equating the two is like equating hunger and dieting.

12. Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2002, p. 7-8.

13. Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays: Three, London: Methuen 1997, p. 87.

14. Bernard Williams, op.cit., p. 125.

15. Ibid., p. 126.

16. Op.cit., p. 130.



 
 

Comment On This Article

name:

email:

location:

  

comments gif