How Much Democracy Is Too Much?

BY Slavoj Žižek

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A democratic Iraq will probably want to sanction Israel, oppose free trade and resist oil privatization.

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?

Alternatively, there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or, at least, a substantial portion of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: What if 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 few years ago.) In such a case, many a democrat would concede that the people were not yet “mature” enough to be allowed democracy, and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim is to educate the majority to become proper democrats is preferable.

Following this rhetorical line of attack, the gradual limitation of democracy is clearly perceptible in attempts to “rethink” the present situation in the aftermath of the Iraq war. One is, of course, for democracy and human rights, but one should “rethink” them. A series of recent interventions in the public debate give a clear sense of the direction of this “rethinking.” In The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria, Bush’s favored columnist, locates the threat to freedom in “overdoing democracy,” i.e., in the rise of “illiberal democracy at home and abroad.” He draws the lesson that democracy can only “catch on” in economically developed countries: If developing countries are “prematurely democratized,” the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism.

No wonder, goes this theory, that today’s economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule. The immediate lessons for Iraq are clear and unambiguous: Yes, the United States should bring democracy to Iraq, but not immediately. There should first be a period of five or so years in which a benevolently authoritarian, U.S.-controlled regime would create proper conditions for the effective functioning of democracy. This regime will not tolerate, for example, a democratic desire to nationalize oil revenues, or to apply sanctions to Israel, or to refuse global free trade schemes. We know now what bringing democracy means: It means that the United States and its “willing partners” impose themselves as the ultimate judges who decide if and when a country is ripe for democracy.

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As for the United States itself, Zakaria’s diagnosis is that “America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy. … The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty.” The remedy is thus to counteract this excessive “democratization of democracy” by delegating more power to impartial experts insulated from the democratic fray, like the independent central banks.

Such a diagnosis cannot but provoke ironic laughter: Today, in this alleged “overdemocratization,” the United States and Britain started a war on Iraq against the overwhelming will of the rest of the planet (and, in Britain’s case, its own people). And are we not, all the time, witnessing the imposition of key decisions concerning global trade agreements by “impartial” bodies exempted from democratic control? Even more fundamentally, is it not ridiculous to complain about “overdemocratization” in a time when the key economic and geopolitical decisions are, as a rule, not an issue in elections? For at least the past three decades, what Zakaria demands is already fact. What we experience today are acrimonious splits over ideological lifestyle issues, where fierce debates rage and choices are solicited (on abortion, on gay marriages, etc.), but where basic economic policy is presented as a depoliticized domain of expert authority. The proliferation of “overdemocracy” with its “excesses” of a “culture of complaint” is ultimately the front whose backside is the silent, sturdy weaving of economic, corporatist logic.

The obverse of the same tendency to counteract democratic “excesses” is the open dismissal of any international body that would effectively control the conduct of war—which might, after all, be necessary from time to time to enforce the economic agenda. Exemplary is Kenneth Anderson’s recent New York Times Magazine essay, “Who Owns the Rules of War?” whose subtitle makes the point unambiguously clear: “The war in Iraq demands a rethinking of the international rules of conduct. The outcome could mean less power for neutral, well-meaning human rights groups and more for big-stick-wielding states. That would be a good thing.”

The main complaint of this essay is that, “For the past 20 years, the center of gravity in establishing, interpreting and shaping the law of war has gradually shifted away from the military establishments of leading states and toward more activist and publicly aggressive NGOs.” This tendency is perceived as unbalanced, “unfair” toward the big military powers who intervene in other countries, and partial toward the attacked countries—with the clear conclusion that the militaries on the “big-stick-wielding states” should themselves determine the standards by which their actions will be judged.

This conclusion is indeed consistent with the U.S. rejection of the authority of the International Criminal Court over its citizens. And it spells out a bitter reality: that a new dark age is descending upon the human race.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the 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, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

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