Limit of Democracy

Direct violence is as a rule not revolutionary but conservative, a reaction to the threat of a more basic change—when a system is in a crisis, it begins to break its own rules. 

Following excerpts from the author's new book, Heaven in Disorder, published by OR Books

by Slavoj Žižek

In the weeks before the 2020 US presidential elections, different forms of populist resistance were forming a unified field, as reported in the Guardian: “Armed militia groups are forging alliances in the final stages of the US presidential election with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers who claim the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, intensifying concerns that trouble could be brewing ahead of the election day. Leading advocates of anti-government and anti-science propaganda came together at the weekend, joined by the founder of one of the largest militia groups.”

Three dimensions are at work here: conspiracy theorists (like QAnon), Covid deniers, and violent militias. These dimensions are often inconsistent and relatively independent: there are conspiracy theorists who don’t deny the reality of the pandemic but see in it a (Chinese) plot to destroy the United States; and there are Covid deniers who don’t see a conspiracy behind the pandemic but just deny the seriousness of the threat (i.e. Agamben). But the three dimensions are now moving together: violent militias legitimize themselves as defenders of freedom which they see as threatened by a deep-state conspiracy against the re-election of Trump, and they see the pandemic as a key element of this conspiracy. In this view, for Trump to lose re-election would be the result of this conspiracy, which means that violent resistance to Trump’s loss is legitimate. On October 29, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States and outspoken adversary of Pope Francis, “made waves within the online world of QAnon after his open letter to President Trump was quoted in a post from the anonymous leader of the cult-like conspiracy movement. The letter hit many of the favorite themes of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, attacking their familiar villains from the ominous ‘global elite,’ to Bill Gates and the ‘mainstream media.’ ‘The fate of the whole world is being threatened by a global conspiracy against God and humanity,’ Viganò wrote, emphasizing the ‘epochal importance of the imminent election,’ casting Trump as ‘the final garrison against the world dictatorship.’”

The jump to violence is easy from such a standpoint. In October 2020, the FBI revealed that a right-wing militia group planned to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan from her house, taking her to a secure location in Wisconsin where she would undergo a kind of people’s “trial” for her “treason.” As a governor, she imposed tough restrictions to curb Covid-19 infections and, according to the militia group, thereby violated the freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution. Is this plan not reminiscent of the most famous political kidnapping in Europe? In 1978, a key figure of the Italian political establishment who evoked the possibility of the big coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, put to a trial by a people’s court, and shot dead . 

Angela Nagle was right in arguing that the new populist Right is taking over procedures that were decades ago clearly identified as belonging to extreme Left “terrorist” groups. This, of course, in no way implies that the two “extremes” somehow coincide—we don’t have a stable Center symmetrically flanked by the two extremes. The basic antagonism is the one between the establishment and the Left, and the rightist violent “extremism” is a panicky reaction triggered when the Center is threatened. This became clear in the last presidential debate when Trump accused Biden of backing “Medicare for All,” saying “Biden agreed with Sanders,” to which Biden replied: “I beat Bernie Sanders.” The message of this reply was clear: Biden is Trump with a human face—in spite of their opposition they share the same enemy. This is liberal opportunism at its worst: renounce the Left “extremists” out of fear of scaring the center.

And it’s not just the United States that is moving in this direction. Let’s just take a look at the cover stories in European media: in Poland, liberal public figures complain that they are becoming spectators at the dismantling of democracy; the same in Hungary . . . At an even more general level, a certain tension that is immanent to the very notion of parliamentary democracy is gaining visibility today. Democracy means two things: the “power of the people,” or the idea that the substantial will of the majority should express itself in the state; and trust in the electoral mechanism, such that no matter how many manipulations and lies there are, once the numbers are counted the result is to be accepted by all sides. Thus Al Gore conceded defeat to Bush even though more people voted for him and the counting in Florida was very problematic—trust in the formal procedure is what gives parliamentary democracy its stability. Problems arise when these two dimensions get out of sync, and both the Left and the Right often demand that the people’s substantial will should prevail over electoral formalities. And in some sense they are right: the mechanism of democratic representation is not really neutral. As Alain Badiou writes, “If democracy is a representation, it first of all represents the general system which sustains its form. In other words, the electoral democracy is only representative insofar as it is first the consensual representation of capitalism, which is today renamed ‘market economy.’”

One should take these lines in the strictest formal sense: at the empirical level, of course, the multi-party liberal democracy “represents”—mirrors, registers, measures—the quantitative dispersal of different opinions of the people, what they think about the proposed programs of political parties and about their candidates, and so on. However, prior to this empirical level and in a much more radical sense, the very form of multi-party liberal democracy “represents”—instantiates—a certain vision of society, politics, and the role of the individuals in it, whereby politics is organized in parties which compete through elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus. One should always be aware that this frame is never neutral—it privileges certain values and practices.

This non-neutrality becomes palpable in moments of crisis or indifference, when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people effectively want or think. This inability is signaled by anomalous phenomena like the UK elections of 2005, where, in spite of the growing unpopularity of Tony Blair (he was regularly voted the most unpopular person in the UK), there was no way for this discontent to find a politically effective expression. Something was obviously very wrong here, and it was not that people “did not know what they wanted,” but, rather, that cynical resignation prevented them from acting upon it, so that the result was the weird gap between what people thought and how they acted (voted).


ABOUT THE BOOK: As we emerge (though perhaps only temporarily) from the pandemic, other crises move center stage: outrageous inequality, climate disaster, desperate refugees, mounting tensions of a new cold war. The abiding motif of our time is relentless chaos.

Acknowledging the possibilities for new beginnings at such moments, Mao Zedong famously proclaimed “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.” The contemporary relevance of Mao’s observation depends on whether today’s catastrophes can be a catalyst for progress or have passed over into something terrible and irretrievable. Perhaps the disorder is no longer under, but in heaven itself.

Characteristically rich in paradoxes and reversals that entertain as well as illuminate, Slavoj Žižek’s new book treats with equal analytical depth the lessons of Rammstein and Corbyn, Morales and Orwell, Lenin and Christ. It excavates universal truths from local political sites across Palestine and Chile, France and Kurdistan, and beyond.

Heaven In Disorder looks with fervid dispassion at the fracturing of the Left, the empty promises of liberal democracy, and the tepid compromises offered by the powerful. From the ashes of these failures, Žižek asserts the need for international solidarity, economic transformation, and—above all—an urgent, “wartime” communism.

240 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-283-2 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-280-1


A year or so ago, the same gap exploded more brutally with the rise of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in France. The protests clearly articulated an experience that was impossible to translate or transpose into the terms of the politics of institutional representation, which is why the moment Macron invited their representatives to a dialogue and challenged them to formulate their complaints in a clear political program, their specific experience evaporated. Didn’t exactly the same thing happen with Podemos in Spain? The moment they agreed to play party politics and entered government, they became almost indistinguishable from the Socialist Party—yet another sign that representative democracy doesn’t fully work.

In short, the crisis of liberal democracy has lasted for more than a decade; the Covid pandemic only made it explode beyond a certain level. The basic premises of a functioning democracy are today more and more undermined. The trust on which democracy relies was best expressed by Lincoln’s famous saying: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Let’s give to this saying a more pessimist spin: only in rare exceptional moments does the majority live in truth; most of the time they live in non-truth while only a minority is aware of truth. The solution is certainly not to be found in some kind of more “true” democracy that is more inclusive of all minorities; the very frame of liberal democracy will have to be left behind, exactly what liberals fear most. The solution is also not that somehow the self-organized and mobilized civil society (i.e. with Podemos, the gilets jaunes) directly takes over and replaces the state. Direct rule of the multitude is an illusion; as a rule it has to be sustained in a strong state apparatus. The path to true change opens only when we lose hope in a change within the system. If this appears too “radical,” recall that today, our capitalism is already changing, although in the opposite sense.

Direct violence is as a rule not revolutionary but conservative, a reaction to the threat of a more basic change—when a system is in a crisis, it begins to break its own rules. Hannah Arendt said that, in general, violent outbreaks are not the cause that change a society but rather the birth pangs of a new society in a society that has already expired due to its own contradictions. Let’s remember that Arendt says this in her polemic against Mao, who said that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”—Arendt qualifies this an “entirely non-Marxist” conviction and claims that, for Marx, violent outbursts are like “the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.” Basically I agree with her, but I would add that a fully peaceful “democratic” transfer of power cannot happen without the “birth pangs” of violence; there will always be moments of tension when the rules of democratic procedure are suspended.

Today, however, the agent of this tension is the Right, which is why, paradoxically, the task of the Left is now, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, to save our “bourgeois” democracy when the liberal center is too weak and indecisive to do it. Is this in contradiction with the fact that the Left today should move beyond parliamentary democracy? No. As Trump demonstrates, the contradiction is in this democratic form itself, so that the only way to save what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to move beyond it—and vice versa: when rightist violence is on the rise, the only way to move beyond liberal democracy is to be more faithful to it than the liberal democrats themselves. This is what the successful democratic return to power of Morales’s party in Bolivia, one of the few bright spots in our devastated landscape, clearly signals.

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most prolific and well-known philosophers and cultural theorists in the world today. His inventive, provocative body of work mixes Hegelian metaphysics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Marxist dialectic in order to challenge conventional wisdom and accepted verities on both the Left and the Right.

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