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October 30, 2009


John Meredith

I agree with all your points but I think that Norm's point wasn't that there are no problems for leftists with democray but that there might be a contradiction in Zizek holding, at the same time, that the formal operations of democracy are precious but that leftists should 'seize' power, unelected, whenever they can.

You are right about Z being a mere blusterer. All his claims are either banal or absurd. As soon as he is held to task for one of his absurd positions he backpedals into a boringly uncontentious one claiming tht his figurative language had been misrepresented. The bit Norm objects to is classic Z, it can be read as a conservative or a radical claim, allowing him to shift depending on his audiencve and never to be clear on what he means by, say 'getting his hands dirty'. By the way, have you noticed how rarely those theorists like Zizek who are most enthusistic about getting ones hands dirty actually ever do themselves? Funny that,

Luis Enrique

Well there's an argument for taking formal electoral procedure to equal legitimacy, in the sense of an optimal rule.

That is to say, although we might want to call democratic outcomes illegitimate, for the reasons you suggest, we should not allow some group of people to overthrow democratic decisions whenever they choose to, on the grounds of claimed illegitimacy. If we tried to appeal to other notions of what's legitimate, we'd end up in a worse place.

But is this what Zizek means? He starts off (in the extract you cite) talking about truth and authenticity, whereas I'm just talking about legitimate government.

Will Davies

I suppose the question is whether we see democracy as a system or an ambition, a means or an ends.

As a system and means, of course we need to impose limits on it. Most importantly, the judicial system needs protecting from popular opinion. One of the most cynical aspects of Blairism was to mobilise democratic arguments against only those elites that stood in the way of executive power, such as judges ("most people would like to see criminals receive harsher penalties" etc etc).

As an ambition, however, as Aristotle, Rousseau and Arendt all argue in their own way, democracy is not just a system, but a form of individual and collective fulfillment. To be free means to possess political power, but also (and maybe this is where Freud comes in) to recognise the limits that other people necessarily and legitimately impose upon it.

The caricature of democracy as rowdy populism probably owes more to the market than anything else. It was first observed by Tocqueville in America, but the market is just as important to that national political culture as elections are. Restraint, compromise and acceptance of often not getting what you want are surely character traits present in a good democracy.

If Zizek is opposed to this aspect of democracy - the recognition and celebration of pluralism - then he has no politics at all.


The answer is simple. You have a Bill of Rights or Constitution which can only be changed by a substantial majority. What is not so simple is to determine what such a document should contain. There are however many precedents and, as a result, grounds for rational debate.

When has Marxism EVER resulted in anything other than repression?

You seem to think that "justice" is not only a defined entity but also one that entirely accords with a Leftist definition. This fallacy seems to be necessary for your house of cards to stand - or - fall.

Secondly, the whole notion of "false beliefs" is chilling - despite your evident comfort based on years in the echo chamber. Thank god that the only way your lot have ever managed to get your hands on power is when you forcefully take it. People around the world would never elect you because they have too much common sense and can see the seeds of tyranny better than you. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you can't see it.

The Marxist folklore that its only the media that fools ordinary people into rejecting you is pathetic and transparent.


Is this my Oxonian/empiricist bias showing?

Definitely. Presenting Zizek as a sort of clown, 'the Elvis of cultural theory' as the press always call him, is just a different way of refusing to engage with his ideas. Not all valuable contributions to political thought can be traced back to Rawls, Nozick and Dworkin, despite what they tell you in Oxford.

@John Meredith - before you invoke the classic armchair intellectual trope, you might want to look at Zizek's time in the Slovenian dissident movement...you know, fighting oppression? I know it might not be much compared to posting comments on blogs, but there you go.


Addressing the question 'Are there other feasible democratic institutions which might not be prone to the two problems I’ve mentioned?'

The begining of an answer might be found in rooting democractic institutions more firmly in democracy's complement, equality. I recently saw an interview with Warren Buffet where he made the point that his success results very substantially from his social circumstances. In another time/place he might have been something's lunch. As such, he continued, it was reasonable for him to contribute to the society that had enabled him to succeed.

1. Can we infer from this a theory of human equality grounded in the conditionality of human abilities on permissive environments?

2. If so then perhaps democracy (as an aspiration) can be conceived as consisting in the creation of the most permissive environment possible for the development of each human's abilities - or the reverse, I guess.

Not the most practical of answers, I'll admit..

Luis Enrique

Are you saying anything more here than the left should regard democracy as a system with room for improvement? That we can think of ways in which democracy may lead to sub-optimal outcomes, even judged by the standards of those doing the voting (not just according to clever left wing academics)? If so, there's a rather large set of things about which the same could be said. I suppose it's worth pointing out that democracy needn't be regarded as the holy of holies, but in a world where all the actually existing alternatives are a lot worse, this doesn't mean that the left should be ambivalent about democracy, does it?

[or you're just being provocative, and saying to the left: as you think you know better than everyone else, you shouldn't be so keen on a system based on the votes of everyone else]

Dave Semple

Zizek is quite a blusterer - though that says more about my Marxian materialism and how it flatly opposes Zizek's Lacanianism. But I've always regarded him fondly. Despite saying some really stupid things, occasionally he comes off with some genius ideas which make him worth reading.

I don't see how he can be portrayed as a Leninist. A vanguardist, perhaps, since - as I will be discussing in my review of his latest work - his ideal type seems to be an activist-academic.

Norm, on the other hand has some form with regard to misreading Zizek - see here, for example: http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2009/08/25/liberalism-and-the-radical-left-properly-engaging-with-zizek/

As a last scrawled notation, some of the right wing responses to this thread really aren't worth engaging with. Pity, really.


Deomcracy & the left

Wonderful choice of oxymoron, Chris. Well done.


"Democratic outcomes, then, can often be unjust and inefficient, and antagonistic to leftist ideals"

Maybe, and I'm thinking aloud here that it is leftist ideals that are wrong.


Those pesky voters. They never vote how you want them to. Far better to have no elections, or one party elections, just like every far left revolution before has ended up with. Much more efficient. 95% voted for Our Glorious Leader again. Now THAT'S what I call democracy!

The Great Simpleton

Intersting juxtaposition of the last 2 posts I have read. The one before reading this was from The Angry Economist:

"Poor Tom! He fantasizes that once the tools of coercive collective action are created, intellectual such as himself will be in charge of directing the action. And yet, when you point him at collective action gone wrong (e.g. Jim Crow laws, or the War in *, or the War on Drugs), he'll just tell you that the wrong people (e.g. George Bush) are in charge.
No, it's far more likely that when powerful tools are created, powerful people (politically and/or economically powerful -- which you surely must acknowledge doesn't include intellectuals) control them. That's why I oppose the creation and ongoing maintenance of these tools. Not because you can't do good things with them -- you can -- but it's more likely that bad things will be done with them.


I think I'll take mey chance with democracy, whatever its faults.


"Most importantly, the judicial system needs protecting from popular opinion."

This kind of begs the question "who and on who's authority ought to "protect" the judicial system."

Any possible answer would, I'd wager, make intriguing reading for those born after the nineteenth century.


"I don't see how he (Žižek) can be portrayed as a Leninist."

Dave, perhaps because he says things like this:

"I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama... If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for."


I think he is a leftist the left can do without.


"It’s a long leap from seeing this to Zizek’s Leninist vanguardism."

Zizek is not a leninist vanguardist. Whatever the fuck that means anyway.

You, however, is a fucking fuckkwit.

John Meredith

"Zizek is not a leninist vanguardist. Whatever the fuck that means anyway."

Well, he should stop saying he is then. Whatever the fuck he means.


It's actually quite clear what he means when he says he's a Leninist, but then you actually have to read some of his work to find out. I guess that's my empiricist bias showing through.

You might start with 'Repeating Lenin' in 'In Defence of Lost Causes'. I think it's available online.

John Meredith

"It's actually quite clear what he means when he says he's a Leninist"

You are reading with one eye shut. It is never clear what Zizek means because he always constructs a reterat for himself to follow depending on the company he finds himslef in. This is sometimes called the 'Zizek two-step'. It should be clear what he means when he calls himself 'a Leninist' and claims to believe therefore that he should do 'whatever possible' to 'grab' power, but he will retreat from that position at the first sign of unfriendly opposition to something very conservative. What he really is, is a phoney.


I don't think I agree with the quote provided, but it more or less exactly sums up Norman Geras' own views when the subject is, for example, Hugo Chavez.


I think democracy allows the left to punch above its weight rather than being antagonistic to it; if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on Paul's vote.

John Meredith

"I don't think I agree with the quote provided, but it more or less exactly sums up Norman Geras' own views when the subject is, for example, Hugo Chavez."

Except that it doesn't, does it? Norman Geras does not consider Chavez's government illegitimate even if he does think its populism is dangerous(who doesn't, outside of the SWP?). Of course, he does not coinsider the elections that brought Chavez to power to be 'a measure of ultimate truth', either, but nobody thinks of elections like that, it's just Zizekish rhetoric, a blind for him to hide behind when his other assertions are challenged.


This comes down, doesn't it, to minority protection. That should in fact be a constitutional court function. Shame the UK doesn't have a proper constitution.

But of course an intelligent democratic population should realise that they are ALL in some minority or another. Here of course a sensible voting system (like the compulsory/preferential system in Australia) would help avoid a minority becoming a majority. And it is a shame about the Murdoch reading population. Maybe the coming disappearance of the printed press is a good thing.


I'm familiar with the cognitive bias literature, but am still skeptical that there is some truly objective reference point by which to compare these biases. For instance, Thaler et al. posit that when shopping or seeking sexual gratification a "hot" state is in play cognitively, as opposed to the buyer's remorse or morning after (respectively) that reflects a "cool" state, i.e. a rational state. But why is the latter rational? That's a product of cultural and emotional pressures too. Namely guilt.

False consciousness is bogus.

Have you read NYU's Mario Rizzo's work on this? Good stuff.

Mike Macnair

We don't, I think, need an "objective reference point". Just a couple of thought experiments on "false consciousness is bogus". If so:

(1) We should abolish civil and criminal liability for fraud, since false representations make no difference to the representee's ultimate calculation of utility.

(2) We should make politics more media market-like, by considering one or more of

(a) allowing MPs or firms to pay the Speaker for recognition and speaking time;

(b) abolishing the speaker altogether (and other chairing roles in meetings) and / or allowing the use of public address systems by individual MPs, or other meeting participants, to drown out rival speakers.

(c) getting rid of representative bodies and elections and replacing them by some system of auctioning public policy options on the basis of rival money bids.

Do any of these look like attractive options?

Alternatively, we could make electoral processes and public choice more consistent with the existing legal prohibition on fraudulenmt misrepresentations for commercial advantage and with the procedurally-controlled choices taken in parliaments and other organised meetings.

This would imply wholly segregating commercial advertising and news/ commentary, i.e. advertising would only be permitted in media prohibited from offering news and commentary on public policy issues, and conversely media offering news and commentary on public policy issues would be restricted to sales and subscription income.

If we took this latter course of action it would become clearer which general public prejudices (leftist or rightist) were the result of general cognitive biasses, or - alternatively - genuine views as to utility, as opposed to the fraudulent misrepresentations for public policy / electoral advantage, backed by advertising operations, which dominate current media.

Note that this 'modest proposal' does not involve any restriction of individual freedom of speech. It merely restricts the *amplification* of speech by comnmercial/ financial backing.

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