Saturday, October 28, 2017


339. Authoritarianism or democracy

A leading question for Žižek has been: why would people obey ‘the law?’ The Law here is the whole of laws, rules, regulations and habits that form the ‘symbolic order’.

As I discussed in item 337 of this blog, for Žižek obedience requires some ‘obscene lust’, called ‘jouissance’(adopted from Lacan), lust even in knowing that one will never be able to obey completely, always feeling guilty, as Kant recognized, of not having obeyed ‘purely’, acting on hidden motives of pleasure, self-interest and hypocrisy.

I wonder. Isn’t there more pleasure in breaking the rules, in a romantic urge of transgression, in self-manifestation or ‘thymos’? Perhaps one could even say that rules are needed to enable the pleasure in breaking them.

I see neither the actual presence nor the philosophical need of a masochistic pleasure of obedience, and I would stay with the simpler explanation that disobedience is punished by isolation or ostracism. On a deeper level, my argument would be, as I have argued extensively in this blog, that selves are developed in interaction with others, and perhaps some awareness or even pleasure in this is built into human instinct.

To me, Žižek becomes more interesting when he claims that it is unclear what, precisely, is demanded by the ‘big Other’ of the Law. As Kant already recognized, the symbolic order in place has no clear, consistent, objective foundation. It is an outcome of historical process, in clashes of interest and grabs of power. That order is not only impossible to state coherently and fully, but has no foundation in logic, rationality or ethics, and is a scandal that needs to remain hidden. This is difficult to accept, and people grasp at some ‘fantasmatic’ non-existent ideal, called ‘objet-a’ (a term taken from Lacan).

Here emerges the problem of liberal democracy: decision making arises from a clash of special interests that, like bumper cars in a fancy fair, yield outcomes no-one could predict and perhaps no-one really intended, with unforeseen casualties. It yields an often incoherent, even self-contradictory tangle of rules and regulations.  

Žižek now argues, convincingly in my view, that this needs to be hidden in the phantasm of an order that is not to be questioned. This imagined order used to be embodied in some unquestioned authority, in the form of a monarch with divine investiture. The question is: When that disappeared, what was to come in its place?

The iconic historical case is that of the French revolution. The aim was to eliminate all special interests, of the king, the clergy and the nobility, and to institute the ‘general will’ of the people. But who was to represent that? Any claim to representation would be suspect, hiding special interest, and so the revolution ended in slaughtering itself, in a ‘virtuous terror’. 

What is needed, Žižek claims, is some other idealized (‘phantasmatic’) something, an ‘objet-a’, that is not questioned, and is dressed up in ideology. He argues that this requires some leading ‘master-signifier’, to symbolize this object, providing a focus to effectuate blind, willing, even eager conformance. That can be a national flag, national anthem, the glitter and soap of royalty, or hero entrepreneurs that symbolize the glory of capitalism and the wonders of the market.

 Žižek offers the example of the Rumanian revolution against Ceausescu, where protesters waved the national flag with the central red star cut out of it, with the resulting hole demonstrating the elimination of the master signifier.

When the emperor was seen not to wear any clothes, and now in politics the democratic order is unmasked as yielding arbitrary and often partially unjust and even at times irrational, or counter-productive results, there is a call for just and rational government, without the recognition that this cannot in fact be achieved. Political parties that claim to offer representation only represent partial interests, waving rival ideologies.

This frightening void, Žižek argues, is now filled by populist claims to yield the desired, unified society, in a unity of the people, embodied in an authoritarian leader with unquestionable authority, with master-signifiers dug up from national history, and polished into appealing myths. This hides the fact that here also not everyone can be satisfied, promises will not be kept, and outcomes will again be partially unjust, incoherent, irrational, and so on. In authoritarian regimes, the blame for this is shifted onto some scapegoat that carries the blame of failure. For the Nazis it was the Jews, for Stalinism the revisionists betraying socialist purity. For present populists it is the refugees, non-western immigrants, or some guilty conspirational ‘elite’. The scapegoating of refugees feeds on what earlier in this blog I discussed as ‘parochial altruism’.

In the end, Žižek winds up in seeking freedom in breaking out of the ruling symbolic order by grasping a new mastery for itself, with some new master signifier that gives no quarter to demands for rational and ethical justification. But that just yields a continuation of the exercise of blind power.

There is, in my view, no alternative to dealing with democracy as best we can. That is the subject for a later item.