Monday, July 27, 2009

Democracy: the Only Option?

Recently, I have been reading a book called "Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle" by Zizek. If you've never heard of Zizek, go to youtube and search pervert's guide to cinema and you will get a decent sense of what he's about. The main thrust of the book is... well, if you know Zizek, you'll know why that's a difficult question to answer, but to give you some idea, the title is a reference to the classic Freudian joke that goes as follows, someone asks if you broke their kettle and you reply in a panic "a) I never borrowed a kettle from you, b) I returned it to you intact c) it was already broken when I borrowed it." As you can see, the reasoning behind these denials exposes the true fact that you broke the kettle. At one point, Zizek quotes an interesting poem written during the 1954 worker's strike in E. Germany. I quote it here in full
After the uprising of 17th June
The secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalee (main st. I think)
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This poem was intended as a sarcastic jab at the supposedly Democratic gov't in E. Germany. But this strikes at an interesting notion, the idea that the government can modify the people's approach to politics. Two such ideas already exist, the concept of the Vanguard party in Leninism, whereby a staunch, communist element of society (eg, urban proletariat) will bring about the initial changes leading to communism, and then remain in the vanguard of society pulling up and educating the other classes (eg, rural workers). Another manifestation of this idea is found on the right, whereby a strongman will remain in power while the country slowly liberalizes its markets and develops its civil society in preparation for the introduction of democracy. Do either of these models really work? In the former case, obviously not. The current state of nations that followed this path adequately demonstrates this, and I have trouble buying the argument that it was only due to Western interference that not a single one of the former Soviet aligned countries remains. If you want to say "Ah! but what about Cuba" my reply will be that, while the country does survive, the Vanguard did a fairly poor job in guiding the people due to the overwhelming disaffection of Cubans with socialism. In the latter case of the regent/dictator, we have also seen some pretty abject failures. Amy Chua points out the dangers of sudden democracy in countries which aren't prepared and don't have the appropriate (in her view) preconditions necessary for democracy. At the same time, I feel compelled to challenge this view, not on evidentiary grounds (of course the events in the Balkans in the 90's and the land seizures by Mugabe were terrible events) but on ideological grounds. Zizek defends populism on the grounds that democracy is made up of its constituents, not of an idealized but non-existent body politic that behaves in ways which we support.

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