Thursday, 18 June 2009

This is what democracy looks like

The turmoil in Tehran over the past few days manifests precisely the 'minimal difference' that belies the line of confrontation in the so-called 'clash of civilizations'. What was always missing in this simple dichotomy is the actual struggle, the actual tension. The real clash is neither between Western democracy and Islam, nor between democracy and authoritarianism, nor simply between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. In the context of stolen elections, one should always remember that in the "world's greatest democracy", the Republican party stole at least one, possibly two elections - this with a flourish, and deploying a variety of tactics ranging from racially-targeted voter fraud (50,000 alleged ex-felons fraudulently purged from the register in one case, most of them black) to voter intimidation, orchestrated at various levels nationwide but most notably in Florida, by ex-president George W's dear old brother, Governor Jeb.

So what is the difference between a stolen election in the "world's greatest democracy" and a stolen election in Iran? Well, for starters, the Americans never took to the streets in revolt, never rose up in anger against the political system that cheated them. In the 2000 election it was Al Gore himself who was behind the final, 11th hour betrayal, when about 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus filed objections to the Florida results, demanding a full recount; Gore, as President of the Senate, ruled them out of order, one by one.

But beneath all the concrete acts of betrayal, what took place in the US election was a betrayal of democracy by itself. Americans, ironically enough, betrayed democracy because they believed too much in democracy, or in the institutions of democracy - they lacked a healthy dose of cynicism. Living in a state of collective denial for 8 years, leaving it up to democratic institutions to correct themselves, was preferable to revolt. "Denial ain't nothin' but a river in Egypt," as Louis Armstrong put it.

What all this should tell us, I think, is that real democracy - the 'will of the people' - cannot be guaranteed by any system. The very notion of 'democratic institutions' or 'democratic government' is already a contradiction of terms, of sorts - something to be watched over carefully. The only guarantee of democracy is the willingness of the people to revolt. A government is only 'democratic' as a function of the people's preparedness to wipe it out at the slightest whiff of corruption - by any means necessary. Democratic legitimacy can be vested in institutions and formal procedures only so long as the threat of collective violence persists, even if it is never realized.

What is amusing in all this is the bewilderment of western journalists who see Iranians as a people 'ruled by fear', now all of a sudden taking to the streets and taking up an open struggle. Well, under the circumstances, and given the odds against them, they appear to be far less fearful than anyone thought. They have slightly more corrupt and less democratic institutions than some countries in the west, and face greater state/police brutality; yet despite this, as a people they are clearly more capable of exercising a collective will, with or without institutions.

The real struggle in all this is not between Iran and the USA, or Islam and the West, or authoritarianism and democracy: it is a struggle between collective will and state/institutional authority as such - 'democratically' legitimated or not. It is a struggle that takes place within democracy, within a political system of any sort, within an institutionalized religion even - rather than between 'different' nations, religions, or political systems. It comes down to what Deleuze calls 'internal' difference - real differences are always internal. The USA in fighting Islamism or communism was always fighting its own demons: in the case of China it eventually reconciled not only with communism but with authoritarian rule (i.e. China was granted permanent 'Most Favoured Nation' status in 2000 by the U.S Congress). Communism became palatable for US politicians once it eliminated any trace of collective will or 'people rule' - becoming, effectively, state capitalism.

Which explains why some right-wing US politicians and commentators are tacitly or ambiguously supporting Ahmadinejad (while the liberals are just shrugging their shoulders). The real threat to their agenda, as they well know, comes not from Islam but from any expression of collective will, from popular revolt as such. It just never seems to go their way, that's all.

Parallels to the 1979 revolution are apt, most of all because what is at stake is a repetition, in the Deleuzian sense: in 1979, the revolutionaries lost in the end, as the critical mass was hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists firmly on the side of state authority. What is needed is a repetition - authentic repetition is never repetition of the same, but the repetition of a possibility; and it is only with repetition that the truly new emerges. It is time to return to that fork in the road.

Slavoj Zizek recently criticized the left's stance toward Iran, pointing out among other things that Mousavi's opposition movement has activated an emancipatory dimension within Islam itself, rather than pandering to Western liberal ideology. That is precisely it - internal difference. One divides into two. This is the only path to true universality: nous sommes tous Iraniens.* Mousavi is within Islam the emancipatory voice that the Left should be within neoliberal capitalism - not to mention the American brand of neoliberal capitalism, which happens to be paired with a fundamentalist Christian faith not all that different from the Iranian mullahs.

The ambivalence of the US political establishment is most likely due to the embarrassing realization that what is happening in Iran is "Iraq, the way it should have happened," as Zizek put it. I would only add that the irony is double: it's not just about the failure in Iraq, it's also the failure in Iran itself - some fifty-odd years ago. One reason why Western democracy never took root in Iran in the first place is because, when the Iranians tried to build a progressive democratic society on their own, one where women were more emancipated than they were in most Western nations at the time, and certainly more than they would be in Switzerland for decades**, their dream was crushed by the very same hegemonic powers now rooting for war on Iran. The Iranians elected a socialist government in 1951, which proceeded to enact a range of popular social reforms, including the denationalization of Iranian oil, at the time controlled by British interests under a 100-year concession granted under duress by a previous unconstitutional government; the British and Americans, prompted by a dispute in which the International Court of Justice ruled itself incompetent - effectively ruling in Iran's favour - removed Iran's democratically-elected government and installed the Shah as dictator.

Similarly, Iraq today after a dose of US democracy is more religiously conservative than most Arab countries - more than it has ever been in history. The thing about western democracy is it's a bit like the ridiculously overpriced pharmaceuticals peddled by multinational corporations, where the side effects seem to reproduce the symptoms they are meant to cure. The common side effects of antidepressants, for instance, include "urinary retention, blurred vision, constipation, sleep disruption, weight gain, headache, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbance/diarrhea, abdominal pain, inability to achieve an erection, inability to achieve an orgasm (men and women), loss of libido, agitation, anxiety" - couldn't all that make one a little depressed? (Conveniently enough, if the side effects do appear, it's impossible to tell whether it is the drug or the disease any more.)

Or take for instance the common side effects of antihistamines: "drowsiness, headache, blurred vision, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, difficulty passing urine, confusion" - are we talking homeopathy here?

A lesson we should draw from history: the most common side effects of 'spreading freedom and democracy' include "authoritarianism, religious dogma, fundamentalism, outbursts of violence, political repression, economic depression, mass killings, imprisonment of political opponents, war, etc...

The Iranians, left to their own means, are off the medication and are fixing things themselves. One should only hope that they don't give up. And that those outside Iran who take the idea of free self-determination seriously will look past Mousavi's beard.

*in the wake of September 11, 2001, a French newspaper headline proclaimed 'Nous sommes tous Americains' ("we are all Americans"). I agree, but in the sense of 'universality as struggle'; many of us were the skeptical Americans who did not sheepishly buy into their government's rhetoric.
**incidentally, I was recently shocked to find out that one Canton in Switzerland only granted women the right to vote in 1990, after a decision by the Swiss supreme court; at the federal level, women's suffrage was granted only in the 1970s.

No comments: