Democracy and Its Discontents: Conversation with Agon Hamza
4 February 2021
Credit for the images: received
In this interview to PWD, Agon Hamza talks to Kamran Baradaran about democracy. The word democracy today acts as a key to a broad convergence. Everyone agrees on the word, despite differing ideologies, although its implications and the world in which this democracy finds meaning is controversial.
Much has changed since Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis and his claim to the authoritarian victory of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, the idea remains that democracy ultimately has the upper hand and is endorsed by recent social movements (from the Arab Spring to the BLM). It seems that in today’s era, which proclaims itself post-ideological, there is nothing more futile than talking about democracy. Despite all the developments we have witnessed in the last decade, one can probably argue that that the mark of democracy is still the dominant emblem of our Kafkaesque world.
KAMRAN BARADARAN: According to Jean-Luc Nancy, May ‘68 initiated a calling into question of democracy’s self-assurance (The Truth of Democracy, Jean-Luc Nancy, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Fordham University Press, 2010). Over the years, however, we have once again witnessed a new wave of protests. As David Harvey puts in his newest book, The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, huge outburst of political struggles around the world in the fall of 2019 – from Santiago to Beirut, Paris, Quito, Hong Kong, India, and well beyond – suggests that there is something chronically wrong in the world. Can these developments be seen as a new attempt to re-define the idea of democracy?
AGON HAMZA: The protests, riots, uprisings and other forms of rebellions against the agents of capitalism are in principle necessary. However, there are a few problems one should always bear in mind. The first problem, as I see it, is that in the last instance, popular outbursts, revolts and protests are somehow always-already integrated within the logic of ruling ideology. That is to say, the ruling ideology is remarkably successful in appropriating both the demands and the methods of revolts. We all remember Presidents Obama call to the protesters of the “Occupy” movement – he wanted to engage in a dialogue with them; whereas President Clinton urged the government to listen to the people’s demands. I think that the moment those in power are ready to negotiate, or ready to listen to our demands, something is inherently wrong or lost in our very reasons for protest. This means that our demands are already within the logic of ruling ideology. Of course, provided that protests or rebellions have managed to outline a basic, general idea of why are they taking the streets, which, sadly is rarely the case.
In the last instance, we can argue that the terms and the terrain of the political and ideological struggles of the Left are decided by its enemies. The case of Syriza is exemplary: while it is a radical Left, it set itself the aim of “saving capitalism from itself”.
The other element is that of which Slavoj Žižek has warned long ago: not to fall in love with ourselves. Of course, this is very tempting to fall in love with ourselves when it is thousands or more of us in the streets, chanting or fighting the police, breaking some windows, burning some cars or injuring some policemen... In fact, it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with the “heroic” figure of yourself. I think that is perfectly legitimate, as there is nothing wrong with a “healthy” dose of narcissism. But, the danger lies precisely in this: In the self-sufficiency of protesting. Protests, riots, or even the revolution (if I am permitted in using this term which, frankly speaking, nobody knows what it means in the second decade of the 21st century) are in themselves insufficient. If I can draw a parallel here, only to illustrate my point. It is very fashionable to take part in uninformed political debates online, and pretend they have anything to do with actual political work. This doesn’t mean that political opinions are bad, but we have political opinions for the sake of pleasure, as well as to relieve anguish. All these are very legitimate reasons, but it is crucial not to confuse this with politics. The truth of protests relies on what comes after them, that is to say, what changes in our everyday life, as well as what form of social and political organisations remains once life is back to normal – what kind of new normal is created? I do not want to sound overly pessimistic – although there is hardly anything to be optimistic or hopeful about – and I would like to mention Chile. After a year or so ago, protests and street revolts resulted in a referendum on a new constitution, which just a couple of weeks or so ago was voted with an overwhelming majority. There is another dimension to this form of doing politics. The all too comfortable position of selforganization movements, which lack a central body or authority to regulate their movement, and their (frequent) refusal of the idea of the party or of the taking over of state power, as such movements are always reduced to some form of civil society movement that tries to exert pressure onto those in power.
The other element is that of which Slavoj Žižek has warned long ago: not to fall in love with ourselves. Of course, this is very tempting to fall in love with ourselves when it is thousands or more of us in the streets, chanting or fighting the police, breaking some windows, burning some cars or injuring some policemen... In fact, it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with the “heroic” figure of yourself.
According to Žižek, it is “the tetrad of people-movement-party-leader” (1) that can accomplish the next step; that is to say, we need a strong body or authority to reorganize or restructure our entire social and political life, from making the harsh and difficult decisions to implementing them. In this regard, Žižek puts forward another highly polemic thesis: although “anticapitalism cannot be directly the goal of political action – in politics, one opposes concrete political agents and their actions, not an anonymous ‘system,’ nevertheless, it should be its ultimate aim, the horizon of all its activity.” (2) This strategy can be summarized by distinguishing between two types of politics: we should leave Politics (with a capital P) for thinking, and in this way we will be able to be more realistic about what politics (with a small p) can in fact accomplish. This does not mean that we shouldn’t do it, but it means that though pragmatism today is in line with the inherently corrupted and dirty work of politics, we should have no illusions there.
The best example here of what Žižek himself would not go for is the former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva; one should rather go for JeanBertrand Aristide. Lula is the best example of confusing Politics with politics, that is to say, in his use of realpolitics he was quite successful, until the moment he referred to politics as Politics, for example referring to basic rent not as a step in a larger socialist program but as its accomplishment. Aristide presents a more or less successful story: with his constant references to Christianity and liberation theology, he managed to safeguard the truly emancipatory dimension of Politics, while at the same time engaging on the work necessary to assure immediate victories for the people. Because the transcendental status of politics was safe through Christianity, Aristide could get his hands dirty without it leading to a corrosion of the very ideals that led him to action. In this way, he showed that nothing gets done in corrupted countries without politicians and militants engaging with the actually existing logic of corruption, but the crucial move was that he proved that this could be done without corrupting Politics as such in the process. In other words, it is part of a true political act to distinguish between Politics and politics, and to show that “corruption” is not a true political category but a particular way of structuring the relation between the law and the lawful transgression of a situation. There is no emancipatory potential in denouncing corruption itself. When we shed the Left’s illusion of its own righteousness, we can clearly see that the situation in which the Left finds itself when it takes the power is not optimistic.
KB: There is an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that his mail will be intercepted and read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends receive the first letter, written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls eager to have affairs - the only thing unavailable is red ink.” As far as the question of democracy is concerned, does this not grasp our situation? Doesn’t the coup against Albin Kurti’s government in Kosovo show the limitations of formal democracy and its inability to address the political situation in the world today, namely the missing of the red ink?
A.H.: Louis Althusser once said that you cannot see everything from everywhere. I am within the situation, so my analysis on this issue will be from within that perspective. But, where one is on the inside, maybe one can have a different view on the totality. Let’s see.
Perhaps some preliminary reflections would be in order. The party politics, with its mostly parliamentary basis, is not the adequate perspective on the specificities of the totality in Kosova. This presupposes a nation-state, something which Kosova is not. So the game that is played is that which pretends that some stable rules already exist in the background, and we are pushed back to the starting point time and again. Then, the rules falter, and elections are re-scheduled again. This has been the case till now.
One of the main problems is that, I do not think we know what it really means to do party politics in an inconsistent state, which is not a nation-state, precisely because there is a certain inconsistency to the electoral game. It becomes untrustworthy. Perhaps even the popular supports stops having the same meaning when representation is not to a stable level to power. I think this is something we have to think about very seriously.
That’s why true leftists are not afraid to get their hands dirty: if leftism is always articulated, then it can articulate itself through whatever other name is needed – neoliberal, conservative, totalitarian, radical, whatever – such that the only trace indicating that a trajectory was in fact a leftist one will be that the adjectives it will gather may be contradictory of one another. What in Badiou’s mathematical ontology is called a “generic set,” a trajectory that treats a situation so immanently that no intensional property, can be ascribed to name its totality.
In a sense, this explains – up to a certain point – the reasons of the coup against Kurti’s government. In fact, this coup came to be known as the ‘first corona coup.’ However, I think the reasons are slightly more complicated. Kurti’s government marked a certain break from the ruling ideology, logic and trends established in this country since 1999. It was a government based on a leftist and progressive program and agenda. This is in itself a big obstacle for the big capital. It is only a sign of how far to the right the political scene, globally, has moved when even a modest social-democratic government is unacceptable.
This year was the year of elections in the USA. President Trump appointed a special envoy for Kosova-Serbia dialogue. His envoy is his close aide, Richard Grenell, who served as a US ambassador to Germany and for a short period an acting director of national intelligence. Grenell is perhaps the best exemplifier of what is wrong with Trump and his far-right policies. A highly incompetent, ignorant, arrogant, bully who choses no methods in achieving his goals. He put immense pressure on Kurti’s junior coalition partner and this lead to the coup. It was executed by the local actors, but certainly it was orchestrated by Trump’s administration.
Trump needed an immediate “success” in international politics, to help his image as a peacemaker. He and his envoy organized a meeting in the White House in September, between Kosova’s prime minister and Serbian president, in which they signed an agreement, which was not really an agreement, it wasn’t a peace treaty neither, but a letter of intent towards the US. It is a letter of absurdities, which will have both serious and severe political consequences for Kosova. And, Trump used this throughout his campaign, falsely claiming that Albanians and Serbs have been killing each other until September of this year. His is an administration which has no consideration for history nor factual truths. Kurti and his government were an obstacle for his projects.
I think that in a certain sense, this government had to fall. With this coup, in Kosova a certain era has ended. I do not belong to those who mourn the past or develop a nostalgia, or even a melancholic approach to the past. From the perspective of the present, we can even say that the coup was inevitable, and as such, it opened up the space for a new beginning for Kurti and his movement. To be clear, we cannot use the same political, methodological or conceptual apparatus in the present. Between June (when the new government was elected) and now, a lot has happened. But, more importantly, a certain political epoch ended then.
Here I would also like to add another issue. I am not saying this under the banner of political realism. Far from it. I, like others, truly believe in political change and frankly, we are all very desperate for it. But, the left has no good theory or discourse to account for or analyse its own failures. We are very good at denouncing the others. The outcome of this is either depression or resentment of the left itself. Maybe, the answer to this is that of Frank Ruda: to act as if the worst has already happened.
KB: The idea of immediate and direct democracy has become very popular in intellectual space. Communal and local democratic organizations are often considered as an alternative to the state-based political organization. However, the problem is that this non-representative dream lacks the potential to universalize itself. Do we need a strong and regulative institution to undo the alienated forms of symbolic order? How are we to re-invent the relation between democracy and the idea of a large-scale mechanism?
A.H.: The people, as a democratic body, are not a political agent by definition. I don’t think we should count all too much on the “power of the people.” the direct participation of the people in the horizontal self-organized movements should not be mandatory. People have the right in apathy, or in the laziness of the collective life. The bureaucratical life, from taking decisions for the collective to implementing them, should be organized by the politicians who are always-already militants, organized in a central body, called the Party.
The whole question of bureaucracy as a form of life lies on representation versus inclusion. The communist Party-form organization, in a Jamesonian militarized form, should not represent the people, but rather include everyone in it. This inclusion in fact overcomes the problem of the duality of powers (state versus party) exactly because there is no party-state, but rather a party instead of a state. Furthermore, not only the duality of representation versus inclusion, but also the representation versus participation is solved. The abolition of the present can be carried out only by collective political engagement. Indeed, politics is not the ‘practical’ dimension, before everything politics is a register of thought. The relation between thinking (i.e. philosophy) and politics is very complex, but let us suffice by the following proposition: the transformation of thought inevitably produces effects in politics. The effects of the theoretical (philosophical) work have even a greater effect in the world than the practical work. It transforms the very foundations in which the world actually exists and within which politics takes place. The revolutionization of the former, the latter will necessarily transform itself. In other words, pure thinking and politics are inseparable. Marx's famous response to Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty was to return the message in its inverted form: The Poverty of Philosophy.
Today, when the value of thinking has become itself measured by the standards of the incessant activity and production that organize all forms of labour, it might be time to supplement Marx’s position. The crisis of the left is no longer the crisis of idealism, of a “poor” philosophy disconnected from the material basis that conditions it – ours is a poverty of philosophy, a blatant absence of any form of thinking subtracted from the imperative of compulsive activity. A “return to philosophy” has, then, a crucial role today: one, it is a means to reinvent the critical powers needed in order to interpret the world. In Hegel’s own words, “philosophy is its own time apprehended in thoughts.” Furthermore, the decision to affirm the critical and transformative power of philosophical thinking also allows us to shed light in our contemporary predicament from a renewed perspective, one in which the crisis of the Left, more than the crises of capitalism, become our main concern. Considered from the standpoint of our “poverty of philosophy”, it suddenly becomes possible to recognize the imposture at the heart of some of our diagnoses of our enemies and struggles: for example, the supposition, shared by most of the Left today, that we live in post-ideological times, in which all that is left for us to do is to act, or - in its most current version - the idea that “neo-liberalism” names our true enemies, a conclusion which all too comfortably allows us to bypass the production of new critical resources, and therefore confront our current lack of any robust conceptual framework, given that our adversary is conveniently cut off from its complex political-economic grounding. Paradoxically, today, the impasse of philosophy alone marks, within the Left, our most important tasks: 1) the task to develop a more profound and comprehensive account of the Left’s failures in the 20th Century and 2) the task to think the problem of political organization anew.
The problem however is, to paraphrase Žižek, how are we to revolutionize an economic and political system which itself is revolutionary? Or in the terms of Robert Kurz and Moishe Postone: wherefrom are we to think this political process if the contradiction between the Left and capitalism is overdetermined by Capital itself? I do not see an easy solution in this. But, we have to remember one of the basic theses of Marx, according to which capitalism is not defined by the type of state, whether it be democratic socialist, socialist centralist, or otherwise. What defines capitalism as a mode of production are capitalist relations of production.
I remain very cautious, if not suspicious, of the term democracy. All too often its function is to organize the social, political and ideological consensus. I fail to see in which conjunctures or societies the signifier democracy has an emancipatory function.
One of the problems of the left, I think, is that it is caught in an impossible situation. It perpetually tried to solve the problems of capitalism. It will be very disappointing for them when they are reminded that to date, nobody has solved the problems produced by capitalism better than capitalism itself. Marx's famous dictum that “humanity only poses to itself problems that it can solve” deserves to be read in this light. A Leftist alternative should, in this line of thinking, try to formulate within its own field the problems that it would like to resolve.
President Trump appointed a special envoy for Kosova-Serbia dialogue. His envoy is his close aide, Richard Grenell, who served as a US ambassador to Germany and for a short period an acting director of national intelligence. Grenell is perhaps the best exemplifier of what is wrong with Trump and is far-right policies. A highly incompetent, ignorant, arrogant, bully who choses no methods in achieving his goals. He put immense pressure on Kurti’s junior coalition partner and this lead to the coup. It was executed by the local actors, but certainly it was orchestrated by Trump’s administration.
KB: Mechanisms based on capitalist realism have established a kind of political nihilism in the world, and based on that, the idea of any change in the current coordinates seems meaningless and absurd. In this context, the promise of democracy was not fulfilled and instead the society of the spectacle celebrated its victory as a form of agnotocracy, a structure ruled by the production and dissemination of ignorance. Does this mean that democracy should be set aside as the declining shell of the bourgeoisie?
A.H.: I will take a detour via Marx here. Marx’s writings have a complicated relation to politics itself. Even though scansions like the one proposed by Louis Althusser - dividing the “humanist” from the “scientific” phases in his work - are surely useful, none of these proposals substitute the historical scansions which confronted Marx throughout his life: a first “event”, when in 1842 he found himself “in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests” (3) regarding the case of forest thefts and the division of landed property; the failure, in 1848, of the so-called “Springtime of the Peoples” and the subsequent proclamation of Louis Bonaparte as emperor; the 1857 financial crisis - arguably the first worldwide economic crisis - with its social and political effects in Britain; and the emergence of the Paris Commune in 1871.
Each of these events brought about important changes to Marx’s thinking. The “young hegelianism” of his student years were shattered in 1842 by the intrusion of the problem of survival, of men’s need to produce their own means of subsistence - a question which oriented Marx's early critique of private property and his take on man’s universality as a concrete consequence of our transformative relation to nature in general and our own nature in particular. A whole view on work, humanity and the future of the poor was constructed upon this first critique of private property. But Marx’s writings on the limits of right and the state were later confronted by the failure of the 1848 revolutions - and, especially, by the emergence of a new emperor through the very democratic means supposed to bring the working class’s interests into direct conflict with the bourgeoisie’s.
The critique of political economy acquired a new place in the following years of Marx’s studies: rather than focusing on the relation between civil society and the state, we see a shift towards the infra-structure of civil society itself, in the problem of value and commodity production. This is the time of Marx’s deepened critical studies of the classical economists, leading him to a first presentation of the theory of surplus value, and a renewal of his political theory. But nothing in the works of classical bourgeois economists could have anticipated the paradoxical fact that a crisis in the very economic structure responsible for exploitation and inequality could serve to reinforce, rather than destroy, its functioning. This was, however, what the 1857 economic crisis brought to view. In order to respond to it, Marx had to devise a new entry point into his critique of political economy - one in which the “limits” of capital functioned as internal rather than external ones, a shift with deep consequences for the understanding of value, production, international relations and the role of the state. It was surely this new view on the global dimension of capitalism which made Marx at first irresponsive to the outbreaks of the communes in 1871 - since these confronted the global panorama of Marx’s work with local political resistance. But if Marx was surely not going to drop his analysis of the globalized economic network of capitalism, the new sequence of political struggles in the 70’s did nonetheless pose the question of the “timelines” of capitalist development: was industrialization truly a necessary step in the passage from the communal properties of feudal life to a post-capitalist egalitarian society? In these years, even though Marx was not to publish any other works, he furthered his understanding of non-capitalist social formations - a study emblematic exemplified by his correspondence in 1881 with the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulitch. Each of these different sequences in Marx’s thinking brought about important changes in his conceptual framework.
I have undertaken this detour for a specific reason. I think this enables us to explore Žižek’s understanding of institutional and party politics, or more precisely the crisis of the Left in two dimensions: first, the problem of its notion, and second, one of the main ideological and political paradigms that characterizes the Left today. Žižek’s assertion that we must “get our hands dirty” is of crucial importance but nevertheless not sufficient (and he is well aware of this). Party politics, which functions under the constraints of the state, finds its limits not only in the structure of the state apparatuses but also in the discourse of the Left itself. The protests in Europe and other parts of the world are the best examples of the poverty of our discourse and analysis of our predicament, that is to say, it renders visible very clearly the traps in which we are caught. We are fighting wrong enemies: the Left is criticizing neoliberalism and its effects, instead of capitalism. When faced with the limits of neoliberalism as a critical category, we jump into the safe moralizing position: ‘of course the problem is capitalism, but we have to have a name in order to grasp and criticize what is going on today. Neoliberalism designates our situation.’ Here we encounter the pure ideological mystification of our predicament: far from being a critical concept, neoliberalism is an ideological category/tool of analysis. And this is where the Left stands today: in a desperate attempt to articulate itself, its positions, and its emblems, in order to convince itself and others that this is what leftism is. Paraphrasing Lacan’s statement about desire, in Subversion of the Subject, we should rather maintain that leftism is not articulable, because it is always articulated (within the situation). That’s why true leftists are not afraid to get their hands dirty: if leftism is always articulated, then it can articulate itself through whatever other name is needed – neoliberal, conservative, totalitarian, radical, whatever – such that the only trace indicating that a trajectory was in fact a leftist one will be that the adjectives it will gather may be contradictory of one another. What in Badiou’s mathematical ontology is called a “generic set,” a trajectory that treats a situation so immanently that no intensional property, can be ascribed to name its totality.
It seems like we are going to go through a night of the living dead, where mostly forces that have no political efficacy fighting to remain alive and pretend like they have a grip on the political reality. I think this will be a very depressive time for leftist. For leftism is now a social disease – it is the way a certain social class will try to avoid recognizing itself as just boring old working class people. Think of the left in the USA with regard to Trump. I think Americans are just very ashamed to be reminded that they are as screwed up as we are. I mean, it is not so much what is happening that is frightening them, but the fact it is compossible with what they were doing two or three months ago.
1. Slavoj Žižek, “Answers without Questions,” in The Idea of Communism, vol. 2, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2013), 188.
2. Ibid., 195.
3. Karl Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm