CRITICAL INQUIRY, SUMMER 1998. VOLUME 24, NUMBER 4.
When one says Eurocentrism, every self-respecting postmodern leftist intellectual has as violent a reaction as Joseph Goebbels had to culture — to reach for a gun, hurling accusations of protofascist Eurocentrist cultural imperialism. However, is it possible to imagine a leftist appropriation of the European political legacy?
Let us begin with the question, What is politics proper?1 It is a phenomenon that appeared for the first time in ancient Greece when the members of the demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) presented themselves as the representatives, the stand-ins, for the whole of society, for the true universality (“we — the ‘nothing,’ not counted in the order — are the people, we are all, against others who stand only for their particular privilieged interest”). Political conflict proper thus involves the tension between the structured social body, where each part has its place, and the part of no-part, which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality, of the principled equality of all men qua speaking beings, what Étienne Balibar calls égaliberté.2 Politics proper thus always involves a kind of short circuit between the universal and the particular; it involves the paradox of a singular that appears as a stand-in for the universal, destabilizing the “natural” functional order of relation in the social body. The singulier universal is a group that, although without any fixed place in the social ediface (or, at best, occupying a subordinated place), not only demands to be heard on equal footing with the ruling oligarchy or aristocracy (that power) but, even more, presents itself as the immediate embodiment of society as such, in its universality, against the particular power interests of aristocracy or oligarchy. This identification of the nonpart with the whole, of the part of society with no properly defined place (or which resists its allocated subordinated place) with the universal, is the elementary gesture of politicization, discernable in all great democratic events, from the French Revolution (in which the Third Estate proclaimed itself identical to the nation as such against the aristocracy and clergy) to the demise of European socialism, in which groups such as the Czech Civic Forum proclaimed themselves representative of the entire society against the partynomenklatura.
The political struggle proper is therefore never simply a rational debate between multiple interests but, simultaneously, the struggle for one’s voice to be heard and recognized as that of a legitimate partner. When the excluded, from the Greek demos to Polish workers, protested against the ruling elite (the aristocracy ornomenklatura), the true stakes were not only their explicit demands (for higher wages, better working conditions, and so forth) but their very right to be heard and recognized as an equal participant in the debate. In Poland, thenomenklatura) lost the moment it had to accept Solidarity as an equal partner. In this precise sense, politics and democracy are synonymous: the basic aim of antidemocratic politics always and by definition is and was depoliticization, that is, the unconditional demand that things should return to the normal, with each individual doing his or her particular job. Jaques Rancière, of course, emphasizes how the line of seperation between what he calls policing (in the broad sense of maintaining social order, the smooth running of the social machine) and politics proper is always blurred and contested. In the Marxist tradition, for instance, proletariat can be read as the subjectivization of the part of no-part that elevates its injustice into the ultimate test of universality and, simultaneously, as the operator that will bring about the establishment of a postpolitical, rational society.3
It is thus politicization that reemerged violently in the disintegration of Eastern European socialism. From my own political past, I remember how, after four journalists were arrested and brought to trial by the Yugoslav army in Slovenia in 1988, I participated in the Committee for the Protection of the Human Rights of the Four Accused. Officially, the goal of the committee was just to guarantee fair treatment for the jounalists; however, the committee turned into the major oppositional political force, practically the Slovenian version of the Czech Civic Forum of the East German Neues Forum, the body that coordinated democratic opposition, a de facto representative of civil society. Four items made up the program of the committee: the first three directly concerned the accused, while the devil residing in the details, of course, was the fourth item, of the arrest of the four accused and thus to contribute to creating the circumstaces in which such arrests would no longer be possible — a coded way of saying that we wanted the abolishment of the existing socialist system. Our demand — “Justice for the accused four!” — started to function as the metaphoric condensaton of the demand for the global overthrow of the socialist regime. For that reason, in almost daily negotiations with the committee, Communist Party officials were always accusing us of having a hidden agenda, claiming that the liberation of the accused four was not our true goal, that is, that we were exploiting and manipulating the arrest and trial for other, darker political goals. In short, the Communists wanted to play the so-called rational, depoliticized game: they wanted to deprive the slogan “Justice for the accused four!” of its explosive general connotation and to reduce it to its literal meaning, which concerned merely a minor legal matter; they cynically claimed that it was we, the committee, who were behaving undemocratically and playing with the fate of the accused, coming up with global pressure and blackmailing strategies instead of focusing on the particular problem of their plight.
1. I rely here on Jaques Rancière, La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie (Paris, 1995). The present essay develops further the ideas first elaborated in Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism, or, The Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” New Left Review 225 (Sept.-Oct. 1997): 28-51.
3. Sometimes the shift from politics proper to policing can be simply a matter of a change from the definite to the indefinite artical, like the East German crowds demonstrating against the communist regime in the last days of the GDR. First they shouted “We are the people! (“Wir sid das Volk!”), thereby performing the gesture of politicization at its purest. They, the excluded counterrevolutionary “scum” of the official whole of the people, with no proper place in official space (or, more precisely, with only titles such as “counterrevolutionaries,” “hooligans,” or, at best, “victims of bourgeois propaganda,” reserved for their designation), claimed to stand for the people, for “all.” However, a couple of days later, the slogan changed into “We are a/one people!” (Wir sind ein Volk!”), clearly signalling the closure of the momentary authentic political opening, the reappropriation of the democratic impetus by the thrust towards reunification of Germany, which meant rejoining West Germany’s liberal-capitalist police/political order.
From: Critical Inquiry, Summer 1998. Volume 24, Number 4.