‘What Do They Want?’
- Spain, May 15: Street protests, inspired by the Arab Spring, against global capital and its baleful effects
- New York, Sep 17: The Occupy Wall Street movement kicks off
- Oct 15: Demonstrations across Europe and Asia as part of global protests. In London, protesters camp for days around St Paul’s Cathedral, near the stock exchange.
In thinking about the Occupy Wall Street protests and similar outcries around the world, I was reminded that some years ago the British writer John Berger described how “the multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed”.
“The questions are not yet asked because to do so requires words and concepts which ring true, and those currently being used to name events have been rendered meaningless: Democracy, Liberty, Productivity, etc. With new concepts the questions will soon be posed, for history involves precisely such a process of questioning.”
Let the questioning begin.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters have the answers. In fact, we’ve bombarded the protesters with questions, just not the right ones yet.
“But what do you want?” we ask. “What are your concrete demands?”
This is the archetypal question addressed by a male master to a hysterical woman, a scene from bygone days: “All your whining and complaining—do you know at all what you really want?”
Such a question aims precisely at precluding the true answer—its point is: “Tell it in my terms or shut up!”
It’s a question that effectively blocks the process of translating an inchoate protest into a concrete project.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are drawing attention to two key points. First, that the global capitalist system has destructive consequences: consider only the hundreds of billions that were lost due to unbridled financial speculation.
Second, that economic globalisation is gradually but inexorably undermining the legitimacy of western democracies. Large economic transactions dependent on international players cannot be controlled by democratic mechanisms, which are by definition limited to nation-states. Thus, institutional democratic forms of the old sort are increasingly unable to capture the vital interests of the people.
The crux of the Wall Street protests is this: how to expand democracy beyond its state/multi-party political form, which is obviously impotent when faced with the destructive consequences of economic life?
There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment in the world today. There’s an overload of critiques of the horrors of capitalism: books, in-depth journalistic investigations and television reports abound on companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, on corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their banks are saved by public money, of sweat shops where children work overtime.
The “democratic illusion”, the blind acceptance of the institutions of democracy as the only and the right force for change, actually prevents radical change.
What is as a rule not questioned, however, is the democratic-liberal framework of fighting against the excesses of capitalism. The explicit or implied goal of such critiques is only to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy through pressure from the media, government inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on. But we never ever question the democratic institutional framework of the state of law. This is the sacred cow that even the most radical forms of ethical anti-capitalism—think of the Porto Allegre forum, the Seattle movement—do not dare to touch.
Consider the Spanish version of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, the indignados (the angry ones). They dismiss the entire political class, from right to left, as corrupted and controlled by the lust for power. Yet the indignados address their demands for change to—whom? Not to the people themselves: The indignados do not (yet) claim that no one will do it for them, that (to paraphrase Gandhi) they themselves have to be the change they want to see. Their outcry is pitched toward those who are in control—exactly those they are protesting against.
Marx did not believe in locating the question of freedom in the political sphere proper. He would not have agreed with the way western institutions commonly assess degrees of freedom when they want to pass judgment on a country: Are there free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected?
The key to actual freedom, Marx believed, resides rather in the “apolitical” network of personal relations, from the market to the family. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things merely by “extending” democracy. It’s outside the realm of legal rights that radical changes should be made. “Democratic illusion,” the acceptance of institutional mechanisms of democracy as the only and the “right” force for change, simply prevents radical change.
In mid-April 2011, news reports stated that the Chinese government had prohibited films and television series that deal with time travel and alternate theories of history, charging that they introduce frivolity into serious historical matters. Evidently, the Chinese consider even the fictional escape into alternate reality too dangerous.
In the liberal West, we do not need such explicit prohibitions; ideology exerts enough power over us to prevent alternate narratives of history from being taken seriously. We censor ourselves. There are certain questions we would never ask.
In an old joke often attributed to the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get 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 ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink.”
Is this not our situation today?
We have all the freedoms one wants—the only thing missing is the red ink.
What this lack of red ink means is that, today, the terms we use to designate the conflicts that surround us—“war on terror,” “democracy and freedom,” “human rights”—are false. They mystify our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think about it.
We “feel free” because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.
Let’s give the protesters red ink.
Slavoj Zizek, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, is a political philosopher and cultural critic