Current Events
Populism, Freedom, Democracy and Iran

Populism, Freedom, Democracy and Iran

Populismo, libertad, democracia e Irán

Slavoj Zizek


I would like to begin with a theoretical yet obscene point. I consider this to be a wonderful anecdote because it tells how democracy works: During a crucial battle between Prussian and Austrian armies in the XIX Century, the Prussian king was worriedly observing the battle as he didn’t know who was winning. At his side was the mastermind of the battle, a General who was a great strategist. Gazing at what appeared to be a total confusion on the battlefield, he turned to the king and said: “May I be the first to congratulate His majesty for a brilliant victory.” This is the gap between masters dignified and knowledge. The king was the master and formal commander, totally ignorant of the significance of what happened at the battlefield. The victory was for the mastermind General who helped and congratulated the king on behalf of whom he was acting. This idea of not knowing how brilliant one can be until someone else has to inform you of your geniality, is the same metaphor as if we replaced the king with people. This is exactly how democracy works. We, the people, are informed in the elections that we won a brilliant victory.

With this example, I do not mean to denigrate the people, on the contrary. I don’t buy the standard liberal critic. My problem is that I believe that truth does not lie in the extremes. In order to be authentic, I do not need to go to the extremes. When I was young, going to an extreme had the underlying idea that it had something authentic in it. I don’t accept that. I’m almost on the side of ordinary people.

Now, you can say that the problem with people is populism, and yes, I agree for reasons that I won’t discuss here. I still don’t agree with Ernesto Laclau; I’m more convinced that populism needs to be carefully reflected upon. I’m trying to prove that from democracy to populism something more is needed. An this is where the problem lies in the beautiful train of thought of Laclau’s reasoning. Do you see how in his books he counts Tito and Mao Tze Tung as populists? Well I simply trust my spontaneous intuitive notion that if they are populists, then the notion is misused. I claim that it is a crucial part of populism, to put it in Ernesto’s own terms, to mystify and displace antagonisms. His reaction would be to say that antagonisms are displayed, and that there are no authentic antagonisms. I think we can still show antagonism, but not in the sense of class struggle. Antagonism and populism, as I try to develop in defense of Laclau, are mystified in a formal way, and in order to be populist, using Ernesto’s own terms, one must recognize that people do exist and that they are a threat from the outside. That’s the zero level of populism. To put it in old Marxist terms, there are radical antagonisms that are constitutive of communities. The minimum tenet of populism is that there must be a minimal amount of order, and some external intruder (it can be imperialism, communism). The cause comes from the outside destroying the organic order. In other words, I claim that populism is always sustained by a kind of frustrated despair. I do not know what is going on, but it must stop. Populism believes in the insuring conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess which is why an agent behind the scenes is needed . In this refusal to know resides the proper fetishist that names no populism. Although, at the purely formal level, fetishism involves a gesture of transference upon the subject of the fetish, it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference with the subject it is supposed to know. What fetish gives body to is precisely my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. So you see my point? I don’t think people are stupid, or with a minimal amount of will, but they voluntarily choose stupidity. Behind populism there’s always a minimum of I don’t want to know. Even if it’s not acknowledged, it is implicit. In Nietzschean terms, populism is reactive strategy.


The refusal to know confronts us with the deadlock of our, as we put it, society of choice. There are multiple ideological investments in the topic of choice. As you probably know, brain scientists point out that freedom of choice is an illusion. We experience ourselves as free when we are able to act the way our organism determines us to act. This is the soft cognition of the redefinition of freedom. It doesn’t deny freedom, it just says freedom is not what you think it is. Freedom simply means you’re still determined by your own immanent nature when no obstacles prevent you to realize what you spontaneously want. However, Benjamin Libet defends human freedom. The zero level of freedom is not used to choose but to block or say no to your decision.

Liberal economists emphasize freedom of choice as the key ingredient of marketing economy. By buying things, we are in a way continuously voting with our mind. Deeper existential thinkers, like to deploy variations on the theme of the authentic existential choice, where the very core of our being is at stake; a choice which involves a full existential engagement opposed to the superficial choices of these or those commodities.

In the Marxist version of this theme, the multiplicity of choices the market bombards us with obfuscates the absence of real radical choices concerning the fundamental structure of our society. That is the standard Marxist criticism, you can choose Coke over Pepsi and so on, but you cannot make a more radical choice. There is however, a feature that is, I think, all too often missed: the injunction to choose when we let even the basic cognitive coordinates to make a choice. Leonardo Padura (the Cuban writer and author of Havana tetralogy) wrote in one of his novels “It is horrific not to know the past and yet be able to impact the future”. So being compelled to make decisions in a situation that remains opaque is our basic condition. In the standard choice of the first situation, the only thing left for us to do is the empty gesture of pretending to accomplish freely what knowledge the expert imposes. But, what if the choice is really free and it is for this very reason that experience is all the more frustrating? We thus find ourselves in the position of having constantly to decide on matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but are lacking a proper foundation in knowledge. To quote John Gray, “we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisionary. New technologies alter our lives daily. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time, we have little idea what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.”

This pressure to choose involves not only the ignorance about the object of choice. We are bombarded by calls to choose without being qualified to actually make the appropriate choice. Even worse, we are showered by the impossibility to answer the question of desire. When Lacan defines the object of desire as lost, his point is not simply that we never know what we desire and are condemned to the eternal search for the true object, Lacan’s point is a much more radical one. The lost object is ultimately the subject itself. The subject as an object implies that the question of desire, its original enigma, is not primarily “what do I want”, but “what do others want from me”, “what object do they see in me?” Which is why, apropos to the hysterical question “why am I that name?” “Why am I what you say that I am?” Lacan points out that the subject as such is hysterical. Lacan defines the subject as that which is not an object. The point being that the impossibility to identify yourself as an object, to know what you are for others, is constitutive of the subject. In this way, Lacan generates the entire diversity of pathological subjective positions, reading this diversity as the diversity of the answers to the hysterical question. The psychotic knows itself as the object of the other’s enjoyment, while the pervert deposits itself as the instrument of the other’s enjoyment and so on and so forth. This is why I claim there is a terrorist dimension in the pressure to choose. This terror resonates, for me at least, even in the most innocent inquiry, for example, when one reserves a hotel room. Soft or hard pillows, double or twin bed and so on… Beneath this simple questioning there is a much more radical probing, “Tell me who you are, what kind of an object do you want to be? What would fill in the depth of your desire?” This is why I think Michel Foucault’s, anti-essentialist apprehension about fixed identities, the incessant urge to practice the care of the self, to continuously re-invent, re-create oneself finds a strange echo in the dynamics of post-modern capitalism. It was, of course already the good old existentialism that claimed that a man is what he makes of himself, and existentialism linked this radical freedom to existential anxiety. But for existentialism, the anxiety of experiencing one’s freedom, the lack of one’s substantial determination, was the authentic moment when the subject saw its integration into the fixity of the given ideological universe. What existentialism wasn’t able to envisage was what Adorno tried to encapsulate with the title of his attack on Heidegger’s jargon of authenticity. How, no longer repressing it, hegemonic ideology directly mobilizes the lack of fixed identity to sustain the endless process of consumerist self-recreation. So again, to go to this eternal, already boring debate with Judy Butler, the question is not that I don’t agree with it, but I think that, precisely this eternally dynamic, nomadic self-questioning which always sustains this ambiguous anxiety “are you ready to admit who you are?”, this is the level at which consumerism makes you guilty. Not in the simple sense of “you never get the full enjoyment that you want from the commodity” however you are always supposed to freely choose what you really want, but of course, you never can.


Consumerism in a way always makes you look non-authentic. And against this background of the difficulty of choice, populism and such, I want to approach the question of democracy. There is a distinction between two types, or rather, levels of corruption in democracy: The defacto empirical corruption and the corruption that pertains to the very form of democracy, which is the reduction of politics to the negotiation of private interests. This gap becomes visible in the rare, true cases of an honest democratic politician who while fighting empirical corruption nonetheless sustains the formal state of corruption.

In Walter Benjamin’s terms of the distinction between constituted and constituent violence, one could say that we are dealing here with the distinction between the constituted corruption (braking the laws, etc ) or rather, constitutive corruption of the very democratic form of government . The electoral democracy is only representative insofar as it is first the consensual representation of capitalism which is today the market economy. I think one needs to take this line in the strict transcendental sense. The empirical level, of course, is how the multi-party liberal democracy represents and mirrors the quantitative and disperse opinions of the people, what they think about the candidates, and so on. However, prior to this empirical level, in a much more radical sense, the multi-party democracy represents a certain vision of society, politics and the role of the individual in it. The multi-party democracy represents a precise vision of social life in which politics is organized into parties that compete through elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus. One must be aware that this transcendental frame of democracy is never neutral. It privileges certain values and practices. This non-neutrality becomes palpable in the moment of crisis when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people effectively want or think. I remember the UK elections of 2005. In spite of the growing personal dislike of Tony Blair –he was voted the most unpopular person in the UK. Something was very wrong. It was not that the people didn’t know what they wanted, but rather, it was their cynical resignation what prevented them to act upon. So the result was the weird gap between what people thought and how they voted. In this criticism the Jacobine privileging of virtue is discernible. In democracy there is not place for virtue. My conclusion is that it might be an animosity towards voting, suggesting there is no authenticity about it. There’s no reason to despise democratic elections, the point is only to insist that they are not in themselves apriori capable of truth. As a rule, they tend to reflect a predominant doxa determined by the hegemony ideology.


My claim is that this is exactly what is going on in Iran. Why? First, let’s look at this kind of event. Even when an oppressive force doesn’t lose power, at some point, there’s kind of psychological break when everybody knows it’s over. Richard Kapuchinski´s book tries to isolate this moment and claims to have found it. Three or four months before the Shah left the country, there were, in some suburbs of Teheran, demonstrations. People gathered at an intersection when a police approached them and shouted at them. A man looked at the officer and did nothing. The policeman shouted again, but the guy kept staring at him. The embarrassed police officer then turned around and left. The mystery is how, within a couple of hours, did all of Teheran know? It was a kind of mystical subversion. People kept dying but from that point, everyone, even the ones in power, knew the game was over. To me, this time of transition is the most interesting moment. I would describe the history of the decomposition of socialism in these terms. When did people know exactly communism was really over? Something similar happened after the second night after Iranian elections. It’s like falling in love: you don’t decide to fall in love; you just know you are in love. People discovered that they were not afraid. The police can beat them to death, but they keep going in hundreds and thousands. The way it happens is terrifying in a good sense, this sublime power of the people. Much more threatening than shouting is silence: Literally, hundreds and thousands just silently walking on the streets. Then they climb to the rooftops, almost as a ritual, and yell Alla wa akbar, God is great! And this is a crucial dogma- Why? Because combined with the color green, the color of Islam, it proves people are no longer afraid. This is something that Western commentators miss systematically, and if they acknowledge it, they assign it a secondary role. Here comes my first important point, this Mousavi is not the liberal, pro-western candidate that the media claims him to be. According to the media, there are two basic groups in Iran: the poor, primitive, Islamic-farmer majority that is manipulated by clerics, and the educated, secular, pro-Western middle class who just want the democracy experienced after the Shah. The other candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, is the Western candidate who wanted to play out some identity politics saying “we have women, we have Kurds, we have gays etc., support me and your identity will be recognized”. What Mousavi is doing is completely different to that. His mission is to return to the origins, to repeat the ‘79 revolution. I like the idea that he has the Khomeini authority behind him, and that Mousavi is not an incompetent idiot-architect, because he is an architect by profession. During the entire Iran-Iraq war, he was the prime minister and had organized a working economy at the time. His current idea is go back to the ‘79 roots. His slogans say he is nothing and that the people will organize themselves. With all ironic criticism set aside, I have accepted the line that the ‘79 Khomeini revolution wasn’t simply a populist, right-wing and fundamentalist uprising, but that for the first year or two there was something genuine happening. This is what Mousavi is after, whereas it is the strategy of Ahmadinejad to transform Iran into a new generation of Ayatollah-like wealth. Recent events demonstrate that the mapping of Tehran as the poor, fundamentalist, Islamic farmers in the south vs. the educated, secular Western north is proven wrong. Here we have a genuine third way in which Islam is practiced. Something has happened, a great rebellion against the regime, no doubt, but on behalf of the emancipatory dimension of the Islamic self, and one way western liberals deal with this is to dismiss it as a mosque full of Western clerics exploiting the popularity of Islam; which coincidentally is what Ahmadinejad is claiming. I feel this proves that Islam can exist politically, not only as a Turkish, pro-market Islam or a fundamentalist Islam, but also an emancipatory Islam. When Western liberals praise Islam, it is always the Islam of the 10th or 11th Century, but we needn’t look back this time, we can look at the present! People who are around it have a very ambiguous attitude towards it, which means that something new is happening here. This is not the guild that spoiled the middle class youth and the poor workers; it is a genuine emancipatory event, which blurs the line between liberals and fundamentalists.

There is 1 comment for this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *