Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

What does it mean to ask what is democracy?

Ovidiu ?ichindeleanu

It means to keep the question alive, in order to keep mankind alive – and this is only a beginning. However, most answers – and there are many answers – start from the end. As Kuan-Hsing Chen points out in the very opening of Oliver Ressler’s important movie What Is Democracy? (2009), the current concept and practices of “democracy” are actually inseparable from a history of expansion and imperialism. Instead of letting it operate at the level of society, the state seems to have captured and mortified the framework of the notion and practices of democracy. (By “state” I understand genealogically the empire turned towards its interiority.) That is, in the battle of visions of which the fate of the world depends, democracy has become a mechanism that reduces the vision of the best of all possible worlds to either the best possible political sphere, or the best possible civil society. Yet this is equivalent with an epistemicide of the concrete struggles and realizations of subjects who are actually resisting against modern forms of organizing power, whether capitalist or statist.

It is still necessary to point that democracy is not a universal set of values and practices miraculously discovered in ancient Greece and brought back to reality in an improved, modern form by the Western civilization, but a relatively recent concept which is inseparable from the history of violence and colonialism of the modern world, even when pointed in dialectical opposition to systematic destruction, injustice and enclosures. To mention just one example, the Tupac Amaru rebellion (1780-82) and the Haitian Revolution (1780s–1804) have not been part of the repertoire of emancipatory and democratic learnings to any comparable extent with the “American” Revolution and the French Revolution. Furthermore, as it can be seen in the relentless return of the question What is the alternative to representative democracy? – the same cultural-political body of democracy keeps on returning and acting host to the problem. Even “direct democracy” or “participative democracy”, understood as the opened imaginary opposite to the determined enclosures of “representative democracy” have to be liberated first from the modern/colonial frame of democracy, emancipation and rationality, in order to avoid duplicating the same master idea of democracy (the king’s body) to infinity. One has to point out that the conservative right also provided in the past twenty years an answer and alternative vision to representative democracy: the “civil society” of Eastern Europe and the “orange revolutions”, as well as the blatantly racist doctrine of “the few, happy chosen ones” who are opposed to the “naturally” corrupted people and formal political sphere. The history of real socialism was also filtered by Eurocentrism: it is no accident that Lenin’s famous saying “the Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true” is found in one of his most Eurocentric texts, “The three sources and three components of Marxism” from 1913, on the thirtieth anniversary of Marx’s death. Often quoted out of context, both textual and political, Lenin binds there the political legacy of Marx to the “civilised world”, to “the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.” Lenin laid thus the symbolic foundations of the theory of transition (from feudalism to capitalism to socialism) that situated real socialism within the paradigm of the modern/colonial/capitalist world. Consequently, as Walter Mignolo also emphasized, in order to keep alive the question what is democracy, one has to be open to look not for alternative modernities, but to alternatives to modernity.

The Postcommunist Transition and Democracy

The dictionary meaning of a word should not be mistaken for its conceptual and praxical history. To ask the question about democracy – this is the first step towards reclaiming autonomous political thought, which actually means something very simple: thinking from the position in which you already are. My own perspective of the world is shaped by the experience of an immigrant or “global exiled” who lived the “transition” from the former Socialist Bloc into the “Free World”. In my view “democracy” has been indeed one of the fundamental symbols of the postcommunist transition, by which I understand the fundamental concept of the historical shift 1989-2009, namely the reformation of enclosures in the form of top-to-bottom reorganization of power structures and reintegration of the former Socialist Bloc into Western political and military structures and into the world system of capitalism. In the (re)formation of the postcommunist public spheres, from both West and East, democracy has been a symbol rather than a concept: the symbol of the bright side of Western modernity, conceived as the only side. The idea of “democracy” materialized in postcommunism in mechanisms of interpellation demanding instantaneous comprehension and acknowledgement rather than an invitation to collective reasoning or a process of social valuing. Democracy is one of the prominent symbols of the ideological framework of transition, adding to the metonymical and monocultural definition of the meaning of postcommunist history: from past to future, from tyranny to freedom, from madness to normalcy, from backwardness to civilization, from totalitarianism to democracy, from communism to capitalism, from behind the Iron Curtain to the Free World, from East to West. The symbol of democracy has a special role in this framework, providing the main representations of the teleological end of transition, which was identified in the workings of postcommunist public spheres with anticommunism, the “Western civilization” and, last but not least, with capitalism. Under the light of this vision, for some parts of the former Socialist Bloc, democracy even meant shock therapy and lustration – in a glaring illustration of the coloniality of power operating within the modern concept of democracy.

The postcommunist transition has been a process in which the people’s participation to the political was allowed only in temporary and carefully controlled moments, such as elections and election-related referendums. And when the people did show up – such as in the miner’s rebellions of the 1990s, or the later strikes and protests, the “masses” have been blamed by the elites for all the shortcomings and violence, in typical gestures of internal colonization. Shortly put, the actual history of democracy for the past twenty years in postcommunist Europe shows that “democracy” has been the politics of the elite, complete with the delegitimation of the idea of popular sovereignty, which had been temporarily reactualized in the Revolutions of 1989. In this sense, the smooth transition of anticommunist dissidents is both symptomatic and important in itself, for after 1989 almost none of the anticommunist dissidents can be associated with politics of autonomy and independence, but rather with the cohabitation and direct participation into State and capitalist power structures, and with the local colonization of dominant ideologies like neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Often in discursive opposition to the economic and political elites, the elite anticommunist intellectuals have been nevertheless the local promoters of explicit apologies of violence such as lustration and of doctrines of an Eurocentric elite. Not in the least thanking to the large contribution of the “civil society” and anticommunist dissidents and intellectuals, the working class, which has been the main driving force of the social movements of 1989, was vanished as a political category, in spite of the proletarization of all occupations and levels of education in the experience of immigrant labor of East-Europeans. Shortly put, in the actual history of the transition from the Socialist Bloc to the Free World, democracy means politics of the elite.

It has been said that the West also rediscovered the historical meaning of “democracy” through the experience of East Europeans after 1989. This actually means that the symbol of “Western modernity” acquired positive value, cashed on the notion of “freedom” and renewed its repression of the dark side of modernity. In the postcommunist era, from the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the Second Iraqi War, the word “freedom” arguably meant theft, neocolonization, military invasion, torture and uprooting. For all the optimism of discourses pronounced at the most institutionalized political levels, within both West and Eastern Europe, police forces and police militarization are at an all-time high, the apparatuses of repression of popular demonstrations are beyond control and even documentation, the harassment of people identified as “dangerous activists” has become a routine (and includes domicile visits and other scare tactics), and the truth is that illegal camps for the detention of immigrants have been set all over Europe during this period of the rediscovery of democracy, the postcommunist transition. The global lesson of postcommunism is that democracy meant in the Western world, in the aftermath of a new colonial experience, predominantly the politics of the elite and the reactualization of the coloniality of power.

Speaking in Truth and the Need for Negative Politics

When it comes to opening the meaning of democracy, the international left is restricted not only by the interpellation of finding alternatives to modernity, but also by a certain desire to speak in truth, to be in the full positiveness of an alternative episteme – and this constitutes also the most difficult part of Oliver Ressler’s movie, one that deserves a film consideration of its own. The title given by Oliver Ressler provides however already the best clue as to how to transgress this problematic fullness: one has to ask the question, and to reflect on what it means to ask this question. The negative side of the story is enlightening: democracy appears as a means of framing the possibilities of experience, a notion used to justify violent enclosures and reservations and to neutralize concrete struggles. We can further elaborate, arguing that the coloniality of power operates through the notion of democracy by enforcing a certain difference between the non-modern and the modern, a division between civilization and non-civilization, nature and culture that reduces arbitrarily the possibilities of political experience and communal life. The movie does well to deconstruct the notion that for the Revolution to succeed, it has to happen in the Western centers of capitalism and power. For a good part of the international left, the positive epistemic field emerges indeed by learning from the revolutionary experiences of Latin America, from Chiapas to Bolivia, and as Anibal Quijano insisted, the future of the planet may well be linked to the possibilities of indigenous politics.

However, Lenin’s dictum is still haunting Europe. Maybe an interpretation of Deleuze’s conception of resistance as something ontologically positive can also be blamed here for the undeniable effect of forgetting that resistance always includes a negative stance at the level of praxis. By conceiving resistances or the alternatives to modernity only in their positiveness, one could also help the systematic destruction and impoverishment of the repertoire of tactics that links and has linked negative politics to democracy and social justice: revolutions, rebellions, strikes, refusals of interpellation, obscurity and double-sense… Which is why one of the lessons of maintaining the question of democracy alive is that the richness of negative politics is also part of the answer.

From: TransEurope, #9, 2010