Yannis Varoufakis opens his Adults in the Room with a report on how, on 16 April 2015, in a dark corner of a DC hotel bar, Larry Summers told him: “‘Yanis, you made a big mistake.’ Faking steeliness, I replied, ‘And what mistake was that, Larry?’ ‘You won the election!’ came his answer.”[1] In what precise sense was the electoral victory of Syriza a mistake? In accepting the electoral game, in winning at the wrong moment, or…?

The second round of the French presidential elections in May 2017 confronts us even more strongly with this old dilemma of the radical Left: to vote or not to vote (in parliamentary elections)? The miserable choice le Pen / Macron exposes us to the temptation of ceasing to vote altogether, of refusing to participate in this more and more meaningless ritual. One cannot make a decision here that would not be full of ambiguities. The argument against voting subtly (or openly) oscillates between two versions, the “soft” and the “strong”. The “soft” version specifically targets the multiparty democracy in capitalist countries, with two main arguments: (1) the media controlled by the ruling class manipulate the majority of voters and do not allow them to make rational decisions in their own interest; (2) elections are a ritual that occurs every four years and its main function is to make voters passive in the long periods between the two elections. The ideal that underlies this critique is that of a non-representative “direct” democracy with a continuous direct participation of the majority.

The “strong” version makes a crucial step forward and relies (explicitly or not) on a profound distrust of the majority of people: the long history of universal suffrage in the West shows that the vast majority is as a rule passive, caught in the inertia of survival, unready to be mobilized for a Cause. That’s why every radical movement is always constrained to a vanguard minority, and in order for it to gain hegemony, it has to wait patiently for a crisis (usually, a war) which provides a narrow window of opportunity. In such moments, an authentic vanguard can seize the day, mobilize the people (even if not the actual majority) and take over. In this respect, communists have been always utterly “non-dogmatic,” ready to be parasitic on another issue: land and peace (Russia), national liberation and unity against corruption (China)… They have always been well aware that mobilization will be soon over, and have been carefully preparing the power apparatus to put them in power at that moment. (In contrast to the October Revolution which explicitly treated the peasants as secondary allies, the Chinese revolution didn’t even pretend to be proletarian: it directly addressed the farmers as its base.)

The big and the defining problem of Western Marxism was one of the lacking revolutionary subject: how is it that the working class did not complete the passage from in-itself to for-itself and constitute itself as a revolutionary agent? This problem provided the raison d’être of its reference to psychoanalysis, which was called upon precisely to explain the unconscious libidinal mechanisms preventing the rise of class consciousness and inscribed into the very being (the social situation) of the working class. In this way, the truth of the Marxist socio-economic analysis was saved; there was no reason to give ground to the “revisionist” theories about the rise of the middle classes, etc. For this same reason, Western Marxism was also in a constant search for other social agents who could play the role of the revolutionary agent, as the under-study replacing the indisposed working class: Third World peasants, students and intellectuals, the excluded… up to the refugees.

The failure of the working class as the revolutionary subject lies already at the very core of the Bolshevik revolution: Lenin’s art was to detect the “rage potential” of the disappointed peasants. The October Revolution won due to the slogan “land and peace,” addressed to the vast peasant majority, seizing the short moment of their radical dissatisfaction. Lenin had been thinking along these lines already a decade before, which is why he was horrified at the prospect of the success of the Stolypin land reforms, which aimed at creating a new strong class of independent farmers. He wrote that if Stolypin succeeded, the chance for a revolution would be lost for decades. All successful socialist revolutions, from Cuba to Yugoslavia, followed this model, seizing the opportunity in an extreme critical situation, co-opting the national-liberation or other “rage capitals.” Of course, a partisan of the logic of hegemony would here point out that this is the very “normal” logic of revolution, that the “critical mass” is reached precisely and only through a series of equivalences among multiple demands that is always radically contingent and dependent on a specific, unique even, set of circumstances.

A revolution never occurs when all antagonisms collapse into a big One, but when they synergetically combine their power… But here the problem is more complex: the point is not just that a revolution no longer rides the train of History, following its Laws, since there is no History, since history is a contingent open process. The problem is a different one: it is as if there IS a Law of History, a more or less clear predominant main line of historical development, and revolution can only occur in its interstices, “against the current.” Revolutionaries have to wait patiently for the (usually very brief) period of time when the system openly malfunctions or collapses, seize the window of opportunity, grab the power which at that moment as it were lies on the street, is up for grabs, and then fortify its hold on power, building repressive apparatuses, etc. Once the moment of confusion is over, the majority gets sober and is disappointed by the new regime, but it is too late to get rid of it, so firmly entrenched it has become… And, more than that, the communists have also always carefully calculated the right moment to stop a popular mobilization.

Let’s take the case of the Chinese Cultural Revolution which undoubtedly contained elements of an enacted utopia. At its very end, before the agitation was blocked by Mao himself (since he already achieved his goal of re-establishing his full power and getting rid of the top nomenklatura competition), there was the “Shanghai Commune”: one million workers who simply took the official slogans seriously, demanding the abolition of the State and even of the Party itself, to be replaced by a direct communal organization of society. It is significant that it was at this very point that Mao ordered the army to intervene and to restore order. The paradox is that of a leader who triggers an uncontrolled upheaval, while trying to exert full personal power, so that extreme dictatorship and extreme emancipation of the masses overlap.

The most visible aspect of “popular presence” is thus the assemblage (in the sense of gathering of large groups in central public spaces, like hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square who aimed to force Mubarak to resign), and an important open question is how cyberspace presence/pressure operates in this respect and what its potentials are. Popular presence is precisely what the term says – presence as opposed to representation, a direct pressure unleashed agains the representative organs of power; it is what defines populism in all its guises, and (as a rule, though not always) it has to rely on a charismatic leader. Examples abound: the crowd outside the Louisiana Congress that supported Huey Long and assured his victory in a key vote; crowds exerting pressure on behalf of Milošević in Serbia; crowds persisting for days in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, in Istanbul during protests against Erdogan, etc., etc. In such a popular presence, the “people themselves” make palpable their force beyond representation, but this direct presence is simultaneously the people’s radical self-alienation or, rather, transubstantiation into another mode of being. In a short poem written apropos the GDR workers’ uprising in 1953, Brecht quotes a contemporary party functionary as saying that the people have lost the trust of the government. Would it not therefore be easier, Brecht slyly asks, to dissolve the people and have the government elect another one? Instead of reading this poem as a case of Brecht’s irony, one should take it seriously: yes, in a situation of popular mobilization, the “people” is in a way replaced, transubstantiated — the inert mass of ordinary people is transubstantiated into a politically engaged united force.

One should always bear in mind that thr people’s permanent presence equals a permanent state of exception. So what happens when people get tired, when they are no longer able to sustain the tension? Communists in power had two solutions (or, rather, two sides of one and the same solution): the party reign over passive population and a fake popular mobilization. Trotsky himself, the theorist of the permanent revolution, was well aware that people “cannot live for years in an uninterrupted state of high tension and intense activity”[2], and he turned this fact into an argument for the need of the vanguard party: self-organization in councils cannot take over the role of the party which should run things when the people get tired. And, to amuse the people and to maintain appearances, an occasional big spectacle of pseudo-mobilization can be of some use, from Stalinist parades up to today’s North Korea. In capitalist countries there is, of course, another way to dispel popular pressure: (more or less) free elections, as it happened recently in Egypt and Turkey, but also in 1968 in France. One should never forget that the agent of popular pressure is always a minority; even Occupy Wall Street was, with regard to its active participants, much closer to 1% than to 99% from its big slogan.

Should we then just ignore elections? Whatever the elections, they measure something in a purely numeric way, namely the percentage of the population which stands behind the main publicly presented political options. That’s why communists in power have to stick unconditionally to the form of free secret elections even if the outcome is a totally predictable 90%+ votes (after 2 years of their reign, even the Khmer Rouge performed this ritual), and, more so, to the form of multi-party democracy, as in Poland and GDR. And how many people are aware that even China is today a multi-party democracy with seats allotted to other “patriotic” forces apart from the Communist Party? Further, are some kind of elections not necessary to form the leading body of the ruling party itself? This was the great problem already in early Bolshevism: is it possible to have an inner-party democracy without some kind of democracy in the society outside the party? So, how to keep the space open for an authentic feedback from the people outside the party circle? (The problem was never that the Party nomenklatura doesn’t know what the people really think; through their secret services they were always all too well informed about it.) 

The Chinese model is here the most consistent one: members of the de facto ruling body (7 members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China) are elected at a Party congress every 8 years or so, and there is no debate. At the end of the congress, they are simply presented as a mysterious revelation; the selection procedure involves complex and totally opaque behind-the-screen negotiations, so that the assembled delegates who unanimously approve the list learn about it only when they vote. We are not dealing here with some kind of secondary “democratic deficit”: this impenetrability is structurally necessary. (Within an authoritarian system, the only alternatives are a de facto monarchy as in North Korea or the traditional communist model of a leader who simply stops ruling when he dies).

The basic problem is thus: how to move beyond multi-party democracy without falling into the trap of direct democracy? In other words: how to invent a different mode of passivity of the majority? How to cope with the unavoidable alienation of political life? This alienation has to be taken at its strongest, as the excess constitutive of the functioning of an actual power, overlooked by liberalism as well as by the Leftist proponents of direct democracy. Recall the traditional liberal notion of representative power: citizens transfer (part of) their power onto the state, but under precise conditions, such that this power is constrained by law, limited to very precise conditions of its exercise, since the people remain the ultimate source of sovereignty and can repeal power if they decide so. In short, the state with its power is a minor partner in a contract which the major partner (the people) can at any point repeal or change, basically in the same way each of us can change the contractor who takes care of our waste or health… However, the moment one takes a close look at an actual state power edifice, one can easily detect an implicit but unmistakable signal: “Forget about our limitations; ultimately, we can do whatever we want with you!” This excess is not a contingent supplement spoiling the purity of power but its necessary constituent. Without it, without the threat of arbitrary omnipotence, state power is not a true power; it loses its authority.

The way to undermine the spell of power is thus not to succumb to the fantasy of a transparent power; one should rather hollow out the power edifice from within by way of performing the separation between the form of power edifice and its agent (the bearer of power). As it was developed decades ago by Claude Lefort, therein resides the core of the “democratic invention”: in the empty place of power, i.e., in the constitutive gap between the place of power and the contingent agents who, for a limited period, can occupy that place. Paradoxically, the underlying premise of democracy is thus not only that there is no political agent which has a “natural” right to power, but, much more radically, that the “people” themselves, the ultimate source of the sovereign power in democracy, doesn’t exist as a substantial entity. In a Kantian way, the democratic notion of “people” is a negative concept, a concept whose function is merely to designate a certain limit: it prohibits any determinate agent to rule with full sovereignty. (The only moment when the “people exists” are the democratic elections, which are precisely the moment of the disintegration of the entire social edifice: in elections, the “people” are reduced to a mechanical collection of individuals.) The claim that the people does exist is the basic axiom of “totalitarianism,” and the mistake of “totalitarianism” is strictly homologous to the Kantian misuse (“paralogism”) of political reason: “the People exists” through a determinate political agent who acts as if it directly embodies (not only re-presents) the People, its true Will (the totalitarian Party and its Leader), i.e., in the terms of transcendental critique, as a direct phenomenal embodiment of the noumenal People…

Critics of representative democracy endlessly vary the motif of how, for apriori formal reasons, and not just on account of accidental distortions, multiparty elections betray true democracy. But, while taking note of this critical point, one should not only accept it as the price to be paid for any actually functioning democracy; one should even add that it is because of such a minimal “alienation” signaled by the term “representative” that a democracy functions. That is to say, what this “alienation” points towards is the “performative” character of the (democratic) choice. In such a choice, people do not vote for what (they in advance know that) they want; it is through such a choice that they realize/discover what they want. A true leader does not just follow the wishes of the majority; s/he makes the people aware of what they want.   

This is why democracy retains its meaning even if the choice given is the one between very similar programs: precisely such an empty choice makes it clear that there is no predestined bearer of power. The logical implication of this premise is Kojin Karatani’s idea of combining elections with lottery in the procedure of determining who will rule us. This idea is more traditional than it may appear (he himself mentions Ancient Greece), and, paradoxically, it responds to the same task as Hegel’s theory of monarchy. Karatani takes here a heroic risk of proposing a crazy-sounding definition of the difference between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat: “If universal suffrage by secret ballot, namely, parliamentary democracy, is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the introduction of lottery should be deemed the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[3] Wasn’t this also the underlying idea of Lenin when, in his State and Revolution, he outlined his vision of the workers’ state where every kukharka (not simply a cook, especially not a great chef, but more a modest woman-servant in the kitchen of a wealthy family) would have to learn how to rule the state? From (electoral) democracy to lotocracy…

Does this mean that expertise doesn’t matter? No, since another separation enters the frame: the separation between S1 and S2, between the Master-Signifier and expert-knowledge. The Master (people through voting) decide, make the choice, but the experts suggest to them what to choose; the people want the appearance of choice, not real choice-making. This is how our democracies function with our consent: we act as if we were free and freely deciding, silently not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction, inscribed into the very form of our free speech, would tell us what to do and think. As Marx knew it long ago, the secret is in the form itself. In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king, though a king in a constitutional monarchy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call “the crisis of democracy” does not occur when people stop believing in their own power, but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signalling that “the (true) throne is empty,” that the decision is now really theirs. There is thus in “free elections” always a minimal aspect of politeness: those in power politely pretend that they do not really hold power, and ask us to freely decide if we want to give them power, in a way which mirrors the logic of a gesture meant to be refused.[4]

[1] Yannis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room, London: Penguin 2017, p. 6.

[2] Ernest Mandel, Trotsky as Alternative, London: Verso Books 1995, p. 81.

[3] Kojin Karatani, Transcritique. On Kant and Marx, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2003, p. 183.

[4] But how is this different from “totalitarian” Communism where voters are also compelled to go through the empty ritual of freely choosing (voting for) what is imposed on them? The obvious answer is that in democratic elections there is a minimal free choice, a choice which minimally matters. But a more important difference is that in “totalitarian” Communism the gap between Master-Signifier and expert knowledge disappears – how? The distance between Lenin and Stalin concerns precisely this point.