Slavoj Zizek: From Democracy to Divine Violence

Slavoj Zizek

“Instead of perceiving what goes on in today’s China as an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, one should see in it the repetition of the development of capitalism in Europe itself.”—Slavoj Zizek

With an excerpt from Slavoj Zizek’s “From Democracy to Divine Violence, we conclude our focus on Democracy in What State? . (For excerpts from other contributors: Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaid, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, and Kristin Ross).

Looking at a wide variety of examples from Martin Luther King to China and Haiti, Zizek examines the relationship of capitalism and democracy, the failures of the Left, and the distinction between those who desire to own the state and those who wish to do without it.

In this excerpt Zizek looks at the case of China:

The case of China is exemplary of this deadlock of democracy. Faced with today’s explosion of capitalism in China, analysts often ask when political democracy as the “natural” political accompaniment of capitalism will enforce itself. However, a closer analysis quickly dispells this hope.

Instead of perceiving what goes on in today’s China as an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, one should see in it the repetition of the development of capitalism in Europe itself. In early modernity most of European states were far from democratic—if they were democratic (as was the case of the Netherlands), it was only for the liberal elite, not for the workers. Conditions for capitalism were created and sustained by a brutal state dictatorship, very much like today’s China: the state legalizing violent expropriations of common people, which made them proletarians, and disciplining them in their new role. All the features we identify today with liberal democracy and freedom (trade unions, universal vote, free universal education, freedom of the press, etc.) were won in a long, difficult struggle of the lower classes throughout the nineteenth century, they were far from a natural consequence of capitalist relations. Recall the list of demands with which The Communist Manifesto concludes: most of them, but for the abolition of private property with the means of production, are today widely accepted in “bourgeois” democracies—the result of popular struggles.

There is thus nothing exotic in today’s China: what happens there merely repeats our own forgotten past. So what about the afterthought of some Western liberal critics: how much faster would China’s development have been had it been combined with political democracy? In a TV interview a couple of years ago, Ralf Dahrendorf linked the growing distrust in democracy to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a “valley of tears”: after the breakdown of socialism, one cannot directly pass to the abundance of a successful market economy—the limited, but real, socialist welfare and security had to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessarily painful…

And what if the promised democratic second stage that follows the authoritarian valley of tears never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about today’s China: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past, the repetition of the process of capitalist accumulation that, in Europe, went on from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but a sign of the future? What if “the vicious combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market” proves itself to be economically more efficient than our liberal capitalism? What if it signals that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer a condition and mobile of economic development, but its obstacle?

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