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  • The Democratic Deadlock
  • Jodi Dean

As good as it gets

A commonplace of media punditry in the middle years of the first decade of the twenty-first century concerns the deep divide in American politics. Whether in terms of political parties, red states and blue states, support or opposition to US militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the ongoing culture war between the religious right and the secular left, the United States is depicted as a nation split in its fundamental ethico-political self-understanding.

This depiction is misleading. It occludes the way these seeming opponents continue to appeal to democracy. Thus, the administration of George W. Bush presents itself as actively engaged in bringing democracy to the Middle East, as encouraging countries throughout the world to strengthen their democratic institutions. The Left, although seemingly opposed to the Bush administration, also appeals to democracy as that which it wishes to restore, redeem, or reach.

Why does the Left continue to appeal to democracy? Is democracy, as Slavoj Žižek asks, the ultimate horizon of political thought?1 For Žižek, to accept this horizon is to accept an impoverished political field, a diminishment of aspirations to something better. We accept the limitation of democracy, convinced that this is as good as it gets.

Real existing constitutional democracies privilege the wealthy. They exclude, exploit, and oppress the poor. Crucial determinants of our lives and conditions remain outside the frame of political deliberation and response. The expansion and intensification of networked communications that was supposed to enhance democratic participation integrates and consolidates communicative capitalism.2 Nevertheless, we on the Left continue to present our political hopes as aspirations to democracy. Despite democracy’s inability to represent justice in the social field that has emerged in the incompatibility between the global neoliberal economy and states’ willingness to retain the promise of social security and collective welfare, left political and cultural theorists continue to appeal to arrangements that can be filled in, substantialized, by fundamentalisms, nationalisms, populisms, and conservatisms diametrically opposed to progressive visions of social and economic equality. Continuing to appeal to democracy, we fail to emphasize the divisions necessary for politics, divisions that should lead us to organize against the interests of corporations and their stockholders, against the values of the fundamentalists and the individualists, and on behalf of collectivist arrangements designed to redistribute benefits and opportunities more equitably. We proceed as if democracy were already the solution to contemporary political problems rather than symptomatic of them.

Concerned with the way that continued adherence to democracy absorbs and incorporates hope so as to displace politics into a field of already given possibilities — rather than inspiring efforts to think and act otherwise — I consider here three current invocations of democracy: democracy as radical ideal, democracy as political practice, and democracy as theoretical justification for rule. I choose these three invocations because they capture those overlapping modes in which democracy is figured today. In appealing to democracy, political theory remains trapped in the terms and suppositions conditioning these invocations, terms and suppositions that I analyze by drawing upon Žižek’s elaboration of Jacques Lacan’s four discourses.

Some theorists, such as Žižek and Jacques Ranciere, to name but two, construe the contemporary deadlock as indicative of a post-political formation. They argue that current socio-economic arrangements are premised on the foreclosure of political struggle, on the fundamental impossibility of politicization, of raising particular claims to a universal level. This is not my view. The problem is not one of foreclosed politics: the current situation is the result of politicization from the right, of neoliberal and neoconservative mobilization and their resulting hegemonization of the social field. Left acceptance of and acquiescence to right wing terms and conditions has displaced progressive political possibilities onto micropolitical struggles and hysterical demands meant to be rejected. To the extent that the Left — from mainstream Democrats, to radical democrats and progressives, to democratic theorists — continues to accept the inevitability of global capitalism and acquiesce to a political arrangement inadequate to the task of responding to the brutal inequity, immiseration, and violence this capitalism generates, it will fail to provide a viable alternative politics. If politicization from the...

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