Whither liberal democracy?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris last week, a fierce debate appears to be developing about the precise nature of freedom in a liberal democracy such as France, and, perhaps more importantly, whether there is contradiction at the heart of liberal democratic ideology itself.  For example, in an article in the New Statesman Slavoj Žižek concludes with these words:

What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s – those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism1

Although France is perhaps not typical of other European liberal democratic countries, there do seem to be some defining characteristics shared by most, if not all, liberal democracies.  These include a belief in the rule of law, tolerance of difference and the opinions of others, and, in some form, a belief in liberty, equality and fraternity.  But, as many commentators have pointed out, there are contradictions in these values: perhaps most importantly, they appear to ignore the structural inequalities in society, i.e. class, gender, ethnicity, etc.  For example, it’s one thing to be free if you are super-rich; it’s quite another if you are free to starve.

And, of course, there are definite limits to ‘free speech’ even within a liberal democracy: just think of the laws against Holocaust denial or inciting hatred.  In other words, you are free to say what you like as long as it doesn’t infringe the basic tenets of liberal democratic ideology.  Furthermore, within particular institutions within such democracies there are even more limits to freedom: for example in the workplace, religious institutions, armed forces. Ironically this applies even (especially?) to those kinds of organisations that profess to champion the causes of the oppressed and marginalised, for example many charities. Many of their workforce are initially attracted to such organisations because they admire their values but soon discover they can be as oppressive as any multi-national corporation when it comes to ‘free speech’.

As I write this, there is something distinctly, and some disturbingly, ironic taking place in France: the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo is selling out and there are plans to publish up to five million copies in a number of different languages.  But this is against the backdrop of towns and cities swamped with heavily armed troops and police; at the moment the pictures from Paris remind me of something from the Cold War era when thousands of Soviet troops flooded the streets of some Eastern European capital to put down a peoples’ uprising.  And this is all in the name of ‘freedom’.

Freedom from what though?  At the moment there seem to be two particular threats to liberal democratic values: the first is what some have described as ‘Islamo-fascism’ and the second is from the far-right.  Although at first glance they seem to mirror one another, I would argue that they do nothing of the kind.  ‘Islamo-fascism’ or radical Islam is essentially about reinstating religious belief and practice as the basis of social and cultural life. The key point here perhaps is not the specifics of the religion, but rather the opposition to a secular society and culture, which can be linked to the values of consumerism, material wealth and salvation (through ‘happiness’) in this life rather than the next.

With the far-right, things are more complicated, at least in my view.  In fact, it may be a misnomer to speak about ‘far-right ideology’ at all, in the sense that there is a single, coherent belief system that unites all those ‘on the right’. Rather, there appear to be a range of beliefs and ideas, which are often linked to national, regional or even local agendas and grievances. In many ways one might even argue that far-right ideology (for want of a better term) is quintessentially post-modern, in the sense it is a ‘pastiche’ of often conflicting ideas, beliefs and values.

However, both radical Islam and the far-right appear to share one thing in common: they are both opposed to the values and practices of liberal democratic societies.  So what we have here is essentially a clash of ideologies, if not a clash of civilisations.  And it is this clash that appears to be creating real difficulties for those who would wish to uphold the values of liberal democracy.  There are, I would argue, (at least) two reasons for this.  The first is what might be described as the problem of the ‘double reconciliation’: this refers to the fact that a liberal democracy confronted with an ideology that is fundamental alien to itself has to reconcile its own contradictions, i.e. tolerance and acceptance of difference within strictly defined limits, and protect itself from annihilation (symbolic and literal) at the hands of the opposing forces.

The second problem is that such a clash of ideologies exposes the weakness of the liberal democratic understanding of the actual nature of ideology.  This is a problem shared by many on the left, who still hang on to an outmoded, pre-Althusserian notion of ideology.  Both groups continue to view ideology as some form of ‘epiphenomena’ and peripheral to the ‘real’ of the economy. This is essentially an ‘idealist’ theory of ideology (or as Althusser might have said, an ‘ideological approach to ideology’.

I mention Althusser partly because I think his rehabilitation is long overdue, but mainly because I think his approach to ideology, in spite of its difficulties and limitations, provides the cornerstone for a much more sophisticated and psychoanalytically informed theory of ideology.  In the context of this post, the key point about Althusser’s approach to ideology is perhaps that it is a material practice, rather than some abstract set of ideas and beliefs.  As Althusser puts it:  “..an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.2   And by material practice, Althusser is referring to what he describes as the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) which include education, churches, the media, the family, political institutions, the arts and the trade unions.

Even more critically: ideology interpellates (constitutes) its subjects, i.e. Christian, Muslim, secular, etc. This is why ideology is never a matter of ‘ideas’ which somehow have no real affect on human subjects, but, rather, ideology constitutes subjectivity itself.3 This also helps to explain why there is so much at stake when beliefs are challenged and ridiculed: for example, in the Charlie Hebdo case this is not just about a satirical magazine mocking other people’s ideas but attacking the very essence of who they are.

But what is ideology for; what purpose does it serve?  Unfortunately there is still a tendency, both in liberal democratic circles and for many of the left, to see ideology as ‘false consciousness’, a process of mystification, by which opposing forces, be they capitalists, Islamic extremists or the far-right, justify their actions.  This implies, of course, that there is such a thing as a ‘true consciousness’, a privileged position from which critics of ideology, be they Marxists or upholders of liberal democratic values, can see the truth of social existence.

To quote Althusser again: “.in ideology men (sic) represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form.”4 But what are these ‘real conditions of existence’? From a Marxist position, of course, they are the conditions of capitalist exploitation and alienated labour.  The problem here is that Marxist critics and intellectuals, including Althusser, are as ‘caught up’ in and ‘mystified’ by ideology as any capitalist or proletarian worker. There is a parallel here with psychoanalytic practice and the idea of transference: some analysts still argue that the analyst is in a privileged position ‘outside’ of the transference and is thus able to ‘interpret’ the transference. The Lacanian position, however, is that both analyst and analysand are ‘caught up’ in the transference and any interpretation is that made within the transference.

On the other hand, Althusser is on to something here when he describes ideology as representing human beings’ real conditions of existence in an imaginary form: the only question here is what is meant by ‘real’.   As those Lacanian inspired critics of ideology such as Žižek and Laclau noted, there is a relationship between ideology and the real – or rather the Real – of human existence.  Laclau, in particular, stressed the role that ideology plays in reconciling the irreconcilable, by ‘stitching together’ elements of the symbolic order (signifiers) in order to give an impression of harmony, unity and reconciliation.   For example, in liberal democratic societies, one of the functions of ideology is to create the illusion of tolerance, free speech, a celebration of difference, and so on, even though in reality there are strictly defined limits to all these aspects.

The problems is, though that the ‘origin’ of such an irreconcilable contradiction is the Real itself: that core of non-meaning at the centre of the Symbolic order.  Ideology ‘works’ on the Real, it inscribes it, in order to give it a semblance of meaning (even though this is, in the last instance, impossible). The Real is traumatic, it is senseless, which is why it is so unbearable.

This is why any attack on an ideology can be so traumatic for those who subscribe to it (or perhaps it would be better to say, those who are constituted by it). Such an attack essentially ‘ruptures’ the ideological defence and literally traumatises the subject, i.e. exposes the trauma that the ideology was designed to ‘cover up’. Of course, and going back to the Charlie Hebdo example, such a traumatisation works in both directions: the targets of Charlie Hedbo’s satire may feel deeply offended by it, but likewise those who subscribe to the values (ideology) of liberal democracy and secularism are equally traumatised when this becomes a target itself…

  1. http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity []
  2. Althusser, L. (2001) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes towards an Investigation). In: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York, Monthly Review Press, p. 112, my emphasis. []
  3. Which might be one of the reasons why Althusser’s ideas, along with those of the post-structuralists, have never really caught on: because they strike at the heart of the humanist/ Enlightenment notion of selfhood. []
  4. ibid p. 110 []