Zizek: Berlusconi As Kung Fu Panda, And the Future of Democracy

I have just read a very good article by Slavoj Žižek in the London Review of Books: Berlusconi in Tehran. By “very good” I mean that he, as usual, displays an astounding amount knowledge to illustrate the problems our modern societies face today – but the fluidity of this text and the argumentative power is impressive. If you ever had problems reading and understanding Žižek, try again: with this article, you are in for a good chance to catch his flight of thought.

Although starting out by comparing the recent upheavals in Tehran to those of 1979 Khomeini revolution, Žižek doesn’t stop there. To him, the events in Iran is but a part of the major trend characterised by the breach between capitalism and democracy: “the virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe“. Moreover, democracy today is handicapped by its inability to produce an “omni-competent citizen”:

…in a democracy, the ordinary citizen is effectively a king, but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king whose decisions are merely formal, whose function is to sign measures proposed by the executive. The problem of democratic legitimacy is homologous to the problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to make it seem that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call the ‘crisis of democracy’ isn’t something that happens when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, when they perceive that the throne is empty, that the decision is now theirs. ‘Free elections’ involve a minimal show of politeness when those in power pretend that they do not really hold the power, and ask us to decide freely if we want to grant it to them.

It is democracy’s authentic potential that is losing ground with the rise of authoritarian capitalism, whose tentacles are coming closer and closer to the West“, Žižek concludes. This again is illustrated by Berlusconi’s public image: as obscene as it may be, to the average Italian Berlusconi is the man next door, with money, police, and women problems. “Berlusconi is a significant figure, and Italy an experimental laboratory where our future is being worked out. If our political choice is between permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement has been to reconcile the two, to embody both at the same time. It is arguably this combination which makes him unbeatable, at least in the near future“.

As he often does, Žižek uses Kung Fu Panda (2008) to elaborate on the conundrum at hand:

The fat panda dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. He is chosen by blind chance (beneath which lurks the hand of destiny, of course), to be the hero to save his city, and succeeds. But the film’s pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by a cynical humour. The surprise is that this continuous making-fun-of-itself makes it no less spiritual: the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. […] This is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them.

In practice, the capitalist authoritarian state begins to function in the state of emergency: it is always on the alert against one or another intruder. In Berlusconi’s Italy these are immigrants and ‘communists’ (the latter is a dangerously vague, collective term), and, as the case with the trial against the fishermen in Sicily in 2007 demonstrates, “Agamben’s notion of homo sacer – the figure excluded from the civil order, who can be killed with impunity – is being realised not only in the US war on terror, but also in Europe, the supposed bastion of human rights and humanitarianism“.

Leaving you with enough teasers to go to read the full article, I want to say that this is one of Žižek‘s best texts I’ve read recently: very coherent, erudite, fluent, and, as a result, very powerful.


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