First as tragedy then as farce


Is a book by Zizek that makes the case for the communist Idea both through his critique of capitalism and by extension liberal democracy and the religion of free market economy that by all reasonable standards have failed to deliver what they promised to the majority.

I think it was Churchill who is said to have uttered these words

Democracy is the worst form of government except all others

And since then any attempt to critique democracy is met with the dismissal that communism has been tried and failed and so we must resign ourselves to the worst system. This kind of criticism is, in my view, uncritical.

There is hardly any place where we have democracy, that is, a government of the people by the people. We have instead increased authoritarianism that purports to hold elections. In effect what we have is a parliamentary dictatorship where power resides not with the people but with the ruling elite.

A case can actually be made for a proletariat dictatorship which does not only change who is in power but changes to a non-statal existence destroying all that which came before it.

Zizek talks too about the current privatization of the commons through what is called intellectual property where the intellectual product is mediated by private capital ala Bill Gates or Apple.

Another thing I find very interesting is what Zizek proposes as a response to anyone who accuses us of undermining democracy. He writes

That one’s answer should be a paraphrase of what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist manifesto: the ruling order is itself already doing all the undermining necessary.

He continues

In the same way that (market) freedom is unfreedom for those who sell their labour-power, in the same way that the family is undermined by the bourgeois family as legalised prostitution, democracy is undermined by the parliamentary form with its concomitant passivization of the large majority, as well as by the growing executive power employed by the increasingly influential logic of the emergency state.

Its a good read. Interesting. Well written and argued.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

45 thoughts on “First as tragedy then as farce

  1. tildeb says:

    Trying to obtain higher functioning liberal democracy (governing of the people, by the people, for the people, through the consent of the people) by arguing in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat seems the least likely method to achieve success. It’s like trying to obtain greater health by toxic poisoning… and then hoping for the best because the current level of health could be improved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. basenjibrian says:

    I will echo tildeb:

    Interesting, but not very convincing. Zizek is frankly a classic fuddy duddy intellectual who has never really DONE anything. Given the choice between a country run by a capitalist tool and one run by a group of purist Marxist intellectuals…I am sorry, but I know what my choice would be. Have you no experience with the sheer nastiness of academic culture? Capitalism IS horror, but so is the kind of just so mythologizing promoted by Zizek.

    There are different kinds of “religion”, Maka. You seem recently to be falling under the sway of a particularly violent secular “faith” that is frightening.

    I am repeating myself, but:

    “A case can actually be made for a proletariat dictatorship which does not only change who is in power but changes to a non-statal existence destroying all that which came before it.”

    This is precisely The Terror. I wear eyeglasses, ride a bicycle, and have a white collar job. I would be defined as a class enemy subject to “destruction”.

    Your revolution contains in itself the seeds of its own corruption and failure.

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    • makagutu says:

      If my religion is that of self determination and less exploitation of workers, it is one I think I would recruit more pastors to.

      The state has not always existed and they come and collapse. I think you fall in the camp of Yukuhama(?) the end of history, where capitalism is seen as the highest end of human development and the state system. I think this is open to challenge and critique.

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      • basenjibrian says:

        “Highest” state of human development may be pushing it. My main argument is that Marxism is a chimera that has never been really implemented without horrible tyranny,

        I think other forms of social organization are certainly possible. But are they possible in a world of seven billion people and an urban society and integrated industrial economies? I am skeptical of that argument. Now if one is an anarcho-primitive, one can argue that industrial civilization is itself unsustainable. Which may be the case. But we will need to “get rid of” about 90% of us, some wags have pointed out. With climate change and mass pandemics, that may happen anyway. But I don’t want to slavishly follow Brother Zero, Chairman Mao, or Pope Whoever to bring about the…culling.

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  3. While it is absolutely true that democracy as practiced by real-world governments is hardly democratic, discarding the ideal because it has been continually corrupted by wealthy elites is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Take away democracy, no matter how poorly it is practiced, and you take away all political power from the populace and hand it on a silver platter to the elites and their operatives. This is the legacy of the post-revolution Soviet Union. It was a totalitarian state holding all political power which benefited the top of its social hierarchy at the expense of everyone else.

    Communism and capitalism are economic systems not political systems. A monarchy, for example, could support capitalism, communism, or something in between like socialism. In fact, there are several constitutional monarchies in Europe which are economically socialist. Democracy and its opposing counterpart autocracy are political systems. The former allows the general population to have a political voice while the latter does not. That is the critical difference which Churchill and others have addressed.

    History provides the proof. Look at the record of autocratic systems over time. The more concentrated the political power is, the worse the economic conditions are for the masses. Now, look at the record of more democratic systems. Is it ideal? Certainly not, but it is certainly better. Political systems are far more impactful to the lives of ordinary people than are economic systems. The capitalism vs communism debate is a red herring, comparatively.

    Liked by 4 people

    • basenjibrian says:

      Hmmm. Interesting comments, Robert. One quibble: I might argue economic systems may be more impactful than political systems. A reality that inspired this whole series of fascinating posts by our host. The big question is: Don’t economic systems often generate political systems?

      Liked by 2 people

      • There’s no doubt that political and economic systems become intertwined, and one cannot be practiced without the other. However, the prioritization of each is socially identifiable and history clearly shows a greater association with political systems than economic systems. Let’s examine some previous revolutions.

        The American War for Independence was definitely a revolt against what was perceived as a foreign authority – i.e. the British Monarchy. The Colonies were already capitalistic under the European mercantile system. Americans wanted democracy and the rule of law, and rejected arbitrary authority.

        The French Revolution was similar. The Monarchy was financially bankrupt and the people were consequently suffering. They saw what just happened in America and wanted the same.

        Again, the Russian Revolution had the same dynamic; but, in this case, the relatively new economic philosophy of communism became an appealing and unifying factor. The desire for democracy was secondary, and the totalitarian Stalin made sure it didn’t happen.

        The Iranian revolution was all about kicking western imperialists out of the country and installing a Shiite Islamic theocracy.

        Similarly, the Arab Spring was also more political than economic. The Sunni majority wanted to assert their numerical power through democracy by deposing their military dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

        Of these notable revolutions, only the Russian one was ostensibly economic. I would also add that the motivations of wealthy elites is typically more economic than political in contrast to the motivations of the general population. This difference is attributable to contrasting perceptions of self-interest.

        Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          Just a quibble, the ousting of Mubarak was mainly political and it is interesting to note, as wikileaks cables show, the American government was supportive of Hosni until it was no longer tenable and then changed course. The same can be said of Tunisia where it was driven by a case of bad governance and rising unemployment.

          Capitalism seems, from where I sit, to survive by crisis. It’s either a depression or a financial collapse or a war here a war there and the illusion of freedom

          Liked by 2 people

          • tildeb says:

            It seems to me that your notion of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ that doesn’t first enshrine individual liberty and rights in law is doomed to failure regarding the establishment or achievement of these two stated goals in the political and economic arena. The Arab Spring is an excellent example of what happens when democratic revolutions fail to implement this necessary first step: mob rule, the emergence of a strongman, draconian government policies to collect and enforce centralized power, a return to a system that suppresses personal freedom and democracy. Marxism has never been a path to freedom and democracy but its opposite and to believe it will now be the way forward is expecting a different result by doing the same thing.

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          • makagutu says:

            How do you get to the notion that what i mean by democracy and freedom are not what these words mean in practice?
            Where do you think the Arab spring failed? In Tunisia they wrote a new constitution. They don’t have mob rule.
            Anyone not drunk on American propaganda know that the problem in Syria is manufactured. In Egypt, it is the American led revolution that led to the rise of the Muslim brotherhood. So I really don’t know what you are on about as a critique of what I am saying.

            Liked by 1 person

          • tildeb says:

            I know you believe you are espousing democracy and freedom, Mak. And I don’t doubt your good intentions as you doubt mine. But you are in fact supporting and promoting an ideology that stands in fundamental opposition to them. That’s not my fault.

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          • I agree, that’s why I believe socialism is a more stable economic system. Capitalism is an undemocratic, authoritarian, and hierarchical economic system. In my view, it is inconsistent with and antithetical to democracy. The U.S. best illustrates this social conflict where the capitalistic consolidation of wealth has corrupted the practice and effectiveness of democracy. America has always been correctly perceived as a model of hypocrisy, and the intertwining of laissez-faire capitalism with democratic ideals is the root cause.

            Liked by 1 person

          • makagutu says:

            Bob you have said in so few words what I have been unable to say in so many

            Liked by 2 people

          • Perhaps, but I’m sure you do many things much better than I – like architectural design. We all have different skill sets, don’t we? 🙂

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          • That’s only because I psychically willed him to from many miles away. I can do this because I pray to great Golden Boot. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • tildeb says:

            “I believe socialism is a more stable economic system. Capitalism is an undemocratic, authoritarian, and hierarchical economic system. In my view, it is inconsistent with and antithetical to democracy.”

            What’s wrong with regulated capitalism? If this is what you mean by ‘socialism’ then I think we will find oodles of people in agreement. It seems to me that this economic system has been developed by human interaction over time – somewhat like, say, language – where no one person is designing it but something that emerges over time along the lines of the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd, a public recognition of something that works relatively well. The problem with capitalism is that it does not address significant issues (like, say, climate change or pollution) because there the raw materials being adversely affected (say, the atmosphere) are not owned. So we need regulation based on social responsibility to the general good. To me, that’s the kind of social concern that capitalism can and does absorb quite well over time.

            What I think is so very dangerous is identifying certain shortfalls, selecting certain excess in the capitalist model, and then advocating for the destruction and removal and wholesale replacement of the entire system. As Churchill correctly pointed out, no alternative has yet to be found that does a better job (I know he was speaking politically about responsible democracy yet the comparison with economics is still valid I think) but we have loads of historical data that demonstrate worse ones.

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          • basenjibrian says:

            I would also argue that there was a lot of economics in the American Revolution. The British were beginning to change their minds about chattel slavery, and many (not all) of the glorious Founding Fathers were not fond of that threat. The British were also interfering with land speculation opportunities on the frontier. And, the mercantilist system, as you note, was also a cause of economic stress.

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      • makagutu says:

        It would be interesting to look at the interplay between the economic and the political in China for example. On paper it is a communist state and in practice it is capitalist.

        Maybe Lenin was right on one thing. A socialist revolution in one country alone is useless and can’t go so far.

        Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      To separate the economic from the political is, in my view, inappropriate. If the human being is a political animal, then you can’t separate his economics from his politics.
      IS there any democracy you would like to point me to where the citizens and not the political elite have a say in how they are governed. One in which power rests with the people and not the political elites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The distinction between political and economic systems is plainly evident, although I’ve already stated that they become intertwined as a practical matter. I’ve also provided examples which demonstrate that there is no direct linkage between any political system and any specific economic system. Just because a nation is democratic does not mean it must also be capitalistic and vice versa. China is not democratic but it is capitalistic.

        Is there any autocracy you could point to where the citizens have more say in how they are governed than in a democracy? The unavoidable fact is that wealthy elites always have more political power than the masses; but, in democracies, the general population at least has a political mechanism (i.e. voting) to exert some degree of power.

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        • makagutu says:

          In Russia, an autocracy, they have they choice to vote for Putin in every regular election. I don’t know how much this would translate to as control. Even the Philippines voted for that Duterte fellow who seems to enjoy saying and doing all things we call gross.

          But yes, I think we can agree that the political system doesn’t necessarily dictate what the dominant economic system shall be.

          Liked by 1 person

          • If the power of voting in America has been eroded by the power of money, then in Russia voting must be a complete sham. Autocracies do not accede any power whatsoever to the populace.

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      • basenjibrian says:

        Who are “the citizens”? Are not members of the elite themselves “citizens”?

        Just like I rebel at terminology like “the people” want this and “the people” want that.

        Societies are more complicated than that. They are clashing arenas of interest groups, desires, capacities, outside forces, etc. You are trying too hard to simplify things. And the simplest state is…death. Pol Pot certainly simplified class conflict in Cambodia…all in the name of “the people”. The “People’s Democratic Republic of Kampuchea “..sounds like a nirvana where the evil capitalists and “elites” have been…taken care of.

        The other response: why do you assume your Marxist paradise will not have “political elites”? Name one self-described Marxist Leninist State where the state “withered away” and there was no elite?

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        • makagutu says:

          That is the challenge of the revolutionary thinker. Is it possible to have non-statal existence? This is the question where no one group of individuals have the monopoly of violence or to manipulate how the society lives.
          The irony of naming: We have the People’s Republic of China or the Democratic Republic of North Korea. Whether these are plays on words is a story of another day.
          Are the elite not citizens? Good question this is. In a sense, they are global citizens unlike the rest of us. That explains why some of them instead of working with us to save the planet are thinking of a space colony 🙂

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  4. “…throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” I did this once. Took me weeks to recollect all that bathwater. The lesson I learned here is to make sure to toss things out separately and not all at once. It’s too easy to throw out something you didn’t mean to. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. renudepride says:

    When all is said and done, ultimately, it is for each jurisdiction (country, state) and their electorate to determine which political system and what economic system suits their needs and works best for them. To dismiss all variants as “failed” is a judgment that few of us are qualified to determine.

    What works best In Africa may not be successful in Europe. What’s practiced in Asia may not prove beneficial in Australia. What’s good in South America may be chaotic in North America.

    To the individual who “threw out the baby with the bathwater:” I read that you eventually retrieved the bathwater. Whatever happened to the baby?

    Naked hugs!

    Liked by 2 people

    • basenjibrian says:

      The baby had been dissolved into the delicious, nutritious, soup. We are talking about ibtd, after all.

      🙂

      More seriously: Although I vigorously defend the “modern” western????? project, I absolutely agree that colonialism was a crime against humanity.

      Liked by 2 people

      • tildeb says:

        Just a passing thought… isn’t today’s free trade and globalism just the modern version of yesterday’s colonialism? Isn’t nationalism equivalent to self determination?

        The legitimate danger in implementing Marxism is throwing out this idea of self determination… specifically self determination in law of the individual by the individual for the individual, which is then collectively represented by democracy. The virtue of democracy when compared to the vice of mob rule is that the individual is granted the highest legal status and this is exactly what must be removed as an impediment to Marxist group rule. And once the individual is removed from status in law, then we inevitably get totalitarianism where one group justifies atrocities against another group because of ideological stamps of identity… like ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’, ‘victimizer’ and the ‘victims’, the ‘working class’ and the ‘owners of production’, the ‘proletariat’ vs the ‘bourgeoise’.

        As Hitchens quite rightly admitted, his belief in the moral virtue of Marxism was and remains very much comparable to a religious belief in a ‘better’ way… in spite of stark historical fact to the contrary whenever enacted. Limited socialism that does not try to alter the legal supremacy of the individual but tries to regulate its excesses bolstered by the will of the majority of people in the nation state can and does work to address many of these extremes and negative consequences of unfettered capitalism. The armed forces or the fire department or the environmental protection laws are excellent examples of socialism within the liberal framework.

        But Marxism depends on eliminating the individual’s authority in law in order to gain legal power and that’s why we see the identical language being used more and more in today’s Marxist movements that disguised as Post Modernism in action and identifies its members with the term ‘woken’, as if the classical liberal Great Experiment described by Lincoln, and inappropriately used by our host in the OP to advance Marxist ideals under the misnomer ‘democracy’, was actually a kind of slumber so that evil ‘capitalists’ could take advantage of our opioid existence, and that we all need to wake up and give away our hard fought rights and liberties in the name of helping others. It’s as beguiling to the educated as it is dangerous to each and every one of us.

        Liked by 2 people

        • basenjibrian says:

          This is a great post, tildeb! (And your first paragraph even brings out the dangers of neoliberalism as well. I would never disagree with our host’s basic complaints against colonialism.

          As for free trade, though….autarky can be dangerous as well.

          I think there is a lot of magical thinking on the left as well. Things should be just so, so they are so.

          Like

    • basenjibrian says:

      My main point, though, is serious caution regarding proclamations of “revolution” and broad overarching statements like “get rid of all government” and “destroy all elements of the current system.”

      That is Year Zero talk.

      Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      it was important that the baby be never retrieved 🙂
      And i agree what works in place A might not work in place B but unfortunately, the Americans have been exporting their democracy through wars and assassination since, is it 1947 right on the heels of the western nations that went out to civilise the rest of the world.
      But like Fanon, there should be no white guilt and no black victimhood. As a human being, my brother and home is anywhere the human person is free

      Liked by 2 people

      • renudepride says:

        Agreed but I do have to correct you on the historical aspect. Americans have been forcing their version of commercial and military domination since the thievery against the indigenous peoples back in the 1790s and against other lands since the 1890 aggression against Cuba, the Philippine Islands, Mexico and Panama. And they initiated a revolt in Hawaii before they annexed that property.

        Liked by 1 person

        • basenjibrian says:

          Human political, social, and religious groups have been exporting ideas, trade goods, and the exercise of power since the beginning of time. Islam was exported by the sword as was Catholicism. Central Asia witnessed generations of migrations and invasions and wars. African kingdoms participated initially in the slave trade.

          None of this justifies the horrors of colonialism or the slave trade or the American invasions. But remember….one reason Cortez succeeded in central Mexico was because the Aztec Empire was so brutal that local elites joined the Spanish (to their ultimate demise). The Incas fell because they were weakened by a terrible civil war. The Classical Mayan civilization had collapsed because of ecological overshoot and economic failure.

          None of this justifies anything…it is more an observation that human history is one of wars

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  6. Swarn Gill says:

    I tend to agree with tildeb above, just in regards to having a better balance between socialism and capitalism. I am not sure going too far in either direction helps us very much. That being said I also agree with you that given the intertwining of our politics and economics while we may not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater on democracy, I would say the same applies to communism and socialism. There are important values embedded in both systems. It’s hard for me to imagine any system that doesn’t have some sort of hierarchy and that’s where the danger always lies, because once people get the power, they don’t really want to let go of it, because power does change the brain and not for the better.

    In my last post I quoted Yuval Noah Harari and in another part of the interview (and I’m sure he also talks about it more in his latest book) that liberal democracy doesn’t seem to be working right now. More importantly he talks about the fact that systems don’t always work in any place in any time. Although he’s broadened quite a bit on his interests, his roots are in medieval history and he says that you simply could have democracy in 13th century France. The institutions and infrastructure wasn’t in place for such a venture. He seems to suggest that systems that havent’ worked in the past, might work in the future given how society has progressed. Another important part he argues is that democracy, socialism these systems are all human constructs. And while such constructs can be useful, it’s worth remember that they are inventions and that there is nothing indeed natural about their existence. With any construct if enough of us buy into it, the construct is enacted, and works to a certain degree. But he says that it’s important that we are aware of our constructs and that we constantly question them. He says it would be ridiculous to think that we could derive some economic or political system and that it would be so perfect we’d never need to develop anything else. These things need to be constantly adjusted or tinkered with and sometimes perhaps even replaced with something wholly different.

    Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      You are very pragmatic Swarn.
      It is true that we often forget these systems are all man made and can always be modified. It’s like religion- people take it too seriously

      Liked by 1 person

    • tildeb says:

      “Another important part he argues is that democracy, socialism these systems are all human constructs. And while such constructs can be useful, it’s worth remember that they are inventions and that there is nothing indeed natural about their existence. (snip) These things need to be constantly adjusted or tinkered with and sometimes perhaps even replaced with something wholly different.”

      This assumption about the source of the construct – that it is somehow artificial and therefore replaceable with another – is central to why Marxism doesn’t work. The assumption is wrong.

      Wealth distribution is subject to the same natural process as, say, music composition and popularity, or technological advancement and implementation. (But it fits the Marxist/constructivist/Post Modern narrative better, you see… as long as you don’t use reality to test it.) Reality suggests that the Pareto principle – a distribution curve – fits the data much better, which provides us with stronger evidence that the source of unequal distribution is indeed naturally occurring and so inequity is best addressed not by revolution and replacement, which to date are historically demonstrable abject failures, but regulation that, to quote Pinker, sands the corners of excesses.

      This has had great success, especially supporting the slow and peaceful process of righting historical wrongs. The examples are legion.

      No one seems to care much about any of that. Nope. Let’s go after capitalism, let’s go after free speech, let’s go after due process, let’s go after the scientific method. Let’s dismantle our civilization starting with the fundamental principles because they support that Great Bugaboo capitalism.

      Students over the past 30 years – especially university students who are taking up the reins of power in both institutions and global businesses – are taught by and large to blame capitalism for unequal distribution, for colonialism, for inequalities, for a veritable host of social ills, and these students swallow this assumption hook, line, and sinker and then bring this misunderstanding to justify change, to mitigate its pernicious effects and to rationalize excuses for making things worse.

      Why would they question their own assumptions like the one laid out here? Who is contradicting this narrative? Who dares, when research produces anything contrary to the favoured narrative means vilification for the authors often accompanied by dismissal from their departments, job losses and death threats, when such politically incorrect ‘discussion’ is shouted and shut down and ignored, when the mob brings their vitriol against such individuals to social media, when publishing rights are revoked by editors fearful for their jobs, and reputations of anyone who dares to support the ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted’ research are viciously attacked and cast as ‘alt right’ racists and bigots? Who is left to question how Google search algorithms incorporate the assumptions and projects highly biased results built to address inequity? Who cares what reality has to say? Whatever you do, the current social wisdom goes, don’t you dare question the narrative and the incorrect assumptions that shield today’s social justice warriors busy undermining and attacking every classical liberal value they use to try to destroy them. Bomb the village to save it, you see. But don’t question the assumptions or examine the reasoning used to arrive at this folly.

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