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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

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Slavoj Zizek: The Political and its Disavowals



If, then, the notion of hegemony expresses the elementary structure of ideological domination, are we condemned to shifts within the space of hegemony, or it is possible to suspend – temporarily, at least – its very mechanism? Jacques Rancière’s claim is that such a subversion does occur, and that it even constitutes the very core of politics, of a proper political event.


What, for Rancière, is politics proper? [1]. A phenomenon which, for the first time, appeared in Ancient Greece when the members of demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) not only demanded that their voice be heard against those in power, those who exerted social control – that is, they not only protested the wrong [le tort] they suffered, and wanted their voice to be heard, to be recognized as included in the public sphere, on an equal footing with the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy – even more, they, the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice, presented themselves as the representatives, the stand-ins, for the Whole of Society, for the true Universality (‘we – the “nothing”, not counted in the order – are the people, we are All against others who stand only for their particular privileged interest’). In short, political conflict designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and ‘the part of no part’ which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality – of what Balibar calls égaliberté, the principled equality of all men qua speaking beings. Politics proper thus always involves a kind of short circuit between the Universal and the Particular: the paradox of a singulier universel, a singular which appears as the standin for the Universal, destabilizing the ‘natural’ functional order of relations in the social body. This identification of the non-part with the Whole, of the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated subordinated place within it) with the Universal, is the elementary gesture of politicization, discernible in all great democratic events from the French Revolution (in which le troisième état proclaimed itself identical to the Nation as such, against the aristocracy and the clergy) to the demise of ex-European Socialism (in which dissident ‘forums’ proclaimed themselves representative of the entire society against the Party nomenklatura).


In this precise sense, politics and democracy are synonymous: the basic aim of antidemocratic politics always and by definition is and was depoliticization – that is, the unconditional demand that ‘things should go back to normal’, with each individual doing his or her particular job… And, as Rancière proves against Habermas, the political struggle proper is therefore not a rational debate between multiple interests, but the struggle for one’s voice to be heard and recognized as the voice of a legitimate partner: when the ‘excluded’, from the Greek demos to Polish workers, protested against the ruling elite (aristocracy or nomenklatura), the true stakes were not only their explicit demands (for higher wages, better working conditions, etc.), but their very right to be heard and recognized as an equal partner in the debate – in Poland, the nomenklatura lost the moment it had to accept Solidarity as an equal partner.


These sudden intrusions of politics proper undermine Rancière’s order of police, the established social order in which each part is properly accounted for. Rancière, of course, emphasizes how the line of separation between police and politics is always blurred and contested: in the Marxist tradition, say, ‘proletariat’ can be read as the subjectivization of the ‘part of no part’ elevating its injustice into the ultimate test of universality and, simultaneously, as the operator which will bring about the establishment of a post-political rational society [2]. Sometimes the shift from politics proper to police can only be a matter of a change from the definite to the indefinite article, like the East German crowds demonstrating against the Communist regime in the last days of the GDR: first they shouted ‘We are the people! [‘Wir sind das Volk!’], thereby performing the gesture of politicization at its purest – they, the excluded counter-revolutionary ‘scum’ of the official Whole of the People, with no proper place in the official space (or, more precisely, with only titles like ‘counter-revolutionaries’, ‘hooligans’, or – at best – ‘victims of bourgeois propaganda’ reserved for them), claimed to stand for the people, for ‘all’; a couple of days later, however, the slogan changed into ‘We are a / one people!’ [‘Wir sind ein Volk!’], clearly signaling the closure of the momentary authentic political opening, the reappropriation of the democratic impetus by the thrust towards the reunification of Germany, which meant rejoining Western Germany’s liberal-capitalist police/political order.


In Japan, the caste of untouchables is called the burakumin: those who are involved in contact with dead flesh (butchers, leatherworkers, gravediggers) and are sometimes even referred to as eta (‘much filth’). Even now, in the ‘enlightened’ present, when they are no longer openly despised, they are silently ignored – not only do companies still avoid hiring them, or parents allowing their children to marry them, but, under the ‘politically correct’ pretence not of offending them, one prefers to ignore the issue. However, the crucial point, and the proof of the pre-political (or, rather, non-political) ‘corporate’ functioning of Japanese society, is the fact that although voices are heard on their behalf (we could simply mention the great and recently dead Sue Sumii who, in her impressive series of novels The River with No Bridge, used the reference to burakumin to expose the meaninglessness of the entire Japanese caste hierarchy – significantly, her primordial traumatic experience was the shock when, as a child, she witnessed how, in order to honour the Emperor, a relative of hers scratched the toilet used by the visiting Emperor to preserve a piece of his shit as a sacred relic), the burakumin did not actively politicize their destiny, did not constitute their position as that of singulier universel, claiming that, precisely as the ‘part of no part’, they stand for the true universality of Japanese society…[3].


There is a series of disavowals of this political moment, of the proper logic of political conflict:


arche-politics: ‘communitarian’ attempts to define a traditional close, organically structured homogeneous social space that allows for no void in which the political moment-event can emerge;


para-politics: the attempt to depoliticize politics (to translate it into police logic): one accepts political conflict, but reformulates it into a competition, within the representational space, between acknowledged parties/agents, for the (temporary) occupation of the place of executive power [4];


Marxist (or Utopian Socialist) meta-politics: political conflict is fully asserted, but as a shadow-theatre in which events whose proper place is on Another Scene (of economic processes) are played out; the ultimate goal of ‘true’ politics is thus its self-cancellation, the transformation of the ‘administration of people’ into the ‘administration of things’ within a fully self-transparent rational order of collective Will [5];


the fourth form, the most cunning and radical version of the disavowal (not mentioned by Rancière), is what I am tempted to call ultra-politics: the attempt to depoliticize the conflict by bringing it to an extreme via the direct militarization of politics – by reformulating it as the war between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, our Enemy, where there is no common ground for symbolic conflict – it is deeply symptomatic that, rather than class struggle, the radical Right speaks of class (or sexual) warfare [6].


What we have in all these four cases is thus an attempt to gentrify the properly traumatic dimension of the political: something emerged in Ancient Greece under the name of demos demanding its rights, and, from the very beginning (i.e. from Plato’s Republic) to the recent revival of liberal ‘political philosophy’, ‘political philosophy’ was an attempt to suspend the destabilizing potential of the political, to disavow and/or regulate it in one way or another: bringing about a return to a pre-political social body, fixing the rules of political competition, and so forth [7].




Today, however, we are dealing with another form of the denegation of the political, postmodern post-politics, which no longer merely ‘represses’ the political, trying to contain it and pacify the ‘returns of the repressed’, but much more effectively ‘forecloses’ it, so that the postmodern forms of ethnic violence, with their ‘irrational’ excessive character, are no longer simple ‘returns of the repressed’ but, rather, represent a case of the foreclosed (from the Symbolic) which, as we know from Lacan, returns in the Real. In post-politics, the conflict of the global ideological visions embodied in different parties which compete for power is replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists…) and liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation of interests, a compromise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus. Post-politics thus emphasizes the need to leave old ideological divisions behind and confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free deliberation that takes people’s concrete needs and demands into account.


The best formula that expresses the paradox of post-politics is perhaps Tony Blair’s characterization of the New Labour as the ‘Radical Centre’: in the old days of ‘ideological’ political division, the qualification ‘radical’ was reserved either for the extreme Left or for the extreme Right. The Centre as, by definition, moderate: measured by the old standards, the term ‘Radical Centre’ is the same nonsense as ‘radical moderation’. What maked New Labour (or Bill Clinton’s politics in the USA) ‘radical’ is its radical abandonment of the ‘old ideological divides’, usually formulated in the guise of a paraphrase of Deng Xiaoping’s motto from the 1960s: ‘It doesn’t matter if a cat is red or white; what matters is that it actually catches mice’: in the same vein, advocates of New Labour like to emphasize that one should take good ideas without any prejudice and apply them, whatever their (ideological) origins. And what are these ‘good ideas’? The answer is, of course, ideas that work. It is here that we encounter the gap that separates a political act proper from the ‘administration of social matters’ which remains within the framework of existing sociopolitical relations: the political act (intervention) proper is not simply something that works well within the framework of the existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work. To say that good ideas are ‘ideas that work’ means that one accepts in advance the (global capitalist) constellation that determines what works (if, for example, one spends too much money on education or healthcare, that ‘doesn’t work’, since it infringes too much on the conditions of capitalist profitability). One can also put it in terms of the well-known definition of politics as the ‘art of the possible’: authentic politics is, rather, the exact opposite, that is, the art of the impossible – it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation [8].


When this dimension of the impossible is effectively precluded, the political (the space of litigation in which the excluded can protest the wrong/injustice done to them) foreclosed from the symbolic returns in the Real, in the guise of new forms of racism: this ‘postmodern racism’ emerges as the ultimate consequence of the post-political suspension of the political, the reduction of the State to a mere police-agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of market forces and multiculturalist tolerant humanitarianism: the ‘foreigner’ whose status is never properly ‘regulated’ is the indivisible remainder of the transformation of the democratic political struggle into the post-political procedure of negotiation and multiculturalist policing. Instead of the political subject ‘working class’ demanding its universal rights, we get, on the one hand, the multiplicity of particular social strata or groups, each with its problems (the dwindling need for manual workers, etc.) and, on the other, the immigrant, ever more prevented from politicizing his predicament of exclusion [9].




*The numbering of the notes has been adapted to this online version of the text.


1. Here I draw on Jacques Rancière, La mésentente, Paris, Galilée, 1995.


2. One can see why tribal, pre-State societies, with all their authentic proto-democratic procedures for deciding common matters (gathering of all the people, common deliberation, discussion and vote, etc.) are not yet democratic: not because politics as such involves society’s self-alienation – not because politics is the sphere elevated above concrete social antagonisms (as the standard Marxist argument would claim) – but because the litigation in these pre-political tribal gatherings lacks the properly political paradox of singulier universel, of the ‘part of no part’ that presents itself as an immediate stand-in for universality as such.


3. The excremental identification of the burakumin is crucial: when Sue Sumii saw her relative cherishing the Emperor’s excrement, her conclusion was that, in the same way, following the tradition of the ‘king’s two bodies’ – of the king’s body standing for the social body as such – the burakumin, as the excrement of the social body, should also be cherished. In other words, Sue Sumii took the structural homology between the two Emperor’s bodies more literally and further than usual: even the lowest part (excrement) of the Emperor’s body has to be reduplicated in his other, sublime body, which stands for the body of society. Her predicament was similar to that of Plato who, in Parmenides, bravely confronts the embarrassing problem of the precise scope of the relationship between eternal forms/ideas and their material copies: which material objects are ‘ontologically covered’ by external Ideas as their models? Is there also an eternal Idea of ‘low’ objects like mud, filth or excrement?


4. This para-politics, of course, has a series of different successive versions: the main rupture is the one between its classical and modern Hobbesian formulation, which focuses on the problematic of the social contract, the alienation of the individual rights in the emergence of sovereign power. Habermasian or Rawlsian ethics are perhaps the last philosophical vestiges of this attitude: the attempt to de-antagonize politics by formulating clear rules to be obeyed so that the agonic procedure of litigation does not explode into politics proper.


5. More precisely, Marxism is more ambiguous, since the very term ‘political economy’ also opens up the space for the opposite gesture of introducing politics into the very heart of the economy, that is, of denouncing the very ‘apolitical’ character of the economic processes as the supreme ideological illusion. Class struggle does not ‘express’ some objective economic contradiction, it is the very form of existence of this contradiction. This ambiguity can also be formulated in the terms of Lacan’s ‘formulas of sexuation’: we can read the statement ‘everything is political’ as the universal statement which involves its point of exception, the objective economic process (so that the ferocious discernment of a hidden political stance in apparently apolitical sublime artistic or ideological products can go hand in hand with the assertion of the economic process as the point of suspension of the political), or according to the logic of ‘non-all’, that is, in the sense of ‘there is nothing which is not political’ – here, ‘everything is political’ means precisely that there is no way of formulating/defining the political itself in a univocal universal way, since every statement about the political is itself already ‘politicized’.


Fredric Jameson boldly asserts the paradoxical coincidence between the most extreme version of neo-liberalism – the universal modeling of human behaviour as utility-maximization ‘administration of things’, in that both do away with the need for any political thought proper: there is a Marxist political practice, but there is no Marxist political thought. From this standpoint, the traditional complaint against Marxism (that it lacks an autonomous political reflection) appears more as a strength that as a weakness – or, as Jameson concludes: ‘[w] e have much is common with the neo-liberals, in fact virtually everything – save the essentials!’ (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso 1992, p. 265 – would it be possible, in this sense, to define the stance towards neo-conservatist communitarianism as the observe one, in so far as a Marxist has in common with it only the essentials [the need for a harmonious organic society]?) The counter-argument would be that, perhaps, this neglect of the proper political dimension had very precise political consequences for the history of the Communist movement – do not phenomena like Stalinism indicate precisely a violent return of the repressed political dimension?


6. The clearest indication of this Schmittian disavowal of the political is the primacy of external politics (relations between sovereign states) over internal politics (inner social antagonism) on which he insists: is not the relationship to an external Other as the Enemy a way of disavowing the internal struggle that traverses the social body? In contrast to Schmitt, a leftist position should insist on the unconditional primacy of the inherent antagonism as constitutive of the political.


7. The metaphoric frame we use in order to account for the political process is thus never innocent and neutral: it ‘schematizes’ the concrete meaning of politics. Ultra-politics has recourse to the model of warfare: politics is conceived as a form of social warfare, as the relationship to ‘Them’, to an Enemy. Arche-politics prefers to refer to the medical model: society is a corporate body, an organism: social divisions are like illness of this organism – that is, what we should fight, our enemy, is a cancerous intruder, a pest, a foreign parasite to be exterminated if the health of the social body is to be re-established. Para-politics uses the model of agonistic competition which follows some commonly accepted rules, like a sporting event. Meta-politics relies on the model of scientific-technological instrumental procedure, while post-politics involves the model of business negotiation and strategic compromise.


8. In this sense, even Nixon’s visit to China and the ensuing establishment of diplomatic relations between the USA and China was a kind of political act, in so far as it actually changed the parameters of what was considered ‘possible’ (or ‘feasible’) in the domain of international relations – yes, one could do the unthinkable, and talk normally with the ultimate enemy.


9. See Rancière, La mésentente, p. 162.



Excerpt from The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 187-190 and 198-200.